Although it may be surprising to churchgoers in missionary-sending churches, the statement “the Bible is about mission” is not generally accepted in Western theology. As John Flett (The Witness of God [Eerdmans, 2010]) observed,

With few exceptions, mission is absent from the all-encompassing theological "system." Mission, it would seem, is unessential when articulating the fundamentals of the Christian faith. The problem here is not simply one of failing to treat one particular ecclesiastical practice. It indicates an omission that is deleterious to the whole dogmatic task: many of the contemporary challenges with theology stem from the absence of mission as a theological category. How it is possible to read the New Testament without reference to the missionary outpouring of the resurrection and Pentecost is a curio difficult to reconcile with even a basic reading of Scripture. 

One of the theological commitments of the missional conversation is to place mission at the forefront of theological thinking in the twenty-first century. Mission is the lens through which the missional conversation interprets and interacts with Scripture and the faith traditions that are represented by those in the conversation. They show that the Scriptures tell the story of mission, citing Jesus’ own words on the road to Emmaus:

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scripture. He told them, "This is what is written. 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.” (Lk. 24:45-7) 

“The whole of the Scripture (which we now know as the Old Testament) finds its focus and fulfillment both in the life and death and resurrection of Israel’s Messiah, and in the mission to all the nations, which flow out from that event.” (Christopher Wright, Mission of God [IVP, 2006]). Jesus taught that the story of the Old Testament required both a messianic reading and a mission-oriented (or missional) reading. In other words, Jesus saw mission as a fundamental theological category.

The messianic reading of the Old Testament is tied to the Jewish expectation that God promised a Messiah to come and redeem Israel. The prophets preached about the Messiah and looked ahead to the fulfillment of the promised “hope of the nations.” (Is. 42:4) The hope of the nations was both for the people of Israel and for the nations of the world. “May his name endure forever; may it continue as long as the sun. All nations will be blessed through him, and they will call him blessed.” (Ps. 72:17) It is in the blessing to the world that the messianic promises become missional.               

Psalm 72 echoes God’s promise to Abram: “I will make you into a great nation; and I will bless you.” (Gn. 12:2) God’s initiative with Abraham and Sarah had a purpose that God revealed later to Isaac: “I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because Abraham obeyed me and kept my requirements, my commands, my decrees, and my laws.” (Gn. 26:4-5) In this promise God self-reveals that God is a sending God. 

After Jesus’ death and resurrection, through the Spirit, the triune God initiated the sending of the followers of Jesus into the world with the gospel and the ad hoc formation of gatherings of Christians called the local church. Jesus taught that he was the sent one from the Father: “Whoever accepts me accepts the one who sent me.” (Jn. 13:20) Jesus commissioned his disciples, and by extension, those who “believed in the Christ” because of their ministry, to go to the world with the message of the gospel in the power of the Spirit.;

Mission as a theological category speaks to missional leadership of the church. One of the tasks of the church is to translate to gospel so that the surrounding culture can understand it. Missional leadership equips the church to minister in its particular context. 

Mission as a theological category speaks to missional churches. Send congregations will be characterized by sensitivity to suffering that has as its basis unjust systems, privilege, power, and generational sin. Christians are part of the world, but not “of the world” in joining God’s mission to challenge and tear down such cultural constructs.

Susan Disston was assistant dean of curriculum and assessment at Biblical Seminary.

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