For many of us in our early walk with Christ, maybe as teenagers, university students, or new followers of Christ, the one thing of paramount importance was scripture. Listening to God’s word, prayer and Bible study were the activities that perhaps characterised our new-found faith.
If you were asked – “what is more important the Great Commission or the Great Commandment?” What would your answer have been? Confronted by such a choice, oftentimes the fellowship of believers has moved to one or the other, finding ourselves faced almost with a contrast of choices as we have viewed these two apparent options. As a result, perhaps you may have prioritized one or the other. But you cannot allow indifference, apathy or idleness to keep you from getting involved in either – you know that the Great Omission isn’t an option. Like the child who throws stranded starfish back into the ocean, you know you can’t save them all, but you deeply believe that you’ll be able to make a difference for a few.
So, what will it be? Sharing the good news of Jesus or sharing a cup of cold water?
Helping someone become a follower of Christ or helping someone gain a better quality of life?
Very few followers of Christ would argue against acts of compassion. Nor would many people argue that the gospel doesn’t need words. But we agonize over the issue of trying to live both. However sadly, this dualistic view of discipleship has in church history, been the great divide putting congregations and believers into one camp or the other. This unfortunately is an unbiblical, and artificial fragmentation that frequently appears within our churches between evangelism and social action – word and deed; our mission departments and our ‘development’ work. In its most basic form, the challenge we face in Christian witness is fragmentation or integration.
Pressed for time, priorities, and values, we gravitate to one side or the other of the divide. In the face of a broken and fragmented world, we become fragmented people in fragmented churches. We shift for one side of the gospel or the other.
The reason this is important is that very often, in our concentration on the final part of Jesus’ physical life here on earth, we can easily overlook all that he did up until that point. But Jesus’ life – his teaching and example, surely has just as much significance to ‘the gospel’ as does his death, burial and resurrection. It is good to ask ourselves what was it that Jesus actually said. When Jesus went from town to town and synagogue to synagogue, what did he preach?
It is also good to bear in mind and ponder the fact, that in the terminology of Jesus, he only referred to the great commandment and gave us a commission that we were meant to fulfil as we were going. The command to go as scholars would tell us in the aorist tense which means that disciple making is as we go about doing what we do… The description of this as the “great” commission is not something Jesus said but has been what rendered as a descriptor of this section. It has caused as a result for many believers to see that as the foremost activity that Jesus espoused instead of the great commandment that he stated. This commission is founded upon His Lordship and authority over BOTH heaven and earth. A question to ask ourselves is why would that be an important foundation for the commission? Could it not be because His Lordship over the earth has also to be proclaimed in our gospel. That we do not simply make ready disembodied souls for heaven but transform them to experience both fulness of life now and usher in the Kingdom of God?
As we study the scriptures and read the gospel stories of the life of Christ, it is hard to observe this fragmentation. Integral mission/ holistic mission, is clearly demonstrated as the way of Jesus.
Even in the Incarnation– God becoming human in Jesus Christ– God entered the human struggle in a certain time and specific place, to speak and act in ways that modelled how God’s will is done “on earth as it is in heaven.” And in that time and place, in Palestine, Jesus of Nazareth embodied the Kingdom of God, translating and communicating God’s mission in ways that suited the needs of private and public life in the first century.
His self-introduction is described this way in the Gospel of Luke 4:18-20; “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.
This was the year of the Lord’s favour. He taught that “God so loved the world that he sent his Son.” These teachings declare the full spiritual and physical dimension of God’s mission and speak of a redeeming and repairing quality for all of life in the world. This was in keeping with the Psalmist’s vision of creation: “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” (Ps. 24:1)
There is no clearer way of summarizing Jesus’ own approach to mission than when his disciples asked him how to pray. In offering what has come to be known as the Lord’s Prayer, we see the very vision of Jesus as integral, beginning with the words that unite all Christians: “Our Father, in heaven, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
In his struggle against principalities and powers, in his quest for transformation of all creation, and in his walking with the disciples, the poor and the outcast, we can group the mission of Jesus around several key, overlapping activities.
Announcing the good news: Jesus entered Galilee by announcing the good news that the Kingdom of God had drawn near (Matt. 4:17, Mk. 1:14-15). In his inaugural address in his hometown of Nazareth, he proclaimed that he was the fulfilment of the prophetic promise given hundreds of years earlier. His words and actions that day showed that he had come to proclaim good news that was nothing short of “God’s year to act!” - generously and abundantly bringing transformation for the poor, release for the oppressed, and sight for the blind – spiritually, materially and physically.
