Basic Definition. Mission is the divine activity of sending intermediaries, whether supernatural or human, to speak or do God's will so that his purposes for judgment or redemption are furthered. The biblical concept is expressed by the use of verbs meaning "to send, " normally with God as the expressed subject. The Hebrew verb is salah [j;l'v] and the Greek is apostello [ajpostevllw]. These terms emphasize the authoritative, commissioning relationship involved. The Scriptures also employ the cognates apostolos [ajpovstolo"] ("apostle, " the one sent) and apostole [ajpostolhv] ("apostleship, " the function of being sent), referring to the one sent and his function.
The biblical concept of "mission" comprehends the authority of the one who sends; the obedience of the one sent; a task to be accomplished; the power to accomplish the task; and a purpose within the moral framework of God's covenantal working of judgment or redemption.
Mission in the Old Testament.The first records in biblical history of God's sending is his banishment of Adam and Even from the garden and the angelic mission to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah ( Gen 3:23 ; 19:13 ). The redemption from Egypt and the conquest of the land has its dark side: judgment on the idolatrous nations Israel escapes from or displaces. The emphasis, however, in the Pentateuchal accounts on mission centers on God's positive action. In securing a bride for Isaac and thus keeping the hope of the covenant promise alive for another generation, God sends his angel before Abraham's chief household servant to give him success on his journey ( Genesis 24:7 Genesis 24:40 ). And in the fourth generation it is Joseph, as he says to his brothers, whom "God sent ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance" ( 45:7 ; cf. vv. 5, 8; Psalm 105:17 ). In Joseph's case, aside from prescient dreams in his youth ( Gen 37:5-11 ), there was no specific call to mission. But he could look back on harmful circumstances and discern God's sending of him to Egypt to preserve the nation.
Moses does receive a call from God, who sends him to Pharaoh to bring his people out of Egypt ( Exod 3:10 ). God has heard their cry under Egyptian oppression, and sends Moses as leader and redeemer ( Acts 7:35 ). So closely are Moses' and God's work identified that in some passages it is Moses who brings the people out ( 1 Sam 12:8 ) while in other places it is God ( Joshua 24:5 ; Psalm 105:43, ; cf. v. 26; Micah 6:4 ).
At other points redemption from Egypt is a commissioned angel's work ( Num 20:16 ). And an angel, which could well be a Christophany, is sent by God to protect the people in their wilderness wanderings and powerfully fight on their behalf in the conquest of Canaan ( Exod 23:20-33 ; 33:2 ).
Signs and wonders are what God sent Moses to do in Egypt and in the sight of Israel ( Deut 34:11-12 ), as a means of liberation ( Psalm 105:27 ) and validation of his divinely given authority ( Num 16:28-29 ). Moses is the quintessential divinely commissioned redeemer in the Old Testament.
During the time of the judges, God's intervention to deliver Israel after a cycle of apostasy, punishment, oppression at the hands of her enemies, and a cry for deliverance involved various missions. Prophets were sent to interpret to Israel the moral and spiritual dimension of her suffering ( Judges 6:8 ). God sent angels to announce to the parents or to the judge himself his role as divinely sent deliverer and to commission him to that task ( Judges 6:11-12 Judges 6:14 ; 13:8 ).
The line of prophets from Moses to Samuel was sent by God to provide deliverance for Israel ( 1 Sam 12:11 ). Samuel was sent by God to anoint kings ( 15:1 ; 16:1 ). Samuel communicated to Saul his positive mission of deliverance, which took the form of punishment of the Amalekites ( 1 Samuel 15:18 1 Samuel 15:20 ). All other missions by the prophets to kings and to Israel involved confronting sin using God's law, calling for repentance, and warning of judgment if the monarch or the nation did not turn back to God ( 2 Sam 12:1 ; 1 Kings 14:6 ; 2 Chron 25:15 ). In fact, summaries of the northern kingdom's rebellion leading to Assyrian subjugation and exile and Judah's similar end at the hands of Babylon stress that again and again God in his pity sent prophets to the people ( 2 Kings 17:13 ; 2 Chron 24:19 ; 36:15 ; Jer 29:19 ; 35:15 ; 44:4 ).
Of the Old Testament prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah have the clearest articulation of God's personal call to mission ( Isa 6:8 ; Jer 1:7 ). Their immediate mission was to announce judgment to a rebellious people who, they were told, would reject their message ( Isa 6:9-12 ; Jeremiah 26:12 Jeremiah 26:15 ; 42:5-6 ; 43:1-2 ; cf. Ezek 2:3-4 ; contrast Hag 1:12 ). Though their mission would be a failure in terms of a positive response to their message, their commission charged them to be totally obedient ( Isa 6:8 ; Jer 1:7 ).
