Although the word ‘missions’ is not a biblical term, we nevertheless see the concept in the Bible. The word ‘mission’ comes from a Latin word ‘missio’ which means ‘to send’ (Webster’s Dictionary). In biblical terms, it is the sending forth of men with God’s authority to proclaim God’s word to the world. If this is what missions entails, then Matthew 28:18–20 is not the beginning of the concept of missions; rather, our Lord merely crystallises the heart of God, in proclaiming and exalting his name, and the passion he has for sinful humanity. The idea of missions permeates the whole of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, as I hope to demonstrate. The Bible is united in its expression of the mind of God on the subject of missions. Since it is not possible to touch on every verse that brings out the idea of missions, we will do a general overview.

The beginning of time

In Genesis 1, we see the triune God creating man in his own image; male and female he created them. The first words spoken to Adam and his wife Eve, as God blessed them were, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth…” (Gen 1:28). God’s command was not only for humanity to maintain a relationship with him, but also to publish his name in all the earth as they increased. Therefore, in this way, God put honour upon mankind, so that he might find himself all the more strongly obliged to bring honour to his Maker.

God said the same words after the destruction of man and all living things by water, when only Noah, his sons, his wife, and his sons’ wives, were saved (Gen 7:23).  As they were beginning a new life, God repeated the command, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen 9:1). However, man did not resonate with the mind of God, as we see in Genesis 11:1, 2, “Now the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.” They were not concerned about the name of the Lord in the earth but their own. So we hear them say “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower, whose top is in the heaven; and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.”

This did not cheer God’s heart, that man must cluster and not fulfil his purpose of exalting his name. What did God do? He stepped in, in order that his will would be fulfilled. “Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city. Therefore its name is called Babel; because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth: and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth” (Gen 11:7–9). Man wanted to take his destiny into his own hands by his self-centred efforts, creating a human race that would displace and exclude the kingdom of God. What was the Lord to do? 

Abraham

The Lord God appeared to Abram and commanded him to leave his native country, to an unknown place, to establish a nation through which he was going to fulfil his redemptive plan and impact the whole earth: “And in you all families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3). All the nations will be blessed, that is, all the ethnic groups. The Lord’s redemptive promise to Abraham was to extend to all generations. The Lord reiterates it to Isaac as well. “And I will make your descendants multiply as the stars of heaven, and I will give to your descendants all these lands; and in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 26:4).

We see the same promise extended to Jacob as well. “Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread abroad to the west, and the east, to the north, and the south; and in you and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 28:14). How did the Lord bring about this promise? 

Moses and the Law

Many years later the Lord revealed himself to Moses and sent him to deliver Israel (Jacob’s descendants) from the bondage of slavery in Egypt, when, humanly speaking, all hope was gone. He hardened Pharaoh’s heart not only for Israel and Egypt but ultimately for the whole earth. “That I may show my power in you, and that my name may be declared in all the earth” (Ex 9:16). This, the Lord did when he brought Israel out of Egypt and gave the law to Moses. It was not only intended for Israel to follow the Lord and exalt his name but for all the nations as well. “Surely I have taught you statutes and judgments, just as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should act according to them in the land which you go to possess it… for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations” (Deut 4:5, 6). If they followed the law they would bring honour to the Lord. 

Historical Books

Joshua took over from Moses, and Israel crossed the Jordan River on dry ground. How did Joshua explain the Lord’s doings? “That all the people of the earth may know the hand of the LORD, that it is mighty, that you may fear the LORD your God forever” (Joshua 4:24). This was soon fulfilled in the way Rahab treated the spies and the reasons she gave in asking that her life be spared, “When we heard of it, our hearts melted and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Joshua 2:11).

Examples from two famous kings of Israel will show that Israel, as the descendants of Jacob, remained conscious of their responsibility to honour the Lord. David’s prayer for victory over the Philistines and Goliath was for the Lord’s name to be exalted right to the ends of the earth. “This day the LORD will deliver you into my hand; and I will strike you and take your head from you. And this day I will give the carcasses of the camp of the Philistines to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth; that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel” (1 Sam 17:46).

Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the Temple was that God should answer prayer so that he is reverenced by all peoples, “that all people of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel” (1 Kings 8:41–43; 2 Chronicles 6:32, 33). The Lord endowed Solomon with extraordinary wisdom for this same purpose. ‘Now all the earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put in his heart” (1 Kings 10:24). As a result of Solomon’s God-given wisdom, Queen Sheba blessed the Lord (1 Kings 10:9).

The Psalms

The psalmist in his worship of God recounted his works that he may be known and be exalted by the nations. “Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth…. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing. Then they said among the nations, The LORD has done great things for them” (Psalm 46:10; 22:27; 9:20; 57:9; 126:2). It is strikingly vivid that the psalmist’s repeated feature in his approbation of God’s greatness, power and faithfulness, was to exalt and bless his name among the nations. It was calculated to cause the “families of the nations” to embrace God, and worship and fear him. 

The Prophets

The Lord called the prophets “to fulfil specific commissions both to their fellow Israelites and to the Gentile race” (Shield, p.23). Isaiah shows us that the purposes of proclaiming God’s works are to make him known. “Declare His deeds among the people” (12:4), “for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:9), “as a light to the Gentiles” (Isaiah 42:6; cf 66:18, 2:2), etc.

