The Church, the Neighborhood, and the Nations
Desiring God 2011 National Conference
Finish the Mission: For the Joy of All Peoples
This message appears as a chapter in Finish the Mission: Bringing the Gospel to the Unreached and Unengaged.
Modern Christians, particularly of the Western world, seem to trend toward one of two paths when they talk about God’s mission. Either they will set off down a “sent-ness” path by emphasizing the church as being sent and what it means to be missional, or they will go down a “nations” path by emphasizing the church as the one sending around the world. While these two paths are not incompatible, they seem too often to be followed in divergent directions. The reason for this is that they often focus on different parts of the missio Dei (mission of God). Yet, I think by exploring the commissions of Jesus, we get a better picture of God’s mission — we understand more clearly our missiology.
In the past century, there has been a tremendous amount written on missiology. But as I write on missiology in this chapter, I do so because I believe there is still more that needs to be said, and this conversation is necessary for the health and growth of the church. I would take another step and suggest that the church today desperately needs to remain engaged in this conversation. A proper theological diet needs a healthy portion of missiology, and perhaps the best way to do so is by examining the commissions of Jesus.
In this chapter, I will focus on all four of the commissions of Jesus. We will examine what it means to be a missional, missions-minded, gospel-centered, Spirit-empowered church from the four commissions of Jesus, so that his name and his fame would be more widely known.
WE ARE SENT: A SENDING FOCUS
The church is a sent people, and the sending focus of God’s people is captured in the Gospel of John. In John 20, after the resurrection, Jesus appears in the flesh to his disciples. In the first commission of Jesus, beginning in verse 19, John writes:
In the evening of that first day of the week, the disciples were gathered together with the doors locked because of their fear of the Jews. Then Jesus came, stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!” Having said this, He showed them His hands and His side. So the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
*Note: All Scripture quotations in this chapter are taken from the Holman Christian Standard [HCSB] version
And he says to them again in verse 21 (note the key phrase in italics):
Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.”
Jesus is both the sent and the sender. Readers are forced to make a hermeneutical decision. Is Jesus’s command to his disciples also applicable to us? Certainly, when you look at the commissions of Jesus, there have been times in the history of the church when Christians have said, “No, that just applies to those who heard the voice of Jesus in the first century.”
But hopefully we will move beyond this limited application of Scripture and recognize that when Jesus speaks to his disciples here, at this moment, his command also applies to us. Jesus is both the sent one, and the sender of his people. Consequently, the church, as the body of Christ, is both a sent people and a sending people.
We are sent on mission. But what does that mean? Am I now a missionary? Am I missional? And here’s where our language requires clarification.
Defining mission might seem at first to be a relatively simple task. But, as you start, you see that there are challenges in defining the term mission. In 2010 David Hesselgrave and I edited a book on missiology called MissionShift. The first third of the book is dedicated to defining and describing the terms mission, missions, missional, missio Dei, and missionary. Charles Van Engen, Keith Eitel, Enoch Wan, Darrell L. Guder, Andreas Köstenberger, and I interact and respond to one another regarding how we define and/or describe mission.
It was a fascinating conversation. In my chapter I conclude, “We need . . . a ‘cohesive, consistent, focused, theologically deep, missiologically broad, contextually appropriate, and praxeologically effective, evangelical missiology’” (Ibid., 80). Indeed, we need a clear understanding of mission.
“A proper theological diet needs a healthy portion of missiology.”
The word mission comes from a Latin word meaning “to send.” That does not necessarily help us fully define what mission is biblically. Being sent and sending are major themes in the story of Scripture, but limiting our definition to the sending actions of God limits our view of mission in some significant ways.
First, sending alone does not entail other important, mission-centered themes in the biblical stories. Second, broadening how we speak of mission also helps us to locate our actions in God’s grand plan for history, so this allows us to acknowledge that sending is always for a purpose. Avery Willis, an author and missiologist (recently deceased), describes mission in such eschatological terms. Willis says:
By mission I mean the total redemptive purpose of God to establish his kingdom. Missions, on the other hand, [as contrasted with mission] is the activity of God’s people the church to proclaim and to demonstrate the kingdom of God in the world (Avery Willis, “Biblical Basis for Mission,” available at http://www.ntslibrary.com/ministry-missions-books.htm).
