This article examines the mission of God in the sending of Jesus. It gives special attention to the Father-Son relationship in the missio Dei. Subsequent articles will examine the themes of the radiant glory and redemptive grace in the person and mission of Jesus with attention to the sending of the disciples and discussion of the ultimate goal of the missio Dei as illuminated by John’s record.
When it seems like you are muddling along, or when you fear your church or organization is drifting from its purpose, it can be incredibly helpful to review the foundational truths about mission. Fresh encounters with the mission of God bring clarity and focus on what is important for the church. Mission literally means “sending,” and the concept of sending becomes a keynote of the Fourth Gospel.
The missio Dei is interwoven through the fabric of history and biblical revelation, but John’s Gospel is especially illuminating. According to a Johannine view, mission originates in the heart of the Triune God and encompasses the sending of Jesus by the Father (3:17), the sending of the Spirit by the Father and Son (14:26, 16:7), and the sending of the disciples by Jesus (20:21). Mission is God’s passion before it becomes our purpose. Mission is God reaching and longing over his prodigal world. If we would understand what it means to be sent, we should first meditate on the sending of Jesus into our world.
Fresh encounters with the mission of God bring clarity and focus on what is important for the church.
John’s Gospel highlights twin Christological motifs, the radiant glory and redemptive grace of Jesus, which characterize the essence of the missio Dei and epitomize the ultimate mission of the church. John 1:14 describes the glory and grace of God in the incarnation of Jesus: “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.” Radiant glory and redemptive grace have both messianic and missiological significance. John brings these together in his presentation of the person of Christ.
Jesus: The Sent Son
In the fourth gospel, John purposes to definitively prove that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (John 20:21). His magnificent Prologue declares, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (1:18). In the person of Jesus, the Father is made known to us. John documents many times where Jesus asserts His essential unity with the Father such as “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (14:19) and “I and the Father are one” (10:30). Of special interest, in the Johannine portrayal of Jesus, we have a clear picture of the Father’s mission.
John the Beloved, an eyewitness of the glory of God in Christ, specifically chose this material which reveals that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” for the purpose that his audience might believe in him and be partakers of eternal life (20:31). Accordingly, interwoven in the fabric of John’s gospel is evidence affirming the identity of the historical Jesus as Christ, the Son of God. John demonstrates how much of the intensifying tension with the Jewish leaders hinges on the identity and origin of Christ as Jesus asserts over and over that he had come down from the Father and was returning to the Father.
THE IDENTITY OF THE SON
John’s Christology sets the tone for the Fourth Gospel in the Prologue (1:1-18) with a high view of Christ’s deity and the miracle of His incarnation. Using the designation of Logos, the Evangelist portrays Jesus in the eternal Godhead, equal with the Father, and pre-existing everything of this world (1:1). He is not created but is, in truth, the Creator of all things (1:3). The image here is of the pre-existent, pre-eminent One, uncaused and uncreated. The cosmos is his own (1:10). Interestingly, John does not give a genealogy or a birth narrative for Jesus; instead, he traces the origin of Jesus back to eternity, before “the beginning” (1:1, 2). “The ultimate origins of the Jesus Messiah, John will insist, are in the pre-incarnate Word who was with God and was God.”1 John, testifying as an eyewitness, is thus attesting that the incarnate Word is the historical Jesus dwelling among men (1:14).
The identity of Jesus as God is further substantiated by His nature. John declares, “We beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (1:14 KJV). His glory, grace, and truth are not only descriptive of his ministry but also of his very nature as God. This is important to an understanding of the mission of God. God gave his Son because he loved (John 3:16). God does what he does because of who he is. His activity is connected to his character. His purposes cannot be separated from his person.
