A Missional Reading of Nahum

Nahum: A Missional Reading

An Angry Poet

Nahum is a vicious book.

It begins with a quote from Exodus 34, which includes the divine self-revelation:

“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6–7 NRSV)

In contrast to Jonah’s citation of this text, Nahum attends to the more wrathful bits1:

A jealous and avenging God is the Lord,
the Lord is avenging and wrathful;
the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries
and rages against his enemies.
The Lord is slow to anger but great in power,
and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty.
(Nahum 1:2–3 NRSV)

The wrath of the Lord is focused in this text on Judah’s imperial enemy Assyria. the burning poetry flows from the trauma of the Assyrian destruction of the northern tribes and near destruction of Jerusalem. The prophet’s message is that though the Empire is still “at full strength and many”, their reign is coming to an end.2

However, the good news Nahum envisions being proclaimed is the destruction of Nineveh—a destruction which is imagined in vivid detail.

Because of the countless debaucheries of the prostitute,
gracefully alluring, mistress of sorcery,
who enslaves nations through her debaucheries,
and peoples through her sorcery,
I am against you, says the Lord of hosts,
and will lift up your skirts over your face;
and I will let nations look on your nakedness
and kingdoms on your shame.
I will throw filth at you
and treat you with contempt,
and make you a spectacle.
(Nahum 3:4–6 NRSV)

Nahum is a challenging book for missional readers, providing no easy forgiveness or reconciliation for Assyria, no word of hope for the poet’s enemy. It is revenge poetry, much like Obadiah, written in solidarity with a victimized people.

One way of reading it is to enter into that solidarity. Reading Nahum alongside those who have received trauma and exploitation prepares us to be allies of the oppressed in our own age.

When Bad News is Good News

Readers might be surprised to read the familiar text of Nahum 1:15 in its context. In Romans 10:15, Paul alludes to this text, which is a parallel of sorts to Isaiah 52:7. Nahum’s version reads:

Look! On the mountains the feet of one
who brings good tidings,
who proclaims peace!

However, here there is no real word of a full, Messianic peace. The only peace Nahum can envision comes from the impending destruction of Assyria. The utter flattening of this imperial power is Good news for her victims.

Let’s not scoff at this vengeful spirit too quickly—it needs to be heard. The corrupted, devastating power of Assyria had to be stopped, and the word of Nineveh’s collapse could only be received as good news by those victims who had struggled under her power and longed for relief. To read this text in solidarity with the victimized means celebrating the end of terror. Is there any other way to enter into communion with those who have been broken by others than to stand with them as they ask for justice?

Is There Any Room For Mercy Towards Assyria?

But what about the other side? Is there any place for solidarity with Nineveh? Nahum (justifiably) cannot imagine it. God will have a hard time lining up mourners at the funeral:

Then all who see you will shrink from you and say,
“Nineveh is devastated; who will bemoan her?”
Where shall I seek comforters for you?
(Nahum 3:7 NRSV)

Nobody sheds a tear for the oppressor. Indeed, Nahum recognizes that Assyria’s cruel reach has been universal—and celebration over her downfall will surely be so as well.

All who hear the news about you clap their hands over you.
For who has ever escaped your endless cruelty?
(Nahum 3:18–19 NRSV)

Only after we have read this text in solidarity with the victims, wept for them and stood with them while they have we lashed out can we understand what it means to reach toward the oppressor. It’s hard to find a leverage point for mercy, a place where we can begin to see that they have been broken, too. Though they have exercised agency in the process, they have also been acting out a role, been victims of the corrupted structures of the world, the game laid out for them. Did they truly understand their own evil? What forces were they swept up in?

Eventually we might find a way to ask, “Is there any hope for their redemption?” We may struggle towards an imagination of what repentance might look like for them. The struggle is a good sign, an indication that we are reading Nahum on its own terms. But ultimately, Nahum needs a conversation partner, and the Minor Prophets oblige us, bringing Jonah to the table.3

Nahum’s Conversation Partner: Jonah

Although Jonah is the more familiar book, it makes sense to me to read NAhum first, absorbing its pathos before turning to Jonah. The dissonance of Jonah emerges more clearly when we read Nahum, absorbing the trauma and finding solidarity with the victims. Then, all of a sudden, Jonah doesn’t seem like simply a foolish, begrudging simpleton. His response, even if comically tragic, makes sense coming from the perspective of Nahum. The big differences between the prophet Nahum and Jonah?