Willis goes on to clarify the difference between mission and missionaries, saying, “Missionaries are set apart by God and the church to cross natural and cultural barriers with the gospel” (Ibid.). Mission, therefore, is conceived as the total redemptive purpose of God to establish his kingdom, and missionaries are those agents who carry out God’s redemptive purposes through the church in a variety of contexts.
It is important to note here that God has a mission and is on a mission. We find this in the biblical story. God is both sender and sent in Christ. God, the Father, is the source of mission. He sent his Son, who embodies God’s mission and accomplishes it. God’s mission is then extended and applied through the ministry of the Spirit, for it is the Spirit who calls, equips, and empowers the people of God.
The mission is therefore God’s. He sends to accomplish his mission — the redemption of his whole creation. Jesus consistently spoke of himself as being “sent” in John’s Gospel and subsequently commissioned his disciples for this same purpose (John 17:3, 8, 18, 21, 23, 25). As the “sent” people of God, the church is the instrument of his mission (John 20:21). Missions flows from the mission of God.
So, what’s a missionary? Some of you reading this are missionaries (according to Willis’s definition). You cross cultural barriers in Jesus’s name so his fame would be more widely known. In some sense, however, as Charles Spurgeon said, “Every Christian is either a missionary or an imposter” (Charles H. Spurgeon, “A Sermon and a Reminiscence,” Sword and the Trowel). So, how should we use the term missionary?
Let me suggest first an answer that not everyone will agree with. Precision in language is not as important as the emphasis on being sent. So, it is at this point that I like what Spurgeon says. Here, it seems to me that everyone should be able to agree with what he meant. When Spurgeon said, “Every Christian is either a missionary or an impostor,” he was saying that we all are sent by Jesus and are called to live in light of that sending. Christians are called to live on mission.
Second, I prefer to use “missionary” to refer to particular people who pursue a particular calling. While some might say, however, “All Christians are missionaries,” I would not typically phrase it that way. I would emphasize the sent-ness of all Christians to live on mission. Missionaries are those with particular ministry and calling to cross cultural barriers to make disciples of Jesus. We live in a pluralistic world today. People once had to cross regional and geographical borders to do the work of missions. Now, many of us can engage readily in cross-cultural conversations without leaving our own cities. These opportunities will continue to grow.
Even as I more narrowly define missionary, I still think that the first step is to confirm the sent-ness of all disciples.
I (and others) use the term missional to describe a mission-shaped life. Missional is simply the adjectival use of the word mission. In other words, if I’m living a missional life, I’m living a life shaped by God’s mission, which is again simply a Latin-based word centered on the concept of being sent. As we have seen, the root of the word does not give a full picture of living missionally, for sent-ness implies purpose.
John 20:21 is ultimately about God’s sending and about the fact that we are sent. So to be faithful to this text, we focus on mission as sent-ness. Jesus said if you’re a follower of Christ, if you’ve been born again by the power of the gospel, you are sent. It doesn’t matter what you call it. What matters is that when you’ve encountered God, when you’ve been made new in Christ, that you stand before God, saying “Here I am, Lord. Send me.”
“I thought only missionaries were sent?” you ask. Well, they are. Those who live missionally are sent, too. “Well, missionaries seem more sent than us. I mean, they get odd clothes. They live in tents. They eat bugs. They are different.”
And after knowing and encouraging vocational missionaries for decades, I can say with certitude that, yes, missionaries are different. But missionaries are not aliens. Their spiritual responsibility for the mission of God is the same as those who live in their hometown for their entire lives. The difference between the missionary and County Seat First Church member lies not in their sent-ness but in their context and the ways that they pursue their life of mission.
“As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” God is gracious. He is good. He is merciful. He is holy. God is also a sender. We forget this. God demonstrates it in the Old Testament when he sends Abraham to be blessed and to be a blessing to others. Jonah is sent. God asks the prophet Isaiah, “Who should I send? Who will go for Us?” Isaiah replied, “Here I am. Send me” (Isaiah 6:8).
We could go on and on and on with examples of God’s sending — from Genesis to Malachi. God sends because he is a sender. And, of course, God demonstrates his sending nature in the New Testament. As we have seen in John 20:21, Jesus says, “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” The Father, in his sent-ness, has eternally begotten (whatever that means in Trinitarian terms!) the same nature in Jesus. Jesus, therefore, also has a nature of sent-ness. As Jesus’s disciples become transformed into the image of Christ, they, in turn, put on his sent-ness.
