Why do mission?

This post is an edited and adapted extract from my book Mission Matters. Mission Matters is available in the UK from ThinkIVP and in US from amazon.com.

Why do mission? Why should you be interested in world mission? How would you answer that question?

There are many ways we could answer the ‘Why mission?’ question. We could talk about the need to change our broken world and combat injustice. We could talk about the need to rescue people from the judgment of God. We could talk about the command of Christ and his call in the Great Commission to go to the nations.

Almost by definition in this session I’m preaching to the converted. But I want to provide what I think is the deepest and most glorious foundation to the question of ‘Why mission?’

The Father delights to share his delight in his Son
All of these are good answers. But none of them are the starting point of mission. The starting point is this: God the Father loves his Son.

When Jesus was baptised the voice from heaven said: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22) The Father delights in his Son. And, because the Father delights in his Son, he delights to share that delight. He loves it when others delight in his Son. The feeling is mutual: the Son delights in his Father and wants to glorify his Father. They rejoice in each other through the Holy Spirit and want to share their joy with others.

This is the starting point of mission. Everything else flows from this. The word “mission” is a Latin word that means “sending”. For the first fifteen centuries or so in the story of the church the word was only ever used to describe what God does. Mission is God sending his Son in the world and sending his Spirit into the world. Our mission is the extension of the mission of the Trinity. And the mission of the Trinity is to share their joy and love.

In John 17:24 Jesus prays: “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.” Notice how these statements link together. Jesus wants people to be with him. Why? So they can see the glory that God has given to him. Why? Because God has loved him from before the world began. Mission starts with the Father’s love for his Son.

God didn’t create the world to meet some need that he had. God wasn’t up in heaven on his own feeling lonely. He doesn’t need the world. It doesn’t add anything to him. God wasn’t a frustrated Ruler looking for something to rule. Nor was he a frustrated Creator looking for something to create. He wasn’t even a frustrated Lover looking for something to love. He was a Father with a Son living in perfect love through the Spirit. The reason God created the world and is now redeeming the world is to share his delight in his Son. God created us to be his children and he recreates us as his children out of the overflow of his love and joy.

At the 2012 Olympics the South African swimmer Chad Le Clos won a gold medal. His father, Bert Le Clos, was famously interviewed afterwards. His joy was uncontained. “Look at my boy,” he kept saying. “He’s so beautiful.” God the Father creates us so he could say to us, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” Mission is God saying through us: “Look at my Son. He’s so beautiful.”

In Proverbs 8 “Wisdom” speaks. It’s a reference to Jesus. Jesus, the Wisdom of God, says: “The LORD brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old; I was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be” (22-23). When Jesus says he is the “first of God’s works” it doesn’t mean there was a time before God created Jesus. It’s saying that Jesus was eternally begotten before anything else was created.

Wisdom continues: “Then I was constantly at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in the human race” (30-31). What was Jesus doing before the creation of the world? He was “filled with delight … rejoicing always in God’s presence.” And what was Jesus doing at the creation of the world? “Rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in the human race.” Notice the repetition of the words “delight” and “rejoice”.

Before creation Jesus delights in God and rejoices in his presence. At creation Jesus delights in those made in God’s image and rejoices in God’s world. Creation is the overflow of God’s joy. Humanity is the overflow of God’s delight.

The Son delights in his Father’s love and delights to share that love. Both the Father and the Son are out-giving, out-pouring love. And they pour out that love between themselves through the Spirit and out from themselves to others through the Spirit. “God’s love” says Paul in Romans 5:5, “has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” Preaching from John 16 Gottfried Osei-Mensah, the African missionary statesman, told the Keswick Convention: “The four words, ‘He shall glorify me’, summarise the entire mission of the Holy Spirit … And the way he would carry out this work … was clearly spelt out: he takes what belongs to Christ and his discloses it to those who belong to Christ.” (Gottfried Osei-Mensah, ‘The Helper from Heaven,’ God’s Very Own People, Keswick Yearbook 1984, STL, 1984, 165.) The persons of the Trinity delight in sharing their love with others and they delight in each receiving love from others.

On the night before he died, Jesus prayed: “Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” (John 17:25-26) Jesus knows the Father and now Jesus has made the Father known to his disciples. Jesus is loved by the Father and now Jesus has made the Father known to us as our Father so that the Father’s love may be in us. God wants us to enjoy the love of the trinitarian community, to be part of the trinitarian community. We are united to the Son so that we can be as much part of the divine family as the Son is.

The cascade of divine love
Near where I live is Chatsworth House. It’s one of the finest grand houses in Britain. It’s believed to have inspired Pemberley, the house of Darcy, in Jane’s Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice. It was certainly used as the location for Pemberley in the 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. The house and its gardens are open to the public. In the garden is a huge cascading fountain. It runs all the way down a hillside in a series of steps. The water flows from one step to another. The public are allowed to paddle in the fountain and walk up the steps.

It’s a good image of God’s love. The Father is fountain of life and love, and his life and love fill the Son and overflow through the Son to the world. That love overflows to you and then through you it keeps on flowing to a needy world.

Where does all the water come from? From the top. It’s not that we have to generate love. We don’t bring love into existence through an act of will, screwing our faces up to get on with it. All we do is sit under the cascading fountain of Father’s unfailing love, flowing to us from the Father through the Son by the Spirit. We sit there, getting drenched in love, until love flows out from us to a needy world.

