Gary Millar’s Evaluation of Christopher J. H. Wright – Part One

Introduction

This is the second post in a series critiquing Gary Millar’s “A Biblical Theology of Mission: An Evaluation of Chris Wright” delivered at the 2013 Gospel Coalition National Conference.  This post will take one or more of Millar’s main sections, as outlined here, and further develop his content as well as offering critique when necessary.

Posts in this Series

Summary

Three Reasons this Matters

Millar begins by giving a brief biography of his interactions with Christopher J. H. Wright and why this has led him to feel reluctant to critique The Mission of God.  He then explains the three reasons why this book matters.

  • The Mission of God is now basically the standard evangelical work on mission.”
  • The Mission of God represents a strand of thinking about mission that’s almost universal in the evangelical world and I’ve noticed that it tends to be simply stated and taken for granted, rather than argued or defended.”
  • “I think that The Mission of God contains key flaws; which if left unchallenged will lead to the dilution of the missionary efforts of the evangelical church across the world.”

Regarding the last point Millar explains, “Now please do not mishear me today.  I am not saying that that’s Chris Wright’s intention that is simply not true.”  We will return to this at a later point in the discussion of Millar’s critique.  He then explains that Wright loves Jesus and is committed to the gospel and the Scriptures and because of this Millar approaches this with a sense of his own weakness and a prayer that whatever unhelpful things he says would be forgotten.

I would add to Millar’s three reasons a fourth, namely the renewed interest in biblical theology in both the church and the academy.  The number of biblical theologies written in the past decade is quite astounding and so this book arrives as a significant work for missiologists and theologians as well as pastors and their congregations.  There have been books and journal articles in the past which have attempted to approach missions from a whole bible or biblical theological perspective but nothing on this scale nor anything providing such an in-depth analysis of the Old Testament on this subject, a point Wright makes very early on in this volume.  The renewed interest in biblical theology as well as this volumes breadth, depth, and timely arrival have and will continue to garner a wide reading.

Summary of Key Conclusions from The Mission of God

Millar then moves to summarize what he believes to be the four key conclusions drawn by Wright in The Mission of God.  He does so by reading several quotes from The Mission of God which I have included below.

  • Mission is the Mission of God

Fundamentally, our mission (if it is biblically informed and validated) means our committed participation as God’s people, at God’s invitation and command, in God’s own mission within the history of God’s world for the redemption of God’s creation (22).

  • Everything is Mission

A different way of thinking about mission would be to imagine a whole circle of all the needs and opportunities that God calls (or sends) us to address in the world (317).

Is the church, through the combined engagement of all its members, applying the redemptive power of the cross of Christ to all the effects of sin and evil in the surrounding lives, society and environment (322)?

He then reads this quotation for a second time adding an interjection, “applying the redemptive power of the cross of Christ [‘whatever that means’] to all the effects of sin and evil.”  This is one of the critical flaws in Millar’s argument that will be noted throughout this review.  At this point he feigns ignorance and at others he will argue that Wright lacked clarity or ample explanation of his thought when this is clearly not the case.

The quotation in question comes at the end of chapter nine which explores the jubilee as a model of restoration, this is intimately tied to the argument of chapter eight which examines the exodus as a model of redemption and the two chapters preceding that which examine God’s chosen people.  The jubilee is closely tied to the exodus because what the exodus embodies as a singular event the jubilee embodies in an ongoing commitment (289-90).  Wright works through the social, economic, and theological aspects of the jubilee both in its original context and then demonstrates how it “lies behind our practice of mission” (300).  He then examines how Jesus both proclaims and embodies the jubilee and how the church, in both her proclamation and practice, is both a Spirit empowered echo of the jubilee and a foretaste of the age to come.  Before explaining how this is to be applied within the church he must first relate the jubilee to the cross.  Wright begins,

Any theology of mission that claims to be biblical must have at its core that which is at the very core of biblical faith – the cross of Christ.  So if we are to establish that a truly biblical understanding of mission is holistic, integrating all the dimensions we have been surveying hitherto, then we must ask how all of that coheres around the cross (312).

