Familiarity can be a problem.
I fly on a regular basis—regionally, nationally, and internationally. Sometimes the flight is overbooked; other times I get a row to myself. Sometimes the plane is equipped with individual TV screens for every seat; other times there is not even one screen for everyone to share. Sometimes the meals are tasty, and … I just caught myself in a fib.
There is one constant on every flight, though: the safety speech prior to takeoff. You probably know the scene. The flight attendant stands positioned in the center of the aisle, ready to deliver the spiel. For some reason, though the planes are state of the art, the audio equipment usually is not, and so the flight attendant uses a push-button walkie-talkie device. For a minute or so the flight attendant thoroughly explains the safety equipment on the plane and how to utilize the equipment in case of an emergency. My favorite part is when they show how to fasten a seat belt; I suppose that is for the people on board who have not been in an automobile at any point during the last fifty years.
As the flight attendant assumes position to begin the speech, most passengers also assume a certain position: eyes rolling, shoulders shrugging. They pay attention to anything but the lifesaving information being shared.
Familiarity is the problem. Most passengers would claim they do not need to pay serious attention to the safety instructions because they are so familiar with them. They could recite the words. And of course, in a life-and-death situation they could live out the words.
But is that really true?
I am included in the “most passengers” category. Though I have heard the safety speech hundreds of times, I really have very little idea what is actually said. If I ever find myself in a life-and-death situation aboard a plane, I will likely be in real trouble. Where is the flotation device again? How do I get the oxygen running through the tube? Where are the exits?
The problem is not with the supposedly familiar instructions; the problem is with the supposed familiarity with the instructions.
Great Commission Confusion
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt. 28:18–20)
There are endless ways this command from Jesus could be dissected, but here is the bottom line of Jesus’s command: go and multiply yourselves. We could diagram the logic of this passage, unpack the original language, and talk about the historical background, but all of that complex work can be simplified back down to this: you are followers of Jesus; go make more followers of Jesus.
If you have been following Jesus for a while, then the command to Go is very possibly like the safety-information speech prior to takeoff. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know. I get it. You have likely seen the words written and heard them taught—perhaps you can even recite them from memory. You are familiar with the instructions. And maybe you have even found yourself tempted to skip over this chapter because you are familiar with the same old spiel.
But there is a problem. Jesus’s command paints a picture of disciples making disciples making disciples making disciples. Disciples making disciples making disciples equates to explosive growth, quite contrary to the current pattern of growth in the American church. George Barna Online Research states that fifty to seventy-five churches every week close their doors for the last time.1 They sing their last song, plan their last worship service, share their last potluck meal, and then lock the doors for the last time. There are numerous factors contributing to this reality, but the core issue is not something that is happening, but something that is not happening.
The instructions are not being heeded. Going is not happening.
There is a problem.
However the problem is not with the supposedly familiar instructions; the problem is with the supposed familiarity with the instructions.
Familiarity does not equal clarity. Instead, confusion can coexist quite easily with familiarity. Just like I can hear the safety spiel on a plane hundreds of times and still wrestle with basic questions like, “Where is the flotation device? How do I get the oxygen flowing? Where are the emergency exits?” the command to Go can be heard over and over again while still leaving more confusion than clarity. Not only can confusion still exist in the midst of familiarity, but when it comes to the Great Commission, confusion does exist. So let me address three commonly accepted ideas about the Great Commission. Each represents confusion, and each explains why the mission has not yet been completed.
Going Is an Event
I’ll never forget the time Billy Graham and I crossed paths. Well, sort of. Well, not really at all. What I mean is that I will never forget the time I was visiting the city of Cincinnati at the same time Billy Graham was holding a crusade. I was not even attending the crusade but I still felt the effects. There was a buzz in the air; traffic was heavy. More than seventy thousand people were pouring into downtown Cincinnati to experience the event. Thousands undoubtedly turned to Jesus as Lord and Savior.
In terms of the Great Commission, I think many people think about Going primarily as an event. Perhaps the event is a packed stadium where the gospel is preached. Perhaps the event is a spring-break mission trip to a third-world country or a good old-fashioned tent revival or a special door-to-door initiative in your community the weekend before Easter.
Such events certainly play a role in Going, and yet, honestly, they play a small part, because they are isolated.
When Jesus gave the instruction to Go, He was not thinking in terms of events; He was thinking about our lifestyle.
