THE GREAT COMMISSION IN LIGHT OF THE MISSIONARY MOTIF OF THE OLD TESTAMENT

by Dr. Hanna Shahin

The God-given purpose of the church can be considered in terms of its worship, its community, and its responsibilities towards its environment, both people and creation. However, it is a distortion of the nature of the Church to collapse all the valid dimensions of its life into its external mission, “to go,” as Jesus stated in the “Great Commission” in Matthew 28:18-20.[1]

It has been customary for Bible students and commentators to consider the Great Commission as the ultimate culmination in mission terminology, and therefore to compare or contrast every other missional expression with it. Yet, there is a great disservice to the Old Testament and to its Author were we to follow in the same pattern. For if God is consistent in His character, in His plan for His creation, and in His expectations regarding man’s involvement in that plan, it would seem only normal that the Great Commission, like other fundamental expressions of faith and practice, be consistent with what preceded it in the Old Testament text.

Much of the discord between the different missiologists regarding the missional nature of the Old Testament has at its core a differing perspective of what constitutes mission. We contend that defining “mission” as simply the act of sending is too narrow. Mission in the life of Israel as a nation was existential to a large degree. Their very life was to be a witness of their God, not in the sense of speaking that witness, but of living it. They were to allow God to model it in and through them by His acts of wonder, and in the myriad expressions of His involvement in the affairs of His creation.

Therefore, we can ask, how much does the Great Commission in particular, and the Gospels in general, lend themselves to such a perspective as stated above in terms of their missional emphasis on life as a witness?

Let us first turn to one paragraph from the Sermon on the Mount, Matt. 5:13-16: “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” NIV

In these verses, Jesus is calling his followers to be salt and light to those around them, as a witness of His life in them. Christopher Wright points out in his paper, “Christian Mission and the Old Testament,” that: “ . . . the moral teaching given to Israel in the OT . . . was given  . . . to shape Israel to be . . . a light to the nations, a holy priesthood, and that has a pragmatic relevance to those who, in Christ, have inherited the same role in relation to the nations.”[2]

There has been much discussion among scholars in the discipline of “mission” regarding Israel’s role as a light to the nations. Christopher Wright is one author who sees the direct correlation between what Israel was called to be, and what Christ expects His followers to be, as outlined in the Sermon on the Mount. It is very evident that there is no tension in the missionary motif between the Testaments. The God Who expected Israel to be a light to the nations has not changed. His plans for His creation, and for using His people as living witnesses have not changed either.

The question now becomes whether the last words of Jesus before his ascension changed this paradigm. Was there a paradigm shift in terms of mission? The Great Commission in Matthew 28 is often used to prove such a shift. It is time to look at these verses more closely and find out if in fact God in Christ came up with a different strategy to redeem His creation.

“Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’” (Matthew 28:18-20, NIV).

The great missionary William Carey, also called the father of modern missions, based his missionary zeal and career on only one text of scripture, namely that of the Great Commission quoted above. That method of biblical exegesis is widely recognized as being insufficient and indefensible, yet it is still practiced in some Christian mission circles. As Christopher Wright comments: “Less defensible has been the continuing practice in many missionary circles to go on and on building the massive edifice of Christian missionary agency on this one text, with varying degrees of exegetical ingenuity.”[3]

Wright continues: “What happens, for example, if all the emphasis on the word Go in much missionary rhetoric is undermined by the recognition that it is not an imperative at all in the text but a participle of attendant circumstances, an assumption of something taken for granted?” [4]  Could Jesus have assumed that His disciples would be dispersing, or just “going” to their homes by their own initiative, living as witnesses to Jesus life, death, and resurrection, and making disciples as they lived like Christ?

In a superb rendering of the same thought, provided by a well-known website, we come across a further clarifying explanation of those verses in the Gospel of Matthew: “The Greek verb translated ‘going’ is actually in a different tense than the other two verbs, as the following possible translation demonstrates: ‘after you have gone, make disciples of all nations, by baptizing,  . . . and teaching.’ ‘Go’ is therefore not the focus of the mandate, and it need not be limited to going to a foreign country. It simply pertains to the activities of life that place the believer in contact with unbelievers.” [5]

In light of the above explanations of the Greek tense of the verb “Go” and its ramifications on the true nature of mission, it is incumbent on mission agencies to correct the general misconception that has prevailed for centuries. There has been an overemphasis on the verb “Go,” at the expense of other more important elements of carrying out the missionary mandate.

