So That — Outcomes of God’s Mission

Almost any place you look in the Bible, you can find God’s mission to form a distinct people. In the Old Testament, God formed the nation of Israel to bear witness to God’s continuing creative work in the world.

In the New Testament, in the ministry of Jesus and later the ministry of the church, the mission of God remains central. God’s purpose remains forming a distinct people to live a God-shaped life for the sake of the world. The mission of God stands out even in the little letter called 1 John.

Emphasizing that God’s love has been lavished on beleaguered believers, the apostle John points at several outcomes, or “so thats” that result from God’s active mission. These “so thats” are somewhat veiled in English translation, so I would like to draw these out for you.

God’s Mission through Jesus was so that:

  • We should be called the children of God (1 John 3:1)
  • Jesus might take away our sins (3:5)
  • Jesus might destroy the work of the devil (3:8)
  • We might believe in his name (3:23)
  • We might love one another (3:11, 23)

That God, the God of the universe, should invite us into a relationship is amazing. Not only is God willing to claim us as his children but we increasingly become to look like our Father. As God’s children we have the same inheritance as his rightful Son. The apostle here promises that we will see Jesus because we will become like him (3:2).

Part of the process of getting us to the place where we look like Jesus is that God must deal with sin. The NIV adds “our” before the word sin, but this is not in the original. It is not just personal sin that God must remove but even cosmic sin, so to speak. Sin can also be seen as a force at work in our world; sometimes we call it evil.

Sin is the Bible’s word for that power at work in our world that causes things to fall apart. Thus, John aptly asserts that Jesus came to destroy the work of the devil. While people today may not easily buy into a real devil and may even scoff at the notion of sin: they know the effect of this evil, whether personal or diabolical—relationships that don’t work, innocent people suffering, countries vying for power by diminishing others, loneliness, drug addictions, and this list could go on.

Yet, because God has acted, we believe in the name of Jesus—that for Jesus sake, new possibilities can emerge. Thoughtful Christians are not oblivious to the fact that we live in a world that appears hopelessly broken. It is precisely against this brokenness that Jesus makes sense.

And in the midst of this brokenness, you still find groups of Jesus-followers who love one another. This, perhaps, is the greatest testimony that God is completing the mission he started.

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Jesus: On a Mission from God

After Jesus’ baptism and temptation, according to the Gospel of Luke (4:14-30), he returned to his hometown Nazareth “in the power of the Spirit.” As a Torah (law) observant Jew, he customarily attended synagogue services and even took part in the services. One day the synagogue attendant handed the scroll of Isaiah to him and he unrolled it to the place we today call Isaiah 61:1-2 which reads:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
(as cited in Luke)

After returning the scroll to the attendant and then sitting down, he announced, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” At first the audience was amazed by Jesus’ gracious words, but then they begin to think out the implications.

Wait a minute! Isn’t this Joseph’s son? Did he just apply that scripture to himself? We know this boy’s family. Who does he think he is? Now worked up, Jesus’ own friends and family are ready to throw him over a cliff.

Jesus understood that it was hard to do ministry in one’s hometown, so he reminded the people of their story. Back in the days of Elijah and Elisha, it was not the people of Israel who were blessed by the ministry of these two hometown boys, but a Phoenician widow and a Syrian commander, both foreigners.

Jesus understood the mission of God to be a mission for the sake of others, the outsiders, those marginalized and who do not belong. When Jesus wanted to highlight his mission, he chose the text from Isaiah.

Therefore, as Jesus’ followers, it would seem that the Isaiah text could point us in the right direction regarding the mission of God. The mission, based on this text, begins with God’s empowerment: the Spirit of the Lord is on us.

However, the presence of the Spirit is not primarily to fill the spiritual emptiness within us, but to send us to bless others, namely, the poor, prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed. To these we announce that now is the year of the Lord’s favor. We are faithful to the mission of God when we do this.

Isaiah: When You See God’s Mission

The call of Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1-13) into God’s mission takes a shape similar to that of Moses. In the calling of Moses we noticed several elements of the call narrative: the revelation of God, the motive of God expressed, the commission of God, the objections of Moses, God’s reassurance, and God’s signs. Notice these same following elements in the call of Isaiah.

Revelation. Dated to the year that King Uzziah died (ca. 742 BC), Isaiah has a visionary experience that brings him into the very presence of God.

In vivid detail, the text paints the visions for us: the throne, God’s robe filling the temple, doorposts and thresholds quaking, smoke filling the temple and multi-winged angelic beings, calling to one another in antiphonal worship:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

Objections. To this revelation of God, Isaiah can only respond that he is doomed; in contrast to God’s holiness, Isaiah can only confess that he has unclean lips and that he lives among unclean people.

