A Biblical Theology of Mission

On Sunday mornings we are doing a class entitled The Church, the Gospel, and the Ends of the Earth; these are my notes from last Sunday’s class on a biblical theology of mission.

I. Introduction

Last week we looked at the goal of missions, namely the glory of God.  This week we are going to trace the theme of mission through Scripture as it builds from God’s promise of redemption in the garden to the nations basking in the glory of God in the New Heavens and the New Earth.  This task of tracing a theme as it develops through the narrative of Scripture is called biblical theology.

What is Biblical theology?

The easiest way to explain biblical theology is to show you how it works.  If we were to begin reading in Genesis we would immediately learn that God exists and He creates (1:1).  Then we would see that this pre-existent Creator-God exists as a Spirit (1:2), a Spirit who speaks and indeed He doesn’t just speak but by His word He speaks creation into being (1:3).  This speaking Creator-God is good and can subsequently declare that His creation conforms to His inherent goodness (1:4).  Later on we see that this God is relational (1:26ff).  Further into the story we learn that this relational Creator-God is gracious (3:9ff).  That is biblical theology.

A. Two Definitions of Biblical Theology

  • “Biblical theology is concerned with God’s saving acts and his word as these occur within the history of the people of God.  It follows the progress of revelation from the first word of God to man through to the unveiling of the full glory of Christ.”[1]
  • “Biblical Theology deals with the material from the historical standpoint, seeking to exhibit the organic growth or development of the truths of Special Revelation from the primitive preredemptive Special Revelation given in Eden to the close of the New Testament canon.”[2]

B. Five Key Aspects of Biblical Theology

  • First, biblical theology is concerned with the action undertaken by God to redeem rebellious humanity; in this sense it is synonymous with the phrase redemptive history.
  • Second, it deals with, and when codified takes the form of, process; “its principle of organizing the Biblical material is historical rather than logical.”[3]  Unlike systematic theology which organizes biblical material thematically and topically biblical theology is organized chronologically as it follows the narrative of Scripture.
  • Third, its content is the self-revelation of God, while its form may resemble that of a historical narrative its chief interest is God’s progressive revelation of Himself and His purpose over the course of history.  Just as you will learn the characteristics or attributes of a character over the course of a film or novel in the same way God’s actions in the story of Scripture demonstrate His characteristics.
  • Fourth, biblical theology deals with God’s word and so it is exegetical in nature; “its goal is the correct exegesis of the entire Bible so that each part of the whole is understood as it was originally intended to be.”[4]
  • Finally, its central focus is “the unveiling of the full glory of Christ.”[5]

What is mission?

Since we are looking at a biblical theology of mission we will not begin with a definition but will look at how this theme organically develops along the Bible’s storyline.  The storyline of Scripture can be understood within the framework of the following five points which each ask a critical question.

C. The Storyline of Scripture

  • Creation — How did we get here?
  • Fall — What went wrong?
  • Redemption — Can it be fixed?
  • Consummation — Where is it going?

II. Biblical Theology in Overview

A. Creation — How did we get here?

Last week we discussed that the goal of mission is the glory of God and so we begin in Genesis with the created world perfectly reflecting the glory of God, after all everything that God made was good.  In particular God created man as His image-bearer to both reflect and enjoy His glory as His representative and the mediator of His presence who would care for His creation.[6]

B. Fall — What went wrong?

But then something goes terribly wrong; man rebels.  Rather than reflect God’s glory man seeks to rival it.  Rather than represent God’s authority and rule man seeks to live by his own authority and to exercise his own rule.  Because of this the whole of creation is stricken with a curse.  This ground which once brought life will now bring hardship, pain, frustration, and death.  The harmony of God’s good creation is shattered and man is now at war with creation, with his fellow man, even with himself, and ultimately with God.  This perfect picture of God’s glory has become a cosmic revelation of His judgment and wrath.

C. Redemption — Can it be fixed?

1. Seeing Mission in the Garden – The Adamic Covenant

Man does not seek out God in repentance; he does not attempt to atone for his sins.  No, man hides from God in the garden.  This is still man’s tendency (Romans 3:9-18).  From this narrative it is clear that man is both unwilling and unable to turn to God in repentance on his own accord.  God must intervene and intervene He does.  “God comes into the Garden from without, seeks out Adam, and both judges and shares the redemptive promise with him . . . God was on a mission to Adam.  He had no other man to send, so he sent himself.”[7]   God is a missional God.  He seeks out rebellious man to redeem him (Genesis 3:9).  God promises and provides for redemption (Genesis 3:15).  By the shedding of blood God covers their shame (Genesis 3:21).  And it is God who provides a means by which rebellious humanity may enter into relationship with him (Genesis 4:1-5).