Holistic mission is cross-centered mission because “in all forms of Christian mission in the name of Christ we are confronting the powers of evil and the kingdom of Satan—with all their dismal effects on human life and the wider creation” (314).  After all,

Only in the cross is there forgiveness, justification, and cleaning for guilty sinners.  Only in the cross stands the defeat of evil powers.  Only in the cross is there release from the fear of death and its ultimate destruction altogether.  Only in the cross are even the most intractable of enemies reconciled.  Only in the cross will we finally witness the healing of all creation (315).

If the cross is the answer to all of these varying issues then how does the church go about “applying the redemptive power of the cross?”  He answers this question using night blindness as an example.  Night blindness is caused by a vitamin A deficiency, which is usually the result of malnutrition that can be traced to social injustice which has its roots in the human heart in the form of greed.  Along this string of relationships and events the redemptive power of the cross is applied from the alleviation of present suffering, to the reconciliation of the oppressed to their oppressors, and the reconciliation of individuals to God.  Beyond night blindness he returns to the exodus and reminds the reader of how redemption was applied in that context as God addressed a range of social and economic issues working towards the end that all peoples, but specifically Israel, know and worship Him.  This is how Wright expects the church to apply the redemptive power of the cross by proclaiming and demonstrating how the cross radically confronts the powers of sin and evil and provides a future eschatological hope that has been inaugurated in the present. These concepts should not be lost on the reader nor should it be lost on a reviewer such as Millar.

  • The Great Commandment is as Important as the Great Commission in Seeking to Reach the World

Conversely, a missional hermeneutic of the whole Bible will not become obsessed with only the great mission imperatives, such as the Great Commission, or be tempted to impose on them one assumed priority or another (e.g., evangelism or social justice or liberation or ecclesiastical order as the only “real” mission).  Rather we will set those great imperatives within the context of their foundational indicatives, namely, all that the Bible affirms about God, creation, human life in its paradox of dignity and depravity, redemption in all its comprehensive glory, and the new creation in which God will dwell with his people (61).

  • The Exodus and the Jubilee form the Key Paradigms for Understanding our Mission

So although the exodus stands as a unique and unrepeatable event in the history of Old Testament Israel, it also stands as a paradigmatic and highly repeatable model for the way God wishes to act in the world, and ultimately will act for the whole of Creation.  The exodus is a prime lens through which we see the biblical mission of God (275).

There are certainly other conclusions that can be drawn from Wright’s work that are equally important as the ones pointed out by Millar.  Central to the argument of this volume is Wright’s understanding of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, between the indicative and the imperative.  I will further explain this key conclusion later as it is clear that Millar does not understand the significance of this in Wright’s thinking.

Gary Millar’s Evaluation of Christopher J. H. Wright – Outline

Introduction

This is the first in a series of posts critiquing Gary Millar’s “A Biblical Theology of Mission: An Evaluation of Chris Wright” delivered at the 2013 Gospel Coalition National Conference.  Below is a summary of this talk.  The posts that follow will take one or more of Millar’s main sections, as outlined below, and further develop his content as well as offering critique when necessary.  As he begins his talk and in his final summary, as quoted below, he explains his reluctance in doing this critique as well as his desire not to overstate the case.  This series of posts will demonstrate that Millar does indeed overstate the case and quite unnecessarily, and I would add quite unfortunately, so.

Posts in this Series

Summary

Three Reasons this Matters

  • The Mission of God is now basically the standard evangelical work on mission.”
  • The Mission of God represents a strand of thinking about mission that’s almost universal in the evangelical world and I’ve noticed that it tends to be simply stated and taken for granted, rather than argued or defended.”
  • “I think that The Mission of God contains key flaws; which if left unchallenged will lead to the dilution of the missionary efforts of the evangelical church across the world.”  He argues that this is not Wright’s intention.

