Returning Sent Ones: Reflecting Jesus, the Perfect Returning Sent One

IMG_CE127A3D7045-1The following is an excerpt from The Upstream Collective‘s ebook, Receiving Sent Ones During Reentry: The Challenges of Returning “Home” and How Churches Can Help. Used with permission.

Jesus is a returned sent one.

Ever thought about that? He was sent by God the Father on the most significant mission in all eternity. Commissioned from heaven to earth, Jesus wore our skin, walked in our shoes, “died for our sins according to the Scriptures…was buried…[and] was raised on the third day” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Mission accomplished.

But that was not the end. Despite our anemic efforts at including it in our gospel language, there was also the seemingly minor detail we call his ascension. Theology nerds might even pine for the more holistic phrase, “ascension and session“. It was Jesus’ return from his earthly mission to be seated at the right hand of God the Father. Paul puts it all together like this:

He appeared in the flesh, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory, 1 Timothy 3:16

This is the gospel in succinct, but complete form, including Christ’s ever-important ascension to the right hand of the Father. Every part of his life-giving gospel has impactful, world-shaping implications for us. His perfect life completed the life we should have lived but could not. Through his substitutionary death, our victory over sin was secured and our sin debt atoned. By his resurrection, the death blow was struck on death itself and the firstborn of the dead made the way for each of us who would follow in his steps in our own promised resurrection. Jesus’ own sent-ness informed and made the way for us, whom he called out of the world and sent right back in (John 15:19; 17:14-18; 20:21). As Christ’s highest objective on earth was the grand mission for which he had been sent, so does ours also become in like manner—€“not to purchase salvation, but to proliferate God’€™s story among the nations by loving and proclaiming our Savior. In Christ, we are all sent.

But here again, being sent is not the end of our collective story. Just as Jesus returned from his mission, one day his sent ones will return as well. We will ‘return to Sender,€™’ so to speak. Even now God has already “raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6), and he promises to the faithful: “I will give the right to sit with me on my throne” (Revelation 3:21). It’s this hope in a real Savior that helps us in a world where the struggle is real. Or, in a more timeless bit of prose, “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess” (Hebrews 4:14). When the sending is difficult and costly, we stand firm in light of the coming glorious reunion with our great and gracious Sender.

Although this clearly is universal gospel encouragement, it can hold a special succulence for sent ones who cross not only neighborhoods, but cultures. Returning sent ones can especially savor Jesus’ role as a cross-cultural sent one, and be sustained by his achievement as the perfect sent one, in their place, delivered to them freely by grace.

But Jesus also achieved for them the perfect return.

Jesus, the Perfect Returning Sent One

His work is pregnantly summarized in Hebrews 1:3: “After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.” Ponder the grand welcome Jesus was given upon return to heaven. Sure, most of it we can only imagine. Thankfully, Millard Erickson helps us get the idea:

The angels have resumed their song of praise, for the Lord of heaven has returned. (796)

It was the kind of party that will go down in history, not only for its grand welcome, but also the bestowal of an honored position. God the Father was finally able to speak the foreshadowed words, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet” (Psalm 110:1). This is the hallowed throne of supreme authority, and Jesus sat upon it to show that his mission was complete (ESV, 2361). Of course, Jesus as the eternal Word shared glory and honor with the Father “before the world began” (John 17:5). Yet according to theologians such as Wayne Grudem, the returning Savior’s fandom went to a whole new level:

When Jesus ascended into heaven he received glory, honor, and authority that had never been his before as one who was both God and man. (618)

Jesus, the living Word-turned slain Lamb, had glory before as the Son of God, but it had not been his before in his incarnate form as God-man. He had earned this new hype as he sat down by his Father. But his act of being seated shouldn’t be understood as “a matter of rest or inactivity. It is a symbol of authority and active rule” (Erickson, 797). From his place of authority, Jesus began to engage in a critical new ministry that is key to the furtherance of the mission into which he has sent his people. It has four key parts.

First, it was he who was given the authority to send the Holy Spirit in his place. We know this from Peter’s sermon on Pentecost: “Exalted to the right hand of God, [Jesus] has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear” (Acts 2:33). Yet this was no mere passing of the baton. In the beginning of his second volume, Luke refers to his Gospel as “all that Jesus began to do and to teach” (Acts 1:1), inferring that the book of Acts contains what Jesus continued to do through the Spirit. Even as you read, Jesus is commanding his Great Commission, and doing it through the Holy Spirit (Blomberg, 24).

