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  • Writer's pictureTuezong Xiong

The Sacramental Mission of the Church (Part 1): Biblical-Theological Foundations



Both-And


The world is filled with glorious both-ands. You can be for evangelism and desire the edification of believers. You can be for short-term missions and long-term missions. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that although you can be for both, there’s a logical and theological order to them.


This is an area that contemporary evangelical missiology often fails to understand. Often, our approach to missions is characterized by an obsession with numbers, a reliance on pragmatism, and a virtual ignorance of the importance of the local church. My aim in this two-part article is to show that the key to understanding the logical and theological order between evangelism and the edification of believers, and between short-term missions and long-term missions, hinges on the sacraments.


Part 1 unpacks the biblical-theological roots of sacraments in order to understand their prominent role in missions because the church’s mission is a sacramental one: to spread the glory of God to the ends of the earth as priest-kings by calling all peoples into supper-fellowship with God as disciples of Jesus through evangelism and baptism. In Part 2, I will explore the practical implications of embracing this sacramental mission. Understanding the sacramental mission of the church shapes how we approach evangelism and mission trips.


Biblical-Theological Roots of Sacramental Mission


To understand the importance of sacraments for missions, we must first look at sacraments from the root, starting with creation.[1]


In the beginning, God made a temple—a garden-temple—and installed Adam and Eve as king and queen over the rest of creation: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28). As husband and wife and fellow citizens with distinct but complementary roles, they were to push back the borders of Eden, fill the land with children, subdue new territory, and rule over everything.


God’s first gift to them was food: “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food” (Gen. 1:29). They found themselves welcomed to eat from the trees in the garden, relishing a feast in God’s presence. The world and the garden were a table spread set before them. Their most spiritual activity was also their most normal activity—eating.


In their pre-fall state, Adam and Eve didn’t require baptism for entry since the gates of the garden stood wide open. But they did participate in a sacrament: a meal in the presence of God—the proto-Lord’s Supper. Thus, from the outset, they were to fill the land with God’s image and eat to their fill in God’s presence.


After they ate from the tree of knowledge, Adam and Eve were exiled from the garden (Gen. 3:25). Yet, nothing in Scripture indicates that their mission was canceled after sin and death entered the world. However, the fall separated humanity from God, making their efforts to fill, subdue, and rule the earth more challenging because they no longer ruled as table companions with their Creator but rather as competitors. Separated from communion with God, Adam and Eve and their descendants filled the world with idols and blood.


God, knowing that this would happen, promised that he would send someone to crush the serpent’s head and its seed (Gen. 3:15) and allow the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve to return to the garden and be table companions with him again. God’s mission was to baptize humanity back into his presence so that they could resume the Lord’s Supper.


History Rhymes


The cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ accomplish the restoration that humanity so desperately needs. Foreshadows and typological trajectories of this victory can be found throughout the Old Testament. Put another way, history rhymes.


After the world was baptized with floodwaters (Gen. 7:6; 1 Pet. 3:21), a new beginning took place. Noah was a kind of new Adam, and the command to be fruitful and multiply was issued afresh. The provision of food was reiterated, though now that provision included the consumption of animals (Gen. 9:3). God instituted human government to restrain evil and called humanity to punish with death those who take the lives of others without cause (Gen. 9:6). Noah built an altar and established the first site for table communion outside of Eden (Gen. 8:20; cf. Ezek. 41:22; Lev. 21:6). In this, we see an early stage of God’s mission: restoring humanity as table companions and whetting our appetite for the King who exercises just and loving dominion.


Abram, called from Ur after the scattering at Babel (Gen. 11:1–8), was promised that he would be the agent to extend God’s blessing to all the families of the earth. After receiving the promise of the land, Abram built an altar (Gen. 12:7), symbolizing his claim to the land and marking it as the sacred ground where God would establish his presence among humanity—a new Eden. Abraham’s altar on Mount Moriah (Gen. 22:9) witnesses Isaac’s symbolic death and resurrection, with a ram as a substitute sacrifice (Gen. 22:13). Altar-building underscored the centrality of worship within the Abrahamic covenant, demonstrating God’s mission to bless the nations. Those who gathered to worship at the altar-table of Abraham would be blessed as they were admitted to the new-Edenic tables scattered across the land. In this, we eagerly await an ultimate substitute for sin and universal blessing.


Moses is drawn out of the water (Exod. 2:10). History rhymes, as what happened to the leader of the people later happens to the whole people at the Red Sea, when Israel enters into Moses’s experience of deliverance from the waters (Exod. 14:21–22)—a baptism of sorts (cf. 1 Cor. 10:2). God fed his people with manna (Exod. 16:4). Moses built an altar at the foot of Sinai, and “they beheld God, and ate and drank” (Exod. 24:4, 11). For the first time since Adam and Eve tasted the forbidden fruit, human beings passed by the cherubim guarding the entrance to the garden to serve in the presence of God (cf. Exod. 25:18; Gen. 3:24). Priests were consecrated to enter the house of God and to eat the bread of his presence (Exod. 29:33). In this, we see God’s mission to restore humanity being carried forward as he brought one people near to become his priests and table companions, making us long to be baptized into the greater Moses (Deut. 18:15).


The trajectory set by the Old Testament culminates in Jesus Christ. Following Jesus’s baptism (Mark 1:9–11; John 1:29–34), he comes eating and drinking (Mark 2:15; John 2:1–11). Jesus, the King, sets up a table, welcoming Jews and Gentiles, the unclean and sinners, to share a meal with God. Jesus is the last Adam (Rom. 5:12–21; 1 Cor. 15:20–49) who crushes the serpent’s head. Jesus is the true offspring of Abraham (Gal. 3:16), and the land promise is realized in him (Rom. 1:4; 1 Cor. 15:1–28; Rev. 21:1–22:5). Jesus is the penal substitutionary sacrifice for sinners (Heb. 10:12). Jesus is the greater Moses (Heb. 3:3), the true bread from heaven (John 6:31–33), and the true Israel (Matt. 2:13–15; 3:13–4:11). In Jesus, humanity is restored to God, and thus to itself. Human beings are remade as priests-kings—new Adams and Eves—serving as his table companions.


