The Mission Statement

John J. Bombaro
Friday, December 17th 2010
Jan/Feb 2011

Any conversation about the Matthew 28:18-20 "Great Commission" must begin with the essential acknowledgement that the missional activity of the church (that is, the sending, the going, the making of disciples by baptizing, the forming of Christians through teaching, the enduring presence, and so forth) is the work of God. No, not in the sense that the Lord merely sanctions such things or that this work is done "in the name of God" by others. It's more basic than that. The very doing of the things of the Great Commission, not just the commissioning itself, is the doing of God. Perhaps no one put it more bluntly than Lesslie Newbigin: "It seems to me of great importance to insist that mission is not first of all an action of ours. It is an action of God." (1)

Who would deny that? No one. But then it has to be asked: How is God acting in mission? And it is at this point where all missiological disagreement will be found. For many, to say that God is at work in mission is to say that he is working "in and through me" as I feed the poor, foster social justice, teach English as a second language, sponsor a Big Brother or Big Sister program, and do so in the name of Jesus as I embody the gospel in my daily life. All of these things, noble as they are, nonetheless pertain to the doctrine of vocation, not to the Great Commission. Simply put, God has not promised to be in those things (much less the "espresso cart ministry" or "Pilates ministry"), translating captive sinners from a kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. Such things are our doings. In them perhaps we find common grace to serve our neighbors, but not saving grace to redeem them. Consequently, it cannot be said that you are or I am the gospel mission, regardless of vocation. Truly, we do not "do" gospel mission in this sense because it immediately pertains to the law, is devoid of divine authority, and it possesses no divine power. Similarly, even our "testifying" or "witnessing," properly understood, is to the salvation accomplished by God in Christ and applied by God in Christ through his missional doings. Which brings us back to the question: How is God in Christ acting in mission?

Context Is Kingdom

The who, what, where, when, why, and how of the Great Commission emerges from its context within the Holy Scriptures, but also within the total historical drama of redemption articulated through the lens of the Bible's principal metaphor, "the kingdom." This governing metaphor of the kingdom makes transparent just how God acts in mission, namely, through Christ's ministerium. That's right’ministerium, not laity. It is not uncommon to hear an exegesis of either Matthew 28:18-20 or John 20:19-22 that divorces the church's ministerium from the particularity of the commission's activities. But this cannot be an honest interpretation of these texts, since the mission statement of the church is given directly to and principally for men called to stand and serve in persona Christi ("as the person of Christ"). The kingdom motif clarifies a straightforward exegesis of who goes, what is done, and how it's done.

Obedient to reading the Scripture within the metaphorical paradigm of kingdom, we find in Matthew 28:18-20 that Jesus the King is speaking with full imperial authority, issuing forth his regal decree, and commissioning his royal ambassadors in a way that parallels the proto-commissioning of Genesis 1:28 and 2:15. In Eden, Adam is created in the image of God (the Great King) and is therefore "the son of God" (Luke 3:38) or, synonymously and in keeping with the principal metaphor of the metanarrative, the crown prince. The first man is royally commissioned to have "dominion" and be lord over the earth, to be as the heavenly King would be in his earthly kingdom. Simply put, Adam rules as God's viceroy. Created in the image of the King, man possesses derivative lordship over the kingdom and with the King's Word "written upon his heart." In the New Testament, when the Last Adam (the Son) comes as the anointed King, he does so imaging forth the Great King's (that is, the Father's) image’not only possessing the Word of God upon his heart, but literally as the Word of God and, at the same time, in the Adamic capacity as "the son of God" on earth, the heir of the kingdom. The identification of the Great King and the anointed’the crown prince’is a one-to-one correspondence. The crown prince (Jesus as Israel’"the prince that prevails with God") has authority to speak and act on the Great King's behalf just as if he were the Father, so much so that Jesus could say: "He who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9). This identification of the Son with the Father occurs in two senses. First, there is the trinitarian sense: the Father is identified in the Son, and the Son is identified in the Father. In terms of the divine ontology or the being of God, who God is in himself, the Son corresponds to the Father. Second, there is the anthropological sense: man possesses the image of God, and so the Son of God who comes as the Son of Man corresponds to mankind created in the image of God. In the drama of redemption the two are brought together in the incarnation’the Father sending (apostello) the Son in dual representation. Thus, the sending of the Son by the Father entails the category of apostolic commissioning within a kingdom metaphor paradigm through which an apostolic identification between the Father (the sender) and the Son (the sent) obtains to the end that Jesus possesses divine kingly authority and Holy Spirit power over things heavenly and earthly.

