What is God doing in missions?
Today many debate the correct definition of Christian missions as well as the right understanding of what faithful missionaries should be doing, or prioritizing, in their labors. Answering those important questions well begins with recognizing in Scripture what God is doing in the global outreach and cross-cultural ministries of his people.
My aim is to lay out some of the theological richness God has provided to inform global outreach, especially among the unreached and least responsive people groups of the world. I want to sketch for you how the Bible portrays the journey we’re all on as the global body of Christ and the horizon toward which God is taking us. Finding ourselves in these seven biblical trajectories and storylines ought to yield a more humble confidence that God may choose to do glorious things through our patient, painstaking, and strategically-placed acts of Christian discipleship and witness.
1. God is blessing the nations with his Spirit through the offspring of Abraham.
God promised Abraham an offspring or “seed” through whom he would bless all the nations and families of the earth (Genesis 12:1–3; 17:17). Abraham’s son Isaac and the nation of Israel were both typological fulfillments of this promise, but ultimately, they pointed ahead to a Greater One.
Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of the promise. He is the glorious singular seed through whom the elect receive the blessing promised to Abraham (Galatians 3:7–22). Paul makes clear that this blessing is the new life and fruit the Holy Spirit brings, not material prosperity or economic development, per se. As amazing as it is, both Gentile and Jewish believers become sons and daughters of Abraham through union with his offspring: Christ (Galatians 3:23–29).
So we are the on-the-ground instruments of God’s blessing of the elect from every tribe and tongue! From the very beginning of his gospel, Matthew identifies Jesus as “the son of Abraham,” the heir of Abraham’s covenant (Matthew 1:1). And at the end of his gospel, Matthew records the Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:18). Therefore, as churches are planted among unreached people groups, God is keeping and fulfilling his covenant with Abraham.
2. God is leading the people he has redeemed into the Promised Land of rest and plenty.
Jesus, Yeshua, is the true and better Joshua. Jesus’s promise, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20) echoes the words of Joshua to the Israelites before they entered the Promised land (Joshua 1:1–9). Joshua assured the redeemed nation of Israel that they could “be strong and courageous” in taking the land God was about to give them, without being frightened, because “the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”
Believers in Christ will one day inherit the whole earth (Matthew 5:5; Romans 4:13) — a land of “abundant peace” in which we will delight ourselves (Psalm 37:11; Isaiah 65:17–25), without tears, death, mourning, crying, or pain (Revelation 21:1–4). Yet as we go to the unreached people groups of the world with the gospel, we should do so knowing that our “Joshua” and our God, King Jesus, is leading us as Joshua led Israel to occupy territory he has already purchased and will conquer and subdue for us through our faithful obedience.
3. God is subduing the Gentile nations in mercy under the feet of the Messiah. . .
But the territory over which Christ will have sway is the hearts of his elect. Right now, Christ is at the right hand of God the Father and reigning over all things until all his enemies are made his footstool (1 Corinthians 15:24–28; Psalm 110:1). Yet he subdues his enemies now in mercy by granting them faith to embrace him and take refuge in him (Psalm 2:12). God is gradually creating faith-wrought obedience to King Jesus and joy in him among “all the nations” for the sake of Christ’s glory and “name” (Romans 1:5; 16:26).
. . . and giving his Son the nations as the inheritance he deserved and requested.
Christ Jesus, descended from David by the flesh, has been declared the Son of God in power by his resurrection (Romans 1:3–4). The Son of Abraham and Son of David (Matthew 1:1) has issued his kingly commission (Matthew 28:18–20). Through the evangelism and disciple-making activity of his ambassadors, God is giving his Anointed Son “the nations [his] heritage, and the ends of the earth [his] possession” (Psalm 2:1–8). It’s the inheritance he requested (Psalm 2:8) and deserves for having “loved righteousness” perfectly and “hated wickedness” purely (Hebrews 1:8–13 citing Psalm 45:6–7).
He has been given all authority, his throne has been established forever, and he is building for God a “house.” God promised a glorious kingdom to David’s son (2 Samuel 7:13) — Solomon was an initial fulfillment of this promise, but God is still keeping and ultimately fulfilling that covenant through the church’s mission to unreached people groups. King Jesus is building his global church (Matthew 16:18), fulfilling the covenant promises to David of an omni-ethnic family dynasty, as well as an indestructible dwelling place for God’s glory (2 Samuel 7:12–13, 16).
4. God is building a global temple to be his dwelling place in these last days.
God walked with Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden (Genesis 3:8) — a fellowship which was tragically severed when sin entered the world (Genesis 3:23–24). After God delivered Israel from Egypt, he promised to not only be their God but to dwell with them, to reopen a way for fellowship between God and mankind (Exodus 25:8; 29:43–46). First in a movable wilderness tabernacle, then in the more permanent temple constructed in Jerusalem, God’s people enjoyed his dwelling with them.
