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!”

David: Anointed for God’s Mission

David is one of the most beloved characters in the Bible and that is as it should be, since his name in Hebrew is “beloved.” While David is a heroic character, his life began in a rather lackluster way: he was the youngest child in a family of shepherds.

When the prophet Samuel came to anoint David as the next king of Israel, David did not know he was suppose to be at the meeting. Samuel looked over seven of David’s older brothers. God chose none of them.

Finally, the prophet asked if there were any other sons, and there was, but he was only a boy and he was in the field taking care of sheep. Once David arrived, Samuel anointed him with oil.

This practice of anointing grew out of the practice of anointing a priest on his new appointment. Samuel continued this practice as a way to appoint kings. A more important association: to be anointed with oil became a way of participating with God in anointing the new king with God’s Holy Spirit (See 1 Samuel 16:13).

God’s Spirit empowered David his whole life, but God’s presence did not exempt him from the hard realities of living. David would spend his early years as the anointed king running from his previous mentor and current king Saul. Once David became king, it would take him years to consolidate his kingdom. David’s life was full of challenges with the women he loved, the children he had, and political enemies both within and without.

Out of these lived realities come many of the most moving psalms in the Bible.

Yet none of these ongoing challenges could separate David from the love of God. However, his own action nearly did. One day, when he should have been leading, he saw her. He called for her. He slept with her. He killed her husband to cover his own sin. It felt as if God had left him.

During this time he wrote, “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.”

There are certainly times in our life when we need to pray for the same.

Deborah: A Mother on God’s Mission

Against the myth that God only wants men in leadership roles stands the story of Deborah, the prophetess-judge-leader of ancient Israel. Some interpreters will assert that the story of Deborah is a criticism of men who would not rise to the occasion. This is partially true. When Barak refuses to go to the battlefield without Deborah, she declares that the victory will belong to a woman (Judges 4:8-10)—but Deborah does not get this honor. Still, to see the whole story as a mere critique of weak-willed men misses the respect the biblical narrator—and even Barak—had for Deborah.

Before being a “judge,” Deborah was a prophetess, a role which meant she was a preacher and teacher. To get this recognition, Deborah would have had to show that God had truly called her (see Deuteronomy 13:1-5 and 18:17-22 for some of the tests). In addition to her full-time job, she was a wife (4.4) and mother (5.7).

The English translation of “judge” does not do justice to the role; she did far more than just hold court. The NIV is correct in saying she “was leading” Israel, as that is really what “judging” implies in the Book of Judges. Judging, therefore, involved both settling disputes among the people (4.5) but also commanding military leaders into action (4.6-7). There is no doubt that Deborah is Barak’s superior officer.

For example, Deborah will send Barak into the battle while remaining behind to observe the action (4.14)—the traditional posture of a supreme commander, like a king.

The narrator of Judges has preserved for us the victory song known as the “Song of Deborah” (chapter 5). This is a military poem from a woman’s point of view: Deborah is praised for her leadership, Jael, who killed the enemy commander Sisera, for her ingenuity and bravery, and even Sisera’s mother is remembered because her son will not be coming home.

If God so called a woman to serve him as Deborah did under the old covenant, how much more, then, will God use women under the new covenant where now there is neither “male nor female” (Gal 3:28)! Deborah’s story is a good place to acknowledge that God’s Mission is larger than our stereotypes.

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.