This is our first glimpse of mission in Scripture, this is the defining moment for everything that follows.  From the Genesis narrative it is clear that “Mission is not ours; mission is God’s.  Certainly the mission of God is the prior reality out of which flows any mission that we get involved in.  Or, as it has been nicely put, it is not so much the case that God has a mission for his church in the world but that God has a church for his mission in the world.  Mission was not made for the church; the church was made for mission—God’s mission.”[8]

Earlier we defined biblical theology and now we must add one more aspect to our understanding of it.  Biblical theology is Missional theology as God’s self-revelation of Himself through the narrative of Scripture is missionary activity.  God is the ultimate missionary, He makes Himself known.

Is Old Testament Mission Centripetal or Centrifugal?

There is a lot of debate about the distinction between OT mission and NT mission.  It is argued that the OT presents mission as the nations coming to Israel, centripetal mission, while the NT presents mission as the church going to the nations, centrifugal missions.  This is both unhelpful and fails to grasp mission as presented primarily as an act of God and secondarily as a response of God’s people to His mission.  Furthermore mission is always both centripetal and centrifugal.  God sends Himself, His Son, His Spirit, and His church and simultaneously God calls His people to a nation, a land, a city, a temple, and ultimately to Jesus Christ.  The going out and the calling in are inseparable throughout the full biblical narrative of mission.

2. Seeing Mission in the Flood – The Noaic Covenant

As man multiplied and filled the earth, rather than imaging God and representing His rule, man was characterized by self-worship and rebellion.  Indeed “every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5).  And in this context God seeks out Noah and redeems him from the wrath to come.  In God’s covenant with Noah (Genesis 6:17-22; 8:20-22; 9:8-17) we see the scope of God’s mission.  Just as the curse touched the farthest regions of God’s creation so God’s mission reaches as far as that curse is to be found.  In the flood we see both God’s judgment upon the curse and foretaste of the New Heavens and the New Earth.

3. Seeing Mission in the Calling of Abraham – The Abrahamic Covenant

In what first appears to be a dramatic narrowing of God’s mission God calls Abram and establishes a covenant with him and his offspring (Genesis 12:1-3, 7; 13:14-17; 15; 17:1-22; 18; and 22:1-18).  But this is not a narrowing of God’s mission.  God is not abandoning the nations for the sake of Israel.  He is not blessing Israel at the expense of the nations.  No, He has called and will bless Israel for the sake of the nations.  The cosmic scope of His mission remains as the means by which He accomplishes this mission narrows its focus upon the singular seed of the woman, the offspring of Abraham, and as we will see later the descendant of David in whom God’s mission finds its fulfillment.

4. Seeing Mission in the Exodus – The Mosaic Covenant

Through a series of events recorded in Genesis 37-Exodus 1 the mission seems to be lost and it appears that God’s people have been forgotten and enslaved.  But this too was all part of God’s mission to make Himself known (Genesis 15:13ff.).  God demonstrates His redemptive might to the nations as He rescues His people from pharaoh and brings them to His mountain.  God then establishes a covenant with his people (Exodus 19-24) and declares that they are to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.  Beyond God’s mission it is clear that His people, “Israel definitely had a sense of mission, not in the sense of going somewhere but of being something.”[9]  God has both a mission and a people for this mission He is making Himself know through Israel.  As a holy nation they will demonstrate God’s character and as a kingdom of priests they will mediate His presence.

5. Seeing Mission in Judgment and Restoration – Deuteronomic Covenant

The failure and faithlessness of God’s people is nothing new.  From Noah and Abraham to the constant grumblings of Israel in the Exodus this is a theme that runs through Scripture.  So as Israel prepares to enter the Promised Land God establishes another covenant with them in addition to the Mosaic Covenant (Deuteronomy 29:1).  This covenant promises both blessing for obedience as well as curses for disobedience.  But God’s mission would not fail.  He will make Himself known among the nations in Israel’s victories, as His people dispossess their enemies, and in their failures as He disciplines His people, and ultimately He will make himself known as He restores them in their eventual repentance.  This covenant gives Missional understanding to everything that follows in the history of Israel.

