'That word above all earthly powers...'
Truth with a Mission
- Chris Wright is International Director of the Langham Partnership, which seeks to equip Majority World churches for mission through raising standards of preaching. He was President of All Nations Christian College, and has authored several books. Chris also serves as Chair of the Lausanne Committee’s Theological Education Commission and as honorary president of Tearfund. View all resources by Chris Wright
TRUTH WITH A MISSION: towards a missiological hermeneutic of the Bible
‘Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature’
I remember them so vividly from my childhood - the great banner texts around the walls of the missionary conventions in Northern Ireland, where I would help my father at the stall of the Unevangelized Fields Mission, of which he was Irish Secretary. ‘Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature’, they insisted, along with other similar imperatives in glowing gothic calligraphy. By the age of 12, I could have quoted you all the key ones - ‘Go ye therefore and make disciples ...’; ‘How shall they hear...?’ ‘You shall be my witnesses ... to the ends of the earth;’ ‘Whom shall we send ... Here am I, send me’. I knew my missionary Bible verses. By the age of 21 I had a degree in theology from Cambridge, in which the same texts had been curiously lacking. At least, it is curious to me now. At the time there seemed to be little connection at all between theology and mission in the mind of the lecturers, or of myself and other theological students, or, for all I knew, in the mind of God. ‘Theology’ was all about God - what he was like, what he’d said and what he’d done and what mostly dead people had speculated on all three. ‘Mission’ was about us, the living, and what we’ve been doing since Carey (who, of course, was the first missionary, we so erroneously thought), or more precisely, mission is what we evangelicals do since we’re the ones who know the Bible has told us (or some of us at least) to go and be missionaries. ‘Mission is what we do.’ That was the assumption, supported of course by clear biblical commands. ‘Jesus sends me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’ Many years later, including years when I was teaching theology myself as a missionary in India (another curious thought: I could have done precisely the same job in a college in England, but that would not have been considered ‘mission’), I found myself at All Nations teaching a module called ‘The Biblical Basis of Mission’. The title itself embodies the same assumption. Mission is the noun, the given reality. It is something we do. And the reason why we know we should be doing it, the basis, foundation or grounds on which we justify it, must be found in the Bible. As good evangelicals we need a biblical basis for everything we do. What, then, is the biblical basis for mission? Roll out the texts. Add some that nobody else has thought of. Do some joined up theology. Add some motivational fervour. And the class is heartwarmingly appreciative. Now they have even more biblical support for what they already believed anyway, for these are All Nations students after all.
MISSION: WHAT THE BIBLE IS ALL ABOUT?
I want them to see not just that the Bible contains a number of texts which happen to provide a rationale for missionary endeavour, but that the whole Bible is itself a ‘missional’ phenomenon.
This mild caricature is not in the least derogatory in intent. I believe passionately that mission is what we should be doing, and I believe the Bible endorses and mandates it. However, the more I taught that course, the more I used to introduce it by telling the students that I would like to rename it: from The Biblical Basis of Mission, to The Missional Basis of the Bible. I want them to see not just that the Bible contains a number of texts which happen to provide a rationale for missionary endeavour, but that the whole Bible is itself a ‘missional’ phenomenon. It is true that the Bible ‘supports mission’, but the truth is also much greater than that: the writings which now comprise our Bible are themselves the product of, and witness to, the ultimate mission of God himself. 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’.
Now this is a bold claim. I would not expect to be able to turn any phrase that began ‘The Biblical Basis of ...’ around the other way. There is, for example, a biblical basis for marriage, but there is not, I presume, ‘a marital basis for the Bible’. There is a biblical basis for work, but work is not ‘what the Bible is all about’. However, I take some encouragement for my claim from an impeccable authority: it seems to me that Jesus comes very close to saying ‘this is what it’s all about,’ when he gave his disciples their final lecture in Old Testament hermeneutics.
