No one had heard from Jesus for nearly two months. The last time anyone could remember seeing him was at the Jordan River where he was baptized by John, the son of Zacharias, who was known as the Baptizer. A rumor was circulating around Galilee that something powerful had taken place when Jesus came up out of the water after being baptized. Some observers reported that God had spoken from heaven, declaring Jesus to be his Son. Others could not say exactly what happened, only that there was a noise in the air, perhaps just the wind. All agreed that Jesus was missing. What they did not know, could not have known at the time, was that Jesus went into the nearby wilderness, led by the Holy Spirit’s urging, where he was tested for forty days by the Devil (Luke 4:1-13).

Then, as quickly as he disappeared, he was back. The people of Nazareth, where Jesus had been raised, heard he was traveling around the region of Galilee, teaching in synagogues to great acclaim. The word in the marketplace and the country roundabout was astonishing; Jesus was teaching with great power and authority like no one had heard before. Naturally, people in Nazareth wanted to hear Jesus teach, too. Could it really be true that Joseph’s son was now a great teacher? The idea of a great teacher of the Law coming from their town thrilled the people, but some, maybe most, harbored doubts that it could be true. If only he would come to Nazareth, they could see and hear him and judge for themselves.

The day finally came when they could all find out the truth about what they were hearing. Jesus entered Nazareth, and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, taking his place to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given him, and he opened it and read,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord. (Luke 4:28-29)

All eyes followed him as he rolled the scroll, handed it back to its attendant, and then sat down to teach. He announced, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). At first, these words pleased those in the synagogue, but as he continued to teach, his words shocked them— even angered them. In their rage, they took him to the edge of the hill on which Nazareth was built, intending to throw him to his death, but Jesus quietly walked through the crowd and went his way.

Jesus was on a mission—a mission that would lead him to the cross to die for the sins of the world—and nothing was going to stop him until he achieved it. However, the beginning of his public ministry in Luke 4:14-22 appears to indicate that he had other priorities, that of preaching to the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed—priorities that the church must also embrace. The church’s very nature, like that of Jesus, is missional. Its missionary nature flows from the heart of the triune Godhead (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).

Since the church is the body of Christ, it must of necessity focus on mission. Indeed, any church (or group of churches) that is not involved in God’s mission is disobedient. What is to be our priority? One perspective suggests that the priority of the church is to be viewed holistically, including such things as taking care of the environment, contending for social justice, declaring God’s reign, as well as preaching salvation through Jesus Christ. This view is often called the Missio Dei, and suggests that since God is one, he has only one mission, rather than many missions, in the world. The church (and churches) therefore must be about God’s full mission in the world. Since there is essentially no difference between mission and church, the church must function in multiple arenas of ministry without giving priority to one area or another. Thus, a church that is missionally engaged in food distribution or counseling the jobless or cleaning the streets in its neighborhood is just as involved in mission as a church that is engaged in church planting or preaching the gospel of salvation or baptizing new converts. As one writer puts it, “All that the church does in living its life and in carrying out its ministry is missionary by intent.”[1] This view sees churches that place a priority on evangelism and church planting as reductionist, that is, they reduce the full gospel to just one small component. In this view, witnessing and evangelizing are inviting others into the community of faith to participate in the reign of God, in whatever form mission activity takes.

A contrasting view sees God’s mission as more atomistic, [2] that is, it is one mission with many parts and objectives. To put it another way, God has many goals. Some goals we know much about; some we likely know little about, for who knows the mind of God? The fact is he very likely has many missions of which we are not even aware, since He has not revealed them to us. Thus, while there are many good things that a church can do in this world, God has assigned a specific missional priority to the church for reaching the lost. The church, of course, as the koinonia or community of faith, is to be involved in caring for the homeless, serving the disadvantaged, and meeting needs of those in distress, but these activities are Christian duties that all believers do in the regular course of life. They are not the missional priority of the church. Witnessing and evangelizing are inviting the lost to become disciples through personal faith in the resurrected Christ, or to put it another way, the priority of the church is to win the lost, baptize new believers, and teach everyone to obey what Christ taught.

A Salvation Theme

The gospel of Luke set forth a historical account of what took place surrounding the life of Jesus Christ. Luke used a salvation motif in developing his history, which came from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. “How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news” (52:7).[3] Throughout his gospel, Luke incorporated the phrase “glad tidings” or “good news” as its central guiding message. This is evident in the five “songs” or “hymns” he compiled to begin his book, all of which tie the salvation motif into the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Luke began with the song of Elizabeth (1:42-45), which was prophetic testimony to John the Baptist and Jesus. As she declared Mary to be the mother of “my Lord,” the “baby leaped in my womb for joy” (1:43-44). The central focus was on Mary’s Magnificat. The Song of Mary was primarily one of salvation as she stated, “My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior” (1:46-47). It promised hope for the oppressed (1:52), food for the hungry (1:53), and faith in the promises of God for all who fear him (1:51-52; 54-55). After Elizabeth’s son was born and named John, Zacharias praised God for accomplishing “redemption for His people” and raising up “a horn of salvation” in the house of David (1:68-69). John was declared to be the “prophet of the Most High” who would prepare the way of the LORD (1:76) and who would “give to His people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins” (1:77).