We do not want to miss the scriptural theme of sent-ness, because it defines so much of who God is, what he is doing, and who we are. For example:
The Father sent the Son. In John 20:21 Jesus says, “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.”
The Father sent the Spirit (in Jesus’s name). In John 14:26, Jesus says, “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit — the Father will send Him in My name — will teach you all things and remind you of everything I have told you.” So the Father sent the Son, and the Father sends the Spirit in Jesus’s name.
Jesus is sent to establish his kingdom. The movement of being sent continues. The Son comes and establishes his kingdom. In Mark 1:15 Jesus says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe in the good news!” Jesus is not speaking chronologically, describing the time in space when the kingdom will be ultimately established. Jesus is speaking geographically, describing the location of the kingdom. It is as if Jesus is saying, “Here it is!” The kingdom has come because the Son has come. The sending of the Trinity gives birth to a movement among his people.
The church is sent in the kingdom’s wake (the sent-ness of the bride), continuing the trajectory of the recurring theme of this sent-ness. The church is birthed out of a movement (kingdom) of people empowered by the Spirit.
The Son builds the church by placing people in his kingdom. Jesus is building his church. He said he would build his church in Matthew 16, but in Colossians he tells us how. In Colossians 1:13 the Spirit testifies, “He has rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son He loves.” God is rescuing us, his people. Why? Because God is sending the church as agents of God’s kingdom in the world.
The Spirit empowers the church. The Spirit empowers the church to imitate God’s sent-ness. As the Son builds the church by placing people in the kingdom, the Spirit empowers the church to live as the sent agents of the kingdom of God. Second Corinthians 5:20 says, “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, certain that God is appealing through us. We plead on Christ’s behalf, ‘Be reconciled to God.’” The church is a network of ambassadors for Christ.
In Ephesians 6:20 Paul says, “For this I am an ambassador in chains.” Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:20, “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, certain that God is appealing through us. We plead on Christ’s behalf, ‘Be reconciled to God.’”
The church is an outpost of light in the darkness. In the military, an outpost is a group of soldiers stationed away from the main force. The outpost isn’t the main force, but it represents the main force. As an outpost, the church isn’t the main force, but it represents the main force. The church is in the world like an embassy is in the country in which its ambassador is stationed. The church is an initial point of contact for the kingdom of God, as God’s people are interspersed amidst humanity.
We do not plead with others from long distance; we plead with them up close and personally. We are sent people, meeting others in their home countries. We must build relationships with them, both inside and outside the embassy. We are not sent in power. We are sent to serve and build relationships with others to share the truths of the gospel with them. This is the nature of God’s kingdom. As Jesus forms a community of the kingdom with the good news of the kingdom, the people he has purchased with his own blood (Acts 20:28; Titus 2:14) unify to accomplish God’s purposes.
I grew up on Long Island outside of New York City. We knew ambassadors. They were the people with the cool cars that had flags and didn’t pay parking tickets. But in Paul’s day, ambassadors had a different social status than what I encountered in New York. Ambassadors today are high-ranking diplomatic officials. They are an indication that one political power sought a good working relationship with a second one. Ambassadors are sent for the purpose of establishing friendship, goodwill, and relationships for working together.
Yet, in the days of the New Testament, Rome did not send out ambassadors. They did not have to. Rome sent out conquering armies with governors who ruled over the conquered nation. That’s how Rome established its authority with neighboring nations. But Rome would receive ambassadors, from as far away as India, and the Roman emperor bragged that ambassadors would come to Rome and entreat the emperor to have mercy.
They’d say, “Please don’t conquer us. Don’t send one of those conquering armies and a ruling governor, but instead let us be an ally, a vassal state on the border, on the edge of the empire. Let us live.” Rather than sending out ambassadors, the Roman Empire sent out armies and then governors to rule the conquered. Nations near the edges of the empire would send ambassadors to negotiate for peace or perhaps for status as a vassal state. The strong did not send out ambassadors. The weak did.
The all-powerful Roman Empire wouldn’t send out ambassadors to those that didn’t matter; but the all-powerful, loving, good, sovereign, perfect, and merciful God says that we’re ambassadors for Christ, the king of a far greater kingdom. So this glorious, all-powerful God sends ambassadors on his behalf. It is a glorious scandal that confounds the wisdom of this world.
