We place a lot of value on someone’s last words before they pass into eternity. When someone places such value on a message that they commit their final moments with friends and family to communicating that message, it should cause us to weigh that message with reverence and sobriety. I often say that Jesus’ last words should be our first priority.
While Jesus remains very much alive and well, his final words to his followers are recorded by Luke in the book of Acts. Before ascending to the Father, Jesus looked at his disciples and, in his final moments with them before his future return, said, “[Y]ou will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8 CEB).
Each of the Gospel accounts have their own version of what’s come to be known as the Great Commission.1 John 20:19f relates the sent and sending nature of Christ himself. Matthew 28:19f is known for its focus on the nations of the world. Luke 24:46–48 is gospel-oriented, focusing on the importance of repentance and faith in Christ, while Acts 1 speaks of the how the fruit of being filled with the Holy Spirit will result in witnesses globally.
Luke’s reminder of Jesus’ last words with which he sent out his followers on mission, not simply to their fellow Jews in the areas around Jerusalem, but to all the nations of the earth. That mantle of mission to the nations has been handed down from generation to generation, and it rests upon us today to faithfully steward.
As I argued in the book, “Finish the Mission,” evangelicals, especially in the Global North, appear to gravitate towards two distinct paths when discussing God’s mission. On one hand, there’s a tendency to follow the “sentness” path, focusing on the church’s role as sent and exploring the implications of being “missional” in this world. On the other hand, there’s the “nations” path, which highlights the church as the sender to various parts of the world, and among all peoples of the world.
Although these paths are not inherently contradictory, they often diverge in practice more frequently than not. Luke is clear that we are called to reach our own, to those who are near, and to all who are far off with the gospel of Jesus Christ, but there’s a shadow side to our Great Commission endeavors that requires a shift (like the theme of this year’s Missio Nexus gathering), to consider the social and transformational impact of our mission.
Illuminating the Shadow Side
We see in the New Testament two characteristics of the Church’s task of reaching the nations. First, we see mission itself in action—the Spirit sending out God’s people on mission, first following Pentecost, then the diaspora following the death of Stephen, and then again in the missionary journeys of the apostles.
But secondly, we also see a shadow side with which the Church has had to wrestle and contend since its infancy—the racial and ethnic tension that has accompanied the missionary expansion of the Church. If we’re to be faithful to the commission God has given us, we must be truthful about both.
While over the past 100 years we’ve made strides toward repenting of the sins of the past, the task of cultivating a flourishing multi-ethnic global Church that fosters dignity for people of every tribe and tongue is a never-ending enterprise in which we must always be engaged.
Missiologically speaking, even without the commissions of Christ having been recorded, the priority of God’s mission would still be clearly communicated throughout both Testaments of Scripture. Not only does God’s mission permeate the grand narrative of the Bible—in creation, fall, redemption and restoration—but the Bible itself is a product of God’s mission.
Christopher Wright shares some helpful words about the Bible and God’s mission, in his introduction to his magnum opus, “The Mission of God”:
The whole Bible is itself a missional phenomenon. The writings that now comprise our Bible are themselves the product of and witness to the ultimate mission of God. The Bible renders to us the story of God’s mission through God’s people in their engagement with God’s world for the sake of the whole of God’s creation. The Bible is the drama of this God of purpose engaged in the mission of achieving that purpose universally, embracing past, present and future, Israel and the nations, “life, the universe and everything,” and with its centre, focus, climax, and completion in Jesus Christ. Mission is not just one of a list of things that the Bible happens to talk about, only a bit more urgently than some. Mission is, in that much-abused phrase, “what it’s all about.”2
When we focus solely on the paths of “sentness” and on the “nations” to whom we are sent, we miss out an important part of our mission; the ethical path—one that is much needed in our broken, divisive and polarized world—a path that is shaped by ethical character derived from the nature of God himself, and that which defines what it means to truly fulfill the promise God made to Abraham in being a blessing to the nations (Genesis 12; 18).
N.T. Wright states:
The mission of the church must therefore reflect, and be shaped by, the future hope as the New Testament presents it. I believe that is we take these three areas—justice, beauty and evangelism—in terms of anticipation of God’s eventual setting to rights of the world, we will find that they dovetail together and in fact that they are all part of the same message of hope and new life that comes with the good news of Jesus’ resurrection.3
A barrier to the future hope that N.T. Wright speaks of, in the restored reality of God’s redemptive grace, is the shadow side of our evangelical approach. In shaping our biblical theology around God’s mission in our era, we should not neglect the important aspects of social transformation in our evangelistic thrust, especially as they concern upholding the dignity of people groups that have been disadvantaged by missions work in past centuries.
Christopher Wright states that our “…ethics and God’s mission are integrally bound together…The community God seeks for the sake of his mission is to be a community shaped by his own ethical character, with specific attention to righteousness and justice in a world filled with oppression and injustice.”
He’s right. Let’s illuminate how shaping our ethical approach is an important bridge between our ecclesiology and missiology in shaping a biblical culture around evangelism.
1 I’ve written a chapter in John Piper’s book “Finish the Mission” on the topic of the four commissions of Christ: Stetzer, E. (2013). “Reaching Our Neighbors and the Nations.” In J. Piper & D. Mathis (Eds.), Finish the Mission: Bringing the Gospel to the Unreached and Unengaged (pp. 56-72). Crossway.
2 Wright, C.J.H. (2006). “The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative.” (InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove), 22.
3 N.T. Wright, “Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the church” (New Harper Collins, 2008), 230.
4 Wright, C.J.H. (2010). The Mission of God’s People. (Zondervan, Grand Rapids), 83, 93, 94.