The songs of Elizabeth, Mary, and Zacharias are all anticipatory and prophetic, but the song of the angels and the song of Simeon are both songs of praise for the fulfillment of God’s promises. As the shepherds watched their sheep one night, an angel appeared saying, “I bring you good news of great joy.” The message was for Israel and “for all the people” (2:9-10). Then a choir of angels appeared and said, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased” (2:13-14). It was a song of salvation, but “The theological implication of this song is that the offer of peace is open to all but requires an appropriate attitude of acceptance.”[4] After a time of purification for Mary and for Jesus’ circumcision, Jesus was taken to the temple where Simeon, a man full of God’s Spirit, confirmed he was the Savior, “for my eyes have seen Your salvation, which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples” (2:30-31).

All of these five songs demonstrate the salvation motif of Luke. It is a salvation that reaches beyond Israel to all peoples. Salvation shines on all those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death (1:79). It is good news for all the people (2:10). It is a light of revelation to the Gentiles (2:32). When Luke traced the lineage of Jesus, he did so all the way back to Adam (3:38), through which he connected Jesus to all humans.

Satan knew that Jesus had come to bring salvation to the nations (24:46-48) and tried to stop him by offering the kingdoms of the world (4:5-7). Jesus resisted the devil’s temptations and then inaugurated his mission at Nazareth in terms of the same salvation motif to preach the gospel (4:18). In using Isaiah 61:1-2, Jesus declared two important things. First, his earthly ministry to bring salvation to all peoples had started. Second, he was the anticipated Messiah who was bringing salvation with all of its hope for the sick, the poor, and the oppressed. This was clear in his response when John the Baptist sent two disciples to ask, “Are you the Expected One, or do we look for someone else?” (7:20). In response, Jesus told them to report to John, “the BLIND RECEIVE SIGHT, the LAME WALK, the LEPERS ARE CLEANSED, and the DEAF HEAR, the DEAD ARE RAISED UP, the POOR HAVE THE GOSPEL PREACHED TO THEM” (7:22; emphasis added). John the Baptist no doubt understood that Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah, for God had prophesied in Isaiah that Messiah would be a “light to the nations,” would “open blind eyes,” and bring “those who dwell in darkness from the prison” (Isaiah 42:6-7). After Jesus left Nazareth, Luke reported that he was healing and casting out demons—proof that he was the Christ (Luke 4:31-44). Thus, the purpose of God bringing Jesus the Messiah into the world was to provide salvation for all peoples, including the Gentiles. It was truly the mission of the triune Godhead, as Luke demonstrated. God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were all involved in the bringing of salvation to the world through the incarnation. Luke especially pointed out that preaching the good news of salvation was the number one priority for the disciples whom he sent out.

Three Sendings

Building on the salvation motif, Luke provided three reports of Jesus sending his followers out to preach. The salvation motif demanded that the followers of Jesus Christ go out preaching the good news to all people, and the stories found in Luke are prophetic of the future church. Before his death and resurrection, Jesus sent out the twelve and the seventy. After setting the stage for his public ministry in chapter 4, Jesus continued to heal, teach, and gather a group of followers from which he selected his close band of disciples. By chapter 9, the twelve disciples were a genuine band, but still not completely aware of his full message and mission when Jesus called them together, gave them power and authority over demons and diseases, and sent them out to preach the kingdom of God (9:1-2). Even though they were not mature theologically or experientially, they had been with Jesus, knew some of his teaching, and had seen him minister to others. Thus, they had some knowledge of what to do, and Jesus gave them further instructions. They were to travel light, with little organization (9:3), and employ the principle of receptivity (9:4-5) or “acceptance and rejection.”[5] Their mission was to be one of harvesting rather than sowing and cultivating, and as such, they were not to waste time preaching the good news to those who were unresponsive. With their limited knowledge and instructions, the twelve went out and then returned to debrief their experiences with Jesus (9:6; 10-11). How this training method of Jesus is to be understood and employed in church ministry today is open to different interpretations, but it demonstrates the missional nature of Luke’s salvation motif. Jesus did not wait until the disciples were mature before sending them out. Rather, he sent them to proclaim what they knew and then used their successes and failures as teaching moments to instruct them in deeper understanding of his message.

Before Jesus sent his disciples on their second mission, he allowed them to experience several maturing episodes. These included the feeding of the five thousand (9:12-17), Peter’s confessions (18-21), instruction on the cost of discipleship (23-26), his transfiguration (27-36), personal failure (37-43), their need of humility (46-48), and awareness of his coming death (22; 44-45). By the time he was ready to send them on a second mission, they had matured greatly. This time, Jesus expanded the mission to include seventy people. Again, his mission was presented as one of harvest, rather than sowing and cultivating, for the “harvest is great, but the laborers are few” (10:1-2). It was a dangerous mission; they would be like lambs among wolves, and they were to maintain a mobile ministry (3-4). However, Luke developed a “theology of option and verdict.”[6] When people are presented with an opportunity for belief and reject it, there will be a day of judgment. On this second mission, the disciples learned much about power for witness and service. When the seventy returned, they rejoiced in their fruitfulness (17-24), as they had power even over the demons. Jesus affirmed that he had given them power over power, that is, they had power-with-authority over the powers of Satan (19). However, Jesus warned that they must not be proud but rejoice in their own salvation.

