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Theological Foundations of Missions:
Biblical Undergirdings of God's Mission
When a ship is in harbor, it must be anchored firmly. If it is not securely moored, it is moved by the constant ebb and flow of the sea. Likewise, the Christian faith must be theologically anchored. Without such anchors theology shifts with the ebb and flow of social and political currents.
Several examples illustrate how the Christian missionary movement has frequently drifted with the ebb and flow of cultural currents. After the Vietnam war the American people retreated militarily and politically from the world. During this period many churches mirrored this national isolationism by greatly reducing their foreign evangelistic commitments. The "social gospel" movement of the 1930s and 1940s de-emphasized evangelism and stressed social service. This movement was based on the theology that all world religions contain truth about God. Rather than introducing unbelievers to the way of God in Jesus Christ, religious leaders entered into dialogue with those of other religions to learn their truths. These concepts, set forth at the Jerusalem Missionary Conference of 1928, grew out of the social currents of the day rather than from a strong theological anchorage. Western secularism has also impacted the missionary movement. People were thought to be self-sufficient, able to solve all human problems empirically. This gospel of self-help became part of the cultural baggage of the Western missionary. The Bible, however, pictures people without God as unable to direct their own steps (Jer. 10: 23). Humans, it avers, are not regenerated by realizing the potential within themselves but by believing in the saving actions of God, who stands above them. Despite the ebb and flow of human cultures, Christians must stand firm, anchored by a God-ordained, biblically inspired worldview.
This chapter is written with the hope that it will provide theological anchorage to the student of missions. Mission is shown, not as a temporary historical phenomenon passing away for social and political reasons, but as eternally rooted in the will and nature of God.
God's mission might be pictured as an effervescent spring of pure water cascading down a mountainside and flowing into the sea. In this analogy God himself is the spring-the source from whom all living water flows. Christ is the living water that God has poured out upon the world. The Holy Spirit is the power, like gravity, driving forward the living water of God. The church is the receptacle, the waterway, that partakes of the living water and also conveys it to the world. The world, the target of mission, is those in need of the pure, life-giving water of God.
Mission does not originate with human sources, for ultimately it is not a human enterprise. Mission is rooted in the nature of God, who sends and saves. When Adam and Eve acquiesced to Satan's temptations in the Garden of Eden, God came searching for them, calling, "Where are you?" (Gen. 3: 9). This question testifies to the nature of God throughout all generations. He continually seeks to initiate reconciliation between himself and his fallen creation. God demonstrated his nature by sending his one and only Son into the world. The emphasis of John 3: 16 is on God, who loved the world so much that he gave.... This is the very nature of God. He is always giving, relating, reconciling, redeeming! He is the spring that gives forth living water-the source of mission! From the very foundation of the world God has been the great initiator of mission, as vividly portrayed by the acts of God in both the Old and New Testaments.
The Deliverance: A Great Old Testament Illustration of God's Mission
The Israelites defined God's mission by his actions in delivering them from Egyptian captivity. His actions became foundational for his continued interaction with Israel. God's covenant, for instance, was based on what God had done in Egypt when he carried Israel "on eagles' wings" and brought them to himself (Ex. 19: 4). The Law was also prefaced by "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt" (20: 2). On the basis of God's activities in Egypt the Ten Commandments were given (vv. 3--17). During their feasts Jews recited a declaration of what God had done in Egypt (Deut. 26: 5--9). This confessional statement affirmed that the Israelites went down into Egypt few in number but there grew to a mighty nation. When they suffered, God "heard" their cries, "saw" their misery, and "brought them out" with miracles, wonders, and signs. This confession, repeated throughout the ages, testified of God's mighty mission of deliverance in Egypt.
God's mission of deliverance was based on his eternal attribute of love (Ex. 34: 6--7). The deliverance account reveals that the Israelite cry of desperation was "heard" by God, who "remembered" his covenant with Abraham and "looked on" the Israelites and "was concerned" about them (2: 23--25). These verbs portray a compassionate God. God's love motivated him to call Moses to deliver the Israelites from captivity. God is therefore seen as the originator of the mission. The mission was not instigated by the Israelites' cries but by the ever-present God who responded to these groanings.
God, the originator of the mission of deliverance, then sought a person to carry out his mission. At the burning bush Moses was given the commission to be God's missionary of deliverance (Ex. 3: 10). This call itself shows that the mission was God's; it was not a deliverance improvised by human ingenuity.
Forty years previous to God's call, Moses had attempted to take the salvation of the Israelites into his own hands. Although he was the adopted son of Pharaoh's daughter, Moses identified the Israelites as "his own people" and felt the injustice of their bondage. He slew an Egyptian slavemaster, expecting that they would realize that "God was using him to rescue them" (Acts 7: 25). God's timing, however, did not run according to Moses' schedule. The discovered insurrectionist fled to Midian.