Signs

I notice street signs.

Yes, all motorists are supposed to “notice” the signs that direct the flow of traffic, warn of possible danger, and inform us about our location. But I notice them because I’m a communication geek.

Did you know that the United States Interstate Highway system has its own typographical font? It’s called “Highway Gothic,” and it was designed for legibility from a distance and at speed. It’s kept traffic flowing safely since 1945.

There’s even an international committee of graphic designers who worked with the U.S. Department of Transportation to develop universal symbols for signage on roads and in subways, ports, rail and bus stations, and airports. Their goal is to create symbols that will communicate the rules and routes of transportation to as many people as possible.

In the U.S., the “no” symbol is a red circle with a diagonal slash through it. In Europe, they don’t use slashes, just the red circle.

Each state is responsible for the wording of their signs, which can be quite a challenge. Longer messages mean more letters and larger signs, resulting in greater expense. Being terse can save money, but smaller signs are less visible and succinct language can be more easily misunderstood. Abbreviations and inconsistencies are not advised. The purpose of a road sign, after all, is to help drivers orient themselves along the way, navigate irregular conditions, and warn them of what they’ll face up ahead.

I’ve written much lately about mission being our identity in Christ. When we come to know Jesus, we do so by joining Him in His mission. All followers of Christ are therefore missionaries. But what does that mean?

It means that we are signs.

The Bible is clear that we are saved to do “good works.” Our default behavior in this world is to love our neighbors, do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. We do these things because righteousness is the effect of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives. By allowing others to see our efforts, we point people to God. This is our role in God’s global mission.

Ultimately, I’m with missiologist David Bosch: as Jesus followers, our lives serve as signs– “previews” to the already-but-not-yet Kingdom of God. We give people a glimpse into what life can be like when people are forgiven of sin, made right with their creator, and sent out to make disciples of all nations. As Bosch often writes, “our mission is not more than this, but certainly nothing less.”

In order to be signs of this one, specific Kingdom, we must pay attention to how we communicate it. Like the road signs that direct traffic, we must be visible, recognizable and understandable to those we wish to direct. Works of peace, generosity, and justice require verbal proclamation of the gospel in order to point people to the One who saves.

This is a key missiological point: we do not bring the Kingdom of God to people. Neither do we bring people to the Kingdom. All we can be (and it is much!) are signs pointing people to the Savior, who brings the Kingdom to people. Our presence, be it at home or in a far-off place, is to point people to the Most High God.

We can be good, helpful, informative signs or dangerously vague signs; but as His people, we are God’s signs to the people around us.

3 thoughts on “Signs

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  2. I seem to be forever disagreeing in the technicals! I really like this article, but it made me wonder. Aren’t we, when we incarnate the Gospel in a place, “being the Kingdom” there? Like ambassadors, in a sense. An embassy is “sovereign ground” for the nation it’s from. I guess it’s a technical point: I know only Jesus can save. I’ll need to think this through in order to articulate it more clearly.

  3. Justin,
    If we agreed on everything, this would be a truly boring conversation!
    My remarks here were taken from David Bosch in “Transforming Mission.” I recommend a reading of it for a better understanding. Early in the book (p.34 of the 18th edition), Bosch writes regarding the Kindgom:

    In Jesus’ ministry, then, God’s reign is interpreted as the expression of God’s caring authority over the whole of life… We know that our mission will not usher in God’s reign. Neither did Jesus. He inaugurated it but did not bring it to its consummation. Like Him, we are called to erect signs of God’s ultimate reign– not more, but certainly not less either. As we pray, “Your kingdom come!” we also commit ourselves to initiate, here and now, approximations and anticipations of God’s reign. Once again: God’s reign will come, since it has already come.

    The point here is that while we, as Christ-followers, are God’s “sovereign territory” (as you put it), we do not expand it’s borders though mission. God’s reign already is, but is yet to come.

    By the way, his criticism of a book about missions in Europe was familiar to me and appropriate for some of our discussion:

    …it proved that Europe, too, was a “mission field.” The book did not go far enough, however. To the concept of mission as the first preaching of the gospel to pagans it simply added the idea of mission as the reintroduction of the gospel to neo-pagans. It still defined mission in terms of its addressees, not in terms of its nature, and suggested that mission is accomplished once the gospel has been (re)introduced to a group of people.

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