Welcome to missions week. It really is one of my favorite Grace Church ministry weeks of the year. The reason for that is tied to the fact that during missions week I am forced to reconsider the vastness of the kingdom of God. There are so many immediately pressing issues that confront me day after day that it is sometimes hard to remember that God is bigger than my little kingdom, or that of my family, Grace Church, or this small section of Minnesota. God is the God of the entire universe and has people in every corner of the globe who He is bringing to Himself and caring for in love. I love that missions week forces me to look up and out rather than down and in. And I love that missions week forces me to consider afresh that God is greater than I know; no matter how great I know Him to be. Thanks, Missions Team, for helping us to develop a bigger view of God and the work He’s doing in the world, and for challenging us to join in it.
My role during missions week, year after year, has been to preach on missions in such a way that grounds missions, and our approach to it, in God’s Word. With the guidance of the missions team, we’ve come at that from quite a few angles over the years. This year they asked me to preach on missions in Genesis. Like several other of their suggestions, (1) I wouldn’t have thought of it on my own, and (2) it seemed like a really good idea…so that’s where we’re going this morning.
I’m going to preach on missions in Genesis with the twin aims of (1) helping all of us grow in our understanding of the greatness of God and (2) helping all of us translate that into greater involvement in world missions. To those ends, from Genesis, here are my five points: (1) Missions begins with a God worth telling people about, (2) Missions is necessary because people do not naturally honor God as God, (3) Missions has been a part of God’s plan from the beginning, (4) The aim of missions is feasting on and fellowshipping with God, and (5) Missions works because God makes it work. Would you pray with me that God would help us to these ends and more?
It’s always a good idea to define our terms upfront. There are, perhaps, other ways to define missions, but at Grace we understand missions to be: crossing a significant cultural or language barrier to make disciples because we love God and others. Another way we say it, is that missions is the act of glorifying God by calling others across a significant cultural barrier to follow Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit.
With that, let’s consider missions in Genesis.
MISSIONS BEGINS WITH A GOD WORTH TELLING PEOPLE ABOUT
Missions typically means traveling to hard places to tell people something they don’t (usually and initially) want to hear. In almost every case, missions is not convenient, easy, cheap, safe, efficient, or welcomed. With these things in mind, what could possibly motivate someone to choose missions?
I’ll never forget reading the passage in Elisabeth Elliot’s book, Shadow of the Almighty, where she recounts the response of her husband Jim’s parents to Jim’s missionary aspirations. It seems they were well aware of Jim’s good looks, charisma, leadership, and eloquence. They knew that Jim would have been able to succeed at whatever he determined to do. Consequently, Jim’s parents hoped he might become a prominent pastor and preacher. He could do the Lord’s work in the safe confines of the U.S.. In other words, Jim’s parents understood the true nature of missions and were concerned about the toll it might take on their son—little did they know.
Again, with all of this in mind, why would anyone choose missions? In simplest terms, there is certain news that needs to be told no matter how it will be received. If you were to develop the cure for cancer, for instance, there is no loving way to keep that to yourself no matter how people might respond to your claim. I imagine many would be initially skeptical. They might even call you a kook or try to silence and discredit you. But insofar as you really do have the cure for cancer, you cannot be silent. Getting the word out is worth getting censured, shamed, fired, or even imprisoned for. You must continue to show and tell of its effectiveness until people believe you (even if no one ever does).
The first point to grasp, then, is that missions is like that. A right understanding of missions (which must come before right engagement in missions) begins with a God who is worth telling people about (1 billion times more than the cure for cancer), no matter the cost. The cost of missions will never make sense if your god or your understanding of God is too small.
Genesis can help with that. It’s just one of 66 books describing the unimaginable greatness of God, but in it there are countless expressions of God’s glory in Genesis. Consider briefly some of the highest-level examples.
- In the first few words of Genesis, we find that God is self-existing and eternal!
- In the first two chapters of Genesis, we are told that God created the heavens and earth and all that is in them by a word! By simply speaking, God made light and water and dry land and sky and plants and the sun, moon, planets, and stars and animals and people—everything that was made.
- In the first two chapters we also find out that God is so great that He created all of these things and ordered everything for their survival and continuation.
- In these opening chapters we see that God not only made all things physical and teleological, but also ontological! That is, he created things, the purpose of things, and the nature of all things. We are from God, we are what God says we are, and we are for what God says we are for. Awesome!
