Last words are important. We hang on them. Our minds ruminate over them and think deeply of their intended meaning. This is what we should do with Jesus’ last words to us in the Gospel of Matthew, what is often referred to as The Great Commission:
Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. 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 teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always to the end of the age.” (CSB)
Jesus’ last words to us actually came after His death on the cross, and they were a command to all who believe in the soul-sanctifying work that He accomplished through His death. It was plain, simple, and clear: He gave us the task of using our lives to reach the unreached. And, in light of our time among the unreached in Papua New Guinea (PNG), I can confirm that there are no shortcuts or quick-fixes to make that happen. It still requires being with people, and it still takes time. We find in these final words a sweet definition of discipleship, namely, evangelism (an awakening to know Christ) that leads to spiritual maturity (walking in faith with Christ). Each phrase is worth reflecting on.
Our Savior, who suffered Himself, knows our weakness. And He came near as He gave this extraordinary task to His Church. He gives great responsibility, but He does so with closeness and with authority. All authority.
There is nothing in this world that can change the day that He alone has marked for my departure from this life to the next. There is no worldly circumstance that He is not in control of. There is no reason to fear as we march out into the nations to proclaim the good news. As we’ve served overseas, you would be surprised how many times we have heard, “I know I wasn’t called to be a missionary because . . . ” These sentences usually end with some kind of verbalized fear––lack of ability to learn a new language, phobia of bugs or reptiles, fear of sickness or tragedy, etc. But the motivation to “Go” isn’t rooted in our own merits or anything else we have in ourselves. No, it is rooted in the belief that Christ’s authority extends beyond what we see or think, as well as our fears and unknowns, whether in the first world or the third.
Friends, every missionary you know has these same fears as they obey the command to “Go.” However, those who go and then persevere through the toughest circumstances are staying only by God’s grace. They have staked their soul-flag deep into the soil of God’s supremacy. They are resting in His sovereignty. According to the Great Commission, there is no true Christian who is not called to make disciples. Only those who are untrained to make disciples.
For those who feel drawn to overseas missions, begin soul-training in your neighborhood and local church today. Start by asking yourself questions like: What do I fear today? How is the lack of understanding of God’s all-encompassing authority causing a lack of obedience in regard to reaching out to my neighbors, my co-workers, and the nations at large? Begin to choose the paths that challenge your fears, and watch the God of the universe prove His power in your life. And then, when He nudges you to say, do, or move for the nations . . . Go!
Our lives have now been intertwined with our brothers and sisters from the Inapang tribe for fourteen years, and there have been some seriously hard times for our family. There have been some lonely times and even some dangerous times. But, as we reflect on Christ’s command in The Great Commission––the task all Christians have been given and that which has eternal consequences for all peoples––we would never ask for a do-over. As we left the tribal church elders last month to come home for a time of rest, two of the elders held us as they said goodbye. They repeated a story that we hear often:
Why did you come to live with us? How did you know where we were? We know that you don’t know the answers to this, really. We know that it was just God, leading and directing you here to save us. We did not ask for you and we did not know this God that we love now. He just with his one-sided love for us, brought you to tell us His Story. Had you not come, we would not know. And had we died not knowing, our souls would be forever lost.
How are we spending our lives? It’s easy to begin to believe our culture when it tells us what’s real—that our comforts, our video games, our eating out, our shopping, and our vacations will provide satisfaction for our souls. But these are not real in the ultimate sense. They do not count in light of eternity. When the King returns, these things will only testify against us if we have been finding our satisfaction in them. They are just a spiritual smoke screen working to diminish the truth of the hopeless eternity barreling towards every unreached person in this world. Don’t be afraid to say ‘no’ to some things (even really good and fun things) in order to say ‘yes’ to time spent with people for eternity.
Baptism is an amazing picture of the saving work of Jesus Christ and of our liberation from sin. Christ’s command to baptize in The Great Commission is not about the traditions of men. It is about God’s Perfect Son – a splendid picture of His death and resurrection, and of our being raised to new life with Him! Baptizing is a modifying clause, prescribing how we are to make disciples of all the nations. We are to do this until Christ returns.
Now, because we belong to Christ (as baptism declares), we should begin to grow. But that takes time, and lots of it. My husband and I sometimes cringe when we hear mission updates that report anywhere from five to a thousand people saved in a brief two-week visit. Assuming that the message was given clearly in the local language, the salvation part is obviously good. Really good. But then what? What happened next? Is anyone now a part of this new convert’s life offering some one-on-one instruction? Is there a gospel-preaching church there to feed them?
As Americans, we must remember that our country is (in part) the product of centuries of Christian teaching and influence. Even our judiciary system reflects some biblical principles within its basic makeup. For many third world settings, this is not so. Deep-seeded animism and spirit manipulation puts them into a moral deficit as they begin their Christian walk. Our passion for discipleship grows strong in PNG because we have seen the needs of fledging tribal churches firsthand, as well as what happens when these churches are left without that daily spiritual input. The hours of discipleship with our little group of believers in PNG was so very time-intensive for the first five years after their conversion. It almost put us spiritually and emotionally over the edge at times. But they needed time, and they needed time with us––lots of it. Time to point to God’s words and to talk through every little “heavy” that came up in their personal lives and in their life in the community. To take one example, a man came to the door for some help several years after becoming a believer. He had caught his wife cheating on him, and he said, “I know what I would’ve done before, but what do I do now that I am carrying God’s name?”
These are the real day-to-day questions that arise in a heart and in a community where the Word of God has just made its entrance. These are disciple making opportunities that require more than a checklist or a good sermon. These new believers need the more mature members of the Body of Christ to help and encourage them in the truth. Our lives saturated with Christ + their lives + time = discipleship that leads to maturity in the faith.
Having lived in the tribal setting of PNG, and having seen miraculous conversions, all the while knowing the work we have left to do in discipling our Inapang friends, I would have to agree with John Piper when it comes to the practical outworking of The Great Commission. This is a “very long process,” and we must “spend a lifetime teaching them to obey all that Jesus said.”
I Am with You Always
If you want to be an overseas missionary or a hometown disciple-maker, it will take conviction and a solid stand in God’s ultimate authority. It will take overcoming fear and moving into physically or spiritually uncomfortable situations, because that’s where the lost are found. It will also take time, as in your whole life. But have no fear. The One who began the Great Commission telling us about His authority ends it by promising His presence, reminding us again that He has won the battle and He is with us to the end of the age.
As we reflect on our ministry of tribal church development, we are struck again with the depth of meaning in each phrase of Jesus’ last words. We pray that modern-day missions movements will allow themselves to be shaped more by this amazing command than by human strategies and timelines. We also pray that Christ would be central in our efforts. We are not greater than our Master, the One who gave His life to make the Great Commission possible. And if we are obedient to His final words in their entirety, it will take the entirety of our lives.