And so, as the God-man, the Son achieves a victory that allows the repossession of the Father's once-usurped kingdom, and thereby initiates the fulfillment of the first man and his posterity's original vocation to have dominion. It is only fitting then that the God-man would have men re-created in his own image to represent himself in reclaiming mankind and do so by the power of the Holy Spirit.

More than the other Evangelists, the apostle John labors to underscore this point about inner-trinitarian apostolic representation through the incarnation in the following texts’which of course set the stage for another apostolic commissioning in John 20:19-22, where Jesus makes apostles of certain disciples who thereby extend his incarnational presence and power, or God's missional doings.

Fundamental to John's Gospel is an understanding of Jesus as the viceroy apostle’the sent one’of the Father. In this capacity, the Messiah born of a woman may rightly speak for and act on behalf of the Father with the full authority of the Majesty on High, if for no other reason than the metaphor of kingdom necessitates identification and representation between the Great King and his Son (cf. Col. 1:15-20; Rev 1:6) or, alternatively, the Lord and his messenger.

Critical for understanding the "Great Commission," then, is the intertestamental Jewish concept of shelichim‘as in the rabbinic proverb, "The messenger of a man is as the man himself." Persons commissioned as a shaliach (singular) were endowed with authority to legally and morally represent their commissioner. Significantly, the Septuagint translates the Hebrew word shaliach (to send) with the Greek apostello, sustaining the emphasis of sending someone with a commission to represent another with corresponding authority. This is why the rabbis of Jesus' day considered Moses, Elijah, Elisha, and Ezekiel shelichim, authorized messengers of God who represented Yahweh in persona Dei. As Robert Scrudieri notes, "When the shelichim went on a mission, they were actually considered to be the person or group who sent them." (2) But there was a caveat: the active representation of another availed only for a specific mission. There was no extension of conferred authority beyond the parameters of the commissioning specifications. Once the mission was completed, shaliach representation expired. "The shaliach is a progenitor of the New Testament apostle. Jesus did not invent the word apostle, he assumed it. There was already in God's plan a well-known system within which Jewish apostles were operating, a system Jesus accepted and used." (3) This concept of authoritative personal representation is brought directly into the New Testament understanding of the Great Commission but with two important innovations by Jesus. First, he commissioned apostles for missional endeavors even to the Gentiles, whereas the shaliach never eclipsed the boundaries of the Jewish community (even the idea of the apostle is transformed by the dawning of the new creation). Second, the power of the commissioner (viz. the Holy Spirit sent by the Father and the Son) would actually be present with the commissioned to achieve the commissioning and only the commissioning.

"Go Therefore"

Understood within the paradigm of kingdom, the effect of the opening words of the Great Commission is a command from the Majesty on High who happens to be on earth: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. ?Go therefore…."

Notice how Jesus, "who is called Christ" (Matt. 1:16), the anointed King of Israel by others, now in full right declares himself to be the Lord of heaven and earth. Something has changed. His availing apostolic representation of the Father has yielded a new world order. Now he is the King of kings, possessing full divine sovereign authority. Whereas once it was the Father affirming his authoritative and Holy Spirit-empowered vice-regency (Matt. 3:16-17)’and to be sure, Jesus was the King who hung on the cross with a titulus declaring as much, and by his own teaching God's kingdom rule began with the King enthroned on Golgotha’now the resurrection brings an element of triumphalistic self-proclamation. The King has been vindicated in his claim that all things have been given to him by the Father (Matt. 28:18).

The upshot of who Jesus is yields the "therefore." Commission and mission happen because the all-authoritative, all-powerful one wills it. He commissions his apostles ("sent ones"), and the only response to "thus saith the risen Lord" is "it was so." His will will be done. The sending, however, is for this expressed purpose disclosed by the King: reconciling traitor citizens to the rightful King and his kingdom that has come. Paul says as much in 2 Corinthians 5:18-20:

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.

In other words, the sending is first and foremost about forgiveness. That is God's mission, for only God has the power to forgive sins (cf. Luke 5:21), and he does so because he loves the world with the love a father has for his children (John 3:16). This is the why of the Great Commission. God must be present in Christ through his apostles if forgiveness is to be applied and reconciliation result in our being joint heirs with Christ by adoption as sons (Rom. 8:17). And so the reclamation of God's earthly kingdom begins, and it must do so in conjunction with the apostolic commissioning of John 20:19-20, which ultimately gives way to the making of disciples in Matthew 28:18-20.

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week…Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you." And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld."

