Mission

Retelling the Ascension Story

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Three days after Jesus was buried, he rose from the grave and appeared to his disciples. Over the course of the next forty days, the resurrected Jesus, with his nail-pierced hands and spear-split side, spent time in the company of his friends—teaching them, encouraging them, and preparing them for a mission to take the story of his resurrection to the furthest reaches of the globe. On one of those occasions, as Jesus was eating with his friends, he told them to wait for the gift the Father had promised—the Holy Spirit Jesus had told them about. The Holy Spirit would come and comfort them and lead them forward. They were to remain in Jerusalem until this happened.

JUST WAIT HERE

It could not have been easy for the disciples to sit with their risen Lord. For as much joy and hope as Jesus’ resurrection brought them, they had been present at his death. They had witnessed the brutal execution of this man they loved, followed, and gave their lives to serving. They saw his beaten and bloody form hang from the cross as he breathed his last. After he died, they were hollowed out with grief.

Along with their grief was the guilt. The trauma of the crucifixion had revealed weaknesses in each one of them. They watched their loyalty to Jesus collapse under the weight of the chief priests’ resolve to put an end to what he had started. Not one of them had shown the strength they believed they possessed when Jesus was taken into custody. Each one denied knowing him in his greatest hour of need.

On top of the grief and the guilt was the fact that the world as they knew it had changed. When the resurrected Jesus appeared to his disciples, it was to remind them of their call to be his witnesses in the world. But after the resurrection, they hardly knew what that world was anymore.

They were fragile and unsettled, but they could not escape the reality that Jesus had in fact risen. And they knew they were somehow tied up in it. How could they not be? In a world where everyone dies, one man’s resurrection becomes instantly relevant to all. His resurrection was part of their story.

The disciples used that time to ask questions of Jesus. They wanted to understand what would happen next. Would he deal with the religious leaders who opposed him? Would he overthrow Rome? Would he restore the kingdom of Israel to her former glory? And if so, when? Would they be part of it?

THE COMING POWER

Jesus told them the Father was establishing his kingdom, but the particulars of this business were not theirs to know. Such knowledge belonged to God alone. What he could tell them, however, was that the Holy Spirit would come on each one of them in a matter of days, and when he did, they would be filled with power.

In that power, they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. This Great Commission, the disciples came to understand, was very much about the kingdom of God. Their mission, though they struggled to grasp it, was in some way the work of building the kingdom of God. The Holy Spirit and the kingdom of God—the two main subjects Jesus discussed after his resurrection—were inseparably linked, meaning the disciples’ call to bear witness to Christ carried eternal significance.

Forty days after the resurrection the disciples were on the Mount of Olives and Jesus was with them. He told them they would be his witnesses, and after he said this, he began to rise up into the sky right before their eyes. Up he went, until a cloud hid him from their sight. The disciples stood in silence as they watched him go. In that moment the world became an even greater mystery than the one the resurrection demanded they embrace.

Jesus did not need to visibly ascend. What the disciples witnessed was not for Jesus’ benefit but for theirs. He did it so they would know he was actually gone. They would not see him the next day. He would not attend to them in the same way he had these past forty days. They were not to wait for him. Now they were to wait for the Holy Spirit.

As the disciples stood, looking up and watching their friend vanish, two angelic beings dressed in white appeared. The luminous apparitions said, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing here looking into the sky? This same Jesus who has now been taken up will come again. He will descend in the same way you saw him ascend into heaven. He is coming back.”

But as far as the disciples were concerned, the time for standing around and looking up to heaven had passed. They needed to let Jesus go and step into the mission he had given them. What was happening in the sky was not their chief concern. What was happening on earth was.

The disciples responded by obeying Jesus’ command to wait. They left the Mount of Olives and went back into Jerusalem and gathered many of Jesus’ followers together in the upper room where they were staying.

USING THE TIME

More than 120 people were gathered in all. There were the eleven disciples: Simon Peter, James and John (the sons of Zebedee), Peter’s brother Andrew, Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthew the tax collector, Simon the zealot, Alphaeus’s son James, and James’s son Judas. With them were the women who had discovered the empty tomb, Jesus’ mother, Mary, Jesus’ brothers, and many more whose lives had been changed by Jesus.

For ten days they waited, but it was not a passive waiting. They used the time. They joined together to pray. They prepared for the work that lay ahead. This was an act of obedience to their slain and risen Lord. In their waiting they trusted him, even though their understanding of what lay ahead was less than clear.

Jesus never told them how long they would have to wait for the Holy Spirit to come—just that he would arrive in a little while. After all that had transpired in Jerusalem in recent weeks, remaining there was as much an act of courage as it was an act of faith. This was the city where Jesus had been arrested, beaten, crucified, and buried. This was the place where Judas had betrayed Jesus for a pocket full of silver and where Peter had denied knowing Jesus for fear of a child’s accusation. This was the city that seemed bent on erasing any trace of the movement Jesus started.

