Feb 27, 2007

Miss(ions)ing the Point: Another perspective on Matthew 28:18-20

by Matthew Hegarty, Managing Editor
Since my childhood, I have heard over and over from pastors, missionaries, missions representatives, evangelists, etc., who have said, “We need missionaries to fulfill the Great Commission in our generation!”

Good idea – but apparently it had poor execution. I am now 21, and a new generation of humans is arising – and the Great Commission has not been “fulfilled” yet. We have the capability, the resources and the desire to carry it out, and yet it remains unaccomplished. What went wrong?

Is it possible that, in our haste to obey Christ’s command, we have completely failed to see the purpose of that command?

At the risk of being repetitious – since missionaries and seminars kept the command at the forefront of our minds during the recently completed Missions Emphasis Week – here is Christ’s statement, reprinted in full from the New King James Version. Matthew 28:18-20 states, “And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’ Amen.”

Based on this passage, there are three things that are involved in the Great Commission – going, baptizing and teaching. If only one or two are done, to the exclusion of the other one or two, it is safe to say that, at that juncture, Jesus’ mandate has not been fulfilled.

There is another aspect of this command that we must consider. What does Jesus say at the beginning of verse 19? “Go therefore….” Serious students of the Scriptures should stop here and examine the words before that “therefore,” which, by nature of its meaning, is critically important to understanding the full implications of the text. The Greek word for “therefore” means “consequently” or “these things being so,” giving the indication that the information after “therefore” necessarily follows – based on the information before it.

Christ says prior to the “therefore” that He has been given all authority in heaven and earth, and we presume that means by God the Father. Because of this authority, dominion, absolute power, He “therefore” charges His people to go and make disciples. The weight of this statement is astounding. It means we can have complete confidence that, because His command is sourced in His power, we are guaranteed to succeed in making disciples.

So, if a person rejects the gospel of Christ that we present, we should not be dismayed – Christ’s authority will surely lead us to those whom the Father is drawing, to whom God wishes us to minister as a part of expanding His kingdom.

However, in trying to “hasten the return” of Christ, the American church too often unconsciously replaces the Great Commission passage with a related, but different, passage – Matthew 24:14, which reads, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.”

The mentality for missions is thus modified into some sort of esoteric “humans bringing about the ‘end times’” philosophy. I did a cursory Google search on this topic and found no fewer than a dozen different churches and missions organizations that hold to this belief.

Are you beginning to see the link that may be distracting the church? It is like the church is a donkey, and the “end” is this giant, heavenly carrot that is dangling on a string, just out of reach. And God will prevent the donkey from eating the carrot until the donkey fulfills its end of the bargain – namely, the Great Commission.

For so long, we have been conditioned to an “if-then” interpretation of Matthew 24:14 – what I will call the Great Carrot. The Great Carrot, as many of today’s missions organizations understand it, supposedly gives us the impression that, if we are proactive, travel to the uttermost parts of the earth and make sure every people group has heard the gospel, then God will give us a “reward,” namely the coming of the “end” – and, doubtless, heaven for all of God’s people.

Essentially, this way of thinking mutates the whole purpose of preaching the gospel into the realization of a goal, not the changing of lives. This understanding of the Great Carrot leads to a grave misunderstanding of the Great Commission.

In the zeal of the church to attain the Great Carrot, the reaching of a people group becomes part of a checklist. “One down, only 4,236 left to go before Christ’s return!”

Stop. In whom is the Great Commission sourced again? Christ! The One who has absolute power and authority over heaven and earth – and the One who will come when He is good and ready, at a time when the Father has already appointed, regardless of the action or inaction of Christians.

If the Great Commission were dependent ultimately on human response, it would soon become the Great inCompletion – we humans are not exactly known for our faithfulness.

I am not saying there is no truth to the Great Carrot – but I am saying that it should be properly understood as a byproduct of Christ’s authority instead of as the end result of human achievement. Missions, then, should be not so much seen as the fulfillment of an objective as the obedience to a command, based on the knowledge that Christ has all power and that He has seen fit to condescend to humans and entrust the privilege of teaching others about His gospel of grace to them.

This is a privilege that should fill God’s people with reverent humility, instead of the arrogant assumption that Christ’s coming is beholden to the human response of His people.

Then, maybe, we will start to more fully understand our role in the Great Commission – allowing God to use our words and testimony to change lives as we go, baptize and teach, instead of scoring a global Game Over.

Contact Matthew Hegarty at mjhegarty@liberty.edu.
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