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A Biblical Theology of Missions

From Perfect Community

to a Chosen Community
toward Restored Community

Brandon Rhodes
Box #679
IS 612, Prof. Trautmann
April 21, 2006
Mission was born in the perfect community of the Trinity, was assigned to a

people in the forming of God’s holy community of believers, and has the purpose of

expanding that peaceable community to all people for God’s glory. This community-to-

be-spread is not merely one of religious conversion, familial-institutional membership,

moral living, government reform, inward spirituality, or social action. Rather, this holy

community is nothing short of the reign of God among the elect on Earth, and as such

enlists degrees of all of the above traits. Community members obey mission as Christ’s

ambassadors (2 Cor 5:20) among a fallen culture not yet acquainted with the loving

Sovereign of the Cosmos, gentle King Jesus. The duty of that community is to proclaim

God’s kingdom as they live in joyful obedience under it.

The outline of this cursory consideration of a biblical theology of missions thus

follows the above direction: it proceeds from the triune God through a redeemed

community toward the whole of creation for God’s glory.

The Missio Dei: Born in Perfect Community

Ultimate reality, the triune God of the Bible, is the perfect community. For “God

is the social Trinity, the community of love.”1 Because “God is love,” (1 John 4:16) we

understand that a fundamental attribute of God is that he relates. His love is not just an

attribute that would exist without humanity or the rest of creation as its object; even if

there were only God, there would still be expressed love among the Father, Son, and

Spirit. Love is not a divine attribute, but a divine experience. Humanity experiences it as

a unilateral or linear love (from God to us), when it is really an inclusive love, beckoning

Grenz, Stanley. Theology for the Community of God, (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers,
1994), 93.

others to partake and experience this love. It is not an attribute of, but a pull toward. His

goal, his dream, is relationship with creation. Indeed, as Grenz notes, “God’s ultimate

intention for creation is the establishment of community.”2

Thus, Christianity’s “mission has its origin on the heart of God.”3 The call to

proclaim Christ risen is then an expression of God’s bigger plan, the missio dei. This big

plan is “directed to the establishing of a reconciled people from all nations to live within

a renewed creation and enjoy the presence of their Redeemer God. This biblical vision of

community is both the goal of history and the experience of each person who has come to

know God.”4 The mission of God’s people must be kept in this bigger context: it is a

particular expression of the missio dei which the Lord has commanded.5 Neither the

mission of national-ethnic Israel nor the mission of eschatological Israel, the church, are

the entirety of the missio dei, but are driving elements of its completion. It must be

remembered that even the other-than-human of creation participates in God’s big plan of

community: Isaiah proclaims to “shout aloud, O earth beneath. Burst into song, you

mountains, you forests and all your trees,” (Isaiah 44:23) and that God’s people “will go

out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before

you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands” (55:12). Make no mistake, it

would be spiritually arrogant and biblically ignorant to believe that God’s holy

community can fulfill more than its mandated share of the missio dei.

Grenz, 151.
Bosch, David. J. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis
Books, 1991), 392.
Grenz, 66.
Bosch, 391.

The Mission of National-Ethnic Israel: Modeling God’s Holy Community

Nevertheless, God has acted in history by choosing a people to be agents of his

mission for the cosmos. God despaired to see such broken community as was

characteristic of the times of Genesis 3-11, and endeavored to continue his plan of cosmic

redemption. He did this by choosing Abram, and so eventually the nation of Israel. In

choosing to bless the house of Abraham, God revealed his goal of a redeemed community

on earth: “I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. All the

families of the earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3). Out of the triune God

came a special election of Abraham’s descendants to usher in the fullness of salvation for

the world. Yet Israel’s “election does not imply favoritism. Election is not for private

enjoyment, but to service. God’s election of Israel does not thereby exclude anyone.”6

Although God certainly deals with nations apart from Israel,7 he chose the house of Jacob

to be the thrust of his missio dei.

It appears they were to serve and bless the world largely as a model of a redeemed

community. The redeemed community had two components: beloved reconciliation to

Yahweh, and a high sense of personal morality and economic-political justice.

Their worship of Yahweh alone was to be the beacon of truth amid the

polytheistic idol cults among the nations. The shortfalls of their demon-worship were to

stand in utter contrast to the blessings Israel would experience by knowing the one true

God. Because the Lord appointed Israel as a kingdom of priests among other nations

Hedlund, Roger E.. A Biblical Theology: The Mission of the Church in the World. (Grand Rapids, MI:
Baker, 1991), 37.
Ibid, 68-70.

(Exodus 19:5-6), other nations would come to know him. When Solomon inaugurates

Israel’s first temple, he proclaims its utility in proclaiming Yahweh to the nations:

“As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come
from a distant land because of your name -- for men will hear of your great name
and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm -- when he comes and prays
toward this temple, then hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and do whatever
the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your
name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I
have built bears your Name.” (1 Kings 8:41-43)

The goal has always been “the recognition of Yahweh as God of the whole earth.”8

The second component of Israel living as God’s redeemed community among the

nations was moral purity for individuals and as a society. Included in Mosaic law are

codes for ordaining a just, fair, and decent society. In this way, Israel was “a model of the

kingdom of God” among the nations.9 Hedlund identifies God’s socio-political priorities

as concern for the poor (Deut. 15:4-5, 11), truthful court justice (Deut. 16:19), care for

creation (Deut. 20:19, 22:6-7), equality through “a style of life both egalitarian and

humane” (Lev. 25; Deut. 10:18-19; 15:12; 16:20; 19), and special concern for foreigners

(Exodus 22:21).10 Despite the Israelites’ tending to dwell on how splendorous a people

they thought themselves, these priorities in their God-given laws point to an incredibly

subversive community that was to stand in remarkable contrast to the ways of greed,

militancy, corruption, and empire which was so pervasive among surrounding nations.

