This article was written to accompany the ‘The Mission of God and the Story of the New Testament’ hangout.
- How do you think Jesus performs God’s mission in the gospels?
When we think of mission, we can tend to think in a very human-centred way: mission is all about us, as humans, doing God a favour by telling people about him, and by going to other countries to share the gospel.
If, however, we understand that the Bible sees this task as part of God’s bigger mission, the way we understand and do mission will change.
Mission doesn’t start with Matthew 28. It starts much earlier. In fact, by the time Jesus arrived on the scene, God has been on mission for thousands of years and his mission had not changed: he wanted to fill the earth with his glory. That has been, and always will be his mission in creation.
The Story So Far
God chose Israel to be the people through whom the mission of blessing the nations would be performed. The original promise made to Abraham was nothing less than this: through his descendants the problem of Adam would be undone (notice the similarity between the language of Genesis 1:26-28 and Genesis 12:1-3). But by the time of Jesus, Israel was in dire straights: they hardly looked like a people that God was blessing, let alone a people who would bless the nations.
Since the Babylonian exile, which ended in 539BC, Israel (well, only Judah really) had never been restored to the height of David and Solomon’s empire. There was no king! There was no independence (they had been firstly under Persian dominion, then Greek, then Roman)! There had been no fulfilment of the new-covenant prophecies of Ezekiel 36 and Jeremiah 31! Most importantly, there was no manifest glory of God in the Jerusalem Temple! Yet, according to Isaiah, after the return from exile, all the ends of the earth would see the salvation of God (see Isaiah 52:10). Had God abandoned his people? Had God’s mission failed?
This is the setting into which Jesus appears. When we read the gospels against the backdrop of this Old Testament story, they come alive! They tell the good news that God has come back to put the world right, and to eventually fill the earth with his glory. Jesus, as Israel’s God’s embodiment and representative, came to perform God’s mission.
Also, it’s worth pointing this out: there’s a reason the gospels are called gospels! Mark 1:1 begins with the statement, “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” (Mark 1:1) In other words, as far as Mark is concerned, the whole of his story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is good news. Don’t restrict the gospel to Jesus’ death and resurrection. When the early Church proclaimed the gospel, they told the story of what God had done in Jesus! Just bear that in mind.
THINK IT THROUGH
- Do you read the gospels with this backdrop in mind?
- How does thinking of the gospels as telling the gospel change the way we think about preaching the gospel?
The Glory Is Back!
There was a deafening silence when the Temple was rebuilt after the Babylonian exile (see Ezra 6). Don’t get me wrong, there was lots of rejoicing and sacrificing and singing, but something was missing. Whereas the Tabernacle and Solomon’s Temple were filled with the cloud of God’s glory (the shekinah), no text, Biblical or non-Biblical, describes the return of God’s glory to the Temple that the exiles rebuilt. It seems like God’s glory had simply not returned. With this background in mind, the prologue to John’s Gospel would have made a Jewish reader shout, fall over in shock, and, depending on whether they believed you or not, either pick up stones to put you to death or fall on their faces and worship. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)
We are familiar (well, can you ever become familiar with such a thing?) with the idea of God becoming a man. What we often miss, though, is the temple language that John uses. Just as God had dwelt in the Jerusalem Temple, Jesus (God in flesh) dwelt amongst us (the word ‘dwelt’ could be translated as ‘tabernacled’). The glory of God had not returned to the Jerusalem temple after the exile, but John tells us that, as an eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry, he saw the return of God’s glory to his temple; no longer a building made with stones, God’s temple was a human being. The return of the glory of God to his temple of which the prophets spoke (e.g. Haggai 2:9; Malachi 3:1) happened in about 6 B.C. as Yeshua ben Yoseph, better known to us as Jesus son of Joseph, was born. That is quite simply shocking! God’s glory was back in the temple!
God’s mission was on course, and dramatically so!
THINK IT THROUGH
- Have you ever read John 1 in this way? What difference does understanding that God’s glory has returned to the temple in Jesus make to how you read the gospels?
The Exile is Over
One of the biggest problems for Jewish people at the time of Jesus’ ministry was that the exile, which started in 586 B.C. with the destruction of Jerusalem, did not seem to have truly ended. Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah had all predicted a glorious return from exile, but this simply did not seem to have happened when the exiled Jews returned in 539 B.C. At the time of Jesus’ ministry, they had been under Roman dominion for almost 100 years – hardly a free people. So when would this true return from exile happen?
