There is a common prejudice among many Christians that not much, if anything is taught on the subject of missions in the Old Testament. If you want to learn about missions, then you have to look to the New Testament rather than the Old. Whereas the Old Testament gives us only a few crumbs on the subject, the New Testament offers a feast of material on missions and evangelism. Though I sought to oppose this prejudice in a previous article in this series (“The Mission of God in the Old Testament”), there is no doubt that the New Testament provides a richer mine of teaching regarding the church’s calling to disciple the nations and preach the gospel to the ends of the earth. What was promised and anticipated in the Old Testament—the blessing of salvation for all the peoples of the earth—is fulfilled in the New.
Because of the richness of the New Testament’s teaching regarding missions, it may seem hazardous to attempt to summarize briefly its more important features. There is simply too much material to encompass in one brief summary. What I will seek to do, therefore, in this article is only touch upon some of the emphases and themes found in the New Testament. Many of these themes will be explored further when we take up some of the broader confessional and theological dimensions of the work of missions. Therefore, the following survey will only touch upon the high points of the New Testament’s perspective upon missions1.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ
The starting point for any reflection upon the New Testament’s teaching on missions is the great saving event(s) of Christ’s coming into the world, his life, death, resurrection, ascension, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The gospel of the kingdom of God that is preached to the nations focuses upon the Triune God’s saving purpose and work in Jesus Christ. Not only is Christ the content of the good news but he is also the One who by his Spirit and Word is gathering the nations to himself.
The mission of God, first announced and promised in the Old Testament, has now reached a decisive point in history. God the Father has lovingly sent his own Son into the world so that whoever believes in him may not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16). God the Son has come to the world to secure the salvation of his people, Jew and Gentile alike, from every tribe and tongue and people and nation (1 Tim. 2:3–6; 1 Jn. 2:2). And God the Holy Spirit, who was promised by the Father and poured out by the ascended Lord at Pentecost, imparts the saving benefits of Christ’s mediatorial work to all those who belong to him (John 16:7-15). The good news proclaimed throughout the New Testament is that the Triune God has come and is coming in saving grace, glorifying himself through the coming of the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ and the salvation of his people.
Viewed from the vantage point of Old Testament expectation, the gospel of Jesus Christ’s coming and saving work fulfills all of God’s promises (2 Cor. 1:20). The promise to Abraham that in his seed all the families of the earth would be blessed, is now coming to fruition. Christ, who first came preaching the gospel of the kingdom to the “lost sheep of Israel” (Matt. 15:24), comes to bring salvation, the light of God’s grace and truth, to the Gentile nations as well. Already at the announcement of his birth by the angelic host, it was noted that this was “good news of great joy which shall be for all the people” (Luke 2:10). When Jesus was presented at the temple, righteous and devout Simeon who had been looking for the “consolation of Israel,” took the child in his arms and declared, “my eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel” (Luke 2:30-32). In terms of the progress of the history of redemption, it is important to note that, in Christ’s own preaching of the kingdom of God, there is an acknowledgement that this kingdom will come in stages. Rather than an immediate and complete bringing of salvation to Israel and the nations, Christ proclaims that he must first suffer and die and then be raised from the dead (Matt. 16:21). Before the gospel is extended to the nations, the saving work of Christ must be accomplished and only on the basis of that work can the message of salvation then be communicated throughout the earth. Thus, in the ministry of Christ as it is recounted in the Gospels, the inclusion of the nations within the reach of God’s saving grace is proclaimed but not in the way it would be subsequent to his resurrection and ascension and the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost. The kingdom of God revealed in Christ’s person and work will only come by way of Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross and his victory over sin and death in his resurrection.
In the Gospels’ account of the preaching of Christ, special mention needs to be made of his kingdom parables, which describe the significance of the interval in history between his first and second coming. These parables make clear that the kingdom of God, though present in Christ and confirmed by his signs and wonders, will only come in its fullness as the Word of the kingdom is preached to the nations. This is especially evident in the imagery of the great feast or banquet that dominates many of these parables. For example, in the parable of the great feast recorded in Luke 14:15–24, Jesus speaks of a certain man who prepared a feast and issued an invitation, “for everything is ready now” (cf. Matt. 22:8). However, those first invited to the feast decline the invitation so that it must be extended over a period of time to others. Though all is ready the feast cannot commence until the house is filled with guests. Similarly, in the parable of the unjust husbandman (Matt. 21:33–44), the owner of the vineyard first sends his slaves and then his own son to gather the fruits of the vineyard. When those invited kill the husbandman’s slaves and sons, Jesus interprets this to mean that “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and be given to a nation producing the fruit of it” (v. 43).
