Missiological Foundations: Jesus

Synopsis:

This article explores the influence of Jesus’ teaching and practice on contemporary methods of mission agencies, and outlines missiological foundations that give direction to the Wycliffe Global Alliance.

US evangelical missions often cite Matthew 28:18-20 as the Great Commission, their motivational basis particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries, when many Bible institutes and faith mission organizations in the US were formed. Their devotion and zeal for evangelism followed the principles they observed in the Great Commission. This theological emphasis greatly influenced William Cameron Townsend, Wycliffe’s founder.

The gospels provide an overview of the scope Jesus had in mind for the mission of God. This scope includes a focus on preaching the good news across the world; an emphasis on making disciples of all people groups; and the Trinitarian nature of mission.

The Apostle Luke’s account in Acts 1:8 is often read as an account of the geographical spread of the gospel. Luke refers to barriers of faith, community, language, culture and worldview when he speaks of Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, etc. Overcoming those same barriers and boundaries to mission are also implied.

While mission does involve people in planning and action, it is primarily not about them or their activity or initiative. When Jesus declared, “as the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (Jn 20:21), he explicitly stated that God the Father is at the centre of the mission of God. Scripture provides a model for us: the Father sends Jesus and Jesus sends the Church, empowered by the Spirit.

Full Article: Article 8 – Missiological Foundations: Jesus

Introduction

The purpose of this article is to outline missiological foundations that influence the Wycliffe Global Alliance. These are based upon mission history including the history of Bible translation. They explore more current understandings of the missio Dei (mission of God) from cross sections of the church. Many of these fundamentals have influenced the practices of mission agencies including Wycliffe. They are based upon biblical interpretations of the mission of God influenced by Jesus’ teaching and practice and that of the Apostle Paul.

This article explores the influence of Jesus’ teaching and practice on contemporary practices of mission agencies.

Mission According to Jesus

Theological influences on the Wycliffe Global Alliance

Historically, the greatest theological influence upon Wycliffe has been its roots in the US evangelical soil. This origin has shaped how its US Christian supporters have viewed the concept of the mission of God and in turn how this shaped the organization’s understanding (or lack thereof) of the mission of God. Timothy Tennent is helpful in interpreting what this means. He points out that this perspective sees mission as “almost exclusively [about the] various tasks the church is doing” (2010:54). However, this is not the classical view of the mission of God, which is “about God and His redemptive initiative” (Tennent 2010:54).

Due to the conservative evangelical heritage of Wycliffe, the theological influence upon its formation and operation for over 70 years has been an interpretation of the ‘Great Commission’ texts, in particular Matthew 28:18-20. Tennent points out that the Great Commission is “frequently treated as an isolated pericope, separated from the rest of the gospel as well as the larger biblical context of the missio Dei” (2010:127). The Matthew text is often cited by evangelical missions in the US as the Great Commission and has been the motivational basis for them particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries.

William Carey…, often referred to as the ‘father of the modern missionary movement’, indirectly referenced Matthew 28:18-20 as the basis for his understanding of evangelism.

Even earlier, William Carey (1761-1834), often referred to as the ‘father of the modern missionary movement’, indirectly referenced Matthew 28:18-20 as the basis for his understanding of evangelism. He developed his view in his booklet, ‘Enquiry into the obligation of Christians to use means for the conversion of heathens’ (1792). His thesis was to determine whether “the commission given by our Lord to His disciples [is] still binding on us; [to] consider the practicability of doing something more than is done; and [to] discuss the duty of Christians in general on this matter” (Hunt 2010:83).

While Carey himself never used the term ‘Great Commission’, just ‘commission’, his conclusion was that Christians needed to work together to take the gospel to unevangelized people (or today what might be called ‘unreached people groups’). At the time, Carey’s booklet was a catalyst that motivated Christians in the USA and UK to become vigorous in their obedience to fulfil the Great Commission (Peskett & Ramachandra 2003).

William Cameron Townsend, Wycliffe’s founder, grew up in the late 19th century when many Bible institutes and faith mission organizations in the US were simultaneously being formed. It was a happy ‘marriage’ because “the Bible institutes nurtured a unique spiritual vision, and the faith missions provided the outlet for putting that vision to the test” (Svelmoe 2008:18). Their devotion and zeal for evangelism followed the principles they observed in the Great Commission and this greatly influenced Townsend. For example, when articulating his burden for the urgency of Bible translation he told his colleagues of his “real concern of hastening the return of our Lord and the coming of that Great Day when we can look out on the throng of the redeemed from every tribe and nation and language” (Hibbard 2007:68).