Summary of Key Conclusions from The Mission of God

  • Mission is the Mission of God
  • Everything is Mission
  • The Great Commandment is as Important as the Great Commission in Seeking to Reach the World
  • The Exodus and the Jubilee form the Key Paradigms for Understanding our Mission

The Mission of God Overview

  • Part 1: The Bible and Mission – The main argument here is that mission is God’s mission, mission is central to the whole Bible, the bible was written on mission, we need to read the Bible with a missional hermeneutic, and the whole Bible should shape our mission.
  • Part 2: The God of Mission – There are two key locations where Israel comes to
    know their God, the exodus and the return from exile.  He defends monotheism, discusses idolatry, and critiques religious pluralism.
  • Part 3: The People of Mission – Here he argues for the primacy of mission in the election of Israel, this is the controlling idea in the Old Testament.  He then demonstrates how the Exodus and the Jubilee encapsulate the heart of God’s missional agenda.  Finally, the priesthood of Israel is also presented as a controlling idea in the Old Testament.
  • Part 4: The Arena of Mission – Here he begins to spell out how this affects how we do mission today particularly as it pertains to creation, the image of God, and the nations.

Chris’ Argument Throughout the Book Summarized

  • Mission is the mission of God.
  • Mission is central to the whole Bible as God is central to the whole Bible.
  • The Bible is written on mission that it is the product of God’s people on this journey to perform his mission.
  • We need to read Bible through a missional lens, a missional hermeneutic.
  • If all the Bible is about mission, then we need to allow The whole Bible to shape our mission, not just the great commission.
  • He argues that sin is all-pervasive, between individuals, between generations, in countries.
  • The paradigms for mission are the Exodus and the Jubilee and therefore, God’s mission is all-embracing, setting all nations, all peoples, free from the all-encompassing sin that we encounter.

Thoughts on Clarity

“I hope I have represented him fairly.  It is a very sweeping vision, or re-visioning of the idea of the mission of God.  That’s what he argues, ok.  Now, if you’ve never read The Mission of God that’s as clear as I can make it.  It is not the clearest book that has ever been written.”

Some Things Millar Loves

  • The God-centeredness of the approach.
  • The defense of the uniqueness of Christ in the face of religious pluralism “winsome clear and powerful.”
  • His insights into key Old Testament texts.
  • The discussion of Old Testament missiological texts “This is the most complete, comprehensive, and theologically nuanced discussion of mission in the Old Testament I’ve seen.”
  • He clearly articulates what God asks of us.
  • At points he affirms that evangelism is at the heart of mission.

Some Things Millar Noticed

  • Confusing Terminology
  • A Tendency to Overstate the Case
  • A Strange Aversion to the Idea of Going Anywhere
  • An Annoying Habit of Using Straw Man Arguments

The Things that Concerned Millar Deeply

  • An Absence of the Bible at Key Points in His Argument
  • There is a Persistent Exegetical Carelessness
  • There is an Unwillingness to allow the New Testament to Shape the Way We Read the Old Testament
  • The Contention that Chris Makes that Evangelism is Ultimate but not Primary
  • The Weak Doctrine of Sin and Judgment in the Mission of God
  • The Gospel is Never Defined nor Discussed Nor is it Cited as the Driving Force Behind Mission

Millar’s Concluding Summary of His Concerns

“If this book dominates evangelical and reformed thinking on mission for the next twenty or thirty years then where will we be?  Very simple, my fear is that we will be in a place where there is no hell, no judgment, not really any hope for a cross.  My fear is that no one will go anywhere, that no one will preach to anyone, that no one will actually care.  Why not?  Because I am not sure that God actually cares that much, because everything is mission, because being will take away the need for going.  Would Chris Wright argue for any of these positions?  Of course not but even the best of us are capable of missteps, of misleading, of missing the point.  I think that’s what has happened in this book.  That is why I think it would be disastrous if we took our theology of mission from The Mission of God.  That’s why, however reluctantly, I agreed to do this critique.  It’s not so much what’s in the book, as what’s left out.  And my fear is that if we leave out what’s left out of The Mission of God then there will be no going, there will be no preaching because who would stand up and preach a gospel that may get us persecuted if there is an option, there will be no evangelism, there will be no hell, there will be no judgment, there will ultimately be no need for a cross.  I do not want to overstate it but ultimately there would be no mission.”