‘This is what is written:’ he said, ‘The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.’ (Luke 24:46-47)
While Jesus is not quoting a specific text here, it is notable that he still says ‘this is what is written’. He seems to be saying that the whole of the Scripture finds its focus and fulfilment in the life and death and resurrection of Israel’s Messiah and in the mission to all nations which flows out from that event. Luke tells us that with these words Jesus ‘opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures’, or, as we might put it, he was setting their hermeneutical orientation and agenda: the proper way for disciples of Jesus of Nazareth, crucified and risen, to read their Scriptures, is messianically and missiologically.
On the whole, evangelicals have been good at the former, but inadequate with the latter. We read the Old Testament in the light of Jesus, in the sense of finding in it a whole messianic theology and eschatology which we see as fulfilled in Jesus. In doing so we follow his own example, of course, and that of his first followers and the authors of the Gospels. But what we have so often failed to do is to go beyond the mere satisfaction of ticking off so-called messianic predictions that have ‘been fulfiled’, and we have failed to go further because we have not grasped the missiological significance of the Messiah. More simply, what was Jesus up to in claiming to be the Messiah, or accepting the designation from others even when he discouraged open advertising of the claim? The Messiah would embody in his own person the identity and mission of Israel, as representative, king, leader and saviour. Through the Messiah as his anointed agent, the God of Israel would bring about all that he intended for Israel. But what was the mission of Israel? Nothing less than to be ‘a light to the nations’, the means of bringing the redemptive blessing of God to all the nations of the world, as originally promised in the title deeds of the covenant with Abraham. Through the Messiah, therefore, the God of Israel would also bring about all that he intended for the world.
The full meaning of recognising Jesus as Messiah lies in also recognising his role in relation to the mission of Israel for the sake of the nations. Hence, a messianic reading of the Old Testament has to flow on to a missiological reading of the same scriptures - which is precisely the connection that Jesus makes in Luke 24. It is also the connection, incidentally, which Luke makes right at the start of his Gospel by recording the words of Simeon as he cradled the infant Jesus, words appreciated by generations for their evening beauty but rarely recognised for the missiological significance of their double messianic claim:
Lord now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, to be a light for revelation to the nations and for glory to your people Israel (Luke. 2:29-32).
However, even if we accept that Jesus offers us a messiah-focused and mission-focused hermeneutic of the Scriptures, we may still query the claim that somehow there is a missional hermeneutic of the whole Bible such that ‘mission is what it’s all about’. This uneasiness stems from the persistent paradigm that mission is fundamentally ‘something we do’, and especially if we use the word ‘mission’ as more or less synonymous with evangelism. Quite clearly the whole Bible is not ‘about evangelism’, even though evangelism is certainly a fundamental part of biblical mission as entrusted to us. It is something we do and it is validated by clear biblical imperatives. The appropriateness of speaking of ‘a missional basis of the Bible’ becomes apparent only when we shift our paradigm of mission from our own human agency to the ultimate purposes of God himself, for clearly the Bible is, in some sense, ‘all about God’. What, then, does it mean to talk of the mission of God?
WHOSE MISSION IS IT ANYWAY? God with a mission
Though the phrase Missio Dei has been misused in some theology virtually to exclude evangelism, it does express a major biblical truth. The God revealed in the Scriptures is personal, purposeful and goal orientated. The opening account of creation portrays God working towards a goal, completing it with satisfaction and resting, content with the result. And from the great promise of God to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3 we know this God to be totally, covenantally, eternally committed to the mission of blessing the nations through the agency of the people of Abraham. From that point on, the mission of God could be summed up in the words of the hymn, ‘God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year’, and as generations come and go. The Bible presents itself to us fundamentally as a narrative, a historical narrative at one level, but a grand meta-narrative at another. It begins with a God of purpose in creation; moves on to the conflict and problems generated by human rebellion against that purpose; spends most of its narrative journey in the story of God’s redemptive purposes being worked out on the stage of human history; and finishes beyond the horizon of its own history with the eschatological hope of a new creation. The whole world-view is predicated on teleological monotheism: that is, there is one God at work in the universe and in human history, and that God has a goal, a purpose, a mission which will ultimately be accomplished by the power of his word and for the glory of his name.
To read the Bible in the light of this great over-arching perspective of the mission of God is to read ‘with the grain’ of this whole collection of Scriptures. This foundational point is a key assumption of ‘a missiological hermeneutic’ of the Bible.
