Gospel Breadth

An Ambition to Obey the Great Commission

Bethlehem 2017 Conference for Pastors + Church Leaders | Minneapolis

I would like you to open your Bibles to Matthew 28. We are going to go to the most famous and popular text related to the Great Commission. It is by no means the only time that Jesus gave this basic type of instruction, but this is the one that we often think of as the Great Commission. And I fear sometimes that it becomes so familiar to us that we don’t look at it closely. So that’s what we’re going to do this afternoon. Matthew 28, we’re going to begin reading with verse 16:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 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 28:16–20)

The Unpopularity and Fuzziness of Missions

Missions is unpopular. It hasn’t always been the case. I’m old enough to remember a time when American culture sort of celebrated missions. As a child in Georgia, I actually remember being assigned in public school to write a report on a missionary for, I think, it was third grade. It was just considered sort of commonplace that missionaries are people that we hold up, but that is certainly not the case today.

It’s neither the case in this country where the task of missions is as politically incorrect as you can get, where there’s almost nothing more offensive than to think you’re going to go somewhere else and convince people that they’re wrong and you are right about matters of religion. Matters of politics are another matter, but religion, obviously we can’t do that. And it is also true around the world where country after country now is closed to traditional missionary work. And so many of the countries that are largest and have the most number of unreached people groups are also places that either restrict or forbid traditional missionary access.

But not only is it unpopular, not only do people challenge us on having even the right to do it, but I also think that there is a lot of fuzziness in our churches about what missions means. One of the interesting experiences of living overseas for over two decades and then moving back to the States is to discover that things have changed and some of the things that have changed have changed inside our churches.

So, it was a bit of a shock to me to discover that some who would call themselves missional weren’t actually all that supportive of missions as I understood it. And that there are many who would define mission simply as anything that churches and/or believers do outside the walls of the church.

So, it’s urgent that we answer two questions. It’s urgent that we define for ourselves what our mission in the world is — that’s number one. And, number two, it’s urgent for us to answer the question: What gives us the right to do it? I believe that Matthew 28:16–20 answers both of those questions.

Now, Matthew 28, keep in mind is not simply an isolated proof text. When I was preparing this message, I didn’t realize I was going to be speaking immediately after a panel on biblical theology of mission, but I couldn’t have been set up better to present this message because one of my main contentions is that as you understand the flow of Scripture, the Great Commission at the end of Jesus earthly ministry makes all the sense in the world. It is in fact exactly where the biblical message has been going.

It fits into the flow of the grand narrative of Scripture. It’s not only a consistent part of God’s universal sovereignty and care over his creation, but it’s also a consistent part of God’s redemptive heart for all nations and all peoples. But still, it comes at a critical moment in redemptive history. It summarizes Jesus’s marching orders for his people and it answers our questions in a way that draws together biblical teaching and we’re going to consider them in reverse order.

Number two, first, what gives us the right to do it? And number one, what is the mission of the church anyway?

The Authority Behind Missions

So you’re aware of the setting. This comes after three years of teaching by Jesus, one week of intensity in Jerusalem that climaxed in the crucifixion of Jesus and his subsequent resurrection from the dead. This is one of the great turning points, if not the great turning point in human history. Now Jesus is preparing to ascend into heaven and he is giving his final instructions to his followers. He’s giving them the mission that he has for them.

So how does he start? He starts with the statement, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). This is not a throwaway statement by any means. What this tells us is that the authority for our mission lies in nothing less than the sovereign lordship of Jesus Christ.

Now, the anticipation of the Old Testament was that the rule of God would break into human history, and we usually translate it as the kingdom of God, but the emphasis is not on geography. The emphasis is on the sovereignty of God over the world that he has created. And, in fact, one of the great themes of Jesus’s preaching — clearly reflected in Matthew’s gospel — is that the kingdom of God is the rule of God upon you; that it has arrived in Jesus’s own person.

What Jesus is saying now after his crucifixion and his resurrection, when he says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” he’s saying, “I’ve been talking about the kingdom of heaven. I’m the King.” He’s making it very clear that the rule of God has come in him and he is in fact sovereign Lord of all.