Jeremiah also declared God’s purpose for his life and the end for which he was called by the Lord as a prophet. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you. Before you were born I sanctified you, I ordained you a prophet unto the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5, cf 3:17, 16:21).

Ezekiel the prophet showed clearly why the Lord God intended to restore his people to himself. “I do not do this for your sake, O house of Israel, but for my holy name’s sake, which you have profaned among the nations wherever you went” (Ezekiel 36:22–33, cf. 5:5–8).

Daniel was cast into the den of lions by the king because of his trust in God. He was delivered and by this the king was convinced that Daniel’s God was the only true God and made a law that he alone was to be worshipped in keeping with God’s will. “I [Darius] make a decree that in every dominion of my kingdom men must tremble and fear before the God of Daniel” (Daniel 6:26). So also Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were saved in the “seven times hotter than usual” furnace so as to promote God’s name. “Therefore I [Nebuchadnezzar] make a decree that every people, nation, and language, which speak anything amiss against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, shall be cut in pieces…because there is no other God that can deliver like this’ (Daniel 3:19, 29).

The responsibility to proclaim the name of the Lord began to be clear as one looked at the messages of the prophets and their calling. Jonah was sent to a heathen city to preach the gospel. “Arise, go to Nineveh… Preach to it the message I tell you” (Jonah 3:2). In Habakkuk 2:14, we read, “… for the earth will be filled with God’s knowledge.” Zephaniah proclaimed that God would be worshipped by the nations everywhere (Zephaniah 2:11, 3:9, 10). We see the same theme in the books of the prophets Zechariah and Haggai concerning God’s mission to the nations. “And many nations shall be joined to the LORD in that day” (Zechariah 2:11; 8:20–23; Haggai 2:7).

We see God’s mission to the nations running through the Old Testament to the very last book of the prophets. Malachi 1:11 clearly states, “For from the rising of the sun, even to its going down, My name shall be great among the Gentiles; and in every place incense shall be offered to My name, And a pure offering; For my name shall be great among the nations, says the LORD of hosts.”

Clearly the Lord’s desire was that his name be proclaimed not just in Israel, but among the nations (Gentiles) as well. So he sent the prophets to do so.

The Gospels

In the Gospels we meet the supreme missionary in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ and we feel his heart for the lost. The Lord Jesus Christ passed on the same mission to the apostles, a mission that must continue to the end of the world. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt 28:18–20; cf. John17:18; 20:21). We see that Christ will gather people from everywhere into one church. “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations?’” (Mark 11:17). Therefore, the gospel is to be preached to the ends of the earth. “That repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke. 24:47; cf. John 12:32). 

The Acts of the Apostles

In the book of the Acts, the apostles followed the instructions of our Lord (Acts 1:4–8), and those who were dispersed by persecution carried with them God’s mission. “Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word” (Acts 8:4). The first official apostolic missionaries to be set apart by a church for the work of missions were Paul and Barnabas. “Now separate to me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them. Then having fasted and prayed and laid hands on them, they sent them away” (Acts 13:2, 3). Henceforth Paul becomes prominent as God was pleased to use him to reach out to the Gentile world (Acts 13:1–14, and 18:23–21:14).

The Epistles (of Paul)

A glance at the epistles will quickly reveal that missions was at the heart of the apostle Paul. He made every effort to win the nations to Christ. His was a mission to preach to all peoples. So he was up and about, from place to place, for the cause of the elect. “I have become all things to all men that I might by all means save some,” he said (1 Cor. 9:19–23; cf Rom 1:13–15; 10:15, 16). God reconciles the world to himself through the gospel as it is proclaimed to every nation. “And by him to reconcile all things to himself; by him whether things on earth, or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of his cross” (Col 1:20; 2 Cor 5:18, 19). Clearly, Paul was concerned with the progress of the gospel to the ends of the earth. (1 Thess1:5, 2:1, 2; 2 Tim 4: 17; Titus 1:1–3; Phil 1:3–6). 

The Apocalypse

In the book of the Revelation, John saw the end of God’s purpose in missions as he drew out of all nations a people to worship him through all eternity. “After these things I looked, and, behold a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palms in their hands, and crying with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Rev 7:9, 10). Kabwe Kabwe makes this observation, “It is important to connect what is happening in Revelation with what God started in Genesis 12 in the life of Abraham. There will be a representative from every nation, tribe, people, and language bowing and worshipping at his feet. Heaven is multi-cultural!” (Unpublished lecture notes, p.4). 

Conclusion

It is very clear from our survey that the God of the Bible is a missionary God. The church has a biblical mandate to carry out the Great Commission, and it is to be patterned after the mind of the Lord. There is overwhelming evidence in the Bible that not to be concerned about missions is a gross sin. Furthermore, we must always be conscious of the fact that if missions is God’s idea, then it should never be done our way. It must be done God’s way. Our motto should be missio Dei, that is, God’s mission. Our comfort as we do missions is the ever abiding presence of God, “‘…and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’ Amen” (Matt 28:20).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bosch, D.J (1980) Witness to the World. Pretoria: Marshall, Morgan and Scott

Kabwe, K (2008) Church and Missions. Ndola: Copperbelt Ministerial College, Unpublished lectures.

Shields, N. (1998) Into All The World—What the Bible Teachers about Mission. Bryntririon: Bryntririon Press

Stott, J. (1975) Christian Mission in the Modern World. Illinois: IVP