I am a pretty impulsive person. There is a check I need to take to the bank. I rush out the door, jump in the car, and am halfway to my destination when I realize that I’ve forgotten the check. The most humiliating part of it is that I will have to return home and face my wife’s grinning visage greeting me at the door, holding the check, and saying, “Did you forget something?”
Just go. Just do it. “Get ‘er done,” as they say. Reflection slows you down.
The same thing can happen with the Great Commission. It doesn’t really matter if we don’t get all the details right as long as we are zealous. It is easy to subordinate the message to the mission, the evangel to evangelism, as if being busy with outreach could trump the content of what we have been given to communicate.
Of course, it can work the other way, too. We can be preoccupied with getting the message right without actually getting it out. The evangelist D. L. Moody once quipped to a critic of his methods, “I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it.” If “zeal without knowledge” is deadly (Rom. 10:2-3), then knowledge without zeal is dead. The Great Commission doesn’t give any quarter to either of these extremes.
“Go therefore into all the world and make disciples.” This is the version of the Great Commission that many of us memorized. However, it leaves out a great deal. To begin with, it leaves out the whole rationale for the commission in the first place. Although it sounds a little corny, a good rule of thumb in reading the Scriptures is that whenever you find a “therefore” you need to stop and ask “what it’s there for.”
When we see an imperative such as “Go therefore,” we need to go back and look at what has already been said leading up to it. There is no reason for us to go into all the world as Christ’s ambassadors apart from the work that he has already accomplished.
The Great Commission actually begins with the declaration, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18). This is the rationale for everything the church is called to do and to be. The church’s commission is indeed directed by a purpose (“making disciples of all nations”), but it is driven by a promise.
Grounding Purposes in Promises
Like our own lives, the church is gospel driven. Every new covenant command is grounded in the gospel. We love God because he first loved us (1 John 4:10, 19). We choose Christ because he chose us (John 15:6; Eph. 1:4-5, 11; 2 Thess. 2:13). We are called to holiness because we are already declared to be holy in Christ, clothed in his righteousness (Col 1:22; 3:12; 1 Cor. 1:30). Because we have been crucified, buried, and raised with Christ, we are no longer under the tyranny of sin and are therefore to offer up ourselves in body and soul to righteousness (Rom. 6:1-14). “In view of the mercies of God,” we are called to “present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1).
The church’s mission is grounded in God’s mission, which he fulfilled objectively in his Son and whose subjective effects he is bringing about in the world through his Spirit. Because the Father sent the Son and then the Spirit, we are sent into all the world with his gospel.
So the church is what it is not because of its own decision, planning, and zealous activity, but because of God’s. Far from eliminating the place for our own response, God’s grace is its only possible source. Far from turning us into blocks of stone, with no will or activity, the good news we take to the world’by which we also are saved’liberates our willing and running, so that we can trust in Christ and bear the fruit of the Spirit in love toward God and neighbor. The triumphant indicative’announcing the achievements of the triune God’always comes first. God’s gracious performance creates a church in the midst of this present evil age that imperfectly responds by saying “Amen!” in word and deed to all God has worded it to be. Only because it is in Christ is there an assembly of sinners drawn from every people and language’transferred from the kingdom of death to the kingdom of everlasting life.
As Christopher Wright points out in The Mission of God, the missionary mandate is not limited to a handful of proof-texts; the whole Bible is a missionary document. And God is the original missionary. He was a missionary in creation: speaking the world into being by his Word, in the power of his Spirit. Adam was commissioned to bring the whole earth under submission to God’s righteous rule, but he forfeited this calling. Israel too was called out by God as “a light to the Gentiles.” Yet, “like Adam, Israel transgressed the covenant” (Hos. 6:7). In the fullness of time, however, the Father sent the Son into the world to save sinners. In his post-resurrection appearances to the disciples, Jesus not only preached himself as the center of Scripture (Luke 24:27, 44), he made their proclamation of him part of that mission as well: “‘This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem'” (vv. 45-47). And after his ascension, the Son together with the Father sent the Spirit at Pentecost. God’s mission, of course, is qualitatively distinct from ours. The triune God is the Redeemer; we are the redeemed. But the redeemed are given the privilege of participating in God’s mission to the world by proclaiming the gospel, administering the sacraments, and caring for the expanding flock of Christ.
The Gospel-Driven Church
We must never take Christ’s work for granted. The gospel is not merely something we take to unbelievers; it is the Word that created and continues to sustain the whole church in its earthly pilgrimage. In addition, we must never confuse Christ’s work with our own. There is a lot of loose talk these days about our “living the gospel” or even “being the gospel,” as if our lives were the good news. We even hear it said that the church is an extension of Christ’s incarnation and redeeming work, as if Jesus came to provide the moral example or template, and we are called to complete his work.
