The Missionary God: A Small Group Study
Updated: Apr 16, 2021
God shows us who he is by being on a mission to save us.
What comes to mind when you think of the words "missions" and "missionary"?
"Missionary" is a funny word. For many people it brings up images of the religiously zealous and out-of-touch. Think Robert De Niro as mercenary-turned-Jesuit-missionary in the film The Mission. Or maybe a pair of black-tied Mormon young men walking down the street. Or, if you grew up in church, a large family dressed in outdated clothes showing slide after slide of a land far away. So to call God “the missionary God” may sound strange. But the Scriptures really do describe him that way—not according to our perception of the word—but at the heart of what it really means.
A helpful place to begin exploring this is to ask the question, "What does God need?" The answer is simple: nothing. The Scriptures show us that God as Father, Son, and Spirit has everything he needs in himself. He is more than enough. We like to think we’re pretty necessary, but, in fact, “all the nations are as nothing before him, they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness” (Isaiah 40:17). God doesn’t initiate anything we read about in the Bible because he needs to. He does it out of the overflow of who he is: a glorious, loving God.
God's initiative didn’t begin only when humanity entered the scene. What was God doing before us? We don’t have many details, but we at least get a glimpse in one of Jesus’ prayers: “Father, I want those that you have given me…to see my glory, the glory you have given because you loved me before the creation of the world” (John 17:24). Before us, God the Father, Son, and Spirit were there, and they loved one another in perfect union and eternal glory.
Then God extended that love outside himself. It’s the story you may have heard over and over, but hear it afresh. He created a world rich with purpose. And as life unfolded, so did a master plan. He had a unique, loving relationship with the man and woman he created. And even when that man and woman severed it by sinning against him, he stuck to the plan. Although the whole world rejected him, he chose a special people for himself, so that they might show the world what God is like. But they loved other gods instead. Like nightmare children, they broke his law, turned sacrifice into ritual, and even killed the prophets he sent to bring them back.
Yet God saw this as the perfect setup to show his glorious heart.
Galatians 4:4-5 tells us “When the set time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption as sons." If ever there was a missionary, there he stood. Jesus Christ traded in heaven to walk among us on the earth. Unlike everyone else, he kept God's laws perfectly. He showed us what right relationships with God and people looked like.
Then in the ultimate display of God’s love, Jesus allowed his life to be taken by men in the most brutal of ways. And to prove that nothing could overcome God and his love, Jesus rose to life in three days and ascended back to heaven. This was the plan the whole time, because the missionary God “chose us in him before the foundation of the world…in love he predestined us for adoptions as sons through Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:4-5). And if that wasn’t enough, he also sent “another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16-17). God was relentless in getting his people back, in making his name great among them.
To tie this all together, another story you likely have heard is the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). In it a young man shames his father by prematurely demanding his inheritance and then partying it all away. Amazingly, however, he is eventually welcomed back home with grace and joy. It’s a story characterized by extravagant waste. And though we often focus on the wasteful son, the story actually speaks much more about the father. The father scandalously embracing his son, sparing no expense in the party he throws for him—now that’s waste. He extravagantly pours out his love on a worthless son.
This is a vivid picture of the missionary God. With great joy he pours out his best on worthless, wayward children. If ever we could wonder what God’s heart is toward us, we need only to ask ourselves, “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)
When we encounter this God in his glorious love, it leads to a certain kind of response. As his grace works its way into our hearts, we too are filled with love—love for him and love for others. This is the exchange we see in Psalm 67. The psalmist welcomes such love: “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us…” (v. 1a). And then we see the outworking of that love: “…so that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations” (v. 1b).
This has always been God’s design for his people: filling them with himself so that the whole world knows who he is. The missionary God is not one who makes people go live in Africa for partying too hard in college. He is the God who graciously receives us back over and over until we say, “May the peoples praise you, O God, may all the peoples praise you!”
Why would we ever call God "the missionary God"?
Why is the fact that God doesn’t need anything really important to knowing him?
How does it change your view of God to think of him as extravagantly wasting his love on you?
Why is it that grace (rather than guilt) is a greater motivator toward God's mission?
What honestly keeps you from a heart that cries, “May the peoples praise you, O God”?
Any time the topic of missions comes up, many Christians get a bit uncomfortable. Satan is more than happy to make us feel guilty over our hesitations. But missions neither begins nor ends with us. It all belongs to God, who not only promises to finish his mission, but also the work he began in and through us. So think of something that once felt paralyzing to you, but God has since given you the grace to act in obedience. Reflect on how God brought about this change. Now write down something that still feels paralyzing in regard to missions, like sharing the gospel with a friend or neighbor, going on a mission trip, having compassion for someone from a stereotypically hostile country, etc. While holding what you have written, ask God to help you see him more clearly than the obstacle. Write down one small step of obedience you are going to take.
Use Psalm 67 as a guide to praise the missionary God and yearn for him to be known throughout the world.