Jesus and Mission

Near the beginning of his ministry, Jesus visited the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. When asked to read from Scripture, he chose a passage from Isaiah that defined his mission:

  “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
      because he has anointed me
      to preach good news to the poor.
   He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
      and recovery of sight for the blind,
   to release the oppressed,
   to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk 4:15-19)

On a certain evening in Capernaum, Jesus healed many sick people and cast out demons. The next morning, the crowds came back for more and the disciples excitedly urged him to give them what they wanted. Jesus responded with a statement about mission: “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” (Mk 1:32-38)

Jesus was criticized once for eating with tax collectors and sinners. He answered his critics with a statement of mission: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Lk 5:27-32)

After a long conversation with a Samaritan woman beside a well (speaking of “living water” and missing husbands), Jesus welcomed back the disciples he’d sent into the village for food. They handed him lunch. But he declined it and spoke of mission as the only food he truly needed: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” (Jn 4:34)

Explaining himself before the crowds in the waning days of his ministry, Jesus distinguished himself from charlatans and thieves on the basis of mission: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that [you] may have life, and have it to the full.” (Jn 10:10)

You can almost hear the relief in his voice when, on the last night of his life, he reports to his Father about his mission: I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do.” (John 17:4)

What “Mission” Meant to Jesus

Mission. Always mission. A constant sense of mission. “The reason I have come …” “The reason I was sent …” “The Father’s will …” “The work the Father has given me to do …”

The mission of Jesus focused on revealing the Father, reaching the lost, preaching good news. His sense of that mission was so strong, it always kept “the main thing the main thing.” It would not allow him to be distracted or diverted. It reminded him, on a daily basis, of what his essential, core business truly was. It kept him focused. It directed him to certain people: the poor; the people of Israel; the spiritually hungry. It determined how he used his time and energy.

When the disciples wanted Jesus healing, his sense of mission sent Jesus preaching. When the crowds of Capernaum wanted Jesus for themselves, his sense of mission sent Jesus to other places. When critics carped, Jesus measured himself not by their censure but by the mission he’d been given. When the wealthy and powerful demanded his attention, Jesus remembered it was the poor to whom he was sent.

It was his sense of mission that allowed Jesus to explain a healing on the Sabbath: “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working.” (Jn 5:17) When his audience hoped for comforting words, the mission of Jesus drove him to offer something else: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Mt 10:34) When the wiser course might have been to keep his mouth closed before Pilate, Jesus’ sense of mission drove him to make outrageous claims: “You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” (Jn 18:37)

Perhaps as importantly as anything else, Jesus’ overwhelming sense of mission allowed him to say “No.” “No, I’m not going to do what you demand.” “No, I will not back down.” “No, I will not be quiet.” “No, I will not acknowledge your authority.”

Mission. It burned in Jesus. It is difficult to even think of him and his ministry outside the context of the work God had commissioned him to do.

The Focusing Power of Mission

It is easy to overlook  the reality that, for a man like Jesus—who had so many resources at hand (wisdom, healing power, insight into human beings, charismatic leadership qualities)—the opportunities and issues on which to concentrate those resources would have been just as vast.

Think about it. Jesus could have gone into climate control (calming storms, making rain). He could have eradicated world hunger (multiplying loaves, ensuring massive catches of fish). He could have defeated disease (healing and enabling others to heal). He could have led a rebellion, overthrown the Romans, and crowned himself “King” of Jerusalem.

For a man of almost infinite ability, there are infinite opportunities. But Jesus knew the surest way to destroy his effectiveness and dilute his energies was to focus on either the wrong thing or too many things. That’s why Jesus was so conscious of his mission, so focused on the main thing, so willing to say “No” to any other possibility.

The Tempter wanted Jesus to turn stones into bread, fling himself from the Temple, take over the kingdoms of this world (Mt 4:3-10). Jesus refused, not only because it was the Tempter talking, but because what the Tempter asked was off-mission.

Though Jesus healed, he wasn’t in the healing business. He left off healing in Capernaum to begin preaching “somewhere else” (Mk 1:32-38) because his prime mission involved preaching good news, not curing leprosy. You can see this so clearly in that curious story reported in John 5: the healing of the lame man at the pool of Bethesda. The sick and disabled gathered at the pool in “great numbers,” lying in the shade of surrounding colonnades and waiting for the waters to stir. Jesus could have healed them all with a word. He could have spent his day touching every sick person there, releasing them from the bondage of disease. Such a mass healing would surely have done wonders for his reputation. Instead, Jesus chose one out of many—a long-lame man—and commanded him to “Pick up your mat and walk” (Jn 5:11). When Jesus healed, it was in the context of a wider and greater mission. He healed strategically. He never allowed healing to become the point.

Though Jesus fed crowds and made wine for wedding feasts, physical food wasn’t what he majored (or even minored) in. Yes, he fed the five thousand (Jn 6). But later (in the same chapter), Jesus was careful to put “bread” in its proper context: “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me … because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you” (Jn 6:26-27). Jesus fed strategically. He never allowed the stomachs of the crowds to get between him and their souls.

Though Jesus gathered crowds wherever he went, though he taught the crowds at every opportunity, his mission wasn’t a matter of building strong numbers and developing a popular following. He was quite willing to say unpopular things (“Anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me”—Mt 10:38) and turn people away (“From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him”—Jn 6:66). Jesus’ interactions with the crowds were driven by his sense of mission, not the other way around.

As a final example of this “focusing power of mission,” let me comment on how mission pervaded Jesus’ understanding of his target audience. There is a sense in which Jesus came for “all people,” to save “the world,” and to bless “everyone.” But such universal reach was a consequence of his ministry, not a focus of it. Jesus spent his time and efforts working with “the lost sheep of Israel.” He didn’t travel to Greece. He didn’t work with the neighboring Egyptians. He could have. But he didn’t. He was the “Son of Abraham,” sent to minister to Abraham’s stubborn offspring. Jesus even limited the initial ministry of his disciples to the Hebrews: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.” (Mt 10:5-6)

There was one brief excursion Jesus made into the “region of Tyre and Sidon”—Gentile territory—where he cast a demon out of a Gentile girl (Mt 15:21ff). And he did heal the servant of a Roman centurion (Mt 8:5ff). But these were exceptions that proved the rule: Jesus focused his ministry on Jews. This “sense of audience” becomes clear in the Matthew 15 story. A Gentile woman approached Jesus to heal her daughter. At first, he refused even to speak to the woman, knowing she was not a member of his primary audience (Mt 15:21-23). When at last he answered her (after persistent hectoring!), his response was dictated by mission: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (vs 24). When still she insisted, Jesus allowed mission to trump politeness: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” (vs 26). Only after a reply so humble it melted Jesus’ heart (“Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table”), did he allow his mission to broaden to include one gentile woman and her disturbed daughter.

The point is that Jesus never allowed his mission to be derailed by other agendas or distracting opportunities. He had a clear sense of what God had commissioned him to do and kept to that throughout his ministry. He dealt with situations as they arose (storms, hungry crowds, sick children), but never allowed his larger mission to become situational. Had Jesus not been governed by this magnetic attraction to his prime mission (in other words, had he done ministry like most of our churches today), he would have spread himself so thinly, distracted himself so thoroughly, attempted to go in so many directions at once, that his ministry would have sputtered to an ineffectual halt and his mission would never have been accomplished.

[Read the first article in this series.]

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© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.