If you've spent any time in an Evangelical church, you've certainly heard of the Great Commission. You've probably also heard more than your fair share of sermons and encouragements on the topic. But have you ever stopped to consider if what you've heard is actually consistent with what Jesus said to His eleven closest disciples?
If your Evangelical experience has been anything like mine, you've likely heard that the Great Commission is about taking the gospel to the world, and/or "leading people to Christ," and/or "winning souls for Christ," and/or something else along those lines.
But are those things actually Biblically accurate? And why does it matter?
Before we continue, let's take a look at the Great Commission as recorded in Matthew 28:16-20. That passage is below for your convenience. Please read it slowly and thoughtfully, making note especially of the bolded and underlined words:
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.”
~ St. Matthew, recording Jesus' conversation with the Eleven prior to His Ascension (Matthew 28:16-20)
Do you see what Jesus actually said there? He told them to "Go" and do three things:
(1) Make disciples of all nations (note that a disciple is a student, not a "convert"; see Acts 11:26).
(2) Baptizing them (the disciples) in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit; and
(3) Teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
That's it. Three things: Make disciples. Baptize those disciples. Teach those disciples to observe all that Jesus commanded. And if you want to be even more specific, the second and third items are really part of the first item. If you go back and read the passage again, slowly and closely, you'll see that born out more clearly: Go into all the world and make disciples (students) of all nations. And what does that entail? Baptizing them . . . and teaching them to observe all that Jesus has commanded.
Do you notice what things are missing from that list?
In other words, three of the things that many of us hear about the most aren't actually part of the Great Commission.
And that brings me to my next point. I heard a great quote recently. Hearing it was an act of Divine Providence, really. The quote was something that I believe God wanted me to hear in that moment, and which has impacted me significantly since I heard it. A few days ago, a random sermon started playing in "iTunes U" on my iPhone almost by "accident." If I did anything to queue it up, I'm unaware of it. It only played for a few seconds before I closed it out, almost by reaction before I fully realized what I had heard, and then I couldn't find it again. And in those few seconds, I only remember hearing one single quote. But nevertheless, that single quote was quite profound. I may be paraphrasing a little here, but as best I remember it, that single quote was this:
"We've reduced biblical theology to soteriology."
Let that sink in for a moment. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the fancy word above, "soteriology" simply means "the study of salvation." And quite frankly, that's what many of our Evangelical churches (not to mention individual discussions) revolve around. "What is required for salvation?" Am I "in" or "out" of the Kingdom? How do we get other people "into" the Kingdom? And so on and so forth. We get so concerned about reaching the lost that we forget to feed the flock.
As a result, we forget to live in a manner that honors God.
Because of our focus on soteriology, comparatively little time and effort is spent considering the manner in which God commands us to live once we are saved. This is important, and cannot continue to be so ignored. Remember that God saved Israel from the Egyptians, but then let the entire generation (except Caleb and Joshua) die in the wilderness after they were "saved" from the bondage of their former life. Why was that? Because God's people were disobedient even after coming into a relationship with Him, and desired to live like the world instead of in the manner in which God commanded. (There should be at least six distinct links in those last few sentences; please take a moment to hit and read them all.) They preferred the yoke of their former life to the way of God. And so do many Christians today.
So why don't we learn from their mistakes? We are so many afraid to truly proclaim and live out the whole counsel of God, including the hard parts? In no small part, I think most professing Christians are more concerned with the approval of their fellow man than with the approval of God. (Please read and pray over Galatians 1:10.) Very few, if any, would actually say that. But in practice, it's unquestionably true. If you doubt that, ask yourself when you last spoke out (publicly, particularly if you're a male) on a behavior that is Biblically prohibited but socially acceptable? When was the last time you were labeled a bigot, or racist, or homophobe, or Islamophobe, or any other derogatory term without any reason other than espousing Biblical truth? When was the last time you lost a "friend" for simply speaking the truth of God -- and not for being a jerk, but simply for speaking the truth?
Be honest. That's most of the church today: More concerned about the approval of our fellow man than about the approval of God. And as a result, we tend to focus on the "positive" issues and pithy Bible quotes, but shirk from truly proclaiming the whole counsel of God. Most Christians love Jeremiah 29:11, despite the fact that it's almost always taken completely out of context. But when was the last time you told someone about God's judgment, or the wrath that is to come?
Do you love your friends enough to tell them the whole truth?
Do you love God enough to proclaim His whole counsel?
Paul did, and we would be wise to learn from him in this regard (as well as in many others). As the Book of Acts makes clear, Paul spent three years with the Ephesians, and in the process declared "the whole counsel of God" to them. (Acts 20:26-27, 31) That's not to say that he didn't also preach the Gospel, but it certainly didn't take Him three full years, day and night, to share the good news. Clearly, there was more to Paul's ministry than that -- both intellectually, and emotionally. He realized the magnitude of what he was charged with, and the importance of God's People knowing and obeying and, at least for some, ultimately proclaiming the whole counsel of God. If you doubt that, read Paul's farewell to the Ephesian elders carefully. During that discussion, Paul reminded them that
"[F]or three years I did not cease to warn everyone day and night . . . with tears"!!!
~ Paul the Apostle, as recorded by Luke in Acts 20:31
Please pause and consider this passage seriously. Paul was with these people daily for three years. It certainly didn't take him three years to explain the Gospel. And I'm quite certain that he didn't simply deliver four sermons in duplicate on Sunday, before disappearing behind a black curtain for the rest of the week. Rather, he taught the Ephesians day and night for three years. He "kept back nothing that was helpful." (Acts 20:20) He was quite clearly doing a lot more than simply "proclaiming the Gospel" or "winning souls." But yet, precisely because he did more than just the basics -- precisely because he proclaimed the whole counsel of God and kept back nothing that was helpful -- at the end of his journey Paul was able to say with sincerity,
"Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men."
~ Paul the Apostle, as recorded by Luke in Acts 20:26
You see, our job is not to win souls. That's the Lord's job, for salvation comes from Him -- not from us, and not from your favorite preacher or pastor, either. When we start to get our role confused with His role, our priorities get out of whack as well. Rather than declaring the whole counsel of God as commanded, including the hard and difficult parts, pastors and preachers begin softening the message in order to get and keep more butts in the seats. We're more concerned with people liking us, or with being culturally relevant, than with actually doing the hard work that Jesus assigned to us. If you doubt that, ask yourself when was the last time you've heard a message on the Second Death or even the spiritual truths addressed in 1st Thessalonians? Instead, "Church growth" becomes a priority, which often leads to a focus on good music and sermons that don't challenge the congregation too much, lest our pastors scare away some goats while the sheep starve to death. And lately, "good music" (which is not "worship" -- more on that in a later post, Lord willing) starts to take priority over actually teaching and rebuking and even (or perhaps, especially) warning the congregation about the evils of sin. Not offending anyone becomes more important than challenging the flock to grow deeper and to obey all that God has taught us through His Word (as rightly divided and understood, of course), because of course we don't want to "scare anyone away."
I mean, Jesus would never do that . . . would He?
If you liked this post, please like and follow Uncompromising Gospel on Facebook.
"For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God." (Acts 20:27)