  1. Nahum received a word for Judah, Jonah was sent to Nineveh.
  2. Jonah gets eaten by a fish and vomited.

The perspective of the two prophets towards Nineveh are likely in alignment with each other. Jonah shouts Amen all through Nahum’s sermon, and Nahum screams in protest when God sends Jonah to the Assyrians.

On the other hand, the books Nahum and Jonah are pointed in different directions. Jonah is an astonishing, dumbfounding, stupefying answer to Nahum’s rhetorical question, “Nineveh is devastated; who will bemoan her?”. The whole book points towards a final question: “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

Who mourns over Nineveh’s destruction? God does.

Is Judah’s pain real? Yes.

Does Nineveh need to be stopped? Yes.

Is retribution in order? Yes.

Does God care? Yes.
God cares for the Jew and the Assyrian.

Reading Like an Assyrian

One last thing. Nahum expresses Judah’s anguish over Nineveh’s oppression and to provide hope for relief from that oppression. As readers from afar, I think that reading in solidarity with the oppressed Jews is the priamry mode of reading the text, we should also consider another perspective: reading as Assyrians. It’s worth considering whether our position is most naturally that of the underdogs in the story. We might, rather, be the empowered empire that inflicts suffering on others and exploits them for our own ends. There are certainly those in the world that see the tribes that I belong to (American, White, Christian) in that light. This angle too can be over simplified, but it’s worth considering.

It may be that, as I learn to read in solidarity with the oppressed who cry out for justice, I have to own my role in the empire. It may be that such a reading provokes me to really see my own complicity with violence and runaway power, and calls me to repent.

The missional way stretches towards justice in the whole world, longing with God for all of creation to flourish, with each human freely obeying God, receiving God’s grace and mercy. We long for each person and every nation to experience the abundance of creation, God’s love, and the community of loving, just humanity. Following such a way demands that I continually repent, gaining new self-understanding and turning again to follow God.

When I read with the possibility that I am more likely Potiphar than Joseph, Pharaoh than Moses, Nebuchadnezzar than Daniel, it opens up my heart to repent of corruption and the exploitation of the less powerful. Nahum stands in that space, and I can either cry out with him, or I can hear the prophet call out against me from a distance, and seek change. It may be that a different moments of my life, I need to do both.

  1. The first part of that language also points us towards the decalogue itself. The second command reads: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:4–6 NRSV)
  2. Nahum 1:12
  3. This is a great example of the kinds of conversations bouncing between the prophets. If we read them like something of a symposium, rich connections emerge. Obadiah, and Habakkuk, come to mind as equally rich conversation partners for Nahum.

Virtues for Advent

It is now advent, the season in which the Church waits for the coming of Christ—both the celebration of his coming in the past (Christmas) as well as the promise of his future coming. We reflect on what we received in his incarnation, and on what it means to prepare for his return. Anticipation fills the air and we cultivate a sense of anticipation and longing in our hearts. Over time, the church has curated a series of texts that speak to the longing of the season, which reflect on Israel’s hopes for the Messiah, and narratives of the preparatory work of John the baptist, and Jesus’s birth.

I was reading something about hospitality earlier today, and it struck me that the virtue of being hospitable fits well with the spirit of the advent season. I began to think of other “advent” virtues, traits of character highlighted and commended by the season. Here’s what I came up with, though I’d welcome your thoughts on others.

Patience

Essential to the advent spirit, patience calls us to wait without frustration. It cultivates longing for God’s work not-yet-accomplished, and makes us eager for the shalom of the reconciled world. And yet, that eagerness and longing has to be held with patience, with a resistance to responses like wrath or despair over the sin and brokenness we still experience. Advent, the spirit of conscious waiting, cultivates our desire for Christ’s coming and a patience for the meanwhile.

Hospitality

Hospitality caught my eye as an advent virtue. The narratives of Jesus’s birth point toward this virtue, with the familiar language of “no room at the inn” and Mary’s willingness to welcome the child into her own being, and thus into the world. At the core of advent is the practice of preparing ourselves to receive Christ, which also prepares us to receive the stranger in whom Christ may be alive.

Justice

Advent primes us for justice, turning our eyes to places where the broken world cries out for redemption and vindication by God. We hear the cries of those who say, “How long, O Lord?”. We move to solidarity with them. We look for ways to work towards just relief in the present, while we wait for the world to receive the fully restorative justice of God’s kingdom in Christ’s appearing.

