As the Father Hath Sent Me…

My favorite “Great Commission” is the one recorded in John “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” (John 20:21). But it is not the most popular one. Some people prefer the one in Acts 1:8. That sending forth nature of the Gospel Call is inspirational. I recently read one writer who noted his preference for the Luke 24 version. I can’t remember why but maybe because it was more clearly focused on redemption. Most prefer the Matthew 28 passage. I suppose it is that it is suggestive of a process— Discipling in terms going, baptizing, and teaching.

But there is a more questionable side to the preference, or priority, of the Matthew 28 passage. That is the tendency to see that passage as providing a limitation of what is “Real Missions.” Should such a limitation be considered appropriate? I don’t really think so. For the following reasons…

#1. A missionary is first of all a Christian. As such, a missionary is responsible to live out the ethics of Christ. So, for example, the ‘extreme spiritualistic’ perspective of missions really cannot be justified. That perspective says that one should not be involved in caring ministries, or social justice ministries, because they are a distraction from the “real” work of missionaries. Since holistic care and justice are front and center in terms of the ethics of Christ, a missionary should be involved with them as Christians EVEN IF HE OR SHE FEELS THAT THAT IS NOT PART OF THEIR CALLING AS A MISSIONARY.

#2. The Great Commission is simply an application of the Great Commandment. Some have suggested that we are missionaries because of the Great Commission. Arguably, we would not need the Great Commission to know that we need to serve in a missions capacity. The Bible as a description of God as a Missionary God who calls us to join in His work, tied to our call to love our neighbors as ourselves, as part of our love of (and obedience to) God, is enough. But I don’t think a narrow interpretation of the Great Commission really stands up in this same way. God’s mission is so much bigger, and so is the Great Commandment.

#3. A missionary is driven by the example of Christ. In part, this ties to the John’s version of the Great Commission. Christ’s sending of us is linked to the Father’s sending of Christ. Therefore, we learn something about our role in being sent by understanding Jesus’ role in being sent. Beyond that, a disciple of Christ is obedient to Christ, in terms of calling, in terms of proclamation, in terms of service. To know what a missionary should do, one should look to see what Jesus did as a missionary. Jesus was, after all, a missionary. This is consistent with the Hebrews passage describing Jesus as an apostle (Hebrews 3:1), and (once again) John’s version of the Great Commission where it is stated that he is one sent out by God.

Looking at it a different way, we know who we are to be by what Jesus commanded us, and by what Jesus actually did.

<I am drawing much here from “Encountering Theology of Mission” by Ott, Strauss and Tennent.

A number of reasons that Jesus was sent does not apply directly to missionaries.

Paul focused on Jesus’ coming as primarily about redemption. It is hardly surprising then that many Evangelicals today seem to think that Jesus only came to save us from our sins (“Born to Die”) Evangelicals (and they are not alone) often focus on the Epistles rather than on the Gospels. Seems backwards, but that is the way it is. Missionaries are not “the way to redemption” and they are not a “ransom for sinners. Perhaps we cannot say that we were sent to the “Lost Sheep of Israel.” However, others are more applicable.

Jesus was (1) Sent to preach the Kingdom (Luke 4:43 et al). This is a purpose for missionaries as well. That links also to Luke 10 where Jesus disciples were to travel announcing the kingdom of God.

Jesus was (2) Sent to create division. (Luke 12:49, 51 et al). Missionaries are not tasked to destroy families or cultures. Nevertheless, the message does call for transformation, and forces a decision to accept or reject.

Jesus was (2) Sent to create division. (Luke 12:49, 51 et al). Missionaries are not tasked to destroy families or cultures. Nevertheless, the message does call for transformation, and forces a decision to accept or reject.

(3) Jesus was sent to give social justice and holistic care (Luke 4). In Nazareth, Jesus quoted Isaiah and then declares that this passage is being fulfilled at this time. This is generally viewed as a declaration of Jesus’ understanding of His own mission. Some people like to take this declaration very figuratively (often by people who if anything tend towards knee-jerk literalism in other parts of the Bible). But Jesus actively preached against the abuse of the poor, especially by the Jewish elite, and healed the sick. Additionally, He trained his disciples to do the same. Frankly, for those who like to look at Jesus’ reading in Luke 4 as figurative needs to look on the broader thrust of the Gospel of Luke as Jesus as caregiver and compassionately siding with the marginalized. In that light, Jesus’ declaration was placed there and is thematically significant for the book as a whole.

(4) Jesus was sent to “do the work of the Father.” (John 6;38 et al)

(5) Jesus was sent to “teach the truth.” (John 18:37)

(6) Jesus was sent to give fullness of life. (John 10:10) Again, some may try to narrow that down to salvation, but the broader context of that verse is Jesus using the metaphor of Shepherd. While one of the potential meanings of the metaphor is self-sacrifice, the dominant themes that relate to the Shepherd are more in terms of care and faithfulness.

I have noted that Barnabas and Paul are the best exemplars for missionaries. However, Jesus is the ultimate exemplar for being a Christian. And since missionaries are Christians first, ministers second, Jesus is in many ways a better guide for what a missionary is to be than Barnabas and Paul.