The Mission of God and the Missional Church: Sent By Jesus to Continue His Mission

In my last two posts I summarized the mission of Jesus. In a nutshell:

1. Jesus was sent by God in the power of the Holy Spirit.
2. Jesus was sent to proclaim the good news.

3. Jesus was sent to enact the good news
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4. Jesus was sent to form a community of the good news
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5. Jesus was sent to consummate the good news through His death and resurrection
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By dying upon the cross for our sin and by rising from the dead in victory over sin, Jesus fully activated the good news. We can now be reconciled to God and live forever in unbroken fellowship with God. We can begin already to experience the new creation, even as we wait for the complete renewal still to come (2 Cor 5:16-21). Yet the once-never-to-be-repeated work of Jesus in dying and rising did not finish his ministry on earth. That ministry was to continue through the community of his disciples whom Jesus sent to continue his work.

The writer of Acts of the Apostles, the same Luke who wrote the third gospel, begins his account of the early Christian mission in a most curious way:

Dear Theophilus: In my first book I told you about everything Jesus began to do and teach until the day he ascended to heaven after giving his chosen apostles further instructions from the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:1).

Luke says that his first book, the Gospel of Luke, shows us “everything Jesus began to do and teach.” Acts of the Apostles, therefore, must be the chronicle of that which Jesus continued to do and teach through those who believed in him and were filled with his Spirit. The book of Acts of the Apostles might better be named: The Acts of Jesus through his Apostles.

The end of Matthew’s Gospel makes this same point in different language. As the disciples of Jesus gathered around him after his resurrection, he said:

I have been given complete authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age (Matt 28:18-20).

Jesus sent his inner core of disciples into the world for the purpose of making more disciples. These new followers of Jesus would not only believe in him, but also would obey all the commands Jesus gave to his first disciples. The second generation of disciples were to make more disciples, who would make more disciples, who would make more disciples, and so forth until all nations are filled with disciples of Jesus. (In the picture to the right, the Blues Brothers are “on a mission from God,” or missio dei in Latin.)

We who believe in Jesus are somewhere down this chain of discipleship, perhaps a hundred links or more from the original command to make disciples. As disciples or apprentices of Jesus, we are called to do that which he commanded to his original team, such as:

Go and announce . . . that the Kingdom of Heaven is near. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cure those with leprosy, and cast out demons. Give as freely as you have received! (Matt 10:7-8).

Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other (John 13:34).

But, whereas the first disciples were to minister only among their fellow Jews while Jesus was on earth, after the resurrection they – and we – are sent out to all nations. Jesus explained this sending quite succinctly: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21).

We who follow Jesus are a sent people, even as Jesus was sent into the world by his Heavenly Father. We are a community sent on a mission together: to keep on doing the ministry of Jesus so that all people and all creation might experience the reconciliation of God. God has designed the church of Jesus Christ to be a “missional” fellowship. The word “mission” comes from the Latin word missio, which means “having been sent.” Since we have been sent to do God’s work, we are a “missional” community together. (For a thorough treatment of the church as “missional,” see Darrell Guder and Lois Barrett, Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America.)

Christians have often used this kind of language differently, to identify as “missionaries” those whom we send to far away places to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Thus, these so-called missionaries are doubly sent, having been sent by God and by the church. But this language has sometimes obscured the fundamental missional calling of the whole church together and every individual member. If we think of ourselves primarily as sending others away to do “missions,” then we may forget that we also have been sent by God into our particular segment of the world to fulfill God’s mission right where we are, even as we share in the global mission of God.

For example, I rejoice in the fact that Irvine Presbyterian Church, where I pastored for sixteen years, has a long history of support for many “missionaries” who serve throughout the world. This church always cared deeply about “missions,” thank God! But, at times, we overlooked our own mission right on our doorstep. From God’s point of view, Irvine Presbyterian Church was sent to Irvine, California to be a disciple-making community. We were sent to continue the ministry of Jesus, to proclaim and to demonstrate the good news that God’s reign has come through Jesus, and to invite people to be reconciled to God. If we supported “missionaries” without being “missional” ourselves, then we fell short of God’s call to us. (For this reason, I prefer not to use the word “missionary” in favor of the more accurate “mission partner.” Those whom we sent and supporters were our partners in our shared mission, the mission of God.)

In my next post I’ll speak more about how God equips and empowers us for his mission in the world.


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