Generosity

Advent reminds us that what we seem to possess now is simply stewarded for the king who is coming. It loosens our grip on the things we have, and calls us to become more generous givers, like the ancient magi who traveled far not to receive from Christ the king, but to lay their gifts before him.

Humility

Advent forces us to reckon with our own weaknesses and the limits of our own capacities. We become aware of the big problems beyond our reach, and confess our need for Christ. We also recognize that in Christ’s return there is a reversal coming, whereby the great and powerful are laid low, and the lowly and humble are lifted up, (as in the Magnificat (Luke 1:52-53):

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

Perseverance

Perseverance and patience are twin virtues, though there is enough distinction between the two to warrant listing them separately. To me, patience is more about the continued passive endurance of something difficult, while perseverance more actively pushes through the difficulty. Patience is about not giving up, perseverance is about keeping going. Advent encourages both, I think, and on the Perseverance side we are encouraged to continue joining Christ in the work he is doing—the work that he began in the era of the gospels, and which he will bring to completion in his return.

Practicing the Advent Virtues

These virtues blow through the air in advent, calling for our attention and intention. Let me offer a few simple steps towards practicing them with greater deliberateness.

  1. Take a few days meditating through these virtues, one for each day. Or, perhaps just select one and meditate on it throughout the season, take just five or fifteen minutes a day to consider what it means to be more just or hospitable in the season.
  2. One form of such meditation might be journaling, which you could easily prime by taking the virtues above and jotting them at the top or bottom of the next several pages of your journal, as a prompt to think about when you get to that page.
  3. Challenge the people you live with to lean into these virtues for a week or so.
  4. Connect these virtues to texts that remind you of what they mean. (If you’re doing number 3, this would be a great thing to share with your friends and family via quick texts. Bonus for gifs!)
  5. Take a day to take stock of where you are with one of these virtues. Where are you in developing patience, or generosity? How do you know?
  6. Consider other “Advent Virtues”? In what other ways does this season provoke us to cultivate the character of Christ?

I’d love to hear your answers on this last one. Feel free to either comment here or on facebook, or send a reply to @stevenhovater on twitter!

Is Missional a Word?

Is Missional Really a Word?

Skeptics of the missional church movement often begin with an easy jab: Is “missional” even a word?

Short Answer: Yes

“Missional” is simply an adjective constructed with the word “mission” (purpose, intended task) and the suffix “-al” (related to).

It’s a similar construction to words like “pastoral”, which describes something done that’s related to the work of a pastor or shepherd. Fictional, fraternal, magical, formal, cynical, and scriptural are other examples of this type of form, and there are many others, often formed with latin or greek roots.

This is a fairly young word, but it follows a very established pattern of word formation. Furthermore, it easily meets the criteria of having found a niche of usage that has been accepted in both the academy and in popular usage. Publishers are churning out relevant works at a brisk pace, and it has simply become a part of the working vocabulary of theologians.

If your computer still attempts to deny you usage of the word by underlining it with the dreaded red squiggles of spellchecking shame, you should absolutely feel free to instruct your machine to “learn spelling” and move forward with the confidence that missional is, in fact, a perfectly legitimate word.

“Missional” Ambiguity

However, just because we can feel comfortable proclaiming “missional” a legimate word does not mean that it easily provides clarity. There are two major reasons that this young word remains ambiguous. The first is the flexibility of the word “mission”, which reflects variety of tones in different contexts. For instance, it can mean a purpose that is assigned to a person by another, or one that is self-imposed. It can denote the collective purpose of a large corporate entity, thus reflecting an aspirational unity, or it can be used to emphasize an individual’s drive to accomplish a purpose—a person can pursue a task in a ho-hum manner, but pursuing a mission reflects more passion and zeal.

But specifically, in the Christian church there is a multiplicity of understandings of mission. Some take the word to reflect the effort to make converts of other religions or the non-religious, while others view mission more holistically. In these conditions, “missional” refers to different things to different people. How could it be otherwise? Who is to provide the exhaustive definition of mission?

