New Testament theology is essentially missionary theology

A Concise New Testament Theology by I. Howard MarshallMission is not just another (albeit important) theme in the Bible. It is not even merely the major theme in the Bible (though I think it is also this). No, the relationship between the Bible and mission is much more fundamental than either of these assertions. As many have said, mission describes the essential character of the Bible:

the Bible does not just talk about missional things; it is itself missional.

This is the claim of Howard Marshall in his New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel. I quote here from A Concise New Testament Theology, which is an abridgement of the much larger work. It’s a lengthy quote but well worth reproducing in its entirety (his italics):

Mission and Theology

The focus of the New Testament writings is to be found in their presentation of Jesus as the Savior and Lord sent by God, through whom he is acting to bring salvation to the world. More specifically, they are the documents of a mission. The subject matter is not Jesus in himself (or God in himself), but Jesus in his role as Savior and Lord. New Testament theology is essentially missionary theology. The documents came into being as the result of a two-part mission: first, the mission of Jesus’ follwers, called to continue his work by proclaiming him as Lord and Savior and calling people to faith and ongoing commitment to him, as a result of which his church grows. The theology springs out of this movement and is shaped by it, and in turn the theology shapes the continuing mission of the church. The primary function of the documents is thus to testify to the gospel that is proclaimed by Jesus and his followers. Their teaching can be seen as the fuller exposition of that gospel. They are also concerned with the spiritual growth of those who are converted to the Christian faith. They show how the church should be shaped for its mission, and they deal with the problems that form obstacles to the advancement of the mission. In short, people who are called by God to be missionaries are carrying out their calling by the writing of Gospels, Letters and related material. They are concerned to make converts and then to provide for their nurture, to bring new believers to birth and to nourish them to maturity.

Recognition of this missionary character of the documents will help us to see them in true perspective and to interpret them in the light of their intention. The theology of the New Testament is not primarily ecclesiastical or ecclesiological, with a central interest in the church and its life and its structures. Nor is it an exercise in intellectual understanding for its own sake. Recognition of the missionary orientation of the New Testament will lead us to a more dynamic view of the church as the agent of mission instead of the static view that we sometimes have; it will also ward off the danger of seeing New Testament study as a purely academic exercise.

There is a quite helpful classification saying that actions in the New Testament have three aspects: doxological (glorifying God), antagonistic (opposing and overcoming evil) and soteriological (saving the lost). There is a natural tendency to give primacy to the doxological on the grounds that the highest activity of human beings is to glorify God and even what God does is intended to increase his glory. That is correct, but since the glorification of God should be the ultimate aim of all our activity, a focus on glorification may fail to express what is especially characteristic of the New Testament: the specific way in which God is glorified is through mission. The New Testament is primarily about God’s mission and the message associated with it. Similarl, the antagonistic motif is clearly of great importance, in that the powers of evil and death must be overcome if humanity is to be rescued, but this victory is not an end in itself: the triumph of the crucified must be proclaimed to humankind and become a reality for them – through mission. Again, soteriology is understood in a one-sided manner if attention is centered purely on the work of Christ as if it were an end in itself. It is significant that in Paul the fact of reconciliation achieved by the death of Christ and the proclamation of reconciliation by his messengers (leading to the human acceptance of reconciliation) belong together as the two essential and integral parts of God’s saving action (2 Cor 5:18-21).

Granted, Marshall’s focus is on the New Testament. See Chris Wright’s The Mission of God, pp.48-51, for a whole Bible perspective.

Joachim Jeremias on Jesus’ Promise to the Nations

Jeremias was a German scholar writing in the mid-twentieth century whose best-known work is probably his volume on Jesus and the Parables. He write extensively on New Testament matters including a short 1958 work entitled, Jesus’ Promise to the Nations, which aims to investigate the missional dimensions of Jesus’ eschatological sayings. I’ll reproduce here the contents plus Jeremias’ forward and conclusion to give you the idea:


I. Three important negative conclusions
   a. Jesus pronounce a stern judgement upon the Jewish mission
   b. Jesus forbade his disciples during his lifetime to preach to non-Jews
   c. Jesus limited his own activity to Israel

II. Three important positive conclusions
   a. Jesus removes the idea of vengeance from the eschatological expectation
   b. Jesus promises the Gentiles a share in salvation
   c. The redemptive activity and lordship of Jesus includes the Gentiles

