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Why Missions?

Our annual missions conference is under way this week. We have a rich heritage of sending and supporting missionaries, and the opportunity to hear from over a dozen of them this week. But the question often comes up, why missions? Why this emphasis? What’s the big deal? Or in other words, what is the mission of missions? The charge is to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:18-20), but what is the ultimate goal the drives and fuels that charge?

Here are seven points, with a whole bunch of Scripture, all of which advance the first and main point about why missions:

1. Missions is about worship

I love the way John Piper puts it in his book, Let the Nations Be Glad:

Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man. When this age is over, and the countless millions of the redeemed fall on their faces before the throne of God, missions will be no more. It is a temporary necessity. But worship abides forever.

Worship, therefore, is the fuel and goal in missions. It’s the goal of missions because in missions we simply aim to bring the nations into the white-hot enjoyment of God’s glory. The goal of missions is the gladness of the peoples in the greatness of God. “The Lord reigns; let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad!” (Psalm 97:1). “Let the peoples praise thee, O God; let all the peoples praise thee! Let the nations be glad and sing for joy!” (Psalm 67:3-4).

But worship is also the fuel of missions. Passion for God in worship precedes the offer of God in preaching. You can’t commend what you don’t cherish. Missionaries will never call out, “Let the nations be glad!”, who cannot say from the heart, “I rejoice in the Lord. . . . I will be glad and exult in thee, I will sing praise to thy name, O Most High” (Psalm 104:34; 9:2). Missions begins and ends in worship.

If the pursuit of God’s glory is not ordered above the pursuit of man’s good in the affections of the heart and the priorities of the church, man will not be well served and God will not be duly honored. I am not pleading for a diminishing of missions but for a magnifying of God. When the flame of worship burns with the heat of God’s true worth, the light of missions will shine to the most remote peoples on earth. And I long for that day to come!(1)

Missions is about worship. We often think about the purpose of missions in terms of what people get out of it—to be forgiven of their sin, to be rescued from hell, to know God, and so on. We think about missions as chiefly about the good of man. And it is good for humans—it’s the best thing for them.

But there’s something even greater at stake in missions: the glory of God. God’s glory is primary; our good is secondary. Look again at this sentence: “If the pursuit of God’s glory is not ordered above the pursuit of man’s good in the affections of the heart and the priorities of the church, man will not be well served and God will not be duly honored.”

God deserves to be honored and magnified for who he is. He deserves to be worshiped, to be treated like God—to receive our highest allegiance, our highest affection, for us to look to him for our greatest joy and satisfaction in life, for our identity and significance, for help and rescue, for our ultimate hope. He deserves to be glorified, to be made much of. He deserves our worship. And to give that worship to something besides God is not only bad for us, it is an affront on God’s glory and worthiness. That’s what the Bible calls idolatry. And as long as men and women are worshiping something other than the one true God of the universe who has made himself known by his Spirit in the face of Jesus Christ, there will be cause for missions.

This is because . . .

2. Only God is worthy of our worship

Consider the following passages which highlight this foundational truth.

  • Exodus 15:11: “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?”
  • Isaiah 45:20-21: “Assemble yourselves and come; draw near together, you survivors of the nations! They have no knowledge who carry about their wooden idols, and keep on praying to a god that cannot save. Declare and present your case; let them take counsel together! Who told this long ago? Who declared it of old? Was it not I, the LORD? And there is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides me.”
  • Isaiah 40:25-26: “To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name, by the greatness of his might, and because he is strong in power not one is missing.”
  • Isaiah 42:8: “I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols.”

God is jealous for his glory. He alone is worthy of being treated like God. And not only is God alone worthy of our worship, but the very reason he created this world was his worship and glory.

3. God created this universe for his glory

  • Revelation 4:11: “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”

The creation itself bears witness to his glory:

  • Psalm 19:1: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.”

Humans were created for his glory:

  • Isaiah 43:6-7: “I will say to the north, Give up, and to the south, Do not withhold; bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

God’s vision for his creation is universal glory:

  • Habakkuk 2:14: “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.”

So how will the earth be filled with God’s glory? Through humans made in his image. This was his design in creation.

  • Genesis 1:26-28: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’”

God made humanity in his own image. In the context here this likely means a few of things:

  • First, it’s relationship. In Genesis 5:3 Adam has a son in his likeness, after his image. It’s language of relationship—father-child relationship. So God made humans to be his children, to have relationship with him.
  • Second, being made in God’s image means reflection. Just like a child looks like their parent, so we were made to look like God. Our job as humans is to show the world what God is like—how worthy and beautiful he is. Think of humanity as an angled mirror—one of those long stand up mirrors, but tilted upward so that when you look at it you see upward. That’s what people are supposed to be like: when someone looks at us, they should see a reflection of God.
  • Third, being in God’s image means representation. God, the king of the universe, has taken humanity, made in his image, and as Psalm 8 puts it, crowned him with glory and honor, and given him dominion over all creation. We are to be his royal representatives over all the earth, exercising his rule on his behalf, filling every corner of this world with his image and glory. That’s why it’s so important to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” As God’s children who reflect and represent him, we are to fill the earth with God’s glory and worthy reputation.

But is that what life is like on earth? Do you see the glory of God displayed in every action? Do you hear it in every word? Do you rejoice in it in your own heart? The answer is clearly, No. God’s creation is not functioning according to his design. And this is because . . .

4. Humanity has exchanged God’s glory for something else

The world God made for his glory is fallen in sin, and all humanity is guilty of it. Think about one of the common verses we use to describe the sinfulness of everyone, and what it says about sin with respect to God’s glory:

  • Romans 3:23: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God . . .”