While the term may have usefulness as a language construct referring simply to anything pertaining to any understanding of mission, it is most useful as a shorthand for the fruits of that particular stream of conversation growing from the works of the Gospel and Our Culture Network, most particularly Missional Church: A Vision For the Sending of the Church in North America by Darrell Guder and others.1 That work is itself an outworking of several ideas in the work of Leslie Newbigin, David Bosch, and other missiologists.2 It has been a springboard for many other voices to join the conversation, while the conversation has forked many times in the last twenty years, it is a seminal text with enough clout to be a common reference point.

In other words, missional is a significant term because it can situate a thought or idea in the context of the particular conversation begun with Guder and friends, with its array of accumulated questions, assumptions, and focal points. In my view, this conversation includes:

  • a focus on the nature of God as being related to a mission,
  • exploration of the life-giving reign of God as a category for understanding Gods mission,
  • a sociological observation about the decline of Christendom in North America, and
  • a creative exploration of what kinds of practices lead the church to engage Gods mission given the current cultural moment.

However, though I think referring to this particular conversation is the most useful way to employ “missional”, the conversation has other branches as well, and while some of these are testing the boundaries of what we might consider “missional”, the word still needs a few decades of usage before any kind of consensus will have time to organically take hold.

Thus, it is useful for now for writers and speakers using the word to provide at least enough contextual clues for those receiving the language to locate the thoughts and practices they are describing in the particular stream of conversation they intend to join and extend. Make it clear how you understand mission. Make it clear why what you’re talking about is in the world of missional. Don’t assume.

On the other hand, readers and hearers should vigilantly discern the way “missional” is being used in the particular contexts they are receiving the word in as well. Is it being used in an academic sense, being tied to the conversation flowing from Guder and friends? Is it meant as a part of a particular understanding of the mission of God, or is it simply denoting an outwardly focused set of church practices?

Bottom line: yes, missional is a real word, and you should go ahead and feel free to use it in your writings, sermons, conversations, and social media posts. Be aware of the possible ambiguities that exist, and do your part to help provide clarity by providing the appropriate context whenever you can. Extend the conversation—and try not to muddle it.

  1. Darrell Guder et al, 1998.
  2. The outlining of this pedigree in The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation by Craig Van Gelder and Dwight Zscheile (2011) has been a great help to me.

Thirst

I don’t know why the grocery was crowded,
densely packed with bodies,
jammed together like the potatoes in their bin.

There were too many carts to move through,
so I stood still in the traffic like a commuter
trying to make it back to the suburbs
like everybody else.

It gave me time to look down the aisles
that I didn’t want to travel,
to wonder at the magnificent array
A hundred soups. A thousand cereals.
A million choices.

The flood of drinks overwhelmed me most,
a whole aisle to themselves,
without counting the booze.
Ninety feet of alternatives
for people thirsting for more than water.

People thirst for more and more,
sweet, bitter, sour, savory,
flavors by the dozens,
berry, leaf and root,
bottled in the by-products of oil,
which was a by-product of life long ago
and time,
which separates us now from
the age when what we craved most
was water.

Water,
piped to our homes,
chilled or iced or heated like magic,
evoking envy in all the lifeless planets,
its plenty essential to the flourishing of our age,
a marvel our ancestors could not imagine,

Yet still not good enough for us.

Pride and Fall

The Setup

For the Jews to whom Daniel was written, the Exile was the grief of griefs. Babylon swept in to Judah like a flood, drowning any sense of their ability to defend themselves and shattering any illusion of safety that Judah clung to. Nebuchadnezzar’s troops dismantled the city, robbed the temple, and stole every last ounce of pride that they could find. What they left behind was a deeply broken people.

The pain of the moment was so severe that it created generational trauma, passed down from parent to child, and eventually to grandchildren. The devastating impact reverberated through decades, and created a fundamental challenge to their self-understanding and their identity as God’s people.

As is often the case, such pain carried with it terrible bitterness—much of it deserved—towards those who had been the agents of death and chaos. The babylonians were the villains of the story, and Nebuchadnezzar was their king.

The book of Daniel is written with the backdrop of all that pain. All of the suffering which didn’t need to be spelled out is captured by the short prologue to the book, which simply says :

“In the third year of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. The Lord let King Jehoiakim of Judah fall into his power, as well as some of the vessels of the house of God. These he brought to the land of Shinar, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his gods.” (Daniel 1:1–2 NRSV)

Daniel then begins by with a story about what it means to survive in such an empire without losing your head or your heart, a story of savvy subversion in which Daniel gets his foot in the door as the interpreter of the visions the pagan king has but cannot understand, and a tale about what it means to worship God alone, even when threatened by a king who worships himself.

