Note: This is an excerpt from the author’s book Exiles on Mission: How Christians Can Thrive in a Post-Christian World. Paul Williams will be a featured speaker at Karam Forum 2021, taking place in Los Angeles on Jan. 5-6, alongside Mark Labberton, Darrell Bock and many more.
Much of the contemporary church’s loss of confidence arises because we are confused about our purpose in the world and unsure of the authority God has given us. Our use of the word “mission” to refer to a certain group of activities contributes to our confusion. What these activities are may vary depending on which particular Christian group we are part of, but typically the core activities involve evangelism, church planting, and relief activities to alleviate poverty, largely in developing countries. This reduction of the meaning of “mission” to a particular range of activities suffers from the same kind of problems as the similar reduction in the meaning of the word “vocation” discussed in chapter 6: it tends toward an activism that is disconnected from the very intimate personal relationship with God that ought to characterize our lives (and from which we gain confidence in our authority as believers). Further, it distorts our reading of Scripture in ways that also narrow the scope of the gospel (and thereby confuse us about what mission is for). So when we talk about mission, we must begin by asking, “Whose mission?” and “To what end?” before fixating on particular activities…
All activity, including whatever Christians call mission, finds its source and origin in the purpose and intention of God. This does not mean that everything that happens is mission. It does mean that a minimal criterion for a Christian understanding of mission is that the activity in question is in fact aligned with God’s purpose and intent and submitted to God’s authority. What follows immediately is that we need to be as clear as possible in understanding both what God’s purpose and intentions are and how, precisely, we are authorized by God to carry out those intentions…
First, God did not create the world or human beings because he needed to. This point is made explicitly by Paul in Acts 17:24–25, but it is also apparent in the Genesis account of creation. The first few chapters of Genesis are in dialogue with the contemporary ancient Near Eastern cosmologies that would have competed for the hearts and minds of God’s people, particularly during the period after the exodus from Egypt. In most of these cosmologies, humanity was created as an afterthought, to supply the gods with food, but in the Genesis account humanity is the pinnacle of creation and God supplies a whole garden of food for them. The Genesis account thus deliberately counters the idea that human beings exist to meet God’s needs and instead presents God as meeting human needs (purposeful work, a place to live, food to eat, companionship and community, and [postfall] clothes to wear).
Second, God’s purpose for human beings is revealed in Genesis as one in which they have a place of great honor and dignity in the created order. In the competing cosmologies of the ancient Near East, kings were often understood as a god’s representative on the earth. Only those kings bore the image of the god. An idol would be placed in a pagan temple and was believed to be representative of the god being worshiped and, indeed, to be somehow animated by that god. In similar fashion, some of the pagan kings were understood to be the representative of the god and animated by the spirit of the god. What the Genesis account does with this cultural background is quite remarkable. First, the garden of Eden is depicted as “an archetypal sanctuary, prefiguring the later tabernacle and temples.” Humanity is placed in this temple-garden, each is created in the image of God, each is animated by God’s Spirit, and each is given authority to rule. Work is the way that this rule is activated, and the words for work in Genesis 2 – variously translated as “cultivate” (GNT) or “dress” (KJV) and “keep” (ESV), “guard” (GNT), or “care” (NIV) for the earth – are the very same Hebrew words used later of the priestly work in the tabernacle. Each human being is then commissioned to be fruitful, to multiply, and to extend the worshipful work of cultivating and keeping the earth into the rest of creation. Genesis thus radically democratizes an exalted view of human dignity and portrays the whole of creation as a temple in which humanity honors and serves God by cultivating (drawing out its bounty) and caring (protecting its integrity) in cooperation with one another and with God himself. God’s intent is that human beings govern the earth as his representatives.
Third, the Genesis account reveals the delight of God in his creation. He declares the created world to be “good” in its own right, prior to the account of the creation of human beings, and declares the whole creation including humanity to be “very good.” The depiction of God as a creator who delights in the work of his hands likens God to an artist creating something delightful out of his imagination. This sense of delight is reinforced in Proverbs 8, in which personified wisdom speaks of the delight and rejoicing involved in the act of creation and its result…
We learn a lot about a person’s intentions by seeing what happens when things go wrong…God’s questions to [Adam and Eve after the fall] are revealing: “Where are you?” “Why are you hiding?”“What is this you have done?” (Genesis 3:9, 13). These are deeply relational questions,so we are not surprised when, a few chapters later, the narrator tellsus that God’s “heart was deeply troubled” (Genesis 6:6) over the disobedienceof humanity and the wickedness, violence, and corruption of creation thatfollowed (Genesis 6:5-6, 11-12)…God neither destroys his creation when it falls nor wavers in his purpose. His care, commissioning, and delight continue. He restores, saves, and renews. In a world that has become alienated and fragmented as a result of the fall, his purpose is “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Ephesians 1:10).
The Purpose behind God’s Purposes
We might still ask why. Why does God do all this? Although the story has hinted at an answer, we need to keep reading to the end for it to be spelled out.
The answer is love. Jesus famously told Nicodemus that “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son so that every one who believes in him shall not be lost, but should have eternal life” (John 3:16, J. B. Phillips). We get a further amazing glimpse into God’s heart intentions in the prayer of Jesus recorded in John 17:21-23: “Just as you, Father, live in me and I live in you, I am asking that [all those who believe in me] may live in us, that the world may believe that you did send me. I have given them the honor that you gave me, that they may be one, as we are one – I in them and you in me, that they may grow complete into one, so that the world may realize that you sent me and have loved them as you loved me” (J. B. Phillips, emphasis added).
The final chapters of the Bible reveal what God intends in the future. There is a new heaven and a new earth. The new Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth. The announcement from God’s throne describes this scene: “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them” (Revelation 21:3). The verses that follow describe a restored and developed Eden, a garden-city. Humanity’s exile is over, and there is access to the tree of life. There is no more death or pain, but there is work and service. There are still nations, but they are healed; there is still rulership, but it is God-honoring. All human culture, the glory and honor of the nations—the product of good work—has been reconciled and reoriented toward God and is offered as worship before his throne (Revelation 21:24-26). And God is present in a completely unmediated way. We will see him face-to-face.
Scripture reveals God as one who created an amazing cosmos and a beautiful world so that he could share both it and his life with human beings. The picture of God’s intimate presence among his people in the garden-city of Jerusalem at the end of the Bible is a fulfillment of what God intended when he walked with Adam and Eve in the garden. Moreover, this is not simply a reset. Amazingly, all the things that God did to rescue humanity from the effects of our own disobedience—the redemptive history of Israel and the church—also find a place in this future. The history of fallen humanity is not discarded but is purified and honored in the basic architecture of the city (see Rev. 21:9–27).
From Paul Williams, Exiles on Mission: How Christians Can Thrive in a Post-Christian World, Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group, copyright 2020, used by permission.