Revised from a presentation for the Spring Office Bearers Conference held March 22, 2014 in Burlington, ON. See here for part 1, here for part 2, here for part 3.
How Do the Scriptures Answer?
Let’s start with the Old Testament, at the very beginning. We’re supposed to be finished with the Belgic Confession, but here I just can’t get the words of article 17 out of my mind. It’s expressed so powerfully:
We believe that, when he saw that man had thus plunged himself into physical and spiritual death and made himself completely miserable, our gracious God in his marvelous wisdom and goodness set out to seek man when he trembling fled from him.
Of course, this is a faithful summary of what happens in Genesis 3. Adam plunged himself into trouble, but God set out after him. God pursued Adam and Eve. He did that to comfort them with a promise, the mother promise of Genesis 3:15. There would be salvation through the seed of the woman. But I want you to take note of what God does here: he pursues the lost and then brings that lost sinner the gospel. He does not turn in on himself and forget about his creation. Instead, he looks outward, has compassion on his creature, and seeks him. If you think about it, this is remarkable. God was the first missionary. True, he set out to seek the lost on his own initiative (no one sent him), and he did this in an entirely unique way. Yet his activity and attitude here should be seen as a model for the church. It is part of God’s character to look outward, seek out the lost, and call them back to himself. Doesn’t Scripture say in Ephesians 5:1 that we are to be imitators of God? Obviously, we cannot imitate an infinite God in every respect, but the context of Ephesians 5:1 is that of God’s love and forgiveness. We can certainly imitate him in those ways, and we must! Similarly, as God looked outward and mercifully sought to save our first parents, we are to imitate him and do likewise with the lost in our world.
Along the same lines, we can think of Ezekiel 18:23, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the LORD God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” This is why the LORD sent prophets, because he wanted the wicked to turn from their evil ways and live. God looked outward and had a heart of compassion for those who were rebelling against him in their wickedness. He sent prophets to call them to repentance. Here too we see the heart of the LORD looking outward, seeking the lost, pursuing them. If this is our God, aren’t we called to reflect him in these ways?
Going back to Genesis, let’s briefly look at the beginning of chapter 12 and sort of track the development of redemptive history from there, at least the history as it bears on our question. In Genesis 12:3, God makes the promise to Abraham that “in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” This promise comes back in Genesis 22:18. The covenant with Abraham had the salvation of many as part of its purpose. The covenant was not just about saving one man and his family, but salvation for all the nations of the earth. In this, we also have something significant about the reason for the church’s existence. On the basis of this passage, we can conclude that the church (where God’s covenant people are found), she exists at least partly for the sake of the world.
As the Old Testament develops from that point forward, there is somewhat of a narrowing. What I mean is that, for a period, God is working mostly only with one people, only with Israel. However, if we look carefully we do see signs that something bigger is being conceived through this development. There is an outward looking perspective in the big picture. There are numerous signs. Let me just mention a couple of passages from Isaiah. Isaiah 49:6 speaks of the Servant of the LORD being given as a light for the nations, so that God’s “salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” In Isaiah 25:6-8, a feast on Mount Zion is described which will be for all people, for all nations. The church here is prophetically represented by Mount Zion and this illustrates again that, in the big picture, the church at least partly exists for the salvation of people from all nations. There is an outward looking perspective engineered into the church’s design.
If we would survey more of the Old Testament we would soon be led to observe a pattern. Despite what I just mentioned, the general pattern in the Old Testament was that the nations could be drawn to Israel. There were exceptions – what happens in Jonah being the most prominent. But in general, the pattern is a passive one. The Israelites were God’s people and if Gentiles were attracted and wanted to join them, they were welcome to, there were provisions for proselytes. But there was no explicit mandate in the Old Testament to proclaim God’s promises for salvation to those outside of God’s people. It’s in the new covenant administration that we find the flowering of God’s concern for the drawing in of all nations.
As we turn to the New Testament, it’s rather remarkable that its first pages don’t differ that much from the last pages of the Old Testament. Yes, our Lord Jesus seeks out the lost, but for the most part he only carries out that ministry among the covenant people of Israel. At that period in redemptive history, there was still more of an inward orientation. And when he first sends out his disciples, he doesn’t send them to the Gentiles, but to the Jews. We would say not “to the world,” but “to the church.” He said it explicitly in Matthew 10:5-6, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” As long as our Lord Jesus was on earth, and even for some time afterwards, the covenant people of Israel held priority in the gospel calling of the disciples.
So the focus in Christ’s ministry is on the covenant people, the church. It’s generally oriented inward. Yet, as in the Old Testament, there are these signs that there is a bigger picture. There are signs that something greater and broader is coming; the orientation is going to dramatically shift with the progress of redemptive history. I just mentioned Matthew 10:5-6. A little bit further in Matthew 10, in verse 18, Christ says that his disciples will be delivered to kings and governors for the purpose of bearing witness to them. This is one hint that the orientation is going to shift outwards.