The Story

Whether in a courthouse scene or in the life of faith, it is always dramatic when an odd character all of a sudden emerges to give incredible testimony. In Daniel 4, the crazy twist is that the person giving the testimony of the greatness of Israel’s God is Israel’s greatest Enemy!

The story opens with Nebuchadnezzar receiving a terrifying dream, and desperately searching for its meaning. He recounts the dream to Daniel, hoping he will interpret it:

“Upon my bed this is what I saw;
there was a tree at the center of the earth,
and its height was great.
The tree grew great and strong,
its top reached to heaven,
and it was visible to the ends of the whole earth.
Its foliage was beautiful, its fruit abundant,
and it provided food for all.
The animals of the field found shade under it,
the birds of the air nested in its branches,
and from it all living beings were fed.”1

Note that the image here is not only of the emperor’s power, but of the capacity of that power to bring the flourishing of life. Of course we know that imperial power also holds a capacity for great harm, and such was the experience of the Jews at the hands of the Babylonians.

At any rate, the dream moves on, and regardless of how the emperor was going to use his power, he finds that it is to be taken from him, as a watcher comes and proclaims: “Cut down the tree and chop off its branches, strip off its foliage and scatter its fruit…”2 The poetic proclamation of judgment goes on to tell of the dehumanization of Nebuchadnezzar, who is going to revert to an animal state for a while.3 Far from being purposeless suffering, though, this is all with a particular intent: that “all who live” would know the sovereignty of God, and that God gives power “to whom he will”, and gives it to even the lowliest of human beings.”

Daniel, understanding the dream, reacts surprisingly: he was “severely distressed for a while”, and “his thoughts terrified him”. The shocking truth is that this story evokes empathy for Nebuchadnezzar. While one would expect an exiled Jew to be elated that the oppressor would be humiliated, in this story the news distresses Daniel—and the story is designed to evoke that same empathy in the reader as well.

The Surprise

However, the story isn’t done messing with its readers yet—and the biggest surprise is how it concludes. after his dehumanization, the narrative actually takes on Nebuchadnezzar’s voice.

When that period was over, I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me. I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored the one who lives forever.

For his sovereignty is an everlasting sovereignty,
and his kingdom endures from generation to generation.
All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
and he does what he wills with the host of heaven
and the inhabitants of the earth.
There is no one who can stay his hand
or say to him, “What are you doing?”4

Nebuchadnezzar, the arrogant oppressor of God’s people, comes to repent and acknowledge God’s sovereignty. The shocking message: Even Nebuchadnezzar can change.

The Old Testament is full of the enemies of God’s people, but the most powerfully oppressive empires were Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon5. Get this: the Hebrew Bible contains a story where each of them comes to their senses and acknowledges the rule of Israel’s God. In each, God uses an unlikely and humiliated spokesperson—Moses, Jonah, and Daniel—to call the king to acknowledge God.

In this story, the great villain of the history of Israel—Nebuchadnezzar—ends up worshipping God!

And you think your neighbor is beyond redemption?

Perhaps you’ve thought that you are?

  1. Daniel 4:10-12, NRSV
  2. Daniel 4:14, NRSV
  3. It’s interesting to read this story in conversation with the Genesis account fo the creation of humanity—perhaps Nebuchadnezzar represents not just imperial power, but humanity in their calling to have dominion on the earth for the sake of creation’s flourishing. But that’s a blog for another day.
  4. Daniel 4:34–35, NRSV.
  5. The scriptures treat Persia with discretion and the resistance to Persian imperial power is written much more subtly into the text than the outright laments over the destruction wrought be the other three.

Faith: The Engine of God’s Creative Redemption

Incarnation and Imitation

The incarnation revealed what is possible when a human moves in God’s will, and by God’s power. In Jesus, God acted, but also demonstrated what human action in the name of God looks like. “For I have set you an example,”Jesus says, “that you also should do as I have done to you”. Yes, this line’s context (John 13:15) is somewhat particular to his servant gesture of foot-washing, but the following discourse makes clear that this practice is barely the tip of the iceberg. Everything Jesus does and says is a demonstration of God’s work and will in the world, and the disciples are being invited to share in that way of being in the world. The point of the incarnation is to say, “This is what happens when divine action/being meets human action/being.”

