The Great Commission Part 3: Application

This is the third of three blogs on the Great Commission (Matt 28.19–20). In the first one I talked about the grammar of this passage and concluded that the standard English translation, “Go and make disciples… baptizing… teaching” is an accurate representation of the idioms of the Greek text. In the second blog I discussed the historical setting and noted that the command was given to the disciples to evangelize by going out of Jerusalem and to the Gentiles. The mission was eccentric rather than ethnocentric. That is to say, the apostles were to go out of their way to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to those outside of Jerusalem, including non-Jews. We also argued that in doing this, the apostles had to abandon 1400 years of food laws that had been ingrained in them, in their history, in their traditions. The gospel was for all people and the food laws, circumcision, the sacrifices, etc., were not to stand in the way of someone coming to faith in Christ. This was rooted in the nature of Christ’s cross-work rather than being merely an accommodation to Gentiles to make one’s congregation swell with numbers! But in this missionary attitude—an attitude that Paul captured so well when he said, “I have become all things to all people, so that by all means I may save some” (1 Cor 9.22)—the apostles had to move way outside their comfort zone. Imagine how repulsive it must have been to eat bacon with eggs some morning when you had never had bacon before and thought that pork was the most vile thing that one could put in your body. Years of training along those lines don’t simply vanish over night.

This gives us a helpful segue into application. When we apply scripture, we first need to determine what it meant historically. Then we can ask if it also was meant to carry over to us by way of direct application. Then, we can explore principles that are taught in such a passage whether the application was intended to be direct or not. In this passage, the application is both direct and indirect. It is direct because the last thing that Jesus instructed his disciples in Matthew was, “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt 28.20a). These instructions would surely include the previous verse! Thus, to go and make disciples is a command that is directly applicable to believers today.

There are two participles that follow the lone imperative (“make disciples”) in this passage: baptizing, teaching. These participles function in a different way than the first participle (“having gone”—which is idiomatically and appropriately translated “go”). They describe the means of making disciples. That is, they give a key part of what disciple-making should involve. They don’t necessarily give the whole of it, but they do give some key ingredients. The word order is also important: baptizing comes before teaching. I take it that, in light of how the apostles practiced this commission, baptism was done at the front end, right after someone confessed Christ. And I take it that we should follow the same posture today: baptism needs to be soon after conversion. Now it seems that if baptism is at the front end, it implies that proclaiming the gospel is a part of making disciples. But we have reversed this today: we often put a recent convert into a new believer’s class where he or she can learn about what Christians believe. The class might go for several months. And only after someone has shown that he or she is truly a believer—that the conversion ‘took’—do we dare baptize them. But this approach seems to assume that the responsibility to know whether a new convert is truly a believer is the pastor’s or elders’, rather than God’s. When Peter went to Samaria to check out the conversions that occurred at Philip’s preaching, he met Simon Magus, a man who was definitely not converted even though he made a public confession and was baptized by Philip. There is no record of Peter rebuking Philip for not checking this guy out a bit more. Indeed, it seems that Philip did the right thing to baptize him because that’s what the Lord had commanded. The Lord is responsible to know whether a person is saved; our task is to baptize and accept them into fellowship if they confess their sins and confess Christ. Part of the reason why we don’t consider baptism as more important nowadays is that we see it as simply an act of obedience (which should be reason enough!) when it may be more than that. But that discussion is for another time.

Let me retrace my steps and speak about direct and indirect application once again. I have heard it argued from pulpits that since we are no longer in Jerusalem, we are already fulfilling this command. No other going is needed. But it seems to me that such a view is only dealing with the direct application of the text—or, rather, is confusing interpretation with application, and there are problems with that view, too. The indirect application functions at the level of principle. And there are essentially two principles that I see in this text that are applicable to us today.

First, believers in Jesus Christ need to consciously get outside their comfort zone and go to where non-believers are, to be a witness among them. A common attitude today among Christians is that they need to bring a non-Christian to church so that the pastor can preach to him or her. To many Christians, evangelism means that the non-Christian needs to be dragged out of their comfort zone! That is precisely the opposite of what Jesus told his disciples: “Go and make disciples of all the nations….” This meant going to Gentiles, rather than bringing Gentiles to Jerusalem. Today, the application is similar: we are the ones who are responsible to go to where the nonbelievers are. We are responsible to love them, truly love them, befriend them, enjoy their company, eat with them, hang out with them. We must do this without compromising the gospel, but we must do this.

