The Biblical Language of Missions

by Joe Allen June 28, 2024

As you have read through your Bible, maybe you have wondered, “Why is no one called a missionary in the New Testament?” There are pastors and elders, apostles and evangelists, prophets and priests, but where are the missionaries? Indeed, you may have noticed that the word “mission” does not even appear in your English Bible. But if you were to conclude that the Bible has nothing to say about missions because the English word is nowhere to be found, you would be greatly mistaken.

The word “mission” comes from the Latin word translated “to send.” Theologians use the phrase missio Dei primarily in reference to God’s sending of the Son and the Spirit. As God the Son and God the Holy Spirit fulfill their mission to glorify God the Father in history, they reveal God’s Triune nature. While mission (singular) usually refers to God’s plan to make Himself known among the nations, missions (plural) generally refers to human participation in God’s plan (in a limited way and with respect to only some aspects of God’s broader mission). At Midwestern Seminary, we believe the Bible theologically grounds missions in God’s own mission, His eternal purpose to manifest His glory.

Mission is a major theme that unites the entire biblical storyline. Many biblical doctrines are true, even when the Bible does not use the exact term. While some may argue that mission is a case in point, the word mission does appear in the New Testament, although it is sometimes obscured in English translations. Eckhard Schnabel points out, “The Latin verb mittere corresponds to the Greek verb apostellein, which occurs 136 times in the New Testament (97 times in the Gospels, used both for Jesus having been ‘sent’ by God and for the Twelve being ‘sent’ by Jesus).”[1]

The concept of mission permeates the Scripture. Biblical missiology emerges from five interlocking themes. Attention to these themes can sensitize readers to the prevalence of mission in the Bible.

  1. When the Bible speaks of God’s purposeful action in history, He is fulfilling His mission.
  2. When God reveals or communicates His glory, He is accomplishing the goal of His mission.
  3. When the Bible uses the language of sending, it is usually talking about God sending agents of His mission. Whether God the Father is sending prophets, the Son and the Spirit, or members of His Church, God is fulfilling His mission.
  4. When the Bible speaks of the nations or the Gentiles, as it does throughout the Old and New Testaments, it is speaking about the scope and sphere of God’s mission.
  5. The plan of salvation occupies a central place in God’s mission. First John 4:14 says, “The Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world.” In this one, simple, gospel verse, three major poles of theology converge: Trinitarianism, soteriology, and missiology. This short verse is Trinitarian because it speaks of the Father and Son (and the preceding verse mentions the Holy Spirit). It is soteriological because it refers to Jesus as the Savior. It is also missiological because it mentions the Father sending the Son, and because it talks about the world.

To summarize, the themes of purpose, communication, sending, nations, and salvation all point to God’s mission. As someone said, “If you take mission out of the Bible, all you’re left with is a front cover and back cover.” Truly, the whole Bible is a missionary document.[2]

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[1] Echkard J. Schnabel, Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategy and Method (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 27–28.

[2] “The Bible is a narrative record of God’s mission in and through his people for the sake of the world. It tells a story in which mission is a central thread—God’s mission, Israel’s mission, Christ’s mission, the Spirit’s mission, the Church’s mission.” Michael Goheen, Introducing Christian Mission Today: Scripture, History, and Issues (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 37.

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