The Mission of God and the History of the Church (with Andy Johnston)

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God’s Mission

  • In Genesis 1:28, God gave a mandate to Adam and Eve to fill the earth with people in his image.
  • In Revelation 5, we see gathered around the throne a multitude of people from every tribe and tongue and nation – the job is done.
  • In Acts 1:8, the mandate is to be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Through the book of Acts, Luke unfolds that mandate.
  • Paul got as far as Rome by the end of Acts and wanted to press on to Spain, which was the end of the known world. But we know that the world is bigger than Paul thought it was. The history of the church is the extension of that story.


  • Over the first four centuries, the gospel made huge headway in the Roman Empire, culminating in the conversion of Constantine.
  • Over the next 1000 years, we saw the conversion of Europe (the corpus christianum). By the 11th century, Europe was considered Christianised (though this doesn’t mean that everyone was a Christian). It was actually just a veneer of Christianity with lots of superstition and folklore.
  • From 1500 onwards, North America and South America were Christianised (North America mainly through protestant missionaries, and South America mainly through Jesuit Catholic missionaries).
  • In the 18th and 19th centuries, missionaries started going all over the world, including India, China and Africa. By 1900, the gospel had gone around the world.
  • An example of this was William Carey, who went to India. In doing so, he was opposed by hypercalvinists who argued that God could save the heathens without him. He was there for seven years without a single convert, and his wife suffered with major mental health issues.But by the end of his life, he had seen 500 Indians come to Christ  and the Bible translated into 35 Indian languages/dialects.
  • Another example is John Paton, who took the gospel to Vanuatu. Any other Christian who has tried to go there had been literally eaten on the beach. Like many missionaries of this age, Paton was in it long term. He was there for 50 years, and for a time was driven off the island. His wife and kids died of tropical diseases, but he ended up planting churches on 28 of the 31 islands, and he translated the Bible into the (previously unwritten) language.
  • Hudson Taylor went to China and was the first truly cross-cultural missionary. He went to the Chinese inland, and he dressed and ate like the locals (to the mockery of other European missionaries). This inspired a new generation of missionaries, such as C.T. Studd and the Cambridge seven.

“No other missionary in the nineteenth century since the Apostle Paul has had a wider vision and has carried out a more systemtised plan of evangelising a broad geographical area that Hudson Taylor.” (Ruth Tucker)

  • Today there are people like Jackie Pullinger in the Walled City.
  • There are still many people groups who have never heard of Jesus and who certainly have no indigenous churches.
  • There are three big challenges facing us today.
  • Reaching unreached people groups.
  • Re-evangelising Europe.Widespread re-evangelisation is something that has never been done before. In the first century, it was widely accepted that Christian morality was higher than the surrounding world’s, but today most people view it as lower.
  • Reaching the predominantly Islamic world.For us, the crusades happened a long time ago. For many Muslims, it is like they happened yesterday.


  • Persecution is normal for Christians. This hasn’t been the case in the West, as since the Reformation, Christianity has been the dominant cultural force. This can blind us to the reality of the persecution seen in much of history and in many parts of the world.
  • Jesus said that persecution would be inevitable.
  • The earliest persecution in the Christian church came from religious Jews – for example, the martyrdoms of Stephen and James in the book of Acts.
  • The first really aggressive persecution of Christians by the Romans came during the reign of Nero. In 64 A.D., Rome was burnt to the ground and Nero needed a scapegoat, so he focussed on the Christians.
  • Christians were always in trouble in the Roman Empire if there was a hostile Emperor, because due to the Imperial Cult, the Emperor could insist on being worshipped.
  • Notable martyrs of the second century include Ignatius, the Bishop of Antioch (killed in 110 A.D.) and Polycarp, who was the last direct connection with the apostles, having been discipled by John (killed in 156 A.D.). Polycarp was offered his freedom if he would swear an oath to Caesar and revile Christ, but he refused.

“Eighty-six years I have been his servant and he has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my king who saved me?” (Polycarp)

  • In the fourth century, Emperor Constantine became a Christian and Christianity became tolerated, and eventually became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
  • In the sixteenth century, a new kind of persecution arose, where one type of Christian persecuted another type of Christian (many of these martyrdoms are recorded in Foxe’s Book of Martyrsand in Martyrs Mirror).
  • Today there is persecution in many parts of the world, such as Northern Nigeria and North Korea. In these places are some extremely courageous church planters, such as Ben Kwashi, who shares his testimony below.