Now, most of us by no means all of us in this room, but most of us are Americans and we tend to have a very ceremonial understanding of monarchy. I think a lot of that is because we’re still obsessed with the monarchy that we rebelled against two and a half centuries ago. And in fact, I think actually in some ways Queen Elizabeth is more popular in the United States than she is in some of the places where she’s actually queen. And we see that and we think it’s really great. And what makes it especially great is that you get all of the pomp and circumstance and ceremony and pageantry with none of the authority that goes with it.

Now, remember that that’s not the model of kingship that anybody in the New Testament or anybody in the Bible had in mind. And so our general resistance to authority, our loving the old Revolutionary War flag that showed the snake and the motto “Don’t tread on me,” is not the kind of attitude that is appropriate when facing the lordship of Jesus.

When Jesus said that, “All authority is mine,” what he meant is that he is King of kings and Lord of lords, that he is in fact in full authority and has full power over everyone and everything. That means that he has authority over hostile governments. He has authority over non-Christian religions.

Authority Is a Two-Edged Sword

In the Bible, there was a popular notion in biblical cultures that still exist today that gods were sort of territorial, kind of like a police department. A police department has this jurisdiction and a cop can chase you up to his town line and then has to stop. You cross the line, then they run out of jurisdiction. And so much of the thought around the world has always been that gods had their territories. You just need to know whose territory you were on and give the appropriate respect to the appropriate god. That’s what laid behind a lot even of the activities of the Assyrian kings in bringing pagans into northern Israel and then bringing some people back to teach them how to respect the god of that territory.

But the consistent picture of Scripture is that there’s only one God and he owns it all. And that God has no jurisdictional boundaries. There are no places that he is not Lord over. There are no peoples that he is Lord over. And even today I have heard many people say, “Well, I’m really attracted to Christianity but I am a Central Asian or a Middle Easterner, therefore I have to be a Muslim.” That you are what you were born into or from where you were born.

But the reality is that all authority in heaven and on earth is given to Jesus, which means he is Lord of all, including every people group. He even has authority over an intolerant culture like ours so that the disdain of our culture is in fact irrelevant to us because we are appealing to a higher authority. So that means then that if another country says you can’t come here to preach the gospel, that that statement is trumped by a higher authority, that our God has the right to overrule human governments.

And so just as when I was in the military, if say a captain gave me one order and a general gave me another and they contradicted each other, it didn’t matter what the captain said, what mattered was what the general said because he outranked the captain. And in the same way, God outranks human governments.

So, we are commanded to obey civil authorities right up to the point where obeying them means disobedience to God. But I feel a totally clear conscience in going and sharing the gospel in countries that legally forbid it because God has commanded us to do so and all authority in heaven and on earth is given to Jesus. He has the right to send us so we have the right to go whatever our own culture may say and whatever any hostile government may say.

But the authority of Jesus is a two-edged sword because authority over the nations also means authority over us. And so just as he has the authority to send me, he has the authority to send me. Remember that we are soldiers, not civilians. He has the authority to send us away from our home and our family and our friends. He has the authority to send us away from comfort and convenience. He has the authority to send us into disease and danger if he so chooses and he has the authority to send me to my death if he so chooses.

One of the things that has astonished me when I have talked with people about some of the specific places that I have lived in, and usually one of the first reactions I get to mentioning the places which I will not mention here is, “But isn’t it dangerous there?” And people essentially putting safety as the boundary around their obedience to Jesus.

And it’s kind of like this. Imagine saying, “I am totally willing to sign up to serve in the army as long as you can guarantee no one will ever shoot at me.” You laugh. It’s absurd. It’s a ridiculous idea. And yet somehow in many of our churches, we would affirm our young people signing up for the military to defend our country and yet we’re appalled at the thought of our young people going to places where they might be in danger for the sake of the gospel.

It was stated during the panel, and I simply want to reiterate it. Actually, suffering is a major theme of the New Testament and Jesus has the authority to send me into suffering. And if I value things the way the gospel values them, then I will regard the gospel as more important than my life. I will even value it as more important than the safety of my family because one difference between us and military personnel is that we take our wives and kids with us when we go into those places, but God has the authority to do that.

