When considering the theological and biblical underpinnings of the missional conversation I find the two most helpful topics to address include the concept of missio Dei, or mission of God, and the language of “sending” found throughout Scripture.
The chief element to grasp about the missio Dei is that the mission is God’s. We are not called to bring our mission into a local context; instead we are called to partner with God in his mission. We often wrongly assume that the primary activity of God is in the church, rather than recognizing that God’s primary activity is in the world, and the church is God’s instrument sent into the world to participate in his redemptive mission.
This leads to the second important topic, which is the theme of “sending” in Scripture. The reason it is important to recognize such language in Scripture is not only because it speaks to the missionary nature of the Triune God, but it also connects – particularly in the New Testament – God’s mission to ours. This is never truer than in the Gospel of John.
The primary focus of the Fourth Gospel is the mission of Jesus:
He is the one who comes into the world, accomplishes his work and returns to the Father; he is the one who descended from heaven and ascends again; he is the Sent One, who, in complete dependence and perfect obedienGce to his sender, fulfills the purpose for which the Father sent him.[i]
The entire Gospel is about sending and being sent. The term “sent” and its derivatives appear almost sixty times in the Gospel of John.
But of special importance in John is the linking of the mission of Jesus with that of his followers as the “sent ones.” The disciples’ mission is essentially the same as the mission of the Son and the Spirit – to bring glory to God and to bring to the world forgiveness of sins and spiritual life. In Raymond Brown’s commentary on the Gospel of John he explains the continuity of mission in this way:
The special Johannine contribution to the theology of mission is the Father’s sending of the Son which serves both as the model . . . and the ground . . . for the Son’s sending of the disciples. Their mission is to continue the Son’s mission; and this requires that the Son must be present to them during this mission, just as the Father had to be present to the Son during His mission.[ii]
After his conversation with the Samaritan woman, Jesus sends his disciples to reap the harvest (4:38). In the high priestly prayer Jesus prayers to the Father for the protection of disciples as Jesus sends them into the world (17:18). And shortly before Jesus ascends to the Father he commissions the disciples to evangelize the world. “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (20:21).
Here John repeats once again three main aspects of mission he has been developing throughout the gospel: (1) The Father has sent Jesus into the world, (2) Jesus sends his disciples into the world, (3) the Holy Spirit is sent to enable disciples in their mission. By themselves the disciples are inadequate to fulfill the mission, yet by receiving the Spirit they receive authority and so also become God’s “agents, or sent ones.” Referring to this verse, John Stott remarked that the church’s mission finds precise articulation in the Fourth Gospel:
The crucial form in which the Great Commission has been handed down to us (though it is the most neglected because it is the most costly) is the Johannine. Jesus had anticipated it in his prayer in the upper room, which he said to the Father: “As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:18). Now, probably in the same upper room but after his death and resurrection, he turned his prayer-statement into a commission and said: “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” (John 20:21). In both of these sentences Jesus did more than draw a vague parallel between his mission and ours. Deliberately and precisely he made his mission the model of ours, saying, “as the Father sent me, so I send you.” Therefore our understanding of the church’s mission must be deduced from our understanding of the Son’s.[iii]
How might the church’s mission be different if it were truly “deduced” from our understanding of Jesus’ mission?
[i] Andreas J. Kostenberger and Peter T. O’Brien, Salvation to the Ends of the Earth: A Biblical Theology of Mission (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001), 203.
[ii] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, vol. 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1970), 1036.