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Before our Lord Jesus ascended into heaven, He gave His Apostles the Great Commission: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18–20). This is arguably the most important text in all Scripture for understanding the church’s responsibility in missions and church planting. We must be careful, however, not to overlook the first part of this divine mandate. The Great Commission does not begin with the command “Go.”

Instead, it begins with an awe-inspiring announcement that Christ possesses all authority in heaven and on earth. To put it in grammatical terms, Christ stated an indicative before He issued an imperative. The church’s mission of going into the world, preaching the gospel, planting churches, and making disciples of Jesus is grounded in what God has already accomplished in His mission.

God is the original missionary. From the beginning, His mission was to create the world and redeem a people for Himself who would glorify and enjoy Him forever. In one sense, the whole Bible is a mission document. It reveals how the Father sent the Son to accomplish redemption for the elect, and how the Son sent the Spirit to call the elect from every tongue, nation, and tribe into His kingdom, equipping them for a life of worship and service to the glory of God.

god’s mission from eternity

R.B. Kuiper said, “Evangelism has its roots in eternity.” We can say the same about church planting. The underlying reason that we plant churches is that before the creation of the world, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit established a covenant with one another to redeem the elect and bring them to glory. Reformed theologians call this the covenant of redemption. In this covenant, the Father gave to the Son those whom He chose to save (John 6:37; 10:29; Eph. 1:4–6; 2 Tim. 1:9) and appointed Him to accomplish their salvation through His obedient life, atoning death, and glorious resurrection (John 5:30, 36, 43; 10:18; Rom. 5:12–19). He also promised the Son a reward upon the completion of His work (Pss. 40:6–8; 110; Isa. 53; Heb. 1:1–13; 5:5–6). The Son accepted the Father’s gift and freely consented to be our Mediator, who as the incarnate Savior would submit to the Father’s will (Luke 22:42; John 4:34; 6:38).

This is why during His earthly ministry, Jesus often spoke of a commission given to Him by the Father. For example, the night before He was crucified, Jesus prayed:

“Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. . . . I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.” (John 17:1–2, 4–5)

Throughout this prayer, Jesus refers to those whom the Father “gave” to Him (that is, the elect in Christ) at least seven times (17:2, 6, 9, 10, 11, 24). His mission was to save them through His obedience to the will of the Father. The next day, as He hung on the cross and suffered the wrath of God for the sins of those whom the Father had given to Him, His last words were “It is finished” (19:30). What was finished? The work that the Father had given Him to do. These comments reveal a mutual predetermined plan between the Father and the Son made in eternity past.

The covenant of redemption is God’s mission planned before the creation of the world by the members of the Trinity. It is the basis and driving purpose of all redemptive history.

The Holy Spirit also had a role in the covenant of redemption. As a member of the triune Godhead, the Holy Spirit always acts in concert with the Father and the Son, and the Father and Son never act apart from the Spirit. His responsibility was to apply the benefits earned by the Son to the elect and unite them with the Son forever (Eph. 1:13–14; see also John 14:26; 15:26; 16:7). Moreover, the Scriptures reveal that the Spirit caused the Son to assume a real human nature by the Virgin Mary (Matt. 1:18; Luke 1:35; 2:40). It was through the Spirit that Christ offered Himself to the Father (Heb. 9:14). And it was the Spirit who caused Christ to be raised from the dead (Rom. 8:11). Without the Spirit’s fulfilling these critical tasks, the covenant of redemption would never have been accomplished.

The covenant of redemption is God’s mission planned before the creation of the world by the members of the Trinity. It is the basis and driving purpose of all redemptive history. Without it, there would be no election, no incarnation of the Son, no cross, no resurrection, no forgiveness of sins, no hope of eternal life, and no need to plant churches.

