The Mission of God
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The Mission of God

Unlocking The Bible's Grand Narrative

Christopher J H Wright

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eBook - ePub

The Mission of God

Unlocking The Bible's Grand Narrative

Christopher J H Wright

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About This Book

Winner, 2007 Christianity Today Missions/Global Affairs BookThe Bible doesn't just provide a basis for mission. Mission is much bigger! Mission is the basis for the whole Bible - it is generated by, and is all about, God's mission.In order to understand the Bible, we need an interpretative perspective that is in tune with this great missional theme. We need to see the 'big picture' of God's mission and how all parts of Scripture fit into its grand narrative.In this comprehensive and accessible study, Chris Wright begins with the Old Testament understanding of who God is, what he has called his people to be and to do, and where the nations belong within God's mission. These themes are followed into the New Testament. Throughout, Wright emphasizes that biblically-defined mission is intrinsically holistic. God's mission is to redeem his whole creation from all that sin and evil have inflicted upon it, and the mission of God's people must reflect the breadth of God's righteous and saving love for all he has made.

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Mission is what the Bible is all about; we could as meaningfully talk of the missional basis of the Bible as of the biblical basis of mission. Now this is a bold claim. One would not expect to be able to turn the other way any phrase that began “The biblical basis of . . . ” There is, for example, a biblical basis for marriage, but there is not, obviously, a marital basis for the Bible. There is a biblical basis for work, but work is not what the Bible is all about. So isn’t my assertion rather exaggerated or even conceited? Indeed, in view of the enormous variety of the contents of the Bible and the huge scholarly literature devoted to exploring every highway and byway of genre, authorship, context, ideology, date, editing, and history of all these documents, does it make sense to speak of the Bible being “all about” anything?
I take some encouragement in persisting with my claim from the words of the risen Jesus as recorded in Luke 24.1 First to the two on the road to Emmaus and then later to the rest of the disciples, Jesus made himself as Messiah the focus of the whole canon of the Hebrew Scriptures that we now call the Old Testament (vv. 27, 44). So we are accustomed to speaking of the christological focus or center of the Bible. For Christians the whole Bible revolves around the person of Christ.
Jesus went on, however, beyond his messianic centering of the Old Testament Scriptures to their missional thrust as well.2
Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” (Lk 24:45-47)
Jesus’ whole sentence comes under the rubric “this is what is written.” Luke does not present Jesus as quoting any specific verse from the Old Testament, but he claims that the mission of preaching repentance and forgiveness to the nations in his name is “what is written.” He seems to be saying that the whole of the Scripture (which we now know as the Old Testament) finds its focus and fulfillment both in the life and death and resurrection of Israel’s Messiah, and in the mission to all nations, which flows out from that event.3 Luke tells us that with these words Jesus “opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures,” or, as we might put it, he was setting their hermeneutical orientation and agenda. The proper way for disciples of the crucified and risen Jesus to read their Scriptures, is messianically and missionally.
Paul, though he was not present for the Old Testament hermeneutics lecture on the day of resurrection, clearly found that his encounter with the risen Jesus and his recognition of Jesus as Messiah and Lord radically transformed his (Paul’s) own way of reading his Scriptures. His hermeneutic now had the same double focus. Testifying before Festus he declares, “I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen—that the Messiah would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the nations” (Acts 26:22-23, modified NIV, emphasis added). This dual understanding of the Scriptures then shaped Paul’s whole resumé as the apostle of the Messiah Jesus to the Gentiles.
Down through the centuries it would probably be fair to say that Christians have been good at their messianic reading of the Old Testament but inadequate (and sometimes utterly blind) at their missional reading of it. We read the Old Testament messianically or christologically in the light of Jesus; that is, we find in it a whole messianic theology and eschatology that we see as fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. In doing so we follow his own example, of course, and that of his first followers and the authors of the Gospels. But what we have so often failed to do is to go beyond the mere satisfaction of ticking off so-called messianic predictions that have “been fulfilled.” And we have failed to go further because we have not grasped the missional significance of the Messiah.
The Messiah was the promised one who would embody in his own person the identity and mission of Israel, as their representative, King, Leader and Savior. Through the Messiah as his anointed agent, YHWH, the God of Israel, would bring about all that he intended for Israel. But what was that mission of Israel? Nothing less than to be “a light to the nations,” the means of bringing the redemptive blessing of God to all the nations of the world, as originally promised in the title deeds of the covenant with Abraham. For the God of Israel is also the Creator God of all the world.
Through the Messiah, therefore, the God of Israel would also bring about all that he intended for the nations. The eschatological redemption and restoration of Israel would issue in the ingathering of the nations. The full meaning of recognizing Jesus as Messiah then lies in recognizing also his role in relation to God’s mission for Israel for the blessing of the nations. Hence, a messianic reading of the Old Testament has to flow on to a missional reading—which is precisely the connection that Jesus makes in Luke 24.
We recognize that the christological focus of the Bible operates in many different ways—some direct and others much more indirect. To speak of the Bible being “all about Christ” does not (or should not) mean that we try to find Jesus of Nazareth in every verse by some feat of imagination. Rather we mean that the person and work of Jesus become the central hermeneutical key by which we, as Christians, articulate the overall significance of these texts in both Testaments. Christ provides the hermeneutical matrix for our reading of the whole Bible.
The same is true of the missiological focus of the Bible. To say that the Bible is “all about mission” does not mean that we try to find something relevant to evangelism in every verse. We are referring to something deeper and wider in relation to the Bible as a whole. In a missiological approach to the Bible we are thinking of
• the purpose for which the Bible exists
• the God the Bible renders to us
• the people whose identity and mission the Bible invites us to share
• the story the Bible tells about this God and this people and indeed about the whole world and its future
This is a story that encompasses past, present and future, “life, the universe and everything.” There is the closest connection between the biblical grand narrative and what is meant here by biblical mission. To attempt a missional hermeneutic, then, is to ask: Is it possible, is it valid, is it profitable, for Christians to read the Bible as a whole from a missional perspective, and what happens when they do? Can we take mission as a hermeneutical matrix for our understanding of the Bible as a whole?
Before outlining in chapter two some contours of an approach that would answer those questions affirmatively, we will look first in chapter one at several ways in which the Bible is related to mission in contemporary writing on the matter—ways that have their own validity and significant contributions to make, but do not seem quite adequate to what I have in mind as a comprehensively missional approach to biblical hermeneutics. Chapter one, then, outlines some steps in the search for a missional hermeneutic—but in each case I believe we need to go further.
1This text was also taken as a starting point for a biblical theology of mission in 1971 by Henry C. Goerner, Thus It Is Written (Nashville: Broadman, 1971).
2The use of missional rather than missiological here seems appropriate in the light of the definitions in the introduction (pp. 24-25), since Jesus was not only offering a fresh theological reflection on the Scriptures but also committing his disciples to the mission, such reflection must now mandate “. . . must be preached,” “You are witnesses . . . .”
3I use Messiah here as the conventional indicator of the wide diversity of Old Testament terms used to describe the one through whom YHWH would bring about his expected redemption and restoration of Israel, even though “messiah” as a term in Hebrew is not used in the Old Testament as a functional title of the coming redeemer (except probably in Dan 9:25).


