Over the last few posts we have taken a close look at five accounts of the final commission Jesus gave the apostles. I don’t know whether these are different accounts of a single commission Jesus gave or he spoke words like these on several occasions. Either way, pulling together the main themes that are emphasized in these commissions will give us clarity about our calling. Four themes recur.
- The Basis for the Commission. The basis is who Jesus is, which, in turn, is based on what he has done. Jesus’ sufferings, resurrection, ascension, and kingdom are specifically mentioned. These show that Jesus is the Christ, the King. He has all authority and so rightly commissions us to continue his mission. Our preaching and teaching are “in his name.”
- An Emphasis on Speaking. Though telling about Jesus is sometimes downplayed today, that is the emphasis of the commission. We are called to proclaim the good news (Mark), announce repentance for forgiveness of sins in his name (Luke), and testify (be witnesses) about him (Luke, Acts). We are also to call people to believe, repent, and be baptized, all three of which are a part not only of the commission passages but also of the preaching of the early church in Acts (Acts 2:38; 3:19; 8:12, 36-39; 10:43, 47-48; 13:39; 17:30; 22:16). Those who accept this message about Jesus by responding in these ways will be forgiven (Luke, John), saved (Mark), and become his disciples (Matthew). Mark’s account reminds us that those who do not believe will be condemned. Matthew reminds us that the new disciples will need additional, ongoing teaching. Though John does not record any words about the need for us to speak, he does record Jesus’ teaching that we are sent as he was sent. The particulars of how Jesus was sent include speaking as well as doing the works of God.
- The Scope of the Commission. We are to speak the message of Christ to people of all nations. Every account except John’s mentions this explicitly, and John does so implicitly with the reference to “sending.” The scope of our speaking extends to all nations (Matthew, Luke), all the world and the whole creation (Mark), and the ends of the earth (Acts). As noted in the posts, this is in contrast to Jesus’ own ministry which focused primarily on restoring the Jews. There is both an ethnic and geographic component to the words of the commission. We are to speak to all peoples everywhere.
- Power for the Commission. We both need and have the power and presence of the Lord to carry out this commission. Every account mentions this. The Lord will be with us (Matthew) and work with us (Mark), and we receive power from on high through the Spirit (Luke, Acts) whom we receive from Jesus (John). Jesus has clearly given us a role in his work in the world, but it is equally clear that we cannot accomplish it by our own power. We must rely on him and his Spirit to work.
As mentioned in the posts, I believe this commission was originally given specifically to the apostles, but I cannot imagine that the Lord no longer cares about his famous last words. I believe the church has inherited this commission and, working together, we are responsible for continuing this most important work.
Though Jesus’ final commission is still referenced at times, especially on missions Sunday, we seem to have a hard time sustaining a balanced focus on all its aspects. When I was young I heard a lot about the need for us to speak to others about Christ but heard little or nothing about the other parts. Today I hear some emphasis on the need to include all kinds of people and on the need for God’s Spirit, but allowing the Spirit to move us to actually speak the good news about Jesus to all kinds of people is often overlooked. We need to hear and heed all aspects of these words. Perhaps a clearer realization of the basis for the commission—who Jesus is and what he has done—would help us heed it all. That Jesus called attention to his all-pervasive authority immediately before commissioning his followers adds credence to this idea (Matthew 28:18).
I do not want the flavor of this post to be a criticism of the church for its failures. Instead, I am hoping to remind us that Jesus really does want us to tell everyone about him and encourage us about doing so. Instead of complaining that the church falls short or feeling guilty about it personally, here are some specific ways we can heed Jesus’ words.
- Spend time in study and prayer focused on grasping more fully what Jesus did and who he is (cf. #1 above). This has the power to drive us to speak, not only by helping us recognize the authority of the One who gave the commission but also by the message itself compelling us. I have had glimpses of the apostles’ powerful statement, “We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20), but I am also continuously seeking to “see” and “hear” more profoundly so that my occasional glimpses of its power become a unrelenting drive to talk about it.
- Clarify the message about Christ that we are to be speaking (cf. #2 above). I’m convinced that the best place to go to do this is the book of Acts where we find summaries of how the earliest disciples and apostles actually told the good news to non-Christians. It is well worth carefully exploring the recorded messages and the short summary statements Luke gives us there, but a sum of it is that they told about Jesus’ death and resurrection and concluded from those that he is the Christ and King, calling people to repent. A detailed article on my journey to clarifying the message we are to speak may be found here.
- Pray, watch for, and make the most of opportunities to speak to others (cf. #2 above). The Lord works with us (cf. #4 above) and gives us opportunities, so we need to be praying about this (Colossians 4:4-5; for more on open doors see also 1 Corinthians 16:9; 2 Corinthians 2:12). We also need to be “watchful” so that we see the opportunities (Colossians 4:2) and make the most of them when God provides them (Colossians 4:5). This includes being alert when we are out and about, but it also includes the distinct possibility of opportunities that already exist in our current routines and relationships.
- Make sure you do not exclude anyone (cf. #3 above). The passages remind us that all nations and ethnicities are welcomed by God if they fear him and do what is right (Acts 10:34-35), and the same is true of all genders, socio-economic groups, political leanings, etc. I believe we are generally stronger today in regard to helping all kinds of people. Still, we must guard against the unconscious tendency to “go out” and help people who are very different from us but then keeping them “out there” by not speaking the good news to them or welcoming them into our fellowships. They are not our projects. They are people who need to hear the good news, and what’s more, the downtrodden are often more open to it than others. The commission focuses on speaking the news to all kinds of people and making disciples of them all.
- Make sure to seek and rely on God’s power to carry out the mission (cf. #4 above). Prayer is not merely a habit or duty but also an absolute necessity. It is clear that we cannot carry out this commission on our own. I neglected the Spirit for too long in my life due to my fear of extremes. I now realize that trying to do God’s mission without God’s power is also extreme, from a biblical point of view—extreme self-sufficiency. So I pray often that I will “keep on being filled with the Spirit,” which is a literal rendering of the tense in Ephesians 5:18. I also pray that the Spirit will direct and empower me toward telling the good news, as Luke, John, and Acts indicate in their accounts of the commission.
May our grasp of Jesus’ final words not be a matter of mere talk but instead lead us to act on his final charge on earth.