Teaching: The followers of Jesus were called disciples, which was the first century term for “student” or “understudy.” Jesus taught them how to live the life of faith under God’s rule and direction by example. They lived with him, ate with him, laughed with him and learnt from him – from what he said and did. He shared about the mysteries and ways of the Kingdom of God, primarily in parables that integrated spiritual truth with the everyday life of the farmer, housewife, landowner and ruler. Not only so, but also through signs and wonders that demonstrated principles of the Kingdom that were not simply supernatural and spiritual acts but had also sociological, political and even economic implications His approach was unique and challenging. It remains the model for training Christian leaders even today.
In his healing and caring for the sick and wounded: The actions of Jesus are as important as his words in bearing witness to the Kingdom. This is clearly seen in Jesus when he responded to the question of John the Baptist: “Are you the one who was to come?” He answered, “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” (Luke 7:22) Jesus’ ministry in the towns and villages of Galilee gave evidence of God’s concern for every dimension of human well-being.
By eating and drinking with sinners: Jesus practiced inclusive table fellowship, a countercultural and controversial act in a Mediterranean world where hospitality was strictly determined by social class and religious credentials. He transcended religious, ethnic and gender prejudices in his memorable conversation with the Samaritan woman in John 4. He challenged the distorted and cruel ‘purity culture’ of his day in how he healed the man born blind in John 9 or the woman who had the issue of blood in Mark 5.
In confronting people who abused power and authority: The ministry of Jesus also impacted the unseen and seen structures and institutions of power in his world. One meaning of injustice is “misuse of power.” Abuses of this kind took place daily in first-century Palestine, much as they do in our world today. As Jesus lived out God’s intentions – reaching out to the marginalized, exploited and dispossessed – it was inevitable that he would come into conflict with those who were the powerbrokers and gatekeepers of institutions that benefited the most from injustice. Time and again, Jesus’ acts of love and compassion required him to also shelter and defend people from prejudice and danger. Examples include his defence of the woman caught in adultery (John 8) and his scathing indictment of the religious leaders (Matthew 23). In doing this, his actions and words unmasked the powers and principalities of his day.
Sending out his disciples: Jesus instructed them to conduct this mission, bringing and proclaiming God’s Kingdom of peace (shalom) to households, and receiving whatever hospitality was offered. As part of the visit they were to call people to repentance, offer healing and anointing with oil, and conduct exorcisms. To do this they were required to travel lightly, and not impose their presence or message, but offer it and accommodate the response. Jesus was asking and authorizing his disciples to embody and fulfil the mission that he himself had been modelling for them. It illustrated an integration of purposes, giving witness to the dramatic arrival of the Kingdom of God. If received, people would experience deep personal restoration.
The crucifixion: Jesus’ death was a result of the back lash from the structural forces of evil in his day. Under Roman law, crucifixion was a penalty for treason. The gospel accounts depict in grim clarity the cooperation between the high priest (who had been appointed by the Roman Emperor!) and the local political powers to have Jesus executed. This does not diminish the theological meaning or divine purpose of Jesus’ death as the final sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins and the decisive means through which the world is redeemed.
The brilliance of Jesus’ resurrection: By raising Jesus from the dead, God decisively accomplished an array of purposes. Through Christ the penalty for sin has been paid, the world redeemed, and the Kingdom of God irreversibly established, inaugurating the final chapter of history. It is also an endorsement of God’s integrated purposes, linking word and action, mercy and justice, spirit and earth. It was a message of holistic transformation. God has put his stamp of approval on the way of Jesus; his followers are assured of a victory already won.
All these spheres of Jesus’ ministry, and many more, were overlapping and mutually reinforcing. Together they represent how integral / holistic mission touches virtually every dimension of human and community life. Jesus showed us what God’s Kingdom priorities look like at ground level and provides a necessary model of a broad and comprehensive understanding of what it means to be “saved.” Following Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, the movement of integral / holistic mission was poised to enter a final crucial chapter, birthed with the formation of the early church and one which continues right now, today, in you and me, your church and mine.
In John 20:21 (see also John 17:18), Jesus speaks these words to his disciples following his resurrection, ‘‘As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’’ Don Carson rightly warns against an over-literalist interpretation of this verse. Clearly, we are not all meant to die on a Roman cross! Yet, it would be wrong to deny that they point to Jesus’ model of mission as a paradigm for our own. The verse is immediately followed by the gift of the Spirit, and as Carson notes the perfect tense of ‘sent’, ‘‘suggests…that Jesus is in an ongoing state of ‘sentness’… Thus, Christ’s disciples do not take over Jesus’ mission; his mission continues and is effective in their ministry.’’
May we embrace this and in response together with Isaiah say, “here am I Lord, send me”.