The prevalent idea in modern missions has been that of individuals or families moving from point ‘a’ to point ‘b’ with the intent of carrying out a missionary function at their point of destination, namely at point ‘b,’ regardless if that point of destination is in-country or in a foreign field. It may be simply going from one’s own house to the door of one’s neighbor down the street. The neighbor’s door thus becomes point ‘b’, and one’s missionary function begins at either leaving a tract in front of that door, or knocking on that door with the hope of accessing the threshold and entering into the neighbor’s house to present the Gospel message, or whatever other function one presumes to be of a missionary nature. The move can of course be much more dramatic and the trip from point ‘a’ to point ‘b’ much longer, with one leaving one’s home country and going on a short-term mission trip, or becoming a career missionary in a foreign field.

While both of the above examples and everything in between may be rightly and correctly identified as a missionary function, yet it seems that the emphasis has been completely shifted from what the Lord Jesus meant for missions to be, which resulted in a disturbing distortion of Biblical truth, and the compartmentalization of Christians and of the Christian life.

As explained above, the “going” is not the focus of the mandate. The “going” refers to the everyday activities of life that place the believer in contact with unbelievers, without excluding the notion of going from point ‘a’ to point ‘b.’ Yet, the mission is being performed as much during that trip, as it is upon arrival at the destination, or point ‘b’. This means that one’s mission is not accomplished only upon arriving at point ‘b’, rather it is being accomplished at every moment: before, during, and after that trip, as one lives as the “light” that one is called to be to others. Every believer is “light” to others regardless of one’s location or ethnic context. One is called to be “light” at all times. That is to be one’s identity, one’s very being. Therefore, we see Jesus’ use of the verb “to be” in Matthew 5:14, when He said: “You are the light of the world.”

One cannot take away from the calling that some individuals sense in going from point ‘a’ to point ‘b’ as they seek to be the “light” to others. Yet the disturbing distortion that the mishandling of the Great Commission has sadly bred is that at a time when every Christian is called to be “light” all the time, and in every context, and thus be actively engaged in mission regardless of his or her profession, a separate classification of Christians has resulted for whom the word “missionary” was coined. The end result is a compartmentalization of Christians into “missionaries” and “non-missionaries.” And beyond that, it results in the compartmentalization of a Christian’s life into times when one is engaged as a missionary in service or when one is not.

It cannot be that the missionary God of the Old Testament Who has called ALL Israel to be a light to the nations would only invite a certain class of the church to be engaged with Him in the same fashion in the New Testament. The invitation is to everyone.

NOTES

The God-given purpose of the church can be considered in terms of its worship, its community, and its responsibilities towards its environment, both people and creation. However, it is a distortion of the nature of the Church to collapse all the valid dimensions of its life into its external mission, “to go,” as Jesus stated in the “Great Commission” in Matthew 28:18-20.[1]

It has been customary for Bible students and commentators to consider the Great Commission as the ultimate culmination in mission terminology, and therefore to compare or contrast every other missional expression with it. Yet, there is a great disservice to the Old Testament and to its Author were we to follow in the same pattern. For if God is consistent in His character, in His plan for His creation, and in His expectations regarding man’s involvement in that plan, it would seem only normal that the Great Commission, like other fundamental expressions of faith and practice, be consistent with what preceded it in the Old Testament text.

Much of the discord between the different missiologists regarding the missional nature of the Old Testament has at its core a differing perspective of what constitutes mission. We contend that defining “mission” as simply the act of sending is too narrow. Mission in the life of Israel as a nation was existential to a large degree. Their very life was to be a witness of their God, not in the sense of speaking that witness, but of living it. They were to allow God to model it in and through them by His acts of wonder, and in the myriad expressions of His involvement in the affairs of His creation.

Therefore, we can ask, how much does the Great Commission in particular, and the Gospels in general, lend themselves to such a perspective as stated above in terms of their missional emphasis on life as a witness?

Let us first turn to one paragraph from the Sermon on the Mount, Matt. 5:13-16: “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” NIV

In these verses, Jesus is calling his followers to be salt and light to those around them, as a witness of His life in them. Christopher Wright points out in his paper, “Christian Mission and the Old Testament,” that: “ . . . the moral teaching given to Israel in the OT . . . was given  . . . to shape Israel to be . . . a light to the nations, a holy priesthood, and that has a pragmatic relevance to those who, in Christ, have inherited the same role in relation to the nations.”[2]

There has been much discussion among scholars in the discipline of “mission” regarding Israel’s role as a light to the nations. Christopher Wright is one author who sees the direct correlation between what Israel was called to be, and what Christ expects His followers to be, as outlined in the Sermon on the Mount. It is very evident that there is no tension in the missionary motif between the Testaments. The God Who expected Israel to be a light to the nations has not changed. His plans for His creation, and for using His people as living witnesses have not changed either.

The question now becomes whether the last words of Jesus before his ascension changed this paradigm. Was there a paradigm shift in terms of mission? The Great Commission in Matthew 28 is often used to prove such a shift. It is time to look at these verses more closely and find out if in fact God in Christ came up with a different strategy to redeem His creation.

“Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’” (Matthew 28:18-20, NIV).

The great missionary William Carey, also called the father of modern missions, based his missionary zeal and career on only one text of scripture, namely that of the Great Commission quoted above. That method of biblical exegesis is widely recognized as being insufficient and indefensible, yet it is still practiced in some Christian mission circles. As Christopher Wright comments: “Less defensible has been the continuing practice in many missionary circles to go on and on building the massive edifice of Christian missionary agency on this one text, with varying degrees of exegetical ingenuity.”[3]

Wright continues: “What happens, for example, if all the emphasis on the word Go in much missionary rhetoric is undermined by the recognition that it is not an imperative at all in the text but a participle of attendant circumstances, an assumption of something taken for granted?” [4]  Could Jesus have assumed that His disciples would be dispersing, or just “going” to their homes by their own initiative, living as witnesses to Jesus life, death, and resurrection, and making disciples as they lived like Christ?

In a superb rendering of the same thought, provided by a well-known website, we come across a further clarifying explanation of those verses in the Gospel of Matthew: “The Greek verb translated ‘going’ is actually in a different tense than the other two verbs, as the following possible translation demonstrates: ‘after you have gone, make disciples of all nations, by baptizing,  . . . and teaching.’ ‘Go’ is therefore not the focus of the mandate, and it need not be limited to going to a foreign country. It simply pertains to the activities of life that place the believer in contact with unbelievers.” [5]

In light of the above explanations of the Greek tense of the verb “Go” and its ramifications on the true nature of mission, it is incumbent on mission agencies to correct the general misconception that has prevailed for centuries. There has been an overemphasis on the verb “Go,” at the expense of other more important elements of carrying out the missionary mandate.

The prevalent idea in modern missions has been that of individuals or families moving from point ‘a’ to point ‘b’ with the intent of carrying out a missionary function at their point of destination, namely at point ‘b,’ regardless if that point of destination is in-country or in a foreign field. It may be simply going from one’s own house to the door of one’s neighbor down the street. The neighbor’s door thus becomes point ‘b’, and one’s missionary function begins at either leaving a tract in front of that door, or knocking on that door with the hope of accessing the threshold and entering into the neighbor’s house to present the Gospel message, or whatever other function one presumes to be of a missionary nature. The move can of course be much more dramatic and the trip from point ‘a’ to point ‘b’ much longer, with one leaving one’s home country and going on a short-term mission trip, or becoming a career missionary in a foreign field.

While both of the above examples and everything in between may be rightly and correctly identified as a missionary function, yet it seems that the emphasis has been completely shifted from what the Lord Jesus meant for missions to be, which resulted in a disturbing distortion of Biblical truth, and the compartmentalization of Christians and of the Christian life.

As explained above, the “going” is not the focus of the mandate. The “going” refers to the everyday activities of life that place the believer in contact with unbelievers, without excluding the notion of going from point ‘a’ to point ‘b.’ Yet, the mission is being performed as much during that trip, as it is upon arrival at the destination, or point ‘b’. This means that one’s mission is not accomplished only upon arriving at point ‘b’, rather it is being accomplished at every moment: before, during, and after that trip, as one lives as the “light” that one is called to be to others. Every believer is “light” to others regardless of one’s location or ethnic context. One is called to be “light” at all times. That is to be one’s identity, one’s very being. Therefore, we see Jesus’ use of the verb “to be” in Matthew 5:14, when He said: “You are the light of the world.”

One cannot take away from the calling that some individuals sense in going from point ‘a’ to point ‘b’ as they seek to be the “light” to others. Yet the disturbing distortion that the mishandling of the Great Commission has sadly bred is that at a time when every Christian is called to be “light” all the time, and in every context, and thus be actively engaged in mission regardless of his or her profession, a separate classification of Christians has resulted for whom the word “missionary” was coined. The end result is a compartmentalization of Christians into “missionaries” and “non-missionaries.” And beyond that, it results in the compartmentalization of a Christian’s life into times when one is engaged as a missionary in service or when one is not.

It cannot be that the missionary God of the Old Testament Who has called ALL Israel to be a light to the nations would only invite a certain class of the church to be engaged with Him in the same fashion in the New Testament. The invitation is to everyone.

NOTES

  1. John Roxborogh, Revisiting the Missionary Nature of the Old Testament, available from https://www.roxborogh.com/Articles
  2. Chris Wright, Christian Mission and the Old Testament: Matrix or Mismatch, available from https://www.martynmission.cam.uk, italics mine
  3. Christopher Wright, The Mission of God, Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative, (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2006), p. 34
  4. Christopher Wright, The Mission of God, Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative, (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2006), pp. 34-35
  5. Available from https://www.biblicist.org/systematic