Volume 45 - Issue 3

Reconceiving a Biblical Theology of Mission: Salvation to the Ends of the Earth Revisited

By Andreas J. Köstenberger


Scholarship on the biblical theme of mission has made significant strides in the couple decades since the original publication of my work Salvation to the Ends of the Earth: A Biblical Theology of Mission (co-authored with Peter T. O’Brien) in 2001. The present essay discusses changes made to Salvation to the Ends of the Earth in the second edition (published in 2020) in which T. Desmond Alexander wrote the chapter on mission in the Old Testament. The adjusted flow tracks the development of mission within the framework of the story of Israel, Jesus, and the early Christians, enhancing both the historical and the narrative dimensions of mission. The presentation integrates the Gospels with related New Testament writers—in particular, embedding the Pauline mission within Luke–Acts—resulting in greater cohesiveness and appreciation for the organic interconnections among New Testament voices and leaders of the early Christian mission. It also discusses Paul’s letters in chronological order of writing and considers the contribution of all of his letters to a biblical theology of mission rather than focusing on Paul individually and selecting one book (such as Romans) as the primary focus. Finally, material on mission in the Second Temple period remains in the background (in an appendix) rather than interrupting the biblical-theological flow and canonical connection between the Testaments. In all these ways, readers can gain a sharper vision and more accurate picture of the biblical theology of mission.

The mission theme is a significant part of the biblical storyline in conjunction with other themes such as covenant, redemption, and the gospel. While in the Old Testament, Israel was called primarily to serve as a “priestly kingdom” and “holy nation” in order to witness to the surrounding nations about Yahweh, in the New Testament, the church was called to go and disciple the nations, proclaiming the gospel of the crucified, buried, and risen Lord Jesus Christ. While of great practical import, however, the mission theme, with some notable exceptions, has by and large been neglected by biblical scholars and theologians, in part because of a historical-critical bias and at times, one surmises, because many working in academia may not themselves be believers or believe in the legitimacy of Christian mission.

Against this backdrop of neglect, there has been a groundswell of voices that have drawn attention to the missionary nature of the New Testament writings and of Paul’s letters in particular. I. Howard Marshall has called the New Testament texts “documents of a mission.”1 N. T. Wright has noted that Paul, as a herald (Greek κήρυξ), made first-time proclamation of the gospel before passing on the task of caring for the churches he established to apostolic delegates.2 Others, such as Thomas Schreiner, have likewise stressed Paul’s role as a missionary in relation to his role as a theologian.3 My purpose in the present paper is to discuss how my own thinking has developed in the last couple decades regarding the biblical theology of mission. It is my hope that these reflections will serve both as a modest contribution to a better understanding of the Bible’s mission theology and as a case study of how a theologian’s thinking may develop over the course of one’s academic career and personal journey.

In 2001, IVP-UK, and subsequently IVP-US, published my co-authored work Salvation to the Ends of the Earth: A Biblical Theology of Mission in the New Studies in Biblical Theology (NSBT) series edited by D. A. Carson.4 Almost twenty years later, I was given the opportunity to prepare a second edition of this work, along with T. Desmond Alexander, who wrote the chapter on mission in the Old Testament.5 Since the original publication of Salvation to the Ends of the Earth, a number of significant works have appeared, including Eckhard Schnabel’s two-volume Early Christian Mission, Christopher Wright’s The Mission of God, and John Dickson’s Mission-Commitment in Ancient Judaism and in the Pauline Communities, not to mention numerous works on the “New Perspective on Paul” with implications for our understanding of the early church’s mission.6

The present article sets out to canvass developments in the literature on the biblical theology of mission in the last two decades and to summarize the most significant changes in the presentation of the biblical theology of mission in the second edition of Salvation to the Ends of the Earth. These changes include, among others: (1) moving from a literary-canonical to a more thoroughly grounded historical presentation; (2) connecting each of the so-called General (or Catholic) Epistles to a Gospel witness (e.g., 1–2 Peter with Mark); (3) consolidating the chapters on Luke–Acts and Paul into a single chapter; and (4) moving the chapter on mission in the Second Temple period to an appendix. The present article will present a rationale for these changes and argue that they significantly improve the presentation of a biblical theology of mission.

