The Church, Part I: God’s Mission for the Church

apostles_at_tableWhen my brothers and I were young, my parents had established a nightly routine for us. We would brush our teeth, read a Bible story together, get a drink, use the toilet, and then we would go to bed. Though this routine was as consistent as the rising and the setting of the sun, my brother would frequently end up in the bathroom after Bible story and call to my parents, “What am I supposed to be doing?” This caused ample exasperation and amusement for my parents. The Church can learn a valuable lesson from my brother.

Like my brother, it is important for the Church to occasionally stop and ask itself “What am I supposed to be doing?” It is easy to get comfortable with the routine and to let that become our purpose. But Christ did not establish the Church for it simply to maintain itself. He established it for a reason. He gave it a mission: to participate in God’s mission of restoring all creation to the fullness of existence for which he intended it. This means that the practices of the Church must reflect the thoroughgoing nature of that mission.

I will look at the mission of the Church in two parts. Here, in part 1, I will look at the roots of the Church in order to understand God’s mission for Church. In part 2, I will draw out some implications for how the Church should fulfill its mission in the world.

To begin with, we must remember that Christ created the church out of his disciples after his resurrection and before his ascension into heaven. He also commissioned them with a mission. In Matt 28:19-20 Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always even to the end of the age.” The disciples were to continue what Jesus had done to them and with them. They were to teach what he had taught and to make disciples for him. They were to tell the story of what they had seen and heard. As it says in Acts 1:8, “you shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”

Therefore, if the Church’s mission is to continue Jesus’ mission, we must ask what Jesus’ mission was, why he did what he did. There are two answers to this question. The first comes from understanding Jesus as the second member of the Trinity. Jesus was God just as the Father and the Spirit are God. Therefore, what Jesus did on earth was what God wanted done; Jesus’ mission was God’s mission because Jesus is God. The second answer is that Jesus was fulfilling the mission God had given to Israel. As N.T. Wright says, “Jesus was showing Israel how and inviting Israel to be the light to the nations that they were always meant to be.”[1] We see an example of this in Mark 7. Jesus has just rebuked the Pharisees for failing to even be a blessing to other Jews, let alone the nations. He then exemplifies what Israel ought to act like in Tyre where a Syrophoenician woman asks him to heal her daughter. He gives her a typical Jewish response that God’s blessings are for Israel first, but she replies that those blessings should overflow to those outside Israel. Jesus is pleased that she understands how it is to work and fulfills Israel’s mission to bless gentiles by healing her daughter.

Next it is important that we determine what Israel’s mission was and where it came from. Genesis 12:1-3 makes it clear that God chose to bless Abraham in order that his descendants might bless the other nations. In The Mission of God, Christopher Wright argues that, not only is God predicting that Abraham and his descendants will be a blessing, he is actually commanding Abraham to be a blessing. God’s speech is organized under the two imperatives telling Abraham to go and to be a blessing.They were to be a blessing by bringing the knowledge of God to them. In Exodus 19:6 God tells Israel that they will be a kingdom of priests, and as the priests of Israel were to mediate between God and the Israelites, so Israel was to mediate between God and the nations.

This mission was given to Israel by God because this was the purpose toward which God was working in the world. As soon as one opens a Bible, the very first words begin to tell the reader God’s purpose. The Bible opens with God creating the world, and several of God’s intentions can be gleaned from the first two chapters of Genesis. First of all, we see that God wanted his creation to be good, “God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). Secondly, we see that God wanted humans to care for his creation: “Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15). Thirdly, we see that God wanted humans to be in close relationship with each other. He states, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). He then settled on woman, whom he had made from the man’s rib, to be the man’s helper, presumably in tending the garden. The fact that she was made from the man’s rib and not from the ground like all the other animals suggests that God intended there to be a closeness and intimacy between humans. Finally, there is an intimacy intended between God and humanity.

Throughout chapter two, we see God caring for the man. He breathed his own breath into the man to give him life and he grew a garden suited to the man that was both pleasant and would provide for his physical needs. Then God showed an almost motherly concern for the man in realizing that it was not good for him to be alone. Most importantly, unlike the other animals, God made humans in his own image (Gen. 1:27). In the ancient world, there was a strong and intimate connection between a god and its image. It is the god itself that animates the image. This is the sort of connection that Genesis is suggesting was intended and actually existed between God and humans before the fall.[2]

All of this, however, was broken when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the apple. Sin entered into God’s good creation, corrupting all that made it “very good.” Since then, it has been God’s self-appointed mission to restore the goodness of his creation. He continued his relationship with Adam and his descendants despite their rebelliousness. When they became too sinful, he sought to begin again by wiping out all the evil and starting over with the one righteous man, Noah, and his descendants. Humanity again became evil and God decided, as we have already seen, to seek to accomplish his purposes through a particularly intimate relationship with one man, Abraham, and his descendants.

Through this we can see that there is a clear connection from God’s mission of restoring the goodness of his creation, to Abraham and Israel’s mission, to Jesus’ mission, and finally to the Church’s mission. In fact, there is only one mission: God’s. Abraham’s, Israel’s, Jesus’, and the Church’s missions are simply participation in God’s mission. This means that, when the Church asks, “What am I supposed to be doing?,” the answer is that we are to be participating in God’s mission. We are to be doing what God is and has been doing since the fall, seeking to restore the goodness of his creation.

In part 2, I will look at how the Church participates in God’s mission to restore all of creation to the fullness for which God intended.

[1] Tom Wright, Bringing the Church to the World (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1992), p. 66.

[2] Rikki E. Watts, “What Does It Mean To be Saved?” Evangelical Review Of Theology 28, no. 2 (2004): 159.