Francis DuBose was the first person to write a book using the term missional the way many use it today. In his book God Who Sends, DuBose simply walks through the Scriptures, identifying places where God demonstrates his sent-ness (Francis M. DuBose, God Who Sends: A Fresh Quest for Biblical Mission [Broadman Press, 1978]).
As you begin to examine the Scriptures, understanding the heart and the mission of God, you begin to see with fresh eyes that we are a people made new in Christ to live as agents of his mission. This shapes us. This causes us to live sent. That’s what missional is. If you’re a missionary to the Pokot in Africa, you’re sent. If you’re living as a Christian in Pittsburgh, you’re sent. We’re all sent. The question is, where and among whom?
Michael Oh expresses it well when he describes the mission as “from everywhere to everywhere.” The reality is that all of God’s people are redeemed by the power of Christ, made new in relationship with him, and are now called to live sent. All of the talk about God’s greatness, if we fail to understand that his greatness is intended to compel us toward mission, is descriptive but morally vacuous. “As the Father has sent Me,” Jesus said, “I also send you.”
For some of you, this terminology will be new. Don’t spend too much time worrying about using trendy words. As I wrote in MissionShift, “The making of definitions is in the nature of thinking. The describing of effective actions is in the nature of doing.” The reality is that when all is said and done, too much will have been said and not enough will have been done. So, don’t trip over the terms. Rather, spend time living intentionally. Marvel that you’ve encountered a good, perfect, holy, loving, and merciful God, and are in turn accountable to Jesus’s command, “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.”
The difference between the missionary and the local church member is not mission but context.
You’re not all that God has called you to be, as a follower of Jesus, if you’re missions-minded but not engaged in God’s mission here and now. One of the temptations might be that you leave this information on your desk and say, “What we need to do is to give more and to go more.” I know a lot of churches that are very missions-minded but are not particularly missional.
In other words, they want to pay somebody else and outsource the mission of God. You should give and go more. We all should. But we also need to live as those who are sent here and now. At the end of the day, every believer has to listen to the words of Jesus, “As the Father has sent me, so send I you.” The only rightful, appropriate response is, “Here I am, Lord; send me.”
WE’RE SENT TO ALL PEOPLES: A NATIONS FOCUS
Scripture declares that you and I are sent to all peoples. In Matthew 28:18–20, the second commission of Jesus (often called the Great Commission), Jesus says:
All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
The meaning of the phrase “to all nations,” or panta ta ethne in the original (Greek) language, is debated. Many missiologists want to interpret the meaning as ethno-linguistic people groups. Others want to interpret the meaning as ethno-nationalism.
Based on even the most limited reading of the text, Jesus meant — at the very least — the Gentiles. But the disciples living during this moment in redemptive history understood much more than that. Volumes of books have been written on the meaning of the Great Commission, but if John 20:21 points to living sent, we need to explore why so many see the Great Commission as something we can finish by going to every tribe.
Jesus says, “On this rock I will build My church” (Matthew 16:18). Jesus announces “I will build my church,” and the disciples, in response, went out and planted churches. So why do so many of Jesus’s disciples travel so far? Paul says, “I have strongly desired for many years to come to you whenever I travel to Spain.” Andrew went north into parts of Europe. Bartholomew made it as far as the Caspian Sea (according to legend). Thomas probably made it as far as India. Jesus’s disciples traveled all around the world. Why? When they heard the words of Jesus, what caused them to think of this panta ta ethne (“all the nations”) that moved them to go so far and preach to so many?
Christians trend toward two paths. One path is the path of sent-ness, the missional path. The other is the path of the nations, the missions path. But we don’t need merely one or the other. We need both.
The context and the timing of the Great Commission in God’s redemptive plan and mission explicitly pointed the disciples to something much greater than in the past. It was a pivotal moment. Jesus actually reversed the mission in a sense — he changed its direction. In the Old Testament, Israel was called to live in such a way that the nations would come to Jerusalem. In the New Testament, we find Jesus sending his disciples to the nations for God’s glory. In Revelation 7:9–10 we see where the movement ends:
After this I looked, and there was a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were robed in white with palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
This passage of Scripture reminds us that the throne room is surrounded by men and women from every tongue, tribe, and nation. Here they are giving praise to the Lamb. I would point out that there appears to be an ethno-linguistic thread through the Scripture. Every tongue, tribe, and nation is a thread woven through Scripture from the beginning all the way to the end.
