Does the Great Commission of John Imply We Must Do Social Ministry?

Many missionaries will say that the reason they do missions is because of the Great Commission. Personally, I would prefer to say that we do it because of the Great Commandment. To me, the Great Commission simply gives one specific example of how we carry out the Great Commandment.The Golden Rule would be another example. Much of the Sermon on the Mount is a clarification of the Great Commandment. Still, that hardly minimizes the importance of the Great Commission.

And yet, some have used the Great Commission to limit ministry. Taking Matthew 28 19-21, they suggest that Christian ministry is pretty much limited to proclamation, baptism (and presumably starting church congregations) and teaching. John Stott challenged this view by drawing attention to St. John’s shorter Great Commission in John 20:21… “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” Stott noted the God the Father Sent Jesus to not only proclaim the Gospel message but to do Social ministry as well. In fact, just a few verses later, v. 30-31, John emphasizes the miraculous works of Jesus and makes it clear that this work was integral to His overall ministry of proclamation.

Many Evangelical missiologists of the late 1960s and early 1970s disagreed with Stott encouraging a more “spiritualistic” understanding of Christian missions and ministry. Personally, I think their reasoning was not based on good Biblical scholarship, but on reaction to conciliar mission trends, and the toxic nature of apocalypticism (leading to quick and sloppy ministry based on the baseless assumption that we need to try to ‘time’ Christ’s return and adjust our ministry based on our own sends of His return).

However, if the missiologists we’re practicing bad Biblical scholarship (it certainly was not the first time… nor the last) the question of Stott’s interpretation of John 20:21 is certainly open to challenge. The statement itself does not necessitate the understanding that it guides method. In fact, the passage sounds like a bit of Missio Dei theology ( The Father Sent Me. I now send you… and I am sending to you the Holy Spirit.)

I do have to agree that the passage does not necessarily imply method of ministry. However, one needs to read the statement within the story.

John told the story of the ministry of Jesus with great emphasis on the Passion week. Chapter 19 ends with Jesus dying and being buried. Chapter 20 starts with the Resurrection. John’s first recording of Jesus showing Himself to the Twelve (even though only 10 were there) has Him showing the evidence of His crucifixion, followed by the call to follow the example of Jesus. It is probably best to say that the passage is not primarily a theological statement of missions. It is also probably not primarily a statement of the methodology of missions. It probably is a statement of the extent of the calling of missions. It is a call of faithfulness to Christ to the death. This may be further supported in the next chapter where Jesus singled out Peter with letting him know that he must be faithful to his martyrdom.

But then one must still step back a bit. If John’s commission is one about faithfulness to death, clearly it aggressively calls the respondent back to the example of Christ. I don’t believe one can be true to the story as shared by John and still say that there is nothing there in terms of method. At the beginning of His ministry, Jesus called the Twelve to follow Him— follow His teachings and follow His practices. Now after His death, Jesus calls them to continue their following. Any interpretation that suggests that ministry greatly diverges from the ministry pattern established by Jesus must be viewed as highly suspect.

All of that being said, in encouraging missionaries to be holistic in ministry— carrying out so-called spiritual ministry and social ministry together— I probably would not choose John 20:21.

The Great Commandment is a much better foundation for holistic ministry. I would argue that the parable of the faithful servant (Matt. 24:42ff) is also important since the context is suggestive of how the disciples should behave. They should the good holistic stewards. Mire importantly, they should not be trying to “finish the task” with trying to time Christ’s return. Rather, they should be “Faithful to the task” until death… if Christ tarries.

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