The Mission of the Church

 

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What is the “mission” of the church?  Another way to put that is, What is the “purpose” of the church?  Some people see the church as a social club; sort of a religious version of any number of clubs or societies you may find in any town or city.  Some people think the church is a place where people come to “get saved.”  Still others see the church as a sort of “religious bank” that gives out money to people who can’t their electric bills. 

The fact is, most people don’t know what the purpose of the church is, which probably explains why church attendance in mainline denominations is steadily declining.   Churches that are growing tend to be ones that are focused on their “mission” or their “purpose,” and very often these churches are not affiliated with any denomination, which frees them, as they see it, to pursue that “mission” or “purpose” without being straitjacketed by unnecessary man-made rules and denominational regulations.  So they say. 

Since the idea of the church came from God, let’s consult God’s Book, the Bible, for answers.

1.      Foretold in the Old Testament

It may surprise you to know that the church, a New Testament “thing,” is actually first hinted at in the pages of the Old Testament!  Through these “hints,” we get an idea of what the “mission” of the church is.  You won’t find the word “church” anywhere in the Old Testament, but you do find a very early precursor to the church – another special group of people God called into existence and separated from all other people on the earth:  the nation of Israel.

(a) A light to the nations, Isaiah 42:1, 6-7

See my servant, a whom I uphold; my Chosen One in whom I delight. I have put my Spirit upon him; he will reveal justice to the nations of the world.  (Isaiah 42:1  TLB)

I the Lord have called you to demonstrate my righteousness. I will guard and support you, for I have given you to my people as the personal confirmation of my covenant with them.d You shall also be a light to guide the nations unto me. You will open the eyes of the blind and release those who sit in prison darkness and despair.  (Isaiah 42:6, 7  TLB)

In this chapter of Isaiah’s book, the prophet is beginning his rage against idolatry.  Also in this chapter, the  nation of Israel is referred to as “the servant of The Lord.”  In Matthew 12:17-21, this prophecy of Isaiah is applied to Jesus Christ.  We can see how parts of this chapter can be applied to Israel, but clearly it finds its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Christ.

Verse 1 is often applied to Israel – the “ideal Israel” – but the Matthew passage indicates something else.  It refers primarily to Jesus Christ, the Messiah of Israel.  Isaiah wanted his readers to consider or think about God’s servant.  In a sense, though, these verses do refer to Israel.  After all, it is through Israel that God chose to communicate to the world.  God’s gracious dealings with Israel and especially His covenant relationship with its people would be extended to all people thanks to the work of One of Israel’s very own, Jesus Christ. 

So we see a sort of progression here. Israel was (and will be again in the future) a light to the nations.  Jesus Christ is a light to the nations.  Jesus Christ works through the church. 

(b)  A universal pilgrimage, Psalm 67:1-4

Send us around the world with the news of your saving power and your eternal plan for all mankind.  (Psalm 67:2  TLB)

This brief psalm is a prophetic psalm in that it reveals the ultimate purpose of God for the Earth.  At one time it was thought that this psalm taught that the church would finally convert the whole world in a post millennium utopian missionary kind of way.  Post-millennialism is view of Eschatology that insists (get ready for this) we are already living in the Millennium and that the church is in the process of converting the world.  When this conversion is complete, Jesus Christ will return.  Yes, there are Christians who believe this.  Post-millennialism comes in and out of favor depending on world events and who is in the White House, it seems.

Leaving this view of Eschatology aside, this psalm is not a missionary psalm but it certainly does contain applications useful in missionary endeavors.  We see, for example, that God is the source of all blessings and benefits His children receive.  These blessings and benefits make life on Earth all the more enjoyable.  But there is a purpose in these good things from God:  they are tokens or signs of His presence that the nations – the lost – of the world may see.  As it relates to Israel, surrounding nations should have been able to look at her and deduce that Israel’s God was at work in the lives of His people and their nation.  Shouldn’t the same thing be true of the church today?  The lost should be able to witness God’s blessings and His presence in the church and come to the conclusion that God is real and that He is interested in His people. 

How glad the nations will be, singing for joy because you are their King and will give true justice to their people!   (Psalm 67:4  TLB)

Obviously this hasn’t happened yet; this verse is yet to be fulfilled.  But what it teaches is profound:  God is interested in people and He may be their Sovereign as surely as He is Israel’s.  Of course, these “nations” must acknowledge who God is and that He is their God, the One who gives all blessings and benefits.  He worked through Israel to accomplish this, and He is working through One who came out of Israel, Jesus Christ, to the same end.  And Jesus Christ is working through His people today, the church, to accomplish God’s goal of becoming the God of all nations and all people.