There is one Savior and one head of the church. To him alone all authority is given in heaven and on earth. There is only one incarnation of God in history, and he finished the work of fulfilling all righteousness, bearing the curse, and triumphing over sin and death.
We use the verb “redeem” too casually today, as if we (individually or collectively) could be the subject of this sort of action. God has already redeemed the world in his Son, purchasing for himself “people from every tribe and tongue and nation” (Rev. 5:9). On this basis, the Spirit is at work applying this redemption, drawing sinners to Christ, justifying and renewing them, in the hope that their bodies will be raised together with an entirely renovated creation (Rom. 8:16-23). The church comes into being not as an extension or further completion of Christ’s redeeming work, but as a result of his completed work.
On the verge of Good Friday, Jesus prayed, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:1-3).
What did Jesus mean here when he acknowledged that the Father had “given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him”? The answer goes to the heart of his opening words in the Great Commission, and it unfolds gradually in the Gospel of John.
John’s Gospel announces Jesus as the Word made flesh, nevertheless rejected even by his own. “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:1-13). We do not have the ability or authority to make ourselves children of God, but Jesus exercises his authority to give life in the power of the Spirit. In John 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus that apart from this new birth “from above,” no one can enter his kingdom (v. 5).
In John 5, Jesus says, “For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will” (v. 21). The Father has given all judgment into the hands of the Son (vv. 22-23). Jesus then proclaims (John 6:37-39, 44):
All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day….No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.
In John 10, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep….My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (vv. 14-15, 27-28). Again, in John 15, he reminds his disciples, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide” (v. 16).
So there is a thread running throughout John’s Gospel that testifies to the eternal covenant of redemption in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Father chose a people in Christ from the mass of fallen humanity, giving them to Christ as their Mediator, with the Spirit as the one who will give them faith and keep them in that faith to the end. Not one of those whom the Father gave to the Son will be lost.
Given the unity of the Bible’s witness to Christ, this thread of passages in John’s Gospel helps us understand what Jesus meant in the Great Commission. Although the latter is not included in so many words in Luke or in John, the basic substance is there in their concluding chapters as well (Luke 24:44-53; John 21:15-19): “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” What an announcement! It presupposes everything from our Lord’s conception in the womb of the Virgin Mary to his ascension to the Father’s right hand. And it anticipates his return in glory to judge the living and the dead. He alone has all authority to save and to condemn.
In his opening vision of the Apocalypse, John hears these words from the glorified Son: “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Rev. 1:17-18). Just as this triumphant indicative grounds Jesus’ imperative, “Write therefore the things you have seen” in this remarkable book (v. 19), his announcement that all authority is in his hands is the rationale for the Great Commission’s “Therefore, go…!”
In Whose Hands Do We Lie?
We are born into the world as children of Adam, “dead in sins and trespasses” (Eph. 2:1), incapable of responding positively to God apart from his gracious gift of faith (Eph. 2:5, 8-9). Given the seriousness of human sin and rebellion, the command to go into the whole world and preach the gospel would be vain if the ultimate power and authority lay in the hands of sinners.
This authority does not even lie in the hands of preachers or church growth strategists. Jesus Christ did not make it possible for us to be saved. He did not begin a work of redemption. He did not do “his part” so that we could do ours. Rather, Jesus Christ has accomplished everything. He has become flesh of our flesh. He has fulfilled all righteousness in our place and has borne the judgment for every one of our sins as our substitute. And he has been raised as the firstfruits of a whole harvest, the beginning of the resurrection from the dead. There is no more redeeming work to be done!
I’ll never forget when this marvelous truth of Christ’s objective, completed work really gripped me. My well-meaning pastor once asked me, “When were you saved?” Without intending to be clever, I heard myself answer, “Two thousand years ago.” At first, I was as surprised at the remark as my pastor. A lot of our talk about “getting saved” in evangelical circles focuses on the day that we did something: we said yes to Jesus or we invited Jesus into our heart, said a prayer, went forward, or otherwise evidenced a decisive conversion experience. This, however, shifts the concentration from the gospel itself (Christ’s saving work) to our experience of the gospel.