Other hints are seen in the several times that our Lord Jesus interacted with Gentiles during his earthly ministry. In John 4, Jesus travels through Samaria. There’s a remarkable thing in verse 4. It says, “he had to pass through Samaria.” He was compelled to. There he found the Samaritan woman. Our Lord Jesus had compassion on her and reached out to her, even though that was socially unacceptable for a Jewish man. In Mark 7 and Matthew 15, Christ travelled to the region of Tyre and Sidon, outside the Holy Land. He actively goes to the Gentiles. He interacts with this Syro-Phoenician woman. He acknowledges her faith and heals her daughter. Something similar takes place with the Roman centurion in Luke 7 and Matthew 8. With his faith, the Gentile centurion stands out in contrast to the sin-stubborn covenant people. Because of their stubbornness, they are going to be cast out. Gentiles will be brought into a healthy, friendly relationship with God. There will be judgment for the Jews, but through an outward looking ministry of the church, there will be salvation for the Gentiles. This is all hinted at in preliminary ways in the earthly ministry of Christ.
After his resurrection, and before his ascension, the time is right to begin shifting the orientation. That really begins to happen with the Great Commission. It’s most well-known form is Matthew 28:18-20. This is an important passage for our topic and I’d like to make just two points about it. Far more could be said, but we’ll stick to these two points.
First, our Lord Jesus addressed these words to his apostles. He was not speaking to all individual Christians at all times and places. The context here indicates that our Lord is speaking for the ears of the apostles first and foremost. There is a connection to believers today, but it is not as direct and individual as many make it out to be. In other words, this passage is not telling every individual Christian that they are a missionary.
However, the fact that Christ speaks of his presence to the end of the age in verse 20 points to a broader application than just the apostles living at that moment. In fact, our Lord Jesus is giving the Great Commission to the church through the apostles. He is sending out the church to make disciples and baptize. In normal circumstances, the administration of the sacraments is not entrusted to individual believers. Rather, it is the church which baptizes through its ordained ministers. Therefore, the church as a body has been entrusted with the outward looking task of bringing the gospel to the nations – not individual members by themselves disconnected from the church.
The second point I want to make is that the Great Commission’s calling is to make disciples of people from all nations. Often when we hear this, we think of other countries. The original word used for “nation” here doesn’t mean country in the sense of a geo-political unit or territory. It refers to a people group, an ethnicity. These people groups or ethnicities are found everywhere. We must not forget that the application of Christ’s command here begins at home, in our cities, communities and neighbourhoods – just as it did with the apostles in the days after the ascension of our Saviour. “All nations” includes the people you work with, study with, live next door to, and so on.
This outward looking commission of Christ determines the course of events in the book of Acts. In fact, we have a parallel to Matthew 28:18-20 in Acts 1 and that parallel basically gives us the outline of the book. As the church looks outward, led by the Spirit of Christ, she goes from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria and then to the ends of the earth.
Certainly the book of Acts portrays an outward looking church. At the forefront of this outward looking church are the special office bearers, particularly the apostles. Paul and Peter and others were burdened for the lost and proclaimed the gospel to them. Deacons also did this. We think of Stephen and Philip. But this outward looking orientation was not only found with the special office bearers. It was something that characterized the whole church of that era. In Acts 8:4 and Acts 11:19-21, we read of believers being scattered because of the persecution that arose after Stephen’s martyrdom. These believers went about evangelizing, with the result that many people believed and turned to the Lord. As one final example, in Acts 18 we are introduced to Apollos. Later on, he may have become an office bearer, but when we first meet Apollos, he appears as a regular Christian with a heart for the lost.
The book of Acts presents us with a church turned outward, a church with a heart for the world. We see the same picture elsewhere in the New Testament. We’re running short on time, so let me just mention one passage from Philippians 1. In verse 14, Paul says that because of his imprisonment, other believers have been emboldened to speak the Word. There again we see New Testament Christians who see a world in darkness and seek to bring the gospel to it.
That brings us to conclude from Scripture that being an outward looking church is indeed the commission of Christ; it is the design of God for his church in this dark world. If it is God’s design, then it must be a design for our good, for our collective health. Scripture teaches that we are not only to passively be a light, but also actively to seek and save the lost through sharing the good news of Christ. In this we are to reflect our missionary God. In this we are to show that we are united to Christ, who himself came to actively pursue sinners for their redemption.
So you have heard me make the case. Let me now turn and briefly address some thoughts which might pop up in some minds — let me try to answer some objections or questions. It would be easy to misunderstand what it looks like to be an outward looking church. By way of these objections, perhaps I can make it clearer.
Click here for part 5 (the conclusion)…