At the heart of this positive belief was the concept of ‘manifest destiny’ which reached its zenith in 1880-1920.

The Bible institutes and mission organizations believed that the missionary personified “a near legendary role” in the evangelical movement’s positive vision of itself and “all that was best in the movement” (Svelmoe 2008:18). At the heart of this positive belief was the concept of ‘manifest destiny’ which reached its zenith in 1880-1920. It went beyond the scope of the Great Commission with its Old Testament understanding of a ‘chosen people’. David Bosch elaborates that as a result,

at one point or another in recent history, virtually every white nation regarded itself as being chosen for a particular destiny and as having a unique charisma…. It was only to be expected that the nationalistic spirit would, in due time, be absorbed into missionary ideology, and Christians of a specific nation would develop the conviction that they had an exceptional role to play in the advancement of the kingdom of God through the missionary enterprise. (1991:299)

This vision of what God could do through a nation and an individual devoted to further the Great Commission greatly influenced Townsend as he left the comforts of the US and headed by steamer to Guatemala to sell Spanish Bibles. His response turned out to be just a stepping stone to gaining a greater vision of Bible translation for what much later became known as ‘unreached people groups’.

Five statements of Jesus

I return now to the five statements Jesus made that provide an overview of the scope he had in mind for the mission of God. Tennent suggests these five texts “can appropriately be called commissions or Great Commissions, in the plural” (2010:128). Therefore, the singular reference of ‘commission’ is more accurately a reference to the collection of these texts.

Five statements Jesus made … provide an overview of the scope he had in mind for the mission of God.

In Mark 16:15-20 Jesus focuses on preaching the good news across the world. This is significant because it is the only text “carrying the technical terminology of ‘preaching the gospel’… to the widest possible horizon, ‘all creation’” (Balia & Kim 2010:28). Furthermore, it refers to supernatural work of the Holy Spirit through ‘signs and wonders’ (Balia & Kim 2010:28).

In Luke 24:46-48, the author links together the cross, the resurrection and the worldwide proclamation of the gospel to show how the gospel will impact people. Luke presents it as a fact (the death and resurrection of Jesus) and a promise (it will be accomplished in the power of the Holy Spirit) (Bosch 1991:91).

Matthew’s version (28:18-20) focuses on how disciples are to be made of all people (groups). He portrays it as a matter of response (going) and, as one goes, disciples are ‘made’ through baptizing and teaching. This task “means to bring people into pupilage to Jesus Christ, to enroll them in his school; it implies radical, long-term commitment [thus this text has] resounded perhaps more than any others in the international history of the Christian church and mission” (Peskett & Ramachandra 2003:174). The commission itself rests upon Jesus’ presence and his divine authority. As Tennent (2010:137) states, “Jesus’ being precedes the church’s doing”.

Turning to John 20:19-23, one notes that mission is clearly Trinitarian: “the Father is the sender. Jesus, as the sent one, sends the church. The Holy Spirit is imparted to the disciples for His presence, guidance, and empowerment of the mission” (Tennent 2010:156).

Finally, Luke’s account in Acts 1:8 is often read as a geographical spread of the gospel. Tennent says a more accurate reading is how the “ethnic [and] cross-cultural progression… is fundamentally about peoples, not places” (2010:152). Luke uses “Jesus’ own words to outline how his compact account of church history will unfold” (Gailey & Culbertson 2007:33). Luke refers to barriers of faith, community, language, culture and worldview when he uses the place names of Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, etc. The barriers and boundaries to mission are also implied, such as language, culture, religion and worldview.

Implications of Jesus’ statements

Some mission strategists suggest that these accounts of Jesus’ words enable the church to determine where world evangelization is still needed (Terry, Smith & Anderson 1998:668). Others suggest it is unwise to reduce these statements to simple mandates of mission or even tools for evaluating mission effectiveness. A further note of concern is how Christians have studied the Great Commission texts removed from their wider Scriptural contexts and “thus unwittingly denuded them of some of their power” (Klauber & Manetsch 2009:177). Chris Wright states that every generation, whether Christianized or not, needs to be disciple oriented because “the Great Commission is an expanding and self-replicating task, not a ticking clock for the end times” (2006:35).