The new birth itself becomes an imperative in this approach of “how to be born again,” as if it were something we could bring about by following the proper instructions. In the gospel, the new birth is not an imperative (command) but an indicative (statement of fact). That is, it simply declares the state of affairs: we cannot enter Christ’s kingdom unless we are “born from above.” We are not born again by our decision, as the apostle had already indicated in John 1:13. Rather, says Peter, “you have been born again…through the living and abiding word of God….And this word is the good news that was preached to you” (1 Pet. 1:23, 25). The gospel is for us, not about us. It isn’t about anything that we do, feel, or choose. It is the good news about Jesus Christ and what he has accomplished for us.
Of course, we show evidence of the new birth. In conversion, we repent and believe the gospel. God does not believe for us. Nevertheless, we can believe only because he has raised us from spiritual death and granted us the gift of faith. It takes a miracle to believe in Christ’and he is still a wonder-working Savior, whose miracle of the new birth by his Spirit is greater than all of the signs he performed in his earthly ministry.
All authority in heaven and on earth is in Christ’s hands. If it were in the hands of a despot, we would never be free. If it were in our hands, we would never be saved. Because Christ has the power of life and death, however, there is not only the possibility but the assurance that there will be a church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.
“The Gospel Commission”
Because all authority in heaven and on earth is given to Jesus Christ, we are sent into the world with confidence that God’s mission will be accomplished. Paul preached the gospel to Lydia and “the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16:14). After explaining that God “saved us…not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (2 Tim. 1:9), Paul’on the verge of his execution in Rome’assured Timothy, “Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2 Tim. 2:10).
The greatest missionary in the history of the church was driven by the gospel indicatives. Because God chose sinners from a mass of spiritual death, Christ saved them, and the Spirit gave them faith through the preaching of the gospel, Paul could go on, enduring persecution and knowing that God’s purposes would be realized. Not Caesar, nor the Jewish leaders, nor the sinners to whom he preached, nor Paul himself held the personal power to save or to condemn. “But I am not ashamed,” he tells Timothy, “for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me” (2 Tim. 1:12).
A missionary friend once told me that when his plane approached the Mumbai airport and he saw the masses of people below, he was overwhelmed with the impossibility of his task. Then he remembered that he was not commissioned to save these people, or even to open their hearts to believe the gospel, but simply to proclaim it and that God would gather his people. That made all the difference, he said, and he was liberated to fulfill his calling.
People join all sorts of movements and causes by their own free will or because they are coerced by others or seduced by advertisements. But because all authority in heaven and on earth is in Christ’s hands, our wills’bound by sin’are liberated to receive the beauty of an utterly gracious salvation. There can be no recovery of delight in the Great Commission without a renewal of the church’s conviction that it not only came into being but is sustained in every moment by the will and work of the Father, in the Son, by the Spirit.
The Mission Will Succeed
Because Christ accomplished his mission, ours is guaranteed success’defined by God’s purposes, not ours. It is this confidence that motivates a missionary in Saudi Arabia to labor for years before witnessing a single conversion. So why do so many of us, as American Christians, measure success in our own churches by other standards, based on what we can accomplish and see on an impressive scale?
Christ’s ascension to the right hand of the Father creates the confidence that our going will not be in vain. The same Word that creates and sustains the church’s own existence and growth is proclaimed to the world, so that Christ’s kingdom expands to the ends of the earth. The Father’s decision is irrevocable. Christ’s mission is accomplished already, and the Spirit will be just as successful in his labors. Therefore, the Great Commission cannot fail.
Jesus had already prepared the disciples for his departure and the sending of the Spirit (John 14-16). He had told them, “I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:18-19). Christ himself has redeemed his church and is now building his church in the power of his Word and Spirit. It is not a kingdom that we are building, but a kingdom that we are receiving (Heb. 12:28).
In Heaven and On Earth
The titles “Lord” and “Savior of the World” are familiar in our Christian vocabulary, but apart from the unfolding drama of redemption they are mere slogans. In fact, these phrases have taken on a less radical meaning in our ordinary usage today. We often speak of “making Jesus our personal Lord and Savior,” but this obscures two important points.
First, we do not make Jesus anything, especially Lord and Savior. It is because he already is Lord and Savior that we are freed from the fear of death and hell. All authority belongs to him already.
Second, the gospel announces Jesus Christ not only as your personal Lord and Savior or mine, but as the Lord and Savior of the world. All authority in heaven and on earth belongs to him. As the risen Lord, he is given by the Father the power to judge and to justify. Salvation is not just “fire insurance” or “sin management.” The gospel promises far more than going to heaven when you die. It is an all-encompassing pledge from God for the total renewal of creation. It involves the resurrection of our bodies, and the liberation of the whole creation from its bondage to sin and death. When he returns, Jesus will judge every person and nation and consummate his kingdom in everlasting righteousness and peace. We cannot limit salvation to our private world of the soul; the whole cosmos was created by the Father, in the Son, through the Spirit, and it is upheld and finally redeemed in the same way.
