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What is God’s ‘mission’?
In the opening section of Ephesians, Paul talks a lot about God’s purposes for the world. God’s ultimate purpose is to sum up everything in Christ (Ephesians 1:10). God is moving everything in heaven and earth towards that end. But how? What is the means to the end? In other words, what is the mission? And what does that mean for our own mission as Christians and as churches?
There are many answers people give to this question. Here are three:
One answer is that God achieves his purposes primarily through transformation. God changes the lives of Christians for the better. People in the world see the goodness of Christians, and they see that Christianity works. They are attracted to that goodness, and so they are transformed and come under Christ’s lordship too. So: if this is the primary way God achieves his purposes for the world, then we should focus our energy on things like social justice and apologetics, i.e. on changing the world and showing the world how good and true Christianity is.
Another answer is that God achieves his purposes through unity. As believers throughout the world put their differences aside and unite under common movements and institutions, we will be strong and able to win the world for Christ. So: if this is the primary way God achieves his purposes for the world, then we should focus our energy on things like politics and conferences, i.e. on actively uniting believers through organised movements.
Another answer is that God achieves his purposes through church planting and growth. As believers meet together in church, they are inspired to worship, and they are equipped for service. Outsiders are attracted to our excellent churches. They join us, and so they too come under Christ’s lordship. Then more church communities are planted by visionary leaders in new areas. So: if this is the primary way God achieves his purposes for the world, then we should focus our energy on things like strategy and excellence, i.e. on getting our systems and leadership structures running well.
All of these things are important and worthwhile. None of them can simply be ignored. And all of them resonate with things that Paul says in Ephesians. Christ does indeed want us to be transformed and to shine as light in the world (Ephesians 5:3–14). Christ has indeed achieved a unity which crosses borders (Ephesians 2:11–22). Christ does indeed grow his church through each individual member of the church doing their work well, and properly, in harmony with others, including leaders (Ephesians 4:13–16).
But the question I’m asking about all of these things is this: is it the core thing? Is transformation, or unity, or church planting and growth, actually at the very heart of God’s mission?
Let’s come back to the beginning of Ephesians. Here at the start of his letter, before Paul mentions anything to do with social transformation or unity or church growth, Paul talks about something even more fundamental that God is doing—something that undergirds everything else. In fact, Paul spells out precisely how God is achieving his purposes in the world. He says, first of all, that God is achieving his purposes for the world through evangelism. Evangelism means the preaching of the gospel, by people who know the gospel, to people who don’t know the gospel.
This is what verses 11–14 of Ephesians chapter 1 are all about. In fact, these few short verses read like a highly condensed summary of the book of Acts. The very words that Paul uses here, as well as the order he puts them in, follow the description of the gospel going out from Israel to the nations in Acts. They summarise how the gospel message of Jesus Christ rang out from the first Israelite believers to the nations (or ‘gentiles’) around them. Here in verse 13, Paul reminds his gentile readers that they, too, have been caught up in God’s great plans for his universe through Christ. He reminds them that this is how God is achieving his purposes: through the gospel being preached, heard, and believed. That is how they, too, have come to be sealed with God’s Holy Spirit:
In Christ, you too—having heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and also having believed in him—were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.Ephesians 1:13
Let’s look a little more closely at Paul’s description of the gospel going out to the nations.
Hearing the gospel
Notice, firstly, that the gospel is something that is “heard”. The gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t just a philosophy describing how to live a good life, or a call to unite under a banner, or an invitation to join a community. The gospel is a message about a person. And the first thing you need to do with a message is to hear it. Paul says that this is precisely what his readers have done. Somebody had preached the message to them, and they had ‘heard’ it.
This is very much like the description in Acts. After Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his Israelite disciples, he ascended to heaven and poured out his Spirit on them. In this way, he showed them that God’s great Old Testament promises to Israel were being fulfilled. But it didn’t stop there. Through his Spirit, Jesus made sure the gospel message was preached to many ‘gentiles’ (non-Israelites) further afield: from Jerusalem, to the surrounding areas, and even to the far-flung regions of the Roman Empire and beyond. It was preached, and it was heard.
The gospel: truth and salvation
What is this preached gospel message all about? Paul describes it as “the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation”.
The gospel is not just a general vibe that can be filled with our own ideas or bent to suit our own purposes. It is a message with specific content. It is the “word of truth”: it tells us certain things that are true about God and ourselves and the world. That’s why later in Ephesians, Paul compares the truth of the gospel to the lies of false teaching (see Ephesians 4:13–24). The gospel, by its very nature, excludes certain ideas. That’s why truth can never be put to one side, or put in second place after other things like transformation or unity or church planting and growth.
What is the core of the gospel? Paul does not call it “the gospel of our goodness”, or “the gospel of our unity”, or the “gospel of our community”, or the “gospel of our excellence”. He calls it “the gospel of [our] salvation”. Salvation is about being rescued. What are we rescued from? A little later in Ephesians, Paul spells this out: we have been rescued from God’s judgment for our sin (Ephesians 2:1–10). This has happened entirely by God’s grace, and not at all by our own efforts. We have been forgiven because of Jesus’ death on the cross (remember Ephesians 1:7), we have been raised with him, and we look forward to the time when God will sum up all things in Christ. This is the core of the gospel message: salvation. It’s about lost sinners, under God’s judgment, being rescued and restored and brought to life.
Because the gospel is a message about a person, and because it involves certain key truths, and because it tells us about being saved/rescued, it demands a response. Paul reminds his readers what their response to the gospel had been: they had “believed” it. They had come to believe in the person of Jesus Christ, to believe certain true things about him, and to believe and trust Jesus for salvation.
