I often hear well-intentioned people equate The Great Commission with the Church’s role in God’s global mission. That is to say, they see “go and make disciples of all nations” as defining the mission of the church today. This view of mission, however, is incomplete. Jesus’ instructions to the 150 or so disciples who were present to watch Him ascend into heaven certainly apply to the church today, but it isn’t the entirety of our mission on this earth.
Let me explain:
Throughout the scriptures, God interacts with humans by sending them to accomplish His purposes. He rarely just pops into human history simply to say hello. He sends His people.
- “Go to the land I will show you” (Genesis 12:1)
- “Go and speak to the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 3:1)
- “Who shall I send? And who will go for us?” (Isaiah 6:9).
- “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you” (Jonah 1:2; 3:1)
- “Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves” (Luke 10:3)
The problem is that God send so often, we have to determine when He was sending all Christians for all times in all places, and when He was simply talking to an individual person. At times, God sent individuals (and sometimes groups) to do specific things in His name. In Luke 10, He sent 72 of His followers ahead of Him. In Luke 19, He commanded a couple disciples to borrow a colt for His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. While we recognize the broader application and meaning of these “commissions,” we don’t necessarily interpret these commands as being universal. The question is this: was Jesus speaking to the universal church when He commanded His disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations?” The answer, of course, is yes. And no.
As Christopher Write points out in “The Mission of God’s People,” there’s little evidence that the Great Commission served as the primary motivator of the early church’s missionary expansion. In fact Jesus’ words in Matthew 28 aren’t referred to again in the New Testament.
So there must have been something else that compelled (and propelled) God’s people to deliberately cross cultures with the gospel. They certainly went out boldly proclaiming Christ– most of the apostles were killed for talking about Jesus.
Wright asserts that the “something else” was the early church’s understanding of who they were as God’s people. The disciples knew God’s story, and the Great Commission was their place in it. We find ourselves in that same story. Our sentness doesn’t just lie in Christ’s commands to go, but in our identity as His body and bride. He sent his disciples, (and sends us) just as the Father had sent Him.
In Christ, we are God’s called-out people who are then sent back into the world. Sent to do what? Yes, to make disciples. But also to be salt and light. To love our neighbors. To make peace. To care for widows and orphans. To build up the church. To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.
We are a people on mission, but we have not only been sent once.