When I applied to Wycliffe Bible Translators 7 years ago I was asked to write several doctrinal statements outlining my beliefs about various biblical themes, one of which was God’s mission. I was expected to discuss the basis on which church was involved in mission in the 21st Century.
In answering this question I relied heavily on a single verse from Matthew 28, often known as the “Great Commission”, where Jesus tells his disciples to “Go and make disciples of all nations”. I reasoned that if this was true for the disciples 2,000 years ago, it must also be true for us today. If Jesus has given us this command, how can we claim to be his followers and not carry it out?
7 years on I would answer the question very differently. It’s not that what I said at the time isn’t true – I still believe that Jesus has commanded his church to make disciples of all nations. If this was the only verse in the Bible where God called his people to tell others about himself, I would still take Jesus’ commandment completely seriously.
My mistake was not in believing something that wasn’t true, but rather in believing something that was true, but ultimately missing out on the whole truth. Rather than just being a command tacked on as a panicked afterthought as Jesus realised he was leaving his disciples, God’s mission – his revelation of himself to all nations – is something that God started with the creation of the world, and has been doing ever since in and through that creation. For thousands of years God has been revealing himself to his people through the law, through prophets, through angels, visions, dreams, a donkey… and ultimately through his son.
Why is it important that we understand the whole truth about God’s mission to the nations? If we have one command from Jesus, surely that’s enough? 7 years ago that was my logic – if Jesus said something, who am I to even think about the matter any further? I should just take him at his word without question.
Our western culture likes to frame concepts abstractly and to reduce things to their logical extreme. If we believe Jesus is God, and God is truth, then Jesus always speaks the truth. If Jesus tells us to make disciples of all nations, why look any further for our mandate?
But actually we see in the Bible that God’s communication is much more holistic than we might at first think. The Bible isn’t a list of commands for us to follow like robots, but rather a collection of diverse writings – history, poetry, law, proverbs, prophecy, letters – which don’t just tell us how to live, but reveal to us the nature of God.
When God does give a command in the Bible it is always in the context of relationship. God reveals part of himself to his people, and then gives them a command which is their appropriate response.
In the verse in Matthew 28 Jesus says “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations…” (Matthew 28:18-20) If we look back to the ten commandments God says “I am the Lord your God, who rescued you from the land of Egypt, the place of your slavery. You must not have any other god but me…” (Deuteronomy 5:6-7) And in the following chapter “Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:4) Repeatedly throughout the giving of the law, the commandments are framed as responses to the revelation of who God is.
My problem 7 years ago was that I understood and was willing to carry out God’s command, but I was generally ignorant of the revelation of God’s character that prompted the command. I knew that Jesus had commanded his church to make disciples of all nations, but I didn’t understand that the command was supposed to be my response to the revelation of the missional heart of God himself that we see throughout scripture. It was in fact an invitation to join in with what God had been doing since the beginning of the world.
What I believed was true, but it wasn’t the truth.
Understanding what God commands, but being ignorant of the revelation of God that prompts the command actually affects the way we carry out that command. If we hear Jesus’ call to make disciples of all nations, but don’t see the missional nature of God’s actions running through the Bible, we’ll be tempted to think that mission is our job – a task God has given us to complete alone. And so we’ll devise whatever strategies we can to accomplish that task as quickly and easily as possible. On the other hand if we understand that mission is at the heart of God’s character, and Jesus’ command is actually an invitation to be part of what God is doing, we’ll depend completely on him, in the knowledge that we are part of something so much bigger. We won’t be tempted to cut corners when we think God isn’t looking, or to achieve our goals in ways that are contrary to how God works.
Our culture values following instructions. As Christians we’re always tempted to reduce the Christian life to following rules, hoping that if we work hard enough at completing the tasks set before us, we’ll finally stand in front of God and hear him say “Well done good and faithful servant”. But I’m not sure that God defines obedience in this way.
The Bible teaches us that God cares deeply that we obey his commands, but that, despite what our reductionist culture teaches us, those commands can never be divorced from his relationship with us. We should obey God’s commands, but unless our obedience is a response to the revelation we see of him, and is a product of our relationship with him, we’re no better than the Pharisees in their hollow adherence to the rules.
Ultimately we need to have a whole-Bible understanding of God’s mission, not so that we can carry out the right commands and follow the right rules, but so that we can know the missional nature of our God, and through our relationship with him, respond by joining with him in sharing his nature with people from all nations.