A God Who Scatters
If we go all the way back to the beginning, we can see this ethno-linguistic thread. It begins in Genesis 11 with God scattering humankind. At the Tower of Babel, God is making nations. God has a redemptive plan. Genesis 11:1–9 says:
At one time the whole earth had the same language and vocabulary. As people migrated from the east, they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let us make oven-fired bricks.” They used brick for stone and asphalt for mortar. And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky. Let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise, we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” Then the Lord came down to look over the city and the tower that the men were building. The Lord said, “If they have begun to do this as one people all having the same language, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let Us go down there and confuse their language so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So from there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth, and they stopped building the city. Therefore its name is called Babylon, for there the Lord confused the language of the whole earth, and from there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
God scatters and makes the nations for a specific purpose. He scatters them, and then he chooses a people for himself.
God scatters to reunite. God sends Israel to bring the scattered nations up to Jerusalem. This idea that mission never existed in the Old Testament is a missiological error. God sent the people of Israel on a mission. We forget the mission of God in the Old Testament, and sometimes we think the only time we see God calling his people to reach the unreached is in Matthew 28. The Great Commission is not the first time that God calls his people to go to the nations.
God sends Israel to bring the nations up to Jerusalem. Jerusalem was a city on a hill. Anyone traveling to the capital city would have to walk up to the city, literally. The distinction between the Old and New Testaments in regard to the mission of God is the role of God’s agents at different points in redemptive history. All of God’s ambassadors serve the same overall mission (the missio Dei), but not all serve in the same role. Israel’s role, recorded in the Old Testament, was to lead the nations up to Jerusalem to worship the one true God.
When the disciples heard “go to the nations,” they were living in a time when the Old Testament was recent history. The Bible for first-century Christians was Genesis through Malachi. In Psalm 57:9 the psalmist writes, “I will praise You, Lord, among the peoples. I will sing praises to You among the nations.” That was Israel’s role. “For your faithful love is as high as the heavens. Your faithfulness reaches to the clouds. God, be exalted above the heavens; let Your glory be over the whole earth” (verses 10–11).
In Isaiah 2:3 (a wonderful key passage highlighting the mission of God in the Old Testament), Isaiah prophesies, “And many peoples will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us about His ways so that we may walk in His paths.’ For instruction will go out of Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” Verse 2 says, “All nations will stream to it.”
That was the plan. But the plan was not fully accomplished.
The nations were not praising God in Jerusalem with many tongues. Yet, God was not done — he just turned the mission in a new direction.
God’s Sovereign Sign and Plan
God, through his Holy Spirit, brought all tongues, tribes, and nations to Jerusalem to inaugurate his mission. In Acts 2 Luke writes, “When the day of Pentecost had arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like that of a violent rushing wind came from heaven, and it filled the whole house where they were staying. And tongues, like flames of fire that were divided, appeared to them and rested on each one of them” (verses 1–4). The prophecies of old were realized through the power of the Spirit at Pentecost.
God’s people are interspersed amidst humanity as an initial point of contact with the kingdom of God.
Christians interpret Luke’s account of Pentecost differently, particularly as it relates to the gift of tongues. But there are some tongues we all agree on, because at this point in Scripture, speaking in tongues served as an undeniable sign. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in different languages as the Spirit gave each the ability. So, all around, people were hearing in their own language.
Pentecost is not simply an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It is that, and so much more. Pentecost is a sign that redirects God’s mission. The mission of God went out from Jerusalem, not through political might or warring nations but through the gospel proclamation of faithful churches as a tool for his subversive kingdom.
God has a sovereign sign, and he also has a sovereign plan. In Acts 2 God gives his people a sign, but in Acts 1 he also gives them his plan. Luke writes, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (verse 8). Jesus redirects the mission: before, the uttermost parts of the earth had to come to Jerusalem; now, Jesus says, you’ll go from Jerusalem to Judea, to Samaria, and to the uttermost parts.