Thus, in the context of Christ’s ministry and the progress of redemptive history, these parables speak of an intervening period between the coming of the Son and the great banquet at the end of the age. During this period, the gospel of the kingdom, first extended to Israel, will go subsequently to the nations in order that God’s house may be filled. These themes are echoed in the parables of the pounds in Luke 19:11–27 (compare Matt. 25:14–30, parable of the talents) and of the growth of the kingdom in Matthew 13. The movement of history, subsequent to Christ’s resurrection and ascension, will be marked by the great work of God in gathering his people from the ends of the earth to himself.
The Gathering of the Church
Though the Gospels record the coming of Christ, the presence of the kingdom, and the necessity of Christ’s cross and resurrection—all of which are foundational to missions—it is only after Christ’s resurrection that the missionary program of the Triune God begins to advance to and among the nations of the earth. According to the New Testament’s teaching, this program is the work of God from first to last, and only occurs by virtue of Christ’s commissioning of his disciples, and his ascension and the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost.
The Great Commission
It is remarkable to note in the Gospel accounts how much more openly Christ speaks of the necessity and nature of missions after his resurrection than before. Though the parables of the kingdom in the Gospels describe the interim period after Christ’s resurrection and prior to the end of the age as the age of missions, there is no mention of an explicit mandate to preach the gospel of the kingdom to the ends of the earth prior to the events of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection2. However, after the resurrection of Christ the Gospels record Christ’s explicit commission to his disciples that they should preach the gospel of the kingdom throughout the earth and actively enter the field of harvest.
Though this commission is usually associated with the so-called “Great Commission” passage of Matthew 28:16–20, it is recorded in all the Gospels. Throughout the period of forty days between his resurrection and ascension, Christ instructed the disciples regarding the kingdom and the necessity of missions. This instruction commenced on the day of his resurrection. In the Gospel of Mark, when Jesus appears to the eleven on the day of his resurrection, he makes it known to them that “repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (24:47). At the close of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is reported to have commanded the eleven, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned” (Mark 16:15–16)3. In the Gospel of John, Christ links the missionary work of the disciples with his own coming into the world—“as the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21). The great work of the apostles is nothing less than a participation in the work of Christ, the Apostle of the Father. Just as the Father sent his Son into the world to bring salvation, so the apostles are commanded to preach and teach the Word concerning Christ in order that those who respond in faith may have fellowship with the Son and thereby also with the Father (1 John 1:1–3). The disciples were not simply to wait for the coming of the Kingdom, but they were to go into the world as “witnesses” on Christ’s behalf and to his saving person and work (Acts 1:6–8).
There are several features of this missionary mandate that stand out clearly in the Great Commission of Matthew 28:16–20. According to Matthew’s account, when Christ appeared to the eleven disciples in Galilee after his resurrection, he said: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
The first feature of this mandate is Christ’s ringing declaration of his complete authority not only in heaven but also on the earth. Though Christ has not yet ascended to the Father and taken his seat at his right hand, the reality of his mediatorial reign over all things is clearly enunciated in this commission. When the disciples go into the world to make disciples of all the nations, they do so in the name and authority of Christ to whom the nations belong as his rightful inheritance. In that respect, the language of the Great Commission echoes the promises of the Old Testament that the nations will be given to the Messiah of God whose blessed reign will bring salvation to all peoples (compare Psalm 2). The mission the disciples are to carry out, accordingly, is not one that carries the risk of failure. Rather, it is one that triumphantly declares Christ’s kingship over all the earth and over all peoples. And it is carried out in the confidence of certain success.
The second feature of this mandate is that the disciples are expected to go throughout all the earth and to make disciples of all the nations. What Christ had earlier taught—the interval between his first and second coming would be occupied with calling all peoples into the kingdom of God—is now commencing.