- In chapters 6-8 we see that God was so powerful that He was instantly able to make Noah into a ship builder, gather some of all of creation into the ship with Noah, send a world-wide flood, preserve the ship-dwellers for over a year, and then remake the whole world through that single ship-load.
- By another simple word God changed the lifespan of mankind from hundreds of years (up to nearly 1000) to around 100 after the flood. That’s a staggering display of God’s limitless power.
- God made another entirely new thing, a rainbow, in chapter 9 to show His love, mercy, and promise keeping.
- In chapter 11 we saw God change the actual languages of the humans on earth. It’s pretty awesome that God made humans with a single, fully-developed language system. It’s awesome in that developing a language is an exceedingly difficult thing to do. Teaching a language is difficult as well. But God did both instantly and without effort. The fact that God instantly created and taught an untold number of new languages at Babel is more awesome still.
- In chapter 15 we see the staggering glory of God in His eternal covenant promises with Abraham; promises of countless children, a permanent homeland for them, and, most importantly, to be their God! Throughout Genesis we see the great glory of God in graciously and often miraculously keeping His covenant promises with Abraham and his children, in spite of their continued rebellion.
- With Abraham and his offspring, God showed Himself to be the God of dreams, revealing His glory and will to and through His people through them.
- In chapter 21 God miraculously gave a promised child to a 90-year-old, barren woman. He opened another womb in chapter 30. He is the God of all barrenness and life.
- God’s unmatched greatness was shown clearly in His guidance and blessing of Joseph. God miraculously brought Joseph to a position of power in Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself. Through Joseph, God kept millions alive during the famine, and brought His covenant people to Egypt to grow in number and prosperity.
- What’s more, finally, throughout all of Genesis we see God’s unparalleled and unending glory in the many shadows and symbols He wove throughout Genesis to point to future events of His greater story of salvation (from the promised saving seed of Eve, to the rainbow, to the covenant promises with Abraham, etc).
In all of this, I’m barely scratching the surface of the glory of God in Genesis (much less the entire Bible). But in order to keep you from wondering if I’m overstating the case, listen to two passages that celebrate the greatness of the glory of God, revealed in His creation, covenants, and wonders, as told in Genesis.
Nehemiah 9:6 You are the LORD, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you.
Psalm 105:1-6 Oh give thanks to the LORD; call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples! 2 Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of all his wondrous works! 3 Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice! 4 Seek the LORD and his strength; seek his presence continually! 5 Remember the wondrous works that he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he uttered, 6 O offspring of Abraham, his servant, children of Jacob, his chosen ones!
If we are ever to engage or properly support those who do engage, it will be because we come to know the unsurpassed glory of the God of Genesis, a God worth telling people about no matter the cost.
MISSIONS IS NECESSARY BECAUSE WE DO NOT HONOR GOD AS GOD
The second point for us to see on missions in Genesis, is that while missions begins with a God worth telling people about, sin is what makes missions necessary. Let me be clear, that God is greater than we could ever imagine makes Him worthy of all of our praise. Apart from sin, everyone would already share in that. Worship is necessary because God is infinitely glorious. Missions is necessary because sin lies about, distorts, hides, and ultimately rejects the God of infinite glory.
Genesis records the entrance of sin into the human race in chapter 3. God had given Adam and Eve, everything they needed to be wholly satisfied. He’d withheld just one thing, eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And yet, with the “help” of the serpent’s temptation, they ate.
The few, simple verses that describe this treachery seem almost childlike in their prose. It truly is impossible to read those words and imagine the utter horror they described and unleashed. In this one rather subtle, understated exchange, Adam and Eve immediately died spiritually and ensured that they would eventually die physically. Worse yet, they brought eternal spiritual and physical death to all mankind after them.
Literally and symbolically, God cursed them and removed them from His presence. Before their fall, they existed in perfect harmony with God in a Garden He’d prepared for them. After their fall, God removed them from the Garden and secured it such that they could never return.
Just one chapter later, in chapter 4, we see the first dramatic signs of the deteriorating and destroying effects of sin in Adam and Eve’s children, Cain and Able. While Able offered an acceptable offering to God, sin caused Cain to offer a lesser offering and God subsequently rejected it. In jealous anger, Cain killed his brother and then lied about it to God.
Believe it or not, Genesis tells us that things only went downhill from there. Downhill to the point that by chapter 6 we read these words, (Genesis 6:5) “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”
God determined, therefore, to judge the world through a flood, giving it a fresh start in every way except in the fallen hearts of man. By chapter 9, therefore, Noah, fresh off the boat of his salvation, “drank … wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent” (9:20). And down things spiraled again.