(c)  God’s initiative, Romans 9:25, 26

Remember what the prophecy of Hosea says? There God says that he will find other children for himself (who are not from his Jewish family) and will love them, though no one had ever loved them before. And the heathen, of whom it once was said, You are not my people, shall be called sons of the Living God.  (Romans 9:25, 26  TLB)

Just as Psalm 67 speaks of salvation coming to the nations, Paul makes the case in Romans 9 that God is even now calling all people to be a part of “His people.”  This great call is God’s initiative – it was His idea and He has taken the first step.  It doesn’t matter what your heritage is, you are being called to be a part of His family!  All those who were not God’s people (Gentiles), are now being called by God’s grace and benevolence to become His people.

Because of his kindness, you have been saved through trusting Christ. And even trusting is not of yourselves; it too is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good we have done, so none of us can take any credit for it.   (Ephesians 2:8, 9 TLB)

2.  Emphasized by Christ, Luke 4:18-20; 24:46-49; Matthew 24:14

When Christians think about the “mission” or “purpose” of the church, the so-called “Great Commission” comes to mind.  Versions of Jesus’ last orders to His disciples (and to us) are found in Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15; and John 20:21.  Luke has a different kind of “great commission” that begins with Him attending religious services.

(a) The Nazareth Manifesto, Luke 4:18-20

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me; he has appointed me to preach Good News to the poor; he has sent me to heal the brokenhearted and to announce that captives shall be released and the blind shall see, that the downtrodden shall be freed from their oppressors, and that God is ready to give blessings to all who come to him.  (Luke 4:18, 19  TLB)

In reading this passage of Scripture, Jesus defined His role as the Messiah.  The only hope for all these needy people would be Him.  Jesus acknowledged that He was the One who had been commissioned to bring the Good News to lost humanity.  Jesus as the Messiah is concerned with both the spiritual and material needs of people.  His message is a simple one:  the blessings of God’s salvation is for all.

(b)  Luke’s ‘Great Commission,’ Luke 24:46-49

And now I will send the Holy Spirit upon you, just as my Father promised. Dont begin telling others yetstay here in the city until the Holy Spirit comes and fills you with power from heaven.  (Luke 24:49  TLB)

The entire chapter has one major thrust:  it would be up to the disciples to share what they saw – the ministry, the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus – with those who had not.  These people were eyewitnesses!  Their testimony would be accurate and true.  But before they could begin that witnessing, Jesus made it clear they had to wait for something to happen.  In order for this disparate group of people to be effective witnesses, they needed the Holy Spirit.

(c)  Preaching the Gospel, Matthew 24:12

And the Good News about the Kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, so that all nations will hear it, and then, finally, the end will come.   (Matthew 24:14 TLB)

Without getting into the eschatology of this verse, there is a very important lesson for today’s Christian.  Throughout chapter Matthew 24, Jesus speaks of false messiahs, terrible natural disasters, and widespread persecution of believers.  In spite of all those awful things taking place, the Gospel – the Good News –  would be preached all over the world.  Think about that!  Nothing can stop the work of God from being accomplished. 

3.  Enacted by the early church, Acts 11:19-26; 13:46-49

Meanwhile, the believers who fled from Jerusalem during the persecution after Stephens death traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, scattering the Good News, but only to Jews.  (Acts 11:19  TLB)

(a)  From Jerusalem to Antioch, Acts 11:19-26

The death of Stephen was a watershed event.  It triggered mass persecution of Christians which forced members of the fledgling church to flee Jerusalem to the far ends of the Roman Empire.  This literally forced the church to fulfill the Great Commission of Jesus to take the Gospel to the world.  Had it not been for this persecution, it may well have been that the early church would have been content to remain in Jerusalem.

But many Christians – the leaders of the church especially – remained in Jerusalem, riding out the storm of persecution.  This group of believers became the “mother church,” and they were concerned about all these Gentiles from all over the Empire who were, apparently, converting to this new faith.  Upon examination, church leaders acknowledged that God was indeed doing great things among the Gentiles. 

(b)  Mission to Gentiles, Acts 13:46-49

Acts 13 begins what we call “Paul’s First Missionary Journey,” and it tells the story of how the Gospel spread, truly, to the four corners of the world.  Paul was a fearless missionary, a true trailblazer who went where no preacher had gone before!  But Paul was only doing what the Great Commission told all believers to do.  Paul’s message to the Gentiles whom he was evangelizing was a simple – and very familiar – one:

Then Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly and declared, It was necessary that this Good News from God should be given first to you Jews. But since you have rejected it and shown yourselves unworthy of eternal lifewell, we will offer it to Gentiles. For this is as the Lord commanded when he said, I have made you a light to the Gentiles, to lead them from the farthest corners of the earth to my salvation.  (Acts 13:46, 47  TLB)

Notice the quote the Old Testament in verse 47.  We’ve come full circle!  What started out as something Israel was supposed to be; what would become what Jesus was; has now become the “mission” and “purpose” of the church:  to be a that light for the lost.

 

 

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