At times we slip into categories of desperation or even defeat. Some approach missions with a pious resignation to failure—after all, we were promised the world would reject us. Even those with a more hopeful outlook, who would rouse us to great missionary endeavors, sometimes motivate with past failures and the disgrace of an unfinished task.
When we look at our collective world and consider the missionary mandate, we note all we’re not doing, all the unengaged peoples we’re not reaching. We criticize the lack of giving and subsequent lack of resources, human and otherwise. When we turn to the global church, we become cynical, bemoaning shallow theologies and rampant false teaching around the world. Thus we label the missions glass half-empty. As a result, our global Christian perspective tilts toward melancholy.
But if we consistently approach missions from the standpoint of all we’re not doing, of all that’s yet to be done, we miss the glory of what has already been fulfilled. If Christ’s mission, as far as we’re concerned, remains largely unaccomplished, then we don’t have a fully formed biblical perspective, one that recognizes all that God has done and is now doing in the world.
Fulfillment from the Start
The final verses of Acts present a powerfully subversive picture. Luke records Paul, imprisoned in Rome, freely and daily proclaiming the message of the kingdom directly under the nose of Caesar (Acts 28:30–31). The good news had, in the span of one generation, traveled from a fearful group huddled in Jerusalem to the Gentile masses in the capital of the known world. Sometimes persecuted, sometimes scattered, Christ’s kingdom had spread and grown amid earthly kingdoms and raging nations.
Of course, Luke’s tone in Acts could’ve been much different. His record could’ve been dire and dread-filled. But he composed the first church history text to tell the story from a perspective of victory, albeit a victory through suffering. He did so taking Jesus’s life and death as the pattern, with our Lord’s final words as the thesis (Acts 1:8). The disciples were to be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth—and in one generation, they were!
The message of Acts, then, is primarily one of mission accomplished and promise fulfilled. Luke portrays Jesus’s words of commissioning not as the last gasp of a dying general hoping to hold territory, but the victorious prediction of a reigning King seated on the throne and reclaiming his realm. So, from the beginning, the church’s narrative has emphasized success. The Spirit-inspired outlook of the Christian mission—flawed, yes, and suffering—is strikingly positive.
Fulfillment in the Middle
But that was then. This is now. Since the earth-upending ministry of the apostles, the church has slumped in failure and inactivity. History is littered with church controversy and division. We’ve isolated and insulated ourselves from the world, or else we’ve become so much like the world that we’re of no heavenly good.
In my current role, traveling to countries where the gospel has spread in unprecedented ways, I could easily focus on innumerable problems. There’s rampant heterodoxy in Africa. Persecution reigns in much of Asia. Churches languish under gross abuse of power from without and within. Misapplication of Scripture is the norm. Sinful indulgence is unfortunately not rare.
But these aren’t new problems. Paul faced the same in his own sprouting congregations. Yet his demeanor was anything but constant gloom. Sure, he was vexed by Corinthian worldliness and Galatian gospel-distorting. His churches had no shortage of false teaching and false practices which aroused his ready rebuke. But that’s only half the story. We’d err to miss the positive tone of Paul concerning the church, and especially the rapid advance of the gospel.
The Corinthians, according to Paul, were saints who would judge angels (1 Cor. 6:3). The Macedonians, suffering in poverty, were abounding in generosity (2 Cor. 8:2). The Bereans were noble (Acts 17:11). The Philippians were faithful partners (Phil. 1:5). On account of the Thessalonians, the gospel had resounded throughout the whole region, going everywhere (1 Thess. 1:8). During Paul’s years in Ephesus, the good news spread to everyone in Asia Minor (Acts 19:10).
In fact, Paul exclaimed with joy that the gospel had gone into all the world (Col. 1:23; Rom. 10:18) and was bearing fruit and increasing (Col. 1:6). By the end of Paul’s life, he could speak with surprising confidence, using comprehensive language about his life and ministry to say the gospel was fully proclaimed to all the Gentiles (2 Tim. 4:17). If that was true then, it’s even more so today.
Fulfillment at the End
I suspect this effusive outlook of Paul rubbed off on Luke. But I think they both got it from Jesus. Jesus saw the end from the beginning, having the keenness of sight to recognize a kingdom growing from a minuscule seed, to envision a holy assembly against which hell itself couldn’t prevail.
When we consider mission, we often hover over the negative words of Jesus. We remember that the world will hate us. We recall that the way will be hard. The path is narrow, Jesus said, and those who find it few (Matt. 7:14). Yet we seem to forget Jesus’s hope-filled words in the next chapter. He announced that many would come from East and West and recline at table in the kingdom (Matt. 8:11). According to Jesus, many, and not a few, would inherit the kingdom and enjoy the feast.
We interpret Matthew 24:14 as a slap on our missionary wrists: Jesus’s delayed return is due to our missionary shortcomings. But I find the tone of Jesus in Matthew 24 to be quite positive, promising the success of the kingdom news and predicting it would reach all the world before the end.
So we have a choice. We can interpret those promised realities as indictment or inspiration. Or both. The Bible doesn’t merely expose our missionary failures. It should also read as a life-giving and hope-filled announcement of an accomplished mission, seeing our present in view of the future.
If our default perspective is a half-empty vision of global missions, then we have a half-picture of the whole truth. Such a view is dishonoring to Christ, his promises, and his worldwide bride. It’s also dishonoring to Scripture and the record of amazing gospel advance. Last of all, it’s dishonoring to missionaries who have carried the good news ever since Paul, witnessing to Christ in the uttermost parts of the earth.
Does that mean there’s no work left to be done? Absolutely not. Jesus promised the gospel of the kingdom would go to all nations—then he commissioned his followers to take it there. Paul could speak of the good news having reached the whole world yet still long to go to Spain. Acts demonstrates the fulfillment of Jesus’s promise all the way to Rome, then leaves us to finish the story.
But whenever we consider our role in that glorious missionary narrative, when we look at the state of the church globally, we should look with the eyes of the Bible. Despite all the real problems and challenges, I’m convinced a biblical perspective doesn’t focus as much on our failure as it does on God’s fulfillment. All over the world the gospel is advancing and bearing fruit. Jesus’s words are true. The kingdom is at hand. The glass is fuller than we realize.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on The Gospel Coalition on July 31, 2018. Used with permission.