Isaiah 40-55 is a beautiful poetic promise to God’s people that God would bring them back from exile in Babylon. This is what Isaiah promises:
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.’” (Isaiah 40:1-6)
“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” The voice of your watchmen—they lift up their voice; together they sing for joy; for eye to eye they see the return of the LORD to Zion. Break forth together into singing, you waste places of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people; has redeemed Jerusalem. The LORD has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.” (Isaiah 52:7-10)
These incredible promises had not materialised by the time Jesus was born. However, all three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) quote Isaiah 40 at the beginning of their description of Jesus’ ministry, and Luke also alludes to Isaiah 52. Additionally, Isaiah 52:7 makes it clear that the exile is over when the watchmen of God’s people here the resounding cry: “your God reigns!”
What was Jesus’ main message? “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15)
The Gospel writers are screaming at us: it’s over! The exile is over! God is coming back to reign as king!
In Jesus, his mission is on course!
THINK IT THROUGH
- Have you ever read the gospels with the end of the exile motif in mind? What does it tell you about God’s character?
The Kingdom Has Come Near
Jesus’ main message in the Gospels is that of the imminent coming of God’s Kingdom. The phrase ‘kingdom of God’ (or equivalent) appears over 100 times, and the overwhelming majority of these appearances are on the lips of Jesus. To say that the kingdom of God was important in Jesus’ preaching is an understatement. But what is the Kingdom of God? And what does it look like?
- What do you think the expression ‘the Kingdom of God’ means?
The Rule of God and What It Looks Like
The expression, ‘the Kingdom of God’ can be very confusing to us. I reckon this is mainly because we read the Bible through Christian-tinted glasses. The Kingdom of God or, maybe even better, the rule of God is quite simply God reigning as king over a people in a particular place (isn’t that what a kingdom usually is?). So when Jesus claims that the Kingdom of God is near, he means that God is coming back to rule over his creation as king. That is immensely good news! Imagine a king who is completely just, completely fair, and completely good and loving, ruling over a country. That’s why Jesus’ message is not just the kingdom, but the gospel (good news) of the kingdom (see Matthew 4:32). If God’s mission is to fill the earth with his glory, then that will involve him reigning as king:
God’s mission is on course!
- How does thinking about the Kingdom of God in this way help us to understand how we can pray for God’s kingdom to come, or to help ‘advance’ the kingdom?
Oh, That Looks Different!
Jesus came into a Jewish culture, which had particular ideas about what the kingdom of God might look like. Many would have envisaged a cataclysmic event in which God would act for his people, set them free from their enemies, and install Israel’s king a sovereign over the nations. The Temple would be rebuilt by the true king (Messiah), and the nations would come to pay reverence to God and the Messiah.
The reality is, although we often set up the view just described against what Jesus proclaimed, this understanding of God’s kingdom is actually a Biblical concept. Many Old Testament passages speak of God acting once and for all for his people (e.g. Isaiah 42; Zechariah 14). Psalm 2 speaks of a Davidic king reigning from mount Zion and ruling over the nations. Ezekiel 40-48 speaks of the building of a new, glorious Temple. Isaiah 2 and Micah 4 speak of a time where the mountain of God’s house (i.e. the Temple) would be the most prominent mountain and the nations would come to that mountain. In that sense, this view was Biblical and partly true.
However, the way Jesus spoke of this vision being worked out was completely different to what many (including the religious authorities) expected:
- Israel expected the defeat of God’s enemies to mean freedom from Rome. Jesus instead tells people to love their enemies (Matthew 5:44).
- Israel expected the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple. Jesus instead prophesies judgement on the Jerusalem Temple (Mark 13:1-2) and speaks of himself rebuilding it (John 2:19).
- Israel expected judgement upon the nations that oppressed them. Jesus instead tells Israel, “unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)
Israel expected a once-for-all cataclysmic incoming of the kingdom. Jesus instead speaks of the kingdom being something that grows very gradually (see Matthew 13:33). There is, however, a once-for-all cataclysmic event which does set God’s kingdom up: the cross and resurrection of Jesus.
THINK IT THROUGH
Read Psalm 2, which describes a Davidic king reigning.
- How do we square the language of this Psalm (e.g. ruling the nations with a rod of iron) with Jesus’ life?
Messiah and the New People of the Messiah
Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, and the Gospel writers saw him as such (the word ‘Christ’ is simply the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew term ‘Messiah’). Although we often read the words spoken at Jesus’ baptism as God’s fatherly affirmation (which it is), it is also Jesus’ anointing as king of his people. The words “you are my son” carry the idea of kingship (in the Old Testament, the king was thought of as the son of God). Luke, in particular, shows how the story of Jesus’ anointing parallels the story of David’s anointing:
- Samuel is born to a barren woman – John the Baptist is born to an old (barren) woman.
- Samuel is an “exceptional prophet” (1 Samuel 3:19) – John is called “prophet of the most high” (Luke 1:76).
- Samuel anoints David as rightful king – John anoints Jesus as king through baptism.
