Paul & The Mission of God

As I mentioned the other day, readers of Romans may be tempted to race through the letter introduction in an effort to get to the really good stuff.  After all, it’s just a bunch of preliminary material to get out of the way before diving into the deep theology, right? 

Resist that temptation!  The introduction is indeed important and likely contains a précis of the entire letter, if not other notes Paul considers vital to his communication with the Roman church.

In Romans 1:5, Paul situates his apostleship in direct continuity with the mission of God to redeem the nations for the glory of his name.

through [Jesus Christ our Lord] we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the gentiles for his name’s sake, among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:5-6).

This statement about his apostleship is not just a throwaway line for Paul.  He repeats this idea in Rom. 16:26, so it functions as a frame for the entire letter.

[my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ] has been made known to all the nations, unto the obedience of faith; to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be the glory forever. Amen (Rom. 16:25-27).

Paul’s mission to bring about the obedience of faith among the nations is in direct continuity with God’s aim to redeem the nations since the call of Abraham.

God’s original intention according to Genesis 1-2 was for humanity to spread out and fill the entire creation.  Humanity was to fill a role called “the image of God.”  This meant that humans were to represent the life and character of the Creator God on earth.  They were to subdue creation on God’s behalf, bringing about its flourishing and overseeing the spread of shalom throughout the whole earth.

And they were to relate to one another in imitation of God’s own intra-Trinitarian relations.  Just as Father, Son, and Spirit form an eternal community of mutual delight, humans were to delight in one another and to enjoy being delighted in by one another.

God’s intentions are subverted as humanity becomes “in the image” of creation, doing the bidding of the serpent rather than subduing it in obedience to God’s command.  The unfolding story of Genesis 3-11 is the pervasive spread of Sin and Death and the subsequent degradation of humanity.

God makes his initial move to begin reclaiming creation and humanity by calling Abraham.  Abraham is chosen to be blessed by God and to be the agent whereby all the nations of the earth will be blessed (Gen. 12:3).

God later calls Israel out of Egypt and appoints them as a “light to the nations” and a “kingdom of priests.”  Their identity as God’s elect includes a vocation to teach the nations to worship the one true God, the God of Israel.  God’s intention in calling Israel was to restore and reclaim the nations of the earth so that the whole earth was filled with the knowledge of God.

Israel failed, however, imagining that God had chosen them instead of the nations.  They cut themselves off from the nations, refusing their vocation and compromising their identity as God’s chosen.

Despite Israel’s failure, God is still committed to his mission—both to restore the nations and to restore Israel.  God sends Jesus to call Israel to renewed faithfulness to its identity and mission to be a light to the nations.

The mission of God throughout Scripture shapes the identity and vocation of the church—God’s chosen people through whom God is seeking to restore the nations.

This mission also shapes Paul’s apostleship.  He is an agent of God’s mission to reclaim the nations of the earth so that the worship of the one true God will be universal.

And it is vital to this mission that there be a flourishing community in Rome of followers of Jesus made up of Jew and gentile who regard each other as siblings in God’s global family in Christ.

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8 responses to “Paul & The Mission of God

  • Justin Dodson

    Love this! I am reading a lot on theological education and how to move it from an information dump with a touch of mission, to an entire shift that moves theology in a missional framework. And I read this quote the other day,

    “Harvie Conn stated, Missiology seeks to irritate the Herman Ridderboses of this world who can write a 586 page outline to the theology of Paul and not even include the mission of the church in any of its 80 separate headings. It will aim for unrest in a church history department, which divides the history of missions from the history of the church or teaches as if the world were still flat. It will rebel against a practical theology department which offers only domesticated information for the church ‘at home’ in white suburbia. And while all this is going on, it will continue to ask equally embarrassing questions of itself as well.”

    So thanks for not doing this and using this post to show correct ways of integrating the theoretical and the practical by going between the two with a missional perspective!

  • S Wu

    Tim, this is great stuff. I think Rom 8:29 (the Spirit-empowered Christ-community being conformed to the image of the Son) is particularly useful here. It takes us back to the creation narrative in Genesis.

    I am involved in theological education, and on several occasions I have proposed that we can read Romans through the OT stories, namely, creation, Adam, Abraham, Exodus and the giving of the Torah, Israel and her exile, with the Prophets’ rebukes and warnings interwoven into those stories. Of course at the centre is the story of Christ – his suffering, death and resurrection – as well as the story of the Spirit-indwelt eschatological Christ-community, in anticipation of the final renewal of the entire creation.

    It is not hard at all to find verbal and thematic links to these stories in Romans.

    I tend to think that the Christ-community today (ie. us) is called to enact the divine drama through our participation in Christ, just as he identified with frail humanity as the atoning sacrifice on the Roman cross. The su-compounds in Romans 6 and 8 are particularly helpful here in pointing us to this.

    Let us follow the way of the crucified Christ and risen Lord.

    • timgombis

      I totally agree, S.! Paul re-tells and re-works those stories in Romans, since he sees these themes in the larger story up and running in the Roman situation. Quite instructive for pastoral vision today.

  • Jon Mcgill

    “God’s intention in calling Israel was to restore and reclaim the nations of the earth so that the whole earth was filled with the knowledge of God.
    Israel failed, however, imagining that God had chosen them instead of the nations.”

    I agree that Israel was chosen by God for a specific vocation, but when put like this it sounds very similar to the old Dispensational plan ‘A’ (Israel) versus plan ‘B’ (Jesus). I’m pretty sure this is not what you’re saying, but I’m not terribly sure why it isn’t. Is there a better way of explaining this?

    • timgombis

      Gadzooks, no!

      Not really, Jon, at least I hope not! Seems that a dispy notion would be that the story-line was inevitable. So, plan A: Israel; plan B: Jesus.

      I’m just trying to represent the way the story actually does unfold. Israel fails, though their failure was in no sense inevitable. That’s just the storyline as it does unfold.

  • Elsewhere (07.29.2011) | Near Emmaus

    [...] – Tim Gombis takes a look at Paul and the mission of God. [...]

  • Brian

    This dovetails with the book I just read, “Mission in the Old Testatment” by Walter C. Kaiser.

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