Prayer and Suffering Display the Worth of the Gospel

On Sunday mornings we are doing a class entitled The Church, the Gospel, and the Ends of the Earth; these are my notes from today’s class on prayer and suffering.

I. Prayer Displays the Worth of the Gospel

A. Isaiah Models Missional Prayer

The first passage that comes to mind when talking about the missional nature of prayer I immediately think of Isaiah 6.

1In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train[a] of his robe filled the temple.  2Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.  3And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”

4And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.  5And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

6Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar.  7And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

Isaiah is confronted by the glory of the Lord, responds to it in broken humility over his sin and the sin of Israel.  Then a seraphim flies to Isaiah holding a burning coal taken from the altar.  The temple is filled with smoke because a sacrifice has been made on the altar and this seraphim takes a burning coal from that sacrifice and touches it to Isaiah’s unclean lips.  This sacrifice is applied to Isaiah and it takes away his guilt and atones for his sin.

Isaiah hears the intertrinitarian conversation as the Lord asks Himself “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”  Having just seen the Lord upon His throne and experiencing His atoning sacrifice for sins Isaiah exclaims, “Here am I! Send me.”  The prophet cries out, “I will tell of your glory, I will make your gracious atonement known!”  The Lord’s reply is devastating as He exhorts Isaiah to proclaim, “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive” and commands him to “Make the heart of this people dull . . . [lest they] turn and be healed.”  Isaiah, having just experienced the Lord’s atoning sacrifice for sins, would not be proclaiming that great salvation to his people; no, his message was one of judgment and its purpose was to harden Israel’s heart so that she would not turn to the Lord in repentance.

Upon hearing this Isaiah replies asking, “How long, O Lord?”  There are two primary ways in which Isaiah’s question has been interpreted; first, “how long must I proclaim this message?” and second, “how long will their hardness persist?” or “how long until you redeem your people?”  Based upon Isaiah’s emphasis upon the fulfillment of YHWH’s covenant promises, his understanding of the blessings and curses of those covenants (cf. Deuteronomy 28; 30:1-10), and the Lord’s reply the later understanding of his reply best fits within the context of his ministry.  In this sense Isaiah cries out “How long until your people repent and you restore your blessing to them?”  The Lord’s reply glimmers with though Israel will be scattered in exile and the Promised Land laid to waste and burnt to the ground like a tree its stump will remain.  Later in Isaiah we see that this stump is Jesus Christ who is the atoning sacrifice, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).  That is the hope the Lord offers in His reply.

We must regain Isaiah’s missional understanding of the Lord, his missional zeal for his people, and his missional petition on their behalf.  We must come to view God as Isaiah did; as a God who sends and saves, who graciously self-discloses Himself, and who makes atonement for the sins of His people.  We must be broken over our sin and over the sins of our culture crying out in intercession, “How long will our cities be ravaged by the worship of idols?  How long will this people persist in self-reliance?  How long will they perceive your invisible attributes and continue to suppress the truth in unrighteousness?  How long will they harden their hearts against you?  How long will they keep on hearing, but not understand?  How long will they keep on seeing, but not perceive?  How long will you make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes?  How long until they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts?  How long until you turn them to yourself that they may be healed?  . . . How long, O Lord?

Along this line of thought David Garrison in his book, Church Planting Movements: How God is Redeeming a Lost World, writes, “Prayer is the soul’s deepest cry of rebellion against the way things are, seeing the lost of this world and crying out, ‘This does not glorify God, and so, by God’s grace, it must change!’  Prayer comes from God and ascends back to God on behalf of those who do not know God.”[1]

B. Prayer and Proclamation

Commenting on Ephesians 6:16-18 John Piper explains, “Prayer is the power that wields the weapon of the word.  And by the word of God we do battle against sin and unbelief in our own lives and in the world.”[2]