God will be praised by women and men from every nation. We saw it in Revelation 7. God scattered from the idolatrous situation surrounding the Tower of Babel and made nations. God sends Israel to bring the nations up to Jerusalem. He has a sign and a plan for them when they get there.
So why is the Great Commission great? Jesus says, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” So at this moment the mission shifts in Jesus’s words from a centripetal mission — up to Jerusalem — to a centrifugal mission — go therefore out from this place. Jesus tells us later that we’ll go out from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria to the ends of the earth. Because of his death and resurrection he moves the mission in a new direction: victory over death, sin, the grave, and hell.
In the summer of 2011 I traveled to Turkey. While there, I was burdened to see a fledgling church with so few workers. It’s a slow work in Turkey, and there are challenges to working in a predominately Muslim context. I couldn’t help but grieve over seeing the church struggle. You and I can’t “not grieve” when we understand the context and the text of the Great Commission.
There are seventy million Turks and just a few thousand believers in Turkey. Yet this is where we find the seven churches in the book of Revelation. This is where the first seven ecumenical councils of the church were held. This place, this formerly thriving center of Christianity, now has only a few thousand people who would claim the name of Jesus Christ.
Christians need a heart for the nations because God has a heart for the nations. The Great Commission without a “nations” focus is missing its historic context and the place it holds in the mission of God.
When Jesus said panta ta ethne (“all the nations”), he redirected the mission and sent his people to the nations. God wants your church, my church, all of our churches, to go to and dwell in the uttermost parts as we join the mission. Depending on who counts and how they count, there are over six thousand unreached people groups. Three thousand of those are unengaged, unreached people groups, meaning there is little to no witness present.
Too often, Christians just seem to be interested in other things. I’ve noticed that when I blog about theological controversy, readers flock to my blog. And if I engage with dissenting comments, readers go crazy. But when I blog about the testimony of Christian missionaries in foreign contexts like Turkey, my readership drops significantly. It breaks my heart, because it is a reminder that people love theological controversies but not the nations.
The Nations in Your City
Most of us can’t avoid the nations even where we presently live. God is moving people into our cities. Not all who will read this are from the United States, but many are. There is more ethnic diversity in the United States than in any country in the world. There are estimated to be 584 unengaged, unreached people groups in North America right now living in our cities.
God is moving people and groups into our cities and our neighborhoods. We can reach them without even getting on a plane. We need to send more who will go overseas, but we also need to preach the gospel and make disciples right here. The nations are waiting, sometimes next door.
At some point, somebody brought the gospel message to you. Now, we are the uttermost parts of the earth. It doesn’t feel that way, but we are. Some will try to spiritualize Acts 1 and our failure to engage, saying, “Well, you know, this is my Jerusalem. I’m already in the Jerusalem God intended me to reach.”
“Christians need a heart for the nations because God has a heart for the nations.”
But the truth is you really don’t have a Jerusalem. That’s not issued to you. Jerusalem is a city in Asia. Jerusalem didn’t move to your hometown. Someone announced the gospel to you so that you might announce the gospel to others. Don’t let your church be a cul-de-sac off the Great Commission highway.
WITH A MESSAGE: A GOSPEL-CENTERED FOCUS
The third commission of Jesus can remind us that the focus of the mission’s message is gospel centered. Luke 24:46–48 says:
He also said to them, “This is what is written: The Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead the third day, and repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”
Gospel centrality is important to clarify and define the mission. But sometimes theological phrases become clichés and lose their meaning. As theological terms are used in more contexts than originally intended, their meaning erodes over time. Before you know it, the semantic range is so vast that the term becomes ineffective. But it must not become so with gospel centered. The church needs to retain it in our missions vocabulary because repentance for forgiveness of sins proclaimed in his name to all nations clarifies the mission of God.
At the center of the gospel is the message of repentance. Ultimately the gospel is about a bloody cross and an empty tomb. Christians ought to “live sent” as ambassadors for Christ as they announce the bloody cross and empty tomb to all who will listen. We are sent to the nations with a message — and that message is one of repentance and forgiveness of sins, as this commission of Jesus clearly points.
Do you ever go somewhere and forget why you went in the first place? Recently I went upstairs, walked to my oldest daughter’s room, and knocked on the door. “Come in,” she said. I knew I came up there for a reason, but somewhere between the first floor and the second floor I forgot. So like a good father I just said, “I just want to tell you I love you.”