III. The solution to the problem

IV. Conclusion: What about the Mission?


The present work has a twofold aim. It is in the first place a New Testament study, and secondly an examination of the basis of missionary activity. Following the suggestions of Sundkler, it seeks, first of all, to draw attention to a neglected element in the message of Jesus, and attempts ot show how large a place in the eschatological sayings of Jesus is given to the Old Testament conception of the pilgrimage of the nations to the Mountain of God.
At the same time the author also hopes that this work may have some significance for the inner logic of missionary activity, and for its Biblical basis. There can be no doubt that the exposition of the ‘negative’ element in the first part of this work, enables us to get a clear view of the immense extent of the promise which Jesus held out to the nations. The events of Easter ushered in the dawn of that final day in which the fulfilment of this promise to the nations and to Israel began to take effect. The special glory of the missionary endevour lies in the fact that it is a very palpable part of the final consummation inaugurated at Eater.


What about the Mission?
What conclusions for the modern missionary task may be drawn from the strictly eschatalogical outlook of Jesus? Has it been rendered superfluous by acceptance of the fact that according to the preaching of Jesus it will be by God’s act of power that the Gentiles will be brought in to the Kingdom of God in the final consummation? Far from it. WHat is significant for the missionary task is the realization to which we have been brought, that it is firmly rooted in God’s redemptive activity. In Jesus’ sayings about the Gentiles we find: 1. an unparalleled insistence on humility. Man can do nothing. It is not our preaching that brings about the ingathering of the Gentiles. Even Jesus himself did not make the world Christian, but he died on the Cross. God alone does it all. The fundamental note and inmost core of the message of Jesus, resounding in all his sayings about the Gentiles, is confidence in the reality of God and the vastness of his mercy.
But at the same time the sayings of Jesus about the Gentiles are: 2. a revelation of the overriding importance and value of the missionary task. Easter saw the dawn of the Last Day. The Gentile mission is the beginning of God’s final act in the gathering of the Gentiles. The Gentile mission is God’s own activity. As God’s eschatological activity it is an anticipation of the visible enthronement of the Son of Man, and as such it is ‘the actual sign’ of the period between Easter and the Parousia. The firstfruits of the Gentiles are signs, an earnest of the fulfilment, foretastes of the final consummation. Just as justification, the gist of the Spirit, sonship, the communion of the Lord’s Table, are God’s gracious gifts for the period of waiting for the consummation, so too are the Gentiles whom God brings into the Church of Jesus Christ. The missionary task is part of the final fulfilment, a divine factual demonstration of the exaltation of the Son of Man, an eschatology in process of realization. It offers the possibility of co-operating with God in his gracious anticipation of the decisive hour of redemption described in Isa. 25: the Gentiles accepted as guests at God’s Table (v. 6), the veil torn from their eyes (v. 7), and death abolished for ever (v. 8).

I came across this book thanks to my good friend Richard Johnson, who runs Qoheleth Resources, the second hand theological booksellers. He sends out a weekly sheet with loads of bargains so I’d recommend getting on the mailing list.

July 2010 issue of Transformation journal

The July edition of Transformation includes two articles on a Bible and mission theme.

Jesus and the Spirits: What Can We Learn from the New Testament World? by Craig A. Evans

The present study explores in what ways the name of Jesus was invoked by Pagans, Jews, and Christians. It is shown that in contrast to famous worthies of the past, such as Solomon and the patriarchs, whose reputations grew over the centuries, the name of Jesus was invoked during his public ministry and continued for centuries following the Easter proclamation. Besides important texts, the artifactual evidence is also examined.

Transformation, Proclamation and Mission in the New Testament: Examining the Case of 1 Peter by Stephen Ayodeji A. Fagbemi

How is the NT concept of mission to be understood in relation to proclamation and transformation? Or in what ways do transformation, proclamation and mission interact in the New Testament? Although 1 Peter does not speak overtly of mission, the interaction between proclamation and transformation would give an indication of the presence of mission. Looking specifically at the First Letter of Peter, this paper seeks to examine how the interaction of these three subjects might inform another way not only of understanding mission but also of doing it. Within its own context, 1 Peter offers a particularly vital and insightful dimension on this subject.