This may be hard to believe, but there was a time when most churches did not think the Great Commission applied to them. Two hundred years ago, it was common for people to read this command at the end of the gospels as one already fulfilled. In the minds of most, the command to go and make disciples of all nations was handed directly to the apostles. When Paul made it to Rome, this signaled the completion of that mandate. That may sound crazy to us today. After all, we talk about the Great Commission all the time and we certainly think it applies to us.
But in 1792, a man by the name of William Carey published a book. It was called, “An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens.” It had a terrible name, but it is one of the most important books you have never heard of. It started what we call the Modern Missions Movement, it it has been going on ever since.
The Great Commission is perhaps the most important directive in the mission of the church. In fact, the whole reason the church exists can be summed up in these words. Jesus started his church for an all-encompassing mission, and he sends his church on this mission for his glory.
For most Christians today, this commission is no surprise. However, I am afraid these words are often read in an insufficient light. We hear the words commission and mission and feel the weight of obligation. In fact, Carey’s title even uses that as the motivating force in its explanation of the Great Commission.
Now to be fair, there is an obligation, a great responsibility, to carry the good news of salvation to every tribe, tongue, and nation. There is a responsibility to our lost neighbors to love them, to care about their souls. There is a holy weight in knowing that multitudes out there have no way to even hear the only news that can give them life. More than that, there is a responsibility to God, as obedient children, to carry out his wishes and the commission he has given in Christ. Christ has a mission to restore all things, an accomplished mission that awaits its final consummation. Here we are, his church, continuing on the proclamation of his work until the end of the age. But too often, the Great Commission sounds more like the “Great Obligation” when we talk about these responsibilities.
The Great Commission is not a burden. It is an opportunity.
There is still work to be done. Christ defeated death, so that we could have everlasting life. And he invites us to carry that news in his authority to all nations and teach them to obey all he has commanded. We must work to the end of the age, but we do not do this work alone. Jesus finishes his commission with a promise, that he will be with his church until the end of the age. The Great Commission is an opportunity to walk with Jesus as he builds his kingdom.
After all, do you know what happens at the end of the age?
Thankfully, John recorded for us his vision of the end of the age. In that vision, we see a call for one who is worthy to hold the destiny of creation in his hand. There is none in heaven or on the earth or under the earth, except one. Standing in the midst of the hosts of heaven is a lamb, a lamb that was slain.
He is worthy to take the scroll.
As he does so, the hosts of heaven fall down at his feet, the multitudes of angels sing his praises, and this is the new song they sing:
“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Rev 5:9-10).
That ransomed people is the church. That is us.
We, his kingdom and priests, will get to reign on the earth. That is not a burden. We have been given a gift: the chance to participate in the biggest thing that has ever happened or ever will happen, the chance to work alongside Christ as he gathers his ransomed people and then to reign with him on the earth. But we must work until this day, because there are so many people out there that do not know it is coming. Jesus started his church for an all-encompassing mission, and he sends his church on this mission for his glory.