The Mission of the Church

For those who frequent my blog, it’s obvious I have been working my way through the words of N.T. Wright in his Surprised by Hope. Well, I’ve posted three other articles with significant quotes from Wright.

And though I will go back and post some of his thoughts on hell and judgment, last night I read something that really struck a chord in my heart. Though the first two-thirds of the book deals with the deeper theology of things like the soul, the body, the resurrection, heaven, hell, etc, the last third of the book deals with what this all means practically for the church in its mission. And this is just as important.

We all should be aware that theology is not proper theology unless it brings about change in our lives and practical orthopraxy. And Wright takes up this endeavour beginning in his ch.12, which looks at rethinking what salvation and the kingdom of God are really all about.

It is these words that struck the chord:

Precisely because the resurrection has happened as an event within our own world, its implications and effects are to be felt within our own world, here and now. (italics his)

Our mission is not about getting souls saved to go to heaven ‘up there’. Or mission with regards to salvation is, as Wright says:

(1) about whole human beings, not merely ‘souls’; (2) about the present, not simply the future; and (3) about what God does through us, not merely what God does in and for us. (italics his)

We are involved in something here and now. So when Wright says in #2 above that salvation is ‘about the present, not simply the future’, he is not referring to the simple message that, when one gets saved, they get saved by grace now in this life (though such is true). He is talking about the reality that, when we step into the bigger picture of God’s redemptive plan, this means we are being called, in God’s power, to effect change here and now on the earth. We are not now just waiting for the ship to sink and then to get on the heaven island one day when we die or Christ returns, bringing as many ‘souls’ as we can with us by throwing life-preservers. The central message of the gospel of the kingdom is that the kingdom rule of God is coming on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10).

As Wright goes on to later say:

He [God] did not want to rescue humans from creation, any more than he wanted to rescue Israel from the Gentiles. He wanted to rescue Israel in order that Israel might be a light to the Gentiles, and he wanted thereby to rescue humans in order that humans might be his rescuing stewards over creation. That is the inner dynamic of the kingdom of God. (italics his)

Thus, we are to be participants with God in seeing His rule come on earth as it is in heaven. This includes not just seeing whole people saved, though that is very important, but being stewards of the creation which God has entrusted to us. This harkens back to what I would call the first Great Commission found in Genesis 1:28:

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

This is so essential to our mission. As one church leader reminded a group of us one day: Recreation [in the sense of enjoyment or having fun] deals with re-creating in creation.

God already promises He is going to restore the whole of creation (Romans 8). He already promises that one day there will be a restored heaven and earth together (Revelation 21). Just as we see the kingdom coming already in the here and now through the salvation of human beings, so we can see the kingdom rule of God coming already in the here and now through faithfulness and stewardship of this earth which is God’s (Psalm 24:1).

Of course the question arises: Why take care of the earth if He is going to restore it all one day?

It’s a good question, one I have recently been thinking through with the strong focus on being green amongst many in recent years, something I’m not opposed to but still something I would not intrinsically equate with the kingdom of God, rather seeing it as a part of our call.

But let me counter with some other questions: Why take care of our bodies if one day the resurrection will take place with new bodies? Why pursue maturity in the faith if one day Jesus will do it fully when we see Him face to face?

Well, I think we can answer those questions pretty easily.

If our answer to the one about caring for our bodies is that we don’t need to, then we have moved into gnostic territory. The kingdom of God is about the goodness of all things, not just ‘the spiritual’. And we pursue maturity in our faith because we are called to walk out the gospel of God’s rule that has effected major change in our lives. We are already part of the new creation, aren’t we?

So, why not take up also embracing the reality of being stewards of all things, even bringing foretastes of the one future day into the here and now by seeing God’s rule exemplified in the physical earth. Remember, He is going to restore our bodies and the earth. Why not give a taste to the world now of what will one day be a full reality?

This all goes back to the initial words that I quoted from N.T. Wright, some very powerful and profound words:

Precisely because the resurrection has happened as an event within our own world, its implications and effects are to be felt within our own world, here and now.

The Son of God became flesh and blood for a reason. The Son of God lived a human life on the physical earth for a reason. The Son of God was resurrected in true bodily form for a reason. In modern day terms, we might describe it as a PowerPoint display of what God intends to fully and finally accomplish one day with all creation as His rule and glory cover the earth as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14).

