For many of us during our early walk with Christ, the one thing of paramount importance was Scripture. Listening to God’s Word, prayer, and Bible study were the activities that perhaps most characterized our newfound faith. What would your answer have been if you were asked, “What is more important – the Great Commission or the Great Commandment?” 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?
However, sadly, confronted by these two apparently contrasting choices, pressed by time, priorities, and values, oftentimes the fellowship of believers has prioritized one over the other. We shift to one side of the Gospel or the other. This dualistic view of discipleship within church history has been the great divide, putting congregations and believers into one camp or the other. This unfortunately is an unbiblical and artificial fragmentation. It 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. In the face of a broken and fragmented world, we become fragmented people in fragmented churches.
Very few would argue against acts of compassion or argue that the Gospel doesn’t need words. While we may agonize over the issue of trying to live both, we cannot allow indifference, apathy, or idleness to keep us from getting involved in either. We know the Great Omission is not an option. Like the child who throws stranded starfish back into the ocean, we know we can’t save them all, but we deeply believe that we’ll be able to make a difference for a few.
The reason this is important is that very often in our concentration on the final part of Jesus’s physical life here on earth, we can easily overlook all that he did up until that point. But Jesus’s life – both his teaching and his 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 Gospel did he preach?
It is also good to bear in mind and ponder 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 means that disciple-making is as we go about doing what we do. The description of this section as the “Great Commission” is not something Jesus said but has been rendered by the descriptor of his words. As a result, it has caused many believers to see this 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 rather transform them to experience both fullness 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/holistic mission is clearly demonstrated as the way of Jesus.
Even in the incarnation, God entered the human struggle in a certain time and specific place to speak and act in ways that modeled how God’s will is done “on earth as it is in heaven.” 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 first century Palestine. His self-introduction in Luke 4:18-20 is described as 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 restoring quality for all of life in the world.
There is no clearer way of summarizing Jesus’s 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, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
We can group the mission of Jesus around several key, overlapping activities in his struggle against principalities and powers, his quest for transformation of all creation, and his walking with the disciples, the poor, and the outcasts:
- Announcing the Good News: Jesus entered Galilee, and in his inaugural address in his hometown of Nazareth, he announced the good news that the kingdom of God had drawn near (Matthew 4:17, Mark 1:14-15), proclaiming that he was the fulfilment of the prophetic promise. His words and actions that day showed 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 called disciples (student/understudy) were taught to live the life of faith under God’s rule and direction, learning by example. They lived with him, ate with him, laughed with him, and learned from him. 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. His approach was unique and challenging. It remains the model for training Christian leaders even today.
- Healing and Caring for the Sick and Wounded: Through signs and wonders, Jesus demonstrated principles of the kingdom that were not simply supernatural and spiritual acts, but also had sociological, political, and even economic implications. He challenged the distorted and cruel “purity culture” of his day by healing the man born blind (John 9) and the woman who had the issue of blood (Mark 5). It is clearly seen in Jesus’s answer (Luke 7:22) when responding to the question of John the Baptist, “Are you the one who was to come?” Jesus’s ministry of healing gave evidence of God’s concern for every dimension of human wellbeing.
- 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.
- Confronting People Who Abused Power and Authority: Time and again, Jesus’s acts of love and compassion required him to also shelter and defend people from prejudice and danger. 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. Jesus impacted the unseen and seen structures and institutions of power in his world. Examples include his defense 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. Jesus was asking and authorizing his disciples to embody and fulfill the mission that he himself had been modeling 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: Under Roman law, crucifixion was a penalty for treason. Jesus’s death was a result of the backlash from the structural forces of evil in his day. In his execution, 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. This does not diminish the theological meaning or divine purpose of Jesus’s death as the final sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins and the decisive means through which the world is redeemed.
- The brilliance of Jesus’s 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. 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, inaugurating the final chapter of history.
All these spheres of Jesus’s ministry are 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 a ground level and provided a necessary model of a broad and comprehensive understanding of what it means to be “saved.”
Following Jesus’s resurrection and ascension in John 17:18 and John 20:21, Jesus speaks these words to his disciples following his resurrection, ‘‘As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’’ We must rightly warn against an over-literalist interpretation of this verse for clearly we are not all meant to die on a Roman cross! Yet it would be wrong to deny that they point to Jesus’s 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’s mission; his mission continues and is effective in their ministry, birthed with the formation of the early church, and one which continues right now – today – in you and me, your church and mine.
The movement of integral/holistic mission is poised to enter a final crucial chapter. May we embrace this and in response together with Isaiah say, “Here am I Lord, send me.”
For Reflection and Discussion:
- How do you balance the Great Commission and the Great Commandment in your own ministry?
- Which of the spheres of Jesus’s ministry listed above are you most comfortable in and which one do you need to challenge yourself to strengthen?