This passage more than any other clears a misconception about the "Great Commission" of Matthew 28:18-20 standing alone. It has at least John 20:19-22 as its complement, if not antecedent. Thus, as we approach the Matthean Great Commission, it is understood that as the Father sent the Son with authority to stand in persona Patri in the accomplishment of redemption, so too the Son sends certain disciples as his apostles with authority to stand in persona Christi in the application of his redemption by the power of the Holy Spirit. In this way God is the ultimate doer of the Great Commission. Therefore, God gets all the glory.

This bipartite commissioning is not open to all, however, but only to the ministerium. Both John and Matthew articulate a context in which the commissioning takes place for and among the eleven, not all disciples indiscriminately. A divine intention presents itself through the narrative placement of these commissions, as well as a theological significance having to do with the doctrine of representation: the Father sends his Son to represent him, and now the Son sends his brothers to represent him representing the Father. Only this kind of gender-specific personal apostolic commissioning could maintain the integrity of another important metaphor within Scripture: matrimonial union between the bridegroom and bride, or Christ and his church, which again restricts the apostolic commissioning to a ministerium.

The John 20 episode commissions the disciples to be something before they do something. You are apostles now (John 20:21)’so say I, the King (Matt. 28:18), and this is what you shall say and do in my stead (28:19-20). This personal apostolic representation of Jesus by his apostles is not only the teaching of John but also of the Synoptics.

When Jesus breathes on the disciples in the apostolic commissioning, it brings into focus the trinitarian nature of the sending. (4) As the Father sends the Son and the Son sends the Spirit, so too the ministerium of the church is caught up in this divine activity of sending to become the manifestation of trinitarian activity in the going, making, teaching, and abiding presence among the disciples. Jesus' self-witness and redemptive activity is extended by apostolic proxy and Holy Spirit performance, but with this one important difference from the first commissioning of Adam: The word in the mouth of God's Edenic apostle was law; the word in the mouth of the re-created apostle is gospel.

What God Is Doing: "Making Disciples"

Inclusive of Luke's 24:46-49 post-resurrection account, the Great Commission fundamentally establishes the forum for the work of God (what Puritan divines like William Perkins referred to as the theatrum salutis, the theater of salvation). (5) The point of the commissioning, then, is for Christ's ministerium to facilitate the sphere through which the Holy Spirit saves and sanctifies by the Word since they’in and of themselves’have no power, only a derivative authority. They are to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments. In this way the pastor serves as stage manager for God's action. (6) This is to take place everywhere God possesses the right of lordship: beginning in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, even to the ends of the earth. The earth is his footstool; therefore he shall reclaim it in all its parts’age, gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status notwithstanding.

The sending and going of the Lord's ministerium ironically results in the coming and gathering of sinners. There is a purposeful gathering, a summoning by the formality of the ambassadorial proclamation. God goes out to all, and all come to him for baptizing, communing, and catechesis. There is a sense then that the sending is really an entreating to a destination, and Christ is that destination. The result of the apostles going out on the day of Pentecost to Jerusalem was the making of disciples by baptizing, only to see them come together for the "apostles' teaching, the fellowship in the breaking of the bread, and the prayers" (Acts 2:42). When the King goes out and calls all things to himself, then all things come to where he is present in person, promise, and power. The human actions of the ministerium that fill the Divine Service are totally dependent on the triune God filling them with his action. (7)

God makes disciples through the death-resurrection-adoption rite of holy baptism. In baptism the King speaks something about the baptized (they are justified/adopted) and about doing something to them (namely, uniting them to Christ's death and resurrection, but also to the church). The recipient is passive. God is active in changing the status, identity, and being of the baptized. This is why Martin Luther, for example, considered all baptisms to be a sort of infant baptism. He put no stock in the self-profession of converts who responded to gospel preaching. To Luther, they might be hypocrites, halfhearted, or heretics. What they said about their faith in God was unavoidably uncertain, subjective, alterable. In fact, he admonished discerning converts never to trust in their declaration about God but rather God's public and therefore objective declaration about them. If nothing else, watch and believe what God does through baptism. Luther's point was to trust what God says about you and does to you through his ministerium when they are serving in the apostolic/shaliach capacity of the Great Commission to forgive sins and adopt sons. On one occasion, Luther pointed out that the Ethiopian eunuch asked to receive the means of disciple making’baptism’because no one legitimately baptizes himself. He saw the need to receive what someone else possessed and had the authority and power to dispense. The implication here is that the making of disciples in baptizing is an ordinance for the ministerium not the recipient, for the cleric not the catechumen, since God is the doer in baptism by way of his "sent ones." His is the power to forgive, adopt, and regenerate. It is his declaration that "this is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased," which cannot be questioned because it is the word of the King. According to Luther the biblical maxim "Let God be true and every man a liar" (Rom. 3:4) becomes the tangible reality of baptism. Consequently, receiving baptism can never be a "first act of obedience" because it is always the action of God. His kingly profession about the recipient is certain, objective, and unalterable precisely because it is grounded in a divine event. The purpose and permanence of this sacrament is grounded in the will of the Lord to perpetuate the church and yield disciples who will be catechized in the faith given by God's own doing. Thus, it endures as a work of God, not a vestige of Roman Catholicism.

