A Messianic Theology of Missions

As often happens when I get bogged down with schoolwork, I have had little time to give attention to my blog. So I thought I’d share the fruits of last week’s labor with you all. This is my “theology of missions” paper for my introduction to world missions class. It’s rough, as most of my work is (I am after all quite busy). But I think it’s a step in the right direction for understanding the whole enterprise of missions from a Messianic perspective.

I of course owe a debt to D. T. Lancaster’s commentary on Galatians for bringing to my attention the conversion of Izates, though as it is a secondary source I didn’t reference it in the paper, instead going directly to Josephus.

INTRODUCTION

It is tempting, in a sort of nearsighted narcissism, to imagine that missions did not exist after the blinking out of the Apostolic light and the rise of the Roman church until the advent of William Carey, called even in his own century “the Father and Founder of modern missions.”1 Primers on Christian missions – take for example Neill and Chadwick’s lauded tome2 – often betray a geographical bias as well, focusing on “Western Christianity” or more specifically European Christianity as exemplified by the Roman church and, later, the Reformed and Baptist churches, rather than discussing the spread of Christianity east, south, and north (Syriac, Coptic, Russian, etc.) or the persistence of Messianic Jewish congregations for several centuries after the Ascension.3

Still less expected in any discussion on modern missions is the role of Judaism both in the formation and initial mission stages of Christianity (beyond the grudging acceptance of a Jewish cultural and linguistic background and the phenomenon of the formation of nascent Christianity within the synagogue, often remarked to be a merely utilitarian development4). If Judaism itself is mentioned, it is the unhappy, unfulfilling, unsuccessful, misanthropic foil to Christianity,5 though this picture of ancient Judaism has been all but demolished by Feldman,6 who argued for the resilience of Judaism (as much a nationality and ethnicity as it is a religion7) in the socio-political sphere, and Moore,8 who found it to be resilient on the spiritual and religious level as well, and not just an unhappy and barely relevant predecessor to Christianity.

A theology of mission must, if it is to take into account the full bloom of the Christian faith in all directions of the compass as well as the Apostolic vision of Christianity (which was situated within Second Temple Judaism), be based in both the Old and New Testaments and constructed with reference to contemporary Jewish texts such as Josephus, Philo, the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, and the proto-Rabbinic traditions later codified in the Mishnah, Midrash, and Talmud.

Due to the limited scope of this work, attention will be given to only a few examples from the aforementioned literature. However, it is postulated that “missions”9 is no more a modern philosophy than it is a Protestant one, and no more Western than it is Gentile. Missions, in ancient times as well as modern, was and is a natural consequence of the acceptance by Christianity of the existence of a single, sovereign God who has revealed himself through a specific people, language, and set of texts.

AN EXAMPLE OF MISSIONS IN JUDAISM

As stated above, the limited scope of this work limits a survey of missions in Judaism, itself an ambitious attempt and worthy of much greater consideration, to only one example. However, even one example will shed some light on the thesis, and help lay a foundation for a theology of missions that is grounded in Second Temple Judaism.

This example is taken from Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews. In chapter XX, he relates the intriguing story of Izates, King of Adiabene. His birth touched by a prophecy to his father, King Monobazus, Izates quickly became the favorite son. The resentment this favoritism inspired among Izates’s brothers led Monobazus to shelter him in the land of Charax-Spasini; after Monobazus’s death, though, Izatus returned to Adiabene and came to power through a consensus developed by the machinations of his mother, Helene.

While in exile, Izates became familiar with a Jew named Ananias, who taught him to worship God according to the Jewish custom. Coincidentally, Helene adopted Jewish customs under similar circumstances. However, at the insistence of his mother, Izates refrained from proselyte conversion, declining to be circumcised due to the delicacy of his situation as king of a pagan nation. He was eventually convinced to reverse his position by yet another Jew, Eleazar, who counseled him to be circumcised.

The implications of this story are interesting. First, three separate Jews are involved, all three of whom apparently were interested in instructing foreigners as to the acceptable method of worshiping God. This can be nothing else but intentional Jewish missions, contemporary with the lifetime of Christ and the Apostles (Izates lived from about A.D. 1-55). Second, the difference between the approach of Ananias and that of Eleazar is strikingly similar to the difference between the theology of the “circumcision faction” against which Paul wrote Galatians and sections of several other letters, and the theology of Peter, James, and Paul, in their response to the circumcision faction as recorded in Acts 15.

THE SHEMA AND JEWISH MONOTHEISM AS THE BASIS FOR CHRISTIAN MISSIONS

The fact that missions existed in Judaism, absent the Resurrection, the Great Commission, or any kind of clear mandate or precedent as found in the New Testament (all of which are commonly cited to undergird the modern missions movement), leads one to question why a Jew in the Second Temple would take part in such an enterprise. Yet it must have been relatively common, as can be ascertained even from Christian texts: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (Matt. 23:15).