C. Prayer and Mission

“We cannot know what prayer is for until we know that life is war. . .  Prayer is primarily a wartime walkie-talkie for the mission of the church as it advances against the powers of darkness and unbelief.  It is not surprising that prayer malfunctions when we try to make it a domestic intercom to call upstairs for more comforts in the den.”[3]

II. Suffering Displays the Worth of the Gospel

A. Introduction

It was March 15, 2004 and five Southern Baptist missionaries driving through Mosul, in northern Iraq, were ambushed and four of them were murdered.  Months before Karen Watson had given a letter to her pastor in Bakersfield, California that was to be opened upon the event of her death.  In it she wrote, “When God calls, there are no regrets.  I tried to share my heart with you as much as possible, my heart for the nations.  I wasn’t called to a place.  I was called to Him, to glory.  To obey was my objective.  To suffer was expected.  His glory was my reward.  His glory is my reward.”[4]  She then writes, exhorting the reader, exhorting us, “Care more than some think is wise.  Risk more than some think is safe. Dream more than some think is practical, and expect more than some think is possible.  I was called not to comfort or success but to obedience.”[5]

Al Mohler, speaking in chapel at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, explained, “As we first heard this word (of the four deaths), we realized that the cause of the Gospel needed at least four more.  That’s just status quo, four more. But advance is going to take far more than four.”[6]

And indeed advance has come, and will continue to come, at a high cost.  The twentieth century alone saw nearly fifty million martyrs, that is almost 1,250 people martyred daily.[7]  For those of us in this room, in comfortable America, that reality is almost incomprehensible.

B. Suffering and Persecution Defined

Suffering and persecution are related.  Persecution can result in suffering but not all suffering is the result of persecution.  Looking at Paul’s statements in II Corinthians 11:23-28 we can see the difference between these two things.  Acts of persecution are underlined, suffering is in boldface, and suffering as a result of persecution is underlined and boldfaced.

23Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death24Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one25Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure28And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.

Suffering is important as a display of the gospel.  We saw that recently when we spent a weekend studying Hebrews.  We, as a church, need to see individuals looking to Jesus and running the race with endurance.  As they suffer through cancer and disease exhorting us that Jesus is worth it, that this present affliction is light and momentary compared to the eternal weight of glory (Romans 8:18; II Corinthians 4:17-18; Hebrews 12:1-2).

Charles L. Tieszen defines persecution as, “Any unjust action of varying levels of hostility perpetuated primarily on the basis of religion and directed at Christians, resulting in varying levels of harm as it is considered from the victim’s perspective.”[8]

  • Any unjust action
  • varying levels of hostility/resulting in varying levels of harm
  • perpetuated primarily on the basis of religion
  • directed at Christians
  • considered from the victim’s perspective

C. American Exceptionalism and Global violence

We come to this discussion from an incredibly unique vantage point.  For us as Americans the global reality of persecution is almost incomprehensible.  There are countless issues facing the global church that are completely foreign to us and because of that we are not addressing these things theologically.  So I want to force our hand this morning and address some of these things and hopefully force us to view the world from a different perspective.

1. Islam Does Not Have a Monopoly on Violence

I think our understanding of persecution and the relationship between followers of Christ and Islam is shaped more by American foreign policy than by Scripture and the global context of religious violence.

Charles L. Tieszen explains, “Persecution can be perpetuated on the basis of ethnicity, political persuasion, nationality, or any number of other factors.  When religion is involved, adherents of any religion or belief can be targets.”  And I would add that adherents of any religion or belief can be perpetrators.  He continues, “In this light, Baha’i communities are persecuted in Iran; Muslims are persecuted in India and Nigeria; and Tibetan Buddhists are persecuted in China.  Similar examples are numerous.”[9]

In the global context there are countless religions and belief systems that have resorted to religious violence and we only looked at four countries.  We could go a step further and break it down to people groups within countries and see just how pervasive violence is.  The main point I want us to see here is that Islam does not have a monopoly on violence.  We have to step out of our American experience of terrorism and the current foreign policy discussion of America and Islam and come to see this within the global religious context.