It’s easy to live sent and forget why you’re sent. We would be naive at best, and reckless at worst, not to expect that many of us, even pastors reading this book, will fail to proclaim a clear gospel. You might say, “What a terrible thing to say.” But we are no smarter and no better than the saints who went before us, those saints who faced the same pitfalls. And those traps snared them.
Throughout church history, we have been distracted by peripheral issues in ministry, when the gospel and its proclamation should and must be our focus. That also unites us in a gospel cause.
Diverse methodology in ministry is acceptable as long as gospel proclamation is clear. It doesn’t matter so much if the congregation sings Isaac Watts or Israel Houghten. It doesn’t matter so much if congregants wear suits or sandals, or whether they attend a house church or a mega-church.
It does matter, however, if they miss this message of repentance necessary for reconciliation. A focus on gospel-centered mission helps the church move beyond stylistic differences. A faithful, biblical church that proclaims the gospel will look different in Singapore than it does in Senegal, different in Seattle, Washington, than it does in Selma, Alabama.
Now, this is hard for some seemingly theologically minded people. Let me illustrate with an unexpected occurrence happening in the “young, restless, Reformed” movement. Right now, it appears that African-American, theologically Reformed rap is popular. I didn’t see that coming. Were any of you expecting that particular style of music to become generally accepted in the movement?
Many are surprised because it is often the theologically minded people who want to point out those other approaches as wrong and worldly. They will speak of their “grave concerns.” Have you heard that phrase? It is repeated time and time again throughout the blogosphere and in sermons regarding the methodologies of varying churches.
Then there’s Lecrae. The reality is that, twenty to thirty years ago, many of the churches and the fellowships that we are a part of were preaching against the very kind of music (“methodology”) Lecrae is doing. But because of the clarity of the gospel proclamation, approaches that were condemned then are affirmed now. What can this teach us? I want to encourage you to have a discerning but generous methodological view within a theological context because you’re driven by the mission and more concerned about the gospel’s proclamation.
You say, “Well, I was into that nations thing. I think it’s great that they do that over there. But we don’t have to contextualize over here.” Really? God uses different kinds of churches to accomplish his agenda. God used the mega-church to reach Korea and the house church to reach China. There are marks of a church that should and must be true in every culture.
But when the gospel is being preached, then churches on mission will look different depending on where God has sent them. Hold your models loosely and your gospel firmly, focusing on biblical marks. Gospel repentance and mission cause us to be gracious and loving as the gospel spreads. Gospel centrality also causes churches to become indigenous or rooted in their own culture as they remain focused on God’s answer for man’s need for repentance and our gracious God’s saving grace.
Obviously, there is much more that could be said about specific methods. As you proclaim the gospel, and a church across your city does the same, it suddenly becomes apparent that you do so with differing ministries in your congregations. As God places us in unique contexts, we will lead unique ministries. It can be distracting and paralyzing if one decides to be the methodology mafia. Engage your city with the gospel, and celebrate those who do so as well.
One other issue that can distract from the message is that good deeds and gospel have been relatively pitted against each other. You simply cannot read the Scriptures and not be moved in word and in deed. You can’t read the Scriptures and not care for the poor. But you should not be so naive as to read history and not see that those who emphasize serving the poor have often deemphasized the gospel. It is a horrible thing to say — unless you read history. But I believe this passage helps us to do gospel demonstration and gospel proclamation.
The message is that the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in his name to all nations. It helps us to engage cultures. It helps us to serve the hurting. The church scattered cannot help but care for the hurting. Don’t let anyone talk you out of that. We need more engagement, not less engagement, with the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the hurting. Jesus’s ministry is linked to serving the hurting and demonstrating that to us.
In Luke 4 Jesus announces and inaugurates his public ministry, speaking about the poor, the marginalized, the sick, the hurting. In other places, he tells us to do the same, calling those who do “sheep” and those who don’t “goats.” Strong words. But the same Jesus who spoke the words of Luke 4:18–19 also said in Luke 19:10, “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost.”
It is this message that he’s given us to so clearly proclaim. We can and must do justice. But it is not complete if we don’t preach Jesus, and we can’t preach Jesus and not care about justice. We need to live sent to the nations with a clear message.