Humanity with a mission
On the day of their creation, human beings were given their mission on the planet so purposefully prepared for their arrival - the mandate to fill the earth and subdue it, and to rule over the rest of creation (Gen. 1:28). This delegated authority within the created order is moderated by the parallel commands in the complementary account, ‘to serve and to keep’ the Garden (Gen. 2:15). The care and keeping of creation is our human mission. We are on the planet with a purpose that flows from the creative purpose of God himself. Out of this understanding of our humanity (which is also teleological, like our doctrine of God) flows our ecological responsibility, our economic activity involving work, productivity, exchange and trade, and the whole cultural mandate. To be human is to have a purposeful role in God’s creation. In relation to that creational mission, Christians need to be reminded that God holds us accountable to himself for our humanity as much as for our Christianity.
Israel with a mission
Against the background of human sin and rebellion, described in the bleak narratives of Genesis 3-11 which from the disobedience of Adam and Eve to the building of the tower of Babel, God initiates his redemptive mission of blessing the nations of humanity, beginning with the call of Abraham. As we shall elaborate further below, this is the essential point of the election of Israel. Israel came into existence as a people with a mission entrusted from God for the sake of the rest of the nations. All that Israel was, or was supposed to be - all that Yahweh their God did in them, for them and through them - was ultimately linked to this wider purpose of God for the nations.
A missiological hermeneutic of the Old Testament centres around this point. Israel’s election was not a rejection of other nations but was explicitly for the sake
of all nations. The universality that embraces the particularity of God’s election of Israel is a recurrent theme, and though not always explicitly present it is never far from the surface of the way in which Scripture portrays Israel’s intended self-understanding.
Jesus with a mission
Jesus did not just arrive. He had a very clear conviction that he was sent. The voice of his Father at his baptism combined the identity of the Servant figure in Isaiah (echoing the phraseology of Is. 42:1), and that of the Davidic messianic king (echoing the affirmation of Ps. 2:7). Both of these dimensions of his identity and role were energised with a sense of mission: the mission of the servant to restore Israel to Yahweh and also to be the agent of God’s salvation reaching to the ends of the earth; and the mission of the Davidic Messiah to rule over a redeemed Israel according to the agenda of many prophetic texts, with implications for the nations as well.
Jesus’ sense of mission - his aims, the motivation and self-understanding behind his recorded words and actions - all have been a matter of intense scholarly discussion. What seems very clear is that Jesus built his own agenda on what he perceived to be the agenda of his Father. His will was to do his Father’s will. God’s mission determined his.
The church with a mission
As our quotation of Luke 24 ‘above’ indicated, Jesus entrusted to the church a mission which is directly rooted in his own identity, passion and victory as the crucified and risen Messiah. Paul goes further and identifies the mission of his own small band of church planters with the international mission of the Servant, quoting Isaiah 49:6 in Acts 13:47 (a missiological hermeneutic of the Old Testament if ever there was one). So again, the mission of the church flows from the mission of God and the fulfilment of his purposes and his word. It is not so much, as someone has said, that God has a mission for his church in the world, as that God has a church for his mission in the world. Mission is not just something we do (though it certainly includes that). Mission, from the point of view of human endeavour, means the committed participation of God’s people in the purposes of God for the redemption of the whole creation.
PUTTING THESE PERSPECTIVES TOGETHER, A MISSIOLOGICAL HERMENEUTIC MEANS THAT WE SEEK TO READ ANY PART OF THE BIBLE
- In the light of God’s purpose for his whole creation, including the redemption of humanity and the arrival of the new heavens and new earth
- In the light of God’s purpose for human life in general on the planet, and of all the Bible teaches about human culture, relationships, ethics and behaviour
- In the light of God’s historical election of Israel, their identity and role in relation to the nations, and the demands he made on their worship, social ethics and total value system
- In the light of the centrality of Jesus of Nazareth, his messianic identity and mission in relation to Israel and the nations, his cross and resurrection
- In the light of God’s calling of the church, the community of believing Jews and Gentiles who constitute the extended people of the Abraham covenant, to be the agent of blessing the nations in the name of, and for the glory of, Christ.
A MISSIOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE ON THE OLD TESTAMENT
I want them to see not just that the Bible contains a number of texts which happen to provide a rationale for missionary endeavour, but that the whole Bible is itself a ‘missional’ phenomenon.
Evangelical Christians have traditionally had less of a problem reading the New Testament from a missional angle, which is hardly surprising given the dominance of the Apostle Paul and his missionary travels and writings, so in the rest of this paper I want to focus on how the above proposals can help us to get to grips with the Old Testament. Certainly, preaching mission from the Old Testament frequently rouses people’s curiosity, mainly because it is unexpected. Many people, in my frequent experience, are surprised to hear a sermon on mission based on a text from the Old Testament. ‘Mission’ is widely viewed as a task originating from some words of Jesus on the Mount of Ascension. It seems to involve sending off somewhat peculiar but doubtless very worthy people to far-off parts of the earth to work for God in a bewildering variety of ways, returning from time to time to tell us about their adventures and ask for continued support. Since nothing of that sort seems to have happened in the Old Testament (not even Jonah came home on furlough to raise funds for a return trip to Nineveh), mission is deemed ‘missing - presumed unborn’ in that era.
A more sophisticated form of such a caricature is to be found in the way David Bosch relegates the Old Testament’s contribution on mission to a sub-section of a chapter entitled ‘Reflections on the New Testament as a Missionary Document’, in his magisterial survey, Transforming Mission.1 The Old Testament certainly provides essential theological preparation for the emerging mission of the New Testament church, but Bosch defines mission in terms of crossing barriers for the sake of the Gospel (barriers of geography, culture, language, religion, etc.). Since Israel received no mandate to go to the nations in that sense, there is, in Bosch’s view, no mission in the Old Testament.
Apart from observing that in fact there are many ‘barrier-crossing’ episodes in the grand Old Testament story of Israel’s journey with Yahweh, I would argue that Bosch has defined mission too narrowly. What follows is a brief survey of some of the key Old Testament themes which contribute to the kind of broadening of the idea of mission which I have argued for above. This is, to be clear once again, not a search for bits of the Old Testament that might say something relevant to our narrowed concept of sending missionaries, but rather a sketch of some of the great trajectories of Israel’s understanding of their God and his mission through them and for the world.
The uniqueness and universality of Yahweh
According to the Old Testament texts, the faith of Israel made remarkable affirmations about Yahweh, affirmations which had a polemical edge in their own context and still stand as distinctive claims. Among them are the declaration, that Yahweh alone is God and there is no other (e.g. Deut. 4:35, 39) and that Yahweh is God over the whole earth and all nations (e.g. Pss. 24, 96, 1 Chron. 29:11). The impact of such absolute claims is felt in such widely varying contexts as the struggle against idolatry, the language of worship, and the response to other nations, both in their own contemporary international history, and in eschatological vision. There is no doubt that the strength of the Old Testament affirmations about the uniqueness and universality of Yahweh as God underlie, and indeed provide some of the vocabulary for, the New Testament affirmations about the uniqueness and universality of Jesus (cf. Phil. 2:9-11; 1 Cor. 8:5-6). It is also noteworthy that these early Christian affirmations were equally polemical in their own historical context as those of ancient Israel and in turn provided the primary rationale and motivation for Christian mission. We are dealing here with the missiological implications of biblical monotheism.
A fully biblical understanding of the universality and uniqueness of Yahweh and of Jesus Christ stands in the frontline of a missiological response to the relativism at the heart of religious pluralism and some forms of postmodernist philosophy.
The purpose of Yahweh: blessing the nations
The Old Testament begins on the stage of universal history. After the accounts of creation we read the story of God’s dealings with fallen humanity and the problem and challenge of the world of the nations (Gen. 1-11). After the stories of the Flood and of the Tower of Babel, could there be any future for the nations in relation to God? Or would judgement have to be God’s final word?
