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A Biblical Theology of Missions
By George W. Peters
Moody PressCopyright © 1972 The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Missionary Theology and Jesus Christ
Christianity is Christocentric. Christ, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, is its object of faith and worship. Since He provides the supreme example and pattern of conduct, service, attitude and direction for life, a study of His life is illuminating and inspiring.
We concern ourselves here only with His relation to the world and to worldwide missions. What was Christ's attitude toward non-Jewish people? Does He relate His ministry to the world of nations? Was Christ a nationalist, particularist and provincialist, or was He a universalist? Was He an internationalist with a world mission? Were the benefits of His life and death designed for one people? Or was His ministry directed toward the nations of the world? Was Jesus in the days of His flesh conscious of His racial significance and of a universal mission? Did He have a universal horizon, a wider outlook than to restore Judaism?
Christianity would answer the last questions in the affirmative, seeing that present-day Christianity is substantially made up of peoples from the nations, so the universality of Christ is taken for granted. However, considerable debate has revolved around this point. Well does Dr. Samuel Zwemer summarize four historic views:
The first is the extreme view of Hegel, Tolstoi and others that Jesus was anti-Semitic and conscious only of a universal mission! The exact opposite view is that Jesus was at heart a Jew and limited His horizon and message to the house of Israel. Reimarus, Strauss, Wellhausen, and Harnack are representatives of this other radical view and they have had many followers. A third school of critics says that Jesus was at first narrow and Jewish and that only toward the end of His life did He become conscious of a world-mission (Keim, Hausrath, Bertholet, Bernard Weiss).
Against all of these radical views is the traditional one held by believing scholars, Roman Catholics, and Protestant — namely, that Jesus from the outset of His ministry had a view of humanity as a whole, but felt that He was sent especially to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and that His earthly ministry was mainly to the people of Israel. Nevertheless, He taught His apostles by degrees that He was to be the Savior of all men and finally gave them their universal mission.
Because His earthly ministry was mainly to His people, the question arises: Was such restriction a matter of principle or a matter of methodology?
The Portrait of Christ
The four gospels present an authentic record of the life, words and work of Christ. But they are not written as a "life of Christ"; they are too brief and too sketchy for that purpose. Rather, they are four portraits of Christ or four presentations of the same Person from four points of view. Each of the evangelists portrays Christ accurately but according to his own purpose and intent, within his own frame of reference and design, without contradicting, destroying or minimizing his Coauthor's arrangements.
We admit that serious limitations and difficulties are encountered in an attempt to build a harmony of the gospels or a "life of Christ" upon the gospel records. However, a marvelous beauty appears when we synthesize the four portraits rather than harmonize the records. As we see Christ in His fullness and behold an ever enlarging view of Him as portrayed in the gospels, His missionary thrust and compassion become overwhelming. He shines forth as the ideal Missionary, the Apostle of God.
Assuming that Mark was the first to write his record, we note his historical-existential manner of presentation. Having been personally acquainted with Christ and having accompanied Peter on his journeys, Mark writes as a Christ-filled Jew. He introduces Christ as the Prophet of God and as the Servant of Jehovah. His whole portrait is that of the Prophet of God speaking forth the message of God and the Servant of Jehovah ever active, accomplishing the will and purpose of God. Beautifully he summarizes it in a quote from the Master: "For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many" (10:45).
The urgency of such a ministry becomes emphatic in the constantly recurring words, "and," "immediately," and "straightway." The scope is expressed in the command to herald the gospel to all the creation (16:15-16). He is the Prophet whose message must be heralded in all the world (13:10).
Matthew principally accepts the portrait of Mark. However, he proceeds to enlarge it and add to it the royalty of Christ. The authoritative kingship of Christ becomes most prominent in Matthew. Fusing beautifully the various aspects of Christ's life, the writer proceeds to set the portrait of the royalty and kingship of Christ into the frame of Old Testament revelation to give it the full authority of the God of creation and history. He points out how Christ is the fulfillment of the visions and prophecies of Old Testament seers, the embodiment of anticipations and aspirations of mankind, and the reality behind all Old Testament typology. In Christ, spiritual reality has appeared and the shadows must flee. Beautifully, Matthew beholds the King to whom universal authority has been committed, issuing a command that all nations be discipled and united into a single body under the lordship of the triune God.