There were more appealing places to wait and families many of them could have gone home to. Each had the option to return to their homes in places like Galilee, Nazareth, and Cana. They could have gone back to their old jobs—fishing, collecting taxes, carpentry, prostitution. They could have even gone back to their old religions—Judaism or Roman paganism. But those who gathered in the upper room didn’t. They chose to obey Christ, and they waited. And they used their time.

THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE KING

Each person gathered in that upper room over the course of those days had been changed in some way through their relationship with Jesus. The cast of characters would have included people like Mary Magdalene, who had once been possessed by demons, and Nicodemus, the Pharisee who helped cover the cost of Jesus’ burial. Perhaps the synagogue ruler from Capernaum, Jairus, was there with his daughter Talitha, whom Jesus had raised from the dead, and perhaps they were huddled together in friendship with Lazarus, whom Jesus had also raised from the dead. Former lepers, newly sighted blind people, and once-paralyzed beggars would have been milling about in the crowd too.

As it has always been with the people of God, their desire to obey Christ was strengthened by the bond of their fellowship with one another. God had made them to need one another—to be known, loved, and supported. This was the power and influence of Jesus in each of their lives. He had loved and served them in such a way that they had come to need one another. The usual dividing lines of the day—wealth, nationality, reputation—were already beginning to blur. These were people who had come to accept that they were all weak and that Jesus had been strong for them. They were all poor and Jesus had been generous with them. They were all outsiders and Jesus had given them a place with him. These truths drew them toward one another.


Taken from The Mission of the Body of Christ (Retelling the Story Series) by Russ Ramsey. Copyright (c) 2018 by Russ Ramsey. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com.

Russ Ramsey and his wife and four children make their home in Nashville, Tennessee. He is the author of StruckBehold the Lamb of God, and was awarded the 2016 Christian Book Award from the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association for his book Behold the King of Glory. Russ grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). He is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and his writing has appeared at The Rabbit Room, The Gospel Coalition, The Blazing Center, and To Write Love on Her Arms.

Mission as an Act of Worship

Please enjoy a free excerpt from our next book from Ben Connelly, A Pastor's Guide to Everyday Mission: Navigating the Paradox of Leading God’s People and Pursuing God’s Mission. Releasing at the start of June.

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John Piper famously begins Let the Nations Be Glad with:

Missions is not the ultimate purpose of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t. Worship 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… 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.” Missions begins and ends in worship.

Participating in God’s mission is an act of worship.

“Missions exists because worship doesn’t”

But our participation in his mission is not a man-made response, as if in an attempt to pay a debt to God, a counsel of Christians considered multiple options and landed on missions. Instead, like every other act of worship, this was always part of God’s design. These words are on the last page of Let the Nations Be Glad:

The ultimate goal of God in all of history is to uphold and display his glory for the enjoyment of the redeemed from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. …The church is bound to engage with the Lord of glory in his cause. It is our unspeakable privilege to be caught up with him in the greatest movement in history—the ingathering of the elect from every tribe and language and people and nation.

From Genesis to Revelation, we see God unfolding his story of redemption. And at least from Genesis 12, when God tells Abraham he’ll be blessed in order that “you will be a blessing” (v.1), God involves his people—as inadequate, unskilled, and disobedient as we are—to fulfill that mission. This continues through both Testaments, as God calls both his Old and New Covenant people his “nation of priests.”

Jesus, of course, is the climax of God’s mission. As the ultimate Sent One of the Father, Jesus entered the darkness of this world and pursued the people God sent him to. As the most well-known verse in all the Bible says,

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. – John 3:16–17

And when he returns to the right hand of the Father, the Son promises his followers that the Spirit will come and empower them to continue the same mission he started during his time on earth.

God wants missionaries at the ends of the earth and at the end of the cornfield.

If this is new for you, here are just a few of the clearest biblical passages that display God’s design for his people to serve as his missionaries; to make disciples of those around us:

[God] through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. – 2 Corinthians 5:18–20

You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. – 1 Peter 2:9

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me [i.e., Jesus]. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” – Matthew 28:18–20

“I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” – John 17:15–18

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” – Romans 10:14–15

Sing to the LORD, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples! – Psalm 96:2–3

Ministers, we cannot ignore God’s mission, nor abdicate our pursuit of it, obedience to it, and position in it! Mission is commanded by God. Mission is at the heart of God. Mission is why Jesus came to earth from the right hand of God. Mission is an act of worship to God.

GOD CALLS ALL HIS PEOPLE MISSIONARIES

To be clear, none of the verses above were written exclusively to “paid” ministers. They’re written to every Christ-follower—because God’s call to mission goes far deeper than just those of us who are paid by Christian ministries. On one hand, this is a relief. We’re not in it alone! On the other hand, the fact that God’s mission is shared among his people makes it an even more vital part of our lives. We’re not missionaries because we’re ministers; we’re missionaries because we’re Christians!