When the prophets did speak of a hope for future deliverance "in the last days, " they refer to a mission for God's messenger or Elijah whom God sends to prepare his way ( Mal 3:1 ); of the Servant-Messiah, anointed to preach good news to the oppressed, whom the Lord sends to bring deliverance ( Isa 61:1 ); and of a remnant of survivors who are sent to evangelize the nations: "They will proclaim my glory among the nations" ( Isa 66:19 ).
Mission in the Ministry of Jesus. So significant is the redemptive mission of the Messiah, the Son of God, that God sends an angel not only to announce his birth ( Luke 1:26 ), but to announce the birth of John the Baptist, the messenger who will be sent to prepare his way and introduce him ( 1:19 ; Matt 11:10 ; cf. Mark 1:2 ; Luke 7:27 ; John 1:6 John 1:33 ).
Jesus had much to say about his own understanding of his mission. He saw his purpose as being sent by God his Father to proclaim and accomplish spiritual deliverance for humankind ( Luke 4:43 ; John 3:34 ; 8:42 ; 10:36 ). He consciously appropriates Isaiah 61:1-2 as the Old Testament passage his ministry fulfills ( Luke 4:18-19 ).
Jesus characterizes his mission as authenticated and sustained by the Father who sent him ( John 5:37 ; 6:57 ; John 8:18 John 8:29 ). More than that Jesus comes with the full authorization of God, so that he fully, even interchangeably, represents him ( John 12:44-45 ). So he can say to his disciples when he sends them on mission: "He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me" ( Matt 10:40 ; cf. Mark 9:37 ). At the same time, Jesus carries out his mission in full obedience to the will of the one who sent him ( John 4:34 ; 5:30 ; 6:38-39 ; 7:18 ). He speaks his words and does his works ( 7:16 ; 8:26 ; 9:4 ; 12:49 ; 14:24 ).
To believe that God has sent his Son Jesus on this saving mission is critically decisive for an individual's eternal destiny. "Now this is eternal life: that they may know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent" ( 17:3 ; cf. 5:24 ; 6:29 ; 11:42 ; 17:21 ). To reject divinely sent messengers and their message will mean, even for the sons of Israel, receiving the retributive justice and forfeiting kingdom blessings at the last judgment ( Matt 22:1-14 ; Luke 14:17 ).
Jesus recognized his place in the midst of a long train of divinely sent, yet humanly rejected, messengers both past and future. There were the prophets, wise men, scribes, and apostles, whom Israel had and would reject, even kill ( Matt 23:33-36 ; Luke 11:47-51 ; 13:34 ; cf. Matt 22:3-4 ; Luke 14:17 ). Through parable Jesus let them know that he, the Son, was among that number ( Matt 21:34-37 ; Mark 12:2-6 ; Luke 20:10-13 ).
Unlike any previous human sent on a mission by God, Jesus proceeded to send his followers on a mission with the same authority and the same tasks. During his earthly ministry Jesus designated the Twelve as "apostles" ( Matt 10:2 ; Luke 6:13 ; Acts 1:2 ). He is the source of the title and the instructions he gives the apostles enables us to fill out the picture of what Jesus meant by being one sent on a mission. The authorization is complete. Apostles are fully representative of their Lord ( Matt 10:40 ). This is seen from their tasks. Not only do they preach the same message as Jesus" The kingdom of heaven is near" ( 10:7 )but they are given authority by him to do the same miraculous works: casting out demons and healing the sick ( 10:1 ; Mark 6:7 ; Luke 9:1 ). Interestingly, the focus of their mission was the same: "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" ( Matt 10:6 ; 15:24 ). Jesus sent them on their mission as innocents, unprotected and unprovisioned ( Matthew 10:9 Matthew 10:16 ; Mark 6:8-11 ; Luke 9:3-5 ). They go to complete the work begun by others, to harvest what they have not labored for ( John 4:38 ). Though they are not labeled apostles, the Seventy, sent out two by two, go on the same basic mission ( Luke 10:1-12 ). They also have full authorization from Jesus, so that those who are listening to them are listening to him ( 10:16 ).
The pattern of mission set by Jesus' sending of his followers during his earthly ministry was repeated and extended during his post-resurrection appearances. At that time he clearly defined the mission for each generation until he returns ( Matt 28:18-20 ). Their message's perspective and the scope of the audience, however, would now be different. The risen Lord commissioned his followers to proclaim a salvation fully accomplished in his atoning death and victorious resurrection and freely offered to those who repent and receive it ( Luke 24:44-48 ). He sent them to "all the nations to the end of the earth" ( Matt 28:19 ; Luke 24:47 ; Acts 1:8 ; 22:21 ; 26:17 ). The manner of the mission must now be carried out with due regard to protection and provision ( Luke 22:35-38 ).