2. Christians are, Unfortunately, Not Always Passive

These are questions that we don’t have to ask ourselves.  When something happens locally we have the police and various government agencies that assure us that the perpetrator(s) will be found and brought to justice and the same thing happens globally with our armed forces.  We are never in the situation that Coptic Christians, in Egypt, found themselves in when during a funeral Muslim youth began throwing rocks and police fired tear gas into the cathedral.  We have never had to decide whether or not to use Molotov cocktails to incinerate protestors at a funeral.[10]

Or we could look at Nigeria where Christians have slaughtered Muslims and burned the bodies on piles of tires.[11]  There one Christian leader has argued for the church to build armies saying, “People say, ‘When they slap your cheek, you turn the other.’  We have turned both, and they have slapped us.  There is nothing else to turn.”[12]  Thankfully within that same context there are others who are arguing, “To fight back is contrary to the position of our Lord Jesus Christ. . .  He said, ‘If they strike you on one cheek, turn the other.’  He did that when he was arrested. It was what he used to conquer the world.”

So the world looks vastly different through non-American eyes.  If we are going to understand persecution then we have to come to grips with how we have been shaped by the American context. This means coming to understand that those who persecute us are not our political enemies but our mission field.

D. Persecution is Guaranteed

There are countless passages we could look at here but II Timothy 3:12 is pretty straightforward, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

Luke 14:27 where Jesus says, “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” is also a helpful passage in this regard.  “Bearing ones cross” has been interpreted any number of ways over the years but I want us to hear these words as those listening to Jesus would have understood them.  Rome came to power in Judea in 63BC and it is estimated that they crucified 30,000 during their rule.  Furthermore, Judas of Galilee, who helped found the Zealots, led a revolt against Rome, which resulted in nearly 2,000 men being crucified along the roads of Galilee,[13] an event that many of Christ’s hearers would have vividly remembered.  Jesus is warning the great crowds that had gathered that following Him could result in death.

E. Persecution as Incarnational Ministry

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.  We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.  For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.  So death is at work in us, but life in you” (II Corinthians 4:7-12).

From this text, we see that through suffering the life of Jesus is manifested in the body, the flesh, of the one who suffers.  What specifically is occurring in this text?  Looking at two other texts will clarify what is occurring here.

“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Colossians 1:24).

What is still lacking? Wasn’t Christ’s work on the cross complete?  Paul’s words here almost sound like heresy!  The only other place where the Greek phrase “fill up what is lacking” appears is in Philippians 2:30, “for he [Epaphroditus] nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.”

Paul is writing to the church in Philippi, who had sent Epaphroditus to care for him.  Here he informs the church in Philippi that Epaphroditus had completed what was lacking in their service.

So what was lacking?  How was the church in Philippi’s service to Paul incomplete prior to their sending of Epaphroditus?

“The gift to Paul was the gift of the church as a body.  It was a sacrificial offering of love.  What was lacking . . . was the church’s presentation of this offering in person.”[14]

Understanding Philippians 2:30 allows us to understand what Paul means in Colossians 1:24.  “What is lacking is that the infinite value of Christ’s afflictions are not known in the world.  They are still a mystery (hidden) to most peoples.  And God’s intention is that the mystery be revealed”[15] and they are revealed through our suffering.  “Christ intends for the great commission to be a presentation to the nations of the sufferings of his cross, in the sufferings of his people.  That’s the way the commission will be finished folks!”[16]  Simply stated, suffering is one of the means by which we incarnate the gospel into culture.

F. Persecution as the Means by Which God is Advancing His Kingdom

In Matthew 11 John the Baptist, who is imprisoned, sends messengers to Jesus asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another” (11:3)?

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.  6And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (11:4b-6).