It has been said that the average Christian has no non-Christian friends within five years after conversion. I don’t know if that statistic is still true, but it wouldn’t surprise me. Read Dan Kimball’s They Like Jesus but Not the Church to get a sense of how we ought to relate to our society today. Kimball’s book is Joe Bayly’s The Gospel Blimp for a postmodern world. One of the things that most impresses me about Kimball’s book is that he is more concerned about nurturing a relationship with nonbelievers than in winning scalps. He obviously is concerned about the individual’s spiritual destiny, but he recognizes that nonbelievers are often hostile to Christians today. And we only add fuel to that fire when we sit in judgment of nonbelievers rather than love them. When was the last time you went out for a beer with your neighbor? Or had some non-Christian friends from work over for a barbeque? What about seeing a ballgame with them? A friend of mine goes to a bar every Sunday after church during football season. He drinks beer, watches his team lose, and shares the gospel. For many of us, we would rather die than let alcohol touch our lips. There may be good reasons for such abstention, but there are many bad ones, too. (I am of course not saying that Christians must drink alcohol for the sake of the gospel in spite of some slanderers who claim I have argued this!) Or consider getting together with your lesbian co-worker. Invite her and her partner to your house for a meal, or just enjoy some java with them at the local Starbucks. What about your Muslim neighbor? Obviously, you don’t want to offend them by eating pork in front of them! Becoming all things to all people sometimes means restricting your freedom in Christ for the sake of the gospel. The questions we all need to ask are, Am I resisting making Christ known because I want to stay inside my comfort zone? Am I afraid to speak because of possible embarrassment? Am I more willing to judge my neighbor than love them?

The problem is compounded by so many of our seminaries today. Way too many seminary students—future pastors—are cookie-cutter Christians. They have conformed to a style of living that is not messy enough to be real. Kind of an aesthetic asceticism—you know, ‘professional casual’… monks. But God doesn’t typically use a person fully unless and until that person has gone through a severe crisis first. And what happens is that the believer then realizes that to live for Christ is more precious and more central than anything else. And when he or she realizes that, concerns for conformity to one’s cultural subgroup don’t seem quite as important any more. The apostles recognized this, I suspect, by the very fact that they were persecuted by Jews and Gentiles because of their faith. Persecution has a way of distilling what’s really important, of helping a person to see what matters most. Frankly, Christians are often geeky enough to get persecuted just for their geekiness! Let’s make sure that if we are persecuted it is for radically following Jesus Christ rather than for non-essentials. And let’s strategize on how to reach all people groups by some of us even identifying with them. This leads to the second principle.

Second, when it comes to global missions, a formula for disaster is to resist becoming like the people that one ministers to. Some missionaries in years past would not only refuse to learn the native language but would insist on importing western culture at every point. To be sure, some aspects of western culture are due to Christian values and it would be foolish to jettison all of it. But all too many aspects are simply differences, no better and no worse than the culture that a missionary finds himself or herself in. Missionaries need to examine how committed they are to the gospel, how willing they are to fit in for the sake of Christ, and whether certain habits that they bring are simply comfortable forms from home or are a part of what it really means to be a Christian.

Much, much more could be said about the application of the Great Commission today. But since this is supposed to be a blog, I’ve already said too much. Now it’s your turn.

Addendum: In my initial blog on the Great Commission, some readers took issue with my understanding of the inapplicability of the Mosaic food laws to Gentile Christians. Rather than take up that discussion here—which could distract from the main point of this blog—I ask you to continue the discussion only in the comments section of the first blog.

The Transracial Implications of the Gospel

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., today being MLK day, it seems appropriate to discuss some of the implications of the gospel in terms of race relations. As shocking as it may sound, I grew up in a city that allowed no African Americans. In fact, I did not see a person of color until I was twelve years old. But in high school, when I read Black Like Me, it changed me. The gross injustices done to people just because of the color of their skin sickened me. And then I moved to the South and saw the same injustices that I had read about in this book. I was appalled that so many people could be so prejudiced. While in seminary, my wife and I bought a house for one dollar (part of the Urban Homestead Renewal Program), in one of the worst slums of Dallas. We lived in it for three and a half years. And I saw a different side of things. I saw a single mom with two young boys, working several jobs to give her sons a better chance at life. I saw people who desperately wanted to get out of their miserable state but were hardly given the chance to succeed. And I saw those who exploited them. From Newport Beach to the Oak Cliff section of Dallas was quite a shift! And so, I began a journey to understand what the New Testament taught about race relations. Below are some of my reflections.

Although Jesus was sent to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10.6; 15.24), his ministry occasionally expanded beyond Jewish bloodlines. Sometimes this happened seemingly against his protests, as when he exorcized a demon possessing the daughter of a Canaanite woman at her insistence (Matt 15.21–28). At other times he was amazed at the faith of Gentiles when compared to its lack in his own people. He healed the centurion’s servant sight unseen, based on the centurion’s faith (Matt 8.5–13), hinting that such people will supersede the nation in the kingdom and “the sons of the kingdom will be thrown out” (v. 12). And he made an intentional detour to the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee to cast out a legion of demons from a Gerasene man (Mark 5.1–20). Simeon had prophesied about the baby Jesus that he would be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2.32), hinting at a transracial mission of the Messiah. When Jesus himself implied such a radical mission in his hometown, the good folk of Nazareth tried to throw him off a cliff (Luke 4.20–30)!