Indeed each Great Commission account taken in its broader context should bring greater reflection in mission practice. In John’s record for example, Jesus appears to the disciples and twice gives them the greeting of “peace be with you!” (20:19, 21). Although this was a common greeting and blessing (Hebrew: shalom), it carries with it much greater significance, as Samuel Ngewa indicates:

The world in general and the African continent in particular, needs to hear Jesus’ words “peace be with you”. Year after year, Africa remains a bleeding continent…. Yet when Jesus spoke these words to the disciples, he was focusing on peace of mind and heart. May that peace, too, be our experience in Africa as we wait for the peace in the external realm…. Much of the self-inflicted lack of peace in Africa has been born of animosity and differences – whether ideological, ethnic or religious…. We are all called to live in peace…. Those who have been widowed and orphaned by war, AIDS, famine or some other cause need to hear the voice of Jesus’ followers (the church) echoing our master’s words, ‘peace be with you’. If the church of Christ lived up to its master’s example, people’s needs for food, clothing, counseling, encouragement or a sense of belonging would be met. (Adeyemo 2006:1294)

Old Testament prophets…assumed the Messiah would come as a king of peace who brings “peace to the nations” (Zch 9:10).

Old Testament prophets longed for the day when “God’s Kingdom comes among them to end exile and usher in a new era” (Roxburgh & Romanuk 2006:20). They assumed the Messiah would come as a king of peace who brings “peace to the nations” (Zch 9:10).

The risen Christ spoke to the frightened disciples and showed them his hands and his feet as evidence of his resurrection (Jn 20:20). He stated that he was sending them out as his witnesses. The sight of “his nail-marked hands must have impressed upon them that his mission entailed suffering, and therefore so must theirs” (Burnett 1996:134). The cross of Christ is a costly one, and it is “uniquely the badge of distinction of the Christian faith” (Bosch 1991:513).

The sending nature of God is an integral part of his saving and his speaking.

When Jesus declared “as the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (Jn 20:21), he explicitly stated that God the Father is at the centre of the mission of God. The sending nature of God is an integral part of his saving and his speaking. The model given is the Father sends Jesus and Jesus sends the Church, empowered by the Spirit.

It was the Holy Spirit who identified the first missionaries at the church of Antioch, sent them on their way and guided them. This event along with the resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost “thrust the early church outward into [an] ‘explosion of joy’” (Tennent 2010:99).

The John account is linked with the sending dimension of the Spirit originating with God the Father. However, the emphasis in the Matthew account is placed on individuals being called to go and make disciples. But this is within the context of the presence of Jesus and his authority – his being preceding his doing, “a point too easily forgotten by a task-oriented church” (Tennent 2010:137). An important distinction in interpreting the Great Commission as being up to humans to achieve as a task on one hand, and the mission of God on the other, has “shifted the ownership of mission from the church to God” (Kim 2009:28).

Bosch elaborates by stating that the mission of God is “God’s self-revelation as the One who loves the world, God’s involvement in and with the world, the nature and activity of God, which embraces both the church and the world, and in which the church is privileged to participate” (1991:10). Thus mission was at the heart of the Trinitarian God and the church “was also seen to be missionary by its very nature and its mission was seen as a participation in the greater mission of God” (Kim 2009:29).

In summary, while mission does involve people in planning and action, it is primarily not about them or their activity or initiative. Rather, as Wright states, “mission from the point of view of our human endeavour means the committed participation of God’s people in the purposes of God for the redemption of the whole creation. The mission is God’s. The marvel is that God invites us to join in” (Wright 2006:67).

Mission to the Samaritans as a Motif

How the Jews viewed the Samaritans

In Acts 1:8, Jesus singles out the proclamation of the gospel to Samaria with good reason. There was ongoing tension between the Jews and Samaritans because the “Samaritans were at the bottom of the ladder of social stratification” (Kraybill 1978:202). Anything that a Samaritan touched was considered by a Jew to be unclean. Worse still, an entire Jewish community was declared tainted if a Samaritan woman stayed there. It would have been an obvious choice for the early Jewish believers to ignore their responsibility to proclaim the good news to these neighbours. Fortunately they did not, even though the divisional feud between the Jews and Samaritans was 450 years old and the Jews thought the Samaritans were religious and racial ‘half castes’ (2 Ki 17:24-28).

