The Church as Missionary: Biblical Foundations

Howard Culbertson
Tuesday, August 23, 2011

If you were to ask people attending a service of your church this week for a list of Bible passages having to do with world mission, how many verses would be on their lists?

The first missionary Scripture to be mentioned might be the Great Commission in Matthew 28 or the similar wording in Mark 16:15. Acts 1:8 would likely be mentioned, and maybe Paul’s “Macedonian call” in Acts 16.

Someone might think of Matthew 24:14 (“This gospel of the Kingdom will be preached in the whole world . . . and then the end will come”). Perhaps someone would mention the passage in Romans 10 which includes the question, “How can they hear without someone preaching to them?”

At that point, however, most believers will bog down and start looking puzzled, trying to think of other Bible passages relating to the task of world evangelism.

A few centuries ago the books of the Bible were divided into 1,189 chapters and about 31,000 verses. Think about those numbers in the light of how many times people think world mission is mentioned in Scripture. When people think mission is mentioned in less than a half dozen of 31,000 total verses, do they therefore rightly conclude that God doesn’t place a very high priority on world evangelism?

Not long ago, Donnamie Ali, Nazarene Missions International (NMI) Global Council member from Trinidad, wrote, “There are far too many Christians in the Western world, including my tiny island nation, who are so caught up in the advancement of their local church or district that they refuse to obey God’s call for us to be engaged in making disciples in the nations of the world.”

Actually, world mission is mentioned in the Bible in a lot more than a half dozen verses. The Bible begins with a mission-related thought. Genesis 1:1 proclaims Yahweh as the Creator of the whole world. Doesn’t that mean the whole world owes Him allegiance and that He alone has the right to be worshiped by people from every people group on the face of the earth?

The first 11 chapters of Genesis set the stage for the fulfillment of God’s first, though veiled, promise to send a Redeemer (Genesis 3:15). Then, in Genesis 12, God takes a giant step forward by choosing Abraham. God’s concluding word on that day was: “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3). 

God repeats that covenant to Abraham and then later renews it with Isaac and then with Jacob (Genesis 18:18; 22:17-18; 26:24 and 28:12-14). When the covenant is renewed with Isaac and Jacob, God adds the phrase “and your descendants.” That makes it clear that through the ages Abraham’s descendants (which Paul says in Galatians 3 should be understood in terms of spiritual descent rather than physical descent) are to be involved in passing on God’s blessing to all the families of the earth. 

John R. W. Stott, a leading thinker in the evangelical movement, noted that God did not choose Abraham because “he lost interest in other peoples.” God’s reason for choosing Abraham, says Stott, was to have a channel through which He would bless all the families of the earth.
 
The promise of blessing to all peoples through Abraham’s descendents is a promise which the Apostle John would see fulfilled. John describes that fulfillment in Revelation 7:9: “I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.”

Between the promise of Genesis 12:3 and the vision of its fulfillment in Revelation 7, the Bible is replete with indicators of God’s passion that all peoples would know and serve Him. 

At Mt. Sinai, the Lord told Moses to say to the people, “Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:5-6).

An entire kingdom of priests? Would that mean God wanted His “chosen people” – all of them -- to be His agents of reconciliation?

Several decades ago, Norman Gottwald wrote an Old Testament introduction book which he called A Light to the Nations. That title, by a man most would call a “liberal,” was a recognition of how much the words of Isaiah 49:6 define what God expected of His “chosen people.”

After the crossing of the Jordan River, Joshua told the Israelites that God “did this so that all peoples of the earth might know” (Joshua 4:24). When Solomon prayed the dedicatory prayer for the temple he had just constructed in Jerusalem, he said that the temple had been built “so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name” (I Kings 8:43).


Leaf through the book of Psalms. Again and again you will see phrases like “ends of the earth,” “all nations,” “the whole earth,” “the peoples” and “all the earth.” 

Wilma Holleman-Beudeker, Nazarene missionary from the Netherlands, recently wrote, “I have heard so often the lines in the Psalms speaking about the nations and peoples of the earth, but it never dawned on me to connect this to God’s mission in the world in which we participate.”

The prophets often repeat the affirmation that the world, not just Israel, is God’s focus. A prime example is Isaiah 45:44: “Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth.”

Or, remember Jonah’s story? Contrary to popular thought, that little two and a half page “book” is not a lesson in obedience. Rather, Jonah’s story is the missionary book of the Old Testament. It is a clear call for us to get our hearts in line with God’s heart, which is full of love for all nations.

Just before Jesus ascended into heaven, He gave seven commands that are known collectively as the Great Commission. They are: 

  •     Receive,
  •     Go,
  •     Witness,
  •     Proclaim,
  •     Disciple,
  •     Baptize,
  •     Train.

 

This oft-quoted “Great Commission” is not all that Jesus had to say about world evangelism. There is more. Much more. For example, not long after Jesus began His ministry, He preached what we call “The Sermon on the Mount.” In that sermon, Jesus gives His followers a model prayer (The Lord’s Prayer). One of the first petitions in that prayer is a missionary one: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” 

His will cannot fully be done on earth until “every knee” bows before Him. So, isn’t that oft-repeated prayer for His will to “be done on earth” a missionary prayer?


Another example: While dying on a Roman cross, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Believers have long speculated about what Jesus meant by His question. Some of the conclusions drawn do not fit well with our understanding of God as triune -- three beings in one (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). After all, how could God forsake God? 

There is a good chance we’ve been on the wrong path in trying to understand those words of Jesus. Is it possible that Jesus was doing something which preachers have done through the ages: Give a line or two of a song in a sermon knowing that the rest of the song will start bouncing around in their listener’s heads? Could it be that Jesus was quoting the opening words from Psalm 22 ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?") in order to get people to think of the closing thought of Psalm 22: “All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him”?

The point of all this is to say that world mission is not merely contained in the Bible. The world mission enterprise does not merely find a basis in the Bible. The Bible not only encourages world evangelism; it demands it. From beginning to end, the Bible is an intensely missionary book.

As Nina Gunter, former NMI general director and Nazarene general superintendent, has said, “If you take missions out of the Bible you won’t have anything left but the covers.” 

-- Howard Culbertson is professor of missions and world evangelism at Southern Nazarene University
, in Bethany, Oklahoma, U.S. Culbertson, who formerly served as a missionary in Italy and Haiti, has published numerous articles, books, and chapters in books on missions. To access his many resources on mission, visit
http://home.snu.edu/~hculbert/.
 

Talk about it



  • If someone asked you to name as many Scripture passages that refer to God's mission to the world as come to mind, how many could you come up with? Which ones?

  • What do you think about the fact that there are references to God's mission in the Old Testament, hundreds of years before Jesus Christ, the Messiah, was born?

  • Notice that most of the Scripture passages refer not to individual missionaries, but to a large group of people acting as a sent or missionary people to the whole world. What does that say to you about the role of your church in the world? What does it say about the role of the denomination, and even the entire Body of Christ, in the world?

  • Discuss Culbertson's comment that Exodus 19:5-6 refers to God's decision to separate out the Hebrew people to become a kingdom of priests. What do you think it means to be a priestly people or a priestly nation?

  • What would it look like if your local church were to be a priestly people?

  • Look at the list of seven commands contained in the Great Commission mandate issued by Jesus Christ to His disciples. Discuss the concept or idea represented by each of those words.

  • Read Psalm 22 out loud. Discuss why Jesus might have wanted people to remember that passage in connection with His death and resurrection.

  • How has this article changed or shaped your understanding of what the Bible is saying about God's mission and your role in that, individually and as a local church?