Yes, Jesus is the one He is fulfilling the promise of Isaiah 61 but in His reply He makes no mention of proclaiming liberty to the captives.  Because captive John the Baptist would not be set free John was going to die.  And Jesus then addresses the crowds concerning John and in verse 12 explains, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”  Commenting on this verse Erwin Raphael McManus exclaims, “God’s Kingdom is a Kingdom of war. Not where we kill but where we are willing to let others kill us. Not where we hate but we are willing to embrace the hate of others. Not where we are violent but where we take the violence of the world upon ourselves and allow the love of God to prevail. I wonder how many of us actually believe God can prevail if we love the worst of sinners; if we extend our lives into the most dangerous situation in the world?”


[1]David Garrison, Church Planting Movements: How God is Redeeming a Lost World (Bangalore, India: WIGTake Resources, 2004), 176-177.
[2]John Piper, “The Weapon Serves the Wielding Power,” Desiring God [on-line]; accessed 7 May 2013; http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/Sermons/ByScripture/3/1841_The_Weapon_Serves_the_Wielding_Power/; Internet.
[3]John Piper, Let The Nations Be Glad! The Supremacy of God In Missions (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 45.
[4]David Roach, “Mohler: Slain missionaries spotlight need for worldwide Gospel proclamation,” SBTS [on-line]; accessed 7 May 2013; http://news.sbts.edu/2004/04/01/mohler-slain-missionaries-spotlight-need-for-worldwide-gospel-proclamation/; Internet.
[5]Ibid.
[6]Ibid.
[7]Charles L. Tieszen, “Mission in Contexts of Violence: Forging Theologies of Persecution and Martyrdom,” in Missions in Contexts of Violence, Evangelical Missiological Society Series, no. 15 (Pasedena, CA: William Carey Library, 2008), 86n6.
[8]Charles L. Tieszen, “Mission in Contexts of Violence: Forging Theologies of Persecution and Martyrdom,” in Missions in Contexts of Violence, Evangelical Missiological Society Series, no. 15 (Pasedena, CA: William Carey Library, 2008), 80.
[9]Ibid., 80.
[10]David Kenner, “Egypt’s Christians are under fire,” Foreign Policy [on-line]; accessed 7 May 2013; http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/04/08/egypts_christians_are_under_fire; Internet.
[11]“Bodies pile up after Nigeria riot,” BBC [on-line]; accessed 7 May 2013; http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/4743672.stm; Internet.  See also “Riots in Nigeria leave many dead,” BBC [on-line]; accessed 7 May 2013; http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/4738726.stm; Internet.
[12]Sunday Oguntola, “Church Leaders Debate Self-Defense,” Christianity Today [on-line]; accessed 7 May 2013; http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/december/self-defense-debate.html; Internet.
[13]John MacArthur, Hard to Believe: The High Cost and Infinite Value of Following Jesus (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003), 135.
[14]Marvin R. Vincent, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistles to the Philippians and to Philemon, The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1979), 78.
[15]John Piper, “Called to Suffer and Rejoice: To Finish the Aim of Christ’s Afflictions,” Desiring God [on-line]; accessed 7 May 2013; http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/Sermons/ByScripture/2/806_Called_to_Suffer_and_Rejoice_To_Finish_the_Aim_of_Christs_Afflictions/; Internet.
[16]John Piper. Doing Missions When Dying Is Gain, October 27, 1996. [Sermon]

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.

Bottoms Up: The Lost Art of Moderation

This is my second post in this series which aims to provide a biblical perspective on alcohol; the first is available here. I am currently planning two more posts in this series, one addressing contextualization and another explaining why I am convinced that this issue is extremely important.

Starting with Scripture

As I was reading several weeks ago I came across the following passage in Scripture which surprised me for several reasons.

22You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year. 23And before the LORD your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. 24And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the LORD your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the LORD your God chooses, to set his name there, 25then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the LORD your God chooses 26and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household. 27And you shall not neglect the Levite who is within your towns, for he has no portion or inheritance with you.

28At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns. 29And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do.

—Deuteronomy 14:22-29

A Surprising Recommendation

This text’s positive mention of wine is not surprising as there are countless texts where it is spoken of in a positive light, although the definition of “wine” has been debated ad nauseam. This text is surprising in that it, without and qualifications, commends “strong drink.” While the various sides of this debate can continue to argue about the alcohol content of wine the meaning of “strong drink” is impeccably clear. This would have been an alcoholic beverage made from wheat or barley in all likelihood it was similar to beer or other grain alcohol. Even more surprising than the commendation of strong drink is the way in which it is commended and to grasp this it is necessary to look at the passage as a whole.

