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Why Foreign Missions? 18. John’s Trinitarian Mission Theology: The Contributions of Andreas Köstenberger

Why Foreign Missions?  18.  John’s Trinitarian Mission Theology: The Contributions of Andreas Köstenberger

In his study of the theology of John’s Gospel and letters, +Andreas Köstenberger maintains that John’s mission theology is integrally related to his discussion of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and that his trinitarian theology is a function of his mission theology rather than the other way around (p. 540).[1]  This study expands on what has already been presented in studies 15, 16, and 17 about the relationship between divine identity and mission in John’s Gospel.

According to Köstenberger, the Father and the Son in John’s Gospel are related in their mission. God loved the world in this way: he sent the Son (Jn. 3.16).  Jesus then extends this mission to his disciples: ‘As the Father has sent me, I am sending you’ (Jn. 20.21).

Köstenberger says that ‘John represents Jesus’ mission in three distinct yet related ways:
  • Jesus as the sent Son;
  • Jesus as the eschatological shepherd-teacher;
  • Jesus as the one who comes into the world and returns to the Father (descent-ascent)’ (p. 540)
As the ‘sent Son,’ Jesus’ mission involves (1) gathering a new messianic community and (2) commissioning this group to worldwide mission (Jn. 20.21).  Mission for the disciples, then, is first inclusion in the divine love and unity of the Father and the Son (seen in the Farewell Discourse), and second being ‘responsible agents and representatives of Jesus the sent Son’ (p. 541).  One way that these ‘Father-Son’ and ‘sent Son-sent disciples’ relationships are expressed is through prayer.  Jesus shows his dependence on the Father through prayer (feeding the multitudes, Jn. 6.11, 23; thanksgiving prayer when Lazarus is raised from the dead, Jn. 11.41-42; petition to the Father when facing arrest and crucifixion, Jn. 12.27-28; prayer report at the end of his mission, Jn. 17) (p. 541).  ‘As a result, his followers would be able to direct believing prayer to Jesus, once he was in his exalted position (14.13-14, 16; 15.7, 16; 16.23-27; cf. 1 John 3.21-23; 5.14-15)’ (p. 541).

As to Jesus’ mission as the eschatological shepherd-teacher, Jesus ‘gathers the messianic community, cleanses it (i.e., the footwashing and the removal of Judas the betrayer in 13.1-30), and prepares it for its mission’ (p. 541).  Other important texts bringing out these aspects of Jesus’ mission are the Good Shepherd Discourse (Jn. 10) and Jesus’ commissioning of Peter in Jn. 21.  The messianic community, according to Isaiah 54.13, would be taught by God (so also Jn. 6.45), and its unity (Jn. 11.52) and love (Jn. 13.35; 17.20-23) are part of its mission to the watching world (p. 541).

Finally, Jesus’ coming into the world and returning to the Father entails a vertical aspect of descending and ascending.  Köstenberger has little to say about this, but he might here have expounded what I earlier (studies 15, 16, and 17) discussed in terms of Jesus’ revelation of the divine identity, that God’s glory is revealed in his mercy and faithfulness to a sinful people when Jesus dies on the cross.  I have also argued that John’s theology of election derives from this revelation of divine identity and God’s commitment to his people and, contra Köstenberger, that election is not about divine fiat in election but about God’s love.[2]  That Jesus’ came from the Father is as much an aspect of divine glory as is the cross; in both, the Son reveals the Father.

The Spirit’s role in mission is seen firstly in the Spirit’s role in Jesus’ ministry (Jn. 1.32-33; 3.34; 6.63; 7.39) and secondly in this ministry being transferred to believers in the second half of John’s Gospel (p. 542).  The Spirit is the Spirit of truth (Jn. 14.17; 15.26; 16.13), the Holy Spirit (Jn. 14.26; 20.22; cf. 1.33) and the paraklētos or ‘helping presence’ (Jn. 14.16, 26; 15.26; 16.7) (p. 542).  The Spirit takes up the role of Jesus with his disciples after Jesus departs.  Jesus, too, was a helping presence for the disciples (Jn. 14.16).  He encouraged and strengthened his disciples (Jn. 14.17).  The Spirit’s indwelling of the disciples is as though Jesus were residing in them (Jn. 14.18) (p. 542).  Thus the Spirit’s presence means that the disciples will not be orphaned (cf. Jn. 17).  He will remind the disciples of Jesus’ teaching (Jn. 14.26), testify regarding Jesus along with the disciples (Jn. 15.26), ‘convict the world of sin, (un)righteousness, and judgment’ (Jn. 16.8-11), guide the disciples into all truth and disclose what is to come (Jn. 16.13) (p. 542).  When Jesus commissions his disciples, he breathes his Spirit on them, as though this is an act of creation (cf. Gen. 2.7; Jn. 20.22) (p. 543).

