Biblical Foundations -- Why world missions?

"God wants his name to be glorified all over the world. This was His desire from the beginning of the world." -- Holly Johnson, Nazarene Bible College student

Lecture for the first week of the online course in "Global Evangelism"

Global harvest: Where in the Bible does it say that?

What is the mission of God's people? Do we have a worldwide mission to fulfill? Why is missionary work important?

What is the Biblical basis for Christian missions? How many times is missions mentioned in the Bible?

If you asked most Christians for a list of Bible passages related to missions, how many verses would they give you?

Not many. No doubt the first missionary scripture to be mentioned would be the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20 or the similar wording in Mark 16:15. Acts 1:8 would be mentioned and maybe Paul's "Macedonian call." Someone might think of Matthew 24:14 ("This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world . . and then the end will come"). At that point, however, most believers would bog down and start looking puzzled, trying to think of more missionary Bible verses.

The chapters in the Bible books are divided into a total of 32,000 verses. When people can think of only a half dozen missions Bible verses, does that give them the impression that God doesn't prioritize missions?

Old Testament and missions

Actually, the very first verse of the Bible (Genesis 1:1) is world missions related. It proclaims Yahweh to be the God of the whole world. With that grand opening begins a story whose plot quickly takes a crucial turn (human sin). Immediately comes God's first -- though veiled -- promise to send a Redeemer (Gen. 3:15).

The covenant with Abraham: A crucial event that finds fulfillment in Revelation

The material in Genesis 1-11 is the introduction to the story. These first eleven chapters set the stage for the story. Then, in Genesis 12, God takes a giant step forward in the story by choosing Abraham. God says to Abraham: "All peoples on earth will be blessed through you" (Gen. 12:3). That covenant is later repeated to Abraham, and then it is repeated to Isaac and finally to Jacob (Genesis 18:18; 22:17-18; 26:24 and 28:12-14).

The promise of blessing to all peoples through Abraham's family is a promise that the Apostle John would later see fulfilled. John describes that fulfillment in Revelation 7:9: "I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb."

Between that promise in Genesis 12 and the vision of its fulfillment in Revelation 7 the Bible is replete with indicators of God's passion that all peoples would know and serve Him.

At Mt. Sinai, the Lord told Moses to say to the people: "Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests" (Exodus 19:5-6). Thus, the whole nation of Israel was chosen to be agents of reconciliation between God and sinful humanity. Several decades ago, liberal scholar Norman Gottwald titled his Old Testament introduction A Light to the Nations.1 That title was a recognition of how much those words from Isaiah 49:6 should define what God expected of His chosen people.

After the crossing of the Jordan River, Joshua told the Israelites that God "did this so that all peoples of the earth might know" (Joshua 4:24). As Solomon prayed the dedicatory prayer for the Temple he had just constructed in Jerusalem, he said that the Temple had been constructed "so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name" (I Kings 8:43).

If you will leaf through the book of Psalms again and again, you will see phrases like "ends of the earth," "all nations," "the whole earth," "the peoples," and "all the earth."

The prophets repeat the affirmation that the world, not just Israel, is God's focus. A prime example is Isaiah 45:44: "Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth."

Remember Jonah's story? Contrary to popular thought, the little short book is not a lesson in obedience. [ devotional thoughts on Jonah ] Jonah's story is the missionary book of the Old Testament. It portrays God's call for us to align our hearts with his love for all nations. [ more on Jonah ]

Centripetal and
centrifugal
forcesThroughout the Old Testament, God seems to be working to involve His people in world evangelism by using two different forces, The first one is centripetal, in which other nations were attracted to the Temple in Jerusalem ( being pulled toward the center as the graphic shows). The second was centrifugal, ion which the Jews were scattered out into other nations (being pushed away from the center, as the graphic shows).

New Testament: Was the Great Commission the first time Jesus showed an interest in missions?

Just before Jesus ascended into heaven, He gave seven basic commands that have come to be known collectively as the Great Commission. They were:

However, this oft-quoted Great Commission is not all that Jesus had to say about world evangelism. There's more, much more.

Not long after Jesus began his ministry, He preached what we call "The Sermon on the Mount." In that sermon, Jesus gave His followers a model prayer (The Lord's Prayer). One of the first petitions in that prayer is a missionary one: "Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

His will cannot be done on earth until "every knee" bows before Him. So, a prayer for His will to be done on earth is a missionary prayer, isn't it? Each time we pray that model prayer, we are praying a missions prayer.