The Great Commission is not an option or suggestion. It’s a royal command from the King of kings and Lord of lords. It’s a royal command from the one who owns us and it’s directly connected with the inbreaking kingdom of God. All authority and heaven on earth has been given to him. Therefore, this is what we’re supposed to do. Because the King has come, this is how we are to respond.

That gives us an incontestable right to fulfill the Great Commission, whatever other governments may say and whatever our own culture may think. And it also gives us a non-negotiable obligation to fulfill the Great Commission. The whole thing rests on the sovereign lordship of Jesus Christ who is Lord of the nations and owner of my life. So that’s why we can do it. That’s why we have the right to do it because he is Lord.

Defining the Mission

But what is it? What is the basic task of missions? Again, I have seen a lot of discussion and even debate over what is the mission of the church. Everything from Steven Neill saying, “If everything is mission, then nothing is mission,” to Chris Wright saying, “If everything is mission, then everything is mission.” And many points in between, some people regarding everything that is anywhere commanded in Scripture as being part of our mission. I think that’s misunderstanding the word mission and misunderstanding what we’re to do.

In this particular text, at least, it’s very clear what we are being commanded to do. There is one imperative in this passage and that imperative is to make disciples. We are to make disciples.

Defining Disciple

The problem then is, what’s a disciple? The closest analogy that we have is a student. And we often tend to think in those terms. And, in fact, many of our understandings, even of discipleship, have followed a largely cognitive model, in which a disciple is someone who learns mentally certain things.

I teach in seminary and I often find myself teaching lecture classes in large auditoriums and you can get about seventy to eighty people in the room. I know the people who sit right in front and they’re the only ones I know. There’s some people I think intentionally sit in the very back, up top, where I will never recognize them. I will not notice they’re falling asleep. I’ll not notice that they’re actually on Facebook when they’re sitting in my class.

What we do is an information exchange. I lecture, they read some books, they write some papers, they take some tests, they forget everything that they’ve heard from me. And that’s just sort of the way it goes. There is very little interpersonal interaction. And while it is true that some people can go through a seminary class and have their lives changed by it, it is also true that it’s possible to go through such a class and not have your life changed by it in the slightest.

I can honestly say, for example, this is not seminary but college, that my last semester of calculus in college has had no ongoing impact on my life at all. I have never integrated a Taylor series in my life since finishing that class and don’t even remember what that means anymore, actually. That’s not the model of education that was going on here and that’s not the meaning of the word disciple.

And so the typical pattern is exactly what you see with Jesus, but you saw it with other teachers as well. You would have a teacher who would speak to crowds, give sort of an overarching series of messages, sometimes itinerant as Jesus was, and so probably teaching much the same thing in each place. But then they would have a smaller group of disciples, of students who would go with them and the students were with them all the time.

They traveled with them, they lived with them, they ate and slept with them. They were constantly there, which means among other things, they heard the teacher teach much the same material over and over again so that they were in fact able to reproduce it verbatim pretty easily, which is one of the reasons for our strong confidence in the conversations of Jesus, even if it were purely a human matter quite apart from the work of the Holy Spirit.

But then also they had a chance to ask follow-up questions, have further discussions, dig deeper into matters. They also had the opportunity to observe the teacher and model their lives after the teacher’s lives. So they were expected not just to know the information but to be changed in the way they were. They were expected to become more and more like the teacher, so that it was said that you knew whose student someone was simply by their mannerisms and figures of speech. The teacher rubbed off on them that much, and you could actually see the teacher reflected in the student. So, the student came to reflect and represent the teacher.

Well, what were we created in?” We were created in the image of God. We marred that image through our sin, but Jesus came as the image of the living God because he was God himself in human flesh. And he is now working in those who trust in him to recreate us into the image of God. “Those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29).

And so a disciple of Jesus is someone who indeed knows the teaching of Jesus, knows it well, but also is a person who has internalized that teaching to the point that they are coming to remind others more and more of Jesus. They are having the image of God renewed and restored within them. That’s what a disciple is. A disciple is a learner and follower who embraced both the content of the teacher’s message and the character of the teacher that they were following, and that’s what we are commanded to make among all of the nations.