Explanation

The passage begins by commanding a tithe of grain, wine, oil, and livestock (cf. Leviticus 27:30–32) that is to be taken to “the place that he will choose” i.e. the location of the tabernacle and eventually the temple (cf. Deuteronomy 12). Due to the vastness of the Promised Land and the difficulty of making this pilgrimage with one’s entire family in addition to a tenth of all one’s grain, wine, oil, and livestock it was allowed that one could convert the tithe into money and travel to the sanctuary.

Before continuing it is best to return to verse 23 and examine the intent of the tithe. This tithe is carried out so that “that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always.” This act is not a means of acquiring personal righteousness rather the act of tithing is a means of instructing the covenant community of their standing before God and the reverence that is always due Him. Whether in times of abundance or drought the tithe stood as a reminder to Israel that their God was sovereign and all they possessed was the result of His grace.

Upon arrival at the sanctuary the money would then be used to purchase various goods. This practice was the history behind the moneychangers during Jesus’ day (cf. Matthew 21:12-13) the difference being that those during the time of Christ were taking advantage of those who had made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem rather than dealing with them fairly. Interestingly enough after their arrival at the temple they were not required to purchase the same goods which they had originally exchanged for money but they were allowed to purchase whatever they desired and their appetites craved. The inclusion here of the brief list “or sheep or wine or strong drink” is by no means exhaustive rather it includes a brief sampling of what they might desire to purchase; nevertheless two of the included options are alcoholic beverages.

They are to enjoy what they have purchased by feasting and rejoicing before, or in the presence of, the LORD. Those who would argue that the inclusion of “wine and strong drink” suggests that the goods were used as burnt offerings and drink offerings do a great disservice to the clear language of this text as well as its eschatological dimensions. The language of the text suggests God’s participation in a feast symbolizing covenant renewal; however, the feast also points forward to the wedding supper of the Lamb. This is not the language of burnt offerings but a meal of rejoicing at the covenant faithfulness and redeeming grace of Israel’s God. The Levites, who were charged with the care of the tabernacle (Numbers 1:50-53), did not have an inheritance of their own and depended upon the rest of the covenant community for provision (cf. Numbers 18:24) were to be included in the feast.

God’s care for Israel is demonstrated in this and even more in that every third year the tithe is to be converted into a local feast whereby the Levites, sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow may be provided for.

Implications for the Church

There are countless implications that can be drawn from this text concerning one’s attitude in giving and the purpose behind this act. This text also has implications for our understanding of the Lord’s Supper as an eschatological and celebratory act. I would love to hear your thoughts on these topics in the comments section.

The purpose of this post is to focus on the implications that must be drawn for our understanding of the use of alcohol within the covenant community of the church. What we find here, and in many other texts that will be discussed over the course of this series, is that the perception that Scripture places an absolute prohibition on the consumption of alcoholic beverages is wholly false. Not only is that perception false but this text arguably places the consumption of alcoholic beverages at the center of Israel’s celebration of the provision and grace of Yahweh.

Am I going to attempt to argue from this that alcohol should be a centerpiece in the worship of the church? No, I am not. Neither should we come to the polar opposite conclusion that alcohol is always condemned by Scripture. The key to this issue, and many others, is moderation. There are times when it is condemned and times when it is commended and the church must be resolved to rest between these two points of tension. This is a difficult task. Both Scripture and church history reveal numerous occasions where the people of God are unable to hold various points of tension and end up in error. We must avoid this error. It is my prayer that, by the grace of God, we will stand between the deadly polls of legalism and liberalism as we live and proclaim the gospel.

As we approach this issue let us do so with both a wisdom that avoids the deadly dangers of legalism and liberalism. If you choose to discuss please do so with charity.

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.

—I Corinthians 10:31