Chapter 6 of Tom Wright’s How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels is entitled “The Launching of God’s Renewed People”. I read it on a rather scary bus ride through the mountains from Diyarbakir to Tatvan on the western edge of Lake Van, in eastern Turkey. It was such a rough ride I had a hard time highlighting the text and making notes on my iPad.
In this chapter Wright makes the point that the Jewish story continues beyond Jesus’ death and resurrection, that the Christian movement is not something completely new, that it is the fulfilment, not the replacement of Israel. I have complained before that in Wright’s reconstruction story and history tend to stop when we get to Jesus, so this chapter goes some way towards correcting that impression. The next chapter on God and Caesar will go even further, though still not far enough in my view. In the end, I still think that he overstates the fulfilment in the cross and resurrection of Jesus—or at least understates the significance of what happens in the three centuries that follow.
This is the essence of my critique of this chapter on the mission of the early church and how it became the mission of the later church. Wright wants to argue that the Gospels determine not only the life of the early community of Jesus’ disciples but also, at least in outline, the life of the future church. He considers the passage in which Jesus sends off the twelve disciples to proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God (Matt. 10:5-23), and argues that we “can see here both the specific and unrepeatable elements in the commission and the shape of a much longer-lasting missionary movement” (114).
So on the one hand, their mission is restricted to Israel and will not be completed before the Son of Man comes; and on the other, there are elements that “we would be right to assume relate to the period after Jesus’ public career is over”. The longer-term elements he has in mind are the warning that they will be dragged before Gentile rulers, the reception of the Spirit, and the promise that they will be accompanied by the resurrected Jesus “to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20).
Now here are the problems that I see with this. First, the immediate mission to Israel will not have been completed before the coming of the Son of Man, which introduces a timeframe of a generation (cf. Matt. 16:28). In other words, these are instructions for the disciples from this first mission trip up to the destruction of Jerusalem, which will be the moment when the Son of Man, and those who have taken up their crosses to follow him, will be concretely vindicated.
Secondly, if the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple did not count as the “end of the age” from a Jewish perspective, then nothing does. What Jesus envisages in Matthew 28:18-20 is not the global mission of the church throughout the remainder of human history but the proclamation either to diaspora Judaism or to the nations that Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and on earth.
Thirdly, in my view the pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost is also an eschatologically determined event: it is, in the first place, the empowering of the disciples to preach the same message of judgment and renewal as the Jewish War loomed ever larger on the horizon.
Finally, it hardly makes sense from a literary point of view to separate out immediate and distant elements in Jesus’ instructions to the disciples. Certainly there are aspects of his teaching that will prove to be relevant to the life of the later church—even the later Christendom church. But that is incidental. The instructions have in view exclusively the mission of the disciples to Israel.
So I agree with Wright that Jesus’ teaching about mission is not restricted to the work of his disciples during his lifetime—that hardly needs saying. But I disagree that it can be simply translated into teaching for the whole church throughout history. It is instruction for what I would call communities of eschatological transition. It has in view the difficult period leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem. The apostles will later instruct similar communities of eschatological transition, but they will have in view a longer period, culminating in the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations of the oikoumenē.
The mission of the church today arises out of this narrative and in that sense is determined by it. But it also has to taken into account both the wider biblical implications of the renewal of the people of God and the fact that western Christendom has come to an end. Our mission is not simply that of first disciples in Judea or of the churches of the Greek-Roman world.