Context is everything.
Have you ever misunderstood a situation because you did not know the big picture? It seems to happen frequently in the media today. Misunderstandings happen and harm is done when quotes, statements, or sound bytes are taken out of context. Even verses from the Bible have been used for great acts of evil when they were removed from the original context.
There is also the danger of living a life that is out of context. You were not meant to float independently through this life as a short sound byte, out of sync and out of context with the greater story God is authoring in His word. The Bible has a theme to its grand narrative and we can align our lives with the context of God’s story—if we take time to understand the theme.
What verses come to mind when you think of the word, “MISSIONS”? Most of us are hard pressed to name more than The Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). For years, our church culture has singled out this passage to be the theme of our mission conferences and the motivation for those who go serve as missionaries. It is no wonder our obedience is slow—who wants to hang their future on one verse?
Mission is not something the Bible merely speaks about—mission is what the Bible is about. It is the context that provides the backbone for God’s story and our story. Since creation, God has been interested in redeeming all peoples to Himself.
Let’s look at the Bible in light of God’s heart for the world, and we will see from Genesis to the Revelation God is beckoning all believers to join Him in bringing every people group to His throne. The Bible is not a collection of separate books with no common theme or story. It is one book with an Introduction: Genesis 1-11, a Plot: Genesis 12 - Jude and a Conclusion: Revelation.
Fill the Earth
God begins in Genesis by commanding mankind to fill the earth. In Genesis 1:28,
“God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth…”
God created Adam and Eve in His image and He wanted them to fill the earth with image bearers and worshippers. God has always had a plan to fill the earth with a worldwide worshipping community. However, we know by Genesis 3 sin had crept in and damaged the relationship with God and the image bearers. And by chapter 8 the world was not looking so good.
But, as God floods the earth and starts over, listen to the command He gives Noah, just after he steps off the ark. God’s plan in filling the earth with worshippers remained the same. Genesis 9:1 says, “Then God blessed Noah and his sons saying to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.’” Again the command is to multiply and fill the earth with a community of worshippers. As we come to chapter 11 there should be one simple question on all of our minds: Does God get the earth filled with His glory?
Unfortunately, failure is right around the corner, and Genesis 11:1-4 tells us,
“Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there…Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.’”
Notice at this time there is only one language and one people; the nations did not yet exist. Their failure to fill the earth was in direct rebellion to God’s commands, but instead of wiping them out, God responds with a plan of mercy and creativity. God confuses their languages and re-creates them into diverse nations, scattering them all over the earth. God states in Genesis 11:7-8,
“’Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.’ So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.”
As we end the introduction, we see God has people scattered all over the earth, speaking many different languages. How is He going to reach all of them? What will He do? Who will He use? This is where the plot thickens.
Missionary Nation Established
As soon as God creates the nations, He initiates a plan to regroup some from each of these languages and people groups. God sets aside one nation that will be his missionary nation.
“The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you…I will bless you…and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.’” Genesis 12:1-3
We find out later the “blessing” is salvation through Abraham’s faith. But God has a larger context for what He is going to do for the world through Abraham and his family. God blesses Abraham so that in-turn, he and his family can be a blessing to all the people groups of the world. Interestingly, this command was not for Abraham alone. This responsibility was for everyone in Abraham’s family. They were a missionary family. Watch God continue to call succeeding generations to reach all nations. Next in line is Abraham’s son, Isaac to whom God repeats the command in Genesis 26:4:
“I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed.”
And to Isaac’s son, Jacob, in Genesis 28:14:
“Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.”
The mission was for everyone in Abraham’s family, because in Genesis 12:3 God promised that all the peoples would be blessed through them. Christ is the object of blessing for all nations, but the family is the means. To make the connection to us, we are spoken of in the New Testament as being the spiritual descendants of Abraham, fellow members of his family (Galatians 3:29, Ephesians 2:11-19, Romans 9:8). If we are in the family, we are part of the mission. And as the family of God, the church inherits the same mission the people of God have had throughout the entire Bible.
Missional Theme of the Old Testament
The rest of the Old Testament is filled with God’s design for Israel to be a light to the nations. As we understand the bigger context we begin to see the stories of the Bible through a new missions lens. Here are just a few examples: The 10 Commandments were given by God to Moses and the people for a missional purpose. They are commanded to obey the commands in Deuteronomy 4:5-6 and
“Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations.”
