I’m going to share with you something of my heart right up front. This article is most likely going to be severely misunderstood and greatly misinterpreted. It’s definitely not going to make me very popular. And yet I strongly feel that it must be stated in order to break a mindset that has held believers in bondage for the last hundred and fifty years. It’s my opinion and I have a right to share it, though many might disagree.
“But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee to the mountain which Jesus had designated. When they saw Him, they worshipped Him; but some were doubtful. And Jesus came up and spoke to them saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’” Matt. 28:16–20.
This passage of scripture, along with Mark 16:14-15 and Acts 1:1-2 is commonly referred to by evangelical Christians as “The Great Commission.” First of all, let me say that I believe that these words were spoken by the Lord Jesus Christ to the apostles before he left this earth. Whether you call it a commandment or a commission or whatever, the point is that he spoke these words to eleven men. But I have two questions regarding this:
1. Was he commissioning eleven men or was he commissioning all believers for all places and all times?
2. Was this “commission” a stand alone statement or was it the beginning of a fulfillment of a much larger plan and mission of God?
In an attempt to break free from some of the moorings of the evangelical mindset that we all have, we will “search the scriptures to see if these things are so.”
The Great Sending
To answer the first question I must first of all say that I believe in evangelism. That is, I believe that the gospel (good news) of Jesus Christ must be declared in all the world so that people will receive Christ and follow Him.
This “gospel” is not an ‘it’ or a ‘thing’ – but rather, a Person. It is the Lord Jesus Christ himself who must be preached to all the world (see Col. 1:27 – 29; Eph. 3:8; Gal. 1:15, 16; I Cor. 2:2). In the letter to the Colossians Paul describes an awesome, glorious, eternal, all-sufficient Christ in chapter one. Then, at the end of the chapter he tells us the mystery hidden from the ages which is Christ in you, the hope of glory (verse 27). Then, in verse 28, he tells us that this Christ is the one whom he announced. This glorious Christ who is described in verses 12 through 20 is the same Christ who lives in us and is the same Christ who is Paul’s gospel! So I believe in this gospel going out into all the earth.
But in Matthew 28: 16 – 20 was Jesus commissioning or sending eleven men or was he sending all Christians for all time? Christians from the Reformation through the nineteenth century believed that it was the former. It has only been since the end of the nineteenth century that Christians have believed that this “commission” was for all believers.
The evangelical theology that we have today was, for the most part, formulated towards the end of what was called the Second Great Awakening in England and America under the influence of men like Charles Finney, Peter Cartwright, J.R. Mott, and D.L. Moody.
It just makes much more contextual sense that Jesus was sending those eleven men rather than all Christians for all time. These men were apostles. The word apostle (apostolos) means “sent-one” in the original language. These men were being sent into all the world because Christ had called then to this work. But Paul tells us that all are not apostles (sent-ones). Only some are called to be sent-ones (See I Cor. 12:28 – 31). And these eleven men were definitely called to be “sent-ones” and did end up going into all the then known world to preach this glorious Christ.
From my understanding of scripture it seems that we are all called to testify as witnesses but we are not all called to be sent.
Regrettably, this Great commission doctrine has been used as a tool to hammer Christians into “gospel service” by the use of guilt. Many evangelical leaders use this doctrine to make believers feel that they are disobeying God and are second class citizens of the Kingdom of God if they aren’t out there “witnessing” to the lost on a daily basis. What a bunch of garbage! What a tragedy this is!
The Commission as Part of God’s Ageless Purpose
This brings us down to the question of the contest for the “commission” statement Jesus gave to the eleven apostles. Was this a stand alone command that was isolated and disconnected from God’s grand design and eternal mission?
Many use the “great Commission” doctrine to formulate a mandate for God’s mission. They say that the whole purpose of God and the Church is to save souls. Your purpose as a Christian is to lead others to Christ. That’s why you are here. That’s why the Church is here. But here again, the only context for this idea comes from late nineteenth century revivalism and the evangelical movement. It does not come from the scriptures.
The true “Great Commission” is founded upon something that Paul calls the eternal purpose of God (See Ephesians chapters 1 and 3). Notice that this purpose is eternal. It was in the heart of God before creation. This means that the purpose is before the garden and before the fall of man. So it has nothing to do with the saving of souls. In fact, it has nothing to do with human needs at all! But it has everything to do with God’s heart desire and passion. There was something in his heart that motivated him to create. We can see it in the very beginning, before there was sin.
“Let us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth . . .”
“Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Gen. 1:26 – 28
From this passage we can see that God wanted three things:
• An image or representation of himself
• This image (or expression) would exercise God’s authority on the earth
• The image would be fruitful and multiply
We could call this the “adamic commission.” And it reveals much of what God had in His heart for man. We also can see this “commission” repeated over and over again throughout the story.
He gave the same commission to Noah (Gen 9:1 – 11). He repeated the commission again to Abraham (Gen. 17: 1 – 8). And then again to Jacob (Gen. 28: 13 – 15). The themes involved in this covenant/commission are that:
• God wants a people (a corporate entity) or image
• He wants these people to rule in the earth
• He wants these people to multiply and to take the land (inheritance)
Does this sound familiar? But what is this idea of the land (or inheritance) all about? For Israel the inheritance was the Canaan land, a land flowing with many riches. But that is only a picture of the eternal inheritance (Heb. 2:15). There is now a new covenant which has fulfilled the old (Heb. 8). There is also a new “Israel” which has fulfilled the old (Gal. 3:23 – 29). The eternal inheritance is Christ himself! He is our land flowing with milk and honey. He is our portion!
The Purpose Remains
Jesus sent out eleven men to proclaim him to all the world. He told them to make disciples. But before that, he showed them how to make disciples for three years. He showed them by making them disciples! And how did he do this?
• He lived a life that was in, through, by, and for His Father. He lived his life by the life of his Father (John 6:57).
• He lived his life as the definition, explanation, and expression of the Father (John 1:18; Col. 1:15). In other words he lived as the incarnate Word, the very image of God.
• He came with God’s authority and took dominion over the creeping things and the effects of the fall and the world system.
• He was fruitful and multiplied. In John 12:24 we see that the one grain of wheat fell into the ground and produced many grains (the resurrection). The result was a people (nation) for God who could live as the embodiment of his eternal purpose.
In other words, he made disciples by fulfilling God’s eternal purpose to have an image (expression) that represents his authority and is fruitful. Then he sent those eleven men to go and do likewise. They would have to go through the same things that he went through, including dying to themselves, being misunderstood, persecuted, and rejected.
But the end result would be what we see in Revelation, chapters 21 and 22. The end result would be a city (people/nation) who would be filled with the life of God and would be his image in the earth. The city always represents authority or government in the scriptures. The New Jerusalem is a metaphor to show the fulfillment of God’s purpose.
Leading people to the Lord is a means to God’s end. He doesn’t just want living stones lying around the landscape. He wants a house, a city, a dwelling place where he can express himself, rule, and multiply his life.
As the Church, this is our commission. Only some are sent out, but we all live the life of Christ and express who he is as a city set on a hill.