A Theology of Missions

Jesus commands us to go and make disciples. Why don’t we take Him seriously?

By Mark D. Harris

18And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.  19″Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,  20teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

This passage, so brief and so full of meaning and power to the followers of Jesus Christ, has changed the world.  The day that Jesus died, probably sometime in the spring of 30 AD, there were about 120 people who followed Him.  That night and the following Sabbath they cowered, despairing at the death of the One they loved so much, bewildered about what they were supposed to do next, and desperately hoping that the authorities were not going to murder them too.  When Sunday came and they found the tomb empty, these emotions mixed with a too-good-to-be-true excitement.  When they finally saw Him and realized that Jesus had really risen from the dead, the worries and questions dissolved into answers.  The One they loved had beaten death, their next task was whatever He directed, and they no longer cared what the authorities did.  If Jesus defeated death, those who loved Him would too.

In the last act of His earthly ministry, Jesus gave His followers their final marching orders, the verses listed above.  Over the next 2000 years the Christians, as they came to be known, spread His story to every continent, every race, and every tongue.  The 120 followers of Jesus grew into 1.5 billion, 25% of the earth’s population, who call themselves Christians.  No man alive has been untouched by the influence of the Man from Galilee.

Not everyone, however, thinks that this influence is a good thing.  Some say that all religions are equal and so trying to convert someone to another religion is arrogant and destabilizing.  Others say that missionaries are “bigoted cultural imperialists”1.  Many countries including Israel and the Muslim world, many Indian states, and other areas have laws prohibiting missionary work and some even have laws making conversion to another religion illegal2.  There are even professing Christians who believe that missionary work and even evangelism are unnecessary.

A Theology of Missions

What then, is the truth?  Does God want His followers today to spread the story of Jesus to others or not? If we are to share the Good News, who should we share it with?  How are we to share it?  What are the key messages to convey?  To answer these questions we must have a framework of understanding missions, a “Theology of Missions”.  We will discover that God’s mission, and therefore our mission, is to bring the entire world, whosoever will, into right relationship with Him.  This mission is worldwide and for all time and eternity3. A good place to begin any discussion is by defining key terms.  In evangelical Christianity, “missions” means “the task of making disciples in all nations” and “mission” refers to everything the Church does to glorify God.  “Missio Dei”, a Latin term, refers to everything God has done and is doing to establish His perfect plan in the universe, and “missiology” is the formal study of “mission” 4.

Having defined our terms, the next step is to study the revealed Word of God, the Bible, to discover what God thinks and feels about missions.  Genesis 1:1 is the foundation.  God created the heavens and the earth and everything therein.  The rest of that pivotal chapter tells us that God created the physical universe, the earth, the plants and animals, and Man.  It also tells us that everything He created was good.  The Sovereign Lord of the Universe made everything so He owns it, He cares about it, and humans, the rulers of the earth made in His image, must take care of everything, and everyone, He has made.   Two chapters later we discover the problem, the rebellion of man and the subjugation of creation (Romans 8:20-22).  The rest of the Bible is a story of God’s work to redeem what He has made, Missio Dei, and our part in that, Mission.

Genesis 12:1-3 describes the first part of God’s plan of redemption.  He selected one man to father a people who would reflect the goodness and glory of God to the whole earth.  Note that election is for mission and not for privilege; a minority is elected to bear the good news to the majority5. Romans 4:13 and Galatians 3:8 emphasize the universality of Abraham’s mission.  Over time Abraham’s descendents multiply into a mighty nation and move into their own land, Canaan.  But more than just Abraham’s people are there; a mixed multitude joined the Israelites (Exodus 12:38). Psalm 67 sings out in beautiful poetry that God’s concern is not only for the people of Israel but for the world.  Dozens of places in the Old Testament teach that Israel was chosen by God not because of its own goodness or for its own sake but to bless the entire world (Psalm 2, 33, 66, 72, 98, 117, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Habakkuk, Micah, Jonah and Zephaniah).  The OT conclusion is clear:  God’s concern is that the entire world is brought back into right relationship with Him.

The New Testament is even clearer.  God the Son, Jesus Christ, has come to earth in the climax of the Father’s plan for the redemption of His creation.  Matthew 9:35-38 shows Christ’s profound compassion for the lost.  Matthew 24:14 prophesies that the gospel will be proclaimed to the entire world before the end comes.  The Great Commission (and its corresponding passages in Mark 16:14-18, Luke 24:36-49 and John 20:19-23) is the passage cited above and is the clearest statement of the Lord’s compassion for the whole world.  Though the Reformers thought this command was limited to the original disciples, given Jesus’ call for unity in all ways in the body in John 17 6, there is little reason to limit it such.  Passages in Mark describe other facets of God’s heart in missions, including His suffering and the disciples’ difficulty in doing what He requires.  Luke emphasizes Jesus as the Sent One, preaching good news to the poor, proclaiming freedom to prisoners and sight to the blind, releasing the captives, and proclaiming the year of the Lord (4:18-19). John also focuses on Jesus, this time as the center of mission.

