By Dr. David Scott, director of mission theology
Traditionally, much of the focus in Christian mission has been on the actions of humans – the church and individual believers. Yet in recent decades, mission theologians have come to a new and profound insight: Mission does not start with humans; it starts with God.
The term mission comes from missio, the Latin word for to send. We see that mission begins with God when we look at God’s triune nature as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father sent the Son into the world (John 3:16-17). The Father and the Son together send the Holy Spirit into the world (John 15:26). And together the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit send the church into the world.
Thus, mission is about God’s action in the world. This is called the missio Dei, the mission of God. Through God’s mission, God seeks to restore and redeem the world, which God created and loves. For humans, this means the restoration of key relationships – with God, with ourselves, with other individuals, within our communities, and with physical creation. As Christians, we engage in mission when we join in God’s gracious, loving work of restoring these relationships.
The missio Dei and Bible study
Keeping in mind this understanding of the missio Dei while we read the Bible can shape how we read scripture and can allow the Holy Spirit to open us up to our calling to participate in God’s mission. Many approaches to scripture follow a basic pattern of observation, analysis, and application – what does the Bible say, what does it mean, and how can we incorporate that meaning into our lives? The missio Dei can be an important guide in each of these steps of reading and understanding scripture.
Observation involves the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the biblical text. Keeping the missio Dei in mind as we read helps us pay special attention to what God is doing in the text, for whom God is doing it, and when, where, and how God works. We should also look to see how others are involved in God’s work, but focusing on the missio Dei reminds us that God is the primary actor in scripture.
The missio Dei also helps us analyze the reasons behind God’s actions in scripture. We should think about how God’s actions fit with God’s overarching mission of redeeming creation through the restoration of right relationships. As we analyze, we should ask ourselves, what relationships are being restored here, and how do God’s actions help restore them?
Finally, when we turn to application, the missio Dei prompts us to look for ways in which God is restoring the relationships in our lives and our contexts, just as God restores relationships in the Bible. Once we have identified the ways in which God is redeeming and restoring the world around us, then we can look for ways to join in God’s mission of redemption in the world.
Practice studying the Bible through the missio Dei
This approach to reading the Bible can be used with any biblical text. Nevertheless, the following list of passages contains especially suitable choices for seeing the missio Dei in the Bible.
To practice this approach to reading the Bible, choose two of the following examples and use the missio Dei to direct your observations, analysis, and application of the passage. Ask yourself:
- What is God doing in this passage?
- How do others join in God’s actions?
- How do those actions contribute to God’s overall mission of redemption?
- In what similar ways is God at work in my context today?
- How can I join in God’s mission in the worlds around me?
God’s covenant with Noah (Genesis 9:1-17)
God’s covenant with Abraham (Genesis 17:1-22)
God’s covenant with Moses (Deuteronomy 29-30)
God’s covenant with David (2 Samuel 7)
The return from exile (Ezra 1)
The variety of God’s saving ways (Psalm 107)
Praise of God, the help of the poor and barren (Psalm 113)
Praise of God, the creator and savior (Psalm 146)
The root of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1-12)
Cry out! (Isaiah 40:1-11)
Come to the waters (Isaiah 55)
Genuine fasting (Isaiah 58)
God’s holy mountain (Isaiah 65:17-25)
The restoration of Israel (Jeremiah 31:1-17)
Swords into plowshares (Micah 4:1-7)
On that day… (Zephaniah 3:8-20)
The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12)
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-17)
Jesus heals the paralytic man (Mark 2:1-12)
Jesus heals the demoniac man (Mark 5:1-20)
Jesus and the woman with the ointment (Luke 7:36-50)
Jesus and Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10)
Jesus’ death and resurrection (Luke 23-24:12)
Jesus and the Samaritan woman (John 4:1-42)
Jesus feeds the crowd (John 6:1-14)
Jesus heals the man born blind (John 9)
Peter and Cornelius (Acts 10)
Paul and Silas in Philippi (Acts 16:16-40)
Paul’s instructions on eating (1 Corinthians 8)
Paul on living in the Spirit (Galatians 5)
James on the poor (James 2:1-17)
The new heaven and new earth (Revelation 21-22:5)
There are many reasons to use the missio Dei as a method to read the Bible. Reading the Bible this way brings us fresh insights into the biblical text. Moreover, studying the Bible through the missio Dei is a form of spiritual formation for mission. It helps us develop an understanding of mission that is not just about humans doing good deeds but instead recognizes God’s primary role in mission. Such a biblical understanding of the missio Dei will yield rich rewards in our discipleship as we seek to better know and better share the good news of God’s redeeming grace for all.