The Great Commission & Precedent of Grace
Before Jesus ascended to heaven, He famously charged His disciples with what is commonly referred to as “The Great Commission”:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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 all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20, ESV)
That commission was a blueprint for the events that followed, as recorded in the book of Acts, and continues to be the basis and vision for Christian evangelistic mission endeavors today. Jesus’s great commission is an extension and fulfillment of God’s great mission, which traces back to the first humans, and is expressed in the Abrahamic covenant:
And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Genesis 12:1-3, ESV)
God’s will has always been to bless people throughout the whole earth. His global, post-fall grace is displayed by the flood and Noahic covenant, by which the earth is shielded from the fullness of God’s just wrath. But God was not content to simply shield people from harm, he wants people to thrive, and the only true means of abundant, eternal life is a relationship with God. His long-term restorative plan for making that possible began with Abraham’s descendants, but was never meant to end there.
Jesus claimed to be the long-awaited and prophesied messiah, the one (and only one) who would restore Israel and the rest of the world into right standing with God. He arrived on the scene preaching about the good news of the arrival of God’s kingdom, explaining God’s mission and inviting people from all walks of life to join His family. Along the way, he mentored His disciples to continue the same ministry in his absence (though ultimately through the power of His Spirit) and propagate the good news, reproducing other disciples in an exponential fashion.
(John 14:6, Luke 4:43, Matthew 4:17, Luke 10:2)
Today, we find ourselves in the two-thousand-year wake of the great commission, and the assignment is no less important now than it was then. Though global cultures may differ in many ways now from the cultures then, we can learn some key lessons through the lives of Christ and His earliest disciples. The stories in the gospels and Acts, as well as the instructions of the epistles, contain valuable insight into the nature of evangelism.
We know that salvation is the work of God, by the power of the Holy Spirit (see soteriology), and the chosen agents of His Spirit since Christ ascended are His disciples, humans indwelt with the Spirit. The church is the body of Christ (more in ecclesiology), and as such continues the mission of Christ.
So, what does it look like to carry out the mission of Christ in 2019? The mission is everywhere, for everyone, and we carry it out through example, intentionality, and prayer.
When Christ walked the earth, He spoke truth and brought healing wherever he went. We too should approach every situation, wherever we are, as a potential opportunity to share the news of God’s kingdom or simply display God’s love. Wherever we are as well as wherever we go is the mission field.
The mission is not assigned to a select few agents, though the context and methods vary greatly among believers, all members of the church are members of the mission. If the whole body of Christ is meant to cooperatively function with a purpose, each individual within the body should operate within the framework of that purpose as well. Some people are called to leave their home towns or countries, others are not. Some are called to invest the majority of their time into equipping saints for the work, others are not. However, we are all called to share the truth in love wherever we go, and as we go.
Likewise, the audience, or target, of the mission, is everyone and anyone who has not had the opportunity (or even repeated opportunities) to hear and respond to the gospel. Though not all people may be redeemed, election is not for us to decide. We should think of every non-believer as a potential (not yet!) believer and approach the mission accordingly. This means our calling is to entire people groups and cultures outside of our own. There is darkness in need of light all over the world, and that is why the entire global community of believers must be engaged in the mission in some form or another.
Of course, that also includes everyone within our own culture: our family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, the person sitting next to you on the train, the cashier at the gas station, and so on. Even in seemingly mundane rhythms of life, there are bountiful and crucial opportunities to share the gospel with people desperately in need of it.
(Matthew 4:23-25, 10:7-14 Acts 13:47, Mark 16:15, 5:19-20 Luke 8:39, Ephesians 2:10, 4:15-16, Romans 1:16)
Having established the “who” and “where” of mission, we can finally examine the “how.”
The first means of spreading truth and love is simply by living by the truth and truly embodying Christ’s example as vessels of God’s Spirit. Those who live by the Spirit bear the fruits thereof: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Demonstrating these things is a living testament to God’s grace and power. It overflows naturally into blessing other people, planting seeds of multiplication.
