The Great (Apocalyptic) Commission

I recently received an email from someone who has a friend who had a couple of points to make about the so-called Great Commission. She wants to know what I think.

  • Since Jesus tells his followers to make disciples of all “nations” rather than of all “people”, what he means is something like “make Christians among all people groups”, not “make everybody a Christian”.
  • The mission of Jesus is to redeem a people whose role in the world will be to ‘exemplify and manifest God’s characteristics “as a city on a hill”’. It is not, as Evangelicals would have us believe, to crowd as many people as possible into that city.

What I think is that this is basically right as far as it goes but that it doesn’t go far enough. The shift from mission as maximizing the number of saved individuals to mission as developing communities which, as she puts it, “enact God’s blessings of justice, peace, love, etc. on his behalf” is biblically appropriate and practically necessary—see, for example, “Fitting the baptism of John into the missional narrative”. But in my view this is still not dealing properly with the context.

So let’s look again at the Great Commission….

They worshipped Jesus

On the mountain in Galilee the disciples “worshipped” Jesus—not as God but as the one to whom God had given all authority, which would ultimately be the authority to judge and rule over the nations (cf. Matt. 26:64; Acts 17:31; Phil. 2:10-11).

Go and disciple the nations

In view of the status which Jesus now has and the apocalyptic expectation attached to it, the disciples are to go and “disciple (mathēteusate) the nations”, teaching them to do everything that Jesus commanded them. They are sent out to start communities that will indeed be cities set on hills. But they will be a sign not merely of “God’s characteristics” but of the coming eschatological transformation—or rather, they will be a sign of the God who is characterized by the fact that he is about to overturn the ancient pagan world. Their existence is story-bound.

Here’s an example…

Luke’s brief account of the ministry of Paul and Barnabas in Derbe gives a good indication of how the Great Commission worked out in practice (Acts 14:20-21). The apostles proclaim the good news to the city and disciple (mathēteusantes) many. That doesn’t tell us very much in itself, but throw in a bit of context and we have a much clearer picture of what was at stake.

Paul and Barnabas have just come from Lystra, where they had proclaimed the good news that “you should turn from these vain things”—that is, from the worship of pagan gods—”to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them” (Acts 14:15). The good news, in other words, is that something better than idolatry (and its disastrous ethical consequences: cf. Rom. 1:19-32) has at last been made available. (Notice that nothing is said about Jesus dying for their sins.)

Then the apostles go back to Lystra to encourage the people they have just discipled, telling them that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (14:22).

So becoming a disciple, in the perspective of the risen Jesus, involved a person 1) abandoning the worship of idols, 2) learning to worship the one God of Israel, and 3) suffering persecution until 4) he or she entered the kingdom of God. This is an apocalyptic narrative. Paul writes about the Thessalonians in exactly these terms: they have turned “from idols to serve the living and true God”, they suffer persecution, and they wait for Jesus to come from heaven to deliver them from the wrath to come (1 Thess. 1:6, 9-10).

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

The disciples are baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19). This is not a mere religious formula, meant to remind us that Christian theology is Trinitarian. It would have labelled very clearly the distinctive eschatological identity of those who were discipled with regard to the coming kingdom of God. People became disciples in the name of the Father who brought into existence communities of eschatological transformation; of the Son who had been given authority to judge and rule over the nations; and of the Spirit who gave life to and empowered these prophetic communities in the ancient world.

Until the completion of the age

The eschatological frame is finally reinforced by Jesus’ promise to be with his disciples “all the days, until the completion of the age” (Matt. 28:20). The “completion of the age” (tēs sunteleias tou aiōnos) does not mean the “end of the world”.

The phrase occurs in three other passages in Matthew. In the parable of the weeds (13:36-43) and the parable of the net (13:47-50) it refers to a coming temporal judgment on Israel. In Matthew 24:3 the “completion of the age” coincides with the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. In Hebrews 9:26 “completion of the ages” refers to the moment of transition from the old covenant to the new covenant, from a system of repeated sacrifices to the definitive atonement for the sins of Israel through the death of Jesus. This is naturally associated with the destruction of the temple.

Jesus promises to be with his disciples until their mission is fulfilled, which will be when Israel has been judged, when the reign of God over the ancient world has begun, when the Son has come from heaven (symbolically) to deliver his persecuted followers from their enemies, when the nations of the empire will bow the knee and confess that God has made Jesus Lord. Then their mission will have finished… and something else will have begun.

