We see in the Old Testament a clear sense of God’s great plans for the world: a plan to bless people from every tribe and nation through his chosen people Israel. They were God’s treasured possession, a holy nation set apart to draw the people of the world to himself. A servant nation – a light to the Gentiles, to bring salvation to the ends of the earth.
They did not live up to that role, and their failure caused us to look forward to a new Israel, a new servant of the Lord. God’s precious and holy Son. An eternal King and priest. The suffering servant of the Lord who, although despised and rejected while on earth, restored Israel and also became the light to Gentiles through his own suffering and death. He brought salvation to people from every tribe and nation.
So, how do we fit in to God’s plan for the nations? Look at John 20:21 where, after he had risen from the dead, Jesus appeared to his disciples and said: “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you”. In the Old Testament the nations were to come to Israel but now Israel, the servant of the Lord, has been sent from God to the nations. Jesus was sent from the Father, and he now sends his disciples.
All four gospels have a version of this. In Mark it’s just the women who were sent from the empty tomb to go and tell others. In Luke it’s the broader group of disciples. In Matthew it’s the Great Commission of chapter 28. There’s different colour, different details but the same basic idea: Jesus, the sent one, sends his followers out to the world – to the tribes and nations.
This is where we get the English word “mission” from. It comes from the Latin word for being sent. This is the heart of what mission is all about.
You won’t find the English word ‘mission’ in the Bible (apart from once in Acts 12), but if you’ve ever wondered where in the Bible it talks about mission – and mission to the nations – you need to look out for the “sent” or “sending” words.
In the New Testament, the book that has more of these words than any other is John’s Gospel. So, let’s see what it tells us about mission – mission to the nations.
Who is “sent” in John?
If you look at the different groups or individuals who are “sent” in the pages of John’s Gospel, you will find that it refers four times to disciples (John 13:16; 13:20; 17:18 and 20:21) and three times to the Holy Spirit (14:26; 15:26; 16:7), but 41 times to Jesus. So, do you see that whenever we talk about being sent, or about mission, we have to remember that it is all about Jesus, and all refers to Jesus?
God the Father is the sender. He has sent the Son and intends to bring all things under the Son’s feet. This is the essence of mission.
There are four categories of reference in John that describe Jesus as the one sent by the Father. There are verses that talk about his unique identity (5:37-38; 12:44-45), his saving/bringing life (3:17; 6:44), speaking or teaching God’s word (12:49; 14:24) and doing God’s will/work (4:34; 10:35-38).
So, in what ways are we sent just as Jesus was sent? We’re certainly not sent as the unique one, or the one who saves and brings life! However, we are sent to do God’s will (John 13:15-17) and to speak or teach God’s word (John 17:18-22).
What mission is about
Lots of things go on in the name of mission, but what we see in John’s Gospel is that bearing witness to Jesus – speaking and teaching the word of God – is what it’s all about. If mission does not have speaking about Jesus at its core it is not Christian mission.
So, what about all the other things that go under the name of “mission”? How do all of the other good things that Christians might do fit into this?
Only those who live according to God’s will are credible witnesses. Lives of obedience commend the gospel, adorn the gospel, may even win a hearing for the gospel but they are not the gospel – and they are not mission unless those who are sent are sent to speak.
That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be involved in all kinds of other good things locally and all over the world. Working for justice, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, advocating for the powerless, providing education and shelter and comfort and mercy – all of these are great things and the right thing to be doing as we are able – whether or not they result in an opportunity to evangelise. However, if we talk about all of those things as mission, we miss the point.
In John’s Gospel, this is the mission:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (3:16).
God sending Jesus is what it is all about – and he sends you and me, too, to tell the world about Jesus. To be witnesses. To testify to the truth.
In Matthew’s Gospel, instead of the sending, “mission” word, the focus is on “making disciples”. But do you see that the point is the same?
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).
How do you make disciples? Baptising bringing to faith, and teaching – growing to maturity. But notice that the teaching is about obedience. Teaching them to obey everything Jesus has commanded. And what was the last thing that Jesus commanded? Go and make disciples of all nations!
That means that every single Christian has a part to play and a responsibility to bear in making disciples of all nations.
How can I “make disciples of all nations”?
Doesn’t that just seem too big? Too complicated? A specialist’s job?
One of my great frustrations with people like me is that we too often turn what should be the normal Christian life into something you need to be trained or qualified to do. I’m not talking about being a church leader or preacher – I do think you’d better get some good training for that. I mean disciple making.
Jesus’ approach to disciple making was to call 12 men to follow him. They followed him around, watched his life and listened to what he said. There were crowds of others too, who followed him around, watched his life and listened to what he said. A great disciple-maker, Paul, told people to follow him, as he followed Christ. And people watched his life and listened to what he said about Jesus.
I wonder if anyone is watching your life and listening to what you say. In fact, let me be honest: I don’t wonder. I know they are. Your children and the children of friends. Your friends and neighbours. People at school, people at work, people you play sport with.
The question is not whether people are watching and listening, but what they are seeing and hearing. Are they hearing about Jesus? Are they hearing your testimony – are you a witness to Jesus? I don’t mean that you never talk about anything else, but that you do talk about Jesus and people get that there is nothing bigger or more important in your life than Jesus.
Do you know the difference between a witness and a bystander? They both see what happens – they both have the experience – but the witness is prepared to talk. Followers of Jesus are called to be witnesses, not by-standers.
You don’t have to be an expert. You don’t have to memorise some script. But you will need to speak.
I lived in Africa for eight years and, up until COVID, regularly travelled back there. The church in Africa continues to grow like wildfire – even though very few people are trained as Christians. Why? Because ordinary people talk about Jesus.
Many of them will just repeat something that they heard someone else say. Retell a Bible story, sum up what the preacher said on Sunday, be honest about what a difference it makes to have a hope beyond the grave. Could you do that? All of us can do that.
Some of us can do more and should think about doing more. We have all been sent to the nations to make disciples and some of us should cross the street to do that, some of us should think about crossing the city, moving suburbs to live where we can do that with others who don’t know Jesus. But some people reading this should think about crossing oceans, too, to take the gospel to the nations.
There are more than 4 billion people in the world who don’t know Jesus – who live without the light of the world or the hope of glory. Not only don’t they know Jesus, but many of them don’t even know someone else who knows Jesus. How will they hear unless we are prepared to go?
If you are wondering whether it might be you who needs to think about going, talk to your friends and your minister about it and see what they say. For all kinds of reasons, you might not be able to go far yourself, but I wonder if you know of someone else in your church who should be thinking about this. Have you ever told them that? Could you be used to raise up and send someone else?
And whether it’s you or someone else who goes, we are all sent. The best thing we can do to get ready to go further is to make sure we are going nearer to start with. Who are the people that you can invest time into this year, that they might come to know Jesus? Who will you let watch what you do and hear what you say, and hear you bear witness to Jesus? Just as the Father sent him, so he sends us!
The Rev Dr Simon Gillham is vice principal of Moore College, head of the Mission department and lectures in ministry and mission.