When Jews moved between the two Jewish areas of Galilee and Judea they usually detoured around Samaria so they would not get attacked by the Samaritans. However, Jesus ignored this tradition when he took a shortcut right through Samaritan country (Jn 4).

Jesus’ view of the Samaritans

Jesus’ concern for the Samaritans was demonstrated by his visit with the woman of Samaria (Jn 4). Arthur Glasser observes, “[i]n true Kingdom fashion he ignored the racial and religious issues that kept Jews and Samaritans apart and built a bridge of love and understanding to her” (2003:207). What Jesus did was consistent with what happened throughout Scripture as “God’s future comes from the bottom up to the most unlikely people and places” (Roxburgh and Romanuk 2006:21).

Jesus’ conversation with the woman of Samaria modelled for his disciples how the gospel will overcome barriers.

Furthermore, Jesus’ conversation with the woman of Samaria modelled for his disciples how the gospel will overcome barriers. In this case, Jesus violated four Jewish traditions: 1) speaking to a woman (men were not to even look at a married woman in public let alone talk to them); 2) relating to a promiscuous person (rabbis and holy men fled from such people); 3) being with a Samaritan (Jews were forbidden to speak with Samaritans), and 4) accepting a drink from an ‘unclean’ person (due to her menstruation anything a woman touched was considered to be unclean and her handing Jesus a container of water would make Jesus unclean in accepting it).

Jesus’ acceptance of the woman from Samaria resulted in her pursuing her spiritual thirst. She is the only person in the Gospels who receives the honour of hearing the Messiah identify himself in the first person, “I who speak to you am he” (Jn 4:26). Jesus’ treatment of her was typical of how he viewed all people – he elevated them to authentic personhood and showed that they were worthy of respect and God’s love.

Jesus chose this stigmatized enemy to demonstrate the nature of love as expressed in the kingdom of God.

This was not Jesus’ only encounter with Samaritans. When James and John faced opposition from the Samaritans, Jesus refused to comply with the disciples’ wish to destroy the Samaritan villages (Lk 9:51-55). When he sent out the 12 disciples Jesus told them not to enter Samaria because their attitude (Lk 9:52-56) indicated to him that were not ready to minister to the Samaritans (Mt 10:5-6). In Jesus’ parable in Luke (10:30-37) the man beaten by robbers was ignored by a priest and a Levite. Surprisingly, it was a Samaritan who took pity on the man and used his own resources to look after him. In this story Jesus chose this stigmatized enemy to demonstrate the nature of love as expressed in the kingdom of God.

There are three accounts of how Samaritans responded to Jesus and the gospel: 1) the woman of Samaria (Jn 4) informed her community about her life-changing encounter with Jesus; 2) a Samaritan was the only one of ten lepers to give thanks after Jesus healed them and subsequently he was the only one who received Jesus’ blessing (Lk 17:11-17); and 3) after the early believers were dispersed because of the growing persecution against the church in Jerusalem, Philip went to Samaria to preach the gospel (Ac 8:5-8). The crowds listened to him, people were set free from demonic possession, and others were healed. As Luke records, “there was much joy in the city” (Ac 8:8) because God had entered into their situation and set some free.

Jesus pronounced his reign as good news for the poor. It was not just the Samaritans that Jesus expressed an interest in. He also had a focus on the poor around him. In the context of Jesus’ focus, the poor are “the materially deprived or the spiritually humble” (Glasser 2003:215).

This focus of Jesus should not come as a surprise since “God is always turning up in the most forsaken of places” (Roxburgh & Romanuk 2006:21) The inauguration of God’s kingdom through the incarnation provides an indication of God’s attitude towards poverty and injustice.

06/2022 Asia-Pacific

The Joint Partnership Event in Asia-Pacific

Eighteen organisations from the Wycliffe Global Alliance’s Asia-Paci...

Read more

06/2022 Europe

Through a Child’s Eyes

Last year, Wycliffe Germany developed a new corporate design. This got...

Read more

06/2022 Europe

Alliance organisations continue focus on Ukraine

Now in its fifth month, the war in Ukraine continues to upend life and...

Read more