Evangelism and Discipleship

So, the Great Commission is in fact fundamentally about evangelism, but it doesn’t stop there. See, we’re to make disciples. I actually got an email once from someone after an article I’ve written who said, “You talk a lot about discipleship. That’s really dangerous. I’ve been in churches that are all about discipleship and they never share the gospel with anybody.” Well, my response would be in that case, they’re really doing a lousy job of discipleship.

You aren’t making new disciples if you aren’t sharing the gospel and those disciples aren’t being obedient to everything Jesus commanded, but it starts with evangelism, but it doesn’t stop there. It is a lifelong process that goes to the very core of every part of who we are. It’s evangelism done with discipleship and not just conversion in mind, and it’s evangelism Jesus specifically says that results in obedience to everything that Jesus has commanded, which transforms in every area of life. It’s evangelism that results in lifelong following and learning.

Baptism and Discipleship

Now, there’s two things that modify our understanding of what it means to disciple people and those are baptizing and teaching obedience.

So the process of discipleship begins with baptism, which in the New Testament in many ways is a shorthand for conversion. Baptism is in fact a picture of the radical change that occurs when one comes in repentance and faith to the Lord Jesus Christ. It is a picture of death and resurrection. When we baptize someone, we are in effect holding a funeral for the old person.

And so baptism is a mark of the nature of discipleship. It is a mark of the radicalness of it that being a disciple of Jesus means that you have died to all that you were and you are now alive only in Christ and he now is your life. And then the ongoing process is one of teaching, teaching obedience to all that he commanded.

Now, I have colleagues who like to talk about obedience-based discipleship. It’s language that makes me a little nervous. I understand exactly what they’re up to. And the reason why they like to talk about obedience-based discipleship is because of the language of this verse and because of the observation that discipleship too often has become a purely cognitive exercise without going into other parts of life.

And I can remember when discipleship first became a buzzword in churches when I was in fact a teenager. Often what that meant was, “Well, you do this study book and you do this study book and you have now been discipled.” And of course, it goes far deeper than that, but it’s never less than knowledge and we never want to pit knowledge and obedience against one another.

There is a content to the teaching of Christ. You cannot obey everything Jesus commanded if you do not know everything that Jesus commanded. And given the fact that Jesus endorsed the entire Old Testament and the New Testament is the apostolic testimony to Jesus, then that means essentially the whole of the Bible is the content of our discipleship.

But it’s a content then that sinks into every area of character and competence. There’s a content element, a character element, a comprehensive element that ends up including all of Scripture. And so yes, we want obedience in our discipleship, but we want our discipleship itself to be gospel- and grace-based, not based on our obedience, but based on the gospel flowing into a comprehensive life of being transformed into the image of Jesus. So that’s what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to make disciples. That’s the heart of the mission of the church.

Yes, there are other things that we as believers need to be doing. We need to be obedient to everything that Jesus commanded. So disciples do lots of other things, but they have to become disciples first. And this basic task of making disciples then comprehends everything else a Christian does.

And so, my experience in working overseas — literally for decades — has been that those who come to make disciples, if they are also committed to being disciples, end up doing a lot that relieves human needs, that fights for justice, and that demonstrates the character of Jesus. But they do it in the context of making more and more disciples who do those things. Those who come for the purpose of doing anything other than making disciples almost invariably never get around to doing so. They don’t make more disciples. And so, it ends with them, and they may have met temporal needs, but they have not met eternal needs.

And if we take the gospel seriously, if we believe that there is no other hope for anyone, if we believe that all people are justly under condemnation from a holy God and that the only means of escape from the judgment of God is to trust in Jesus, then we are literally being cruel and heartless people if we feed them and clothe them and shelter them and educate them and let them go to hell without ever knowing about Christ. So that’s what we’re supposed to do.