Sin, disobedience to God, rebellion against God, is a matter of falling short of God’s glory. We no longer reflect his glory; we no longer give him glory. We’re giving it to something else, treating something else like God.

All sin and rebellion is ultimately a worship problem. Look at how Romans 1 describes this:

  • Romans 1:18-25: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”

Notice the language of worship in vv. 21, 23, and 25. Sin is a worship problem. It’s treating something else like God. Instead of being servants of God we become servants of sin, servants of self. We exchange life for death, God for idols, joy for despair, blessing for curse. We spoil God’s image in us. Humanity still bears God’s image, but it’s now been distorted and marred. As if someone took a hammer to that angled mirror—when you look at it, you still elements of the image, but it’s all messed up. That’s what humanity is in our sin—messed up. And we’ve made a mess of everything else. All the death, pain, sin, sorrow, and brokenness in this world—all of it stems from our rebellion against God (cf. Gen. 3:17-19; Rom. 8:20-22).

But not only do we deprive ourselves of the greatest thing in the world—God himself—we also deny him the glory due his name, and thus bring upon ourselves his just judgment. Verse 18: “the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” Idolatry is high treason against our Creator and King. The punishment for treason on earth is death; the punishment for treason against heaven is eternal death (Rom. 6:23; 1 Thess. 1:8-9). So not only is God deprived of his glory, humanity is sentenced to eternal destruction in hell.

So what do we do?

The beauty of missions is that it’s not ultimately about what we do; it’s about what God has already done for us in Christ.

5. God is redeeming a people from every nation for his glory through Jesus Christ

Missions is about the gospel—the proclamation of the good news of what God has done to establish his kingdom and deal with sin through the life, death, and resurrection of his eternal Son, Jesus Christ. The gospel is not what we do; it’s what God has done for us to save us and to bring himself glory. But even here, God’s glory comes first. Throughout Scripture, God’s saving work is not just about what people get out of it; it is ultimately what God gets out of it—his glory and praise.

  • Psalm 106:7-8: “Our fathers, when they were in Egypt, did not consider your wondrous works; they did not remember the abundance of your steadfast love, but rebelled by the Sea, at the Red Sea. 8 Yet he saved them for his name’s sake, that he might make known his mighty power.”
  • Isaiah 43:25: “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.”
  • Isaiah 48:9-11: “For my name’s sake I defer my anger, for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you, that I may not cut you off. Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another.”

Consider Paul’s hymn of salvation in Ephesians 1:

  • Ephesians 1:3-14: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.”

We have this breathtaking review of God’s power and love in forgiving our sins, adopting us into his family, setting us apart for himself, sealing us with his Spirit—and what’s it all for? Three times: “to the praise of his glory.” God is worthy to be glorified through our salvation in Christ.

Through Jesus God reveals his glory to us, and then delivers us in order to delight in and reflect once again that glory.

Jesus makes the Father’s glory known:

  • John 1:14: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
  • Colossians 1:15: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.”
  • 2 Corinthians 4:6: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
  • Hebrews 1:3: “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. . .”

Jesus makes the Father’s glory known. His mission was to bring glory to the Father through his life, even as the Father glorifies him in his death and resurrection:

  • John 17:4-5: “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.”

And Jesus not only makes the Father’s glory known, he refashions us back into his glorious image by the Spirit, empowering us for a life of worship—one that makes much of God:

  • 2 Corinthians 3:18: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”
  • Matthew 5:16: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

All this is only possible through the proclamation of the gospel. The gospel of God’s grace is our only hope for salvation, our only means of being changed to know and serve and be satisfied in God. It must be proclaimed and it must be believed. The only way to benefit from what Christ has done is to put all your hope and trust in him—to say No to other would-be Saviors and Yes to Christ. He is the only hope of the world, as Acts 4:12 puts it: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

And for this reason, because our only hope for salvation and eternal life is through faith in Jesus, God not only sent his Son to rescue us, but . . .

6. Jesus sends us to bear witness to God’s glory through the message of the gospel in the power of the Spirit

  • John 20:21: “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’”
  • Acts 1:6-8: “So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.’”

And once again, the aim of the church’s mission is the glory of God. We see this in how Paul describes the goal of his apostleship at the beginning of Romans:

  • Romans 1:5: “through [Jesus Christ] we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations . . .”

And as we go we have the confidence that . . .

7. God will receive the glory due his name in the end

  • Philippians 2:9-11: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
  • Philippians 3:20-21: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”
  • 1 John 3:1-2: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”
  • Revelation 7:9-10: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”

There will come a day when the Lamb will receive the spoils of his blood; the glory due his name. When men and women from all nations of the earth will gather around his heavenly throne, when God alone will be honored, and all other would-be gods will be vanquished before his unique, incomparable beauty, holiness, majesty, glory, and grace.

But in the meantime, missions exists because worship doesn’t.

Are we captivated by the majesty of God? Do we delight in his glory, in making much of him? How big is our view of God? Are we compelled by his beauty and worthiness to take his gospel to the ends of the earth, or at least across the street? Do we see our own need for the gospel, and does our experience of God’s grace fuel us to declare that matchless grace to others? To quote Piper again, “Where passion for God is weak, zeal for missions will be weak. Churches that are not centered on the exaltation of the majesty and beauty of God will scarcely kindle a fervent desire to ‘declare his glory among the nations’ (Psalm 96:3).”(2)

May God give us a fresh vision of his beauty and glory, that we might be satisfied in him and free to declare his glory passionately to the nations, that others might find their life and hope in him, and that he might receive the glory due his name.

End Notes

(1) John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 11-12 (bold emphasis mine).

(2) Piper, 12.