The salvation motif that Luke first presented in the account of the miraculous conception and birth of Jesus was quickly narrowed down to a final sending in chapter 24. Along the way, Luke imparted a great deal of information leading to the happenings of the Last Supper, the night in Gethsemane, the cross, and the thrilling resurrection before getting to his account of the final sending out of the disciples. Two important passages that concern our discussion of mission priority are found in chapters 15 and 19. The first includes the three stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. All three stories stress the importance of finding what is lost. The story of the lost sheep centers on the joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents (15:7). The story of the lost coin concludes that even the angels in heaven rejoice over one sinner who repents (10). The story of the lost son shares the joy of the Father in finding his lost child (22-32). All three stories gently focus attention on the importance of finding lost people, an idea that Jesus later explicitly stated in the story of Zaccheus (19:10). The encounter of Jesus with Zaccheus ended in his belief and salvation (19:9), after which Jesus stated his missional priority, “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (19:10). This clear statement of Jesus, falling directly after the story of Zaccheus’s belief and salvation, can only have one meaning. The priority of Jesus was to save lost people! The context allows for no other interpretation.

The post-resurrection sending of Jesus follows his appearances and final teaching to his disciples. While the disciples experienced the living Christ by talking, touching, and seeing him in the flesh (he even ate in their presence), Jesus taught them from the Old Testament prophets (25-27; 44-46). By aligning himself with the prophets of old, Jesus demonstrated that his missional priority had to be understood in the light of his death and resurrection, since they were the fulfillment of prophecy. At this point, Luke tied the final sending of the disciples into the salvation motif of his entire account. The priority of the disciples was to proclaim the good news to all the nations. What was that good news? It was nothing more or less than that repentance and forgiveness of sins was available through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (24:46-48). The disciples had observed these happenings and were sent on a mission to tell (witness) what they had seen.

In the first two sendings mentioned by Luke, the disciples had just part of the story, part of the message, and part of the picture. Now, as they were sent on their third mission, they had the whole story, although more was to come, mainly the coming of the Holy Spirit (49). The small band of believers was to become the church whose missional priority was, and is, to proclaim the good news of salvation to all the nations (peoples) of the world, beginning at Jerusalem and then moving outward in concentric circles until reaching the ends of the world (47 and Acts 1:8). This was the priority of the church. This is our priority today!

Our priority to proclaim the gospel of salvation to all the nations does not mean we should ignore serving our communities or fellow mankind. Service without proclamation, or proclamation without service, is futile. It is the gospel preached and lived that impacts humanity and society with power. Both need to be preserved, and the church must practice both. In truth it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to disentangle preaching and service. Preaching the gospel of salvation must be done among the people, not just to the people. Yet, it must also be admitted that the best service the church can render to humanity is the proclamation of the gospel of salvation. If we feed the hungry today but fail to preach the gospel of salvation, and thereby see few or none turning to Christ, they will ultimately die in their sins. Perhaps they will be well fed; nonetheless, they will go into eternity apart from Christ. The ultimate service is to win souls, whereby they go into eternity as a child of God. Christ told his followers they were witnesses of this life, death, and resurrection. No doubt, there were hungry people in Galilee, and indeed all of the places where they would preach the good news, but he recognized that we must not ignore the incredibly ready for the incredibly needy. Other organizations can care for the poor, clothe the naked, and feed the hungry. Only the church (and churches) can proclaim the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. Goodwill Industries will not proclaim Christ crucified, buried, and risen. Neither will The Y (no longer the Young Men’s Christian Association!), nor will any government assistance program. Even among Christian ministries, observation demonstrates that where social service is prioritized over evangelism, very little evangelism actually occurs, a fact gradually being recognized by church leaders.

The most precious service we can render to our non-Christian neighbors and friends is to help them come to faith in Jesus Christ, who alone is the way to eternal life. Our commission is to go lovingly, yes, to go caringly, yes, and to go with healing, yes. Most important, however, is to go sharing the gospel of salvation through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is our priority.



[1] Craig Van Gelder. The Essence of the Church. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 125.

[2] By using the term atomistic, I mean that God’s mission in the world includes numerous objectives or tasks that are interrelated but not the same or of the same priority.

[3] Other references to “good news” are found in Isaiah 40:9; 41:27; 60:6; and 61:1.

[4] Alan R. Tippett. The Jesus Documents. Shawn Redford and Doug Priest, editors (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2012), 44.

[5] Tippett, 46.

[6] Tippett, 47.