Sunday, August 10, 2014

What the Great Commission Did Not Mean

A miscellany from February 22, 2014.

Evangelicals who are missiologically zealous often claim that Jesus’s commission to the disciples in Matthew 28:19-20 is a command that every individual Christian must obey. But they can only pull this off by subtly reworking what Jesus actually said. Here’s what the Great Commission did not mean: “Wherever it is you decide to go, and whatever your station in life, always live in an evangelistic way, sharing the gospel with those around you.” Of course, this is by no means a bad thing to be teaching every Christian to do, but it isn’t what Jesus was telling his disciples to do. He was telling them to go disciple the nations, which effectively ruled out the option of staying where they were.

The Great Commission wasn’t a command to participate in the kind of day-to-day evangelism to which modern Christians are accustomed: sharing the gospel with family members, friends, co-workers, etc. Rather, it was a command to travel land and sea to reach various countries and people groups. In other words, it was a command to go and do the sorts of things the apostles historically went and did. And you might think that they didn’t get the job done, but Paul seemed to think otherwise (Rom. 16:25-26; Col. 1:6, 23).

Some might attempt a more nuanced approach and posit that the Great Commission had a specific historical meaning for the apostles, and yet also functions as a broader and more general command for each believer today. But that seems to me like an arbitrary and unnecessarily complicated perspective.

Perhaps some people worry that interpreting the Great Commission as a command that was contextually confined and historically fulfilled would lead us into the evangelistically frozen mentality of hyper-Calvinism. But I don’t see any reason why that should be the practical result. After all, surely the Christian’s responsibility to perpetually live in a way that promotes the fame of Jesus doesn’t stand or fall by this one passage. That’s a lifestyle you would simply expect from someone who knows the risen Lord of heaven and earth.

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