While dying on the cross, Jesus cried out: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Believers have long speculated what Jesus meant by that question He asked in His dying moments. The conclusions that many people make do not fit well with our understanding of God as triune. How could God forsake God?

Could it be that Jesus was quoting those opening words from Psalm 22 in order to get people to think of the closing words of that psalm: "All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him"?

The point of all this is to say that missions is not merely contained in the Bible. The missions enterprise does not merely find a basis in the Bible. From beginning to end, the Bible is an intensely missionary book. It not only encourages world evangelism, it demands it.

Do we Wesleyans have any special reasons to be missionary-minded?

Theologically, we Wesleyan-Arminians ought to be the most missionary-minded of all believers. After all, if salvation is a gift offered freely to all, shouldn't we be out shouting it around the globe?

Shouldn't our understanding that Yahweh is a seeking and sending God mean that we, as His people, should also be seeking and sending hosts of believers to announce the good news of the gospel to the lost? Answers to an oft-asked question

Shouldn't the "perfect love" to which we are called compel us to be broken-hearted about those peoples who have yet to hear the gospel once (while many of our neighbors have heard it over and over again)?

Shouldn't our belief in the "prevenient" manifestation of divine grace tell us that God is right now at work in various parts of the world, preparing people for the gospel message that He expects us to carry to them?

Let me introduce you to Susan Fitkin

A key figure in encouraging Nazarene missions outreach is Susan Fitkin. Mrs. Fitkin [ biography ]was the first president of what has become Nazarene Missions International [ resources page ]. She was a fiery promoter of world evangelism. She published a little booklet titled "Holiness and Missions" [ read booklet ] in which she works her way through the context of lots of traditional holiness passages in the Bible to prove that you can't be a good holiness preacher/teacher without also being on fire for world evangelism. By the way, speaking of Mrs. Fitkin, I've got a student-written biography of her on this website [ read article ].

A sampling of Bible passages (Old Testament and New Testament) revealing God's heart for all peoples on earth

Genesis 12:1-3; 28-13-15
Exodus 9:14-16; 19:6
Joshua 4:23-24
I Kings 8:41-43, 59-60
Psalm 2:8-20; 7:7-8; 8; 9; 18:49; 22:26-28; 24; 33; 44:14; 46; 47; 48:10; 50; 57; 65:2; 66; 67; 72:18-20; 82; 86:8-13; 87; 93; 96:1-20; 106:8; 108:3; 117; 126; 135
Isaiah 40:5; 42:4; 45:22; 49:1-6; 56:6-7
Ezekiel 26:33; 36:22-23
Daniel 2:27; 4:1-2; 6:25
Matthew 3:3; 4:8-11; 6:9-10; 8:5-10; 24:14; 28:18-20
Mark 11:17; 13:10; 16:14
Luke 4:25-43; 10:27; 24:45-47
John 3:16; 4; 20:21
Acts 1:8; 2:5-12; 10:9-23, 34-35; 13:47
II Peter 3:9
Revelation 7:9
[ Longer list of Bible passages on missions ]

1Gottwald, Norman K. A Light to the Nations, New York: Harper & Row, 1959.

"Missions work is not simply a good thing that is optional for us. It is a core essential of our faith." -- Nora Williams, Nazarene Bible College student

Discussion questions

  1. Why is it possible to say there is a biblical basis for Christian missions beyond Jesus' Great Commission in Matthew 28 and His words in Acts 1:8?
  2. Why can it be said that all of God's people have a worldwide mission to fulfill?
  3. How does the Old Testament demonstrate God's passion for all peoples to know and serve Him? What are some examples of this in the Old Testament? What indicators of God's passion for all peoples to know and serve Him are found in the New Testament?
  4. What might the recurrent call in the Bible to glorify God's name all over the world mean for us?
  5. How can talking about the centripetal and centrifugal forces at play in world evangelism help us to better understand God's call for His people to be involved in missions?

    -- Howard Culbertson, , professor of world missions emeritus, Southern Nazarene University

Take missions out of the Bible. Nothing left by the covers."

cartoon drawing of talkative person What kind of online student are you? Do others think of you as Busy or Wordy or Disconnected Dan? Do you sometimes come off to others as Oblivious or Trite-ly or even End-times Edith? . . [ more ]

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