1. Changed Landscape

At the very outset, to facilitate comparison, it may be helpful to present the basic table of contents of both editions side by side:

First Edition Second Edition
1 Introduction
2 Old Testament
3 Second-temple period
4 Mark
5 Matthew
6 Luke–Acts
7 Paul
8 John
9 General Epistles and Revelation
10 Synthesis
1 Introduction
Part 1: Story of Israel
2 Old Testament
Part 2: Story of Jesus, Early Christians
3 Matthew, James, Hebrews
4 Mark, Peter, Jude
5 Luke–Acts, Paul
6 John (Gospel, letters, Apocalypse)
7 Conclusion
Appendix: Second-temple period


When writing the first edition, my collaborator, Peter O’Brien, and I simply divvied up the chapters based on previous work on the subject: he graciously volunteered to produce the chapters on the Old Testament, Luke–Acts, and Paul—three chapters with massive importance for a biblical theology of mission—while I covered the rest of the material: Matthew, Mark, John, the General Epistles and Revelation, and, last but not least, the Second Temple period. However, while this modus operandi proved eminently workable—especially since we wrote the book on two different continents with email and the internet still in their early stages—we worked largely in isolation (though we did read each other’s material and made suggestions for improvement).

By contrast, for the second edition, my new collaborator, T. Desmond Alexander, wrote a fresh chapter on mission in the Old Testament while I tackled the challenge of covering the entire New Testament. While a massive task, this had the advantage of me being able to take a more thoroughgoing historical and (meta-)narrative approach, which, I believe, strengthened the cohesiveness of the material. Important influences here were Christopher Wright and his seminal work The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative and N. T. Wright’s opus, including the inaugural volume of the Christian Origins and the Question of God series, The New Testament and the People of God.7 While Christopher Wright’s book is very heavy on the Old and rather light on the New Testament—no doubt reflecting his own primary area of expertise—it is to his great merit that he demonstrated the significance of the mission motif for the Bible’s metanarrative as a whole.

The other Wright—N. T.—placed an emphasis on a “story” hermeneutic grounded in critical realism, stressing the importance of worldview in forging one’s identity in relation to God.8 Consequently, we chose to present the Bible’s mission theology from the vantage point of “Israel’s story,” “the story of Jesus,” and “the story of the (early) church.” Within this framework, we followed a narrative framework for both Testaments, the Old and New Testament respectively, both within themselves as Testaments and in relation to each other. This, I believe, makes for a more coherent and cohesive presentation, especially with regard to the mission motif in the New Testament, which in the first edition was configured more along canonical lines. In fact, most chapters followed a book-by-book approach where the mission theme was considered in a given book or corpus.9

2. Greater Cohesiveness

Books on a major biblical-theological theme are at times hampered by a multi-author approach. While there are advantages to such an approach in that it capitalizes on people’s individual areas of research expertise, such volumes end up being invariably uneven.10 Thus, having a single author covering the entire New Testament enabled me to be consistent methodologically and to balance canonical, historical, and literary considerations in a way that would have been more difficult in a multi-author format.

2.1. Integrating the Gospels and Related New Testament Writers

In the first edition, the New Testament portion started with Mark—based on the tentative assumption of Markan priority—and then proceeded to Matthew (with an emphasis on the Great Commission), Luke–Acts (with Acts as the major highlight), Paul, then John, and finally the General Epistles and Revelation. In the second edition, I decided to follow the canonical order of the fourfold Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Also, rather than treating the General Epistles in a discrete chapter, I grouped each of them with one of the Gospels:

  • James and Hebrews with Matthew
  • 1–2 Peter and Jude with Mark
  • Paul’s letters with Luke–Acts; and
  • 1–3 John, as well as Revelation, with John.

Thus, the fourfold Gospel canon became the center of gravity for the entire New Testament’s mission theology, and the amorphous “General Epistles” category was broken up and related more organically to the respective Gospels, which, I believe, lent greater unity and cohesion to the presentation. The underlying rationale for divvying up the General Epistles to a given Gospel was as follows:

  • James and Hebrews, like Matthew, are representatives of early Jewish Christianity.
  • Peter most likely was a major source for Mark’s Gospel, as Mark and Peter were integrally connected in ministry (cf. 1 Pet 5:13).
  • In addition, Peter, in his second epistle, likely adapted portions of Jude’s letter.
  • Luke, for his part, was integrally involved in the Pauline mission.
  • The Johannine corpus is now united—Gospel, letters, and Revelation.