Teaching and Discipleship

Well, how do we do that? How do we make disciples? I’ve already said one thing we have to do is to share the gospel. There is no possibility of salvation without words expressing the gospel to which people respond. We are very much a word-based faith and apart from words, our actions are uninterpreted and unhelpful.

That means we need the Word of God itself, which is why part of the mission of the church has to include Bible translation and Bible distribution. In the part of the world where I worked in Central Asia, we had over four hundred languages. And when I got there, we had the whole Bible in three of them. We now have the whole Bible I think in six of them. And that’s it. It’s really hard to do evangelism and discipleship without the Bible. And so we often found ourselves translating stuff on the fly. We need the Scriptures.

We also, with the Word of God, need the Spirit of God and he is promised specifically for mission and for proclamation. The Spirit of God is not given to us simply for our own enjoyment. Over and over again when you read about the giving of the Holy Spirit, it is the power for proclamation of the good news of Jesus. We need workers. And a simple definition of a missionary is a disciple of Jesus who makes disciples for Jesus where Jesus is not yet known.

And then we need churches because if we’re to make disciples, we can’t do it apart from the church. As I read through the New Testament, what I discover in numerous places, but especially in 1 Corinthians 12–14, and in the book of Ephesians, particularly chapter four, is that maturity as a disciple comes in the context of the body of Christ. And so one-on-one discipleship is a useful thing, but apart from the church, it is an incomplete thing. The normal natural home of a follower of Jesus is in a local church.

And so as we look at the example of the apostles in the book of Acts and see how they understood their commission, what do we see them doing? We see them sharing the gospel and starting churches and the two are inseparable. Where the gospel is shared and there is no church, a church emerges. That’s the automatic thing because the church is an essential component of our mission work.

So what’s the command? The command is to make disciples. What does that mean? Sharing the gospel, baptizing new believers, training them to know Scripture and obey Scripture, to become more and more like Jesus, to do so with the Word of God and the Spirit of God and the people of God as the only essential resources that we need. Doing it in the context of planting churches where churches do not yet exist. That’s the task.

The Scope of the Mission

Where do we do it? What’s the scope of the mission? Jesus doesn’t leave us in any uncertainty there either. We are to make disciples of all peoples.

I think most of you probably are aware of the fact that “peoples” or “nations” does not mean political nations like the US or Canada or Great Britain. It has to do with people groups. And I hope you also know that people groups are one of the major themes of the Bible. That even as God diversified the peoples of the earth at Babel as an act of judgment, God used that act of judgment as the framework then in which he would carry out his redemptive mission.

And so in Genesis 22:18, speaking to Abraham, he said, “In your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” And that’s just one example of a promise that begins with Genesis 12. It’s repeated to Isaac, it’s repeated to Jacob. Over and over again that his blessing of one individual is not to remain with that individual, but is to culminate in blessing to the ends of the earth and to all the peoples of the earth. So we see it in the Law.

We see it in the Prophets. Isaiah 49:6, speaking of the servant of the Lord, God says to him,

It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
     to raise up the tribes of Jacob
     and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
     that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.

And then in the Writings, Psalm 67:1–3,

May God be gracious to us and bless us
     and make his face to shine upon us,
that your way may be known on earth,
     your saving power among all nations.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
     let all the peoples praise you!

So, it’s no surprise then that Jesus, when he wraps up his understanding of the Old Testament in the passage we heard during the panel from Luke in which Jesus is describing to his disciples what he has done, what he now expects them to do, he says these words:

“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms [each of the major parts of the Hebrew canon] must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:44–47)

And so Jesus is just as certain that the mission he is sending them on to all nations is what is written in the Scriptures as he is that the Scriptures write about his own death and resurrection. That to hold on to the one means you necessarily embrace the other. In Jesus’s mind, they’re inseparable. To enjoy the benefits of the atoning work of Christ means to inherit the obligation of the mission of Christ. The two cannot be separated and that obligation extends to the nations, the peoples of the earth.