The story of Abraham, beginning in Genesis 12, gives a clear answer. As mentioned above, God’s declared commitment is that he intends to bring blessing to the nations: ‘all the families of the earth will be blessed through you’ (Gen. 12:3). Repeated six times in Genesis alone, this key affirmation is the foundation of biblical mission, inasmuch as it presents the mission of God. The creator God has a purpose, a goal: blessing the nations of humanity. So fundamental is this that Paul defines the Genesis declaration as ‘the gospel in advance’ (Gal. 3:8). And the concluding vision of the whole Bible signifies the fulfilment of the Abrahamic promise, as people from every nation, tribe, language and people are gathered among the redeemed in the new creation (Rev. 7:9). The gospel and mission both begin in Genesis, then, and both are located in the redemptive intention of the Creator to bless the nations. Mission is God’s address to the problem of fractured humanity.
Yahweh’s election of Israel for the purpose of blessing the nations
The same Genesis texts which affirm the universality of God’s mission to bless the nations also and with equal strength affirm the particularity of God’s election of Abraham and his descendants to be the vehicle of that mission. The election of Israel is assuredly one of the most fundamental pillars of the biblical worldview, and of Israel’s historical sense of identity.2 It is vital to insist that although the belief in their election could be (and was) distorted into a narrow doctrine of national superiority, that move was resisted in Israel’s own literature (e.g. Deut. 7:7ff.). The affirmation is that Yahweh, the God who had chosen Israel, was also the creator, owner and Lord of the whole world (Deut. 10:14), and that Yahweh had chosen Israel in relation to his purpose for the world, not just for Israel. The election of Israel was not tantamount to a rejection of the nations, but explicitly for their ultimate benefit. Thus, rather than asking if Israel itself ‘had a mission’, in the sense of being ‘sent’ anywhere, we need to see the missional nature of Israel’s existence in relation to the mission of God in the world. Israel’s mission was to be something, not to go somewhere. This perspective is clearly focused in the person of the Servant of Yahweh, who both embodies the election of Israel (identical things are said about Israel and the Servant), and also is charged with the mission (like Israel’s) of bringing the blessing of Yahweh’s justice, salvation and glory to the ends of the earth.
The interaction of Israel and the nations, historically, culturally, religiously
Naturally, then, there is an enormous amount of interest in the Old Testament around the way in which Israel related to the nations. It is far from being a simple relationship. On the one hand there is the ultimate vision of Israel being a blessing to the nations. On the other hand there is the calling for Israel to be separate from them, to resist their idolatry, to avoid their wickedness, to reject their gods and their ways. At the same time, Israel was a nation among other nations in the broad sweep of Ancient Near Eastern macro-culture, and so there is considerable missiological interest in the variety of ways in which the faith of Israel related positively and negatively to the cultures of other nations over the centuries. We could give much more missiological attention to the different responses of, for example,
- the patriarchal narratives to their surrounding culture; of the Deuteronomic materials to Canaanite culture;
- of the prophets to the relationship between Israel’s experiment with royalty (king and temple) and Canaanite parallels;
- of the exilic and post-exilic communities to the world of Mesopotamian and Persian religion and culture; and these are just some of the possibilities.
The ethical dimension of Israel’s ‘visibility’
Israel was called to be distinctive from the surrounding world in ways that were not merely religious but also ethical. This is expressed as the very purpose of their election in relation to God’s promise to bless the nations in Genesis 18:19. In the context of, and in stark contrast to, the world of Sodom and Gomorrah, Yahweh says of Abraham:
I have chosen him so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just, so that the LORD will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.
Later covenantal obedience is not only based on Israel’s historical redemption out of Egypt, but also linked to their identity and role as a priestly and holy people in the midst of the nations in Exodus 19:4-6. As Yahweh’s priesthood, Israel would be the means by which he would be known to the nations and the means of bringing them to himself (performing a function analogous to the role of Israel’s own priests between God and the rest of the people). As a holy people, they would be ethically (as well as ritually) distinctive from the practices of surrounding nations (Lev. 18-19). Such visibility would be a matter of observation and comment among the nations (Deut. 4:6-8). The question of Israel’s ethical obedience or ethical failure was not, then, merely a matter between themselves and Yahweh, but was of major significance in relation to Yahweh’s agenda for the nations (cf. Jer. 4:1-2). This missiological perspective on Old Testament ethics seems to me a fruitful approach to the age-old hermeneutical debate over whether and how the moral teaching given to Israel in the Old Testament has any authority or relevance to Christians. If, as I believe, it was given in order to shape Israel to be what they were called to be - a light to the nations, a holy priesthood - then it has a paradigmatic relevance to those who, in Christ, have inherited the same role in relation to the nations. In the Old as well as the New Testament, the ethical demand on those who claim to be God’s people is determined by the mission with which they have been entrusted.
