Ten things the church can learn about missions from a narrative-historical perspective

Read time: 9 minutes

I follow the output of the Gospel Coalition site on the look out for material that I can use to illustrate the differences between, in this case, conservative theological readings of the New Testament and a narrative-historical reading. I do the same, naturally, for liberal-progressive thinkers, who are no more and no less at fault than their conservative counterparts in this respect. It feels a bit like trolling, but I doubt anyone notices. And my intentions are good. Here I pick on an article by Eckhard J. Schnabel, professor of New Testament at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, entitled “10 Things the Church Can Learn About Missions from Jesus, Peter, and Paul.”

In his introduction, Schnabel makes a rather superficial distinction between descriptive and prescriptive texts. He does not stop to consider whether the New Testament might be quite fundamentally descriptive with regard to missionary activity—that we are simply not doing two thousand years later what Jesus and the early churches were doing.

Schnabel assumes a generic model of missionary endeavour with no consideration given to historical context. Our horizons are not the same as the horizons of Jesus and the early church, so it constitutes a basic theological error to expect the New Testament to prescribe the objectives and forms of “missionary” activity for us. That observation underlies most of the following comments on Schnabel’s ten things that the church should learn about mission from Jesus, Peter, and Paul.

1. The will of God and the will of Jesus is foundational to missionary work.

Yes, of course, but what is the will of God or the will of Jesus in any particular situation? Are we to assume that what God wants now is the same as what he wanted when the Jews were in Babylon, or when they were subjected to intense pressure to renounce their ancestral religion at the time of Antiochus Epiphanes, or when Israel was under Roman rule, or when Paul was plotting the takeover of the Roman Empire?

Even if we believe that the absolute requirement is to proclaim Jesus, that meant one thing for the Jews and another thing for the Greeks. The proclamation was not simply that Jesus died and rose from the dead. It was that he died and rose from the dead and would act decisively to change things in the coming years—first, with respect to Israel; then, with respect to the nations of the Greek-Roman world. The good news was not who Jesus was, it was what he would do: he would judge and rule over Israel; he would judge and rule over the nations.

So before missionaries set off to do the will of God and Jesus now, they should make sure they know what the will of God and Jesus is two thousand years later. They serve the God of history, not a timeless, supra-historical, borderline gnostic deity.

2. The mission of the church is focused on Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah and Savior.

So as I say, the central message of the early church was not that Jesus had died, or even that he had been raised from the dead, but that he had been seated at the right hand of God, in the terms of Psalm 110:1 for the sake of decisive, transformative future events.

The death of Jesus guaranteed “eternal life” for those who believed in him, but eternal life was the life of the age to come. For the martyrs, for those who lost their lives in the eschatological process because of their witness to Jesus, the life of the age to come meant reigning with Jesus in heaven (Rev. 20: 4-6). But more importantly, the life of the age to come was the life of God’s people after the catastrophe of the war against Rome and then after the triumph of the conversion of the ancient pagan world.

Paul’s insistence that he preached Christ crucified or that he boasts only in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:23; 2:2; Gal. 6:14) has less to do with the content of the gospel which he proclaimed than with the manner of its proclamation. Keep in mind that he is writing to churches and is often on the defensive. The cross was a way of life, a modus operandi, for the apostles. The only way in which they could stay true to their conviction about the future rule of Christ was by identifying closely and quite literally with him in his sufferings and death.

3. Missionary work is also focused on the forgiveness of sins.

The point to emphasise here is that forgiveness of sins does not operate on a purely personal and individualistic basis. It is inseparable from the large-scale events that are taking place or are expected to take place.

Forgiveness of sins is offered to Israel in response to the coming historical crisis of the war against Rome. Forgiveness of sins is offered to gentiles who hope to be saved from a pagan civilisation that will sooner or later be swept away. Jews are forgiven their participation in the current wicked and corrupt generation Israel (cf. Acts 2:40). Greeks are forgiven their participation in the sort of idolatrous culture described in Romans 1:18-32. They renounce idol worship and wait for Jesus to save them from the wrath that will come upon a culture that is passing away (1 Cor. 7:31; 1 Thess. 1:9-10).

It is misleading, I think, to say that Jesus’ “service as the divine Son of Man is focused on giving his life as a ransom.” That is somewhat incidental to his vocation, which was to do the work of a prophet and call Israel to repentance and righteousness. The master did not send his son to the vineyard to be killed—quite the opposite, he thought he would be respected.