Now, one of the things to keep in mind is that this word nations, it’s also often translated as Gentiles. And so to refer back to a theme we heard a great deal about yesterday, the people he’s sending them to are those people. The wrong people, the people we don’t like, the people we’re afraid of, the people we’re prejudiced against are specifically the ones that Jesus is sending them to. It’s the Gentiles who are to receive the gospel and embraced within the fellowship of the body of Christ. And so we may not hear the word with those overtones, but I guarantee you his followers did. It’s those people that now are within the scope of the redemptive purposes of God.

And of course, we see in the book of Revelation that that purpose of God will be thoroughly fulfilled. Revelation 5:9 tells us the very purpose of the atonement was a people for God who come from every nation on earth.

And they sang a new song, saying,

“Worthy are you to take the scroll
     and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
     from every tribe and language and people and nation.

And then two chapters on in Revelation 7:9, we’re told that’s exactly what’s going to happen as there is a multitude before the throne “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Revelation 7:9–10).

The scope of the mission is to all of the peoples, all of the nations, all of the tribes, all of the languages, let’s use as many terms as we can to make sure we leave nobody out, of the earth. That’s the intention of God and that’s what will be fulfilled in the end. That was who Jesus purchased with his blood.

And so as one who believes in definite atonement — that means that I am committed to — I have been saved by the atoning work of Jesus that necessarily includes all the tribes and languages and peoples on earth. My salvation cannot be separated from theirs, which also means that I have confidence to go to all of them because I don’t believe that Jesus failed in what he did when he died on the cross. And so I believe any nation, any people I can go to, there are blood-bought people there who will respond to the gospel.

The Promise of Presence

Well, that’s kind of a scary proposition then. So what we’re to do is to make disciples. What we’re to do is to make disciples of all the peoples on earth.

Think for a moment how the eleven felt when they heard this. Okay, now they are eleven fairly lower-class Jewish guys in Roman-occupied Israel, who have just been told by their teacher, who by the way, was killed by the authorities a few days ago, that they’re to go make disciples of every people group on earth.

Understandably knowing who they were, knowing their context, thinking about the resources at their disposal, that is from a human point of view, none, that’d be kind of intimidating. But he gave them something better because the provision that he gave them is his own enduring presence. It’s in this context that he said, “I’m with you to the ends of the age, to the ends of the earth.” And I think we claim that for ourselves in whatever setting we happen to be in. And perhaps, by extension, there is a legitimacy to that, but the context here is the context of mission.

Jesus promised his presence as power for the mission that he gave his people. And it’s another pervasive theme of the Bible. This is how God regularly answers our recognition of our own inadequacy from beginning to end of Scripture. When God told Moses to go to the most powerful nation on earth at the time and free a bunch of slaves, and Moses said, “Right, who am I?” God answered the “who am I” question by not answering “who am I?” He answered who he was. His answer to them is, “I will be with you.” That’s all you need to know.

The very name of Jesus in Matthew 1 is Immanuel, God with us. Here in the Great Commission, we are told that he will be with us to the end of the age. And what’s our destiny in the new Jerusalem? It’s the dwelling place of God is with men and we will be with him forever.

Ultimately, useful as they might be, the mission of God does not need our political advantages or military might. It does not need our money, our technology, or our resources. It doesn’t even need our talent or our ability. And so even as the church slips into a non-privileged position in the world, that just puts us more in line with the way the church has been for most of history and certainly the way it’s been in some of its most effective times. What Jesus promises is himself and he fulfilled that promise in the sending of his Holy Spirit, and that’s enough. He promised us himself. That’s all we need.

Applications for Today

So what do we do with this? Here’s the Great Commission. The authority for it is the sovereign Lordship of Jesus. The basic task is to make disciples. The scope is all nations. The provision is the presence of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. What do we do with that? Well, there’s one more verb in there that I didn’t mention. It’s the verb go.

Now, it’s related to the command to make disciples exactly the same way as baptizing and teaching is. And like them, it carries the force of the imperative. Now I have known those who have sought to translate it “as you’re going,” as though the Great Commission were “as you go about your life, as you would otherwise, why don’t you do this?”

The only problem with that translation is it makes absolutely no sense of the context because as you are going, you will not get to all nations. It’s just not going to happen. And we have no problem translating baptized and teach as imperatives. Well, so is go. It’s an imperative. We are to be intentional, deliberate about going to the nations and taking the good news of Jesus with us.

