The final marching orders of Jesus to his church in Matthew 28:18–20 and Acts 1:8 are where we derive the term “Great Commission” 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)
For our times, though, the clarity of that task seems to have been replaced by a degree of fuzziness, usually encapsulated in the word “missions.” Missions has 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 that were curious as to my own background and why my wife and I had been gone overseas for 13 years. At the conclusion of telling how God had worked through our team and how we had been privileged 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 cases of malaria, one of dengue fever, four centipede bites, six evacuations out of the tribe, and a host of other challenges that were never-ending in that environment. To understand how these two endeavors could be grouped together into “missions” was eye-opening.
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 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” has become the greatest enemy of seeing the Great Commission accomplished.
The root of the problem is not knowledge, and it’s not clarity. It’s the willingness to look unflinchingly at the task we have been given and prioritize it to the degree that Jesus did. Please don’t misunderstand what I am saying. The multiple needs and ongoing tragedies of this world must not be ignored. 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 be aimed at 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 specificity of the Great Commission is taken seriously will the church begin to make 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.