I am trying to give serious thought these days to how the church goes about its “mission” (for want of a better word). The methodology is usually pragmatic: the church as it currently is, in its various institutional forms, faces challenges of numerical decline or social irrelevance, and asks what needs to change in order to fix the problem. There may well be some point to that, but I am firmly of the view that the several approaches that the modern church takes to mission (salvationist, expansionist, consumerist, conformist, self-preservationist, liberationist, and who knows what) connect only rather haphazardly with the biblical storyline.
So let’s try and start at the other end, without assuming too much, and see where that gets us. I suggest that we may quite plausibly differentiate between two modes in which the mission or work of the biblical people of God is expressed in the Bible. There is a static mode, which defines the normal state of affairs, and a dynamic mode, which comes into play under abnormal circumstance.
The static mode of mission
The static mode consists of three basic elements, giving us the fundamental nature and raison d’être of the people of God.
1. A new creation. The biblical people of God is defined in Abraham as a new creation in microcosm. The narrative of humanity’s traumatic departure from the creational ideal in Genesis 1-11 culminates in the construction of the city and tower of Babel as a proto-Babylon, the beginning of pagan empire. The Abrahamic family is brought by God from the shadow of empire, and the creation blessing and mandate is pronounced over them: they will be blessed, they will be fruitful and multiply, and they will fill the small fertile land that God will give them in the midst of the nations (Gen. 12:1-3; 22:15-18; 26:3-5, 24; 28:3; 36:11; 47:27; 48:3-4). I tell this story in my book Re: Mission: Biblical Mission for a Post-Biblical Church. The concept of shalom captures the full social-religious goodness of this new creation existence.
Because this new creation in microcosm exists in a hostile environment, it needs to be organised and defended—from the original inhabitants of the land, from the immediate neighbours, and from regional superpowers. When Samuel becomes old, the people come to him and demand a king, “that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Sam. 8:20). So Israel becomes a kingdom, and things naturally get more complicated.
2. A priestly people. The relation of this new creation in Abraham to the surrounding peoples and cultures of the Ancient Near East is defined, in the first place, as the transmission of the original blessing of creation: “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:2–3). But at a later stage, the intense and quite disturbing experience of the presence of the holy God in the midst of his people gives rise to a priestly conception of their corporate purpose. YHWH has redeemed them from slavery in Egypt to be his “treasured possession among all peoples… a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:4-6). In other words, as a people they are to mediate not only the original blessing of creation to the world but also the powerful presence of the living God.
3. A prophetic people. Both these functions are predicated on obedience: because Abraham does not withhold his son, God will multiply his offspring; if Israel obeys God’s voice and keeps his covenant, they will be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Gen. 22:15-18; Exod. 19:5-6). In the fullness of its national life Israel is to be a benchmark of religious and social “righteousness,” and the Law is given precisely to define and maintain that benchmark. They stand as an alternative to, as a challenge to, and as an affront to, the ways of the nations.
The dynamic mode of mission
That was all very good in theory, but inevitably the priestly-prophetic-shalom function broke down on a regular basis, sometimes quite spectacularly, usually because Israel as a nation failed to obey God’s voice and keep his covenant. It is at this point that more dynamic modes of mission and purpose come into operation.
It goes pretty much the same in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. A prophet sees that the people of God is failing to live up to the standards of religious and social righteousness required for them to function as a priestly-prophetic-shalom community in the midst of the nations for the sake of the glory of the living God.
The prophet warns the people that if things carry on as they are, God will intervene to “judge” the situation—to put things right. The Babylonian invasion and exile is the classic Old Testament example. The prophets tell the story all the way through: God will punish his disobedient people, he will send them into exile, he will bring them back to the land, he will restore Jerusalem, he will remake Israel as a new creation in microcosm (Is. 51:1-3), he will re-establish shalom, they will be known again as “priests of the LORD” (Is. 61:6), and the nations will be astonished at the faithfulness of YHWH towards his people and at his power over their destiny, and they will come to Jerusalem to pay tribute to him and to learn his ways (e.g., Is. 60:1-14; 66:18-21).
This is basically a kingdom of God story (cf. Is. 52:7-10): it is not Israel which makes this happen, it is YHWH who acts to judge and redeem, and to vindicate himself in the eyes of the nations. The prophet, however, has a mission to Israel to proclaim and interpret what is about to happen, and when God puts everything right, envoys are sent out to tell the nations what has happened and to call them to give Israel’s God due credit (cf. Is. 66:18-19).