Eschatological vision; ingathering of nations
The historic promise that God would bless the nations through Israel developed into an eschatological vision that is found particularly in Israel’s worship (cf. the universal scope of Pss. 47, 87, 96) and in some of the prophets (e.g. Amos 9:12, Is. 19:23-25, 49:6, 56:1-8, 60:1-3, 66:19-21, Zech. 2:1). These texts are quite breathtaking in their universal scope. Ultimately there would be those of the nations who would not merely be joined to Israel, but would come to be identified as Israel, with the same names, privileges and responsibilities before God.
This is the dimension of Israel’s prophetic heritage that most profoundly influenced the theological explanation and motivation of the gentile mission in the
New Testament. It certainly underlies James’ interpretation of the Christ event and the success of the gentile mission in Acts 15 (quoting Amos 9:12). It likewise inspired Paul’s efforts as a practitioner and theologian of mission (e.g. Rom. 15:7-16). As well as this, as we saw earlier, it provided the theological shape for the Gospels, all of which conclude with their various forms of the great commission - the sending of Jesus’ disciples into the world of nations.
MODELS OF ‘MISSION’
As we read the Old Testament this way, many texts take on a missiological dimension that enables them to provide models for a multi-faceted understanding of mission. These may include:
- Key events The exodus, for example, as the supreme model of Yahweh’s redemptive action, not only provided Israel with a basis for future hope, but could be applied to the future blessing of the nations - most ironically including Egypt itself (Is. 19:19-25). Similar use could be made of the centripetal attraction of Jerusalem (Is. 56-66), the consecration of the temple (1 Kgs. 8:41ff), and the restoration after judgement (Jer. 12:14-17).
- Institutions Certain features of Israel’s socio-economic or religious life embodied theological rationales that also lend themselves to missiological reflection: e.g. the jubilee (Lev. 25, Is. 61), the sacrificial system and temple (Is. 56:1-8), and certain festivals (Zech. 14:16-19).
- Individuals The call narratives of some Old Testament figures (especially those of Moses and Isaiah) have always provided fertile soil for Christian reflection on the challenge of missionary vocation. But the Old Testament itself seems to see in certain narratives a clear link to the Abrahamic promise of blessing the nations when individual foreigners are incorporated into Israel, or come to share in its blessings in some way (e.g. Rahab, Ruth, Naaman, the widow of Zarephath).
The aim of this brief survey has been to point to a number of areas where key Old Testament themes and the central convictions of Israel’s faith and world-view have had a profound effect on the New Testament understanding of our mission in the world - or more accurately, of our participation in God’s mission in God’s world. My hope is that it also leads us towards the development of a properly missiological hermeneutic for interpreting Scripture, opening up a way of reading the Bible which will bear fruit in our continuing exploration of the multi-faceted dimensions and implications of the mission of God.
This article first appeared in 'Missiologic' No.2, Nov. 2001. 'Missiologic' is a series of occasional papers on Mission, published by All Nations Christian College, which is available from ANCC, Easneye, Ware, Herts, SG12 8LX.
1. David Bosch, Transforming Mission (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1991). The relevant words are: ‘There is, in the Old Testament, no indication of the believers of the old covenant being sent by God to cross geographical, religious, and social frontiers in order to win others to faith in Yahweh.... Even so, the Old Testament is fundamental to the understanding of mission in the New’ (p. 17).
2. This has been shown very clearly in the works of N.T. Wright, especially
his New Testament and the People of God (London: SPCK, 1992) pp.
244-79, and Jesus and the Victory of God (London: SPCK, 1996).