Whereas in the Old Testament, the nations are often depicted coming to Israel and joining her in fellowship with and service of the true and living God, now God’s people are thrust into the world. An explicit command is given that the disciples should be out and about among the nations of the earth, preaching and teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. There is no room left for a passive waiting upon the Lord, as if the message communicates itself or people will come to know the truth in some spontaneous manner. Rather, it is the responsibility of Christ’s disciples to make the truth known and to seek out the peoples of the earth with the gospel.4
A third feature of the mandate Christ gives is that the nations are to be discipled by means of the Word and sacrament. The church’s mandate is not to “make converts” in the narrow sense of adding persons to the membership roll who express an interest in the gospel. The church is to make disciples, that is, followers of Jesus Christ who are being taught to do all that he commands. This calling to make disciples is to be brought about through the preaching and teaching of the Word of Christ, and the administration of the sacrament of baptism. By means of the Word and the sacramental sign and seal of incorporation into Christ and fellowship with the Triune God, disciples are cut off from their former way of life and identified with the way of Christ’s kingdom. Such disciples are called to acknowledge Christ’s comprehensive claim upon their allegiance and service in all areas of life.
A fourth and final feature of the mandate is the wonderful promise with which it closes. The Great Commission is sandwiched between an opening affirmation of Christ’s universal lordship and a closing assurance of his continued presence—“lo I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Christ assures the disciples that he will be present to accompany them throughout the course of their labor in fulfillment of their calling. Though they will be instruments to effect his purpose, Christ promises that he will direct, accompany, and bless the labors of the disciples with fruitfulness.5
“Pentecost and Missions”
One further aspect of the New Testament’s teaching regarding missions deserves special attention. It is something to which we have referred, though only indirectly, at several points in the preceding summary. The work of missions is the work of the Triune God. Each of the Persons of the Trinity works in a manner appropriate to himself, though in a manner that expresses a perfect coincidence of will and purpose between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Within the economy of the Triune God’s working, however, a most decisive place is reserved to the Spirit in the gathering of the nations. When, subsequent to Christ’s resurrection and ascension, the Spirit was poured out at Pentecost, God’s work in the gathering of his people from the nations entered a decisive and (eschatologically) final phase. The Holy Spirit, now poured out upon “all flesh,” is the One who represents Christ on earth and ministers through the Word his saving benefits. During the present period of the history of redemption, Christ has become a “life-giving Spirit” (1 Cor. 15:45). The ministry of the gospel, which is more powerful and glorious than the ministry of Moses, is such because it is “the ministry of the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:8).6
In the book of Acts, accordingly, the account of Christ’s work in gathering his church is told in a way that highlights the work of the Spirit as the Author of the church and its growth. In the opening chapter, Luke records that, when Jesus was asked whether he was going to restore immediately the kingdom to Israel, he replied, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:7–9). What this reply indicates is that, though the book is known as “the Acts of the Apostles,” it is really the account of Christ’s ministry through the apostles in the power and presence of his outpoured Spirit. The apostles’ witness, though authorized by Christ and foundational to the life of the New Testament church, carries no inherent power to convince anyone apart from the powerful working of Christ’s Spirit. The power necessary to lend vitality and effectiveness to the apostle’s preaching and teaching is that of the Holy Spirit.
