God’s unchanging plans for mission. Part 3: Sent into the world
Posted on: 1st April 2021
Former CMS missionary Simon Gillham is now vice-principal of Moore College, where he lectures in the Missions department. In this third in a series of four articles* on God’s unchanging plan for mission, he focuses on John’s gospel and talks about why Jesus is ‘the sent one’, and how he now sends us.
In this four–part series we are looking at several key passages on the topic of ‘God’s unchanging plans for salvation’. Let’s quickly review parts one and two.
In part one we considered the great promises of God to Abraham. Those blessings are meant for all people everywhere.
In part two we saw that despite the repeated failure of Abraham’s descendants (Israel the nation) to bring blessing for all, God still planned to use Israel as his ‘servant’. God promised, through Isaiah, that this ‘servant’ Israel would bring God’s salvation and God’s rule to the ends of the earth.
But Israel failed!
Wonderfully, one true Israelite succeeded where Israel fell short. The Lord Jesus Christ was and remains the best and the most perfect Israelite. He was and is God’s true servant, as promised by Isaiah. God the Son became a man. By his death and resurrection this son of David and son of Abraham became God’s appointed prophet, priest and king, bringing his followers to salvation.
Now in part three of this series we focus on the New Testament—in particular the Gospel of John, for reasons we will explain a bit later. We will look carefully at why Jesus was ‘sent’, and what his sending now means for us, his disciples and followers.
An initial observation: ‘mission’ means ‘sending’ and ‘sending’ means ‘mission’
Let’s first notice that words like ‘sent’ and ‘sending’ are crucial to understanding God’s plans in this world. God has plans for his creation. He now ‘sends’ his servant Jesus to bring those plans about.
As part of this, it is important to also notice that our word ‘mission’ (hence ‘missionary’ and ‘Church Missionary Society’) comes from the Latin word missio, meaning ‘sent’. Being part of true Christian ‘mission’ means being ‘sent’, just as Jesus himself was ‘sent’.
Therefore, as we come to the New Testament, we will ask questions along these lines and similar: Who is sent into the world? Who is now sending us? What are we sent to do?
The risen Lord Jesus sends his disciples
After the resurrection, Jesus appears to his disciples and says:
“Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” (John 20:21)
That is, the Father sends Jesus. Jesus risen from the dead, and having achieved what his Father sent him to do, now sends his disciples to continue the mission.
Consider how Mark, Matthew, and Luke give complementary perspectives on this sending that John speaks of—this ‘mission’.
At the end of Mark’s Gospel, the women discover Jesus’ empty tomb and flee in fear. Here the story suddenly just finishes. Some old manuscripts give further detail by supplying a further ending, the more reliable ones do not. The clear implication of this surprise ending is that the story of Jesus’ resurrection is really a new beginning. We expect more to happen: all must now hear this amazing news that Jesus has risen from the dead!
Matthew ends with the Great Commission, a crystal-clear statement that the disciples are ‘sent’ to make other disciples, who will in turn go out to all nations:
18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18–20)
Luke gives further detail on how Jesus ‘sends’ his disciples:
45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:45–49)
So, we can see that all four gospels—John, Mark, Matthew and Luke—reveal with clarity that the disciples have been ‘sent’. If you are a disciple of Jesus, you are now on a mission.
Sending (= mission) in John
Let us now focus on the Gospel of John. The reason we single out John for particular attention is that John speaks more directly and frequently about ‘sending’ (that is, mission) than any other gospel or letter in the whole of the New Testament. If we are serious about mission, we must come to terms with what John says on the subject.
Sending (= mission) is first and foremost about Jesus
In John’s Gospel, who is sent? The answer to this question is threefold:
- The disciples are sent (John 13:16; 13:20; 17:18; 20:21)
- The Holy Spirit is sent (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:7)
- But more than anyone else, it is the Lord Jesus himself (41 references) whom God sends to do God’s work in the world.
So, when we talk about being ‘sent’, that sending refers first and foremost to Jesus himself (as we also discovered when we considered ‘the servant of the Lord’ in part two of this series). The servant—Jesus—is the one who is both called by God and sent by God to complete his work. Remember: It’s not about you. It’s about Jesus!
What does it mean for Jesus to be sent?
Jesus is the sent one
In the pie chart below I’ve shown how John’s Gospel speaks in at least four different ways about Jesus as God’s ‘sent one’.
To clarify: the size of each pie slice in the chart reflects the number of specific ‘sent one’ references in the gospel. For example, note in the pie chart that almost half the references to Jesus as ‘the sent one’ are to his unique identity as the Son of God. This only serves to reinforce that the gospel’s emphasis is not on our mission or sending, but on Jesus’ mission and sending. It’s not about you. It’s about Jesus!
So firstly, Jesus has a unique ‘sending’ that reflects who he is: He is the only begotten Son of God. God the Father has sent him. If people do not accept Jesus and his mission, then they have rejected God himself. (e.g. John 5:37-38, John 12:44-45)
Secondly, Jesus’ ‘sending’ means that he has a particular work that only he can do in the world. This is the work of saving us from judgement (John 3:17) and bringing life to his people on the last day. (John 6:44)
Thirdly Jesus is sent to teach God’s word. (e.g. John 12:49, John 14:24)
Fourthly Jesus has come to do God’s will (John 4:34) and God’s work. (John 10:35-38)
Jesus, the sent one, now sends us
There are some aspects of Jesus’ mission that are unique to him. He alone is God. He alone can reveal God. He alone can save from condemnation. He alone grants everlasting life. No-one except for Jesus can fulfil that central saving mission.