So let’s take up this call now. Let’s provide a taste, or maybe even more than a taste, of what God will one day consummate in Jesus Christ.

Redemption Picture

When the question arises, ‘What is your favorite book in Scripture?’, most people might answer by stating the Psalms, or Romans, or possibly Isaiah, maybe Galatians, or Matthew, or Proverbs. One of my answers to this question would be Ephesians. But very rarely will an Old Testament book (outside of something like Psalms, Provers and Isaiah) be mentioned as someone’s favorite, though it does happen occasionally. And, when stating one’s preferred book of the Old Testament, most are going to stay away from those first five books of Moses, albeit the possibility of Genesis.

And that is where we find ourselves with the book of Deuteronomy. If we can actually make it through Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, we find ourselves in an all too familiar setting. Why all too familiar? Well, we feel like we’ve just read these words of Deuteronomy in the books of Exodus and Leviticus, if we can actually recall to mind what we read in those two books. And so the questions arises, ‘Do I have to read these words again?’

If you weren’t aware already, the word Deuteronomy means ‘second law’ – from the Greek words nomos meaning ‘law’ and deuteros meaning ‘second’. And it is rightly named such, for much of its material is already found in Exodus and Leviticus in connection with the Mosaic covenant and law, but with some additional words.

But why would God need to repeat and reconfirm what He had already spoken previously? That’s where the book of Numbers becomes important. In the first half of the book, it recounts the story of God bringing an end to an old generation that was hard-hearted and full of selfish complaining (see Numbers 11:1). And, thus, the last half of the book deals with God raising up a new generation that were to be committed to His purposes (though they would soon depart from His words). Therefore, God reconfirmed His covenant relationship with this new generation making sure they had His words of instruction before entering the promised land.

Thus, we have a need for Deuteronomy. And while it does not stand as a book we regularly turn to for devotional consideration and study, it actually does have a beautiful message in regards to the heart of God for His people.

When I do read Deuteronomy, one verse that has always struck me as quite amazing is found in 6:23:

And he [God] brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land that he swore to give to our fathers.

In the greater context of the book, Moses is reminding this new generation about what God did for the people of Israel. Oddly enough, though the old generation had already passed away in the wilderness, and a completely new generation were on the cusp of entering the land of promise, Moses still says, ‘God brought us…’

What God has done for the ‘cloud of witnesses’ (Hebrews 12:1) that have gone before us, He has also done for us. And, not only that, but they find their own fulfillment from us that are to come (see Hebrews 11:39-40). We are connected together in the purposes of God throughout the generations. We have never and never will stand alone. And thus, God had not only brought the parents and grandparents of the Israelites out of Egypt, He had brought them out of bondage as well.

Yet, though it has been a long about way of getting here, my greater point in this article is to encourage us about our redemption in Christ. Though the exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt was an actual event that did take place, a redemption story itself, it was only a pointer to the greater redemption that God would bring about for mankind in His Son, Jesus Christ. And this is where Deuteronomy 6:23 comes in:

And he [God] brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land that he swore to give to our fathers.

Redemption is about the fullness of what God has done in Christ. God not only brings us out – from bondage to sin, Satan, self, etc – but redemption is also about God bringing us in to something better in Christ. ‘He brought us out…that he might bring us in…’ That is the full story of our redemption in Christ.

Most Christians usually have a handle on what we have been brought out of and delivered from. They are aware of forgiveness of sin so we will one day get to go to heaven. Yet, most are not as aware of what God has brought us into. We are not only forgiven, but we have become the righteousness of God, declared saints, new creations, born from above, indwelt by the third person of the Godhead, empowered by that same Spirit, on a course of transformation into the image of the Son of God, given gifts to edify the body and reach the world, and so much more. This is our lot in Christ! This is our redemption!

Thus, let us remember that redemption and salvation does not end with only God bringing us out of something. That is only half of the story. But let us remember that God brought us out of Egypt, out of bondage to the enemy, out from bondage to a sinful nature, all that He might bring us in to the fullness of what He has for us in Christ. This, my friends, is the power of the gospel! This is the power of the kingdom of God!