So pastor, what should you do? How do you apply this in the context of your church? Well, the first thing I would encourage you to do in light of the teaching of the Great Commission, a teaching, which again is repeated over and over again. You will notice that the Great Commission is given in a variety of forms in the Gospels and Acts, which to me says very clearly that he said it over and over again.

It’s not that the different Gospel writers heard it differently. It’s that he must have said it numerous times right up to the moment he ascended into heaven in Acts 1. He obviously thought this was pretty important, and in each case, the command is for us to be witnesses for us to go and proclaim, for us to make disciples, and to do so to the ends of the earth. So what should we do?

1. Weave Missions into the Life of Your Church

The first thing I would encourage you is don’t make missions just one more thing on your church’s agenda. Don’t make it a one-time-a-year thing. Weave it into the life of your church.

One of the things I noticed when I was in seminary as a student, I was the chairman of the Student Missions Committee and suddenly became one of the most avoided people on campus. It’s like, “Don’t hang out with him you, you’ll end up in Djibouti,” or something like that. But what I realized is that many pastors, in fact, just want to keep missions in a corner. They want to make it one little thing out of all the many things we do as though taking the gospel to the ends of the earth and having a good graded choir program are about the same in value at the same spiritual significance. I say that as I was a good Southern Baptist boy. I grew up in graded choir programs in RAs and GRAs and all those things, but it’s not. They’re not of equal value.

So, I would encourage you in your teaching and preaching, whenever you find it there in the text, which will be often because it’s there a lot, preach on it. In your church’s prayer life, make missions a central component of your prayer life every time you meet as a church. Which means on Sunday mornings, pray for the nations and pray for missionaries. In any of your small groups, pray for missionaries and pray for the nations.

Make it a central part of what you pray about. And I would even go so far as to say, make it a central part of your church’s use of its resources. We spend as evangelicals scandalously little on taking the gospel to those who have never heard it and scandalously much on ourselves. Let’s make sure that our budgets reflect the agenda of God in taking the gospel to the ends of the earth. So number one, weave it into the life of your church.

2. Deliberately Raise, Train, and Send Missionaries

What typically happens is we’re reactive. Someone goes to a conference, hears a missions message, comes back and says, “Pastor, I feel called to mission.” We go, “Oh, that’s great. Go to seminary.” That’s sort of like the best solution we can come up with, which is not a bad one. Okay, I’m a seminary prof, but it’s not like we’re intentionally seeking for that to happen.

As a matter of fact, if we start intentionally seeking for that to happen, there’s some moms and grandmoms who are not going to be real happy with us. But we need to cultivate a climate in our churches where sending is valued and celebrated even by parents and grandparents. We need to create that atmosphere where we are excited when God raises up one of our own to go to the nations. And in fact, we need to start seeking people out and graciously knocking some people on the side of the head and saying, “We see these gifts in you. We proactively think you need to start preparing to take the gospel to those who have never heard it.” And then when they do come to that point, we know what to do with them to help prepare them.

One of the things we’ve realized in missionary preparation, which I’m responsible for at the IMB, is that basically all what we’re talking about is discipleship. That missionary preparation is actually simply discipleship. It’s discipleship with the view toward making disciples cross-culturally. But the fundamental qualifications for being a missionary are to be a disciple of Jesus who makes disciples for Jesus and who is prepared to do that across cultural lines in places where Jesus is not yet known. Which means that anyone in your church should be prepared and qualified to go overseas to be a missionary because they’re already growing healthy disciples who already have the character of Jesus being formed in them in an intentional and deliberate way by the church.

So basically, if you’ve got good discipleship in the life of your church, you’re already most of the way there. Then what you need to do is just start adding some of the cross-cultural components to it, but have a way to prepare, to nurture, to encourage, to vet, and then effectively to send missionaries from your church and to do it with intentionality and even a certain amount of aggressiveness because that’s what you ought to be. You ought to be a missionary sending force. So number one, weave it into the life of your church. Number two, deliberately raise up, train, and send missionaries.