But John’s Gospel also highlights ways in which we Christians not only can but must share in Jesus’ mission. Like Jesus, we are to do the will of God. We must follow Jesus’ example, and in doing so we will receive blessing. (John 13:15-17, 35).
Because we are disciples, we also share in the mission of speaking and teaching God’s word. Listen to how Jesus prays before his arrest:
18 As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. 19 For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.
20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one. (John 17:18–22)
What then are we sent to do? What is our mission?
Most importantly, and as we have suggested, it is God’s mission. Only God’s plans will prevail. God the Father has sent the Son, and God’s intention is to place all things under the Son’s feet. The suffering servant of Isaiah (refer to part two of this series) has become the risen Christ of the New Testament, and has been and will be glorified as such.
Further, as we see in John’s Gospel and elsewhere, the Father has sent the Spirit to bear witness to Jesus and to enable the witness of his followers. It follows that God’s mission (and therefore ours) is first and foremost about bearing witness to Jesus.
Clearing up muddle about mission
Today lots of things go on in the name of ‘mission’. But what we see here in John’s Gospel is that bearing witness to Jesus is what mission is all about. If mission does not have speaking about Jesus at its core, then it is not Christian mission.
What about all the other activities that go under the name of ‘mission’? How, for example, do all the other good works that Christians do fit into this?
The answer we find throughout the New Testament is that only those who live according to God’s will are credible witnesses. We can talk the talk. We must also walk the walk.
But while lives of obedience commend the gospel, adorn the gospel, and may even win a hearing for the gospel, they are not in themselves the gospel. And such good works are not mission as such, unless those who live the lives also speak the gospel message.
We should of course be involved in all kinds of other good works locally and all over the world: working for justice, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, advocating for the powerless, providing education, shelter, comfort and mercy. It is right to be engaged in such activities as we are able, regardless of whether or not they lead to opportunities to speak the gospel.
But if we talk about those activities alone, divorced from reference to speaking the gospel, then we have missed the important truth that John’s Gospel teaches us. For in John’s Gospel, here is the mission:
God so loved the world that he sent his son so that everyone who believed in him would not perish, but would have eternal life.
God sent Jesus. That is what God’s mission is all about. And as we have seen through our brief overview of John’s Gospel, we too are ‘sent’ as part of this mission. We are sent to tell the world about Jesus: to be his witnesses and to testify to his truth.
We note in passing that Matthew’s Gospel expresses precisely the same idea in different words. It is, after all, the same Jesus who is doing the ‘sending’. In Matthew, rather than speaking of ‘sending’ (as in John 20:21), Jesus tells his followers to “make disciples.” (Matthew 28:18-20) The point, though, is identical. For how do you make disciples? By baptising and “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded”—which means, in turn, that the disciples of the disciples will also then make disciples of all nations. Every single Christian—every disciple—has a part to play in making disciples of all nations.
Being part of this great mission
Doesn’t this mission, this work of ‘disciple making’, seem too big? Is it not all too complicated—at the very least, a job for a specialist?
Speaking as one of these so-called ‘specialists’, one of my great frustrations with people like me is that we too often turn what should be the normal Christian life into something that requires special training. I’m not talking about being a church leader or preacher; that does need a bit of training. I’m speaking specifically about the work of disciple-making.
Jesus’ approach to disciple making was to call 12 men to follow him. They followed, they watched his life, they listened to what he said. There were other followers too, who watched Jesus’ life and listened to what he said.
Similarly, Paul (a great disciple-maker) told people to follow him, just as he followed Christ. (1 Corinthians 11:1) People watched his life and listened to what he said about Jesus.
Consider that no matter what your specific skills and abilities as a Christian, there will be people who are now watching your life and listening to what you say. It may be your children, or the children of friends. It may be your friends and neighbours, or people at school, people at work, fellow sports people or fellow musicians.
What are these people seeing and hearing? Are they hearing about Jesus? Are they hearing your testimony? Are you a witness to Jesus?
Be a witness, not a bystander
Let me press that question by highlighting the difference between a witness and a bystander. Both the witness and the bystander see what happens. Both have the experience. Only the witness is prepared to talk.
Followers of Jesus are called to be witnesses, not bystanders.
I lived in Africa for eight years and up until COVID regularly travelled back there. The church in Africa continues to grow like wildfire, even though very few people are trained as leaders or preachers or specialists. So why does the church continue to grow? Because ordinary people talk about Jesus.
Many of them will just repeat something that they heard someone else say. They may re-tell a Bible story, or sum up what the preacher said on Sunday. They may talk about what a difference it makes to have a hope that goes beyond the grave.
All Christians—not just the specialist preachers and experts—can do this. Some of us can do more, and should think about doing more. We have all been sent to the nations to make disciples.
There are more than four billion people in the world who don’t know Jesus—who live without the light of the world or the hope of glory. Not only don’t they know Jesus, but many of them don’t even know someone else who knows Jesus. How will they hear—unless we go and speak to them?
Just as the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus (the Son of the Father) sends us!
*The final part of this series is now online, see here.