Second, Jesus was given the role of interceding for his sent ones. Romans 8:34 blissfully reads, “Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—€”more than that, who was raised to life—€”is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” With total authority and the highest regard from his Father, Jesus is the living proof and final word on our salvation. He “acts as our advocate with God, at whose right hand he sits and pleads the efficacy of his atoning sacrifice so that there is now no condemnation for those who believe in him” (Kruse, 362).

Third, Jesus was given the duty of preparing a place for his bride, the church. We don’t know much about what it entails, but we at least have these tender words from John 14: “My Father’€™s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (vv. 2-3).

Finally, according to his Father’s directive, Jesus was commissioned to await his second coming. God “has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed” (Acts 17:31). However, “about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36). Like an army set to engage, this conquering King Jesus is God’s gavel amidst a rampaging world. As Inheritor of the nations, he will soon come to “break them with a rod of iron [and] dash them to pieces like pottery” (Psalm 2:9).

A Word to Receiving Churches

All this was for us. Both Christ’s completed and ongoing work are for the glory of the Father and the good of those who love him. Jesus ascended for us, sent the Spirit for us, intercedes for us, prepares for us, and will come again for us. Trust that his ministry now is for you, and be continually encouraged in the mission.

Yet also know not only was his sending an example for us, his return was as well. He modeled a healthy transition back.

To be sure, a Christian’s practical omissions typically flow from his or her theological omissions. Therefore, because Jesus’ ascension and session (his return, as it were) get so little play in churches, returning sent ones often receive little attention from churches. Jesus’ return to heaven has given us a gorgeous vision of what it could look like for churches to welcome home their sent ones. Yes, we learn from the example of Paul and Barnabas at Antioch in Acts 14:26-28, and the admonition to Gaius in 3 John 5-8. But we can lead from the reality of Jesus, the perfect returning sent one, taking his throne.

Churches, if your sent ones have abided in Christ and carried out the mission to which God has called them, then they are worthy of a grand welcome, an honored position (not necessarily a higher position, but a place of honor as one who has endeavored to serve Christ away from his or her physical home), and a critical ministry. Be delighted at their return, eager to hear, celebrate, and learn from what God has done in them and through them. Just as Jesus’ ongoing ministry builds up his church and blasts out his mission, your returning sent ones, along with their gifts, their experience, their passion, and their suffering, can serve your church in similar (though imperfect) fashion. They, too, are meant to carry on a critical ministry, one that reflects our ascended Savior. Recognize it. Embrace it. Facilitate it.

Give them chances to honestly report in both large and small settings. Take every opportunity to put them in mentoring relationships with other church members who are interested in being sent. See this list of several other ways you can practically coordinate their ongoing ministry to your church and the nations.

A Word to Returning Sent Ones

Returning sent ones, how does your return reflect the ascended Savior? Jesus said that his return was for our good, so that the Holy Spirit could be sent to us (John 16:7). He went even further, outlandishly saying that if he returned to the Father, we would do even greater things than he had done (John 14:12). As painful as it is to hear God call you back home and to rend yourself from the people and labor that you’ve loved, it is a sacrifice meant both for your good and ours. Only one you in another culture is a wonderful thing. But multiple “you’€™s”—€“taught, encouraged, and discipled by one who has already walked in the ways they will be walking—€“is far better.

Just as Jesus’ return infinitely multiplied his presence through the Holy Spirit, you are meant for greater things in both quantity and quality. As you pour your life and experience into others, God will multiply more sent ones to the neighborhoods and the nations. And if your vision of this ministry is truly Christ-like, you’ll seek to multiply sent ones who do even greater things than you.

Like Jesus, it’s ok to desire from your church a grand welcome, an honored position, and a critical ministry. It’s not just ok, it’s right, and biblical. Obviously, don’t seek it for your glory. But after the reentry culture shock begins to wear off, don’t settle for hiding in the balcony. The ascended Savior is in you. Like him, the Spirit will work through you to empower others for mission. Like him, you will be a living intercessor for the church to hear the cries of the lost around the world. Like him, you’ll help prepare the bride of Christ for her groom as she matures and expands. Like him, you’ll be ready for his second coming by helping those inside and outside the church get ready.

And may he, “the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens in order to fill the whole universe” (Ephesians 4:10), fill you with the joy of reflecting him in the power with which he rose and the manner in which he returned.

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