Saturday, August 30, 2008

What Is the Great Commission?

Jesus' command to his disciples, and ultimately his followers down through the centuries, to reach the world with the good news of salvation is recorded in the 28th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew; it has come to be known as the Great Commission. The Great Commission is one of the clearest passages in the entire Bible, and yet is also one of the least obeyed. It reads:

Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." (Matt 28: 18-20 NIV).

In Matthew 28:19, Jesus said, "Go." He didn't say think about going, or even pray about going. He said go. Yet only a small fraction of Christians ever follow this clear command. I think there are several reasons why this is, ranging from a simple fear of talking to people to thinking it's the job of the pastor, missionary, or some other "professional clergy." But we are all called to do our part to take the gospel (or evangel, from which we get the term evangelism) to the world. In Acts 1:8 Jesus gave us the blueprint, elaborating on what "all nations" means:

"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." (Acts 1:8 NIV)

Let's break this blueprint down both in its 1st Century context as well as what it means for us today. Then we’ll clarify what is and what is not evangelism.

1. Jerusalem. In the first century, this obviously meant the city of Jerusalem. This was where the apostles spent time with Jesus following his resurrection, where the Holy Spirit came upon them at Pentecost, and where the first church was formed. Today, we can think of Jerusalem as whatever city we happen to live in, or even our own family. These are the people closest to us, the ones we care the most about.

2. Judea. Judea was the administrative region in which Jerusalem was located, roughly the equivalent of a state or province today. If Austin is your Jerusalem, then Texas could be considered your Judea. You still have a connection or kinship with folks in this area.

3. Samaria. Samaria was a region outside of Judea, and could thus be considered another state, like going to Oklahoma from Texas. But Samaria was much more than this. Jews and Samaritans were bitter enemies, and by specifically telling his disciples to go there, Jesus was making clear that everyone, whether friend or foe, was to be told the message of the gospel. That message is the same for us today, which means going places we might not otherwise be comfortable going.

4. The ends of the earth. This literally means the ends of the earth. In the 1st Century, the apostles went to most of the known world, from Paul's missionary journeys through Asia Minor and Greece to Thomas's journey to India. We are called to do the same, realizing that for us China may be "the ends of the earth," while for a Chinese believer New York or Boston is "the ends of the earth." It simply depends on where you're starting from.

In fact, there are many who would not use the contemporary examples above at all, arguing that Jerusalem is the actual city of Jerusalem, as are Judea and Samaria, and that all the rest of the world is the ends of the earth. For me the command is the same either way you look at it: we are supposed to tell those close to us, and whenever possible to tell even those in far away places.

We saw earlier that Jesus clearly commands us to evangelize, to reach our world with the gospel, but what exactly is the gospel? First, what it isn't. It isn't orphanages, hospitals, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, or any other charitable act or organization. These are all good, important, and evidence that we are believers in Christ, but in and of themselves they are not the message. If they were, then you would have to consider every Buddhist, Muslim, Wiccan, Agnostic, and atheist who did any of these things a Christian, and neither we nor they believe that. Good works also give an opportunity for evangelism, but they are not evangelism.

The gospel, the evangel, the good news that Jesus brought is not nearly as complicated as we often try to make it. In a nutshell, Jesus' message was that we have all sinned and none of us deserve Heaven. But God loved us enough, even while we weren't loveable, that He sent Jesus to take the penalty that we deserved. The apostle Paul put it this way:

"My friends, I want you to remember the message that I preached and that you believed and trusted. You will be saved by this message, if you hold firmly to it. But if you don't, your faith was all for nothing. I told you the most important part of the message exactly as it was told to me. That part is: Christ died for our sins, as the Scriptures say. He was buried, and three days later he was raised to life, as the Scriptures say. Christ appeared to Peter, then to the twelve. After this, he appeared to more than five hundred other followers. Most of them are still alive, but some have died. He also appeared to James, and then to all of the apostles. Finally, he appeared to me." (1 Corinthians 15:1-8 CEV).

The majority of us in America have heard this message in some form or other since we were children, although that is becoming less and less the case today. But many, if not most of us have never done anything once we heard the message. Jesus said in Luke 19:10 that he "came to seek and save the lost." How does He save us? When asked how to be saved, the apostle Paul gave this answer:

"Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved. For if you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved." (Acts 16:31, Romans 10:9 NIV).

That's the Good News. We can have our sins forgiven and enter into a real, personal relationship with God. News doesn't get any better than that, and we shouldn't hesitate to tell others about it.

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