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Missions 101

What is “Incarnational” Ministry?

Mar. 16, 2015By: Jackson WuAuthor Bio

If you pick up a book on missions, there’s a good chance it will say something about the need for missionaries to be “incarnational.” What people normally mean when they say this is something like,

“Jesus entered the world and conformed to the basic cultural customs of his day. In the same way, missionaries too should learn the local culture, its language, and traditions. We should dress in appropriate clothing and behave in a way that respects the local people.”

Is this a right way of thinking? Does the Bible actually say anything about living incarnationally?

On the one hand, who can argue with this? Naturally, we want to present the biblical message4DA04870-ABCD-4991-A185-F1C57BF11ACE and ourselves in a way that is both biblically faithful and culturally meaningful. On the other hand, there seems to be something that’s a little bit forced here.

Many people cite 1 Cor 9, where Paul says he is “all things to all people” so that he may win some. Yet, even in that passage, Paul does not speak of himself as “incarnating.” (By the way, D. A. Carson gave an excellent talk on 1 Cor 9:19–23 called “That By All Means I Might Win Some.”)

So, we need to ask, “Do biblical writers ever compare one’s life and ministry with the incarnation (the concept, not the word)?

During this series, I want us to consider 1 John 4:7–21? In this first post, I will comment on a few verses before summarizing its message in the passage. In my second and third posts, I will highlight a few points of application.

What does the incarnation manifest?

We first need to observe a few key verses.

I John 4:9–10

[9] In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. [10] In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 

In verse 9, John seems to use the incarnation as a way of reinforcing 3:18–24 and previewing his statements in 4:12–21

I John 4:11–12

[11] Beloved, if God so [οὕτως] loved us, we also ought to love one another. [12] No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.

Referring back to vv. 9–10, v. 11 focuses on the manner in which God manifested his love. In this way, . . . in other words, like the incarnation . . . .we ought to love others.

I John 4:17

In v. 17, we then read, “By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world.” Note the comparison between God and us in the world. 

I John 3–4

Without getting into too many details, I point out one of John’s main goals. He wants his readers to know who they are that truly know and are born of God (4:7–8). Throughout ch. 2–5, and especially this passage, John speaks of abiding in God, confessing Jesus as Christ, the son of God, and discerning the work of God’s Spirit.

Here’s the question that John works to address. Since we can’t “see” God (4:20), particularly His Spirit, how are people supposed to know that they “abide” in Him? 

“Incarnational” as imitation?

We can summarize the purpose of John’s message in this way. John wants both to assure people that they know God and to spur them to greater love.

Although no one has seen God, he manifested himself by sending Jesus into the world to become the propitiation for sin. Because God took the initiative to manifest Himself in this way, so now we are able to love (via His Spirit).

Notice the repeated emphasis in the following verses.

v. 10  . . . not that we have loved God but that he loved us

v. 11  . . . Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

v. 19  . . . We love because he first loved us.

In the same way (cf. 4:11, 17), our love should be manifest (seen) in concrete ways (cf. 3:16–18). We are to take the initiative to love others, meeting people’s needs. If we cannot love those we can see, we cannot love Him whom we cannot see. In that case, we do not have His Spirit (abiding in us) and do not know him.

Interestingly, verses 17–18 echo 2:28 and 3:21. They speak of having confidence, not fear or shame, when the Lord comes. Why would they need confidence that they abide in God and He in them?

“Abiding” in God and He is us in itself an unseen reality (in the same way that God is unseen). Yet, God’s “abiding” in us (which is unseen, ontologically speaking) is manifest in our love for others. Again, keep in mind John’s big goal. He wants to assure reader that they do in fact know God. Second, he wants to spur them to greater love.

Especially when you keep in mind John’s Gospel, it become clearer that John uses this “manifest” theme to speak of Jesus’ “incarnational” ministry.

“Incarnational” ministry is not about culture 

In short, to minister “incarnationally” has far less to do with culture than it does with Christ.  

It primary involves revealing the God’s character and work in a way that is evident or “manifest.”  An “incarnational” life goes far deeper than the clothes we wear, the language we speak, and the food we eat.

In reality, I have only begun to answer the question, “What is incarnational ministry?” In keeping with the subject, explaining it seems to require applying in. In this post, I’ve simply laid out the interpretive groundwork. In Part 2 of the series, I’ll apply these observations

For those interested in another passage that depicts an “incarnational” ministry, I refer you to 2 Cor 4:7–12, which I wrote about in a previous post.  Paul says, “we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (v. 11).

Jackson Wu (PhD, SEBTS) teaches theology and missiology in a seminary for Chinese church leaders. Previously, he also worked as a church planter. He has just released his second book One Gospel for All Nations: A Practical Approach to Biblical Contextualization. In addition to his blog, jacksonwu.org, follow him on Twitter @jacksonwu4china.

Tags:  relevance, mission
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