In The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative Chris Wright follows David Bosch’s analysis and comes to the same basic conclusion—that the phrase missio Dei remains valuable because it expresses a major biblical truth: “The God revealed in the Scriptures is personal, purposeful and goal-orientated” (63). He sums up the overarching mission of God in these terms:
…from the great promise of God to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3 we know this God to be totally, covenantally and eternally committed to the mission of blessing the nations through the agency of the people of Abraham.
This commitment of the missional God may then be located within a biblical metanarrative that moves from creation, through human rebellion, to the extensive “story of God’s redemptive purposes being worked out on the stage of human history”, culminating beyond history “with the eschatological hope of a new creation” (63-64). In other words, the mission of God from Genesis 11 through to the end of history is the blessing of the nations, by which is meant the redemption of humanity.
The problem with this conventional construction is that not only the bulk of the biblical narrative but also, in effect, the whole of human history is placed under the single heading of “redemption”. There are two assumptions entailed here that do not normally come up for discussion in missiological conversations. The first is that the mission of God never changes—that the living, dynamic God of history always engages with humanity with fundamentally the same objective in mind. The second is that this unchanging objective is always and simply to be understood as a work of redemption.
Neither assumption is simply false, but as far as the interpretation of scripture is concerned, both are overstated—they have been inflated to the level of absolute and total definition, and in the process a narrative theme of critical historical, theological and, I would argue, canonical significance has been squeezed out.
It is correct to state i) that the mission of God in scripture is worked out, as Chris Wright says, under the rubric of the blessing of the nations through the agency of the family of Abraham, and ii) that this mission at a certain juncture and in a certain sense included the “salvation” of both Jews and Gentiles. But there is a thick, but neglected, narrative seam running right through scripture, which needs to be written back into our missiology and our account of the mission of God—and, for that matter, into our understanding of the authority of scripture. This narrative determines in an unexpected way the conditions under which the promise to Abraham would be fulfilled; it also contains within itself the core biblical argument about salvation. But as a historical narrative it has a beginning, a middle, and an end; and this opens up the possibility that subsequently the missio Dei may need to be stated in different forms under different circumstances.
Every knee shall bow: the victory of YHWH over the nations
The main storyline in scripture, I would argue—the storyline that best accounts for the shape of scripture, that best holds its disparate materials together—is not the redemptive one. It is rather the story of the conflict between YHWH and the gods of the nations, which is concretely a conflict between the people of YHWH and the nations, culminating in the acknowledgment of the rightness of Israel’s God throughout the pagan world. According to this storyline the missio Dei would be the struggle of Israel’s God—that is, of the one good creator God—to establish his sovereignty over the nations. It is grounded in the intention to bless the nations, and it includes the “salvation” of people from the nations; but it is constitutive of the biblical narrative in a way which these other elements are not.
The story begins with the response of God to the presumption of the builders of Babel, which is a precursor of Babylon: first, judgment on the large-scale self-aggrandizement of humanity, then the calling of Abraham to be the father of a new creation. Israel emerges as a nation by way of an intense conflict with the gods of Egypt. The rivalry between YHWH and the Canaanite and other regional deities escalates throughout the period of the kingdoms, and reaches its climax in the Babylonian invasion and the exile as YHWH’s judgment on an idolatrous people. Isaiah expresses the hope that Israel will be restored, but more importantly this act of salvation will be a demonstration to the nations that “there is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Saviour”. “To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance” (Is. 45:22-23).
So Paul’s argument in Philippians 2:6-11 is that it is through the faithfulness and obedience of Jesus that this conversion of the pagan world will come about: “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”. I made the point in The Coming of the Son of Man that the parousia motif, the symbolic account of Jesus’ “coming”, is a prophetic statement regarding the final vindication of Jesus and of those “in him” in the context of the church’s struggle with Greek-Roman paganism. It defines the moment when Jesus will defeat the “man of lawlessness”—the arrogant and blasphemous pagan ruler who makes himself equal with God—and will deliver the church from its afflictions (cf. 2 Thess. 2:1-12). Finally, we have the account of divine judgment on Rome in Revelation, when the “kingdom of the world” becomes the “kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ” (Rev. 11:15).
As soon as we begin to ask how this language works historically, it becomes apparent that the core biblical story, the story that determines the missio Dei, is not open-ended. It is contingent, it is constrained, it is contextualized. It unfolds between the judgment of God against Babel which was Babylon to the overthrow of “Babylon” which was Rome. The background or overarching story of creation and the renewal of creation shows through in places, but in the foreground is the drawn-out conflict between YHWH and the gods of the nations.
This narrative, however, is enacted not at a mythical or metaphysical level. It is enacted in the historical existence of a people, which is where the salvation motif comes into play. Plan A for Israel was that it would keep the Law, that it would be blessed by YHWH, that its prosperity and political integrity would be safeguarded, that it would be a model of righteousness, a blessing to the nations, a light to the Gentiles, and that YHWH would be acknowledged amongst Israel’s powerful neighbours as the one true God.
Plan A failed because Israel proved to be as much the helpless slave of sin as the rest of humanity, so Plan B came into effect. Plan B was that the victory of YHWH over the gods of the nations would have to be achieved by way of a protracted narrative of failure, judgment and suffering—a theme that runs at least from the Song of Moses (Deut. 32), through Isaiah 53, Daniel 7 (and the stories of the Maccabean martyrs), through the cross of Jesus, the crisis of second temple Judaism, to the sufferings of the apostles and of the churches persecuted by Rome.
So what is actually achieved in the biblical story—from the first emergence of Babylonian-style empire to the victory of the suffering people of God over the “Babylon” which was Rome—was the acknowledgment of YHWH as the one good creator God. A crucial part of this story, of course, is told by the writers of the New Testament prospectively or prophetically—the New Testament is a work of eschatological hope. But it is told in a way which makes it clear, I think, that this foundational missio Dei comes to an end in history; and this naturally raises the question of what comes next….