So far as the fulfillment of the Great Commission of Matthew 28 is concerned, a careful reading of the book of Acts will show that it was the leading and prompting of the Holy Spirit that inspired the church’s obedience. Were it not for the Holy Spirit, leading, guiding, prompting, and effecting, the saving purposes of Christ, the Lord of the church, there would be no gathered community of believers nor growth of the church. There is no evidence, for example, that the early church would have gone about the task of fulfilling the Great Commission to disciple the nations, were it not for the prompting and leading of the Holy Spirit. The missionary activity of the church that is related in the book of Acts up to 9:31 is restricted to those who were members of the Jewish or Samaritan communities. Not until the account of the conversion of Cornelius do we meet expressly the problem of the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles. What leads the church to bring the gospel to the Gentiles is not simply her obedience to the Great Commission, but the coming of the Spirit upon the household of Cornelius. Only then do we read (after the apostle Peter reported this to the church in Jerusalem) that the conclusion was drawn, “well, then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.” The progress of the gospel, first among the Jews and then among the Gentiles, occurs only because of the initiative and working of the Holy Spirit.7
That the mission of the church is the work of the Holy Spirit is evident throughout the book of Acts. The story told by Luke is thematically set forth in Acts 1:8 where Christ’s promise of the Spirit is reported— “you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest parts of the earth.” At every step of the way, as the gospel goes forth from the day of Pentecost onward, it is the Holy Spirit who initiates and empowers the work of the church. The account of Pentecost itself in Acts 2:1–12 makes clear that the witness of the apostles was a manifestation of the Spirit’s presence. At the close of Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, it is the Spirit who is promised to those who repent and are baptized (2:38). When Peter responds to those who protest the healing of a lame man, he does so boldly, being filled with the Spirit (4:8ff.). When the disciples speak the Word of God, they speak “with boldness” as they are filled with the Spirit (4:31). Those who resist the testimony of the gospel are said to “resist” the Holy Spirit (7:51). The Spirit calls Philip from Samaria to meet the Ethiopian eunuch (8:29). The Spirit (13:2) calls Paul and Barnabas to their ministry among the Gentiles. On two occasions the Spirit forbids them to enter a particular field of service (16:6,7). This theme of the mission of the church as Christ’s mission in the power and presence of his Spirit dominates the book of Acts from first to last. Were it not for the Spirit’s prompting, empowering and enlivening, the witness of the apostles and of the church would never have occurred and, were it to have occurred, would lack any vitality and power to save.
Though we have provided only a brief glance at some of the themes of the New Testament regarding missions, the general teaching of the New Testament is quite clear.
The coming of Christ and the outpouring of the Spirit mark the commencement of a new and final epoch in the history of redemption. The promise first made to Abraham that in his seed all the peoples of the earth would be blessed, is now coming to fruition in a marvelous way. The gospel of God’s saving presence and work through the mediation of Jesus Christ is now being preached to the ends of the earth. The period of history between Christ’s first and second coming is characterized as a period during which the gospel of the kingdom is proclaimed to all peoples so that God’s house may be filled. The church has the mandate to go into all the world and make disciples of the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Triune God and teaching them all the things Christ has commanded. This mandate represents an authoritative commission of Christ who has all authority and who by his outpoured Spirit gathers his church.
The mission of the church to and among the nations is, therefore, nothing less than an obedient participation in the great mission of the Triune God. The church is in her innermost being a missionary community, called into existence by the Spirit and Word of Christ and sent to the nations to preach and teach the good news of the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ. Any failure on the part of the church to live out of the reality of this mission of the Triune God, therefore, betrays at the most basic level the nature and calling of the church in this present age.
1For more complete surveys of the New Testament’s teaching on missions and evangelism, see: Herman Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1960), pp. 25–56; and Johannes Blauw, The Missionary Nature of the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), pp. 65–103.
2The sending of the seventy recorded in Matthew 10 is no exception to this rule. The commission given to them was restricted to the cities and towns to which Christ himself was going, and the message they preached (and confirmed through miracles) was likewise limited to the announcement of the nearness of the kingdom of God.
3Some of the oldest manuscripts of the New Testament do not include verses 9–20 of Mark 16.
4To use the language of J. Blauw in The Missionary Nature of the Church, pp. 40–41, the Great Commission expresses a “centrifugal” view of missions the disciples are to go to the nations with invitation of the gospel, not to hold on to the gospel while waiting for the lost to come to the church.
5Though some have argued that this Great Commission was given exclusively to the apostles during the foundational period of the church (for example, Calvin), this fails to do justice to the universal and extensive language of the commission. The disciples are to go into “all” the nations and are promised Christ’s presence “until the end of the age.” The church of Jesus Christ is “apostolic” in the sense that it is founded upon and ministers the Christ-authorized, apostolic gospel to the nations until Christ comes again.
6For a summary of the way in which Christ’s presence and work are mediated through the Holy Spirit, see Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Perspectives on Pentecost (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1979), pp. 14–21.
7See Harry R. Boer, Pentecost and Missions (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961), esp. pp. 98–134, 161–85. In this section, I am representing Boer’s argument that Pentecost rather than the Great Commission is foundational to an understanding of the missionary nature of the church and her calling.
Dr. Cornel Venema is a contributing editor of The Outlook. He serves as President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana where he also teaches Doctrinal Studies.