This article was written by Dan Hayter to accompany the ‘The Mission of God and the Story of the New Testament‘ hangout.
- How would you outline the coming together of God’s mission?
Towards Mission Accomplished
So far in the Biblical narrative, God’s mission has reached the point where the Messiah of Israel has died for the world’s sins, been raised from the dead, and sent off his followers to be witnesses to these events all the way to the ends of the earth. God’s ultimate mission is to see the world filled with his glory. At the moment, that mission is being accomplished by Christians proclaiming the Gospel and making disciples. As disciples are made, people who have the destiny of being “conformed to the image of [God’s] son” (Romans 8:29) are appearing. The more the image of Christ is seen in believers and the more widespread that image is, the closer the moment when God says: ‘mission accomplished.’ That moment will ultimately be when God recreates or renews heaven and earth and the whole of new creation is saturated with God’s presence (Revelation 21-22 – see below). So what does the New Testament tell us the final steps in God’s mission becoming accomplished will look like?
Paul’s Desire and Its Fulfilment
Those of us who are in circles that are passionate about seeing the ends of the earth reached will often be familiar with Paul’s statement in Romans 15:20. “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation.” (Romans 15:20) This is the heart cry of missionaries who proclaim the Gospel to unreached people groups, people who have never heard of the name of Jesus.
But Paul’s passion wasn’t just a random idea. It was rooted in a deep sense of what God had done in Jesus. It was rooted in a deep sense that the Old Testament promises were coming to their fulfilment in Jesus. Look at what Paul writes just a few verses before:
“I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, ‘Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles, and sing to your name.’ And again it is said, ‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.’ And again, ‘Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples extol him.’ And again Isaiah says, ‘The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope.’” (Romans 15:8-12)
Christ (as we saw in the article on God’s Mission in the Gospels) came to serve Israel (the circumcised). The result of this, Paul claims, is that it demonstrates God’s truthfulness and that this confirms his promises to the patriarchs; to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. And what was this promise? The ESV (quoted above) could almost give us the idea that the Gentiles glorifying God is a separate thing from the confirming of the promises (‘and in order that the Gentiles…’). But the Greek makes a much closer link between the two. Christ’s service to the Jews, through his life, death, and resurrection, was in order to confirm the promises given to the Patriarchs, so that the Gentiles might glorify God.
Paul realised that Jesus’ mission in his life, death and resurrection would ultimately lead to the gathering in of the nations. Because of this, it wasn’t just that Paul had a deep God-given desire to preach the Gospel in the whole world. He had a God-given calling, backed up by a conviction that he was living in the time when the Gentiles were to come in (the last days). Paul’s mission (and the mission of all other cross-cultural missionaries) was the logical extension of God’s mission through Israel and through Jesus – the ingathering of the nations.
- What could Paul’s Scriptural justification for his ambition teach us about how to think about our own mission and calling(s)?
The gathering in of the nations, in the Old Testament, was often associated with the end of days. Isaiah and Micah for example, both spoke of the nations flowing in to serve God in the ‘latter days’ (Isaiah 2:1-4; Micah 4:1-5). Jesus knew this, and therefore predicted that before the end could come, the Gospel would have to be proclaimed to all nations (e.g. Matthew 24:13).
In Revelation 7 we get a glimpse of that day when all nations have been gathered in. In 7:4, John says that he ‘heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel.’ Verses 5-8 give us the exact details of the numbers from each tribe of Israel that John heard. We might be forgiven for thinking that when John actually sees these sealed people, he would see a multitude of Jews. But that is not what we read:
“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Revelation 7:9-10)
Instead of an ethnic multitude of Jews, we get a multi-ethnic multitude from all nations. John hears of the sealing of Israel and sees the ingathering of all nations. They are both the same thing! God’s people are spoken of as the tribes of Israel to speak of the idea of covenant and security. But these people are shown as people from all nations to show just how widespread and diverse they are. In Abraham’s offspring (Jesus specifically) all of the nations will be blessed! Imagine Abraham’s reaction on that day when he realises that God’s promise has been fulfilled.
God’s mission is almost complete.
- Go to joshuaproject.netand have a browse through the various unreached people groups.
- Now re-read Revelation 7 with this in mind.
He Must Reign
So we are waiting for the ingathering of the nations, at which point Jesus shall return. But what is Jesus doing until his return? We saw in the article on God’s Mission and the Church that Jesus is still active and acting through his church. But in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul gives us a bit more detail to fill in. Paul spends the whole chapter demonstrating that the Christian hope is to one day be physically raised from the dead (see the next section). He explains that Jesus has been raised in advance of his people and that whilst the saints are waiting for his return, he is reigning. In fact, Paul states that, “he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.” (1 Corinthians 15:25) God’s mission to spread his glory to the ends of the earth will require the defeat of all of his enemies. Currently, Christ is reigning until all of God’s enemies have submitted (either voluntarily or by force) to him.