"Teach Disciples"

God then sets out to teach his disciples to observe all things that Christ has commanded his ministerium. The ministerium, of course, has been commanded to administer God's Word and Sacraments. Catechesis, then, is a lifelong returning to the gospel Word in baptism, in absolution, and in Holy Communion. Observe the things that he has left his "sent ones" to tell us and give us. Having been made a "learner" (disciple), being taught of God in Christ is a lifelong resourcing of John 20 and Matthew 28, for the gospel is not a one-off, one-time deal intended for those outside the new covenant in Christ's blood. Rather, just as the first Great Commission pertains to the remission of sins, so too the content of catechesis consists primarily in eliciting faith in God's gospel promise-keeping.

Doubt Nothing

The final word from Jesus, "I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matt. 28:20b, ESV), emphatically redoubles the comforting intent of verse 18, namely, that the King of heaven and earth has spoken and therefore all can and will be accomplished by his authoritative Word, which accomplishes what he says. His is the kingdom and the power and glory. So doubt nothing. This apostolic commissioning and missional enterprise is of the King. The power and efficacy of the Word preached and the baptism administered with his authority is, in fact, the King's doing. So then all you who bear this apostolic commissioning, doubt nothing. Pastors ought to be of the greatest confidence while serving in the office of their ordination. The King has promised always to be with them in great commissioning as the power-bearing doer. What he has spoken, he has spoken. Strike forth with the poise of a martyr and doubt nothing.

Knowing then that God is going into all the world gathering all ethnic groups (again, notwithstanding age, status, or gender), with the application of Christ's accomplished salvation, has to be of enormous comfort for sinners because it gets our focus off of our doing, our striving, and our earnestness and onto him who has all power and authority. God as the ultimate doer of the missional church also brings the greatest of assurances. Our confidence rests always on what he has objectively done and said through the external gospel Word and Sacraments; but it also rests on his redemptive-history-tested character as the promise-making, promise-keeping God who never lies and whose Word cannot be overturned.

God works through that which has been principally committed to the curacy of Christ's ministerium, and so the church is recognized by what she has and does. The fundamental identity of the church as the missional doer, applying the church's treasured possession’God's Word and Sacraments’to captive sinners in need of a Savior King proves itself to be the presence and activity of God in the world he is reclaiming. And it is in the application of this possession that the church not only manifests itself, but is perpetuated and enlarged as the kingdom of God through God's own doings. It is in and through the missional church that the eternal touches time, the unseen touches the seen, grace touches nature. The application of redemption then begins not with the wave of a spiritual wand, nor with mere edicts pronounced from the sky, but rather with recognizable physical contact points that begin with the Lord's great commissioning. The end result, of course, is God working through particular people in a particular office employing particular means to accomplish particular ends’the making of disciples and the discipling of Christians. So far from being a disembodied religion, a spirituality of the interior, the risen King Jesus establishes the proclamation and application of his accomplished redemption through men ordained to stand in his stead to set the church in motion. The church is easily recognized by Word and Sacrament ministry purposed to this three-pronged end: the ingathering of the elect (through preaching and baptism); the sanctification of the baptized (through catechesis, absolution, and Holy Com-munion); and the glorification of God since he, ultimately, is the doer of these things.

1 [ Back ] Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Age (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 128-29.
2 [ Back ] Robert J. Scrudieri, The Apostolic Church: One, Holy, Catholic and Missionary (Chino, CA: Lutheran Society for Missiology, 1995), 9.
3 [ Back ] Scrudieri, 11.
4 [ Back ] David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in the Theology of Mission (Mary Knoll, NY: Orbis, 1991), 390ff.
5 [ Back ] See my "William Perkins: Theatrum Salutis and Preparationism," 1997 MTh Dissertation, University of Edinburgh.
6 [ Back ] See Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 445ff.
7 [ Back ] Peter Brunner, Worship in the Name of Jesus, trans. M. H. Bertram (St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1968), 124.
Friday, December 17th 2010

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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