Being representations of God to the world around us is a fundamental fulfilment of our purpose, and much of Christ’s teaching was done by example. I must also point out that the example Christ gave was not one of self-righteous piety, a holier-than-thou attitude, or of a secluded or removed aloofness. In fact, those attributes do describe the religious leaders of His day, whom He condemned vehemently. Rather, His life was a stark contrast: he befriended sinners, broke rules, and carried Himself humbly without elevating Himself or His righteousness. And, as in the case of Zacchaeus, simply being around Jesus was a life-changing experience for many.
Numerous pages can be written as to exactly what it looks like to set a good example with our lives, in various contexts and detail, but I think it can be summarized quite simply. Our love for God and our love for each other should so saturate our lives that it overflows and impacts the people around us simply by means of proximity.
(Galatians 5:16-26, 1 Corinthians 11:1-2, Romans 12, John 13:34-35, Matthew 5:14-16, 6:1-6, 22:36-40, 23:5, Titus 2:7-8, Luke 19:1-10)
Example is not meant to stand alone, however. There are times we can and should take it a step further into intentionality.
One of the most obvious (though often neglected) aspects of gospel intentionality is that it requires interaction with others, specifically non-believers. Again, Jesus was not aloof or removed from society, He was frequently social, surrounded by people, and forming relationships. Relationships are crucial (and perhaps especially so in American culture) because they provide a basis for trust and receptiveness. That said, even a fleeting interaction with a stranger can have a lasting impact.
Regardless of whether we talk about long-term relationships or a brief moment that plants a seed, neither of those are accomplished by a hermit in the woods. By nature, the mission demands intentional social interaction.
To truly make those interactions missional, however, leads us to the next aspect of intentionality: gospel fluency. I borrow this phrase from the book of the same title by Jeff Vandersteldt because I think it is an excellent way to describe the measure of effectiveness in missionally-minded interactions. Fluency refers to one’s ability to express themselves articulately and accurately. Fluency in any language takes time to acquire and practice to maintain, and the best way to acquire fluency in a new language is to be immersed in it. Being fluent in the language of the Gospel means being so immersed in the truth and hope of the Gospel that it is a natural extension of our vocabulary. This does NOT mean that every conversation turns into a sermon or a call to repentance. It means that our worldview is so shaped by what God has done for us that we are able to speak truth in relevant, loving, and natural ways in the everyday moments of life.
Now, I say that not every conversation should turn into a sermon. However, there may come times when a bold proclamation of truth is warranted, and eventually everyone needs to hear (or read) the explicit details of the gospel in some way. As such, part of gospel fluency is the ability to articulate those details and explain the need and means of salvation to someone who is ready to hear it. The metaphor of fluency serves well again, because I believe those situations are best approached through conversations relevant to the not-yet-believer’s life, rather than formulaic strategies designed to provide a one-way path to a pre-written prayer. In other words, an organic conversation born of fluency is more effective than recitation that disregards context.
(1 Peter 3:15-16, 1 Corinthians 10:31, John 3:1-8, 4:7-26, Romans 12:2, Colossians 4:5-6)
The last, though certainly not least, of the aspects of intentionality I’d like to mention is that of prayer. Praying for people who have not accepted Christ is the one way we can impact them without direct interaction. And since we do not perform the work of salvation, God does, no interactions we have will make any eternal difference apart from the work of the Spirit in people’s hearts.
As such, we should continually pray for those who we know personally, as well as for those around the world who do not know Christ. We can pray that God will give them the opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel and that He will soften their hearts to receive it in the meantime.
Finally, we can also pray for guidance as we practice fluency and navigate relationships. The Spirit knows who needs to hear what, when and where; the more sensitive and submissive we are to His leading, the more effective we will be on our mission.
(1 Thessalonians 5:17, Ephesians 6:18, Matthew 5:44, 1 Timothy 2:1, Luke 12:12, John 14:26, Romans 8:26)