“As you have sent me into the world,
so I have sent them into the world.”
– John 17:18
We call it “The Great Commission”: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). It has become such a key text for many Christians devoted to mission that we might imagine Jesus alerting his disciples to get their pens ready; “Ok, listen up! Now I am about to give to you MY GREAT COMMISSION.” Or perhaps the disciples, upon hearing Jesus tell them to go and teach the world, looked at each other in awe and said, “We must be receiving in this moment “THE GREAT COMMISSION.”
However, the term “Great Commission” never actually came from the lips of Jesus nor his disciples. According to David Bosch in his groundbreaking book Transforming Mission, it never even appeared in the annals of church history until the 1800s. It was William Carey, the father of modern mission and founder of the Baptist Missionary Society, who dubbed Matt. 28:19-20 as the “Great Commission” while he was raising support to serve as a missionary in India.
Is Matthew 28:19-20 the “Great Commission? Is it the text that should guide how we understand God’s mission? Could it be that the near canonization of the term has actually caused damage to our understanding of the Christian mission?
We need to remember that there are four Gospel accounts, not one, and each has its own equally valid and important “Great Commission.” The issue is not that there is anything wrong with Matthew’s Great Commission, but rather, what occurs when Matthew’s commission is elevated as more important and greater than the commissions in the other Gospel accounts.
Consider, for example, what we might consider the Great Commission of John’s Gospel: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). Jesus spoke these words at a moment he had his disciples’ absolute, undivided attention – appearing to a group of them for the first time after his resurrection. The disciples would have recognized these words he had prayed earlier after the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one…. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:11, 18).
Pay attention to how these words sound in comparison to Matthew 28. It is not a matter of accepting one and rejecting the other; but rather, noticing the nuances that each brings to the other. Matthew exhorts us to go and make disciples and then to baptize them but tells us nothing about the methodology of how those disciples are to be made. John emphasizes the “how.”
This prompts us to ask: If Jesus sends us as the Father sent him, exactly how did the Father send Jesus? The answer sings out from the beginning of the Gospel, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). God sent Jesus in flesh and that is how Jesus is sending us-in the flesh, mingling with the world “God so loved” (John 3:16).
The Apostle Paul uses another metaphor to unpack the incarnation in Ephesians 2:10. “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which he prepared in advance for us to do.” The Greek word here for workmanship is poiema. For Paul, the incarnation means that “we are God’s poetry” to the world. God is speaking poetry to us and through us to the world.
It is our distinct privilege to be in community with people in hard places who live as God’s poetry in this world enfleshed in human form. Raising up poets to incarnate God’s gospel song to lost, disenfranchised, and marginalized people is a vital enterprise. Wallace Stegner beautifully portrays how poets create place:
“No place is a place until it has had a poet…. What Frost did for New Hampshire and Vermont, what Faulkner did for Mississippi and Steinbeck for the Salinas Valley, Wendell Berry is doing for his family corner of Kentucky, and hundreds of other place loving people, gifted or not, are doing for places they were born in, or reared in, or have adopted and made their own.
The incarnation is not merely a “doctrine” disconnected from street reality. Rather, it has profound implications for day-to-day life and ministry. At the risk of reducing the incarnation to a formula, we might think about the incarnation at three levels:
God in Christ
Christ in us
Us in the world
We exist in the world to point to, lift up, and celebrate the incarnate Christ. We need to learn to hit the streets with the poetic license found in Ephesians 2:10. This calls for a radical presence.
Kris Rocke and Joel Van Dyke
This reflection adapted from Geography of Grace: Doing Theology from Below, Chapter 4.