The Church and Its Sacraments


The church is that renewed humanity and its sacraments proclaim this gathering as the fulfillment of God’s mission. However, some clarification regarding the church and its sacraments are needed.


When I use the word “church,” it may have one of five different meanings:


Church Defined

Church

Description

Universal Church

The people of God throughout human history—past, present, and future.

Invisible Church

All genuine Christians who are currently alive on earth.

Visible Church

Professing Christians currently alive on earth.

Local Church

A group of Christians who, with the authority of Christ’s keys, covenant together as Christ followers and fellow citizens of his kingdom by gathering together to proclaim his name and celebrate the sacraments (and thus visible).

Church Building

A place (usually a building) where a local church meets.


By faith in Christ, we are baptized in Christ (Rom. 6:4) and become true children of Abraham (Gal. 3:6–9; Rom. 4:9–12; Heb. 2:16), and thus, members of the universal church. Yet, membership in the universal church can’t remain an abstract idea. It needs to show on earth, which Christians do by gathering together in Christ’s name through the preaching of the gospel and mutually affirming one another as belonging to him through the sacraments (also known as church membership).[2] The universal church creates local churches, which in turn display the universal church. Yet within these visible churches, only God can see the invisible church.


With regard to sacraments, I’d argue that baptism is the initiatory rite for entrance into the visible church. Therefore, baptism must be connected with church membership. As Bobby Jamieson comments: “It creates the churchly reality to which it points: a Christian belonging to a local church, and that local church affirming a Christian’s profession and uniting him or her to itself.”[3] In biblical-theological terms, passing through the waters has always been the way to the new creation. Baptism announces that the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve can draw near again. Moreover, the initiatory rite qualifies or ordains one to be a new covenant priest with access to the privileges, blessings, and food—that is, the Lord’s Supper (cf. Lev. 8:6; Luke 3:21–38; Num. 4:34–37; Heb. 7:1–3).


The Lord’s Supper, then, is the site of communion for those who have been brought into the church through regeneration and baptism. It is where God gives himself as food to his people, where his people feast in his presence without veils or barriers. Not only that, the feast is an engine for the eschaton. As Peter Leithart comments: “Those who feast on the body and blood of Jesus are empowered by the Spirit as witnesses. But the meal is not only a means to assist mission. It is the aim and goal of mission, the now of the wedding feast still to come, the wedding feast to which the mission of the church and the history of the world are directed, the wedding feast to which the church invites the nations.”[4]


In summary, baptism initiates those who are regenerate into the people of God, where they fellowship by feeding on Christ in the Lord’s Supper. This correlates with the mission of the church: to make disciples of all peoples by baptizing them and bringing them to the table-fellowship of the body of Christ (Matt. 28:18–20; 1 Cor. 11:17–34). In other words, wash up and come to the table. Fill the land and eat to your fill.


So What?


Rooting the mission in sacrament keeps the church from abandoning the gospel. Put negatively, when missiology lacks ecclesiology, it often leads to an abandonment of Christology.[5] The church is the “pillar and buttress of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15) and “the gospel made visible.”[6] Ecclesiology is rooted in Christology, which informs missiology. Therefore, if we lack ecclesiology, our missiology will tend to become an end in and of itself, and thus, Christology is assumed or outright abandoned.[7]


In this article, I’ve sought to uncover the biblical-theological foundations of sacraments to demonstrate the prominent role they play in missions. In a companion article, I will delve into the practical applications of embracing this sacramental mission.


 

Footnotes


  1. I am heavily indebted to Jonathan Leeman for his insights into the priest-king storyline, and to Peter Leithart for his profound biblical-theological analysis of sacraments. For more, see Jonathan Leeman, “Soteriological Mission: Focusing in on the Mission of Redemption,” in Four Views on the Church’s Mission, ed. Jason S. Sexton, Counterpoints, ed. Stanley N. Gundry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 17–45; Peter J. Leithart, “Sacramental Mission: Ecumenical and Political Missiology,” in Four Views on the Church’s Mission, ed. Jason S. Sexton, Counterpoints, ed. Stanley N. Gundry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 152–76.

  2. Jonathan Leeman, Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012) esp. 49–66.

  3. Bobby Jamieson, Going Public: Why Baptism Is Required for Church Membership (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2015), 12.

  4. Leithart, “Sacramental Mission: Ecumenical and Political Missiology,” 164.

  5. This is contrary to missiologists Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost. In their book, they argue: “Our Christology informs our missiology, which in turn determines our ecclesiology. If we get this the wrong way around and allow our notions of the church to qualify our sense of purpose and mission, we can never be disciples of Jesus, and we will never be an authentic missional church. Churches that have got this basic formula wrong never really engage in mission and so lose touch with Jesus.” In other words, according to them, missiology precedes ecclesiology. It’s well-meaning, but I think it’s misguided. See Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost, The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st-Century Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), 255.

  6. Mark Dever, The Church: The Gospel Made Visible (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2012).

  7. I thank Robert Yang for this observation. 


 

Tuezong Xiong is the Associate Pastor at Christ Bible Church in Roseville, Minnesota. He received his M.Div. from Bethlehem College and Seminary and writes regularly at tuezongxiong.wordpress.com. He, along with his wife, Pa Kou, resides in Circle Pines with their two sons.

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