Searching for a Missional Hermeneutic

There are more than enough books offering biblical foundations for Christian mission.1 Not all of them are of the same quality, however. Some are tracts to the already converted, providing justification for the task to which writer and readers are already committed. Some pay no attention to critical scholarship; others, perhaps, too much.2 Too many, more culpably, pay scant attention to the bulk of the Bible itself—the Old Testament. What they seek to do, however, is clear: to find appropriate biblical justification and authority for the mission of the Christian church to the nations. This may be in order to encourage those already engaged in such mission with the assurance that what they do is biblically grounded, or it may be to motivate those who are not yet engaged in it with the warning that they are living in disobedience to biblical imperatives.

Beyond “Biblical Foundations for Mission”

Biblical apologetic for mission. Such work, which might be called “biblical apologetic for mission,” is of great importance. It would, after all, be a shattering thing if the church were suddenly seized by the conviction that all the missionary effort of two thousand years was grounded in no clear warrant of Scripture. From time to time, of course, there have been voices that argued exactly that. Indeed, it was against such voices, arguing theologically and biblically (as they thought), that mission to the nations was not required of good Christian citizens, that William Carey developed his biblical case for “the conversion of the heathens,” becoming one of the first in the modern period to do so.3
The illustrious example of Carey, however, points to a shortcoming inherent in many “biblical foundations for mission” projects. Carey built the whole of the biblical section of his case on a single text, the so-called Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20, arguing that it was as valid in his own day as in the days of the apostles, and that its imperative claim on the disciples of Christ had not lapsed with the first generation (as the opponents of foreign mission argued). While we would probably agree with his hermeneutical argument and that his choice of text was admirable, it leaves the biblical case vulnerably thin. We might defend Carey with the consideration that it was an achievement in his context to make a biblical case for mission at all, albeit from a single text. Less defensible has been the continuing practice in many missionary circles to go on and on building the massive edifice of Christian missionary agency on this one text, with varying degrees of exegetical ingenuity. If you put all your apologetic eggs in one textual basket, what happens if the handle breaks?
What happens, for example, if all the emphasis on the word Go in much mission rhetoric is undermined by the recognition that it is not an imperative at all in the text but a participle of attendant circumstances, an assumption—something taken for granted? Jesus did not primarily command his disciples to go; he commanded them to make disciples. But since he now commands them to make disciples of the nations (having previously restricted their mission to the borders of Israel during his earthly lifetime), they will have to go to the nations as a necessary condition of obeying the primary command.
What happens if one questions the common assumption that this text gives some kind of timetable for the return of Christ: he will come back just as soon as we have all the nations discipled? And is discipling a task that can ever be said to be completed (noting in passing that the text does say “disciple,” not evangelize)? Doesn...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Title
  3. Copyright
  4. Contents
  5. Outline of the Book
  6. Preface
  7. Introduction
  8. Part I: The Bible and Mission
  9. Part II: The God of Mission
  10. Part III: The People of Mission
  11. Part IV: The Arena of Mission
  12. Epilogue
  13. Bibliography
  14. Name Index
  15. Subject Index
  16. Scripture Index
  17. Langham Literature
Citation styles for The Mission of God

APA 6 Citation

Wright, C. (2020). The Mission of God ([edition unavailable]). IVP. Retrieved from (Original work published 2020)

Chicago Citation

Wright, Christopher. (2020) 2020. The Mission of God. [Edition unavailable]. IVP.

Harvard Citation

Wright, C. (2020) The Mission of God. [edition unavailable]. IVP. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Wright, Christopher. The Mission of God. [edition unavailable]. IVP, 2020. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.