Moments later, Jesus expresses to his disciples that they have perceived God’s will as revealed through Jesus’s words and actions, and have even had their status before God changed because of it: “The servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (John 15:15). Jesus is revealing God’s will and work, and then inviting them to join into that same will and work, becoming fruitful by honoring his command to “love one another as I have loved you.” God is at work among humanity in the human form of Jesus, so that humanity might be able to learn how to work on behalf of God in the world.

What’s Faith Got To Do With It?

This is all well and good as a bunch of theological talk, but is still missing a critical piece: faith. This all occurs in its context in a crisis moment, and the disciples will forget their loyalty to Jesus before we can scarcely turn the page on the conversation. However, before their abandonment, we get a preview of what will come to pass after the resurrection. It is yet to be tested by the crucible yet, but we get a taste of the faith that will be solidified when the disciples witness his defeat of death. In John 16:30 we read the climatic confession, “we believe that you came from God”. That curiously-worded affirmation of faith is more central to John’s gospel than is easily recognized.

“We believe that you came from God” sounds like a basic thing to affirm about Jesus, but for John’s gospel it is the critical point. Everything up until chapter 12 has been constructed to demonstrate that Jesus is in fact the one sent from God. It’s a theme hiding in plain sight, captured in language like being “from God” or “from heaven”, or in Jesus’s talk about being “sent”. The fascinating turn of the fourth gospel is that it takes this basic affirmation of Jesus’s origin and uses it to launch the mission of the disciples. Just as the father sent Jesus, so Jesus sends his disciples (20:21), and when they are doing the will of God, they have access to the same divine power that Jesus put on display. What’s the connection between what Jesus did and what the sent disciples will do? Their faith.

In coming to believe that Jesus is from God, the disciples also come to believe his invitation to share in his divinely originating power and mission. They too become “from God” because now they are “from Jesus”. John tipped his hand early on that this was God’s work in Jesus: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13) In the wake of the resurrection, the disciples can truly become brothers of Jesus, sharing the same Father and God (20:17).

The Victory of Faith

There’s an old church song, “Faith is the Victory” which draws its language from 1 John 5:4-5: “…this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” The song implies that the victory is one that we, Christ’s disciples win over our enemies. However, the greater truth is that it is Jesus who becomes victorious over his enemies because of our faith. See, we may not have noticed the connection between this text andJohn 16:33, where Jesus says to his disciples: “Take courage; I have conquered the world!”. Notice how the announcement is peculiarly located—Jesus proclaims his victory before the events of either the cross or the empty tomb. What has happened at this point that evokes this claim? It is the confession of faith from the disciples—this constitutes Jesus’s victory over the world!

Now that they believe—or perhaps better, now that they are coming to believe—Jesus has won a foothold in the world. God’s work will continue. The gospel embodied in him will be embodied in his disciples who now participate in his mission. Jesus, the Sent One, will become the sender, and the faith of his disciples will become a gateway for the power of God to work goodness in the world.

Our faith is much more powerful than we know. It is not just a vehicle for our comfort or empowerment. It is a vehicle for divine action. It is the connection point at which God’s people become partners by God’s Spirit, agents of God’s creative agenda in the world. Faith is the engine translating God’s will into human action and the restoration of God’s creation.

It is easy to underestimate our faith. I often perceive mine to be quite a weak thing—apparently much smaller than even a mustard seed. But in the hands of Jesus, even our broken faith creates enormous possibilities, and becomes a tool in God’s mission.

(If you would like to walk through a study of the “Sent” theme in John, consider the following texts in their context: 1:12-13, 3:2, 3:13, 3:17, 3:31-34, 4:34, 5:23-24, 5:36-38, 6:33, 6:46, 6:57, 7:27-29, 8:14-16, 8:23-26, 8:42, 9:4, 9:29-33, 10:36, 11:27, 12:44-45, 13:3, 14:24, 15:21, 16:27-30, 17:8, 18:36-37, 19:9, 20:21. This list is not exhaustive, and perhaps the better approach is to simply take a highlighter to a fresh copy of the gospel and mark each time the theme shows up. I assure you, you will not have to travel long between occurrences! I would love to say that the theme is plainly stated in literally every chapter of John, but alas, chapter 2 only yields 2:9, which I hold to be playful language on the theme—but I’ll let you decide for yourself. )