God’s reputation spread after parting the Red Sea, when other nations and people heard about God’s works. In Joshua 2:9-10, Rahab exclaimed,
“I [Rahab] know that the Lord has given this land to you and that a great fear of you has fallen on us…we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt…”
We also see in 1 Kings 4:34 God gave Solomon great wisdom, but for a larger purpose:
“Men of all nations came to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, sent by all the kings of the world, who had heard of his wisdom.”
Even in exile God’s people had opportunity to be a light to the nations, such as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace where we read in Daniel 3:29 of God’s impact on the king:
“Therefore, I [Nebuchadnezzar] decree that the people of any nation or language who say anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego be cut into pieces… for no other God can save in this way.”
The king became a messenger of God’s power to the nations and King Darius did the same thing after Daniel was delivered from the lions’ den in Daniel 6:26 saying,
“I [Darius] issue a decree that in every part of my kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel…”
Missional Theme of the New Testament
As we transition to the New Testament, we see the context of God’s story remain the same. Now Christ, God in the flesh, enters the scene and what do we see in the pattern of His life and ministry? Nothing different. Whether it is taking a longer route to reach a Samaritan woman (John 4:1-42) or healing various Gentiles to teach His followers (Mark 5:1-20, 7:24-30), Christ in the New Testament maintained the pattern established in the Old Testament.
The purpose of God in gathering worshippers from all nations helps us understand Jesus’ teachings and actions such as clearing the temple when upon “reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area designated for the Gentiles to worship and found people buying and selling there. He drove them out, saying, ‘Is it not written; “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations?”’ Mark 11:15-17. Basically, they were shutting out the very Gentiles God desired to gather and include in worship.
As Jesus teaches on the sign of His return in Matthew 24:14, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come,” we can see something about the timeline of God’s purpose in history will hinge on the fulfillment of His Abrahamic promise to bless all nations.
Jesus’ ministry seemed to be governed by a principle of making the kingdom of God known to the areas that had not yet heard. In Luke 4:42-43, Jesus gives this as the reason for leaving a city where there were still needs;
“…they tried to keep him from leaving them but He said, ‘I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.’”
Jesus gives a clear mandate to His followers in each gospel account which Mark 16:15 records as
“Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.”
The book of Acts is a testimony of the account of the gospel spreading to the ends of the earth. It begins with Jesus echoing what He had taught the disciples for the past three years. Luke records in Acts 1:8,
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
This is exactly what happens in the outline of the book, leaving off with the “ends of the earth” yet to be fulfilled. The rest of the book of Acts and the Epistles give a detailed description of Paul and the rest of the missionary band struggling to raise up churches all over the world. Paul carries the same governing principle Jesus had in emphasizing the need to reach the unreached. Paul gives us his ambition for his ministry in Romans 15:20 saying,
“I have made it my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ is not yet known, so that I wouldn’t build on another man’s foundation.”
The introduction: Genesis 1-11, the plot: Genesis 12 through Jude. So, what is the conclusion? In Revelation 7:9, John records a scene that has great meaning in light of God’s promise to Abraham, the theme of the Old and New Testaments, the Commandments of Jesus as well as the unfinished narrative of Acts saying, “After this 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…”
It is important to connect what is happening in Revelation with what God started in Genesis 12 in the life of Abraham. God will do it. There will be a representative from every nation, tribe, people, and language bowing and worshipping at His feet. Heaven is multicultural.
God is a missionary God, and from cover to cover He is showing us His mission. This mission is the context of the story of the Bible and the overarching narrative drives all that God does. Only when we know the context of His story can we understand our purpose in life. God wants to include you as He finishes the final chapters. God has one mission—all nations, and one method—all believers. Will you join Him in bringing a representative from every people group to His throne? It will happen, the only question is will you be a part?
For Further Study See
Psalm 33:13-14, 67:1-7, 86:9-10, 96:3
Isaiah 11:9-10, 49:6, 52:10, 61:11
Matthew 9:35-38, 28:18-20
I Timothy 2:4-6
II Peter 3:9
I John 2:2