Again, the book of Acts helps to fill this out more for us. Acts has many stories about people who believed the gospel at certain key stages in the gospel going out from Israel to the nations. In Acts 10, the apostle Peter was called to come and speak to a gentile centurion, Cornelius. Peter did come and speak the gospel about Jesus Christ, who lived and died and rose from the dead. Peter concluded by saying:
And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he [Jesus] is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.Acts 10:42–43 ESV
This is the primary aim of evangelism. We don’t just want people to approve or to belong; we want them to believe. We are not just trying to convince people that Christianity is good, or unite them under a common cause, or bring them to church, or include them in a community. We may need to do all these things at various points, but this is not the primary aim. The aim is that people believe in Jesus Christ and so receive forgiveness of sins through his name.
Sealing with the Spirit
Having heard and believed the gospel, Paul tells his readers they were “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit”. What is he talking about? Again the book of Acts helps us here. It records that when Jesus poured out his Holy Spirit on those first Israelite disciples, there were visible signs that God used to show that he was fulfilling his Old Testament promises. In particular, the first disciples spoke miraculously in other languages. Then, at certain key stages of the gospel going out to the world, the same thing happened to other people too. Remember the story we just saw about Peter preaching to Cornelius in Acts 10? Here’s what happened next:
While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised [i.e. Israelites] who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles [i.e. non-Israelites].Acts 10:44–45 ESV
What was happening here? God was showing that he was giving his gift of salvation and life to gentile people as well as Jewish people (see Acts 11:17–18). The Spirit was God’s ‘seal’— or God’s ‘brand’, demonstrating that these gentile believers belonged to God as much as the Jewish believers did. This is what Paul is referring to here in Ephesians: he’s not saying that every individual believer will always have spectacular signs happen to them as soon as they believe. Nor is he saying that the Spirit is just waiting around for us to believe before he can come into our hearts. That’s not the point. The point is that as the gospel comes to us, and we hear and respond by believing it, God gives his Spirit to us—which means we belong to him, we are secure in him, and our future relationship with God is guaranteed too (verse 14 goes into more detail about this).
So how is God achieving his purposes in the world? Through evangelism! That is, through the preaching of the gospel, by people who know the gospel, to people who don’t know the gospel. We have heard it. And many, many people around the world have believed and been sealed with God’s Holy Spirit. The gospel being preached in the world, and heard by people in this world, is an absolutely core element in God’s great plan for his universe. It is the activity of the risen Lord, victorious in the heavens, bringing people to know and love and trust him.
So the mission is the message. Evangelism—the preaching of the gospel message about Jesus Christ—is the way God is achieving his purposes in the world. We could say that it is evangelism that undergirds everything else. Social transformation starts with people believing, hearing and living the gospel (see Ephesians 4:1). The unity of the Spirit begins with people who hold firm to the truth of the gospel—“one hope, … one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (see Ephesians 4:4). Church growth begins with believers speaking the truth of the gospel in the context of loving relationships (see Ephesians 4:15–16). I’ll be talking about these things in future posts in this series. But for now, the point is this: All these things flow from the preaching of the gospel. They aren’t the most fundamental things. It is the preaching of the gospel that is at the core of the mission.
How could you personally be part of this mission? The main way is by hearing and believing the gospel message about Jesus Christ! And then, by working out how to live it, speak it, and help and support others to live and speak it. This will happen in many different ways. Not everyone is going to be a missionary or an up-front leader or a bold super-evangelist. We will all speak the gospel in different ways, to different people, in fellowship with others who are playing different parts to us. But no matter what our individual roles are, we need to keep remembering that the preaching and hearing of the gospel is the core thing. This is how God is achieving his purposes in the world.
You may be someone who is involved in Christian ministry, or making decisions about Christian ministry. How does your own life and decision-making reflect the fact that evangelism is at the core of God’s mission? It’s so easy to have all our energy consumed by efforts to change the world, or promote the goodness of Christianity, or achieve unity, or get everything at church organised, isn’t it? Of course, these things matter, and often we must put effort into these things so that the gospel can be heard in the first place. It really helps when people give us a hearing, and when Christians are united, and when church works well. But the problem is that these things can easily become the big thing—the thing that captures all of our attention. There’s all sorts of reasons why this might happen. We’ll often get positive feedback when we’re working on social justice or apologetics or unity or church growth, but we’re less likely to get the same level of positive feedback when we’re working on evangelism. Yet evangelism is still at the core, despite the fact that it might not rate highly in the opinion polls.
So you might need to seriously ask how to make the preaching of the gospel more central in your life and decisions. This might mean making decisions about your life and ministry that will prove to be messy and unpopular. Remember where Paul is writing this from—he’s in chains for preaching the gospel! The authorities are against him, and many of his own people are against him. How’s that for negative feedback! Yet Paul knows that God is achieving his great plan to sum up all things in Christ, and that this is happening through the preaching of the gospel. In the end, it’s worth it. Because the message is the mission.
Are you convinced that evangelism is at the core of God’s plan for the universe?
What worthwhile thing is most likely to distract you or your church from evangelism? Is there anything you need to do to stop this distraction from happening?
 I’ve written more about this in my book Gospel Speech: A Fresh Look at the Relationship between Every Christian and Evangelism (Matthias Media, 2015).
This post is part of a series of ~70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. You can see all the posts so far, and subscribe to receive updates via email, audio podcast, and social media, by following this link.
The academic details behind these reflections
In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.