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Reinterpreting the Great Commission — Part Two

This is part 2 of the 2-part series, “Reinterpreting the Great Commission” by Jonathan Dodson

Gospel of Luke: Resurrection Stories
Luke’s commission also emphasizes preaching the gospel: “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:47-48). In particular, we are called to preach “repentance and forgiveness of sins.” A social gospel will not suffice. Christ calls us to repent — to turn our heart allegiances away from all things other, and to receive forgiveness for betraying our Creator. But a forgiven and repentant person is not idle; they are compelled to witness — to tell the story of their transformation.

Where Matthew and Mark respectively emphasize distinctive discipleship and preaching a worldly gospel, Luke calls us to witness — to tell our distinct gospel stories. No two stories are alike, but all share the same Savior. What does it mean to be “witnesses of all these things”? Well, at the very least it means sharing Jesus’ self-sacrificing offer of forgiveness, but that is just one thing. What of the other things?

We are to tell of Jesus’ death, but we are also to tell of his resurrection.
Consider the context of Luke’s commission. The eleven disciples were discussing the reliability of Jesus sightings, when suddenly Christ appeared in the room. Thinking he was a ghost, they were filled with fright. Jesus responded: “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (24:39). To make his point, Jesus proved he had a body by eating some fish and chips. In flesh and bone, Jesus charges his follower to be witnesses of his resurrection.

The problem with many of our stories is that they contain all spirit and very little flesh. We communicate our mystical encounters with God, our mountain top experiences with Jesus, and our superhuman victories over sin. Many people see right through our spiritual stories, precisely because our witness is too good to be true. We fail to mention our bad, unless it is in the past, failing further to witness of resurrection, in the present. People want to touch redemption, which means they need to see resurrection power in our personal struggles.

Jesus’ body was resurrected as an expression of God’s commitment to creation (1 Cor. 15). God does not jettison the body for the soul. His gospel of redemption is for the whole world, beginning with enfleshed people. His resurrection is a bright reminder of new creation in the midst of bleak darkness, of tangible transformation in gross dilapidation. The stories we tell should boast of Jesus’ death and resurrection, of his forgiveness of sin and of his restoration of sinners — reconciled families and marriages, restored and housed homeless, renewed life among AIDS orphans, and so on.

According to the Gospel of Luke, we are to be witnesses of death and resurrection, to live and recount the stories of a resurrected, fleshly Jesus who lives in the midst of broken humanity offering healing and hope.

Gospel of John: Humble and Cultural Accommodation
John’s commission is short and sweet: “As the Father sent me, I am also sending you” (John 20:21). Whereas the previous gospel writers emphasized Jesus’ command to make distinctive disciples, preach a worldly gospel, and witness a fleshly Jesus, John stresses Jesus sending his disciples. As the text continues, Jesus makes plain that the disciples are sent as a forgiving community, offering the grace they have received from him to others.

According to John Piper, we are either goers, senders, or disobedient, but according to Jesus we are all the sent. Missionary activity is not the exclusive task of people who sell all their possessions and move overseas. All followers of Jesus are called to live as missionaries in their culture. If we are all sent into our cultures as distinctive disciples to share a worldly gospel about a fleshly Christ, how then are we to live as the sent? Jesus said, “As the Father sent me, I am also sending you.” Our paradigm for living a sent life, a missionary life, is the sending of the Son by the Father.

When the Father sent the Son, Jesus left the glory of his trinitarian abode and became a helpless infant in the care of humans he created. This required an accommodating humility. Jesus grew up and became a first century, toga-wearing, sandal-sporting, temple-frequenting Jew. He accommodated first century Jewish culture (also known as contextualization). So, within reason we should take on the trappings of our culture in order to contextually relate the gospel. This can entail wearing broken-in jeans, togas, hand-made sandals or a suit and tie.

However, our accommodation is not purely cultural; it is missional. It leads us to immerse ourselves into the humanity of our neighborhoods and cities in order relate the gospel to people and their needs. Being a local missionary requires more than relevant attire; it demands humility of heart to listen to the stories of others, to empathize with their frustration, suffering, and brokenness and to redemptively retell their stories through the gospel. To be sent by God is to follow the example of the incarnation, to redemptively engage others with a humble heart and cultural accommodation.

In John’s commission, the paradigm of accommodating humility is accompanied by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is not too holy for distinctive discipleship. After sending his disciples, Jesus breathed on them and they received the Holy Spirit (John 20:22). The power of missional living does not spring from cultural savvy or social sensitivity; it requires the otherworldly, utterly personal power of the Holy Spirit. Only the Spirit of God can make men new.

According to the Gospel of John, we have been sent as missionaries to humbly demonstrate and culturally accommodate the gospel of Christ through the power of the Spirit. In being sent, we do not abandon the cultural commission, but instead, unite it with our redemptive mission.

The Gospel of Genesis: Creation Mandate
The “good news” of Genesis 1-2 is that God created all things to be enjoyed, managed, cultivated, and recreated by humanity. The gospel of Genesis 3 is that, though Adam rejected God, God did not reject Adam. Still possessing the creation mandate, Adam was expelled from Eden, but clothed with the hope of a new creation (Gen 3:15, 21).

The creation mandate charges us to be fruitful and multiply, to rule and subdue the earth. This fruitful multiplication continues both physically and spiritually through the reproducing ministry of missional disciples, who increase in number and good works (Acts 6:7; Col. 1:6, 10). These good works include ruling and subduing creation through the careful, creative arrangement of the elements of the earth into art, technology, infrastructure etc. for the flourishing of humanity. The basis for our cultural activity is found in Genesis.

Retaining the cultural impulse of Genesis, the Gospels call us to a missional discipleship that entails creation care, cultural engagement, social action, and gospel proclamation. Missional disciples will not content themselves by preaching a culturally irrelevant, creation indifferent, resurrection neglecting message. Instead, they redemptively engage peoples and cultures through Christ for the renewal of his creation.

By digging deeper into the great commissions, we have unearthed a wealth of cultural and theological insight. This rereading of familiar evangelistic texts has demonstrated that God in Christ has called us not to mere soul-winning, but to distinctive discipleship, to heralding a worldly gospel of a fleshly Christ who humbly accommodates human culture and understands the human condition. These commissions call us to missional discipleship — to redemptive engagement with all peoples and cultures.

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NOTES

  1. It is certainly possible that there are more commissions. In fact, the Abrahamic covenant in Gen 12:1-3 contains a programmatic mandate for all of Scripture: Go and God will make you a blessing to the nations, which is progressively manifested in making a new people of God, comprised of Jews and Gentiles.
  2. It too is variously repeated in the Old Testament, upwards of 20 times, e.g. Gen. 9:1,7; 17:2-6; 26:3; 28:3; Ex. 1:7; Ezek. 36:11; Jer. 23:3.
  3. Andrew Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1996), 51. The original Greek reading of Matt. 28:18 is literally “disciple all ethne” or “make disciples all nations” and does not contain a preposition. However, the grammatical construction of the phrase leads to an “of” reading, not a “from” or “in” reading.
  4. It is widely recognized that this verse and the latter portion of Mark’s gospel (16:9-20) is absent from many Marcan manuscripts. However, we can not be certain that the ending is missing from the original text. If it was absent, our point concerning the “worldly gospel” of Mark still stands in that Mark repeatedly depicts Jesus as the Restorer of creation: driving out demons, healing the sick, resurrecting the dead, calming the sea.