To the already enlarged portrait, Luke adds the priesthood and saviorhood of Christ which, though implicit in the previous presentation, had not been so fully amplified. Luke, no doubt, had first learned it from Paul; he had then experienced it in his life. Finally, diligent research led him to accept the fact and theology of it. This enlargement he then places into the framework of universal history which begins with Adam and which he sees as God's theater of activity without blurring the line between Heilsgeschichte (sacred story) as seen in Israel and general history as seen in the nations. The universal validity of the priesthood and saviorhood of Christ is evident from the genealogy which begins with Adam and culminates in the universal significance of the death and resurrection of Christ and the offer of repentance and remission of sins in the name of Christ among all nations as expressed in the commission of Christ.
The largest portrait is painted by John. In no way does he contradict the previous writers, nor does he erase or modify these portrayals. Though not explicitly stated, the reader "senses" that John appreciates all that has been said by the previous gospelers who are reflecting the views of the writers, numerous eyewitnesses, and the testimonies of Peter (Mark) and Paul (Luke). John, however, swings beyond and above them and lifts the curtain that we might see the position of Christ as the eternal Son of God, coequal and coeternal with the Father in His metaphysical and cosmic relationships. In the gospel of John, Christ is known as the Logos, the light which lighteth every man, the life, the Son. These concepts directly or metaphorically express unqualified deity.
In Christ, God directly relates Himself to this world spoken of as kosmos. Seventy-nine times John uses this concept and sets forth the various relationships of God to the kosmos. In the strongest possible terms, John presents the universalist activity of God. God is not a particularist in His interest, love and relationships; He has the world upon His heart and in His purpose.
We are informed that "God so loved the world, that he gave ..." (3:16). "God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved" (3:17). We are told that Christ is "the Lamb of God, which taketh away [beareth] the sin of the world" (1:29); "the Saviour of the world" (4:42); "the bread of God is he which ... giveth life unto the world" (6:33); "the light of the world" (8:12; 9:5; 12:46). The Holy Spirit is spoken of as the Comforter who will convict or "reprove the world" (16:8).
Whatever else the above passages may teach, the fact is firmly established by John that God is in benevolent contact with the world. In Christ Jesus there exists a redemptive relationship between heaven and the kosmos. The Holy Spirit is at present actively involved in this redemptive relationship. While this may be mysterious, it is nevertheless real. The Holy Spirit is convicting men everywhere (16:8), and He is drawing men from among all nations to Christ (12:32).
Thus we have an ever enlarging and deepening circle in the gospels. It is personal and cosmic. It is highly individual — "whosoever," and it is racial and includes all.
We are moving first into the historic-existential (Mark), next into the scriptural and revelational (Matthew), next into the universal history (Luke), and finally into the cosmic and metaphysical (John). Time and eternity, heaven and earth are spanned in Christ, and God and man become reconciled.
We have the portraits of Christ as the Prophet of God and the Servant of Jehovah in Mark, as the Messiah of God and King of kings and Lord of lords in Matthew, as the Priest of God and Saviour of mankind in Luke, and as the Son of God in truth and reality who comes to bring life and immortality to man in John. Thus in Christ the fullness of God dwells bodily, a fullness adequate and available for all who believe.
The missionary movement and implications of such presentations are evident and overwhelming. Progressively but certainly Christ will triumph in all spheres of His relationship because He is indeed a missionary Christ — the Christ of all mankind and the Lord of the whole kosmos.
The Major Theological Concepts of Christ
The sense of the missionary thrust of Christ comes into clear focus as we consider His basic theological concepts and presuppositions. All of them are filled with missionary content and charged with missionary dynamic. They only awaited Pentecost to be discharged with full fervor and force. We summarize these basic theological concepts and presuppositions of Christ by pointing to His focal point of proclamation, central revelation, unique self-identification, supreme purpose, declaration as final Judge, and the Great Commission.
THE FOCAL POINT OF CHRIST'S PROCLAMATION — THE KINGDOM OF GOD
Mark summarizes the proclamation of Jesus Christ in these words: "Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel" (1:14-15).
Even a cursory survey of the gospels will soon convince the reader that the concept of the kingdom of God was most prominent in the teaching of Jesus and formed the focal point of His proclamation. He began with its preaching (Mk 1:14-15) and ended with a discourse on it (Ac 1:3). In between, numerous references point to it. Direct statements about it and parabolic interpretations of it characterized His preaching. Christ was, indeed, a Preacher of the kingdom of God (compare His more than sixty references to it in the gospel records).
The author is well acquainted with the literature that has either sought to identify and/or to differentiate between the designations of "kingdom of heaven" (in Matthew's gospel) and the "kingdom of God" as found in all four gospels and in the epistles. Since these technicalities do not enter into the present thesis, no pros and cons need be discussed.
