Relevant Verses: Matthew 25, 28
Leading Question: What does Jesus tell us about “our” mission?
Before looking specifically at what Jesus gives us as our mission, we should focus briefly on the difference between New Testament and Old Testament perspectives. To oversimplify, the OT mission emphasized one’s home base while the NT mission emphasized a world outreach.
A seminal but largely neglected article on the Old Testament role is found in the fourth volume of the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, “The Role of Israel in Old Testament Prophecy,” pp. 25-38. A key point in that article is that God had envisioned Israel as a witness for him at the crossroads of the world. As the nations would pass through, they would be attracted by Israel’s witness and prosperity and many would ask to become part of Israel. The raw material for that article is drawn largely from the Old Testament prophets. It makes a fascinating counterfoil to God’s plan for his people after the resurrection of Christ.
From a modern perspective, one could describe the mission of the church under three headings:
- Soul: evangelism, ministry to human spiritual needs
- Body: ministry to human physical needs
- Earth: ecology, seeking to preserve our earthly home
In general, conservative churches tend to focus on the first (evangelism); liberal churches tend to focus on the second (humanitarian aid); secularists focus on the third (ecology) because this is the only world they believe in.
The Adventist world pours considerable resources into the first two, but relatively little into the third. Should we make a serious effort to “serve” the earth, a literal translation of the human destiny as tantalizingly suggested in Genesis 2? Both in verse 5 and in verse 15 the word “serve” appears with reference to the human environment. In 2:5 the text says that there was no one to “serve” the earth – the KJV has “till” – and in 2:15 the man was placed in the Garden of Eden to “serve” and keep it – the KJV has “dress” and “keep” it. Surprisingly, the same theme recurs in Revelation, the last book of the Bible:
Revelation 7:3 (KJV): Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads.
Now let’s note some Gospel passages that can guide us in shaping the mission of the church:
1. Salt and Light: Matthew 5:14-16. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that his followers should be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. How might these ideas help shape our mission?
2. Feed my sheep: John 21 (NRSV). In his last serious conversation with Peter, Jesus commanded him: “Feed my lambs” (v. 15), “Tend my sheep” (v. 16), and “Feed my sheep” (v. 17). Is that also Jesus’ mandate to the church?
3. Wait Until You Have Been Clothed with Power: Luke 24:46-48. After returning from Emmaus, Jesus met with the disciples in the upper room and told them to stay where they were until they received power. How does that apply to us nearly 2 millennia later?
4. Help the Least in the Kingdom: Matthew 25:40. When Jesus commended the puzzled disciples for ministering to the needy, he said that they had done their service to him.
5. Go Make Disciples: Matthew 28:19-20. One of Jesus’ last commands to his disciples was for them to go everywhere with the Gospel and make disciples.
How should the church negotiate the various tensions that emerge from a thoughtful perusal of the above passages? The tension between #4 (helping the needy) and #5 (evangelizing the world) is particularly acute. Can the church simply allow each person to serve where they believe they can best serve Christ with joy? Should duty trump the joy of service, or can the joy of service transform a mere sense of duty that is also a delight in the Lord?