In the fullness of time God “tabernacled” or dwelt with Israel in the person of Christ, the incarnation of the eternal Word (Matthew 12:6; John 1:14; 2:19–22). Now the Holy God dwells with his purchased people by the Spirit’s residence among us (1 Corinthians 3:16; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:19–22; 1 Peter 2:5). We ourselves are now the walking, talking, praising, proclaiming, living, loving, dying, and rising dwelling place of God. And God intends to fashion a global temple from “living stones” of every culture and color (1 Peter 2:5, 9–12).
As we witness to the excellencies of God among the yet-unreached people groups of the world, God regenerates dead clay bricks and joins them to the cornerstone of his global temple along with the rest of us who are set apart from the world, joined to each other, inhabited, gifted, and fructified by his Spirit in these last days (Acts 2:14–21; 4:11; Joel 2:28–32; Galatians 5:22–23).
5. God is sending his witnesses to the ends of the earth to liberate the lost from idolatry.
The risen Christ told his disciples in Jerusalem before Pentecost, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In the Spirit-empowered evangelism and global church planting endeavors of missionaries today, God is fulfilling his promise to make his messianic people his witnesses to the one true God and Savior (Isaiah 43:10–13; Acts 4:12).
God said it was not enough that Christ would merely call back and restore the people of Israel. God has made Christ a “light for the nations” so that God’s salvation will “reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6; Acts 13:47). Simeon recognized the baby Jesus to be this “light for revelation to the Gentiles,” this promised witness and servant of God (Luke 2:25–35).
The church is the light of the world (Matthew 5:14; Philippians 2:14–16). Through our faithful Christian presence and proclamation, God is dispelling the darkness that blinds the worshipers of false gods, groping in darkness (Acts 17:22–34).
6. God is filling the earth with his glory by re-creating broken image-bearers.
Initially, the scattering of peoples across the planet (Acts 17:24–31) and the confusion of languages was God’s judgment. Those whom God commanded to exercise dominion over the whole earth instead gathered in one place to “make a name for [themselves]” at the tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1–9). They were supposed to fill the earth with God’s glory as his image-bearers and obedient vice-regents (Genesis 1:26–28; 9:1, 6). After the rebellion at Babel, God intervened to spread fallen and broken image-bearers all over the globe.
God is now sanctifying global diversity by redeeming and incorporating into his people worshipers from “every tribe and language” (Revelation 5:9–10; 7:9–10). The elect, by God’s Spirit, are remade in the image of Christ (Romans 8:29; 2 Corinthians 3:18) as they grow in the grace and knowledge of God (2 Peter 3:18). As we make disciples of all nations, God is filling the earth with the knowledge of his glory “as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14).
The gospel will gradually seep into every cultural nook and cranny of the planet. The Great Commission is the new covenant reiteration of the command to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28). As missionaries and evangelists — all of God’s representatives on earth — bear witness to Christ and call others to faith, God sometimes grants us spiritual children in the faith so that we are “fruitful.” In discipling those younger in the faith, we are training them in “the way [they] should go” (Proverbs 22:6; cf. Deuteronomy 4:1–14; 6:1–25; 2 Timothy 2:2; Titus 2:4–5).
7. God is lifting up Christ for the healing of the nations and the glory of his name.
One of John’s main theological points in the fourth Gospel is that Christ was exalted or “lifted up” by his crucifixion (John 12:32). Ironically, at the cross, Christ was glorified as the one sent from God (John 12:23). It is in this way that God “loved the world” by giving “his only Son” (John 3:16). “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds [we] have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24). We point to him and say, “Look! Be healed! Be saved!”
Now “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23) among the nations, publically painting with our words and lives a picture of the Savior’s suffering on the cross (Galatians 3:1; Colossians 1:24). And we proclaim Jesus to be raised from the dead as God’s vindication of his holiness and proof of his victory over sin and death (Acts 2:23–27; 3:14–15). God has “exalted” Jesus for his humble obedience in ultimate condescension on our behalf (Philippians 2:4–11).
Jesus is the name now by which all persons must be reconciled to God (Acts 4:12). He has been lifted up, ascended into heaven, and enthroned (Hebrews 1:3–4). It is from that lofty position and place of sovereignty that Jesus is extending his kingdom on earth through the faithful missionary endeavors of the church.
Motivations for Missions
Want motivation for missions? Reading the whole Bible through a Christ-centered lens propels us in loving missions toward the unreached people groups of the world. So, keep reading the word, thinking often upon the glorious story of the Bible and all its wonderful subplots. The more we recognize and rejoice in the themes that come together to explain what God is doing in the world, the more we will appreciate and enjoy what God is doing in pioneer church planting and disciple making.
Want motivation for missions? Remember what God is up to in the world.
Over a thousand people groups still remain totally unengaged today with not a single ambassador of Christ yet sent to them. Would you pray and consider with others whether you might be part of a church-planting team to an unreached people group or underserved place?