The privatized view of Jesus merely as “personal Lord and Savior” does not really provoke controversy today. After all, our non-Christian neighbors shrug and say, “Whatever works for you.” Yet these ascriptions of praise to Jesus Christ were subversive on the lips of early Christians in the Roman Empire. After all, they were titles Caesar had ascribed to himself. People could believe whatever they wanted to in private. Whatever they found morally useful, therapeutically valuable, or spiritually and intellectually enlightening was fine. In fact, when it came to gods, the more the merrier! The Roman Empire was a melting pot of cultures and religions. However, whatever varied religions and spiritualities it tolerated, Rome insisted that they contribute to the civil religion that included the cult of the emperor. God could have his heaven, or the inner soul, but Caesar was “lord of the earth.”
The early Christians were not fed to wild beasts or dipped in wax and set ablaze as lamps in Nero’s garden because they thought Jesus was a helpful life coach or role model, but because they witnessed to him as the only Lord and Savior of the world. Jesus Christ doesn’t just live in the private hearts of individuals as the source of an inner peace. He is the Creator, Ruler, Redeemer, and Judge of all the earth. And now he commands everyone everywhere to repent. All idols are shams. All power and authority not only in heaven but on earth is Christ’s. He has cast Satan out of the heavenly sanctuary, where he prosecuted the saints day and night (Rev. 12). And now, having bound the strong man, he is looting his house on earth, taking back what rightfully belongs to him (Matt. 12:29).
We can only imagine the offence that such testimony as the following might have aroused in Caesar or his emissaries:
For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities’all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of the cross. (Col. 1:16-20)
Later in Colossians Paul writes, “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Col. 2:13-15).
The “rulers and authorities”‘whether sin, death, and Satan or their earthly lackeys who spread destruction to the ends of the earth’are already divested of their ultimate power. Even in his weakness, God has made a mockery of the powerful of this age (1 Cor. 1:25-29).
Caesars may still rule and demand the proper temporal allegiance of their subjects (Rom. 13:1-7), but they rule at the pleasure of the Sovereign of the universe. Disease may stalk and death may claim our bodies, but it no longer has the last word: “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55). Our fate does not lie in the impersonal forces of nature. We are not at the mercy of insurance companies and health-care providers. Jesus Christ’not the invisible hand of the market’is Lord of all powers and principalities.
Of course, devout Jews agreed that there was only one universal sovereign, Yahweh, and stoutly refused any collusion with Gentile idolatry. However, they just as sharply rejected the apostles’ transfer of the name of Yahweh in the prophets (Joel 2:32) to Jesus (Acts 2:21 and Rom. 10:13). They regarded as blasphemy such statements as we find in Acts 4:12: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
The boundaries of Israel are now redrawn around Jesus Christ. There is a new kingdom from heaven spreading its dominion in this world. It is not a kingdom of power and glory, with an earthly capital. It is a kingdom of grace and forgiveness, overcoming the death and condemnation under which the world lies helpless.
Are you rattled by the magnitude of opposition to the gospel, increasingly even in the nations once nominally committed to a vaguely Christian culture? Does the Great Commission seem threatened by the gathering forces of secularism, militant Islam, consumerism, violence, and moral relativism? These are among the “principalities and powers” that Christ has vanquished objectively, although their effects have not yet been finally and forever eliminated.
Oscar Cullman compared Christ’s resurrection and return in glory to “D-Day” and “V-Day” during World War II. There was first of all the landing assault that broke the back of the Nazi forces, but insurgent battles raged until victory in Europe was fully realized. Even now, Christ has crushed the head of the serpent and is setting prisoners free. All authority in heaven and on earth is given to him. Are you distressed by your lack of understanding, zeal, or faithfulness in your own discipleship, much less in your appreciation for the Great Commission? Christ is Lord! He has forgiven you all of your sins and has given you a new heart. In spite of every setback, you are assured that your Shepherd-King has already won the war!
Before You Go
Before there can be a mission, there has to be a message. Before we go, we must stop and hear’really hear’what has happened that we are to take to the world. Before there is a witness, there must be a person whose accomplishment is worthy of proclaiming even at great personal risk. Before there is an evangelistic outreach, there must be an evangel. The gospel comes first. We must hear it’not just at first for our own conversion, but every moment of our lives’if the Great Commission is to be a joyful delight rather than an intolerable burden with an impossible goal. Hear our Lord’s assurance again, with all of the supporting evidence of his incarnation, life, death, and resurrection: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”