Reassurance. In response to this confession, one of the angelic beings takes a coal from the altar and touches Isaiah’s lips to symbolize that God had taken away his sin, thus qualifying him to accept God’s mission.

Commission and Motive. Here the Lord asks, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” To which Isaiah, cleansed, can now say, “Here am I. Send me!” His mission is to preach to a people whom Isaiah knows will not listen to him. They will not repent, but God will send Isaiah anyway as a sign that God has not given up on his people.

Signs. While there are signs associated with Isaiah’s mission (see Isaiah 7), I think it is fair to say that for the people of Judah, Isaiah is the sign. Isaiah is to preach to a people who will not listen and he is to do it until God says otherwise (see Isaiah 6.11-13).

Isaiah was to serve during a time of pruning … until there is nothing left but a “holy seed” left as a “stump” in a wasteland. What starts out as an amazing revelation of God concludes in Isaiah being given a very difficult job

While Isaiah cannot make the people come to God, his mission serves a signpost pointing the way back to God. Sometimes, our ministry is just like this. The successes seem far apart and the defeats come more often than we think they should. Yet, in the midst of that we assent: “Here am I! Send me!”

Samuel: When God Calls

In the Old Testament (OT), Samuel marks the end of the judges and the beginning of the prophets, and like Deborah, an earlier judge, Samuel was both a prophet and judge (1 Samuel 3:21; 7:15). Samuel is also the only major OT character with a nearly spotless record. Unfortunately, Samuel will make the same mistake as his mentor Eli by neglecting the spiritual development of his sons (8:1-2).

In contrast, Samuel’s story starts with a godly mother, Hannah, who wanted a child more than anything in the world; she wanted a child so much that she promised God that she would dedicate him fully to the Lord. God granted the desires of her heart. After she weaned her son, she and her husband delivered him to Eli the priest; here Samuel “ministered before the Lord” (2:11) and grew into a man. In this context, Samuel had the opportunity to grow up under the one person who should have been most attuned to God’s way.

One night God came calling. Having fulfilled the duties of the day, but just before the lamp in the temple had gone out, young Samuel was lying down in the temple not far from the Ark of the Covenant.

A voice broke the silence.

Samuel responded with “Here I am” and ran to Eli to see what he wanted. However, Eli had not called him so he sent Samuel back to bed. Three times the voice broke through before Eli realized it must be God calling.

Now Eli instructs Samuel to remain where he is the next time the voice comes and to respond: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

What happens next had to be difficult for someone as young as Samuel. God tells Samuel that because of Eli’s negligence in supervising and raising his sons, that God is going to end their lives. The next morning, though scared, Samuel does what he has to do: he tells Eli all that he has learned from the Lord. In this way, God tests Samuel’s integrity and commitment.

God could have revealed his intention straight to Eli, but instead chose to use this situation to call Samuel. Samuel was to learn—and this would not be the last time he would deliver difficult news—that being on God’s mission is sometimes difficult and at times borders on the impossible.

When surveying the whole of Samuel’s life, it is clear that he accepted the invitation to participate in God’s mission. However, this mission was punctuated with times when Samuel had to choose his comfort over lining up with God’s mission.

Perhaps you are at one of these crossroads, God is calling but the task seems overwhelming or unpleasant or even impossible. When we come to these moments, what we do next is critical since it will be the turning point to whether God can move us to the next level, or whether he will have to call again until we recognize his voice.

Moses: Called to God’s Mission

To speak of “being called” by God sounds a bit presumptuous in our ears, yet that is precisely the language the New Testament uses to speak of how God draws us into His mission. Even Jesus came to call sinners (Matthew 9:13/Luke 5:32). The apostle Paul framed his own ministry as calling people to “the obedience that comes from faith” (Romans 1:5). Therefore, not only did God call Paul but Paul’s ministry to others is how God called others to follow Jesus. Moreover, the author of Hebrews refers to our “heavenly call” (Hebrews 3:1) and Peter reminds us to make our “calling and election” certain (2 Peter 1:10). So, this calling of God is something God does but also requires our active participation.

Beginning with the story of Moses, the Bible contains several notable “call narratives,” stories where people have an encounter with God that alters forever the course of their lives. Additionally, these call narrative have some consistent patterns that can inform us about how God might be calling us today.