Throughout the Gospel, Christological designations are used to identify Jesus. The plain affirmation of Jesus as the Son of God is noted recurrently throughout the Fourth Gospel. John frequently uses the messianic term, “Christ,” for Jesus, thereby linking him “with Jewish expectations.” 2 In the seven “I Am” declarations and elsewhere Jesus adopts this designation “to claim equality with God.”3 Further, Jesus accepts others calling him Lord, most notably in Thomas’ confession, “My Lord and my God” (20:28). Several times monogenēs is used to describe the uniqueness of the Son (1:14, 18; 3:16, 18). Translated in the authorized version as “only Begotten,” this term better describes Jesus as the “one and only, best-loved” Son.4 John uses monogenēs regarding the Son’s uniqueness in special connection with the incarnation (1:14, 18) and the cross (3:16-18),5 thus illustrating how the radiant glory and redemptive grace of Jesus are elemental to his identity and mission. Other Johannine portrayals of Christological themes could be developed, but certainly, as Kostenberger recognizes, “for the fourth evangelist, Jesus’ unique identity functions as the foundation of his unique mission.”6
THE UNITY OF THE SON WITH THE FATHER
During Jesus’ Farewell Discourse, Philip interjects a request for a special revelation of God, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us” (14:18). One can sense the pathos of Jesus’ response, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?”
In his magnificent Prologue, John, writing with post-exaltation clarity, exhibits none of Philip’s ambiguity regarding the essential unity of the Son with the Father. Indeed, he begins with the truth that the pre-incarnate Christ was God and was with God in the beginning (1:1). The beloved Son was “in the bosom of the Father” (1:18 KJV), a phrase highlighting the love which unites Father and Son. Jesus declares explicitly, “I and my Father are one” in John 10:30 and in his John 17 prayer, you sense tender intimacy when he prays that his disciples may be one “as we are one” (17:11, 22) and “just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you” (17:21).
THE VOLUNTARY SUBORDINATION OF THE SON
In the same passage where Jesus tells Philip, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father” (14:9), Jesus makes an apparent contradiction with this concept of essential unity when he states, “My Father is greater than I” (14:28). Little effort is required to reconcile these two concepts, though this was at the forefront of the fourth-century Arian controversy. Jesus has just noted that the Father has sent him (14:24) and in John 13:16, Jesus indicates that the sender is greater than the sent. This does not undermine the equality of Son with the Father or diminish their unity. Rather, it demonstrates the harmony of the Godhead in that the Son voluntarily submits to the Father for the fulfillment of the mission of redemption. The unity of the Father and Son includes both an ontological unity (unity of being) and a functional unity (unity of purpose).7 This unity of being and purpose culminates in the voluntary submission of the Son to the Father in humility, love, and faithfulness for the missio Dei.
On Mission with the Father
The sending of Jesus should be understood as the crux of the missio Dei. In perfect union with the Father’s mission, the Son is sent into the world.
If we would understand what it means to be sent, we should first meditate on the sending of Jesus into our world.
The Fourth Gospel’s primary focus is the mission of Jesus: he is the one who comes into the world, accomplishes his work and returns to the Father; he is the one who descended from heaven and ascends again; he is the Sent One, who, in complete dependence and obedience to his sender, fulfills the purpose for which the Father sent him.8
Jesus would never lose sight of his Father’s mission. It permeated every aspect of his activity. Thus, after an exhausting day of travel—hot, thirsty, hungry, and tired—Jesus found ministry to the Samaritan woman at the well-side to be soul food because he was doing his Father’s will and accomplishing his Father’s work (4:34). His words were not his own words, but his Father’s (14:24). His teaching was not his own, but his Father’s (7:16). His works were not his own, but his Father’s (14:10). Thus, Jesus would declare, “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” (6:38).
John the Beloved clearly portrays Jesus as the Son of God on mission with the Father. But what should we consider to be the essential nature of this mission? Where does the cross fit in the missio Dei? The next article will explore the themes of radiant glory and redemptive grace in the mission of Jesus.
Coming soon: The Sending of Jesus in John’s Gospel: With Radiant Glory and Redeeming Grace (Part 2).
- D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to JOHN, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991), 120.
- Andreas J. Kostenberger, The Mission of Jesus and the Disciples according to the Fourth Gospel: With Implications for the Fourth Gospel’s Purpose and the Mission of the Contemporary Church, (Grand Rapids: William B, Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 49.
- Carson, Gospel According to JOHN, 128.
- Kostenberger, Mission of Jesus and His Disciples, 48-49.
- Ibid., 50.
- Andreas J. Kostenberger, Encountering John: The Gospel in Historical, Literary, and Theological Perspective, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 147.
- Andreas J. Kostenberger and Peter T. O’Brien, Salvation to the Ends of the Earth: A Biblical Theology of Mission (Downers Grove, IL, Intervarsity Press, 2001), 201.