god’s mission in the old testament

God’s mission to redeem His elect through Christ is progressively revealed in the Old Testament. When God exiled Adam and Eve from the garden because of their rebellion, He also promised that He would send a champion to crush the serpent’s head, providing a new and living way to the Tree of Life (Gen. 3). He would bring salvation to the ends of the earth through the seed of the woman. We get a fuller picture of this mission in the unfolding drama of redemptive history. God made His gracious covenant with Abraham, promising him a people and a land (chs. 12; 15; 17). He promised to use Abraham to bring salvation to people throughout the world: “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (12:3; see also 22:18). Many generations later, fulfilling His covenant promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Lord graciously delivered the Israelites out of Egypt (Ex. 6:2–8; 12:51). Out of all peoples, God made them His treasured possession, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (19:5–6). God’s mission to redeem His elect seemed for a time to become far narrower with the nation of Israel, as Moses reminded them: “Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. Yet the Lord set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day” (Deut. 10:14–15). Still, God called Israel to share His love with strangers. In the same passage, He said: “He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (vv. 18–19). This love of God for sojourners was demonstrated by the inclusion of Rahab and her Canaanite family within the covenant people of God (Josh. 6:22–25) and in the inclusion of Ruth the Moabite (Ruth 1:16; 4:13–17), both women being ancestors of Jesus (Matt. 1:5).

These promises took on greater clarity in God’s covenant with King David, to whom He said, “I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom” (2 Sam. 7:12). The nations would bow down to this royal Son of God or else be broken with a rod of iron and dashed into pieces through His just judgment (Ps. 2:9). In becoming the possession of this Davidic King through the redemptive grace of God, however, the nations would be blessed in Him (Ps. 72:17), for He would be their Savior, “a covenant for the people, a light for the nations” (Isa. 42:6). To Christ, God the Father says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa. 49:6). Throughout the Old Testament, the people of God looked forward to the promised Messiah, who would vanquish Satan and usher in God’s glorious kingdom.

god’s mission in the new testament

In the fullness of time, God the Father sent His eternal Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to live, die, and rise again to ransom a people “from every tribe and language and people and nation.” He has made them “a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Rev. 5:9–10). Throughout redemptive history, God repeatedly promised to provide a Savior, and He fulfilled these promises in the person and work of Christ. He is the last Adam, the offspring of Abraham, the true Israel, the heir of David’s throne, and the Messiah proclaimed by the prophets. Having accomplished His mission, Christ has been awarded all authority in heaven and on earth. He has authority over all flesh to give eternal life to all whom the Father gave to Him (John 17:2). He will build His church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18).

The ordinary ministry of Word and sacrament are the means that God uses to build His church. Church planting, therefore, is an essential component of the mission of God. This becomes clear when we consider how the Apostles sought to fulfill the Great Commission. After receiving the power of the Spirit (Acts 2:1–4), they preached the gospel (vv. 14–36), baptized people (vv. 37–41), and began meeting weekly with those who “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (v. 42). Thus, the first new covenant church was planted. The entire book of Acts goes on to describe how this pattern of planting churches continued, following Jesus’ prophecy that the Apostles would be His witnesses “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (1:8). The Apostles went throughout the world preaching the gospel, baptizing believers and their households, and planting churches, where they appointed elders to oversee the new disciples (14:21–23; Titus 1:5).

god’s mission today

Until the end of the age, Christ continues to advance His mission and build His church from peoples all over the globe. The old covenant confined God’s kingdom to one particular nation and language, but the new covenant expands Israel’s borders to the ends of the earth, making one new man between believing Jews and gentiles (Eph. 2:14). The gospel is for people of every race, tribe, and nationality. Christians are black, white, Asian, Hispanic, and more because of God’s promise to Abraham that he would be a light to the nations. The Christian faith is not a northern European faith or a Semitic faith but an international, global faith in which “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). In a world that is typically segregated by our geographical boundaries, cultural identities, and consumer preferences, the mission of God announced in the gospel of Jesus Christ creates a multiethnic community that is “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Peter 2:9).

This should encourage us tremendously as we seek to engage in mission work and plant churches on domestic and foreign soil. God the Father has sent the Son, and the Son, having accomplished the work that the Father gave Him to do, has ascended into heaven and has sent the Spirit upon His church, and the Spirit in turn sends the church throughout the world. In one sense, the church’s mission is simply to claim the prize that the Lord Jesus has already won. The Spirit sends us to plant and water in the field that belongs to Christ, and Christ will ensure the increase (1 Cor. 3:6), for all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Him.

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From the May 2024 Issue
May 2024 Issue