Teaching God’s Mission in the New Testament

Editor’s Note: This article is the last in a three-part series highlighting God’s global mission throughout the Bible. See part one here for an overview of missions in Scripture and part two here for an examination of key passages underscoring God’s heart for the nations in the Old Testament.

The Bible isn’t ambiguous about its plot line. God is on a mission to gather a people from every nation who will enjoy his grace and extend his glory. Considering that reality, teachers of God’s Word ought to make the plot line clear when they teach, not assume that people will just “get it” on their own.

The New Testament contains clear commands for Christians to engage in God’s mission, but it also tells the story of that mission. It reveals the motives and methods of the apostles, and it also gives hope for God’s people as they participate in God’s mission.

God’s Mission in the Commands of the New Testament

Perhaps the clearest statements of God’s plan for the nations are found in the Gospels and Acts. In the Great Commission passages, Jesus called his followers to make disciples among all nations (Matt. 28:18–20; Luke 24:46–47; John 20:21; Acts 1:8). These aren’t mere suggestions. They are royal edicts from the king of the cosmos.

The One who has been given all authority in heaven and on earth has tasked his people with making disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey all that he has commanded, with the hope and reassurance that he will be with them through all of it (Matt. 28:18–20). It’s not just the church’s mission. It’s God’s mission. And he promises us his presence every step of the way.

God’s Mission in the Narratives of the New Testament

The stories of the New Testament also reveal God’s heart for the nations. Matthew continues the Old Testament story arc, opening with the genealogy of Abraham and ending with a commission to carry out the covenant God made with Abraham—to extend his blessing to the nations (Gen. 12:1–3; 26:1–5; 28:10–17; Matt. 28:18–20).

Notably, the Jewish Messiah’s genealogy mentions two Gentile women: Rahab and Ruth, who were both shown God’s kindness in their day, and who, though outsiders, were grafted into the incarnate God’s family tree (Matt. 1:5). Likewise, Persian magi (Matt. 2) were among the first to hear of the coming Christ and to worship in his presence.

As the life and ministry of Jesus unfolded, Jesus progressively disclosed his plan for Gentile inclusion. In John 4, Jesus revealed himself to a Samaritan woman, and many in her village believed. In Matthew 8, Jesus not only granted the request of the Roman centurion, but he commended his faith over that of all the Israelites.

“The One who has been given all authority in heaven and on earth has tasked his people with making disciples of all nations.”

Other narratives and teachings like the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, the vision of nations joining the kingdom feast with Abraham in Luke 13:29, and the plan for a non-Jewish inheritance in Matthew 21:43 also display God’s heart for the nations.

Furthermore, in Matthew 24:14, Jesus connected his teaching about the end times with the fulfillment of God’s global plan when he said, “This gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (ESV).

Part two of Luke’s narrative—the book of Acts—shows God’s church engaging in God’s mission. The entire format of the book is built around Christ’s command in the first chapter (Acts 1:8) where he called his followers to be his witnesses in Jerusalem (chapters 1–7), Judea and Samaria (chapters 8–12), and to the ends of the earth (chapters 13–28).

In Acts 2, we see the reversal of God’s scattering of the nations at Babel and the beginning of God’s ingathering of them as the gospel was preached on the day of Pentecost. Instead of confusing their language, the Holy Spirit caused the believers to speak in tongues so that everyone present from different languages and cultures could hear the same gospel message in their own language. In a display of the Holy Spirit’s power, three thousand people believed and were brought into the church.

Later, in Acts 7-8, when persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, the believers were scattered, causing the gospel to be spread throughout Judea and Samaria. In Acts 10, a Gentile named Cornelius received the Holy Spirit. A growing surge of Gentile conversions ultimately led to the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 where the unity in the Spirit between Jew and Gentile believers was officially recognized.

