The Mission of the Church, Pt. 9

I wrote yesterday about Abraham.  Today, I’ll say a bit about Israel and then state why their identity and vocation are important for thinking about the church’s mission.

After delivering Israel from Egypt in the Exodus, God gives his people a new identity and a particular vocation.  They will be a “kingdom of priests” and a “holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).

They are a kingdom of priests in that they were to bring God to the nations and the nations to God.  In direct continuity with Abraham’s vocation, they are the agent of God’s reclamation of the nations.

And they are a holy people, called to conduct themselves as a nation completely unlike any other earthly people.  The Scriptures draw out what this means in some surprising ways. 

Israel’s holiness included many social and political realities.  In contrast to the conduct of the nations, they were to ensure justice for the poor, the orphan, and the widow.  They were not to charge interest, but live with an open hand.

They were to care for the ground, including crop rotations and giving the land rest every seventh year. 

And they were to worship God appropriately, which involved both ritual worship and a life of worship all week long.  If they didn’t worship throughout the week with their politics and social relations, then God wasn’t interested in their ceremonial worship.

Further, nations typically build walls and establish borders for self-protection.  But since Israel was called to be a kingdom of priests, cutting themselves off from the nations wasn’t an option.

Think about what this would have involved.  They would have needed to develop relationships with the nations, going out and getting to know them, figuring out how to love and honor them and invite them into mutually beneficial relations.  Such behavioral patterns would be characteristic of the God of Israel and in continuity with God’s aims for humanity in creation.

But that’s risky and frightening—there’s no guarantee that will turn out well!  They’d be tempted to make treaties with the nations in order minimize the risk, but God forbade them from doing that.  No back-up plan.  God called them to get out there, bring God to the nations and the nations to God and God would be their protection.

Here’s my point: God’s call of Abraham and Israel was in total continuity with his purposes in creation.  He sought to create a people who would embody the life of God on earth, which meant cultivating internal patterns of shalom, seeking the flourishing of creation, and reaching out to others in self-sacrificial service and love. 

This kind of life as a nation constituted the worship of Israel’s God—the one true Creator God.

God called Israel to cultivate this mode of life and they were to train the nations to join them in doing the same.

In their book, DeYoung and Gilbert rightly note that Israel was given a privileged status among the nations of the world, but they downplay the fact that the identity of Israel was oriented toward God’s reclamation and redemption of the nations.

But that’s the point Scripture makes with Abraham and Israel.  The core identity and fundamental task of the people of God is the enjoyment of God’s love and the embodiment of that love to the nations of the world.

These cannot be separated without destroying both.  This vision forms the backdrop against which we must understand the mission of Jesus and that of his people in the world.

9 thoughts on “The Mission of the Church, Pt. 9

  1. John Thomson

    Tim

    Re

    ‘Further, nations typically build walls and establish borders for self-protection. But since Israel was called to be a kingdom of priests, cutting themselves off from the nations wasn’t an option.

    Think about what this would have involved. They would have needed to develop relationships with the nations, going out and getting to know them, figuring out how to love and honor them and invite them into mutually beneficial relations. Such behavioral patterns would be characteristic of the God of Israel and in continuity with God’s aims for humanity in creation.’

    and your crux point,

    ‘Here’s my point: God’s call of Abraham and Israel was in total continuity with his purposes in creation. He sought to create a people who would embody the life of God on earth, which meant cultivating internal patterns of shalom, seeking the flourishing of creation, and reaching out to others in self-sacrificial service and love. ‘.

    Do you think this does square with Israel’s mandate?

    1. Did nations build walls around them? Did they not rather build wals around their cities – as Israel did? Indeed, is not the Law itself a kind of ‘wall’ around Israel.

    2. How do we marry this thesis with calls to expel the nations inhabiting Israel (hardly ‘self-sacrificial service and love)? And calls to avoid relationships with the Philistines etc. Make no alliances with them. No intermarrying etc. Exiled in Babylon they are called to come out and be separate.

    I believe Israel ought to have been a witness to the nations. Her very redemption was such a witness and her calling was to witness to the nations through being a nation of law-keepers who proclaimed God’s deeds of deliverance and salvation to them. Their holiness (law-keeping) and their witness (proclaiming the praises of the God who delivered them) acting in tandem.

    I do agree that individual Israelites as they travelled in other countries should seek to show neighbourly kindness and love (law-keeping) while remaining distinct. And they ought to show compassion to ‘the stranger within their gate’…. and to slaves (remembering they were slaves). However, I find in the OT little encouragement for Israel to ‘develop relationships with the nations, going out and getting to know them, figuring out how to love and honor them and invite them into mutually beneficial relations.’ Indeed I find rather the opposite.

