Rethinking the missionary nature of God

Mission is not primarily an activity of the church, but an attribute of God. ~ David Bosch

If we are to understand what it means to be “missional church,” we must consider shifts in our thinking about three core theological distinctions.

The first shift in thinking that must take place relates to our understanding of the missionary nature of God and the church. We will consider the missionary nature of God in this post and then study what this means for the essence of the church in next post.

When we think of the attributes of God, we most often think of characteristics such as holiness, sovereignty, wisdom, justice, love, etc. Rarely do we think of God’s missionary nature. But Scripture teaches that God is a missionary God — a sending God.

The missionary nature of God is framed in two primary ways. The first involves the grand narrative of Scripture. When we consider the grand story (meta-narrative) of Scripture, we discover it is about God’s redemptive purposes. All the great sections of Scripture, all the great stories of the Bible, and all the great doctrines of the biblical faith connect around God’s grand plan and purpose for the whole of creation. Mission is the central theme describing God’s activity, throughout all of history, to restore creation. The mission of God is what unifies the Bible from creation to new creation.[i]

A second way to recognize God’s missionary nature is to examine the “sending language” throughout the Bible. From God’s sending of Abram in Genesis 12 to the sending of His angel in Revelation 22, literally hundreds of examples of sending language portray God as a missionary-sending God. In the Old Testament, God is presented as the sovereign Lord who sends in order to express and complete His mission of redemption. The Hebrew verb “to send,” shelach, is found nearly 800 times. While it is most often used in a variety of non-theological sayings and phrases, it is employed more than 200 times with God as the subject of the verb. In other words, it is God who commissions, and it is God who sends.

Throughout all the historical books, God is a sending God. Throughout the poetic books, God is a sending God. Throughout the prophetic books, God is a sending God. When you consider the books of prophecy in the Old Testament, it is easy to see that the prophets were first and foremost people sent by God to participate in His redemptive purposes.

Perhaps the most dramatic illustration of sending in the Old Testament is found in Isaiah 6. In this passage, we catch a glimpse of God’s sending nature in its Trinitarian fullness: “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’” To this Isaiah responds, “Here am I! Send me!” (Isa. 6:8).

Later in the book of Isaiah, we find a fascinating passage where the prophet recognizes that God’s Spirit has anointed him to “proclaim good news to the poor” and that he is sent to “bind up the brokenhearted” (61:1). In the larger passage of Isaiah 61:1-3, it is interesting to note there are no fewer than six acts of redemption that proceed from, or are dependent upon, the Hebrew verb “sent” or the phrase “he has sent me.” To emphasize how central the sending theme is, the passage could be rendered this way:

He has sent me, to bind up the brokenhearted,
He has sent me, to proclaim freedom for the captives,
He has sent me, to release from darkness for the prisoners,
He has sent me, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God,
He has sent me, to comfort all who mourn,
He has sent me, to provide for those who grieve in Zion—
He has sent me, to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair (Isaiah 61:1-3).

It is this passage that Jesus applies to His own ministry in Luke 4:18-19, as He claims to be the human fulfillment of Isaiah 61:1-2. It becomes, in a sense, the closest thing to a personal mission statement for Jesus.

Further, in the prophetic books, it is interesting to note that the Old Testament ends with God promising, through the words of the prophet Malachi, to send a special messenger as the fore-runner of the Messiah: “I will send my messenger” (Mal. 3:1). Then the New Testament begins with the arrival of that messenger in the person of John the Baptist, described in the Gospels as a man sent by God (John 1:6).

In the New Testament, sending language is found not only in the Gospels, but also throughout the book of Acts and each of the epistles. The most comprehensive collection of sending language, however, is found in the Gospel of John, where the word send or sent is used nearly 60 times. The majority of uses refer to the title of God as “one who sends” and of Jesus as the “one who is sent.” All the way through John’s Gospel, we see God the Father sending the Son, God the Father and the Son sending the Spirit, and God the Father, Son, and Spirit sending the church. In the final, climactic, sending passage in John’s Gospel, Jesus makes clear that He is not only sent by the Father, but now He is the sender, as He sends the disciples: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21).

With this sentence, Jesus is doing much more than drawing a vague parallel between His mission and ours. Deliberately and precisely, He is making His mission the model for ours. Our understanding of the church’s mission must flow from our understanding of Jesus’ mission as revealed in the Gospels. More on that in the next post.

Action / Reflection

  1. Identify at least two people groups or geographical locations in your city or neighborhood to which God is looking to “send” someone.
  2. List areas in your life that may need to change for you to be able to say, “Here am I. Send me!”
[i] Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2006).

Published April 17, 2018