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The Great Commission: Mission and Promise

The world is going to hell in a hand basket. The church isn’t doing her job and it’s only a matter of time before she’s altogether vanquished by the democrats, the Muslims, or perhaps even Fox News. That’s what many Christians will tell you if you ask them how humanity and the church are doing. Things are going from bad to worse quicker than you can say “Satan is alive and well on planet earth.”

Much of this comes from a low view of man’s moral condition, which is a good sort of view to have. We shouldn’t expect man to solve his own problems anymore than we should expect pigs to suddenly realize their repulsive reputation, bathe themselves, and start drinking tea with their little piggy pinkies extended. Man’s nature is hopelessly sinful. Biblically-oriented Christians recognize that.

Christians who affirm the sinfulness of man will find they are not alone. God agrees wholeheartedly and would like to add some problems that we don’t even know about. As we’ve seen, the problem with the Old Covenant was the people (Hebrews 7:8). God’s Law was good, but the people could not keep it, nor could they see how it pointed them to Christ. The nation of Israel was to be a nation ruled by God’s Law, a nation so righteous that they attracted the other nations—a city set on a hill (Deuteronomy 6:6–8, Matthew 5:14). Because of their unbelief, they failed and were removed (Romans 11:20).

You see, I agree with even the most pessimistic Christians on what the problem with the world is. It’s man’s sin. Over and over again, God has given His people laws, prophets, and illustrations to teach them how to trust in Christ and grow in obedience, but man’s sin always gets in the way. We all agree on the problem, but how is it to be solved?

If you ask a dispensationalist, he’ll pull out a pocket-sized, illustrated chart that describes a removal of God’s people from the earth, a tribulation of 7 years, a judgment, a resurrection, and a one-thousand year physical reign of Jesus from Jerusalem. Is that the solution? Jesus literally, physically ruling and reigning? Nope. We’re only two thirds through the chart. The depravity merry-go-round has yet one more cycle. At the end of that thousand years, the nations rebel against Jesus and He has to slay them all with supernatural power. After this, finally, evil men are thrown into the lake of fire with Satan and the world is left with only a rather paltry number (compared to the number of the damned) of now perfected Christians who will spend the rest of eternity with God.

What most people don’t understand is that this theology is quite new. No one believed in a rapture until about two-hundred years ago. Most congregants (and even many pastors) who claim to believe in this system can barely explain the chart, let alone argue their case from Scripture. Some will tell you that the only way to be a consistent Calvinist is to be a dispensationalist, but this is wildly anachronistic since Calvin, the reformers, and even the puritans antedated dispensational thought by hundreds of years. Reformed theology has a very different idea of God’s plans for humanity.

The Great Commission

The great commission might be the most ignored and yet proclaimed verse in the Bible. Even the people who make it their “life verse” usually pick only one part of it to shout while muttering the rest. In this manner, it is often hijacked for people’s pet projects, like global missions, local evangelism, discipleship, or believer’s baptism. Within evangelicalism, it is rarely taught holistically, but that’s precisely what we’re going to do here. First, the verse:

And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted. And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.

We should note at the start, that this verse is given in the context of both worship and doubt. Christ gives His command to His worshippers, but He also begins and ends with reassurance for those who doubt. We’ll walk through these statements phrase-by-phrase, starting with Christ’s first reassurance.

Contrary to those who believe that Jesus will not rule over earth until a future millennial kingdom, Jesus states His authority over both heaven and earth. The authority has been given to Him, so it stands to reason that He has it. This means that Satan is not in charge, Jesus is. Caesar was not in charge, Jesus is. The gospel is not calling men to elect Jesus as king of their hearts. The gospel is telling men to bow the knee to a Man who has already been made King.

Moreover, Christ’s kingdom is not merely the hearts of His people, it is the whole earth. There are other kings to be sure, but Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords. He has all authority, even over authorities, which means even kings are not exempt from the command to repent and believe (see Psalm 2).

Because Jesus is King, He commands His disciples to go and teach (or disciple) the nations. The word disciple here does not have in mind merely handing out tracts, street evangelism, Facebook memes, or even sharing the gospel over coffee—although those can be a part of it. The word disciple here is broader and relates to every part of a believer’s life from conversion to death. Discipling means teaching men the gospel, then teaching them to be Christian husbands, fathers, employees, churchmen, and citizens. This is likewise the case for women. “Discipling” teaches faith and obedience in all areas of life.

