Christopher J. H. Wright. The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission. Biblical Theology for Life. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010. 287 pp. $29.99.
In The Mission of God’s People, Christopher Wright seeks to bring into focus two important questions for the people of God today: “Who are we” and “what are we here for?” From beginning to end Wright makes a strong biblical case that the mission of God’s people finds its roots long before the day of Pentecost in Acts 2. Wright believes that a theology of mission for the modern-day church must begin with the Scriptures the Apostles read: the Old Testament. Concerning modern-day mission theology, Wright believes that tragically, “there is often not only a profound ignorance of great vistas of biblical revelation, but even impatience with the prolonged effort that is needed to soak ourselves in these texts until our whole thinking and behavior are shaped by the story they tell. . . . The attitude of some is that all you need is the Great Commission and the power of the Holy Spirit. Bible teaching or biblical theology will only serve to delay you in the urgent task” (39).
A truly biblical theology of mission finds its genesis all the way back at creation and the subsequent call of Abraham. “In the call of Abraham God set in motion a historical dynamic that would ultimately not only deal with the problem of human sin but also heal the dividedness of the nations” (41). The first Great Commission, says Wright, was Abraham’s commission to “Go . . . [and] be a blessing . . . and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen 12:1–3). Wright shows from the Scriptures that when God entered into a covenant with Abraham, he had in view the rest of the nations as well. The church of Christ, therefore, is nothing less than the multi-national fulfillment of the hope of Israel—that all nations will be blessed through the people of Abraham.
The people of God are those who are sent to “be a blessing” (Gen 12:2) and not simply to share a message of blessing. “When God set about his great project of world redemption in the wake of Genesis 12, he chose to do so not by whisking individuals off up to heaven, but by calling into existence a community of blessing” (73). When the people of Israel became a great nation (numerically) in Egypt God delivered them from their oppression in order for them to fulfill the next part of Abraham’s Great Commission: to be a blessing. The law, then, can be seen as God’s method of separating his people from the rest. The law was not God’s way of saving Israel (they had already been saved out of Egypt before the law came) but rather God’s way of making the saved into a blessing to the nations. A nation that behaved in the same oppressive, immoral, and ungodly ways as the surrounding nations could never be called a blessing to the nations. More of the same did no one any good. If Israel was to be a blessing they would need to keep the requirements of the law. They would need to evolve to become distinct from the nations. Likewise, a divided, fighting, unjust, and money-hungry church has nothing of worth to say to a divided, fighting, unjust, and money-hungry world. Or, in the words of Wright, “a church that is bad news in such ways has no good news to share. Or at least, it has, but its words are drowned out by its life” (95).
This is perhaps Wright’s greatest contribution to a modern biblical understanding of the mission of God’s people: that there is no biblical mission without biblical ethics. It is not enough to go and teach the gospel of Jesus in our communities through gospel meetings or street preaching for example. Such teaching (and baptizing) must necessarily be followed by an equally diligent endeavor to “make disciples.” For many churches today, their greatest battle in being God’s Abrahamic community is not the hard or unreceptive soils of their surroundings. We cannot revert to easy finger-pointing at our communities to make us feel better about our church condition. No, the finger must be pointed to ourselves: the only people we really have control over. The exodus story must become a model of behavior for the people of God. “Israel [and the church today] must live out the same qualities that motivated YHWH to act as their divine goel [kinsman-redeemer, family guardian]. Part of the mission of God’s redeemed people is to reflect the character of their redeemer in the way they behave to others. And that means especially the chief requirements of any goel: costly compassion, commitment to justice, caring generosity, redemptively effective action” (106–7).
Wright also believes that the call to be a blessing has strong implications in the workplace and requires a strong biblical theology of work. Work is inherently good and absolutely a part of the mission of God’s people. We cannot be satisfied with a theology of work that believes the only noble work is the work of evangelism, for evangelism becomes mere chatter if it is not communicated by communities of people who live redemptively.
Wright comes at The Mission of God’s People from a clearly Evangelical-Christian worldview. As an example, Wright frequently draws applications relevant to Evangelical, western Christians and may unintentionally lose non-Evangelical readers. On a couple of occasions he surfaces the Church’s tendency to reduce Christianity to evangelism alone: “There was mission beyond evangelism . . .” (86) and “What is our goal? Where is our heart? Are we obsessed with making converts only . . . ?” (95). The Mission of God’s People could be better titled An Evangelical-Christian Understanding of The Mission of God’s People.
In another instance Wright draws out the modern church’s ethical failures: “A divided, split and fighting church has nothing to say or to give to a divided, broken and violent world. An immoral church has nothing to say to an immoral world. A church riddled with corruption, caste discrimination and other forms of social, ethnic, or gender oppression has nothing to say to the world where such things are rampant . . .” (94–95). Although strongly applicable to the subject of the mission of God’s people, the reader would do well to understand Wright’s intended audience: the modern, Evangelical, Western Christian.
Brunswick Church of Christ
North Brunswick, New Jersey, USA