To be sure, this clustering of materials lengthened individual chapters, in particular the chapter on Luke–Acts and Paul. At the same time, however, I believe this approach provided for better integration, both literarily and in keeping with the way in which the mission of the early church unfolded historically.

2.2. Integrating Luke–Acts and Paul

With regard to Luke–Acts and Paul, Acts was given its proper, central place in the New Testament’s mission theology, both in conjunction with Luke’s Gospel and with Paul’s letters, providing the cohesive glue that holds all these writings together. Essentially, the tack was taken to use Luke–Acts as the framework and to cover Paul’s various epistles in conjunction with the various churches Paul planted—or, in a few cases, did not plant, such as Romans or Colossians. This meant that Galatians was covered in conjunction with the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15;11 Philippians in conjunction with Acts 16; 1–2 Thessalonians in conjunction with Acts 17; 1–2 Corinthians in conjunction with Acts 18; and Ephesians in conjunction with Acts 19.

The remaining material was discussed following Acts 28: Colossians and Philemon, Romans, and the letters to Titus and Timothy. In this way, the relationship Paul sustained with the various churches he planted—or even those he did not plant but corresponded with—emerged more clearly. In addition, Paul was treated, not in isolation from his church-planting endeavors, but rather his theology was reconceived in conjunction with his missionary and pastoral concerns for the various churches under his care.

The treatment of Romans, in particular, makes a significant contribution to a better understanding of the letter as it emerges more clearly as a missionary document and its theology can be understood more fully as missionally driven.12 This includes Paul’s pastoral concern for Jewish-Gentile unity in the Roman church exemplified by his collection for the Jerusalem church, his own missionary strategy using Rome as a stopping point on his way to Spain, and various other networking and strategic concerns. Thus (systematic) theology and (abstract) doctrine are dethroned as controlling elements and replaced by various factors that arose from Paul’s, and the early church’s, mission-related concerns.

2.3. Greater Balance among Paul’s Letters

Also, the coverage of Paul’s letters exhibits more balance and even-handedness. In the first edition, Romans essentially served as a template for a presentation of the Pauline gospel, with other subunits covering the spiritual warfare passage in Ephesians 6 in relation to the question of whether Paul encouraged his churches to evangelize. In the second edition, I discuss the contribution of all thirteen letters to a biblical theology of mission, including that of the letters to Timothy and Titus, which remained unmentioned in the original version.

In this way, I was able to incorporate some of my recent work stemming from a commentary I wrote on these letters in which I highlight the mission theology and embeddedness of 1–2 Timothy and Titus and argue that the mission motif provides a significant plank in the defense of the Pauline authorship of these letters.13 Essentially, I show that the letters to Titus and Timothy are most plausibly accommodated within Paul’s apostolic mission and share several significant points of connectivity. In Titus 1:5, Titus is told to appoint elders in every city on the island of Crete. In Acts 14:23, we see Paul and Barnabas appointing elders in every church in the province of Galatia. Acts mentions Paul and his coworkers briefly passing by Crete on their way to Rome (Acts 27:7–8, 12–13, 21), which provides a foundation for the later outreach to Crete. Titus is mentioned significantly in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians (2 Cor 2:12–13; 7:5–7, 13–15), not to mention Galatians (2:3).

These are just some of the ways in which the letters to Timothy and Titus are integrally related to the Pauline mission, most likely subsequent to the mission narrated in Acts.14 I have recently published an article advocating this thesis in the Bulletin of Biblical Research.15 I believe all those changes enhance the presentation of the biblical theology of mission both in capturing its historical unfolding and its literary, textual representation in the Scriptures.

3. Other Adjustments

In addition to these significant changes, I made several other strategic choices to achieve greater balance and accuracy in the presentation of a biblical theology of mission. This included moving the material on the Second Temple period to an appendix, focusing on the main leaders in the early Christian mission, and redressing the balance between history and literary matters.

3.1. Second Temple Period

The original edition featured a chapter on mission in the Second Temple period between the chapters on the Old and the New Testament (starting with Mark). However, upon further reflection, since this is supposed to be a biblical theology of mission, it seemed best to move the material in this chapter to an appendix rather than interrupting the flow from the Old to the New Testament. In this way, intercanonical connections are better demonstrated, while the historical background of mission between the Testaments is still treated in an appendix. This also avoids putting Second Temple sources on par with Scripture and moves this material into the background where it belongs. This is not to say that there may not be interesting implications to be drawn from Second Temple material. To the contrary, I continue to believe that the (relative) lack of Jewish missionary outreach is both consistent with a similar lack of intentional outreach attested in the Old Testament (Jonah being a partial exception) and even the New Testament Gospels (Matt 23:15 possibly referring to Jewish sectarian proselytization efforts rather than a literal, geographical missionary movement).