Thus Köstenberger concludes: ‘…not only [is] John’s mission theology … trinitarian …, but … his trinitarian teaching is part of his mission theology—a truly revolutionary insight’ (p. 545).  Third, John’s mission theology is universal in scope (p. 545).  It is so because
  • ‘the sole requirement for inclusion in Jesus’ new messianic community’ is believing in Jesus (1.12; 3.16; 20.30-31 et passim)’ (p. 545).
  • ‘The pattern of Jesus’ mission is shown to anticipate the (through Acts) familiar pattern of the early church’s mission, from Jerusalem and Judea (John 3) to Samaria (John 4.1-42) to the Gentile world (John 4.43-54)’ (p. 546).
  • Jn. 1-12 ‘narrates Jesus’ earthly mission to the Jews,’ while Jn. 13-21 presents ‘the exalted Jesus’ mission to the world through his followers’ (p. 546).
  • While Israel has a salvation-historical privilege (Jn. 4.22), Jesus’ mission is extended to the Gentiles (Jn. 4.34-38; 10.16; 11.51-52; 12.20-36; 15.8) (p. 546).[3]

I would like to draw out three conclusions from Köstenberger’s helpful study. 

First, the triune unity of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit entails a single mission theology, not one for Jews and one for Gentiles, or different missions among different peoples.  This unity cannot be separated, as though there is a mission of the Father, one of the Son, and one of the Holy Spirit.  The suggestion of Jürgen Moltmann is precisely the sort of error in mission theology that a study of John’s Gospel would prevent.  He suggests that we need a mission theology of the Spirit that affirms ‘life’ in every respect over against a Christ-centred missiology that distinguishes Christian dialogue from other faith dialogues.  Moltmann supposes that there can be a non-Christ-centred, Spirit-centred mission theology that entails an inter-faith commitment to ‘life’ affirming activities (such as concerns for the environment).[4]

Second, Köstenberger’s points help us see in trinitarian terms what has earlier been presented about John’s revelational theology of mission.  Whereas I have already shown how John presents Jesus as revealing the divine identity in terms of grace and truth (or mercy and truthfulness), Köstenberger shows that John’s mission theology entails the single mission of the Triune God.  It is a mission of revelation of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

Third, Köstenberger shows how John’s mission theology entails a mission to the Jews and a mission extended to the whole world.  It is a mission of salvation to the whole world and for the whole world that has the goal of forming God’s eschatological people in the relation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

[1] Andreas Köstenberger, ‘Chapter 12: John’s Trinitarian Mission Theology,’ A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters (Biblical Theology of the New Testament; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), pp. 539-546.
[2] Köstenberger does say that ‘John’s gospel affirms both divine sovereignty and human responsibility’ (A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters, p. 458).  Yet he also says that passages as Jn. 8.47; 10.25b-26; 12.37-40; and 14.17, ‘the logic typically moves from lack of divine election to failure to believe.  People do not belong to God; that is why they do not listen to Jesus (8:47).  People are not Jesus’ sheep; that is why they do not believe (10.25b-26).  God blinded people’s eyes and hardened their hearts; that is why they cannot believe (12:40).  This kind of reasoning places human unbelief ultimately within the sphere of God’s sovereignty, and more specifically his (positive or negative) election purposes.  While not rendering people free from responsibility, their unbelief is ultimately shown to be grounded not in human choice but in divine hardening’ (pp. 459-460).  As I have already argued, this makes perfect sense as long as one locates theology in ‘will’—the will of God and the will of human beings.  This Reformed debate, between classical Calvinist and Arminian theology, twists Johannine theology off its focus on revealing the divine identity of God’s love.  See study  

[3] Indeed, Jesus’ death is not a limited atonement but a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world (Jn. 1.29).
[4] J. Moltmann, 'The Mission of the Spirit--The Gospel of Life,' in Mission: An Invitation to God's Future, ed. T. Yates (Calver, Hope Valley, Near Sheffield: Cliff College Pub., 2000), pp. 28f.