6. Seeing Mission in the Monarchy – The Davidic Covenant

As His people struggle to live as a holy nation and a kingdom of priests God appoints a king to represent His rule, both to Israel and the nations.  Despite his many failures David “typified theocratic kingship”[10] and became the standard by which future kings were judged.  God establishes a covenant with David (II Samuel 7:8-16, 23:5; Psalm 89:34-37).  The covenant with David echoes many of the promises made to Abraham and so it becomes clear that the cosmic restoration pictured in the flood and the blessing of the nations promised to Abraham would come through the eternal kingship promised to David and his offspring.

7. Seeing Mission in the Prophetic Hope – The New Covenant

A Brief Outline of the Prophetic Hope:

  • Reconciliation with God – Throughout Scripture God promises that if His rebellious people would turn to Him in repentance then He will return to them as their God and will gather them as His people (II Chronicles 7:13-14; Jeremiah 30:8-22; 31:1; Ezekiel 34:30-31).
  • Return to the Promised Land – Furthermore, they are also promised a return to and the expansion of the promised land (Isaiah 54:1-3; Jeremiah 30:3; Ezekiel 34:11-16).
  • Reestablishment of Davidic Kingship – There is also an emphasis upon the renewal of the promises of the Davidic Covenant with particular emphasis placed upon the rule of the Davidic King (Jeremiah 23:5-6; 30:9; Ezekiel 34:23-24).
  • Rebuilding of the Temple – Also included in the emphasis upon the renewal of the promises of the Davidic Covenant is the promise that a new temple will be built within a New Jerusalem and that God’s glory will return and He will dwell among His people forever (Ezekiel 40-48).
  • The New Covenant – However, the most significant occurrence during this time is not the prophetic word concerning covenant renewal but the promise of a new and better covenant whereby the people will be indwelt by the law of the Lord and will dwell with Him in an eternal city (Jeremiah 31:31-40).

All of this is brought about by the mission of Christ.  Just as God seeks out rebellious Adam and Eve in the Garden so Jesus comes to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10).  Jesus inaugurates the New Covenant, in Jesus we are reconciled to God; He is the Promised Land, the Davidic king, and the new temple.  Jesus fulfills the mission of God!

D. Consummation — Where is it going?

In Revelation 22:1-5 we will see the great end towards which all of God’s mission is working.  This passage points us to the fulfillment of all that we have studied.  Looking back to the fall of man and the cursing of creation we read in verse 3 that “No longer will there be anything accursed.”  Also in verse 3 we see that man’s relationship with God has been restored as “his servants will worship him.”  Looking back to God’s covenant with Abraham we see that indeed the nations are blessed as verse 2 tells us of the tree of life whose leaves are for “for the healing of the nations.”  Thinking of God’s covenant with David and the promise of an everlasting kingdom and throne we read of “throne of God and of the Lamb” in verse 1 and verse 5 closes with the promise that God with His people “will reign forever and ever.”

E. Application — What now?

Stating the profoundly important role of narrative Alasdair MacIntyre writes, “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question “Of what story or stories do I find myself apart?’”[11]  We stand between the giving of the New Covenant, in Christ, and the consummation of the covenants at His return.  This is not just the story of God’s mission this is also our story and subsequently our mission.

I left out a critical aspect of the New Covenant mission of God above.  The same God who seeks out man in the Garden, the same God who sends His Son, also sends His Spirit to indwell His church, and just as God sent His Son, in the power of the Spirit, God now sends His Spirit-empowered church out to call the nations to glorify God.  This mission is not new, indeed it is very old, as “what blossoms and flourishes in the New Testament proclamation of the Gospel to convert all persons to discipleship to Jesus Christ is anticipated in the Old Testament’s proclamation of the goodness and grace of God.”[12]  And like Israel we too are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (I Peter 2:9).


[1]Graeme Goldsworthy, According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1991), 32.
[2]Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1948) preface.
[3]Ibid.
[4]Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 35.
[5]Ibid., 32.
[6]Stanley J. Grenz, “The Social God and the Relational Self: Toward a Trinitarian Theology of the Imago Dei,” in Trinitarian Soundings in Systematic Theology (New York: T & T Clark, 2005), 88.
[7]Francis M. DuBose, God Who Sends: A Fresh Quest for Biblical Mission (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1983), 57.
[8]Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 62.
[9]Wright, The Mission of God, 504.
[10]Willem VanGemeren, The Progress of Redemption: The Story of Salvation from Creation to the New Jerusalem (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1988), 222.
[11]Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 216.
[12]Patrick D. Miller Jr., “’Enthroned on the Praises of Israel’: The Praise of God in Old Testament Theology,” Interpretation 39 (1985): 8.

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