Thoughts on the Way Home

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Have We Misunderstood the Great Commission?


I just began reading Robert Culver's book A Greater Commission recently, in which he argues that the vast majority of evangelicals have misunderstood the "Great Commission" of Matthew 28:18-20. This is from the preface of the book:

Most missionary promotion among our churches and students seems to rest on what is taken to be a command of Jesus, especially as reported in Matthew 28:19, 20 and Mark 16:15. If the basis of a mission of "sending" out evangelists with home support is some command of Jesus' during His post-resurrection ministry some striking problems arise, namely:

1) Why is there no trace of this in any stage of church history before near the end of the 18th century?

2) Why doesn't the word send appear in the commission somewhere? The word go is there but gets somehow transformed to send.

3) The Apostles all heard Jesus speak these words. If it was a command to go or send why did most of them then stay in Jerusalem for decades until driven out by threat of the Roman siege?

4) Why did Peter fear either to eat non-kosher food or to company with Gentiles if Jesus had commanded the disciples to go to Gentiles to preach?

5) Why did God have to stand Peter on his head, so to speak, to get him to go to Cornelius' house at Caesarea?

6) Why was Peter so fearful he took six trusted men along as witnesses to his unprecedented mission to Gentiles?

7) Why were the leaders of the Jerusalem Church initially displeased at what Peter did at Caesarea? Did they not know about any "Great Commission" to send missionaries of the gospel to the whole world?

8) Why initially did the preachers of the early chapters of Acts address their message to "the people" of Israel, not to the Gentiles if the now current popular understanding of Matthew 28:19, 20 is the same as theirs?

9) And finally, when Paul turned to evangelize Gentiles why did he always find his primary authority in Old Testament prophecy--especially in his appeal for help in a ministry to Gentiles in Spain (Rom. 15:8-12) or to the simple logic of Romans 10:14-17. Paul seems utterly unaware of any command of Christ to mount a world-wide evangelistic mission to Gentiles.
He then goes on to lay out his basic position to be filled out in the remainder of the book:

The purpose of this book is to bring renewed attention to the mandate for the Christian mission of world evangelism as found in Christian history and the Bible and to direct fresh consideration to important passages of the New Testament that previously have not been placed anywhere near the center of a biblical theology of principles and practices for disciples taking part in the mission of world evangelism.

Moving these four rather large texts--Matthew 10 and 13, and Romans 10 and 15--to center perhaps will give a more substantial basis for uprooting some from workplace, home and family, to go away on a mission than was previously thought to exist. Perhaps a firmer demand upon all the rest to join in sending and supporting will also stand forth. Perhaps Matthew 28:19-20 and the other Great Commission texts in the last chapters of the gospels mean simply and compellingly that all Christians must take the gospel along wherever they go, as obviously all the visitors present at the first Christian Pentecost did, while Matthew 10 and 13 tell believers how to do that task and what to expect when they do it. And perhaps Romans 10 and 15 direct believers to do something still more and provide the scriptural basis for missions in the biblical theology of the apostle Paul. Perhaps these Pauline texts are the strongest possible source of the greater commission sometimes phrased: "If you cannot go yourself, then send someone else."

Do our readers have any thoughts to contribute on this?