    1. timgombis

      You’re right, John, cities built walls, not necessarily nations. I’m trying to get at the larger patterns of behavior whereby nations look to further their own interests at the expense of other nations. Typical patterns of behavior sets nation against nation, developing patterns of exploitation, dominance, empire-building, etc. Israel was supposed to be different, working from a posture of invitation and weakness. And Israel was supposed indeed supposed to be distinct, always remaining a particular people, not blending into other nations. But their commission was to lead the nations in the worship of the one true God and the prophetic visions are of Israel walking arm in arm with their currently hostile neighbors up to Jerusalem to worship their God. They would have needed to be creative in carrying this out and were to work together as a nation to figure out how to do it. It simply never happened, of course, but this was their identity and calling as a nation.

      In addition to be the earthly agent of salvation among the nations, Israel was also called to be the earthly agent of God’s judgment in discreet cases. Apparently some nations had become so corrupted that their destruction would have furthered God’s purposes of eventual universal flourishing. But Israel’s identity as a kingdom of priests would have driven them to think through how to go about remaining distinct, cultivating a posture of openness and welcome with their neighbors, and training their neighbors in the worship of the one true God at the same time. It was their calling to manifest the character of God to the nations God longed to redeem.

  2. jonathan mcgill

    What did the authors say was their purpose in writing this book? I just finished reading their response to Trevin Wax’s questions and I couldn’t help but think their book sounded rather pointless, really.

    Are they trying to safeguard evangelism, or something? If they go out of their way to say good deeds and such are necessary and obligatory for the church, why go on and on about why it isn’t specifically the church’s mission? What is the point of forcing such a dichotomy? It doesn’t seem to me the NT authors are all that concerned about such a distinction. In fact, quite the opposite, we might say.

    1. John Thomson

      I guess the issue really is re justice whether as Christians our vocation is to change society or simply called to live godly lives in society meeting needs as we encounter them. For me at least this distinction (not easy to express and with grey areas, I admit) is the point of tension; I tend strongly to the latter. I suspect De Young etc do to.

      Tim

      Thanks for response. The dilemma remains as always how to be ‘in’ but not ‘of’. As you say this calls for creativity. It also calls for (in our case living this side of the cross) developing a deep love for Christ. I believe a great number of the decisions in ‘in but not of’ are much clearer to us the greater our love for Christ. Love for Christ will keep us from evil but will commit us to all good.

      You write well about cruciformity. The key (motivationally) to practising cruciformity however is an ever deepening devotion to Christ. The woman broke her alabaster box and others couldn’t understand it. Logically it made no sense. It was love for Christ as her Lord that made her do so. Love makes the eye single and provides clarity.

      1. timgombis

        It seems to me that there are a range of approaches to configuring Christian action in the world. There’s a triumphalist-aggressive posture that I think they definitely oppose. And there’s a more passive-escapist posture that it seems that they fall into. There are other approaches. Among the roles the church performs in the world is a prophetic role of calling out injustices, like John the Baptist railing against Herod. Further, churches ought to play redemptive roles of service in local cultures. And I’m not sure that “changing” cultures is what churches are to do. Very often the things churches do don’t have immediate or even long-term effects. But that doesn’t mean we don’t engage in them.

        Churches don’t operate by a logic of “effectiveness.”

        Regarding cruciformity, it is something that must be constantly embodied and practiced. When we cease giving ourselves and pouring ourselves out for one another and for the world as the church, we cease drawing upon and being sustained by the resurrection power of Christ. That’s one of my main concerns with their book. I think they run the risk of directing the church away from Christ’s very own sustaining power (not their intention, but the end result of their work).

    2. timgombis

      I think they’re trying to narrow the church’s mission out of a desire to see churches not waste their efforts. Or, perhaps with churches being told they need to be doing all sorts of things under the banner of “mission,” they’re trying to make some sense of things.

      But it seems to me that they make some inappropriate moves in pushing back against a tide that they sense, but don’t do a good job of articulating clearly. I don’t know what they say in response to T.W., but in the book they draw a strong distinction between being a disciple and doing good in the world. I don’t think they can sustain that from the NT.

  3. John Thomson

    Tim

    A genuine question. Not simply for controversy but to facilitate light on this subject (I hope).

    Should Christians in Nazi Germany/Iran/N Korea approach their Governments and protest at the atrocities – small or great – that the Government is perpetrating?

    1. timgombis

      Wow, that’s huge! I guess I’d want to discuss how the church should stand against outrageous and large-scale injustices. It seems to me that the question would be in what way does the cruciform people of God play a prophetic role in this situation?

  4. John Thomson

    It seems to me that the question would be in what way does the cruciform people of God play a prophetic role in this situation?’

    Yes, I’m happy with that. Well put. But it is the answering of it that begins to address the issue of parameters of gospel obligation re society. As far as I can gather the Nt church did not stand against these authorities, nor even preach against them, though they ministered to those who were the victims of such abuse. For me, the crux of the engagement issue lies here.

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