3.2. Greater Personal Focus

In general, there is in the new edition, especially in the New Testament chapters, a greater focus on persons and how they were interconnected with other individuals in the early church’s mission rather than merely on texts (though, of course, those persons wrote texts, so the two are integrally related). An example of the benefit of this procedure is that it leads to more naturally grouping John’s writings together rather than covering those in three separate chapters (Gospel, letters under General Epistles, and Revelation). It also, as mentioned, connects Peter with Mark, and Luke with Paul, who were demonstrably connected in ministry according to New Testament and patristic evidence.

This is also in keeping with recent work that points out that Acts was considered by some in the early centuries to provide the template for the New Testament letters, so that the references to James, Peter, and John, for example, were seen to provide the framework for the presence of letters written by those individuals gathered together in the later New Testament. In fact, the recent Greek New Testament Tyndale House edition follows this format, featuring the General Epistles immediately following Acts but prior to the Pauline epistles.16

I have also been influenced by the Swiss-German scholar Adolf Schlatter, whose two-volume New Testament Theology I have translated, and who also focuses significantly on the individual authors of the New Testament writings in light of their demonstrable historical interconnections.17 More recently, Michael Thompson has stressed the interconnectedness of the early Christians, calling them “the holy internet.”18 In all these ways, the second edition displays a greater focus on the persons who jointly led the early Christian mission, which constitutes an improvement over the earlier, more canonical approach that was otherwise not as well interconnected.

3.3. Balance between History and Literature/Text/Canon

At the same time, while seeking to improve the historical dimension of my presentation, I continued to be concerned with preserving certain canonical and literary boundaries. In this way, the literary integrity of individual New Testament writings is respected and observed in gauging the mission theology of a given text in its proper original discourse context, whether 1 Peter or the Gospel of Mark. In this way, my approach differs, for example, from that of Eckhard Schnabel, who in his magisterial two-volume work Early Christian Mission proceeds more topically within an overall chronological historical framework. Nevertheless, I greatly appreciate Schnabel’s assiduous attention to geographical details, which is reflected in the addition of several maps in the new edition of Salvation to the Ends of the Earth and in general more specific discussion of the geographical dimension of the early Christian mission, particularly in the chapter on Luke–Acts and Paul.

4. Conclusion

On the whole, in the two decades that passed since the publication of the original edition, much significant work has been done on the mission theme in the biblical writings. This, as mentioned, includes the seminal works by Christopher Wright, N. T. Wright, and Eckhard Schnabel, to mention but a few. This alone called for a serious upgrade and update of the original edition of Salvation to the Ends of the Earth. In addition, much work has been done on literary and metanarrative approaches, which suggested that the new edition pay close attention to the larger biblical storyline of which the mission theme is a part.

Having T. Desmond Alexander contribute the chapter on mission in the Old Testament was in line with this desire to strengthen the “story” dimension of the new edition, as Alexander has produced significant biblical-theological work along those lines, not only his well-known work From Eden to the New Jerusalem but also in his recent contribution to Crossway’s Short Studies in Biblical Theology series entitled The City of God and the Goal of Creation.19 In addition, having one author cover the entire New Testament has aided a more concerted focus on the cohesive nature of the biblical metanarrative with regard to mission.

It remains to be seen how reviewers will assess the contribution of the second edition of Salvation to the Ends of the Earth. No doubt further improvements will be suggested, or perhaps some will think that what I consider improvements are actually steps backwards or moving in the wrong direction. In any case, my purpose for writing this essay was primarily to articulate some of these changes and to provide a brief rationale for them in order to facilitate further discussion. This, I hope, will help to continue to improve and refine a better understanding of the dynamic that undergirds the missio Dei as presented in Scripture.