The wickedness of mankind assembled once again in a city called Babel. There they said to one another, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves…” (11:4). Once again, the judgment of God was swift and severe.
Sin continued to the point that it caused barrenness (11:30), deceit (12:12), conflict between siblings (13), wars (14), kidnapping (14:12), unfaithfulness (16:3), jealousy (16), sexual deviancy (18), rivalry and trickery (25), selfish scheming (29), defilement (34), hatred (37), slavery (37), prostitution (38), and adultery (39).
In all of this the sinfulness of sin increased even as mankind’s vision of the greatness and glory of God decreased.
Grace, again, while missions begins with a God worth telling people about, sin and scattering is what makes missions necessary. In Genesis we see the beginning, consequences, and completeness of sin in mankind.
MISSIONS HAS BEEN A PART OF GOD’S PLAN FROM THE BEGINNING.
What would be done about all of this? Would mankind be left in his death and rebellion? Would we be able to claw ourselves back into fellowship with God or to a view of the great glory of God? One of the main points of Genesis (and the previous section) is that sin made mankind powerless to save himself. Left to our own devices and best efforts we’d always fall short. Our only hope, Genesis makes clear, is that God would intervene. Of God’s intervention, Genesis has two main points:
- God promised ultimate rescue and restoration to those who would trust in Him.
- God would commission His people to tell of this great news.
Let’s briefly consider each.
God promised ultimate rescue and restoration to those who would trust in Him
As I hope to have helped you see throughout our time in Genesis, there are many, many references (some explicit and some subtle) to the ultimate salvation God would one day provide in Jesus. In this sermon I want to quickly point out three of the bigger ones to help you see this simple point.
First, we see God’s promise of rescue and restoration almost immediately after the first sin. In describing the sin-wrought curse that would come upon the serpent for being the means of temptation, God promised, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (3:15). This is known as the protoevangelium; the first gospel. It is a promise of God to send a son of man to crush the serpent. It is a promise to send Jesus.
Second, we see God’s promise of rescue and restoration in God’s deliverance of Noah and his family through the ark. Much later in the Bible, in 1 Peter (3:20-22), we’re told that the ark was really a God-worked, historical, living picture of the saving work of Jesus.
And third, we see God’s promise of ultimate rescue and restoration of those who would trust Him in the covenant He made with Abraham. The main promise was to be the God of Abraham and his offspring (17:7). With that, as we saw earlier, God would give an everlasting kingdom to Abraham along with countless offspring to fill it. The key for us to recognize comes, once again, many years later. The apostle Paul in the book of Romans (4) explains that the Abrahamic covenant was really another pointer to the New Covenant in Jesus. He tells us that in reality God’s everlasting covenant promises to Abraham weren’t for those who shared Abraham’s last name, but Abraham’s faith, and that they were spiritual before physical!
None of the OT people of God who heard these words—Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, the first recipients of Genesis, etc.—could have understood the fullness of God’s promises to them. The mystery wouldn’t be finally revealed until the Son of God, the Lord Jesus, would come in the flesh to fulfill the promises in His suffering, death, and resurrection. And yet, for those with eyes to see, God’s promises of salvation are everywhere in Genesis.
God would commission His people to tell of this great news
As this relates to the sermon this morning, the question is how God would get these promises and His salvation to His people. Believe it or not, the Genesis answer is largely: missions. Missions is the cross-cultural telling of this great news of this great God and His salvation. In Genesis we see that God commissioned His people to do that from the beginning. The commission came in subtle ways even before the fall. Adam and Eve were to bear children and make the world flourish. They were to be like God by turning disordered things into ordered things, wilderness into civilization, and potential into actual. And they were to do so in God’s name, spreading the glory of God throughout the earth. As we saw earlier, before the fall, this was more about worship than missions, but it forms a subtle beginning to the ever-increasing role of God’s people as lights in the darkness of the fallen world.
God’s call to His people to spread the news of His salvation around the world became a bit clearer when Noah left the ark and received God’s commission to “be fruitful and multiply on the earth” (8:17). The fruitfulness and multiplication throughout the earth are physical for sure, but they are also missional. As the text makes clear, the message of God’s glory and salvation (along with Noah’s kids) was meant to fill the whole earth through this people.