It is important to realise that Christ is currently reigning and will reign all the way up until his return. If he is not reigning, we have no reason to trust that he will build his church or that he will heal the sick. When Jesus said, “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” (Matthew 28:18), he meant it. Jesus is reigning and will reign until all of his enemies have been subdued. If you think of it in terms of the whole mission of God, Jesus is reigning as the perfect Adam (a prominent theme in 1 Corinthians 15), the one who truly subdues creation and spreads his image and glory to the whole world. When he returns, he will have accomplished what humanity should have in the first place! Jesus’ reign and God’s mission go hand in hand.
But the last enemy to be defeated is death (1 Corinthians 15:26). What a statement! A day is coming when that final enemy will be destroyed, a day when death will be just a distant memory. That is the ultimate hope for Christians: death defeated and new creation!
But that is often not the answer you get in response to the question, ‘what is your hope as a Christian?’ All good Christians know that our hope is to die and go to heaven with Jesus, right? Well, yes and no (but mostly no). Jesus is clear that Christians should not fear physical death (Matthew 10:28), and Paul claims that it is better to be away from the body and with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8). But the New Testament actually never speaks of ‘going to heaven’ (paradise is probably a better word to use of life after death with Jesus, anyway). In fact, the New Testament is, in the main, fairly uninterested in life after death. Instead, the New Testament is much more interested in what happens when Christ returns and death itself is swallowed up in victory. It is more interested in God’s big mission to fill the earth with his glory than it is in our individual existence after we die.
- What language do you use to talk ofour future hope? Although it is nice and simple, how could talking about going to heaven take away something of the glory of God’s future purposes?
People in New Testament times (and in our world) had various views on death. Some saw death as a bit of a dead-end. This was the view of the Epicurean Philosophers and the Jewish Sadducees (and nowadays the view of most atheists and agnostics). Death is the end. Nothing happens afterwards (except perhaps a shadowy and less-than-desirable existence), and there definitely no coming back. Others saw death as a friend: dying and becoming a disembodied soul or spirit was the best thing possible for many ancients. This physical world was grim and problematic. The best solution was simply to die and be set free from it. But, as much as being with Christ after death is desirable, seeing the presence of death in the world as a good thing is simply not the view of the New Testament.
Instead, Biblically speaking, death is an enemy. It entered the world when humans failed to carry out God’s mission effectively in Genesis 3, and ever since it has been swallowing countless victims. As long as it exists, God’s mission cannot be complete. Ask anyone who is grieving a lost one, and they will tell you that death is an enemy. It is a monster!
But it is a monster that is going to be defeated one day! Paul puts it far more eloquently than I could:
“Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’
‘O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?’” (1 Corinthians 15:51-55)
A day is coming when Christ will return in glory and the dead will be raised. We will not be raised as disembodied spirits or phantoms. We shall have physical, but transformed bodies. Just as Christ was bodily raised from the dead, so shall all who are in him. When this happens, Paul explains, the saying, “death is swallowed up in victory” will be fulfilled! The final element of the curse of Genesis 3 (“you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” – Gen. 3:19) will be undone. The gospel is not the good news of the embrace of death (dying and remaining separated from our bodies); it is the good news of the coming defeat of death!
God’s Mission on course and almost accomplished!
THINK IT THROUGH
Read 1 Corinthians 15.
- Why is Paul so troubled with the Corinthians? Would we be as troubled by the belief of Christians nowadays? Why/why not?
Resurrection, it seems, is followed by final judgement. It is God’s duty as rightful and just king to judge (that’s part of what a ruler does, right?), and a day is coming when God will judge “the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 2:16) “He will render to each one according to his works.” (Romans 2:6) “The dead [will be] judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done.” (Revelation 20:12) That’s just three of many more references to final judgement that could be cited here. Judgement is coming, and judgement is coming to all!
That sounds like bad news, doesn’t it? Well, for some it is. In an ideal world, no mistakes would be made in a law-court and only the guilty would be condemned. In that ideal world, only the guilty would need to fear judgement. An innocent person standing in the dock would have nothing to fear, because the verdict would always be in their favour. God never makes mistakes in his law-court! Judgement is bad news for those who oppose the king, and that is one reason why proclaiming the gospel of Jesus’ kingship is so important. People need to realise who the king is so they can realise they have been opposing him.
