One of the highlights of Tim Tennent’s Invitation to World Missions is chapter 5, in which he discusses the Great Commissions — in the plural. In the Four Gospels, each writer records a final post-resurrection saying of Jesus, but each saying is different, and is even attributed to a different place and time. Tennent connects each one with the distinctive themes of the Gospel from which it comes. Below is my brief summary.
Creating communities of obedience
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.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
This is the now-famous command to make disciples of all nations, but Tennent points out that it is ‘more than a call to personal evangelism on a global scale’. For one thing, Jesus calls for the discipleship not of individuals but of nations (a socio-cultural term). And the rest of Jesus’ words envisage people living in the life of God, being identified with God through baptism and walking with God through obedience to Jesus. In this way, the church will fulfil God’s promise to Abraham that ‘all peoples on earth will be blessed through you’.
Preaching that divides
Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen. He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” (Mark 16:14-18)
Jesus in Mark’s Gospel first appears preaching — ‘that is why I have come’ (1:38) — and also sends his disciples to preach (3:14; 6:7-12). He is the crux of everything: he provokes opposition, he confounds his own followers, he is surrounded by supernatural signs, he stalks unswervingly towards his own death. By proclaiming Jesus, his followers will walk in his suffering footsteps and bear the cost.
Living lives of witness
He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:44-49)
‘This is what is written.’ With these words the disciples are swept along in something far beyond themselves: the continuation of the Jewish story, the fulfilment of ancient promises, the sovereign movement of God. Here it is not the disciples who are sent, but the Spirit, whose power they depend on.
He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 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 1:7-8)
The Gospel of Luke is the first half of a two-part work, with the story continued in Acts. Both these commissions present the people of Jesus as a witness: they will be a living testament to God’s creative purpose in the death, resurrection and forgiveness of Jesus.
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (John 20:19-23)
In the Gospel of John, the Father sends John the Baptist; sends Jesus; sends the Spirit; sends the church. Each one is sent on behalf of the Sender for the Sender’s purpose. And, as Tennent says, ‘The Father’s redemptive work is not finished with the ministry of Jesus but continues to unfold at Pentecost, in the life of the church, and ultimately in the New Creation.’ The church exists not simply to replicate itself, but to continue Christ’s reconciling work on the Father’s behalf.
A disciple is a student, but a student who, more than receiving information, learns to embody and represent their master. In a short Seedbed article, Tennent says that the plural Great Commissions depict four distinct ways in which we join in the mission of Jesus: creating communities of obedience (Matthew), preaching (Mark), living lives of witness (Luke-Acts), and sending others (John). These are all ways of participating in the life and work of Jesus, not just jobs to do. The church is called to be the ongoing presence Jesus in the world.
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.