Posts Tagged ‘Great Commission’

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Mt. 28:18-20)

In the wake of the short term trip from which I returned a few days ago, I could not help but think of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20.  No doubt, this passage has been the center of many sermons on missions, and for good reason.  On a mount in Galilee, the risen Christ offers a few sentences to His disciples that close Matthew’s gospel.  Last words were no small thing for Matthew’s audience, so their importance is doubly highlighted.  As such, these three verses remain a centerpiece of discussions today about the spread of the Gospel of Christ.

Whenever I consider this passage, my focus tends to land on verses 19 and 20.  After all, herein lies the meat of the command.  Here is what we’re supposed to do (make disciples), how we’re supposed to do it (going, baptizing, teaching), and to whom (all nations).  However, as I reflect more on the passage as a whole, I am increasingly struck by verse 18.  I believe the importance of this verse cannot be overstated, and what follows hangs on the truth therein.

Verse 18 is an undeniably strong affirmation of Christ’s Lordship over the universe.  Our obedience to the command in verses 19 and 20 is predicated on Christ’s authority.  This theme runs throughout the canon of Scripture.  God’s being precedes our doing.  The work of reconciliation, of redeeming fallen creation, is always at His initiative, not ours.

We see this pattern emerge in the first chapter of Genesis.  When God speaks all creation into existence, out of nothing, entirely on His own, He firmly establishes His complete, unchallenged Lordship over everything that is.  When humankind is spoken into the picture, our very existence is defined in terms of God.  We are created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27).  We know who God is before we know who we are.  Conversely, we cannot properly know who we are until we know who God is.  Good anthropology flows from good theology.

When sin enters the world a few chapters later, it is God who begins His work of redemption.  God is the one who initiates with Abram, and chooses a people for Himself, through whom He reveals Himself, and blesses all nations.  God is the one who gets hold of Moses and frees Israel for His glory.  Chapter by chapter, book by book, we see God as the one at work in revealing Himself, and affecting His redemptive plan for humankind.  From anointing judges to ordaining kings to appointing prophets, it all starts with God.

When God becomes man in Christ, He brings His reconciling work to an entirely new level.  Christ in turn charges His disciples to continue in His work: “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you” (Jn. 20:21).  The order is clear once again: The Father sends Jesus first (v.21a), then we are sent by Him (v.21b).  God is the starting point in both clauses.

Also, lest we forget, the latter half of verse 20 in our Great Commission passage reminds us that God has in no way stopped His work, and simply passed the Heavenly baton to us.  No, Christ is with us “to the very end of the age.”  Indeed, even a casual reading of Acts indicates that the book is much less about the “Acts” of the Apostles, than the “Acts” of the Holy Spirit.  God didn’t quit after the Ascension and leave the rest up to us.  Quite contrary, He’s dialed it up a notch or two.

When we arrive at the missionary scene, then, God has already been long at work.  Stories upon stories from the mission field testify to this.  A missionary meets a Muslim man who had a dream about Jesus the night prior; a woman feels an emptiness in her heart that longs to be filled; a teenager finds a Bible, and questions of God burn on his heart.  Salvation always comes through God’s prior work, never by our clever words, strategies, or programs.  After all, it is the Holy Spirit who testifies about Christ, and convicts the world of sin (Jn. 15:26; 16:8-11).

In this way missions is best understood as joining in God’s Mission.  It is by His authority, His initiative, and His Mission that we make disciples of all nations.  This is our starting point for missions.  Missions is the project of aligning ourselves with God’s Mission, which is already well under way, and firmly in His capable hands.  As such, we labor with confidence, knowing the certainty of the outcome, because it is God’s undertaking, not ours.  Praise be to God that we are asked to be a part of His great work!

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A few weeks back I received the latest copy of Missions Frontiers, a magazine that ships to my apartment every other month.  The first thing I would read, like probably all of its subscribers, was Ralph Winter’s editorial.  In this past issue, for the first time in the 30 years of the publication, Winter did not write the editorial.  It was noted by the new editor, Rick Wood, that Winter was dealing with lymphoma and was no longer feeling up to the task.  I knew he was sick, so it didn’t necessarily surprise me.  Still, it took me off guard last week to find out that Ralph Winter had died, on May 20, 2009.

To all of us in fields related to missions, Ralph Winter was a giant.  We speak of missions and evangelism in terms of “people groups” rather than countries.  It seems so obvious to us now: within the geo-political boundaries of a country (say, India) there are any number of people groups that may or may not actually have much connection to each other, despite living under the same flag.  They may have different languages, customs, religions, etc.

So, while the gospel may have reached the Tamil Hindu population, that doesn’t mean India has been reached.  What about the Muslims in Assam?  They’re an entirely different people from the Tamils.  They present a whole different set of challenges to missionaries that must be reckoned with.  The fact that the gospel had penetrated the boundaries of India does not mean that all the peoples of India had been reached.

This is taken for granted by most of us, especially the under-40 crowd.  But before Ralph Winter, it wasn’t so widespread.  I’m not saying he invented the concept of people groups or was even the first to trumpet this understanding, but I think it’s safe to say he was the most influential.

I’ll share one more personal tidbit about Ralph Winter.  Winter was writing something about parachurch missions organizations.  Now, we local church types tend to be critical of parachurch organizations.  Winter noted, however, that churches often failed to live and preach the gospel to all peoples as we see commanded and exemplified in the New Testament. So, he reasoned, he could just as easily refer to churches as paramission organizations.  That has stuck with me ever since.  I don’t ever want my church to be an organization that operates outside the mission of God.  Much of Winter’s life was dedicated to keep that from happening.

I encourage you to poke around the website for the U. S. Center for World Mission, an organization Winter founded.  If you’d like to look into subscribing to Missions Frontiers (donations requested) you can go here.  And if you’d like to pray for unreached people groups, I highly recommend you surf around Joshua Project for a while.

Ralph Winter had a dream of seeing the gospel preached to all nations (people groups) before his death.  I’m sad to say this did not happen.  But his dream was based on the Great Commission, and that has not changed, not matter how many of its faithful spokesmen pass away.

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