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Mission in the New Testament: The Supremacy of Love

By Andreas J. Köstenberger

Originally published in the Midwestern Magazine, Issue 42

What is mission? People may talk about their “mission in life.” Or, someone may go on an important mission, whether a diplomat to rescue a hostage, an astronaut to travel to outer space, or an evangelist to preach the gospel to an unreached people group. Mission involves a sense of purpose and often danger as well.

As a norm, people are sent on a mission by someone else, though, at times, they go on their own initiative. “Mission” is not a word used in the Bible, but the concept of mission is doubtless present. Most importantly, we learn about God’s mission, the missio Dei. This mission is perhaps best articulated in John’s well-known declaration, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16, ESV). Here, we see several truths about God’s mission.

The missio Dei

First, the missio Dei is grounded in God’s love. In his first letter, John affirms that God is love in his very essence and being (1 Jn 4:8). So, even though the fallen world and sinful humanity are unlikely objects of his love, God sets his love on unbelieving, rebellious, obstreperous sinners because it is in his very essence to love even those who are unworthy of his love and not loveable or attractive in and of themselves.

Second, God’s love prompted him to action. In fact, it led him to exceedingly sacrificial action: He freely gave his only Son! I have two sons, but if I were called upon to give up either one of them, it would surely break my heart. In Old Testament times, Abraham was called to give up Isaac, his “only son,” though God spared him at the last minute and provided a substitute offering (Gn. 22:1–14; cf. Heb. 11:17–19). By giving his only Son, God gave the most precious thing he had.

Third, God’s redemptive rescue mission through his Son was successful and effective. At the cross, Jesus cried out, Tetelestai! “It is finished!” (Jn 19:30). By giving his life as a sinless substitute—as an expression of God’s perfect love for sinful, rebellious, and morally dark humanity—Jesus completed his saving mission. This mission was dangerous and costly, but ultimately rewarding and exceedingly God-glorifying.

The mission of love

For those of us who have believed in God’s Son, our life is in him. As John elaborates in his first letter, “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him” (1 Jn 4:9). If we place our trust in the Son, we live through him!

However, we can take no credit for entering into this new life: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (v. 10).

Before we could love God, he first had to love us. But then, John takes things a decisive step further: “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (v. 11). He finishes his thought by adding, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (v. 12; cf. Jn 1:18).

Here, then, is John’s big thought: By loving one another, we can make the invisible God visible to those around us! No one has ever seen God, but people can see him by our love!

You’ve heard it said, “Love God, love others.” But I say to you, in John’s words, “We love because he first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19). As Jesus told his followers, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13). And now that Jesus has given his very life for us out of love for the world, he gives all his followers a “new commandment”—“that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (Jn 13:34).

The Mark of a Disciple

In fact, love for others, especially other believers, is the mark of the true disciple of Christ: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35).

In his work Mark of the Christian, the great apologist Francis Schaeffer affirmed, “All men bear the image of God. They have value, not because they are redeemed, but because they are God’s creation in God’s image” (p. 184). He added, “Modern man, who has rejected this, has no clue as to who he is, and because of this he can find no real value for himself or for other men. Hence, he downgrades the value of other men and produces the horrible thing we face today—a sick culture in which men treat men as inhuman, as machines. As Christians, however, we know the value of men.” He continues, “All men are our neighbors…because they are made in the image of God. Therefore, they are to be loved even at great cost.”

Conversely, however, Schaeffer warns, if believers don’t love one another and all people made in the image of God, then the world will likely conclude that God did not send his Son. The “final apologetic,” therefore, calls for us to live in such a way that we proclaim the gospel by our love and by taking loving action toward a world that is languishing in spiritual and moral darkness apart from Christ. Schaeffer’s conclusion is worth quoting in full:

What then shall we conclude but that as the Samaritan loved the wounded man, we as Christians are called upon to love all men as neighbors, loving them as ourselves. Second, that we are to love all true Christian brothers in a way that the world may observe. This means showing love to our brothers in the midst of our differences—great or small—loving our brothers when it costs us something, loving them even under times of tremendous emotional tension, loving them in a way the world can see. In short, we are to practice and exhibit the holiness of God and the love of God, for without this we grieve the Holy Spirit (p. 204).

In our own context, we will do well to listen to Schaeffer’s timeless words which, in turn, echo those of the Lord Jesus Christ himself: “Love—and the unity it attests to—is the mark Christ gave Christians to wear before the world. Only with this mark may the world know that Christians are indeed Christians and that Jesus was sent by the Father.”

Rather than wearing spiritual masks, let us therefore exhibit the marks of the true Christian—none of which is greater than Christlike, redeeming, and forbearing love.


Andreas J. Köstenberger  Research Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology and Director of the Center for Biblical Studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

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