Last week, I introduced a new series on Monday that will focus on the church’s mission. In upcoming weeks, I will summarize three recent theologies of mission and consider the strengths and weaknesses of each approach.
Today we’re looking at Andreas Köstenberger and Peter O’Brien’s Salvation to the Ends of the Earth: A Biblical Theology of Mission, which provides a summary of the Bible’s teaching on mission from a salvation-historical viewpoint.
Salvation to the Ends of the Earth is a welcome addition to the New Studies in Biblical Theology series edited by D.A. Carson and published by IVP (UK). The strength of this series is its attempt to synthesize the various strands of biblical teaching on a given subject without losing the individual voices and emphases of the Bible’s authors. Salvation to the Ends of the Earth accomplishes this task admirably. The authors intend “to explore mission comprehensively throughout the entire sweep of biblical history…” (19) which leads them to combine a biblical-theological method with a salvation-historical approach to the books of the Bible.
What’s the strength of this method? 2 things:
- It affirms the unity of the Scriptures without denying the diversity of individual authors in their respective treatments of the subject of mission.
- There is a reciprocal element to this approach: we observe how “mission” spans the Testaments and helps us make sense of the canon, and at the same time we observe how the individual emphases of canonical authors help us make sense of “mission.”
This two-way conversation serves to strengthen and sharpen our understanding of mission in the Bible as well as our understanding of the Bible in light of God’s mission.
What’s the weakness of this approach? In seeking only to summarize and synthesize the various biblical teachings on mission, the authors must hold back from speaking too clearly or forcefully regarding current issues in the field of missiology. Because their goal is biblical synthesis, they exercise restraint in speaking to issues the Bible does not address directly.
Summarizing the Old Testament’s Teaching on Mission
Köstenberger and O’Brien begin their biblical theology of mission with the Old Testament. In the creation story, we see God as distinct from humanity, even as humanity is dependent upon him. God is the ultimate sovereign ruler over all of creation.
As the Old Testament progresses, we glimpse more attributes of this Creator God. After humanity’s plunge into darkness as a result of their rebellion against God, we see the Lord himself fulfill the role of the missionary who seeks to gather his people and display his glory. “The goal of mission is the glory of God, that he may be known and honoured for who he really is” (52).
The Creator’s rescue mission begins with his call to Abraham, whom he chooses to be the “mediator of the blessings to all peoples” (30). God’s covenant with Abraham provides the basis for the relationship between God and his people.
The rest of the Old Testament focuses on God’s dealings with Abraham’s descendants, the people of Israel. God redeems Israel for a particular purpose: to be the people through whom the promises to Abraham will ultimately come to fulfillment. In this way, God’s choice of Israel to be his people is not a contradiction of God’s universal intentions, but is an integral part of his plan (50). The response of Israel to God’s gracious choice must be to stand apart from the world and put on display the holy love of the God who has chosen and rescued them. The mission of Israel is to serve the world by being distinct from it.
Was Israel Called to be a Missionary?
Israel’s role as a light to the nations raises the question of Israel’s mission. Were the children of Israel called to be missionaries in the cross-cultural sense we often think of today? Were they called to engage in a missionary task? Did they do so?
Köstenberger and O’Brien believe the answer to this question is no. In a broad sense, there was certainly a missional orientation to their corporate life together. Their holiness and “set-apart” identity had a missionary intention behind it. But there is no indication that Judaism in the Old Testament and in the second-temple period was a missionary religion if “by ‘mission’ is meant a conscious, deliberate, extensive effort to convert non-fellow-religionists to one’s religion…” (64).
The Old Testament vision of Israel’s missional identity is centripetal, not centrifugal. The picture is one of the nations coming to Israel, not Israel going to the nations.
Called to Missional Holiness
Though Israel was not called to cross-cultural missions, there was still a missional orientation to their identity as a set-apart people for the glory of God. Yet even in this, the people failed. What God intended Israel to be was never fully realized due to Israel’s faltering obedience and outright rebellion.
To preserve the glory of his name, God sent his people into exile, but in faithfulness to his covenant promises, he preserved a remnant of the faithful.
“The nation in exile cannot live up to what it means to be ‘Israel’, so the Lord must find a ‘true and worthy Israel'” (47).
As the Old Testament draws to a close, the need for God’s deliverance becomes prominent. The prophet Isaiah indicated that the covenant made with Abraham will come to pass through the Servant of the Lord. The Old Testament concludes with the prophecies yet unfulfilled and God’s covenant promises still in the future.