This commissioning is not limited to the twelve apostles. The Gospel of John presents Jesus as commissioning all disciples with the same mission. He prays in the high priestly prayer, "As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world" ( 17:18 ). In a post-resurrection appearance to the disciples he says, "As the Father has sent me, I am sending you" ( 20:21 John 21 ). In his further instructions he indicates that this comparative formula means a full authorization in mission. As they go about preaching the gospel of salvation, God the Holy Spirit empowers them ( 20:22 ).
Jesus also sends the Holy Spirit on a mission. He will empower Christian believers for witness to the good news of salvation ( Luke 24:49 ; cf. vv. 46-48; Acts 1:8 ). He will bring not only full knowledge of the saving truth in Jesus' teaching ( John 14:26 ; 15:26 ; this is promised particularly to the twelve apostles ), but he will bring to the unbelieving world convincing conviction of sin, righteousness, and judgment to come ( 16:7-11 ).
Finally, Jesus speaks of sending angels on mission. Not only does the exalted Lord Jesus send his angel to reveal to John what shall occur at the end ( Rev 22:16 ), but, as the glorious, returning Son of Man, he will send angels both to gather the elect to himself ( Matt 24:31 ; Mark 13:27 ) and to gather out of his kingdom "everything that causes sin and all who do evil" and cast them into eternal punishment ( Matt 13:41-42 ).
Mission in the Early Church. God Sends Salvation. As the apostles reflected on the Savior God sent they highlighted the motive, context, task, and result of his mission. God's self-initiating love sent Jesus ( 1 John 4:9-10 ). As with Moses and the judges, Jesus is sent into a situation of bondage, this time spiritual, to fulfill God's saving purposes ( Gal 4:3-5 ). The comparison and contrast with Moses, God's first "apostle-redeemer, " reveals not only Jesus' comparable faithfulness but his superiority ( Heb 3:1-6 ). He has greater glory as the creator of the household of faith and as a Son who rules over it. In these two ways his role as fully authorized, indeed interchangeable, representative of God is brought out.
Jesus' task is to be savior of the world ( 1 John 4:14 ); redeemer of those under law ( Gal 4:4 ); sacrifice for sin and condemnation of sin ( Rom 8:3 ); and propitiation ( 1 John 4:9-10 ). The result of this rescue mission is not only redemption from the penalty of sin, but an introduction into eternal life, that is, "living through him" and receiving an inheritance: "full rights as sons" ( Rom 8:1-4 ; Gal 4:4-5 ; 1 John 4:9 ).
The apostles were also very much aware of God's sending of the Spirit in these last days. He comes to empower the witness to the gospel ( 1 Peter 1:12 ) and to be a salvation blessing, bearing witness to the intimate union believers have with the Father ( Gal 4:6 ). He is the means by which the Godhead is omniscient and omnipresent in the world ( Rev 5:6 ).
Angels, too, are sent. They minister to believers, even to the extent of the miraculous intervention so that the mission may go forward ( Acts 12:11 ; Heb 1:14 ). They provide revelation of events of the end of history ( Rev 1:1 ; 22:6 ).
The work of all these messengers comes to nothing if the word, the message of salvation, is not sent and heeded ( Acts 10:36 ; 13:26 ; 28:28, ; salvation sent to those who will listen ). It must go to Israel and the Gentiles. So intent is the Godhead that the mission go forward and so essential is the human messenger, that through a vision spiritually needy Gentiles are sent to summon a Jewish Christian apostle to preach to them under their roof ( Acts 10:3-6 Acts 10:20 ). The proclaimers of this message are divinely sent ( Rom 10:15 ).
Apostle. Originating in Jesus' choice and commissioning of the Twelve, the concept of apostle as divinely commissioned messenger of the good news of salvation plays a major role in the church's thinking about mission. The term can apply uniquely to the foundational apostles of the church's first generation, the Twelve. Outside traditions in which ecclesiastical authority involves apostolic succession, any continuing presence of apostolicity is usually thought of in terms of "apostolic function, " namely, pioneer church planting missionary endeavor. Though this is certainly at the core of the biblical teaching, there is much else the term can teach us about mission.
