A Command and a Promise
I contend and believe the Great Commission is both a command to be obeyed and a promise that has been fulfilled.
This brings up an obvious question: “If it has been fulfilled, why obey it?” It’s one worth answering for sure.
I believe the command of the Great Commission relates to its theological effect, and the promise of the Great Commission relates to its eschatological effect. And our obedience is connected to both. Let me explain starting with the latter first.
Several biblical texts indicate Jesus’ return (i.e., a final aspect of the end) is predicated upon the gospel being preached to all nations. Yet, throughout the letters to the churches of the first century, Christ’s return was considered imminent, or as one author said, “impending.” Frankly, it is hard to read any of the epistles and not sense that the apostles were expecting Christ to return soon, even within their lifetime. Some see a shift in Paul’s emphasis in his later letters, but the fact remains that, with rare exception, the early church’s leaders lived in anticipation of this next event on God’s agenda.
So we must ask ourselves—why would they live with such eager anticipation if there was doubt about the one thing Jesus himself said would be the initiating event (i.e., the gospel being preached to all nations)? It’s because they knew it had occurred. They were confident that, eschatologically, nothing needed to happen for Jesus to return. He had ascended, the Spirit had descended, the gospel had been preached to all nations, and the end (or last days) were now initiated. So longing and looking for their Lord’s return was their natural response as they were going about making disciples. So the assurance of his soon return, based on the fulfilled promise of the Great Commission, enabled hope-filled obedience to Jesus’ words in their difficult days.
Essentially, the Great Commission as a promise was fulfilled in order to assure them—and us—that nothing else needs to happen in order for Jesus to return. This is not to say there aren’t signs of his return, but rather that there aren’tstop signs. However hard their circumstances, they could take joy in this fact: Jesus was coming back. His return was— and is—next!
As a command, however, the Great Commission calls for obedience. Why? Because of its theological effect, namely, that God actually still does now what he did then—saves sinners from every ethnicity through the preaching of the gospel. He does this through the ordained means of disciple making, that process of a person believing the gospel, being baptized, then instructed how to obey what Jesus said (which, in turn, means they, too, will make disciples). It is because God is who he says he is and does what he says he will do that we continue in the pattern of the first disciples and obey the command of spiritual reproduction without ethnic distinction. We do this, not to bring about the end, but precisely because it is the end.
Remember, this fulfilled promise does not mean we don’t continue to obey Jesus’ final instructions with the globe fully in view. It simply means we don’t do so with the pressure to complete it so that he can return. This is, essentially, the theological effect of the Great Commission: joyful obedience to our great God who saves without distinction.
This promise and command—the Great Commission—is the overarching task of the church and perfectly blends her eschatology, theology, and missiology. It is our overarching task, not because we have to finish it, but because we desire to be faithful to it. We don’t make disciples to leverage Christ’s return, but because we long for Christ’s return. This is fundamental to what we believe about the mission of the church and missions in the church.
Today and this week, live as a joyful, expectant disciplemaker, looking both upward and outward. Let’s long for our Lord’s coming even while we love our neighbor, praying daily, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.”