3. Attend to the Internationals in Your Community

Now, I wrote these notes before knowing what was going to be said last night, but I have to tell you, coming back to the States after being gone for a few decades, one of the things that has grieved me the most deeply, I mean cut me and my family to the heart has been the bigotry we have seen specifically toward Muslims. People we love and yearn to see saved. We have seen how internationals can come to this country and never receive hospitality from a believer.

One of the things I require my students to do when they take an intro class to missions is to do ethnographic surveys and then share the gospel with someone who came to this country after their sixteenth birthday and is at least nominally a Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim or Chinese traditional religions’ practitioner.

And I always get students who say, “Where am I going to find them?” This is in Louisville, Kentucky where there are over one hundred languages spoken in the local school system, a city with over a dozen mosques, two Buddhist temples, a Hindu temple with populations from Bosnia and Somalia and Southeast Asia, and literally all over the place, but we have this ability to drive right by them and not notice them. We need to stop that.

We need to make sure whatever you may think politically about whether they should come here, when they’re here, they’re your responsibility. God is sovereign in the movement of peoples. And if he has put people in your city, you have a gospel obligation to them. You have an obligation to love them, and you have an obligation to love them over and through your fears.

Don’t be afraid of them. Love them. Help your people to get beyond politics and beyond fear to a sense that this, “I am participating in the sovereign purposes of God who has brought to me people it’s hard to get missionaries to, and we take the gospel to them.” So that is both worthwhile, valuable, worthy, effective ministry where you are. And it’s also great preparation for those who are going to go and be missionaries.

4. Continually Ask Yourself as Pastor, ‘Why Not Me?’

Remember I said I was an avoided man in seminary? I think that a lot of pastors don’t talk more about missions because they’re afraid if they get too close to it, they’ll get called themselves. And I am quite certain that if you aren’t at peace with that question that you are unlikely to preach on it with boldness and conviction.

And I think you need to model for your people what they need to be doing as well, which is for all of us to constantly be saying, “I’m available. I am at your disposal. I am a soldier in the army of my Master. You own my life and at any moment you say, ‘Go,’ I go.” I think we have to have that position. I think as you have that position as pastor, that will start rubbing off on your people as well as they see that heart in you.

And by the way, if you ask the question, you may end up somewhere else. I hope so. I would pray that out of this room, there are many people who will find themselves to their joyous surprise, somewhere that makes your mom really nervous for the sake of the gospel.

5. Prioritize the Unreached

And then finally, I would urge you this, as you look at missions for yourself, for your church, please prioritize the unreached. There’s a lot of good work that can be done around the world, but I see in Scripture this clear, clear emphasis on unreached people groups.

And I also have such deep convictions about the exclusivity of the gospel and the necessity of gospel proclamation that we have got to get the gospel to those who right now have no access to it. There’s a lot of need. There are lots of good things you can do, but place your emphasis on those who have never heard and never will hear unless something changes, unless someone goes.

Now, there are numerous good mission agencies that can be of assistance to you, but I don’t see in the Bible the Great Commission being given to mission agencies. I see it given to Christians and specifically being given to churches. And I’m convinced that the local church has the responsibility for the global proclamation of the gospel.

It is the local church that shares the gospel where it is, which is why Paul could plant churches and move on. It is the local church that disciples those new believers and trains them and prepares them for whatever service God has called them to. Because every believer is called to service without exception. It is the local church, then, that sends and supports missionaries. Mission agencies exist as tools for you to use to fulfill your responsibility, to take the gospel to those who have never heard. So, take that responsibility seriously.

Remember, you have nothing less than the authority of Jesus himself behind this. Authority over the nations, but also authority over you. That the command is to make disciples. The scope is all the peoples on earth. The provision is nothing less than the presence of Jesus himself. And the command is to go. The command is to go. The need is clear. And so the question shouldn’t be, should we be involved in missions? The only biblical question you can ask is, how are we to be involved in bringing the gospel to those who’ve never heard it?

serves as Associate Professor of Christian Missions at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Vice President for Global Training at the International Mission Board. He lived and worked in Central Asia for twenty years.