We see this cascade of love between the Father and the Son and between the Son and his people in John 17:

  • The Father gives words to the Son who gives words to believers:
    “I gave them the words you gave me” (8, 14).
  • The Father sends the Son who sends believers:
    “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.” (18).
  • The Father is in the Son who is in believers:
    “… you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us …” (21).
  • The Father gives glory to the Son who gives glory to believers:
    “I have given them the glory that you gave me” (22).
  • The Father is one with the Son who is one with believers:
    “… that they may be one as we are one” (22).
  • The Father is known by the Son who is known by believers:
    “Righteous Father … I know you, and … I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known” (25-26).
  • The Father loves the Son who loves believers:
    “… that the love you have for me may be in them” (26).

What happens when we sit under the fountain of God’s love? We become loving people. The Apostle John says: “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love … No-one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us … We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:7-13, 19-21) The cascade of love continues. Those who are loved by God love like God.

The sunshine of divine love
The great advantage of this motivation for mission is this: it never runs out!

One of the jokes at the Keswick Convention is that it’s easy to predict the weather: if you can see Skiddaw, the mountain just to the north of Keswick, then it’s going to rain and if you can’t see it then it’s already raining! Yet even in Keswick when there’s a sunny day, no-one worries that maybe the sun will run out of light. We don’t wander around, full of concern, saying, “Much more of this weather and the sun will run out.” Light and heat just pour out of the sun.

In the same way, love pours out of God in an inexhaustible stream. God is pouring out life and love. The Father constantly and continually radiates love to the Son and the Son to the Father through the Spirit. And God delights for that love to be shared. It’s the Father’s great pleasure for the Son to love others and to be loved by others. It’s the Son’s great pleasure for the Father to love others and to be loved by others. This outpouring of life and love pours out of the Trinity as he creates the world, loves the world, redeems the world.

Jesus reflects the Father’s glory. He is the image of God. Think of it like a mirror. The light of God’s glory is perfectly reflected in the image or mirror of his Son. The Father sees in his Son a perfect reflection of his perfections. From all eternity God’s perfections pour out from the Father to the Son and back to the Father through the Spirit. And this is how we glorify God. It’s not that we shine our torches into the sun, saying, “Here you are, sun, here’s some extra light.” It’s not that we sing or work or speak, saying, “Here you are, God, here’s something extra to add to your perfections.” No, we’re mirrors. When we glorify God we’re reflecting back to God glory that started with him in the first place.

Maybe you have heard people talk about Jesus being eternally begotten. It’s a way of saying that Jesus has always existed. There was never a moment when he was first created. He is “begotten” from his Father, but he is eternally begotten. We’re used to think about what this means for Jesus. But think what this means for the Father. It means he is eternally giving life. He is a fountain of life. The Son is eternally loved and the Father is eternally showing love. He is a fountain of love. Life and love pour out from God.

This motivation for mission is one that can be sustained. Mission is often tough. You may often feel like giving up. You may face opposition and hostility. You may face discouragement and set backs. You may feel homesick. The people you thought had become Christians may later turn away from Christ. What do we do when these things happen?

We need to go sunbathing! We need to put ourselves again in the sunshine of God’s love. The building in which I work is cold. It’s an old building with thick walls built into a hillside. So even on a sunny day we’re all wearing several layers. You can feel chilled to the bone. But then you walk out into the sunshine and the chill starts to dissipate. We live in a cold, graceless world. But when we step into the warmth of God’s love our cold hearts are warmed and our weary souls are energized.

Why should you get involved in world mission? For the same reason God sent his Son: out of the overflow of divine love.

In 1903 Barclay Buxton, together with his co-worker Paget Wilkes, launched the Japan Evangelistic Band (Kyoden Nihon Dendo Tai) at the Keswick Convention. Buxton went on to serve in Japan for nearly 30 years. During this time he saw much fruit, but also endured many hardships including the death of two of his daughters. His son writes:

To him there was but one purpose in view. “Father, the hour is come; glorify Thy Son.” [John 17:1] He believed each opportunity was God’s hour to impart to someone the great salvation procured for us on Calvary. The secret of the blessing which followed his Bible studies lay in a message that was Scriptural, a life that was prayerful and a purpose which was God’s glory. (B. Godfrey Buxton, The Reward of Faith in the Life of Barclay F. Buxton, Japan Evangelistic Band, 1949, 185.)

The same purpose inspired Samuel Zwemer, one of the great missionary leaders of the early twentieth century. He was nicknamed “the Apostle to Islam” because of his work across the Muslim world. He worked as a missionary for nearly 40 years before becoming Professor of Missions at Princeton Theological Seminary. His work was often costly. Like Buxton he lost two of his daughters. In Zwemer’s case they died, aged four and seven, within eight days of each other. What drove his remarkable missionary endeavour was this vision for the Father’s glory in his Son. “The chief end of missions,” he said, “is not the salvation of men but the glory of God.” (Samuel Zwemer, Thinking Missions with Christ, Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1934, 67.)
“God has created the entire world that it should be the theatre of his glory by the spread of his Gospel.” (Samuel Zwemer, ‘Calvinism and the Missionary Enterprise,’ Theology Today 7:2, 1950, 208.)

Zwemer visited the Keswick Convention on a number of occasions. In 1923 he closed his address to the Convention with a paraphrase of the prayer of Jesus in John 17: “Father, the hour has come; glorify thy Son in the Islamic world that thy Son may also glorify thee in the Islamic world!” (Cited in Walter B. Sloan, These Sixty Years: The Story of the Keswick Convention, Pickering & Inglis, 1935, 85.)

It may be that Zwemer’s prayer is being answered in our generation!

This is an edited and adapted extract from my book, Mission Matters.

Mission Matters is available in the UK from ThinkIVP and in US from amazon.com.