Next, however, we notice that the command is not simply to disciple individuals, but rather whole nations. You can’t make disciples of nations without making individual disciples, but you also can’t say you’re done once you’ve discipled some individuals. This means that the end goal of the great commission is to have Christian families, teachers, plumbers, photographers, farmers, pastors, and even politicians. They should all be brought into the New Covenant as disciples.

The people who are brought into the New Covenant should be baptized, the sign and seal of the New Covenant (which we’ll talk more about in a future post). We’re not commanded to create nations of people who happen to follow Christ’s commands but are as pagan inside as the day is long. Baptism is a sign of faith and for this thing to work, the nations must be believing nations. Part of discipling means preaching the gospel and baptizing. We can’t leave this out.

Belief is the foundation (and then some), but it’s not where the work ends. The nations must learn to observe all that Christ commanded. Christ’s commands are not limited to the Sermon on the Mount. His commands include all of Scripture from Genesis through Revelation. These Christian nations will need to learn how to obey Jesus. Discipling will mean teaching men and women how to obey Christ in school, while fixing pipes, and when writing and enforcing laws. The nations should be Christian from coast to coast, in their cities, in their farms, and in all the suburbs in between.

In this sense, Christ will have the dominion that Adam failed to take. The first Adam was commanded to subdue the earth and have dominion over it and he was given his bride, Eve, to help him. Adam, of course, failed to follow this command. Jesus has come as the second Adam and this great commission is His means of obeying the first command God ever gave to man—and He’s going to do it with the help of His bride, the Church.

All of this sounds like a tall order, and so it is. God said that it was too small a thing to save just Israel like we might have expected. He wanted to do something bigger, so He has made Christ and His Church a light to the nations (Isaiah 49:6). God likes to show off, so here we are. If all of this sounds like too much for the church to accomplish, then you’re starting to get it. God loves to do more than His people can accomplish. He loves to promise more than we’re ready to believe. You know that’s true if you’ve spent any time whatever studying Scripture.

But should the great commission really taken with the weight I’m giving it? Maybe Jesus is just giving us an idealized picture. Maybe it’s like one of those commands that we can’t keep. You’re forgetting, though, how Jesus bookends this command. He starts off by pointing out that He is in charge of everything in heaven and on earth, then He gives the command, then He promises to be with us even to the end of the age. The King over all creation will be with His church as they strive to fulfill this command—and indeed He has been.

The Old Covenant was not sufficient to bring the nations to God because because the of the weakness and sinfulness of God’s people. God’s solution to this problem is not the Left Behind series, but rather the New Covenant, in which God promises to put His Spirit in His people, give them new hearts, and cause them to walk according to His commands (Jeremiah 31:31ff; Ezekiel 36:26ff).

Man is so depraved that he is hopeless apart from God. Faith and obedience must be a gift. The situation is as dire as it could possibly be, but God Almighty stands in the face of all the bad news and makes promises that seem to us absurd. Nations shall come to Christ’s light, and kings to the brightness of His rising (Isaiah 60:3). Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end (Isaiah 9:7). The God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever (Daniel 2:44). Many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” (Isaiah 2:3)

Much more could be said here, but I believe I’ve communicated the basic idea. Reformed theology has not historically been pessimistic about the future. Read Calvin on the New Heavens and New Earth in Isaiah 65. Read Jonathan Edwards’ History of the Work of Redemption. Most of the Puritans and several of the reformers were postmillennial. Even the ones that weren’t, though, were still optimistic about God’s work in history prior to the resurrection—whether postmillennial, amillennial, or premillennial. They expected opposition, but they expected that Christ would build His church and the gates of hell would not stand against it (Matthew 16:18).

Note that this doesn’t exclude difficulties and opposition. The challenge of evil men will exist right up until the end, but the Church will be triumphant through Christ. There will always be tares in the wheat field, but we do expect that Christ will return to a world that is a wheat field, not a tare field with little bits of harassed wheat strewn about.

The takeaway here is to cheer up and praise God. Our job is much bigger than we expected, but then, so is our God and so are His promises.

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This article was posted on 04/08/2015 . It relates to these topics:
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