  • The battle for authority has been the BIG challenge for the Christians in the past 2000 years (in fact, it goes right back to the Garden of Eden). The question is ‘did God say?’
  • Today, many Christians lack confidence in the authority of scripture.
  • Because it took nearly 400 years for the church to officially recognise the twenty-seven books of the New Testament (this happened at the Council of Carthage in 397 AD), people question how we can have confidence that they got it right.
  • But the church didn’t decide at Carthage what was scripture. Over centuries, the church recognised what was scripture.
  • Scripture is self-authenticating. In 2 Peter 3:16 and 1 Timothy 5:18, both Peter and Paul recognise the writings of their contemporaries as scripture.
  • All of the books in the New Testament were written between 40 A.D. and 95 A.D. The gnostic gospels were written in the second and third centuries.
  • All the writings that have survived from the ‘apostolic age’ are found in our New Testament.
  • Everything in the New Testament is Apostolic. It was either written by an apostle or by someone who was in a close relationship with an apostle (we don’t actually know the authorship of Hebrews, but it was written in the first generation of church history and its theology fits with the other apostolic texts of the New Testament).
  • In contrast, books like the gospels of Peter, Philip, Judas and Thomas were written much later by a sect called the gnostics.
  • Our 27 books are unique and authoritative in church history.
  • In the Reformation, the issue was primarily about the authority of the Bible. Luther argued that scripture alone is authoritative (over the Pope, the Church, tradition, etc.)
  • At the time, it was a crime to possess a Bible in English because the king and the bishops were afraid what would happen if people read it. William Tyndale, who translated it, was executed.
  • When we look at the issues of the reformation – justification by faith alone, the priesthood of all believers, and the sacraments – they all stem from the authority of Scripture.
  • In our day, culture is changing rapidly. A lot of Christians want to change truth in line with culture. Truth in unchanging (though the way we apply truth to culture will change). We need to reject and challenge the lie of ‘Did God say?’.

The Person of Jesus

  • The person of Jesus is one of the truths that has been most challenged through church history.
  • We need to hold to the truth that he is both fully God and fully man.
  • If Jesus were not fully man, then what would this say about his resistance to temptation, or about his suffering on the cross?
  • If Jesus were not fully God, then how could he be our mediator?
  • In the last first and early second centuries, the Docetists taught that Jesus was just a human teacher who was somehow immune to the pressures and trials that we have.
  • In the third century, the Arians followed Arius, who claimed that Jesus was the highest of all created beings but that there was still a time when he was not, and so he is not God. This view is still held today by Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The Mission of God Today

  • The challenges that we face today are very similar to the challenges that Christians have faced for the last 2000 years. Can we trust the Bible? Is Jesus really who he claimed to be?
  • But the mission of God is still being fulfilled. The gospel is still being preached, and is going to places that Paul didn’t even know existed.
  • Persecution is still happening. Eleven of Jesus’ twelve disciples were killed for their faith. We should not be surprised when persecution is on the rise.
  • The world is still being turned upside down by the gospel.
  • There are still unreached people groups. We need to see the link between mission and eschatology. The gospel will be preached to all the nations– and then the end will come.


  1. How can we helpfully engage with a world which sees Christian morality as lower than secular morality?
  • If we try to change the law, we are likely to be unsuccessful (at least in the short term).
  • Even if we could, all that it could bring about would be outward conformity and not heart change.
  • We need to realise that we are a sub-culture.
  • We need to be aware of what the Bible says about issues, and at the same time be genunely committed to loving people wherever they are at.
  • This is what Jesus did.
  • It is a good thing when Christian leaders are open about what they struggle with (such as same sex attraction) and choose to live in a godly way despite their temptation.
  1. How do we move the conversation on from issues where Christian views are unpopular?
  • Ask people to think about the claims of Jesus’ resurrection.
  • If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then Christian views on any other subject are irrelevant.
  1. What are they key motivators for mission in church history?
  • Technology (or at least it is an enabler of mission). For Paul, this was the Roman roads and trade routes. At the time of the reformation, it was the printing press. Now it is social media and the internet.
  • The discovery that the world was much bigger than people thought that it was.
  1. How helpful or unhelpful is it when a culture gets Christianised? How should this inform our approach to politics?
  • Constantine is the case study.
  • The advantages are that Christians were not persecuted, churches can be built, the scriptures were more widely available, Sundays were made a public holiday so it was easier to gather to worship, there were changes to the law to reflect Christian values.
  • Disadvantages include tokenism and having the church tied up with the state.
  • We should be careful about associating our churches with particular political positions.
  • Find ways of engaging the culture that defend Biblical trust and really do engage pagan post-Christian people with that attractiveness of the gospel.
  1. Would you agree that close co-operation between the church and the government is good for the government but not for the church?
  • There are tangible benefits, such as the freedom to build church buildings, greater access to the Scriptures, and in our day Gift Aid.
  • The disadvantage is that large-scale nominalism can bring the passion level of the church down.
  • It can also result in people doing appalling things in the name of the Christian faith.
  • We shouldn’t throw everything away, but we should be careful as we engage with the secular authorities.
  1. Some churches in history have disengaged from the world. Others have submitted to the culture too much. How do we avoid both of these errors?
  • Examples of when we run away from culture are the monastics, and also the Mennonites and Amish.
  • The gospel must turn us outwards. We need to stay focussed on the gospel and on the great commission that we have been given. When we do this, it will inevitably engage us in culture.
  • If you just go along with the culture, you will lose your distinctiveness.
  1. Are we slowing down the mission by having split into so many denominations?
  • We can’t turn the clock back to the first century where there was one church and no denominations.
  • We have to live with the historical reality of denominations as we find it.
  • As the culture is becoming increasingly post-Christian, we are seeing that Christians are becoming much more united and speaking with one voice.
  • We should focus on what unites us, not on what divides us. Major on the majors.
  1. What is the biggest mistake that has hurt the church’s mission in history, and what can we learn from it?
  • Trying to bring in the kingdom of God with the sword.