Mission is a topic of great relevance for the church today. Yet for this mission to be carried out with maximum effectiveness and divine blessing, it is critical that the church’s missionary practice is grounded in a biblical theology of mission. In this regard, it is vital that believers today place the mission of the contemporary church within the framework of, and in continuity with, the story of Israel, Jesus, and the early Christians. Just as Jesus’s followers continued his mission, so the church today is called to continue in the footsteps of the early Christians and true believers over the centuries of the church.

In this vein, it is essential to develop a holistic understanding of the biblical—in particular, the New Testament—teaching on mission. This calls for integration between the Gospels and related New Testament writers, especially an appreciation of the way in which the Pauline mission is embedded within Luke–Acts. Paul did not embark on mission alone; rather, he and others—the Pauline circle—went about God’s mission in a strategic and coordinated way that reflected collaboration and teamwork among the various New Testament voices and leaders of the early Christian movement.

In tracing the emergence of early Christianity, it is also helpful to study Paul’s letters in chronological order of writing and to consider the contribution of all of his letters to a biblical theology of mission. Rather than focusing on Paul individually, and selecting one book (such as Romans) as the primary focus, such a chronological approach does greater justice to the historical unfolding of the early Christian mission. In these and other ways, we can attain a more accurate and balanced apprehension of the biblical theology of mission, so that the way in which the church engages in mission today can be more effective, organic, and honoring to God.

[1] I. Howard Marshall, New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 34–35.

[2] N. T. Wright, “Paul’s Western Missionary Project: Jerusalem, Rome, Spain in Historical and Theological Perspectives,” in The Last Years of Paul: Essays from the Tarragona Conference, June 2013, ed. Armand Puig i Tàrrech, John M. G. Barclay, and Jörg Frey, WUNT 352 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015), 49–66.

[3] Thomas R. Schreiner, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2020).

[4] Andreas J. Köstenberger and Peter T. O’Brien, Salvation to the Ends of the Earth: A Biblical Theology of Mission, NSBT 11 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001).

[5] Andreas J. Köstenberger with T. Desmond Alexander, Salvation to the Ends of the Earth: A Biblical Theology of Mission, 2nd ed., NSBT 53 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2020).

[6] Eckhard J. Schnabel, Early Christian Mission, 2 vols. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004); Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006); John P. Dickson, Mission-Commitment in Ancient Judaism and in the Pauline Communities, WUNT 2/159 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003); N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 2 vols., Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013).

[7] Christopher Wright, The Mission of God; N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991).

[8] Or, in N. T. Wright’s case, “god”; somewhat idiosyncratically, he does not capitalize “god.”

[9] On the spectrum of approaches to Biblical Theology, see Andreas J. Köstenberger, “The Present and Future of Biblical Theology,” Themelios 37 (2012): 445–64.

[10] One recent example is the generally excellent volume, Trevor J. Burke and Keith Warrington, eds., A Biblical Theology of the Holy Spirit (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2014).

[11] While it is likely that Galatians was written prior to the Jerusalem Council, most likely in the aftermath of the famine visit in Acts 11:28–30, there is an implicit connection between Galatians and the Jerusalem Council in that Galatians deals with the same issues that are subsequently taken up by the Council (cf. Gal. 2:1–10). See the detailed discussion in Andreas J. Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown, 2nd ed. (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 492–94.

[12] See the important essay by N. T. Wright, “Paul’s Western Missionary Project.”

[13] Andreas J. Köstenberger, 1–2 Timothy and Titus, Exegetical Biblical Theological Commentary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2021), 361–85.

[14] See the discussion of Pauline chronology in Köstenberger, 1–2 Timothy and Titus, 24–32.

[15] Andreas J. Köstenberger, “An Investigation of the Mission Motif in the Letters to Timothy and Titus with Implications for the Pauline Authorship of the Pastoral Epistles,” BBR 29 (2019): 49–64.

[16] The Greek New Testament, Produced at Tyndale House, Cambridge (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018).

[17] Adolf Schlatter, The Theology of the Apostles: The Development of New Testament Theology, trans. Andreas J. Köstenberger (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999).

[18] Michael B. Thompson, “The Holy Internet: Communication between Churches in the First Christian Generation,” in Richard J. Bauckham, ed., The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 49–70.

[19] T. Desmond Alexander, From Eden to the New Jerusalem: An Introduction to Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005); The City of God and the Goal of Creation, Short Studies in Biblical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018).

Andreas J. Köstenberger

Andreas Köstenberger is research professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology and director of the Center for Biblical Studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri.

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