The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission
A review by Dr Richard Hess of Christopher J. H. Wright's book for the Denver Journal
Wright, Christopher J. H. The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission. Biblical Theology for Life. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010. 301 pp. Paperback. ISBN 978-0-310-29112-1.
Wright here provides the inaugural volume for the series of Biblical Theology for Life. He begins by arguing the importance of his work. He observes that the whole of the world is God’s mission. This is the purpose for human existence. Wright moves on to provide an overview of the biblical story with special attention to mission. From this perspective the author appears to represent the view that our faith should be involved in the transformation of culture, rather than being either separated from culture or identified with it. The effect is that the entire world is to be redeemed. This leads to a perspective on creation. God is the Creator of all and will bring all to a good end. Therefore, as already suggested by Genesis 1 and 2, we should care for creation and protect it.
The message of creation care is one that needs to be heard. As important as this is, the chapter ends with what could be construed as a blanket endorsement of all involvement in anything to do with “green” movements. The issues and debates of recent years suggest that it would be helpful to establish some criteria that would discriminate between those movements that do care for the earth and those whose real priorities lie elsewhere. Although this is not the main purpose of the book, it would have been helpful to suggest that some such movements may be false or involve values incompatible with the Christian faith.
A focus of the book is the call of Abram from his home and country. It forms a paradigm for all of mission. The promise of land and seed are developed, but key in all of this is that Abram and his descendants are called to be a blessing to all nations of the world. Thus the choice of Abram is not for his benefit alone, or for that of Israel. Its purpose is not realized until it extends to the whole of the world.
Wright continues to pull out many important texts in the Old Testament (as well as the New, of course) to develop his theme of the call to mission and the manner in which Christians are formed, develop their perspective, and move forward in better realizing this mission. The final chapters of Isaiah demonstrate how Israel is not called for its own sake, but rather is called to be a light to the world through whom conversion will come to such an extent as to draw other nations and peoples to that faith. Further, such people will be given full participation in the future kingdom. Whether Psalm 87 should be understood as bringing “many nations registered as native-born citizens of Zion” or, more likely, as the honor accorded to the people of God who come from Jerusalem wherever in the world they might be, the latter chapters of Isaiah and especially the last chapter do indeed emphasize the full recognition of non-Israelites and non-Jews as members of the covenant who serve before Yahweh.
Wright’s emphasis on the uncompromising nature of the faith, whether in Deuteronomy or in Acts, is welcome in an age where the Zeitgeist demands that one should not emphasize distinctives but only what is held in common. It is clear that biblical faith cannot be observed while at the same time affirming that all other religions are of equal value in terms of salvation. This leads to a further conclusion that is best stated in the quote from John Oswalt (p. 172): In the first part of his book, Isaiah has demonstrated that God alone can be trusted, that all other resources, especially the nations, would fail. Now he is showing that when we have refused to trust and have reaped the logical results of our false dependencies, God alone can save.” This becomes the foundation for bearing witness to this salvation, a testimony that lies at the heart of the mission envisioned by Wright. And that testimony includes a verbal (or as Francis Schaeffer would say, a propositional) message as well as one that is lived before others. In fact, this mission is well summarized in Isaiah 52:7-10 as making peace, doing good, and proclaiming God’s salvation.
Wright develops this with the sense of the return from the exile as a time of a new exodus in which the people again celebrate God’s divine and miraculous salvation. Yet, and here Wright looks to Zechariah (9:9) and Malachi (3:1 and 4:5), the fullness of the end of the Exile lies beyond the Old Testament. It is prophesied as a time when a messenger would come to prepare the way for God’s return to his temple and the fulfillment of all the prophecies. Wright uses Paul and especially Romans to develop the message of salvation. Given all that God does, the fruit of salvation must nevertheless include an ethical component of renouncing evil and doing good.
The discussion of this mission begins with the calls of Moses (who at first refuses), of Isaiah (who sees God’s holiness and repents), of Jeremiah (whose words God places in his lips but who also embodies the suffering of the apostle in a manner that would have been worthy of more discussion), and of the Word of God as described in the powerful text of Isaiah 55. This all leads to the New Testament sending by Jesus, which itself has precedent in the sending of the various persons of the Trinity. Thus I would suggest adding to Wright’s discussion the observation that sending, like God’s holiness and love, might be said to be essential to the character of God from eternity past. It is essential to who God is and not a secondary or incidental feature that depends and comes as a result of God’s creation of the world. Wright proceeds to discuss some “sending texts” in Acts and especially the importance ascribed to both the gathering of support to help the poor (as Paul does for Jerusalem), and the support and reception of mission workers in the third epistle of John.
In the chapter on the public square, Wright emphasizes the role of having a prophetic voice in the world. He uses Joseph, Daniel, and Esther as examples of those who preserved their integrity while working as much as possible for the government, a rulership that was not composed of God’s people. We pray and seek the welfare of the world of which we are a part (as Jeremiah 29 exhorts) and yet we realize that this leads to suffering. That suffering, according to Wright, is itself “participation in the suffering of God in mission.” This is not unlike the participation that 1 Peter 4:13 commends.
Finally, Wright calls us to be a people who praise and pray. Our chief purpose is not mission. Instead, its purpose is to glorify God through the praise and prayer that itself serves to draw others to Jesus Christ. For Wright the role of mission in the evangelism of the word has priority but cannot be separated from the larger mission of serving the needs of our world. The importance of mission is no less than when Christ first pronounced the words of the Great Commission.
Wright has written an important work in integrating Old and New Testament theology at the crucial point of where it engages with the world in evangelism and, more generally, mission. In particular, his appreciation of the Old Testament goes a long way toward appropriating its message for the Church in a new century.
Richard S. Hess, Ph.D.
Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages