The Christian term mission refers to the idea that God has sent his people into the world in the same way that he sent his Son. Jesus told his followers, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21). Jesus’ followers are equipped with the task of announcing the love of God in Jesus Christ to the world. Where the church has resorted to ugly militant (whether metaphorical and literal) methods of expanding its borders is where the church stands in outright opposition to the mission of Christ.
Far from stifling indigenous culture, Christian mission ought tocause individuals as well as cultures to flourish in all their unique God-given brightness. In Chapter 6 we talked about how the Holy Spirit fills individuals and causes all the nuances of their personality to flourish in Jesus. In the same way, the Spirit fills communities and causes all their cultural nuances and beauty to come alive in Christ.
Community itself is a reflection of the Son of God who has eternally been alive in relationship and community with his Father in the Holy Spirit. The life and cultures produced as a result of community, relationship, and teamwork are all a reflection of the life of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Human culture is swimming with images of Jesus. Dance, food, music, art, work – all the things which make a culture a unique culture, are glimpses of the character of Jesus. When a culture meets Jesus they are merely being introduced to the source of their identity as a culture himself. When any people-group meets Jesus there is a kind of homecoming that occurs.
We have been considering typology, the study of images and pictures of Jesus. We have looked at how the Old Testament is filled with types of Christ like Moses, David, and the Tabernacle. The New Testament authors recognized that these were types which give us a more full understanding of God’s Messiah. But the New Testament authors also recognized that images like bread, water, trees, shepherds, kings – images not only from the Hebrew Bible but also from the world itself – are types of Christ. So typology does not stop in the Old Testament; rather, reality lends itself to typology since it was created “by, through, and for Jesus.”
If Christian mission is the work of announcing the love of God in Jesus Christ, and if the world is full of types which declare the story of the love of God in Jesus Christ, then typology has everything to do with how you do mission. To do mission is to announce Jesus, who is the Meaning and Purpose of everything that is important to a given person or culture.
Timothy Tennant argues that “Jesus does not enter any culture as a stranger.” This is perhaps the most profound and important insight for Christian mission.
This insight is important for the one who is hearing the Gospel for the first time; this person must recognize that Jesus is the source of anything good and rich and enjoyable that they have experienced. All the hopes and dreams any person can experience are only shadows of Jesus. Jesus is not an alien who enters a completely unfamiliar world. He is the source of life who has sustained all community and culture. Jesus enters a culture like Bob Dylan enters a Bob Dylan store. Jesus is the meaning of their world.
But I think Tennant’s insight is even more important for the missionary to grasp; the missionary must not look down their nose at foreign cultures; rather, they must recognize that every culture has been designed to uniquely display the glory and beauty of Jesus. Missionaries should embrace and work to sustain cultural uniqueness and beauty more than anyone. Sustaining and cultivating culture ought to be a passion of the missionary.
The missionary carries the unfamiliar message of Jesus to a culture. But within that culture are hundreds of beautiful cultural nuances that are unfamiliar to the missionary. The missionary seeks to communicate the unfamiliar (Jesus) in terms of the familiar (the culture) to the people-group. But in this process, the culture imparts hundreds of unique images and traditions to help the missionary see Jesus in a greater fullness. While the culture is introduced to Jesus, both the missionary and the culture learn more about Jesus. So there is a kind of exchange that happens.
For years Don Richardson was unable to communicate the Gospel to the Sawi people. This people-group, who considered betrayal a virtue, favored Judas over Jesus in the story of the Gospel. He was their idea of a hero. Not Jesus.
After many years of struggling to communicate the love of Christ in a compelling way to the Sawi people, Richardson discovered the tradition of the “peace-child” within this culture. In this practice, two tribes would exchange newborn babies at their birth. Each baby was a peace-child, and the two tribes were allied. Although betrayal was a virtue within the Sawi culture, the peace-child was a sharp exception. No one violated the peace-child treaty.
So Richardson began to explain Jesus in terms of the peace-child; he was the peace-child God had sent to make an alliance with humanity, and humans had betrayed God and killed the peace-child. This imagery rang true with the Sawi people and they repented and followed Jesus.
Richardson essentially translated the story of the Gospel into the context of the Sawi culture; he communicated the message of Jesus with words and metaphors that were compelling and relevant to the people he was engaging. Richardson, as he reflects and writes later in his life, is convinced that the peace-child was an image designed by God for the purpose of communicating the Gospel. He believes that God has planted these kind of images throughout cultures all over the globe. The missionary’s task is to identify the images which already exist in these cultures and use them to explain Jesus.
What Richardson is describing is similar to if not precisely the same as typology. The peace-child is a type of Christ. The story of the Sawi people showcases the reality that is woven into the fabric of every culture and the entire world. If Jesus is the one whom the world was created by, through, and for, then we would expect to find such things as the peace-child which easily lend themselves to illustrations of Christ that ring true in the hearts of indigenous people.
Jesus was doing the same when he explained himself in terms of the Bread of Life or the True Shepherd. He was doing typology. We find this also in Isaiah’s famous proclamation, the Lord’s promise that “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Is 1:18). Jesus is the True and Greater Bread, the True and Greater Snow, and he is the True and Greater Peace-Child.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of mission is the work of translation. Christianity teaches that the Scripture ought to be made accessible to every people-group in their native language. God is in the business of incarnating, that is, he seeks to communicate himself to humanity in a familiar way.
This is the idea behind the opening of John’s Gospel: “The Word become flesh and dwelt among us (1:14)… no one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s right hand, he has made him known (1:18)” or literally “he has explained” or “translated” or “interpreted” him. In other words, people didn’t (and don’t) understand God, but Jesus makes God known. God wants people to know him, and the Son of God becoming a human is like the translation of the Word of God into a language that we understand.
And “there is a history of translation of the Bible because there was a translation of the Word into flesh”, as missiologist Andrew Walls puts it. The Bible is an extension of the principle of incarnation. The reason the Bible is a book is because humans like to read books. We like stories. We connect with stories. So God has communicated who he is in a basic and simple way: a book. We do the Scripture an injustice when we treat it like some sort of mysterious magic scroll to be unlocked or some kind of lofty religious text that only priests can interpret. The Scripture is a book because God knows we like stories.
The message and the story of Scripture is one of God seeking to communicate himself not through some kind of mysterious code but rather through incarnation, through what is familiar and common in a given culture. Translating the Scripture involves taking idioms and conventions and images from a given culture’s language and using these to explain Jesus. Essentially, translation takes the familiar things within a culture and shows how they have everything to do with Jesus.
The famous picture from the book of Revelation describes myriads of people from “from every tribe and language and people and nation” praising God and the Lamb. Right at the heart of the essence of God’s glory in the redemption of humanity is diversity.
Humans tend to err either by forcing a stark nationalism or racism or colonialism, or else they err by failing to express any kind of culture or communal identity. But the community of Christ calls for vibrant expression of thousands of different cultures in one unique song. Walls puts it like this: “There is, in all the wild profusion of the varying statements of these differing groups, one theme which is unvarying as the language which expresses it is various, that the person of Jesus called the Christ has ultimate significance.”
The unity and diversity need not balance, as if we have to give up diversity for the sake of unity, or visa versa. The community of Jesus thrives in unity and diversity. When diversity flourishes, then unity flourishes. When unity flourishes, then diversity flourishes.
To preserve diversity is to cultivate typology. To sustain the unique way a culture expresses Jesus is to say that Christ must not fit into one cookie-cut way of religion. Rather, Jesus encapsulates the fullness of every nuance of human tradition, and cultures find their happy home in him.
Brittany and I have been watching Season 3 of Chef’s Table. The first episode follows a Buddhist nun in her 60’s who creates world famous vegetable dishes at her monastery. One New York Chef was baffled at her philosophy and discipline of life, and ability to “pay attention” to life by deep meditation.
Christians will likely cringe at the positive spin on the spiritual lifestyle of a Buddhist nun. She wakes early to pray every morning. Who is she praying to? What is the source of her spiritual energy and insight?
This raises the age old question: does any good come from religion outside of Christianity? Do we have anything to learn from our Muslim and Buddhist and Hindu and even Atheist and Agnostic and Postmodern brothers and sisters?
I believe that typology gives us an answer to this question. Within the paradigm of the world of types, we can imagine how a Buddhist nun can find tremendous joy in a monastic life of solitude and savoring flavors and vegetables and gardening; she is able to find joy in this world precisely because she is submerged in a world that reflects the beauty and goodness of Jesus. Her philosophy and spirituality calls her to pay attention to the “orchestra” (her description of the sound of a bubbling brook). Yet, she has no allegiance to the Lordship of Christ. She is simultaneously gleaning the riches of Christ while missing him entirely.
That is the wonder and tragedy of the religion of humanity. There is great irony in this lifestyle. On one hand there is deep joy in experiencing the character of Christ in our earthly pursuits. There is indeed a profound Reason why bubbling brooks and mountains and savory flavors capture the human emotion. Yet on the other hand, the meaning of everything we enjoy and find significant alludes us if we reject the Lordship of Jesus.
That is why Christian mission is inestimably important; it is because life is meaningful. Children are meaningful. Food is meaningful. Careers are meaningful. Dance, social justice, literature, video games, are meaningful. This world we live in actually does mean something extremely profound. If we miss Jesus, we miss everything.
For Christians, we must announce the meaning.
Deep within the Christian agenda of mission is the conviction that everyone is searching for Jesus. Humans spend their lives searching for fulfillment in money, relationships, jobs, and anything else under the sun. The Scripture provides the message that all these things we search for are discovered in Jesus.
The New Testament authors brought the message of typology to the Jews. The temple, the Hebrew Bible, Jerusalem, King David, Abraham – all of these were good and important. But their goodness and importance was found in Jesus. In a similar way, we must bring typology to people living without Jesus. Careers, yoga, good food, politics, social justice – all of these are good and important, but all of their goodness and importance is found in Jesus.
The message of the Apostles was that the world of the Jews – i.e. Temple, Abraham, Hebrew Bible, Moses, etc. – found its fulfillment and greater purpose in Jesus. Our message today is that the entire world – careers, celebrities, books, good food, golf – finds its fulfillment and greater purpose in Jesus. Not only was the reality and history of Israel created by, through, and for Jesus; reality and history itself is created by, through, and for Jesus.
So it is not possible to share the Gospel without doing typology. The Message is that our world means something – or more accurately, our world means someone. There is someone this world is calling us to give up our lives for.