So in one sense, final judgement is bad news, bad news for God’s enemies. In another sense, though, it is good news. In fact, Paul claims that final judgement is actually part of the gospel (Romans 2:16). That might sound like a strange statement, but if we stop thinking of judgement as God seeking to punish as many people as he can and instead think of it as God coming to put all things right, then it is immensely good news for those who love God. Judgement is when God calls all those who thought they had got away with rape, murder, genocide, and other evils to account. Judgement is the day when God vindicates the cause of the innocent. Judgement is the day when justice is meted out perfectly. That is why the Psalms say things such as, “all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the LORD, for he comes, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in his faithfulness.” (Psalm 96:12-13). Judgement is good news!
- Have you ever though of final judgement as a good thing? How does final judgement fit in with God’s mission to fill the earth with his glory?
But where does that leave us then? In most references to final judgement in the New Testament, humans (Christians and non-Christians) are judged according to what they have done. That’s the just thing to do, isn’t it? A judge should, in Paul’s words, “render to each one according to his works.” (Romans 2:6) But doesn’t that also sound like it flies in the face of the gospel? Isn’t the whole point of the good news that Christians are judged, not according to what they have done, but according to Christ’s righteousness? How can judgement be according to works?
Here is, I think, the way of making sense of things: justification is indeed by faith! And the one who is justified becomes the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). So far, so good. But justification is not the end of the story. Justification is accompanied by the gift of the Spirit. The Spirit is the one who enables believers to live Christ-centred and godly lives. Because Christians are those who walk according to the Spirit, not the flesh, Paul can say, “if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13). Part of the reality of the Christian life is that the Spirit produces the kind of works that are in accordance with the righteous status of the believer. As such, God can render his judgement in accordance with works as evidence of a transformed life, but not on the basis of the works produced by the Spirit. To put it in the language of Romans 2, by being transformed by the Spirit, Christians have become “those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honour and immortality and therefore inherit eternal life.” (Romans 2:7).
- Had you thought of the role of the Spirit in the final judgement before? Read Romans 8 and look at how the Spirit works in our future vindication.
Revelation 21 & The New Creation Temple
After resurrection and judgement, new creation! Heaven is not the destination of redeemed humanity. Rather, it is a completely renewed creation where heaven and earth meet, and Revelation 21 is the classic passage which describes this. Most Christians are familiar with the words, “then I saw a new heaven and a new earth.” (Revelation 21:1) Even without appreciating all the symbolism, it’s an incredibly vivid chapter, a moving description of the coming together of all things. What you may not have recognised, though, is the amount of Temple language involved in Revelation 21. This chapter is not a description of what new creation will actually look like. But it is a description of what it is: a gigantic temple!
The first indication that new creation is shown as a temple is the statement, “and I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” (Revelation 21:2) The New Jerusalem (the church) comes down … from heaven. New creation is the place where heaven and earth meet. That is exactly what a Temple is! N. T. Wright writes (of the Jerusalem Temple): ‘When you went up to the Temple, it was not as though you were “in heaven”. You were actually there.’ Heaven and earth meet fully in the Temple of new creation.
In verse 3, John says, “I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” (Revelation 21:3) This is, again, Temple language! Where is the dwelling place of God during Israel’s history? The Temple! Where is it in new creation? With humans! In fact, the word ‘dwelling place’ is the same Greek word as the word ‘tent’ – just like the Tabernacle! Creation has become a Temple to house God’s presence!
It sounds like God’s mission to fill the earth with his glory is complete!
In the following verses (9-21), John gets a glimpse of the bride of the lamb! One striking thing is the number of precious stones: 12 in fact. Obviously this is the number of the tribes of Israel, but it is also the number of precious stones on the breast-piece of the high priest (see Exodus 28:15-21) – Temple language again! And now for a mathematical detail that sums it all up: the city-bride is shaped like a cube (21:16). This is not just a random detail. The Holy of Holies in Solomon’s Temple was cubic (1 Kings 6:20). In the new creation, the whole of God’s people, and the whole of the new creation is a gigantic Holy of Holies! God’s people and God’s creation have become the Temple of God.
The whole earth has been completely saturated with his presence, all because one human being succeeded in casting evil out of creation where Adam and Eve failed.
- Why do you think new creation is not simply represented as a return to Eden? Read through Revelation 21-22 with a cross-reference Bible and pick up any Old Testament parallels you can. What do these parallels teach us about the progress of God’s mission?
- How would you describe our role in seeing God’s mission worked out?
- We can be confident that the accomplishment of God’s mission is certain. What difference does this confidence make in your Christian life?