The final marching orders of Jesus to his church in Matthew 28:18–20 and Acts 1:8 where the term “Great Commission” is from. Here is that specific task, given to Christ’s church, with the expectation of fulfillment:
“All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:18–20)
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
The word “Missions”
For our times, the clarity of that task seems to have been replaced by a degree of fuzziness, usually encapsulated in the word “missions.” Missions have become a catch-all that can mean whatever we want it to mean. Missional churches, missional communities, missional living, people on mission, my neighborhood is my mission field, short-term missions, long-term missions; the list is never-ending as to what qualifies as mission or missions. What once was commonly understood to mean taking the gospel to the unreached people groups, while having to cross significant obstacles (new languages and cultures, severe climates and countries, governments hostile to Christianity, etc.), has now been swept up into the kaleidoscope of “missions.”
An Eye-Opening Comment
I remember speaking to a small group of individuals curious about my wife and I’s background. They wondered why we had been overseas for 13 years. After telling how God had worked through our team and how we have the privilege to see a New Testament church planted among an unreached people group with the Word of God translated into their own language, one individual responded with, “That’s great, and I bought a goat for some kids in Africa.”
I wasn’t really sure where the tie-in was, but he quickly alleviated my confusion. “You did missions among the Yembiyembi people, I did missions among the kids of Africa . . . isn’t God great!”
It was an interesting moment, to say the least, for my wife and me. Between our Son and us, we had gone through fifteen malaria cases, one of dengue fever, four centipede bites, six evacuations out of the tribe, and a host of other never-ending challenges in that environment. Understanding how these two endeavors can group together into “missions” is eye-opening.
The Great Commission
The Great Commission, on the other hand, is quite specific, with a clear goal in mind. Jesus’ command to his disciples is recorded most clearly in two separate passages that occurred at separate times. Some assume that Acts 1:8 and Matthew 28:18–20 are separate recordings of the same event. This is incorrect.
One takes place on a mountainside in Galilee (Matt 28:16), the other on the Mount of Olives (Acts 1:12). These are two different accounts of Jesus presenting to his disciples and what His final command for them was and continues to be. A loose translation of the main thrust of these two passages could be: “Based on the authority that I (Jesus) have, go and make disciples of all people/language groups, teaching them everything I have commanded. Begin first in Jerusalem, then move on to Judea, then to Samaria, and then finally to the last places where people/language groups on earth have not heard.”
Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria are actual cities and regions, not metaphors for where we live and the surrounding areas. The task given was a progression of goals, with all of them reached . . . except for the last.
Prioritizing the Task Before Us
With those goals in mind, it is appropriate that we should prioritize accordingly. But that has been something the Western church, in particular, has struggled with. Giving aimed at reaching UUPGs (unreached, unengaged people groups) is somewhere between 1–3% of all Christian giving, while 96% of all full-time Christian missionaries are working among reached people groups.It’s troubling to think of what could be done if those resources were allocated more strategically. For our day and age, it is quite possible that “missions” have become the greatest enemy of seeing the Great Commission accomplished.
The Root of the Problem
The root of the problem is not knowledge, and it’s not clarity. It’s the willingness to look unflinchingly at the task given to us and prioritize it to the degree that Jesus did. Please don’t misunderstand what I am saying. We can not continue to ignore this world’s multiple needs and ongoing tragedies. Digging wells, building orphanages, freeing people from human trafficking, and hundreds of other commendable tasks are all great things. But without the disciple-making church-planting emphasis, these worthwhile efforts will center themselves around this world alone. Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert speak to this well when they write,
“We want the church to remember that there is something worse than death and something better than human flourishing. If we hope only for renewed cities and restored bodies in this life, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
Only when the Great Commission is took seriously will the church begin to progress towards completing that task. Until then, many in the modern evangelical world will continue to view Great Commission with about as much concern as many Americans view the national debt. If we are serious about completing the Great Commission that Jesus left us behind to accomplish, then we must find a focus that will call us to make difficult decisions. Jesus has sheep of other sheep pens that are waiting to hear; He must bring them also. Let us be urgently and strategically about that task.