Eckhard J. Schnabel. 2004. Early Christian Mission: Jesus and the Twelve: Volume One. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.
Review By Stephen W. Hiemstra
Evangelism is one of the fault-lines in the postmodern church. Some critics see evangelism as cultural imperialism; most just neglect it. What was the role of evangelism and missions in the early church?
In his book, Early Christian Mission, Eckhard Schnabel makes an audacious claim: the bible is a missionary document written by missionaries. He writes:
“The fact that it is not possible to find a defined concept of ‘missions’ in the New Testament (NT) does not alter the fact that early Christianity was controlled by the missionary task in their entire existence and in all their activities…The body of literature on the early Christian mission is not large. This is true even for Paul’s missionary activity—a fact that may be traced back to the conviction that ‘Paul is important for us today as a theologian’ while being ‘primarily a missionary for the early church.’” (5-6)
The NT focus on missions runs much deeper than a few obvious scriptural references, like the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20 or Acts 1:6-8. Schnabel writes:
“The first Christian missionary was not Paul, but Peter, and Peter would not have preached a ‘missionary’ sermon at Pentecost if he had not been a student of Jesus for three years” (3).
If the Bible, particularly the NT, has a missional intent, then the interpretation rendered should simplify the text, much like the Copernican Revolution simplified the mathematics of planetary motion .
Schnabel defines missions as:
“…the activity of a community of faith that distinguishes itself from its environment in terms of both religious belief (theology) and social behavior (ethics), that is convinced of the truth claims of its faith, and that actively works to win other people to the content of faith and to the way of life of whose true and necessity the members of that community of convinced.” (11)
The core missionary intent is evident, for example, in Jesus calling his followers to be “fishers of people” and are referred to as “Apostles” which means: “envoys sent by the risen Jesus Christ to proclaim the good news.” (10-12) Jesus describes his own mission when approached by Syrophoenician woman: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matt 15:24 ESV) Jesus saw himself as a missionary primarily to Israel, but mandate for disciples was to: “be my [Jesus’] witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Act 1:8 ESV) Still, because he was asked, Jesus healed the woman’s daughter (207).
If evangelism is a core concept for Christ and his disciples, then clearly a Christological view of the Old Testament (OT) must also have a missional intent. The need arises out of sin—some turn to God and some do not—those that turn to God need to make others aware of their shortcoming when faced with judgment. Schnabel sees God’s blessing of Abraham as a key to understanding missions in the OT:
“Now the LORD said to Abram, Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:1-3 ESV)
Abraham is blessed to be blessing to others (61-62) . Did the Nation of Israel lean into this idea of being a blessing to the nations around them? For the most part, no. The Prophet Jonah is instructive. God sends Jonah to preach to the Ninevites and he refuses; nevertheless, after being swallowed by whale, Jonah relents. He goes to Nineveh, prophesies their destruction, and the Ninevites turn to God (86-87). Jonah is neither surprised nor happy about this outcome (Jonah 4:1).
Dr Schnabel was one of my New Testament professors at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He taught previously at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago, Asian Theological Seminary in Manila, Phillippines, and Freien Theologischesn Akademice in Giessen, Germany. He writes in 2 volumes designed as comprehensive references. The subtitle for the first volume is—Jesus and the Twelve (pages 1 to 913)—while the subtitle for the second volume is—Paul and the Early Church (pages 920 to 1928). Volume 1 divides into 4 parts:
- Promise—Israel’s Eschatological Expectations and Jewish Expansion in the Second Temple period.
- Fulfillment—The Mission of Jesus.
- Beginnings—The Mission of the Apostles in Jerusalem.
- Exodus—The Mission of the Twelve from Jerusalem to the Ends of the Earth.
These chapters are preceded by an introduction along with an outline, preface, abbreviations, and lists of maps and figures. Subject, author, and ancient text indices are found at the end of volume 2 along with an exhaustive bibliography.
The distinctiveness of Schnabel’s writing arises in the way that he systematically describes events, towns and regions, chronological issues, and persons (15). In this way he teases out details that would not appear in a less comprehensive treatment. He takes advantage of his intimate knowledge of extra-biblical writing, map making, archaeology, and business practices from the first century to provide a fresh look at NT evangelism. As such, this book is more than a good literary or exegetical study. This could be described as a work in biblical theology, meaning that the entire counsel of scripture is consulted and expanded upon through extra-biblical research.
It is hard to summarize a reference with the scope of Schnabel work. Still, the merit of his work is beyond question—Scot McKnight aptly describes it as a masterpiece. Schnabel’s Early Christian Mission convinced me that missions is central to the work of the church and to interpreting scripture . This work belongs in every seminary library and missions professionals will want to be aware of its contents.
“And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20 ESV) A parallel statement in John is much more comprehensive—“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (John 20:21 ESV)—even though it is often ignored.
“So when they had come together, they asked him, Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel? He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:6-8 ESV)
In like manner, if the Christian worldview is true, it should simplify a complex life; it is not a simpleton’s lifestyle.
This is an interesting definition. If X and Y, then Z. Conversely, if Z, then X and Y must be true. In plain English, missions is a test of: having a different theology and lifestyle, and really believing it. Ouch, if you don’t and/or if you won’t!
 Also: Mark 7:26.
 “but he said to them, I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose. And he was preaching in the synagogues of Judea.” (Luke 4:43-44 ESV)
 When I sign copies of A Christian Guide to Spirituality (T2Pneuma.com), I normally paraphrase the blessing of Abraham—an echo and reminder of my study of Early Christian Mission.