Using Exodus 3 and 4 as a model, we find that Moses experiences a revelation of God (3.1-4). In this revelation, God expresses his motive (3.4-9) for appearing to Moses, which then leads into God’s commission (3.10) of Moses to a special task. Moses will, of course, issue some objections (3.11ff) to the mission God has just assigned him and God will meet these objections with reassurance (3.12) that God will be on the mission with him. Finally, God will offer Moses several signs (3.12; 4.1-5) both to confirm to others that he is on God’s mission but also to assure Moses that he is not on the mission alone.

While God’s call of us may not be as dramatic as Moses’, I do believe that God calls us in a similar way: There comes a time when we “see” God, maybe through a dramatic revelation of God but often it is through preaching, teaching or someone’s quiet faithful life. But when we see God, we come to know his motives. He loves us intensely and wants to be in relationship with us. However, we, like Moses will often object to God’s interference in our lives, but God will again reassure us that he is with us and he will give us signs along the road that he is there and that we have truly been called by Him.

Joseph: Betrayed for the Mission of God

The Joseph narrative begins in Genesis 37 and continues to chapter 47, thus, constituting a sizable portion of Genesis. However, in the main story line of the Old Testament, Joseph is a sidebar. He is not a direct ancestor of King David or Jesus yet his story is crucial to the survival of the family of Abraham. You can almost sense the marginalization of Joseph: This is the account of Jacob. Jacob! Yet what follows is mostly the story of Joseph!

Joseph spent most of his life on the margins. First, when he was young, God gave him special dreams. Because of this gift, his brothers despised him, plotted to get rid of him, and finally, sold him into slavery to the Midianites who will transport him to Egypt and resell him to Potiphar, an Egyptian official.

In Potiphar’s home, Joseph becomes a trusted servant until the day Potiphar’s wife accuses him of taking advantage of her. So Potiphar has Joseph thrown into the royal jail—back to the margins again.

In jail, Joseph’s dreams come back to him and he accurately predicts the fate of two other royal prisoners—one will be executed; the other restored to his position. The one who lived promised to mention Joseph to Pharaoh but forgets about Joseph for two years. More marginalization.

After years of being on the margins, God will raise Joseph to the second in command in Egypt. In this position of power, Joseph will be able to save his family—the family that betrayed him—from famine. Sometimes, we feel like we are on the margins, too. We should never forget that God may have us there for a reason and his mission may well include our marginalization. The mission of God does not require that it always goes well for us, but it does mean that God can and will use us to accomplish his mission—whether we are in the center or on the margins—that is, if we are willing to be so used.

Jacob: Wrestling with the Mission of God

In line with His mission to form or create a distinct people for the good of the world, God called Abraham’s grandson Jacob. God has previously called Abraham out of whom, according to God’s promise, a great nation would rise through whom “all people on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen 12.2-3).

Now, Jacob was very different from his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac, who despite their faults were honorable people. Jacob, on the other hand, was a deceiver and a cheat. Even his name which means “he who grasps the heel of another,” a Hebrew idiom for a cheater. Jacob—so named when he was born because as his firstborn brother was pulled from the womb, he reach out and grabbed his brother’s heel—would certainly live down to his name.

Jacob was a conniver. He swindled his brother out of family birthright, the right to inherit the firstborn son’s portion…for what? A cup of soup. Next cheated his brother Esau out of the family blessing by posing as Esau to his nearly blind father. Jacob was always looking for the advantage—his!

However, one man—his uncle—was able to outmaneuver him. Once when uncle Laban promised Jacob his daughter in marriage, he tricked Jacob into marrying his oldest daughter Leah before he could have the sister he really loved. In the end, Jacob still came out smelling like a rose. He had Laban’s two daughters and all the livestock he had raised and all the wealth he had acquired while in Laban’s hire.

Jacob even tried to get the advantage over God. One night a “man” wrestled with Jacob all night. This angelic wrestler was not able to overpower Jacob and so he outmaneuvered Jacob pulling his hip out of socket. Still Jacob would not release his assailant and Jacob demanded that he would not let him go unless the man first blesses him. At that moment, Jacob was transformed from the “cheater” to the “one who wrestles with God,” which in Hebrew is name Israel. The angel explained that it was “because you have struggled with God and men and have won.”

Jacob’s new name Israel will eventually apply to his descendant who will form the distinct people of God, the nation of Israel, and like their ancestor, they will struggle sometimes in partnership with God and sometimes against God over what it means to join God in his mission.

However, the story of Jacob is still a story of hope. God will work out his Mission with or without us, whether we work with God or against him. However, as the story of Jacob testifies in the end, God will do amazing things with us, through us and for us, if we work with him. By the end of Jacob’s story, he has been reconciled to his brother and he is in covenant relationship with his God. It does not get better than that.