A King must rule over a people. Jesus’ choice of 12 apostles is not coincidental. He is intentionally choosing as many apostles as there were tribes of Israel. Jesus was not God’s plan B once Israel had failed. Jesus, as Israel’s true king, leads a new people gathered from within Israel itself. Jesus makes it clear that to be part of God’s people means to accept him as king (which is why he so often simply calls people to follow him – with far greater authority than any rabbi)!
Being a new people with a new king means new ethics. In what we now call the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus plays the role of a new Moses. Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive God’s laws for the Sinai covenant. Jesus ascends a mountain to give God’s people his instructions for living as a people of the kingdom of God. One of the purposes of the Mosaic Law was that the nations around Israel would marvel. “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” (Deuteronomy 4:6) Jesus tells his hearers: “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)
Jesus’ commands for living as part of God’s people, though, are far more intense and difficult than Moses’ commands. Whereas Moses commanded the people not to commit adultery, Jesus tells the people not to lust. Whereas Moses told the people not to murder, Jesus tells the people not to be angry. Those who would enter the kingdom of God, Jesus says, must be more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees (see Matthew 5:20). What kind of people could possibly ever obey such a difficult law? Only a people whose hearts have been circumcised, and whose heart of stone has been changed by a heart of flesh. To these people, Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden is light.
- Does Jesus expect his hearers to be able to do his commands?
- Is this just an issue of being more righteous than the Pharisees because Jesus’ own righteousness is given to us?
The Cross and the Kingdom
Probably the most shocking aspect of Jesus’ proclamation (and a stumbling block for Jews afterwards – see 1 Corinthians 1:18-25) was that whilst he claimed to be the Messiah, he also claimed that he was to be crucified. A crucified messiah was not just unexpected; it was a contradiction in terms. The whole point is that the messiah was to destroy his enemies, not be defeated by them (and as far as the ancient world was concerned, the cross meant ‘Rome wins!’).
But the Gospel writers are keen to show the close association of Jesus’ kingship and his crucifixion. In Mark 8, immediately after Peter confesses Jesus to be the Christ (Messiah), Jesus begins to predict that he will be crucified and then raised again. From this point, Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem! It seems that kingship and the cross go hand in hand. Now, that was unexpected!
Reading Isaiah 52-53 in one go can help us to understand what Jesus’ mindset might have been. In Isaiah 52:7, a messenger proclaims to Jerusalem that God is finally coming back to reign as king! The result is ecstatic and raucous applause and the display of God’s rescuing power to the ends of the earth. Yet immediately after this, Isaiah exclaims: “who on earth would have believed our message.” (Isaiah 53:1 – my paraphrase) and speaks of a suffering servant. Exactly! The proclamation of God’s kingship is followed by the stark reality that a servant must suffer for the sins of his people. That is exactly what Jesus does at the cross. As Israel’s rightful king, he is also the one who must bear their iniquities (and the iniquities of the world in fact). Cross and kingship go hand in hand.
Against all appearances, God’s mission is on course!
The Resurrection and New Creation
The cross without the resurrection is not a victory. It is one of the most pathetic and pitiful deaths in history. Without the resurrection, God’s mission would have failed. But in fact, the resurrection demonstrates that God’s mission, against all odds (who would have thought up a crucified messiah?), has in fact emphatically and gloriously succeeded! Every single Gospel writer includes the detail that Jesus’ resurrection happened on the first day of the week – a seemingly mundane detail that speaks volumes. What else happened on the first day of a week? The beginning of God’s creation in Genesis.
The resurrection is not just the place where Jesus is shown to truly be king (that is true), nor is it just the place where his sacrifice for our sins is shown to be effective (that is also true, though); Jesus’ resurrection is the place where new creation itself begins! As Jesus emerged from the tomb on the first Easter Sunday, a new ‘let there be light!’ resounded! In Jesus, God’s long awaited new creation had started! A creation in which there would eventually be no sin, no sickness, no pain, and most importantly no death! A new creation which will eventually actually be set free from decay and which will be filled with God’s glory!
God’s mission is gloriously on course!
Jesus and the Nations
After his resurrection, Jesus said these well known words to his followers: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20). Although we think of this as the great commission, it is in fact not the first great commission given in the Bible. This is an echo of the commission given to humans in Genesis 1:28 to fill the earth and subdue it. As pointed out earlier, this original commission should eventually have led to the infilling of the earth with God’s glory. Having dealt with the problem of sin, Jesus’ commission will have the same result. As spirit-filled and transformed followers of Jesus go to the ends of the earth, they proclaim the Gospel. As people respond, they are transformed more and more into the image of Christ. Eventually, the whole earth is filled with God’s image and God’s glory. Exactly what God’s mission was from the start!
- Have you ever seen the cross as being bound up with Jesus’ kingship before?
- How much does the resurrection affect the way you live? How important is it to you?
- Had you ever thought of the great commission as similar to Genesis 1:28? How does this affect the way we think about world mission?