The Greater Commission

Where does that leave us? It leaves us having to deal with the continuing after-story of that eschatological transformation. Do we still have a Great Commission? Of course we do, just not the commission that Jesus entrusted to his disciples. We have a commission—in many ways a greater commission—to live as a righteous people of God, under Christ as King, in the power of the Spirit, subject always to grace, for the sake of the glory of the Creator.

That is not something that comes naturally. It has to be learned. So we still need to make disciples.

Comments

Andrew,

How does the “Great Commission” relate to the following verses?

Romans 1:8
I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world

Col. 1:5-6
5 because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, 6which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and growing…

Col. 1:if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.

Clearly Paul considered it completed, then, in the first century.

Yes, you may be right.

It was proclaimed to the “whole world” because false teachers were saying that Gentiles should not be told the gospel until after they converted to Judiasm. “whole word” means the gospel is available to everyone, not that it had been declared to every possible geographical location. Why was Paul wanting to go to Spain if it had been? Site seeing perhaps? or to “develop communities”?

Andrew, are you saying that the ancient Jews were not expecting an “end of the world” or that they were but they were wrong?

Romans 1:8 is not really relevant: it is the faith of the Roman Christians that is proclaimed in the whole world, not the gospel; and there must be an element of hyperbole here.

Colossians 1:5-6 is also of limited value: the gospel is bearing fruit in the whole world, but this does not mean that the apostolic mission has been fulfilled.

Colossians 1:23: the assertion that the gospel “was preached in all creation under heaven” has more of a sense of completion to it. Did Paul write this from Rome having succeeded in visiting Spain? In view of 1:5-6 I think it is unlikely that “in all creation” means to Gentiles as well as Jews, though 1:21-22 may suggest otherwise.

Andrew, are you saying that the ancient Jews were not expecting an “end of the world” or that they were but they were wrong?

The basic point I would make is that whatever “end” was expected by Jews around the time of the New Testament it was invariably linked to the historical crisis of Israel’s clash with Rome. Some would have understood this as a cosmic crisis—as an end of the world. But I think that Jesus and his followers stay much closer to Old Testament ways of thinking and understand it not as an end of the world but as an end of the age of second temple Judaism and of pagan hegemony.

Old Testament ways of thinking and understand it not as an end of the world but as an end of the age of second temple Judaism and of pagan hegemony.

Can you provide or point me to a post where you provide OT texts to support that statement?

Michael, one easy theme to point you to would be Jesus’ use of the imagery of Gehenna to speak of the coming judgment on Jerusalem. This post has a number of examples of how Old Testament language is redeployed to describe the coming catastrophe of war and the destruction of Jerusalem (discussed extensively in Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective .

The motif of the coming Son of Man would be another one (see also The Coming of the Son of Man: New Testament Eschatology for an Emerging Church . I think that the story of the second century BC crisis envisaged in Daniel 7-12 is retold in order to make sense of the crisis faced by Israel in the first century AD.

The language of wrath in the New Testament draws on Old Testament language which speaks either of judgment against Israel or judgment against the enemies of Israel (see also The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom . The use of Habakkuk in Romans is discussed here.

Andrew,

Since Jesus tells his followers to make disciples of all “nations” rather than of all “people”, what he means is something like “make Christians among all people groups”, not “make everybody a Christian”.

I like this statement, but I think there is even more to it than that. What “people groups” does Jesus have in mind? Does he have in mind the native Indians in the America’s? That’s a rehtorical question- obviously no. Thus the reason I asked about the verses I posted. The Commission is also all related to Jesus’ words in Matthew 24, which we know relates to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.

“And this gospel of the Kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come”. Matthew 24:14

There is only one “end” in reference in the NT and that is the end of the age…the end of the Jewish age…the end of the Old Covenant/world - the old heaven and earth -which happened in AD 70. This is when Israel’s New Covenant was consummated, which is an everlasting covenant - it has no end. There is no “end of the world” as we think of it (physically).

Jesus promises to be with his disciples until their mission is fulfilled, which will be when Israel has been judged, when the reign of God over the ancient world has begun, when the Son has come from heaven (symbolically) to deliver his persecuted followers from their enemies, when the nations of the empire will bow the knee and confess that God has made Jesus Lord. Then their mission will have finished… and something else will have begun.

