In the Gospel of John, Jesus says he came to “finish the work” the Father had sent him to do. He prays that his disciples all “may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you” (Jn 17:21 TNIV). In John 17 especially, but also in earlier chapters, Jesus ties his mission to what we might call “the mission of the Trinity,” or the mission of God (missio Dei). In Jesus’ mind and action, the Trinity and his own mission were closely related.
Jesus’ Own Mission
Jesus says a lot about his own mission, especially in the Gospel of John. The church often focuses on its own mission before asking: What was Jesus’ mission, and what does that tell us? That is important, since the church’s mission derives from Jesus’ mission and the mission of God.
Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus speaks repeatedly about being sent by the Father to do Father’s will and work; to accomplish his mission. Over thirty times in John, Jesus says he’s been “sent.” He emphasizes that his mission derives from the Father’s mission or will. He speaks more of the Father’s agency than of his own––“I am sent” more than “I have come,” for instance—though he does use phrases like “I came” or “I have come” about a dozen times.
Jesus is the sent one—sent to do the work God have him to do.
What is Jesus’ mission, according to John? Combining Jesus’ many statements (but omitting for the moment Jesus’ important prayer in John 17) yields this composite summary:
My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working. The works the Father has given me to finish testify that the Father has sent me. I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.
Three other prominent terms in John relating to Jesus’ mission are will, work, and works. A dozen or so times Jesus speaks of the “work” or “works” of God that he was sent to accomplish, and several times of doing the Father’s “will.” Jesus says in John 9:4, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.”
Elsewhere in the Gospels Jesus of course says many other things about his mission. Most importantly, he ties his mission to the kingdom of God—preaching the kingdom, showing the kingdom, telling his disciples they should seek first God’s kingdom, and praying, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is heaven” (Mt 6:10). Key to fulfilling that goal is making disciples among all nations.
In short, the Father sent Jesus Christ into the world to “finish the work” the Father gave him to do (Jn 4:34; see 5:36, 17:4). For Jesus, “finishing the work” meant his sacrificial death on the cross (“It is finished” in John 19:30) and the eventual total triumph of the kingdom of God (“It is done!” in Rev 21:6). The church lives now between that first and second “It is finished.”
Jesus’ mission, of course, is accomplished through the presence and agency of the Holy Spirit. It is Trinitarian. Jesus speaks in John of the role the Holy Spirit will play. Many other Scriptures reveal the essential role of the Holy Spirit in bringing Jesus’ mission to completion in the church and in all creation (e.g., Acts 1:8, Rom 8).
The Church’s Mission
What does Jesus’ description of his own mission reveal about the mission of the church? Five key points:
1. Jesus defines our mission. The church’s mission is not her own. It is Jesus’ mission, and the mission of the Trinity. Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (Jn 20:21). Here is the Gospel of John version of the Great Commission. Christians are called to God’s mission in the world, living and walking in the way of Jesus.
Jesus said his disciples would do the “work” and “works” that he did. In fact, they will do “greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (Jn 14:12).
Jesus was concerned above all to do the will and works of him who sent him, not his own. So also with us.
2. Our ultimate mission as disciples invited to participate in God’s mission is nothing less than the kingdom of God, the reconciliation and restoration of “all things.” It is that grand and comprehensive. Our task as disciples and Christian communities is to discern our specific and strategic part in that larger mission of God. The church as a discerning, discipling missional community is essential here. We must never lose sight of the big picture and the grand hope, the larger mission within which we find our particular mission.
3. The power to accomplish our mission comes from God—from Jesus and the power of his resurrection and from the filling, empowering, and guidance of the Holy Spirit. The power for mission is life in the Trinity through Christian community. This is what Jesus prays for in John 17.
4. Like Jesus, we are called to serve others. Faithful leaders are essential in fulfilling God’s mission. But equally essential is that leaders must lead in the way Jesus does, manifesting his spirit and character.
Christian leadership certainly is more than servanthood. But it is not less. Philippians 2 tells us not only about Jesus but defines our own leadership. To have the “mind of Christ” (Phil 2:5) is to know and live his mission.
5. Joining Jesus’ mission means suffering. Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me . . . .” Jesus’ once-for-all suffering in atonement was not once-for-all in terms of our participation in mission. New Testament writers, especially Peter, Paul, and John, stress this. Paul even says that having become “a servant of this gospel” he is “now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:23-24).
In what sounds almost like an echo of John 20:21, Peter wrote that Jesus Christ “suffered for [us], leaving [us] and example, so that [we] should follow in his steps” (1 Pt 2:21).
The amount and kind of suffering varies hugely due to circumstances and God’s providence. But loving means serving, and serving means vulnerable self-giving, and self-giving often leads to suffering that finds no rationale other than that we know we are walking with Jesus.
Clearly Jesus mission thus viewed does not exclude more commonly emphasized aspects such as proclamation, church planting, and so on. But divorced from the essential aspects of Jesus’ own mission, mission easily becomes a betrayal of the gospel itself.
As Jesus’ missional community, the church been given the exquisite privilege and high honor of participating, as Jesus’ servants, friends, and coworkers, in the mission of the Triune God. We are sent by the Father to be Jesus’ ministers through the work of the Holy Spirit—agents of reconciliation and new creation.