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All about People? The Place of the Word in Mission

Speaking to His disciples before ascending into heaven, Jesus said, “‘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” (Matthew 28:19-20, NKJ). [For reflection on the use of these words today, see this article from the [The Not-So Great Commission, part 1; The Not-So Great Commission, part 2].

Interestingly, in the Greek New Testament, the first verb in v19 is a participle, not an imperative (a command), as in many a translation.  In other words, after Jesus says, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18), He immediately follows with an aorist passive participle.  This is suggestive of another word of Jesus, where He says, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you” (John 20:21).

In other words, just as the Father had sent Jesus into the world to speak life and salvation through the forgiveness of sins, so also, in a similar way, Jesus was sending out His disciples (apostles, “sent ones”) to speak the same words of life and salvation through Jesus Christ.

Therefore, in Matthew 28:19ff, Jesus was not telling His disciples to “go” in the sense of command.  Rather, as Jesus’ disciples, as He was sent, so He, Jesus, was sending them.  And being Jesus’ sent ones, “going” is what Jesus’ sent ones do.

The other verbs are significant as well… “(Make) Disciple(s)” Imperative, command … “baptizing” Present participle… “teaching” Present participle… “to observe/keep” Present infinitive… “commanded” Aorist… “I am Present with you”.

Going, the disciples were to “disciple”/”make disciples” by: 1 baptizing “all nations” (not just those of a certain age) and 2teaching, teaching what the Lord Jesus had commanded them.

The emphasis of Jesus’ words to His disciples before He ascended, then, were on the baptizing and teaching.  In this way, Jesus’ disciples/apostles were to be discipling others, the emphasis being on what Jesus said.

Such an emphasis seems to run contrary to current themes in what is today called “mission” or “evangelism.”  For example, at a recent conference, a pastor had said, “We need to know people as much as we know the Gospel” (Italics are the article’s).  He also “encouraged” the attending students “to share their personal testimony by describing what God has done in their lives” (Reporter).

Personal testimony about what God has done may have a place in witnessing, but it does not have the same place as God’s Word.  Personal testimony and people do not have the same position as the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.  To say that knowledge of people is just as much a necessity as knowledge of the Gospel is to minimize Christ.  And to encourage the sharing of personal testimony by describing what God has done in one’s life maximizes subjective experience and minimizes the testimony of God’s Word.

Christ and the Gospel are first and foremost, and are to be nothing but central.  No equal standing exists between people and the Gospel nor personal testimony and the Gospel.  Personal testimony does not create faith.  It is God’s Word that does this (Romans 10:17).

So often, it seems, in dialogue about “mission” and “evangelism,” greater weight is given to the hearer than to the Gospel, or to the speaker than to the Gospel.  Lesser weight is attributed to God’s Word and the power of that Word to bring about changed hearts.  However, God Himself says that His Word “shall not return to” Him “void” (Isaiah 55:11), and that “Neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase” (1 Corinthians 3:7).

Instead of focusing “as much” on knowing people, the Bible focuses on Christ and the Gospel.  This is what His disciples confess and delight in.  And Christ and the Gospel is what the church is about, not self-testimony, but the testimony of Him whom God sent, who was crucified, died, buried, resurrected the third day, and lives forevermore, sitting at God’s right hand.

Rather than emphasizing methodology, sociology, culture, the hearer or the speaker, Holy Scripture emphasizes that the Scriptures “are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” and that, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:15-17).

In effect, Holy Scripture speaks Law and Gospel, distinguishing between the two; the Law convincing of sin, and the Gospel speaking of Christ the Savior.  To be “mission” and “evangelism” oriented is to speak God’s Word, centering on the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ and trusting in the same, acknowledging Him alone as Savior, and Him who alone forgives our weak witness.

Speaking the language of the people?  Of course!  Speaking the Word of Christ?  Unashamedly!

To God alone be the Glory!

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