Combined, Israel’s affection for Yahweh and living out of His values were to win

over the nations. In the parlance of Protestantism, their faith and their works would win

the nations.11 Indeed, care for the poor and moral living were to be natural fruits of
Ibid, 71.
Ibid, 76.
Ibid, 76-82.
Ibid, 39.

restored community with God. These components together would primarily create a

“centripetal motion”12 drawing people from among the nations to Zion to enter God’s

redeemed community.

Unfortunately, this almost never happened.13 Israel consistently adulterated with

idols and neglected economic and social justice. The Bible shows no record of Israel

actually honoring Jubilee legislation, and is full of the people and kings returning to

idolatry. Indeed, idolatry and oppression of the poor seem to be the two sins God most

consistently gives in the writing of the prophets as reasons for his judgment on Israel and

Judah.14 For all the brilliance, wisdom, and intimate love engrained in Mosaic law, the

Israelites failed utterly in their part of realizing the missio dei, and so the nations

continued in the mire of spiritual darkness.

The Mission of Eschatological Israel: Expanding the Beloved Community

The relentless stream of Israel’s failures could not dissuade the Lord from his

dream of a restored community. The New Testament records two watershed moments in

the unrolling of the missio dei in history. First, the incarnation of Christ represents the

apex of God’s missionary work to reach humanity. In addition to being an example of

what it means to leave comfort in the name of love for others, Christ’s ministry dealt with

Ibid, 82. Jonah is one of the only exceptions to the rule of centripetal attraction before the church.
Two exceptions to this general waywardness were Solomon’s golden age, which appears to be the only
time of foreigners being attracted toward Israel other than to plunder her, and the sending of Jonah the
reluctant zealot to Nineveh.
If these are two approximate parallels to the two greatest commandments, “love God” and “love people,”
then the popular evangelical understanding of loving people may need to go undergo a drastic rebirth!
Indeed, it would mean that the shape of loving people is not only being nice and tender persons, but
includes taking up their hurts, oppressions, and causes in the public realm.

proclaiming the Kingdom of God.15 Varying degrees of the reign or kingdom of God had

been present prior those times, but Jesus of Nazareth spent his earthly ministry putting a

new spin on that old idea: he cut to the heart-principles which drove Mosaic legislation.

Proclamation of this kingdom was central to his ministry.16 Apropos, Christ’s followers

were also preachers of this kingdom, which although not yet in eschatological fullness,

was still something their King Jesus commanded them to live towards.

This notion of the kingdom of God may be considered the individual reign of God

in the hearts of believers and corporately among his redeemed community.17 It is, in

essence, the missio dei realized among his beloved community. As alluded to earlier, it is

a living out of what is to come in full. Thus those who follow Christ and what he

proclaimed are an eschatological community.

The second New Testament watershed point for understanding missions is the

inception of the church, which, like national-ethnic Israel, was missional from the start.

The church is this eschatological community which is to proclaim and live according to

the kingdom of God. Much of this means proclaiming Christ’s good news to the lost, or

evangelizing, as Christ’s farewell command indicates: “Therefore go and make disciples

of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy

Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything [ed: the kingdom] I have commanded you.

And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age" (Matthew 28:19-20). When

combined James’ counsel that “religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless

Mortimer Arias, Announcing the Reign of God, (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1983), p. 3.
Hedlund, 170.
Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy: The Kingdom, in World Perspectives: Biblical, Historical,
Strategic, and Cultural Dimensions of God’s Plan for the Nations, ed. Meg Crossman. (Seattle, WA:
YWAM Publishing, 2003), 52-58.

is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27), the function of

the church in the unrolling of the missio dei, is not only “bringing into the fold those

whom God elected … [but also to be] modeling in the present the glorious human

fellowship that will come at the consummation of history.”18

Unlike the community of God as expressed in national-ethnic Israel, which was

modeled for a centripetal attraction of the nations to her, the eschatological Israel of the

church is sent out to the nations. While Israel was the beacon city on the hill (Isaiah 2:2-

3), Christ’s church is the salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13), a sort of mobile beacon for

Christ and his kingdom. Additionally, Paul says that the church is to be Christ’s

ambassadors to the world (2 Cor 5:20) and ministers of his covenant (3:6). The imagery

is inescapably centrifugal.19 The church is to be a community actively seeking to expand

and include others in it by reaching those others where they are.

The eschaton will arrive. God’s dream will be realized. But until that day, his

community must continue to live as “free samples” of life after that unclouded day, even

to the ends of the earth. God’s dream, after all, is for all of creation to know him again.

As Archbishop Desmond Tutu says, “God works through history to realize God’s

dream.”20 May the church continue to find its role in bringing the missio dei, the dream

of God, closer to reality and into the Eschatological Now.21

Post-script note: I read the entirety of Roger Hedlund’s The Mission of the Church in
the World and, for that matter, enjoyed it fully.

Grenz, 624.
Hedlund, 151.
Tutu, Desmond. God Has A Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time. (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2004),
Bosch, 509.

Arias, Mortimer. Announcing the Reign of God, (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1983)

Bosch, David J.. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission,

(Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991)

Grenz, Stanley. Theology for the Community of God, (Nashville, TN: Broadman &
Holman Publishers, 1994)

Hedlund, Roger E.. A Biblical Theology: The Mission of the Church in the World.
(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1991)

Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy: The Kingdom, in World Perspectives: Biblical,
Historical, Strategic, and Cultural Dimensions of God’s Plan for the Nations, ed. Meg
Crossman. (Seattle, WA: YWAM Publishing, 2003)

Tutu, Desmond. God Has A Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time. (New York, NY:
Doubleday, 2004)