This saying is extant only in Matthew, possibly because his largely Jewish community would have been familiar enough with Jewish proselytization practices to make sense of it. Saldarini mentions that Jesus’ “second woe testifies to Jewish success in attracting gentile members.”10

From where sprung this Jewish missional enterprise? Or, more appropriately for this discussion, how would specifically Jewish principles inform, direct, and provide an impetus for early and modern Christian missions? Mark Nanos proposes an answer: the Shema, the declaration of God’s unity and “the most important ideological claim of Judaism,” is also “the central conviction of Paul’s theology.”11

According to Nanos, the acceptance of Gentiles sans proselyte conversion was inextricably linked with Paul’s conviction that the God of the Jews, because of His essential unity, was also the God of the Gentiles.12

So while the Twelve apparently remained in Jerusalem and oversaw the Jewish mission, Paul took the message of Jesus out to the Gentiles,13 with the Shema forming the basis for his ideological framework. Because God is the only legitimate “god,” the Gentiles must be turned to worship Him in the way He has delineated. For Paul, this “way” is Jesus Christ Himself, along with an ethical system based on the Jewish law, yet adapted to the particular situation of his non-Jewish converts.14

To put it in modern systematic terms, Paul’s “theology of mission” is a natural outgrowth of his “theology proper.” The basic fact of God’s unity is basis enough for Paul to spend his life convincing Gentiles of the futility of idolatry and the necessity of submission to God’s anointed King.

This conviction is underscored repeatedly in the Tanakh. Ps. 117:1 and Deut. 32:43, both quoted by Paul in Romans 15, both attest to the fact that the Jewish people looked forward to a time when the Gentiles would worship the God of Israel. Paul in Acts 13:47 quotes Isaiah 49:6, similarly announcing God’s intention to bring salvation “to the ends of the earth.” Another particularly interesting use of the Old Testament by Paul is his quotation in Galatians 3:8 of God’s promise to Abraham: that “all nations would be blessed” through him.

Jesus also shared the universal outlook of Moses, the Prophets, and Paul. Matthew records that Jesus admonished his disciples to teach “all the nations” (pan ta ethne, just as easily translated “all the Gentiles”). Similarly, Luke records Jesus’ command to go “to the ends of the earth.”

CONCLUSION

Numerous other aspects of a New Testament theology of mission, as based on Second Temple Judaism and the text of the Old Testament, could be explored through a survey of Scripture as well as other literature from the Second Temple period. However, such an exploration lies beyond the scope of this work. It remains only to briefly explore the ramifications of this concept – the unity of God as expressed in Judaism as a basis for missions – for missionaries, church leaders, and laymen.

If Paul’s theology of missions was based on a Weltanschauung that was fundamentally Jewish in nature, and relied heavily on God’s self-disclosure through Moses and the Prophets as well as through the person of Christ, modern missionaries should be sure that their worldview is similarly informed. A Gospel message that encompasses Genesis 1-3 and Romans through Revelation, bypassing the role of the Jewish people and their unique position as God’s chosen people through whom the revelation of God was given, is too shallow.15

Church leaders must also understand the universal scope of God’s program from the very beginning of history and throughout the history of Israel, in order to more accurately teach their congregations about the history, scope, and importance of missions. Likewise the layman should come to an understanding of his role in God’s program and how he relates to the Jewish people and to the rest of the Gentile world, so that he has an incentive to personally take part in the evangelistic effort and contribute financially to missions as well as to the welfare of the Jewish people (Rom. 15:27).

1John Brown Myers, William Carey (London: S. W. Partridge, 1887), 10.

2Stephen Neill, Owen Chadwick, A History of Christian Missions (New York: Penguin, 1991).

3The same problem can be detected in Ralph Winter’s overview of Christian missions in “The Kingdom Strikes Back,” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader, ed. Ralph D. Winter and Stephen Hawthorne (Pasadena, CA: William Carey University, 2009), 209-227.

4See for example Ralph Winter, “The Two Structures of God’s Redemptive Mission,” in World Christian Movement, 245: “It may be shocking at first to think that God made use of either a Jewish synagogue pattern or a Jewish evangelistic pattern. But this must not be more surprising than the fact that God employed the use of the pagan Greek language…” (emphasis his).

5For example, Neill and Chadwick, History of Christian Missions, 15.

6Louis Feldman, Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996).

7Paula Fredricksen, Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 3-40: “In antiquity, gods ran in the blood. … Ancient ethnicity and religion stand on the same continuum.”

8George Foot Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1927).

9“Missions” is used from here on as a singular noun, as there is not more than one “mission” being discussed, yet the plural “missions” has developed its own specific and widely recognized meaning. See A. Scott Moreau, Gary R. Corwin, and Gary B. McGee, Introducing World Missions: A Biblical Historical, and Practical Survey (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 17.

10Anthony Saldarini, Matthew’s Jewish-Christian Community (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 50.

11Mark Nanos, “Paul and the Jewish Tradition: The Ideology of the Shema” (paper presented at the Jubilee Year of Paul Lecture Series, Villanova University, October 23, 2008), 1-4.

12Ibid., 11.

13Gal. 2:9.

14See Peter Tomson, Paul and the Jewish Law: Halacha in the Letters of the Apostle to the Gentiles (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990) for specific examples.

15Cf. Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).

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