After his resurrection, Jesus in fact commissioned his apostles to evangelize Gentiles (Matt 28.19–20), which they then promptly neglected to do. Then Peter got a startling vision from the Lord to kill and eat unclean animals. Three times the vision and the instructions came: “What God has made clean, you must not consider unclean!” (Acts 10.15). When Peter goes to the house of the Gentile Cornelius he reiterates his Jewish scruples: “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile,” then adds how his mind was changed: “but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (Acts 10.28 [NRSV]). It seems remarkable that even after all that Peter had seen of Jesus’ ministry to Gentiles, and especially after he was commissioned by the Lord to evangelize Gentiles, he still didn’t get it. Later, when he was back in Jerusalem, he was confronted by some of the more scrupulous Jewish Christians who accused him of eating with Gentiles (Acts 11.4). Guilty as charged. So, he repeated the account of his vision and the conversion of Cornelius and his family. These Jewish Christians dropped their complaint and exclaimed, “So then, God has granted the repentance that leads to life even to the Gentiles!” (Acts 11.18). The scrupulous sect of Jewish believers had seen the light that Simeon spoke of! Or so it seemed.

Some time after this, Peter was in Antioch, eating with Gentiles. But he withdrew from such fellowship when messengers from James came from Jerusalem and spoke to him. What they said is unknown, but Peter withdrew from such fellowship with Gentiles “because he was afraid of those who were pro-circumcision” (Gal 2.13 [NET]). Paul was incensed because Peter, his Jewish Christian colleagues, and even Barnabas, “were not on the right road toward the truth of the gospel” (Gal 2.14 [translation by G. D. Kilpatrick in Rudolf Bultmann’s Festschrift (1954)]). Here we see a glimpse that, for Paul, the suspension of circumcision and dietary regulations was an essential part of “the truth of the gospel” (τὴν ἀλήθειαν τοῦ εὐαγγελίου). And it is here that we begin to see which of the apostles first grasped the transracial implications of the gospel. Even though the Eleven had been taught this by Jesus, they faltered. And even after Peter’s vision, he faltered. And the group of pro-circumcision believers back in Jerusalem, even after hearing from Peter that the gospel was now free for all, faltered. They would falter again, in Acts 15.5, prompting the Jerusalem Council that would take place sometime after the events in Antioch.

It takes little imagination to see how wrenching and disgusting that first act of obedience to the Lord would be—obedience to extend full fellowship to non-Jews. All Jews in first-century Palestine would be quite familiar with the story of heroism and sacrifice found in 2 Maccabees 7. There, seven brothers and their mother were brought before Antiochus Epiphanes who tried to force them to eat pork. One by one, the king tortured each brother, cutting out their tongues and hands. Yet none disobeyed the Law of Moses, dying with the hope of the resurrection on their lips. Finally, the mother was executed, too. In the annals of Jewish lore, no story emboldened the faithful to maintain the dietary laws like this one.

And the apostles, too, were familiar with this story. Paul especially, when he was a Pharisee, would have been the most scrupulous of all. His passion for the Law was what led him on a witch-hunt after Christ-followers. And yet Paul the Christian led the way in grounding his beliefs in the cross, recognizing that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile. Just imagine the first time one of these apostles sat down at breakfast with Gentiles and was served bacon and eggs! Taking that first bite of pork would have been a sheer act of will out of obedience to their Lord.

Paul became adamant about this freedom that was rooted in the gospel. His mission was not like so many seeker-oriented pastors today; he did not make concessions on the gospel to get bigger numbers. No, he embraced the radical idea that in Christ the Law was no longer master over any believer. Christ died, in part, so that we would no longer be under the Law (Rom 6.14; 10.4; Gal 3.19–29). And this included recognizing the essential equality between Jew and Gentile.

By way of application, we can see that it is crucial—because it is an essential part of the gospel—that race should never be a roadblock to the fullest fellowship that Christians can have. In 1963, Martin Luther King complained, “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” Over fifty years later, and that observation is sadly still true in much of the United States. I have long believed that one of the key marks of authentic Christianity is the heterogeneous nature of the body of Christ. When a black man sits next to a white woman who is next to a rich man sitting beside a poor man; when an educated white woman fellowships with a poor, uneducated immigrant; when a clean-shaven, well-dressed man sits beside a facial-pierced, tattooed girl in grunge clothes; when the fellowship of the saints cannot be attributed in any way to natural inclinations—only then will the world see that we truly love each other—and that ours is a supernatural love.

But how can we accomplish this? First, we must repent of our corporate sins. Especially those in power, those who control the church, must do this. Sin is not just individual. Americans tend to think only in individual terms, and it’s time we grow out of this myopic, narcissistic view and embrace the more biblical view of individuals in community. Second, we must reach out to those who are not like us. We must seek out folks of different ethnicity to be on the pastoral staff, on the elder board, in the classroom as instructors. Today’s take-away application of the Great Commission is surely that true evangelism means getting outside our comfort zone. But we must not stop there. We must go the extra mile and truly fellowship with those unlike us. May God help us to embrace the transracial implications of the gospel and to, once and for all, end the apartheid of Sunday mornings.