We are interested in the meaning of the concept "kingdom of God" as it reflects either the particularism or universality of Christ. This concept is not altogether an Old Testament concept. In its full form it does not appear in the Old Testament. While its roots are there, its full blossoming forth is found only in the New Testament.
In the Old Testament we find the following facts: God is the King of Israel in a particular way; God is the King of all the nations in a general way; God is the King of all creation in a providential way.
To this the New Testament adds a new dimension: It is emphatic that God is the King of the inner man. It adds the inwardness, immediacy and actuality of the kingdom and kingship of God, making it personal, spiritual, moral and social. The kingdom of God is in you. God is the King of eternity and immortality, thus indicating the "otherness" and otherworldliness in value and nature of the kingdom and kingship of God. It lifts the concept of the kingdom out of space and time in origin and ultimate design and transplants it into the realm of the transhuman and transearthly in quality and duration.
The kingdom of God includes all of these aspects. It is individual, national, racial, cosmic. It is personal, spiritual, moral, social. It is worldly and timely. It is also transworldly, transhuman and eternal. It is history, yet it is ultimate. It is timely, yet it is eternal. It is qualitative, yet it is also spacial.
From the above it is evident that a simple definition of the kingdom of God is not sufficient. It is also well illustrated by the literature on the subject and the three basic hermeneutical systems of Scripture interpretation which have grown up around it: postmillennialism, premillennialism, and amillennialism.
It may be well to think of the kingdom of God in qualitative and quantitative terms. Qualitatively we may consider it as threefold:
a. The rule of God in the heart of man. The kingdom of God is within you. It is immediate and actual. As such it is moral, not nationalistic; it is spiritual, not materialistic; it is actual, not idealistic (that is, it is present and not totally futuristic).
b. The rule of God in the church. Neither God nor Christ is ever spoken of as the King of the church. Christ is the Lord of the church and this is but a Roman modification of the king or rulership concept. As Lord He is sovereign over His church. Thus Paul went about preaching the kingdom of God (Ac 14:22; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31). In the epistles he uses the kingdom concept at least fourteen times. Certainly Paul did not feel that the church was not related to or a part of the kingdom of God. The content of his references, however, betrays that he thought of the kingdom more in moral and ethical terms than in terms of authority, royalty and rulership.
The fact remains, however, that Paul knew Christ as the Lord of the church. He is the Head of the church, and the church is His body (Eph 1:23; Ro 12:5; Col 1:18). To Christ belong all right, authority and rulership in the church. He bestows gifts and He dispatches His ambassadors. He is sovereign Lord of the church (Eph 4:7, 11; 2 Co 5:20).
c. The rule of God in the world. As such, though it is personal, it has strong social implications through the ministry of the individual Christian and the general impact of the gospel upon the conscience of society. The presence of the gospel in this world constitutes judgment, modification and enrichment of the order of society. It is strongly social in its general impact, regulating all relationships according to the will and purpose of God. As such, though it is local within the individual believer and the church of Jesus Christ, it is universal in the sense that the gospel is to be preached to all nations and that the church is to be constituted of believers from among all nations. As such, though it is present within the individual, within the Christian church, and within the providential government of God in this dispensation, its full manifestation is futuristic — first in the millennial reign of Christ upon the earth over all nations and, finally, in the consummation when the last enemy shall have been destroyed and the Son shall have subjugated all things, "then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all" (1 Co 15:28). It is immediate, progressive and cataclysmic.
Quantitatively the kingdom of God concept implies a realm, an objective reality. Repeatedly Christ admonishes man to "enter the kingdom of God," "receive the kingdom of God," "to give you the kingdom of God," "sit in the kingdom of God," "eat in the kingdom of God." Such expressions emphasize primarily realm and objective reality rather than a reign, though the latter is not excluded.
From this brief survey it is evident that there is nothing particularistic in the focal teaching of Christ. To the contrary, as God is not the God of the Jews only but of the nations also, so the kingdom of God is not the Jews' only, but also the nations'. The kingdom of God concept is definitely universalistic in designation and implication.
THE CENTRAL REVELATION OF CHRIST — THE FATHERHOOD OF GOD
Christ has unveiled for us the riches of heavenly truth. Indeed, he is the truth, for "grace and truth came by Jesus Christ." However, in the midst of all the splendor of revelation which came in and through Christ, the manifestation of the Father towers above all other truth. "The only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him," or as the New English Bible translates, "No one has ever seen God; but God's Son, he who is nearest to the Father's heart, he has made him known" (Jn 1:18).
Excerpted from A Biblical Theology of Missions by George W. Peters. Copyright © 1972 The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of Moody Press.
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