Lastly, the first recorded sending church, Antioch, sent Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey in Acts 13. This was the beginning of an almost two-thousand-year operation to get the gospel to every nation. Throughout the rest of the book (Acts 13–28), Luke described missionary journeys that led to Paul’s letters, which expose the apostle’s motives and methods for missions.

God’s Mission in the Methods and Motives of the Apostle Paul

I once heard a seminary student argue that Paul wouldn’t have cared whether churches participated in mission because his letters don’t seem to emphasize the subject. Such flawed thinking will take root in the minds of people in our churches too if all we ever do is teach the propositional commands of the epistles without ever placing Paul’s instruction in the context of his own life and ministry.

First, it goes without saying that the letters are a product of Paul’s missionary journeys. They’re a facet of the discipleship part of Jesus’s command to “make disciples.” Secondly, the letters reveal much about Paul’s motives and methods for engaging in God’s mission.

For example, Romans is more than a theological treatise. You can rightly mine Romans for its rich theological value yet still miss Paul’s motive for writing the letter. In Romans, he explained the problem of sin (Rom. 1–3), the solution for sin (Rom. 3–9), the motivation for missions (Rom. 10:14–15), and his own personal motivation for missions—to preach the gospel where Christ was not yet known (Rom. 15:15–21).

In other words, Paul’s aim wasn’t merely to build up the Roman believers with good theology. He wanted to use that good theology to move them to mission—more specifically, his mission (Rom. 15:24). Paul wanted the Roman believers to help him on his journey so the gospel could spread to places where it had not yet been proclaimed. Romans is not just a grand, theological discourse. It’s a missionary support letter!

“You can rightly mine Romans for its rich theological value yet still miss Paul’s motive for writing the letter.”

Paul’s letters also give insight into his methods. Paul wrote instructive letters to the churches he planted (and even some that he didn’t) to teach them and to strengthen their faith. He frequently visited those churches (Acts 15:36), and sent trusted leaders to check in on them (1 Cor. 4:17; Phil. 2:19; Titus 1:5).

In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul spoke about different roles in the mission. He was a pioneer church planter while Apollos stayed and strengthened the church. Paul taught about cross-cultural contextualization in 1 Corinthians 9, where, to the Jew he became like a Jew and to the Greek he became like a Greek for the sake of their salvation. Paul established boundaries in his cross-cultural work in 2 Corinthians 2–5, refusing to profit from his ministry (2:17), refusing to alter the gospel to make it more palatable (4:2), and refusing to be manipulative in his preaching (4:2; 5:11).

New Testament Hope for God’s People as They Participate in God’s Mission

Finally, the book of Revelation delivers a vision of hope for God’s people as they participate in God’s mission. The promise that was made to Abraham will be fulfilled. God will be praised for ransoming “people for himself from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9 ESV) who will one day stand before the Lamb, a great multitude, rejoicing in his salvation (Rev. 7:9–10).

God’s plan is coming to fruition. His promise to Abraham will be fulfilled and “in the New Jerusalem, the glory of God will be its light, and “by its light will the nations walk” (Rev. 21:24 ESV).

The God of the Bible is a God on mission. From Genesis to Revelation, his unfolding story reveals his heart for the nations and his plan to send his church to gather his lost sheep—to share the gospel, disciple new believers, plant churches, and watch them spread all over the world. Even now, God is gathering to himself a multitude of peoples from every nation who are enjoying his grace and extending his glory. And he calls every believer to join him in that mission.

Faithful teachers of his Word are those who make that mission crystal clear to their people. When they preach through the Bible, they preach through it in context. They zoom out from the verses and chapters they’re expositing, and unpack the metanarrative that sets the stage for every story, every poem, every prophecy, and every letter.

When your church is exposed to God’s global will on a regular basis, something amazing will happen. They’ll get wrapped up in it. If you want to change the culture of global engagement in your church or, put another way, if you want your people to obey Jesus, preach his mission. The change starts in your pulpit.

Robert Wells V is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his family reside in Virginia where he serves on a team that trains international church planters. They are currently preparing to a join church-planting team in Central Asia.