We get another hint of God’s missionary plans for His people in the tower of Babel. This is an aspect of the Tower story that is often overlooked (it’s one that I didn’t spend much time at all on when I preached through that section). We see it in the words of the gathered people at the end of 11:4. While most of our attention is (rightly) on the words, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves…” (the beginning of v.4), because of its idolatrous emphasis, there’s another problem that is introduced in the second half of the verse. There we read, “…lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” Again, God had commissioned His people to be missionaries, to spread themselves, God’s name and salvation throughout the earth, but these people didn’t want to. They wanted to congregate together and be silent. God’s judgment on the tower builders was in no small measure on account of their refusal to spread news of God’s kingdom to the ends of the earth—to function as missionaries. What’s more (and don’t miss this) their judgment is one aspect of what makes missions so hard—the confusing of languages and cultures!
And clearest of all (though still not nearly as clear as it will be even in the rest of the OT and much more so in the NT), comes in God’s commission to Abraham in Genesis 12. When God first called Abraham, he called him to “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land I will show you” (12:1). God told Abraham to do that in order to bless Abraham, and the whole world through him, “in you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Go to a different people, across a significant cultural barrier and bless them through the blessings I give you. That sounds a lot like missions, doesn’t it?
This whole point is summed up simply: God promised to save a people and to use missions to do so.
This is where I most want to challenge you to engage in missions—to send, support, or go. We do our best to provide consistent ways to do all three. If you aren’t sure how you could send (raise and train up future missionaries), support (care well for those who have gone), or go (take to the mission field yourself), please let us know. This whole week is about how to support our current missionaries and a steady call to missions.
THE AIM OF MISSIONS IS FEASTING ON AND FELLOWSHIPPING WITH GOD
The forth point is that the aim of missions is (not merely the forgiveness of sins for the nations, but their) feasting on and fellowshiping with God. Forgiveness of sins is a means to that greater end! Therefore, supporting missions and missionaries is good, but not ultimate. The main aim is the glory of God being seen and savored, perceived and praised, recognized and revered among the nations. This is all over Genesis wherever God’s people see His greatness and respond in worship.
Genesis 14:20 …blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!
Genesis 24:27 Blessed be the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love and his faithfulness toward my master.
As on local pastor has said it so well, “Missions exist [ultimately] because worship doesn’t.”
In light of this, Grace, the greatest thing you can do to support missions is to feast on and fellowship with God yourself. Fall in love with Him entirely and you won’t be able to keep yourself from sending, supporting or going. And when you do (send, support, or go), you’ll be able to offer what the world needs most!
MISSIONS WORKS BECAUSE GOD MAKES IT WORK
And all of that leads to the final point. In the beginning I mentioned that missions is crossing a significant cultural or language barrier to make disciples because we love God and others. I also mentioned that missions is hard because it typically means traveling to hard places to tell people something they don’t (usually and initially) want to hear. Nevertheless, because of the combination of God’s greatness and sin’s effects, God has determined that missions is necessary. Given all of these things, it’s reasonable for us to wonder whether or not missions will work.
The Genesis answer is a resounding, “YES!”. Genesis helps us see that we can enter missions, knowing it will “work” first because God initiated the covenants. God, not man, made the promises of salvation. One of the most significant expressions of this is found in the fact that God alone passed through the animals when He made the covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15:17). Second, God helped His people remain faithful in spite of their sin and rebellion. Genesis, as we’ve seen, is filled with examples of God’s covenant people wandering away from the covenant only to have God (often miraculously) bring them back. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all wandered in their own ways before being redirected by God. And the third main way we see God make missions work in Genesis is through the displays of His providence even in the sins of his people. This is most clearly seen in the final chapter of Genesis where Joseph acknowledges that all of the covenant unfaithfulness of his brothers was an instrument in God’s hands to make them faithful, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”
Genesis helps us see that supporting and engaging in missions is never in vain because God has chosen to use it as a means of saving His people. This point is critical if we are to pursue missions with the kind of hope and courage and confidence God means us to have.
I said in the beginning that missions week is one of my favorite weeks in the year because it reminds me of God’s global and eternal kingdom. I hope He has already and continues to do that for you as well this week. But none of that will matter (or honor God) if it ends here. This week is not a simple reminder or a perspective enhancer. Rather, our heart—mine, the elders, and the missions team—is that this would be a spark that ignites a new fire that burns throughout the year and even into the nations. Lean into the glory of God in Jesus Christ, lean into this week, and then look to the nations with the aim of helping them worship God with all their hearts through Jesus.