MISSION FOR NON-MINISTERS

For the people we lead, their role in life—student, lawyer, mother, teacher, or friend—pales in comparison to the identity that God has given them in the gospel. For example, because of who God is and what he does, every follower of Jesus is a son or daughter and an heir of God; every Christian is also simultaneously a sinner and saint. Non-ministers (in the sense I’m using the term) don’t get to reject those identities when they enter the classroom or courtroom, because their identities are deeper than their roles. In the same way, missionary is part of every Christian’s God-given identity. In Christ, God gives us “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18); thus, all Christians are part of reconciling the world to God. In 2 Corinthians, God calls us all his “ambassadors” (those sent to a foreign land, representing a dignitary) and, in 1 Peter, “priests” (mediators between God and others). In Acts 2, Jesus sends his people out as his “witnesses.” In Matthew 5, he calls us “salt of the earth” and “light of the world.” Over and over, the Bible shows that God has gloriously woven mission into our very identity in Christ. It goes far deeper than the other roles we may play. Anyone who calls himself or herself a Christian, God calls his missionary.

MISSION FOR MINISTERS

But let’s pull our chairs together, lower our voices, and make sure no one’s listening as we talk honestly. For paid ministers, the hard part of living in the both-and of ministry and mission is this: It’s easy to call on the doctors, lawyers, EMT’s, and pizza deliverers in our ministries to live for God in their careers, but we think we already do, all day everyday day! While it’s easy to call students and retirees to sacrifice and lay down their lives for God, we get paid to do exactly that! The roles that we play are already saturated with Jesus-y things; the tasks we complete involve talking about and modeling godliness. In fact, if we happen to find time for mission in the midst of our consistently-crammed calendars, we may feel that we’re actually stealing time from someone in our ministry. “And those are the people who I should prioritize, right? While mission sounds good biblically, it’s so darn hard. My board’s already breathing down my neck. My people are just so needy.” We couldn’t possibly leave our flock of 99, in pursuit of one lowly lost sheep…could we?

GOD CALLS MINISTERS TO LEAD HIS PEOPLE WHERE THEY SHOULD GO

We’ve all heard the phrase “as goes the leader, so goes the organization.” In more biblical terms, Peter calls ministers to be “among” our people as “examples to the flock” (1 Pt 5:2), and Paul’s leadership involved calling others to “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). As leaders, we’re called to model for our people, the life we’re calling them to. So here’s the reality for those of us in leadership in Christian groups: as a ministry leader, you must also serve as its lead missionary. If you’re a leader in a church, then you need to lead your people into mission unless you’re content with your church’s growth being primarily by transfer.

If you lead a parachurch organization, then you need to lead your people into mission unless you want to find yourself surrounded with already-Christians. If you’re a leader in any other type of ministry, then you need to lead your people into mission unless you want to wake up one day and realize how insulated your world has become.

Honestly, the few of God’s people he’s entrusted to my inadequate oversight and stewardship are far more likely to go somewhere if I lead them there. Sheep need shepherds; ministries need leaders. And if we’ve taken up the mantle of serving others by leading God’s people, then it’s up to us to lead them where they need to go. Whatever other titles, roles, and duties we may have, if we believe that all Christians are called to “go and make disciples,” we must first embrace that part of the gospel DNA that runs through our own God-given blood: We are missionaries. Then, as leaders of other gospel-formed missionaries, we must step into the title, role, and duties of being lead missionaries of our organizations.

IT’S NOT AS HARD AS YOU THINK

Next, we dive into the deep end of this issue, lay a biblical foundation, and will be awakened to the reasons many ministers neglect a life of mission. This truth may leave some of you feeling godly conviction. It may, however, leave you feeling guilty or shameful and unsure of what to do.

Any feeling of inadequacy, guilt, or weakness is simply a glimpse of the biblical reality for every minister. So if you feel regret for your lack of pursuit of God’s mission, the gospel encourages you. The Apostle Paul—arguably the greatest missionary ever—says:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. … Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. – 2 Corinthians 12:9; 3:5–6

If you’re feeling unsure of what to do or the next step to take, then know that the rest of the book is devoted to helping you. In the remainder of this guide, you will consider biblical principles, heart postures, and practical ideas to weave God’s call to mission into the chaotic tapestry of vocational ministry. But it’s not as hard as you may think.

You likely know someone whom God has given the gift of evangelism—he’s the one who can make friends with a Buckingham Palace guard; she’s the one whose very presence seems to make people fall to their knees and declare their need for Jesus. Praise God for giving that gift to some of his people—but it’s not required to be a missionary. To some of his people, God has given the gift of evangelism, but to all of his people, he’s given the mission of making disciples. As the lead missionary in your ministry, you don’t have to be “that guy” or “that gal” to lead others to make disciples. There are no specific traits, Myers-Briggs types, or DISC profile necessary to lead your organization to live out our missionary identity in Christ. It’s not as hard as you may think.

In fact, the first requirement for being a lead missionary is the first requirement for most of a life of following Jesus: love.

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Ben Connelly, his wife Jess, and their daughters Charlotte and Maggie live in Fort Worth, TX. He started and now co-pastors The City Church, part of the Acts29 network and Soma family of churches. Ben is also co-author of A Field Guide for Everyday Mission (Moody Publishers, 2014). With degrees from Baylor University and Dallas Theological Seminary, Ben teaches public speaking at TCU, writes for various publications, trains folks across the country, and blogs in spurts at benconnelly.net. Twitter: @connellyben.