4. The oral proclamation of the gospel is the central action of missionary work.

Schnabel is partly right when he says that “Jesus’s verbal explanation of the presence of the kingdom of God takes precedence over the miracles he performed.” But if this is merely an ideological prioritisation of word-based ministry over “signs and wonders,” then it probably misses the point. Both verbal proclamation and “signs and wonders” direct the audience to those future events which will be the powerful outworking of God as king. Whatever is experienced in the present is an anticipation of the future restoration of God’s people, or the future extension of the rule of Israel’s God over the nations.

5. Missionaries are dependent on the power of God, the power of the Spirit, and the power of Jesus the Messiah.

This is correct, but I would stress that when Paul speaks of what Christ has “accomplished through him to win obedience from the Gentiles” (Rom. 15:18), he does not mean simply that these Gentiles have been saved and now have eternal life. Their obedience is for the sake of the future rule of Jesus over the nations (Rom. 1:5; 15:12-13). Mission in the New Testament is always directed towards concrete eschatological—or better epochal—outcomes.

Obviously, though, we have a problem if those epochal outcomes are now in the past—and indeed have been overturned. Europe is no longer a Christian continent. So we need to rethink our eschatology before we take the New Testament as prescriptive for mission today.

6. The primary strategy of missionary work consists in proclaiming God’s revelation in Jesus to all people without exceptions.

No, within the purview of the New Testament the primary strategy of missionary work was to proclaim what the God of Israel was going to do, either on behalf of his people or among the nations. What God was going to do was predicated on what he had done in raising Jesus from the dead and seating him at his right hand, but it cannot be reduced to that.

God was determined to judge in some final sense his rebellious people. He made one last attempt to bring them to repentance by sending his “Son.” That failed, but he vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead and making him the one who would judge and then rule over Israel (Acts 2:22-40).

The same logic applies with respect to the Greek world. The one, true, living God, who made all things, is no longer prepared to overlook the centuries of pagan ignorance and has fixed a day on which he will judge this idolatrous civilisation. The missionary strategy is first to proclaim the coming judgment, but for the apostles what underpins the apocalyptic hope is the conviction that God has put Jesus in a position to carry out that judgment by raising him from the dead (Acts 17:30-32).

My argument would then be that the church needs a similar strategy today—only we do not yet have a clear sense of where the creator God is or what he is going to do either to reform his people or to re-establish his reputation globally at this time of severe crisis.

7. Tactical decisions concerning the geographical location or ethnic focus of missionary work often follow existing opportunities and outside pressures.

This is all well and good, but without a cogent, compelling narrative to drive mission the preoccupation with external circumstances seems trivialising. The encounter with the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30 is not merely an example of Jesus taking the opportunity to minister to a Gentile. It is a deeply important boundary setting moment. And it was hardly an accident that Peter went to Caesarea to the household of a Roman military officer. It is the emerging narrative that makes the incidental details interesting.

8. Missionaries travel as they seek to proclaim the gospel in cities, towns, and villages.

Jesus was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. He sent his disciples to proclaim the kingdom of God only in the cities, towns, and villages of Israel (Matt. 10:5-6). Why? Because his prophetic focus was entirely on what would happen to his people in the coming decades.

Paul, on the other hand, believed that his purpose was to proclaim the future rule of Jesus across the Roman Empire, from Jerusalem to Spain (Rom. 15:19, 24). Why? Because he was claiming precisely this territory for the God of his fathers in the name of Jesus.

Christian Europe sent missionaries across the globe, riding waves of imperial expansionism, in the belief that the purpose of mission was to assimilate the most distant and most benighted parts of the world into Christendom.

But we are done with that, surely? What is the point now of emphasizing the fact that missionaries travel? Travel is no longer an innocent activity. It is damaging to public health, eco-systems, and climate. It stands for some manner of cultural colonialism, even if the movement is as much into as out of the western world. Travel no longer either facilitates or symbolises the historically appropriate geographical scope of the “mission” of God’s people. Arguably, travelling to cities, towns, and villages now makes missionaries part of the problem rather than part of God’s solution.

9. Missionaries work in teams.

So what?

10. Missionaries never glorify themselves; they always glorify God.

Well, yes, obviously….

Paul McGuire | Sat, 10/15/2022 - 18:32 | Permalink

Thank you, I enjoy reading all of your articles.  I believe that the narrative/historical perspective is the correct framework for understanding the Bible and the Church’s mission, at least through the timeline that the new testament spoke to, so I always find your articles and perspective very helpful and informative.