John 17:18, “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” (ESV)

John 20:21, “Peace be with you, As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (ESV)

Often in mission circles these verses launch us into a discussion of “incarnational missions” focusing on servanthood and contextualization. Both are clearly important for missions. Yet is that the extent of how our mission compares to the mission of Jesus? Are those issues in Jesus’ mind when he makes these statements?

Unique Incarnation

Using the term “incarnational” to describe our mission in the world is not my preference. The incarnation of Jesus Christ is unique. The doctrine is mysterious and profound. It is what makes Christian theology distinctly Christian. I agree with Eckhard J. Schnabel who writes,

I submit that the use of the term ‘incarnational’ is not very helpful to describe the task of authentic Christian missionary work. The event of Jesus coming into the world is unique, unrepeatable and incomparable, making it preferable to use other terminology to express the attitudes and behavior that Paul describes in 1 Cor 9:19-23. The Johannine missionary commission in Jn 20:21 does not demand an “incarnation” of Jesus’ disciples but rather their obedience, unconditional commitment and robust activity in the service of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is precisely John who describes the mission of Jesus as unique: Jesus is the “only” Son (monogenes[Jn 1:14, 18; 3:14, 18]), he is preexistent (Jn 1:1, 14), his relationship to the Father is unparalleled (Jn 1:14, 18). . . . In Phil 2:5-11 it is not the incarnation of Jesus that is presented as a model for Christian behavior but rather Jesus’ consistent humility. The terms ‘contextualization’ or ‘inculturation’ certainly are more helpful. (Eckhard J. Schnabel, Early Christian Mission, volume 2, Downers Grove: IVP, 2004, p1574, 1575) See also David J. Hesselgrave, Paradigms in Conflict, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005, p 141-165.

Different Task, But Similar Relationship

Yet the term “incarnational missions” is here to stay. My objections and the objections of others have not turned the tide. But when we jump from these two passages in John to identification and contextualization with our audience, we miss important teaching about our relational connection with Jesus.

There is a definite comparison between the sending of Jesus and the sending of the disciples (and us). Yet, the mission of Jesus is different from the mission of the disciples. The comparison is not in the tasks but in the relationship to the sender. In his book, The Missions of Jesus and the Disciples according to the Fourth Gospel, Andreas Köstenberger points out that,

…the context of 20:21 indicates that Jesus is a model for the disciples in his relationship to his sender, the Father: Jesus sought to bring glory to the one who sent him and to do his sender’s will rather than his own. He represented his sender faithfully and maintained a close relationship with him. The thrust of the passage appears to be that the disciples are to relate to Jesus in the same way as Jesus related to his sender, the Father. (Köstenberger, 216)

The Sending Motif in John

Köstenberger’s book carefully studies the sending motif in John’s gospel. He points out that the sending terminology emphasizes:

Generally, the sent one is: to bring glory and honor to the sender (5:23; 7:18), to do the sender’s will (4:34; 5:30, 38; 6:38-39) and works (5:36; 9:4), to speak the sender’s words (3:34; 7:16; 12:49; 14:10b, 24), and to be accountable to the sender (especially chap. 17). He is to bear witness to the sender (5:36; 7:28 = 8:26), to represent the sender accurately (12:44-45; 13:20; 15:18-25), to exercise delegated authority (5:21-22, 27; 13:3; 17:2; 20:23), and finally, the sent one is to know the sender intimately (7:29; cf. 15:21; 17:8, 25), live in a close relationship with the sender (8:16, 18, 29; 16:32), and follow the sender’s example (13:16). (Köstenberger, 108)

From this analysis, we can see  that the relationship between the sender and the sent one is primary in John’s gospel. When speaking of the incarnation, John uses other terms such as “the Word became flesh” (Jn 1:14) or “descended from heaven” (Jn 3:13).

John 17:18 in context

John 17:18 is in Jesus’s High Priestly prayer. The prayer is filled with relational references (love, joy, being one, etc.) between the Father and Jesus and between Jesus and his disciples. Jesus accomplished the work the Father gave him, thus bringing glory to the Father (Jn 17:4). The disciples have come to know that the Father sent Jesus (17:8). The disciples are sent into the world being sanctified in the truth (Jn 17:17) through the consecration of Jesus Christ (Jn 17:19) which points to his death on the cross. Others will believe through their word (17:20).

The sending of the disciples into the world in John 17:18 is linked to Jesus being sent into the world. Certainly, we need to identify with the people we are sent to but the thrust of the passage is on accomplishing the work that Christ has sent us to do. It is about living and communicating the word of truth, the word about eternal life which is knowing the only true God and Jesus Christ the sent one (17:3).

John 20:21 in context

John 20:21 is in the context of a resurrection appearance. Jesus has shown the disciples his hands and side (Jn 20:20), giving proof of the resurrection. Verse 21 is then followed by the receiving of the Holy Spirit (Jn 20:22). He has now completed his work as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (Jn 1:29). John 20:23 relates the forgiveness of sins to this sending. In summary, Jesus Christ has accomplished what he was sent to do. Given this reality, now the disciples are sent to make his finished work known. The sent one becomes the sender. Schnabel comments:

The sending of the disciples by Jesus corresponds to the sending of Jesus by the Father: this entails that they should know Jesus as intimately as Jesus knows the Father (Jn 15:15; 17:7, 8, 25), be utterly dependent upon Jesus as the Son is dependent upon the Father (Jn 4:13-14; 15:7-8, 16), bring glory to Jesus and do his will as Jesus did the will of the Father (Jn 4:3; 5:30, 38), be obedient to Jesus and keep his word (Jn 14:21, 23-24; 15:14, 20; 17:6) make Jesus known and testify of him as Jesus made known the Father and bore witness of him (Jn 12:44, 45; 13:20). (Eckhard J. Schnabel, Early Christian Mission, volume 1, Downers Grove: IVP, 2004, p 280)

Now discussions of “incarnational missions” that stress identification and humble service are talking about important missiological principles but those are best grounded in passages like 1 Corinthians 9:19ff and Philippians 2:5ff.

Cultivate the Relationship with Jesus

John 17:18 and John 20:21 are comparing the sender-sent relationship which is so prominently developed in John’s gospel. Ignoring the rich context of that relationship weakens our understanding of the importance of Jesus’ presence in our lives and ministry. We must cultivate with Jesus the same relationship that he practiced with the Father. This will enable us to go forth with confidence and joy in that deep relationship. Jesus promised that he will be with us to the end of the age (Mt 28:20). John’s presentation of the sender- sent one relationship helps us see what that looks like.

Not the way in which Jesus came into the world (i.e., the incarnation), but the nature of Jesus’ relationship with his sender (i.e., one of obedience and utter dependence), is presented in the Fourth Gospel as the model for the disciples’ mission. Jesus’ followers are called to imitate Jesus’ selfless devotion in seeking his sender’s glory, to submit to their sender’s will, and to represent their sender accurately and know him intimately.”(Köstenberger, 217, emphasis his)

Neither 17:18 nor 20:21 indicates that the mission of Jesus and of the disciples are equivalent in every respect. They rather present an analogy between two sender-sent relationships, between the Father and Jesus, and between Jesus and the disciples. (Köstenberger, 220)

Focusing on the Audience More than the Sender

Far too often we focus on our audience to the neglect of our relationship to our sender, Jesus Christ. Our message must accurately speak of the person and work of Jesus Christ, making sure that we please him in what we say. Let’s cultivate knowing him intimately in obedience and utter dependence so that our audience will understand what Christ has accomplished through his death and resurrection that they may join us in giving glory to the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world!