I really like this statement of yours although its clear to me that when the mission was fulfilled (1st century) Israel wasn’t just judged, it was Resurrected too (the two go hand in hand) and the new Heaven and Earth was established.

Of course we do, just not the commission that Jesus entrusted to his disciples.

Exactly! The great commission of Matthew 28 was completed in the 1st century and is not related to us today. This is not some generic commission the way Christendom takes it today, which it is out trying to fulfill to usher in the “coming of Christ”.

to live as a righteous people of God, under Christ as King, in the power of the Spirit, subject always to grace, for the sake of the glory of the Creator.

Yes! It’s as simple as that for us today. Today (post AD 70) we get to live in all that the Father set out to accomplish. We no longer have to live in hope for what we do not have. We get to live in Christmas day, not Christmas eve. It’s a shame Christendom doesn’t understand this. Instead it just continues living on like fleshly Isarel in the 1st Century, when God prophesied about them when he said:

Look, you scoffers, be astounded and perish; for I am doing a work in your days, a work that you will not believe, even if one tells it to you” - Acts 13:41 cf. Hab. 1:5

There is only one “end” in reference in the NT and that is the end of the age…the end of the Jewish age…the end of the Old Covenant/world - the old heaven and earth -which happened in AD 70. This is when Israel’s New Covenant was consummated, which is an everlasting covenant - it has no end. There is no “end of the world” as we think of it (physically).

The problem I have with the Preterist insistence that everything falls on AD 70 is that it takes into account neither the victory of the churches over paganism nor the final defeat of death, both of which seem to me to be crucial expectations in the New Testament. Historically speaking it would be very odd if the churches had not wanted to see an “end” to pagan idolatry and persecution.

Andrew

The problem I have with the Preterist insistence that everything falls on AD 70 is that it takes into account neither the victory of the churches over paganism nor the final defeat of death, both of which seem to me to be crucial expectations in the New Testament. Historically speaking it would be very odd if the churches had not wanted to see an “end” to pagan idolatry and persecution.

Or, your understanding of 1) the Preterist position concerning this topics, and 2) your understanding of what “death” is being dealt with in the Scriptures are wrong. ) Too me, based upon the comments you’ve made here and there (such as this one above) its clear your understandings of Preterism are every bit as wrong as how you once thought about Hell (assuming you once believed in the standard Christian position on ECT).

Let me know if you ever want to broaden your understanding of Preterism. I’ll be more than happy to direct you to some resources.

Fair enough. But why not explain where I’m wrong about Preterism in a nutshell here?

Andrew,

Oh, my. That is a big nut. To dive into that would take many lengthy posts that would 1) consume your blog with many exchanges, 2) be way off topic. To ask what you ask is like someone asking you to explain some of your positions, which I’ve seen you just point them to your book because they are very involved. Don’t get me wrong. I would like nothing more than to interact with you on this topic at length, but I get the sense that you aren’t all that interested. It’s a shame too, because whether you know it or not, you are so close (on the eschatological front anyway) it isn’t funny. Seems like every time I read a new blog entry of yours I say to myself, “How can he not see it? His own words are screaming back at him what he can’t see.”

Concerning the final defeat of death. Preterism does deal with that, so you’re completely wrong at the get-go on that. How about this. If you are really interested, why don’t you download a lecture a friend of mine delivered a couple of years ago at a conference and give it a listen? It deals with death and some other related topics - it even deals a bit with Hell, which I think you’ll particularly find interesting. This might give you some introductory material to at least set a small foundation in understanding how you are wrong concerning Preterism and the defeat of death. I must make a point of clarification here. Just as their are many schools of thought in “futurism”, the same is true within the Preterism community. So, anything you hear in this presentation, doesn’t neccessarily speak to all Preterist. After all, some are just crazy…lol :)

You can download a copy of the audio file from my dropbox here:

http://dl.dropbox.com/u/7037150/2010%20Covenant%20Creation%20Conference-Lecture%2006-Jerel%20Kratt.mp3

You can download the PDF of the speakers outline here:

http://dl.dropbox.com/u/7037150/Adam-First%20Covenant%20Man_Kratt.pdf

Didn’t Augustine argue that there couldn’t be anyone living at the antipodes, because that would mean Paul was wrong in Romans? :)

heh heh heh…