There a number of categories of individuals who are called "apostles" in the New Testament: the Twelve ( Luke 6:13 ); the 120 to 500 who saw the risen Christ ( 1 Cor 15:7 ); Paul ( 15:8-9 ); missionaries ( Acts 14:4 ; Rom 16:7 ; 1 Cor 9:5 ); and church envoys ( 2 Cor 8:23 ; Php 2:25 ). The qualifications for fitting one of these categories involves the call of the risen Christ who sends. If one has been personally commissioned by the risen Lord in a post-resurrection pre-ascension appearance, he fits into the category of "the Twelve" or the 120 to 500. Of course, the Twelve met the added qualification of having been chosen by Jesus during his earthly ministry (cf. the criteria and method of choice for Judas's replacement, Acts 1:21-26 ). Paul realized that he did not meet the criteria for being part of the Twelve or even the 120 to 500. Comparing himself to "one abnormally born, " he claims the title "apostle" because of a personal call from the risen Lord in an appearance from heaven after the ascension ( 1 Cor 15:8-10 ). Though the evidenced is less clear, it seems that there is biblical precedent for labeling as "apostles" missionary messengers of the saving gospel in each generation of the church, who receive an inward, subjective call to fulfill an apostolic function of pioneer church planting cross-culturally, a calling that in turn is confirmed by the "outward commissioning" of the church ( Acts 14:4 Acts 14:14 ; Rom 16:7 ; 1 Cor 9:5 ; cf. Acts 9:17 ; 13:3 ; Rom 10:15 ). Church envoys, who are termed "apostles, " are qualified to serve because of the church's call. Those sent as church envoys engage in spiritual ministry: validating the advance of the gospel ( Acts 8:14 ; 11:22 ); communicating decisions about doctrine and behavior ( Acts 15:27 Acts 15:30 Acts 15:33 ; 21:25 ); providing physical aid that promotes unity ( 11:29-30 ; 1 Cor 16:3 ); and serving as apostolic agents to give guidance and encouragement ( Acts 19:22 ; 1 Cor 4:17 ; 2 Cor 12:17 ; 2 Tim 4:12 ). Since, however, they are not presented as being sent directly by the Father or the Son, their work is beyond the bound of our definition of mission.
The tasks of the apostle varies to some extent according to category. Apostles are first and foremost missionaries, sent out to bear witness to the good news of salvation ( Acts 2:37-39 ; 20:24 ; Rom 1:1 ; Eph 3:2-6 ; 1 Tim 2:7 ; 2 Tim 1:11 ; 4:7 ). When they are numbered among the Twelve or the 120 to 150, they give their eyewitness testimony to the central saving event that makes gospel proclamation possible: the resurrection ( Acts 1:21-22 ; 5:29 ; 1 Cor 9:1 ; 15:7 ).
The Twelve have the unique function of providing the revelational and organizational foundation for the church ( Luke 22:14 Luke 22:28-30 ; Eph 2:20 ; Rev 18:20 ; 21:14 ). They guarantee the church's doctrine and its mission ( Acts 2:42 ; Acts 8:14 Acts 8:18 ; Acts 15:2 Acts 15:22 ; Eph 2:20 ; 1 Tim 2:7 ; 2 Peter 3:2 ; Jude 17 ). They are its early chief administrators ( 4:35-37 ; 5:2 ; 6:6 ; 9:27 ). Paul, though of "abnormal birth, " also participates in the unique revelatory function.
The empowerment the apostle knows is a gracing, a gifting of effective missionary witness ( Rom 1:5 ; 1 Cor 12:28-29 ; Gal 2:8 ; Eph 4:11 ). This, as well as signs and wonders ( Acts 2:43 ; 4:33 ; 5:12 ; 2 Cor 11:5 ; 12:11-12 ), appears to rest uniquely on apostles with foundational revelatory and organizational functions: the Twelve and Paul. Still, any missionary exercising the "apostolic function" knows the empowerment of God in witness, for the fruit is always God's doing ( 1 Cor 3:7-9 ; 9:2 ).
The manner of the apostle's ministry is a paradoxical mixture of honor and dishonor. He is a chosen representative of Jesus Christ according to God's will and decree ( 1 Cor 1:1 ; 2 Cor 1:1 ; Gal 1:1 ; Col 1:1 ; 1 Tim 1:1 ; 2 Tim 1:1 ; Titus 1:1 ; 1 Peter 1:1 ). At the same time, he is "a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men, " the object of disdain and persecution ( 1 Cor 4:9 ; cf. Acts 5:18 Acts 5:40 ; Rev 18:20 ). Humankind's sinful rebellion, expressed as rejection of the message and the messenger, creates this paradox. It places the messenger at the vortex of the battle for the souls of people. How individuals respond to the mission and message is critically decisive. It will mean either final redemption or judgment ( 2 Cor 2:14-17 ).
William J. Larkin, Jr.
Bibliography. J.-A. Bü ner, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, 1:141-42, 142-46; F. Hahn, Mission in the New Testament; R. E. Hedlund, The Mission of the Church in the World: A Biblical Theology; L. Legrand, Unity and Plurality: Mission in the Bible; K. H. Rengstorf, TDNT, 1:398-406; M. R. Spindler and P. R. Middlekoop, Bible and Mission: A Partially Annotated Bibliography 1960-1980; P. M. Steyne, In Step with the God of the Nations: A Biblical Theology of Missions.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Mission'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".