So here we have the two stage proclamation of the good news that God is about to do something spectacular on the stage of history.
The prophetic narrative in the New Testament follows much the same pattern. John the Baptist, at the outset, is an Isaianic voice in the wilderness, preparing the way for a stupendous act of divine judgment and salvation that will be witnessed by all flesh (Lk. 3:4). Jesus is a prophet very much in the mould of Jeremiah, the Son sent to the vineyard of Israel to do the work of a servant. Like John, he calls the nation to repent of its religious and social unrighteousness because a decisive intervention of God—a kingdom of God event—is at hand (Mk. 1:14-15.
The killing of the Son by the wicked tenants and his resurrection from the dead were not in themselves the coming of the kingdom of God, but they anticipated the climax to the prophetic narrative. Jesus’ execution on a Roman cross, as a pretender to the throne of an independent Israel, anticipated the punishment of rebellious Israel by Rome. His resurrection and ascension anticipated his vindication as the Son of Man. The out-pouring of the Spirit at Pentecost was not the coming of the kingdom, but it empowered the disciples to continue the prophetic mission to Israel “in the name of Jesus.”
So confident were the apostles in the long-term or eschatological implications of the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus to the right hand of God, to judge and rule in the midst of his enemies, that they set out to bring news of these developments to the nations. Here we have the second phase of the dynamic mode of mission, if you like, roughly corresponding to what is often called the great commission. The salvation of Israel—the re-establishment of shalom and of the priestly-prophetic vocation—is proclaimed to the nations.
Paul sums up the two stage process in Romans 15:8-13. Christ became a servant to the Jews in order to confirm the new creation promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But when the Gentiles hear about this, they glorify God for his mercy towards Israel—this is the thrust of the scriptural quotations in verses 9-11—and even begin to hope that eventually they will come under the righteous rule of Israel’s messiah. Paul, in other words, is one of those envoys, engaged in a dynamic, transitional mission in a time of crisis, sent out to ensure that the peoples of the Greek-Roman world, from Jerusalem to Spain, hear not only that YHWH is judging and restoring his people but also that this will turn their own world upside-down.
The churches are expressions of new creation, vehicles of shalom, they are priestly communities, temples of a holy God amidst unclean pagan peoples, they constitute a benchmark of religious and social righteousness. But more importantly at this time, their very existence, not least as bodies in which Jews and Gentiles have been reconciled, points to a startling new future—the conversion of the nations of the ancient world to worship of the one God, the Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Paul’s task is to ensure that the “offering of the Gentiles” conforms to this purpose (Rom. 15:16).
So the primary static purpose of the church is to be a new creation people, a people of shalom, an obedient and holy priestly-prophetic people serving the living creator God in the midst of the diverse cultures of the world. That is good, but it is not “good news,” it is not “gospel.”
When that primary mode of being breaks down, when the benchmark is compromised, when shalom disintegrates, when the priesthood is corrupted, when the name of God is blasphemed, the biblical expectation is that sooner or later God himself will step in, perhaps quite dramatically and disruptively, to put things right. That is fundamentally what we mean by “good news”: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mk. 1:15).
It was good news that YHWH was about to restore Zion (Is. 52:7). It was good news that he was about to judge and restore rebellious first century Israel. It was good news that the living God would soon overthrow Babylon the great and establish his own Son as King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev. 14:6-8; 17:14; 19:16). And of course, it was good news for Jews and Gentiles that there was forgiveness for their participation in the old orders through Jesus and gracious inclusion in these emergent communities of eschatological witness.
That was then. Today, it seems to me, at least in the western context or from the western perspective, we are again in a time of upheaval and disruption, crisis and transition. The “mission” (for want of a better word) of the church should probably be determined less in primary static terms as the orderly priestly-prophetic service of a new creation people, more in secondary dynamic and eschatological terms as the witness of communities—subject as we are to an unsettling process of reformation—to the imminent “judgment” of God, a great putting right of things.
This is where we get our good news from. The good news for the church is that God is preparing his people to serve him effectively as we endure the acute birth pains of a new post-Christian age—or something along those lines. Out of that process of reformation may then come good news for the world. If God is still with his people and taking the trouble to make them fit for purpose, he is still with his creation, whatever the climate crisis holds. The intervention of the living God is at hand; repent and believe in this gospel.