Introduction to New Testament Missions

This is the first of a series of articles studying what is commonly called “missions.” This series of studies/articles will be approached textually, topically and testament missions

I generally prefer to study Biblical matters in a textual fashion. That is, I prefer to go to a specific passage of Scripture and see what it says about the subject at hand. And the longer the passage the better. Reading the Scriptures in context is a safeguard against false doctrine. You can call almost any conclusion Biblical if you arrive at it by hand-picking select short passages or even just single verses and piecing them together according to your own judgement.

That said, Biblical doctrines also have to be examined topically. It is generally true of Bible doctrines that they are addressed in a multitude of passages interspersed throughout the Scriptures. So any effort to examine the whole council of God on particular subject requires examining a variety of passages of varying lengths, and then piecing together the results. So topical study also has its place in this study of “missions.”

And even as I use that word missions, it brings up the need for lexical study as well. Lexical is an adjective that describes the words or vocabulary of a language as distinguished from its grammar. In other words, in this discussion of missions we have to know what the word means. And since this word is describing a Biblical doctrine, we need to know how well the English term missions conveys the sense of the doctrine addressed in the original Greek New Testament.

And so I say again: this study of what is commonly called “missions” will be approached textually, topically and lexically.

I am approaching this study of missions as a new endeavor. I will attempt to examine afresh the teaching of the New Testament on this matter, and I hope and pray that I will gain new insights in the process. But this is hardly my first in depth study of the subject.

Nor am I a neophyte when it comes to the practical applications of this subject in my own life. Bear with me as I elaborate on this point. I am the son of Harlan Gene Overton, a missionary and evangelist. I was born in Mathis, Texas, where my father began an outreach for his denomination to the Hispanic community of that town. When I was just four years old, Dad moved our family to live in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he served as a missionary for five years. So my early childhood/grade school years were bicultural and bilingual, living in the home of a missionary.

Our family moved back to Texas in the early 1960s to live on our family farm, but Dad continued his missionary work on an itinerant basis. He would travel for a week or two at a time all over the Spanish speaking world. Sometimes those trips would be within our own state of Texas, but many times he traveled to other countries, particularly various locations in Mexico, Central and South America. So you don’t have to tell me about the lifestyle of a missionary family; I’ve lived it.

Furthermore, in my early adult years I was determined to follow in my father’s footsteps. When I proposed to my wife Beth, I first stated my desire to attend a Bible school and to become a missionary, and then went on at length about the privations and potential hardships such a life could bring. I concluded with a somewhat rhetorical (but also hopeful) question, “What kind of life is that for a woman?” Beth replied, “A great one for a woman that loves you.” To which I replied, “You don’t want to marry me, do you?” By the way, she said “Yes.” (In case you missed the hint given earlier when I referred to Beth as “my wife.”)

At that (unaccredited) Bible school, I attended missionary lectureships and took classes pertaining to mission life and work (cultural anthropology, linguistics, etc.). At that point in our lives, we seriously considered working with a team in Brazil. However, that didn’t pan out.

Years later David Sitton, a longtime friend, was home on furlough from missionary service in Papua New Guinea. David challenged me to consider and pray about helping him in Papua New Guinea (or as we call it, PNG). Long story short, I did consider and pray about it, and accepted the challenge and call. In the summer of 1985 I moved my family to the town of Wewak in the East Sepik province of PNG, where we lived and worked for fourteen months.

So, while I make no claim to be an authority on the subject, I will say that I have studied the subject in depth on numerous occasions down through the decades. And I’ve lived the lifestyle, both as a child in a missionary’s home, and as a missionary myself. These are my qualifications (beyond the fact of being a student of the Scriptures) for my writing on this subject. Take it for what it’s worth.

Or leave it, if you are so inclined. I can tell you right now, many will likely disagree with a number of my conclusions on this subject. Of course I hope you won’t, but I consider it a given that some, probably many, will disagree. I do not write these things to be disagreed with, or to be disagreeable. It’s just that what follows represents my firm convictions on the subject, so if I speak to this subject at all, this is what I have to say. I pray that it will at least be a challenging study (I mean that in a good way), even if at the end we do not speak the same things on this subject.

If you are inclined to challenge me to reconsider my position, that’s fine. But please understand that I will want you to address what I’ve written here. You didn’t have to read my writings on this subject, and even after you did you are of course free to disagree and just let the matter drop.

But if you try to change my views, remember that I said these are my convictions. I’m not taking a contrary stance to the status quo view of missions flippantly, or because I’ve read some book that changed my thinking. What I have written comes from experience and experience in studying this subject in detail, from the original language of the New Testament. I’ve done my own study of the subject; if you want me to consider a contrary view, then I will expect you to do the same.

So don’t come to me with the fruit of someone else’s study (be it a book, video, website or whatever) and expect that to change me. If you want to counter the issues I have raised, please do so with your own research. I will be happy to dialogue with you on this matter on those terms. I’m not saying I can’t be wrong, but I am saying that I will not jettison my convictions without incontrovertible evidence that I have made some hermeneutical or exegetical error. Otherwise, let’s just agree to disagree, and if you are concerned for me, please pray for me.