The God of the Bible is a sending God – a Missionary God, as some have said, with Jesus as the first Missionary. Missiologists have coined a fancy phrase to describe this idea: missio Dei—the mission of God.
In reading John 17 this morning for worship, this idea hit home with me as I noticed a phrase that Jesus used four times in the chapter. He repeatedly notes how it was His Father who “sent Me” (vv. 18, 21, 23, 25). In fact, it was one of His great missions, for which He prays in John 17 – that the world would know that God sent Him.
The word for “sent” in these verses is the Greek word apostello—from which the word “apostle” comes. An apostle is “one who is sent.” This is precisely what a missionary is (“missionary” is the Latinized form of the Greek “apostle”): it is someone who is sent out for a specific purpose—in this case, to reveal the heart of God.
John 17 is not an isolated chapter when it comes to this refrain, however. In fact, establishing the reality of Christ’s sentness-of-God is one of John’s major themes. In just 21 chapters, Jesus declares this idea 34 times. For whatever reason, Jesus wants to make it abundantly clear that He was sent by God—both to establish the legitimacy of His mission and, no doubt, to remind people of His mission (and perhaps to reveal the dynamics of His relationship with His Father?).
All this speaks, of course, to God’s soteriological attitude: He’s a God who takes the initiative and sends out on mission, rather than waiting for those who need to be rescued to come to Him. Mission and salvation are initiated by God—which is what we see right in the beginning of the Bible, in Genesis 3, when God comes searching for Adam and Eve after they’ve sinned and are enveloped by guilt and shame. He doesn’t wait for them to approach Him.
Thus, the incarnation—of God taking on flesh, moving into the neighborhood, pursuing lost humanity.
But here’s where it gets practical: Jesus not only employs the word apostello repeatedly in John to describe the posture He has toward humanity, He also uses it repeatedly when explaining what our posture is to be toward humanity. Turning to the disciples—who would become the apostles, “the sent ones”—before His ascension, He declares: “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you” (20:21).
God still sends! Just as Jesus was sent to a hurting and lost world, so we are sent to a hurting and lost world. And just as Jesus didn’t wait for us to come to Him, so we are not to wait for others to come to us. This is what it means to be “missional.” It means we, as a church, take on the same posture that God takes toward us. We are “sent out” to reach others. We live life always “on mission,” as “sent ones.” And in so doing, we give an accurate picture of the gospel.
We don’t put on fancy programs in our buildings and wait for people to walk through our doors. “As the Father sent Jesus, so He sends us”—out to a lost world that doesn’t have enough strength or even desire to come to us, stepping into an unknown and confusing religious world featuring a language they don’t speak.
To be “sent” means we leave the place of comfort and predictability and step into the land of uncertainty and vulnerability, just as Jesus did, for the sake of revealing the God who sends.
And this becomes the modus operandi of the church. In Alan Hirsch’s words, “The church’s true and authentic organizing principle is the mission of God revealed in Jesus. When the church is in mission [sentness], it is the true church. The church itself is not only a product of that mission but is obligated and destined to extend it by whatever means possible” (The Forgotten Ways, p. 88). Indeed, as Hirsch and others have noted, it is not accurate to say that the church has a mission, it is more accurate to say that the mission has a church—a mission that began in the heart of God, Himself, and was revealed through Jesus Christ.
Note well: the God of the Bible is not a God who plays it safe, who plays things close to the vest, who conserves for the sake of conserving, who keeps, who stays. He’s a God who sends, who becomes vulnerable, who incarnates, who takes risks for the sake of rescue, who spends Himself to the very last ounce—and a God who sends us out to do the same.