Acts describes God’s work in spreading the gospel among not only the Jews but also among the Gentiles.  The whole book concerns the progression of the faith across boundaries of race, tongue, religion, and even political borders.  From the cornerstone verse in Acts 1:8 to the final judgment in Revelation 23:11-15, the gospel is spread to all mankind.

Looking at these passages, the next question is how does the nature of God relate to missions?  Simply stated, creation, morality, emotion, and spirituality are outgrowths of His nature.  If “real” is defined as “actually existing as created by God”, then God’s nature is the source from which all real things in the universe flow.  He is beautiful and so His Creation is beautiful.  He is intelligent and so we are intelligent.  He feels love, joy, anger and the full range of emotions so we feel the same.  He is spirit and body (in Christ) and so we are spirit and body.  Everything that He is is reflected, albeit imperfectly and warped by sin, in us.  Sin is, in the final analysis, a warping of the real things that God has made.

The verses above tell us the God is dedicated to the redemption of His creation and the salvation of all of those who He has called.  In the Son, He showed His willingness to suffer and His patience with the frailty of men.  His nature also reveals the message.  He is rich and He wants to give salvation to the poor, He is free and He wants to proclaim release to the captives.  He is healthy and wants to proclaim healing for the sick.  God’s nature does not merely provide the motivation for missions, but also the message.

Mission theology also relates to other aspects of theology.  If the primary realms of systematic theology are the study of God, the study of man, and the study of the created order, then missions theology, describing the work of God, man and creation, ties them together.  Since mission is the work of the church, one can argue that “The greatest proof of the validity of theology is the success of the missionary movement”7. Several paradigms are included in missions theology8.

1.    Mission between the church and others

2.    Mission of evangelism and salvation

3.    Mission as theology

4.    Missio Dei

5.    Mission as a quest for justice on earth

6.    Mission as societal liberation

7.    Mission as inculturation vs. contextualization

It is important to emphasize that mission theology must be practical.  In the past few decades, third world countries have been developing theologians and they insist on a practical gospel 9.

Mission theology has key themes.  The first and most important is Missio Dei.  God is working in the world to accomplish His goals.  He works through the church, but He also works through secular leaders and institutions.  Nature itself moves at the voice of its Creator.  In the broadest perspective, Missio Dei is what mission theology is all about.

The second theme relates to what those people who are sent by God do.  The Lord certainly uses the world but He especially uses those He has called into His service.  The church is involved in many things, including worship, teaching, righteous living, social justice, and community activities and one theme of mission theology is “what do we do”.  The third theme is related to the second.  What is the central core of things that God’s people must do?  Churches participate in many good activities such as those above, but what are the most important things?

The fourth theme in mission theology is, “what am I as an individual Christian called to do?”  Ultimately each of us will stand alone before God and He will hold us accountable for our actions.  Mission theology leaves the theoretical and enters the practical when it forces me to discover God’s intent for my life and then say “Here am I, send me.”

Webster’s defines a motif as “a main theme or subject to be elaborated on or developed” or “a repeated figure in a design”.  Scripture provides the primary motifs in the messages that we share in the core of our mission.  They include10:

1.    The kingdom of God – the fully realized reign of God Almighty on the New Heaven and the New Earth.

2.    Jesus – God the Son who is the creator of all and the author and finisher of our faith.

3.    The Holy Spirit – God the Holy Spirit who indwells each of the chosen people, regenerating them towards perfection.

4.    The Church – the corporate body of all true believers, past, present and future.

5.    Shalom – peace, including spiritual salvation, physical healing and social justice.

6.    The Return of Christ – this age will one day pass away and Christ will return to inaugurate the new age.

Having considered Theology of Missions in some depth, the last question to address is how this should impact the lives of ordinary Christians as they serve their Lord.  The full-time Christian worker, whether missionary or church leader, will use mission theology to focus his ministry.  Understanding the relevant passages, combining them into a comprehensive understanding of God’s nature, grasping how missions theology is central to all other theology, and zeroing in on key themes and motifs will help Christian professionals bear more and better fruit in their ministries.  Layman should do the same, but will apply these truths less to the organized church than to the workaday world.


A Theology of Mission helps mankind to understand the Mission of God in all its complexity.  It makes us aware of God’s nature, His scope of concern, His key messages, and how we need to act as a result.  As a result, those whom the Lord has chosen will be in right relationship with Him forever.  Then missions as we know it will cease to exist and replaced with the ultimate goal of the church…worship11.

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