Summarizing the New Testament’s Teaching on Mission
As Köstenberger and O’Brien turn their attention to the New Testament, they introduce one of the main thrusts of this book: the mission of Jesus is the most fundamental mission in Scripture, and contemporary Christians need to view their own ministries in light of Christ’s work.
This theme is clearest in their exploration of the Gospel of John, which focuses on Jesus Christ’s mission as the Sent One from the Father who is entrusted to fulfill the task that has been given him. The work of Christ is two-fold: to reveal the Father through his life and teaching and redeem the world through his sacrificial death. The Gospel of John makes explicit the connection between Christ’s mission and the disciples’ mission.
“Their relationship to their sender, Jesus, is to reflect Jesus’ relationship with his sender” (222).
Thus, Köstenberger and O’Brien recommend that the contemporary church be more conscious of its relation to Christ’s mission (224).
Mission to All Peoples
Though the early Christian mission was unique in terms of its relationship to Israel, it was not unique in terms of its relationship to Jesus. The mission is outward focused, and thus breaks with the Judaism of the day, and yet because it is grounded in the Old Testament’s promise of Gentile inclusion in the people of God, it leads the disciples to take the gospel to the ends of the earth.
The book of Acts connects the mission of the apostles (as witnesses) to the mission of Jesus (the missionary “par excellence”) who was sent because of the mission of God. Köstenberger and O’Brien underscore the fact that these are not three missions, but one.
Mission and Discipleship
The Gospel of Matthew conceives of the church’s mission in terms of discipleship, which includes “a person’s need to grow in faith” (95) as well as a global emphasis “not merely to disciple individuals, but entire nations, indeed, all nations” (105). The goal of the mission then is not merely to evangelize and make converts, but to see those converts living in obedient faith as a response to the gospel.
Obedient faith requires proclamation of the gospel, summarized in the Gospel of Luke as the message that, because Christ suffered and rose, repentance and forgiveness is available to all. The message of the missionaries centered on the good news of the kingdom and Jesus Christ the King.
The Mission of Paul
In turning to Paul’s missionary work, we see the theme of ongoing mission come through again in this book. The authors argue that Paul conceived of his work in relation to the work of Jesus. He preached the gospel, a message he spoke of as if it were a “personal, living force,” which contained inherent power to fulfill its purpose (192).
In going to the Gentiles, the Apostle Paul sought to fulfill his missionary commission of seeing people from all nations obey King Jesus and believe in his name. As he wrote to the churches he planted, he encouraged them to continue the mission of disciple-making, not in the same way he did (through apostolic ministry), but according to their personal gifts. The methods and actions may be different, but the heart to see people saved must be the same.
After exploring the thread of mission running through the Scriptures, Köstenberger and O’Brien offer some concluding thoughts. One of their conclusions is this:
“the divine plan of extending salvation to the ends of the earth is the major thrust of the Scriptures from beginning to end…. The Lord of the Scriptures is a missionary God who reaches out to the lost, and sends his servants, and particularly his beloved Son, to achieve his gracious purposes of salvation” (263).
As such, the mission of God revealed in the Scriptures is the most important plotline in the grand narrative.
Other conclusions include God’s sovereignty in matters of mission and salvation as well as the essential role of the church in fulfilling the mission.
“Conversion to Christ meant incorporation into a Christian community” (266).
This church-centered view of salvation is especially helpful in a society where individualism makes the church optional for a Christian. The authors understand that one of the key components of fulfilling the mission is the maturing of Christian congregations by preparing them for threats from within and without that seek to harm the witness of the body of Christ.
The value of this volume is in how the authors develop the concept of mission within the framework of the grand narrative and the individual emphases of each writer.
There is an admirable level of restraint in Köstenberger and O’Brien’s conclusions, a sign they wish to remain tethered to the Scriptures in providing general guidelines instead of specific instructions for contemporary society. Still, it would have been helpful to see a little more reflection, for example, in how the mission of Jesus is extended through the disciples.
Is the mission of Jesus only the proclamation of forgiveness? This seems to be the assumption in Köstenberger and O’Brien’s treatment of his foundational mission.
To what extent, then, do the works of Christ during his life shape our understanding of mission?
If proclamation of the gospel with the goal of making disciples is the central aspect of the church’s mission, does this imply that there are other elements to this mission?
How do we extend the mission of God in relation to his promise to restore and renew all things?
How do these concepts hang on one another?
These are questions left unaddressed by this volume. For good and for bad, they are not left unaddressed by the book we’ll be looking at next week: Christopher Wright’s The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative, which seeks to establish missiology as the hermeneutical key to understanding the Scriptures.