EMPOWERED BY THE SPIRIT: A SPIRIT FOCUS
In Acts 1:6–8 we find the final commission of Jesus. In verse 6 Jesus is asked, “Lord, are You restoring the kingdom to Israel at this time?” At their question, Jesus kindly admonishes them, saying, “It is not for you to know times or periods that the Father has set by His own authority” (verse 7). They want to talk about the end times. Jesus wants to send them on a mission.
Churches are filled with people who are confused about the mission. It’s evident when we consider what packs out a conference or what sermon series excites the people. For many churches today, when pastors address questions on the end times, the church fills up. If you pull out prophecy charts and some dragons with horns and start naming names and decoding the numbers, you can pack out a conference.
Christians live sent, announcing the bloody cross and empty tomb to all who will listen.
Yet, Jesus says it’s not for us to know. Jesus says no to the disciples’ request to know the timing of God’s plan, and he gives them something different entirely. He says, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” These words cause a shift that takes place in the disciples’ understanding of mission.
Luke’s story of the church on mission in Acts begins with two revolutionary events. The first event focuses the mission of the church toward the nations and informs the disciples how the mission will be accomplished (Acts 1:8). The second creates the church and empowers it for its mission (Acts 2:1–11). When Jesus responds to his disciples’ questions concerning when the kingdom of Israel will be restored (Acts 1:6), he is not trying to redirect their attention from eschatological speculation or from nationalistic hope in Israel’s kingdom. Jesus says the kingdom will be established through the power of the Spirit, and the hope of Israel is fulfilled by God’s mission being accomplished throughout the world.
We see a Trinitarian focus on the mission of God throughout Scripture. We see it in John 20:21–23:
Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” After saying this, He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Perhaps at this point in the chapter, you have this nagging concern: “All right, Ed, you talk about us living sent. So I need a congregation full of people who will quit being spiritual consumers and actually become missional co-laborers.” This sort of shift is, in fact, a tall order. We know statistically, from a study we conducted of seven thousand churches in Transformational Church, that the majority of people in the majority of churches are unengaged in meaningful ministry and mission (Ed Stetzer and Thom S. Rainer, Transformational Church [Broadman, 2010]). They will come for a show, but they won’t serve.
So now you say, “You started with John 20:21. We are supposed to live as faithful missional co-laborers of the gospel, to live sent in our everyday lives. And then you tell me that now I’ve got to go to the nations, because, in context, the Great Commission cannot be understood apart from God’s sending his people to the nations. How in the world am I going to do all these things?”
Well, first, you can’t do all these things.
Second, remember the words of Jesus. He says, “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you.” You can’t accomplish any of those things in your own power and strength. If the posture of mission is one of sent-ness, then the promise of mission is power from the Holy Spirit. You might not be able to accomplish all of your new ministry goals tomorrow. But one thing you can do today is to say, “Here I am, Lord; send me. Spirit, empower us. You’ve empowered us to live sent to our neighbors and to the nations.”
The Way Forward
What should we do to focus on mission? I’d suggest that churches share Christ and serve the hurting locally, plant churches nationally, and adopt an unreached people group globally. I think you should lead your church to be a missional, missions-minded, gospel-centered, Spirit-empowered church.
They said at Babel, “Let us make a name for ourselves,” so God scattered them. Their motivation was the exaltation of man’s name. Israel was charged with a mission to bring the nations up to Jerusalem to praise God’s name. In Acts the followers of Jesus praised God’s name. In Revelation the heavenly host praises the Lamb. I desire our churches to be able to stand before God and say:
Here I am, Lord; send me. Cause me to live as an agent of your mission, to partner with others to spread your gospel to the nations, because we love the nations. Cause me to proclaim the gospel of repentance so that men and women might hear it all over the globe, by the power of your Spirit. In all these things, may we be a missional, missions-minded, gospel-centered, Spirit-empowered church.
When I look at the commissions of Jesus, I see a people that are commissioned. We’re all sent. We’re all to be missional Christians. But we can’t get past the Great Commission without seeing the nations. We can’t get past Luke 24 without seeing the centrality of the gospel. And we can’t leave the commissions of Jesus saying we can do it on our own. Spirit, give us your presence and your power.
More Messages from Desiring God 2011 National Conference
The Galactic God Who Invites Us Into His Glorious Plan (Louie Giglio)
Christ, Courage, and Finishing the Mission (Michael Ramsden)