Go could be better understood in this way: “as you are going.”
Viewing the Go command from this perspective is a game changer—and more so a life changer. Not just for you, but for others.
When Go is viewed as a daily mission, not a scheduled event or activity, a sense of awareness is heightened and opportunity abounds. Whether you are a successful professional, a graduate student, a retiree, a trainee, a senior citizen, or a senior in high school … you are going. There is no question about whether you are going—you are, and so am I.
Everyone, everywhere is going. Always.
The question changes, then, from whether you are going to whether you are fulfilling the mission as you are going.
In Acts 1:7–8, Jesus used very specific language in regard to our mission.
It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
I find Jesus’s choice of words interesting. He didn’t say we are to be theologians here, there, and everywhere. He didn’t say we need to spread religion here, there, and everywhere. Jesus said, “Be my witnesses.” The word witness is a familiar one; it derives from a courtroom setting. During a trial, witnesses will be called to the stand to testify under oath, and they will be asked to testify about what or whom they have seen or heard. So, if you were a witness to an accident, you would be asked to describe in the greatest possible detail how the accident occurred and perhaps who was at fault. And if you were a witness to a crime, you may be asked to recount the sights and sounds you observed as the crime took place. Very simply, a witness is someone who testifies about what he or she has seen or heard.
Jesus said, “You will be my witnesses.” So, are you? Do you? On a regular basis do you find yourself sharing with others about what you have seen and heard Jesus do? Using witness language really simplifies the mission we have been given. Many people overcomplicate the gospel message and the qualifications needed to share the good news. A seminary degree may be helpful, but it’s not necessary to be a witness. Impressive letters before and after your name may increase your vocational opportunities, but they are not necessary to be a witness. The ability to read and understand the original biblical languages is impressive, but it is not necessary to serve as a witness.
For evidence of this truth, we need look no further than the scene where Jesus first gave the Go command. He was gathered on a mountaintop with a group of ragtag fishermen—also known as His first disciples—and He was preparing to ascend into heaven.
He explained to them—and I am paraphrasing—“From now on you will be My witnesses.” In other words, “I will no longer be here in person, so you are responsible to testify about what you have seen and heard.” Jesus had been on the earth for around thirty-three years, which included a three-year ministry, and now He was leaving. In doing so He gave His followers the responsibility to share the message about His life and death and resurrection with the entire known world. The men who only three years before had been fishing and collecting taxes were responsible to take the message of Jesus to the ends of the earth. In his book The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey wrote, “By ascending, Jesus took the risk of being forgotten.”2 Essentially Jesus left it up to a small inner circle of His followers to make sure that He wasn’t forgotten. Can you imagine how overwhelmed and unqualified for the task they must have felt? They had no formal theological training, no impressive degrees. They didn’t have awe-inspiring spiritual résumés; very likely they didn’t feel qualified to carry out the task they had been given.
Isn’t it true that many of us feel the same way they must have felt? Overwhelmed and unqualified? The difficult part of witnessing is not identifying people who need to have Jesus in their lives; it is knowing how to share the news of Jesus.
As a pastor I have had many people explain to me how they would like to share Jesus with other people, but they are unsure of what to say. More times than I can count, I have heard, “I just don’t feel like I know enough to share with other people.” I understand that, and the corporate church certainly has the responsibility to work toward equipping people with appropriate knowledge. However, a lack of knowledge is no justification to excuse yourself from sharing the message of Jesus. I always like to look at the issue this way: if you knew enough to decide to follow Jesus, then you know enough to invite someone else to follow Him. Perhaps that sounds simplistic, but it really should be that simple. As Christians we can so easily overcomplicate what it means to be Jesus’s witnesses. The people I have known who have been the most effective witnesses for Christ do not have any fancy titles before or after their names, and they do not have diplomas from impressive seminaries hanging on their walls. They are simply those who tell the story of what Jesus has done in their lives.
One of the most effective evangelists in the New Testament was an unsuspecting person whose story we learn about in John 4. As Jesus was passing through Samaria, He encountered a Samaritan woman who had come to draw water from a well.
Now, we know some things about her simply by the fact that she was at the well at midday. In those days the women would usually travel together in the earliest hours of the morning to draw water together so they could avoid the hottest part of the day. So the fact that this woman was at the well during the day, alone, was an obvious cultural indication that she was living on the margins of society. And there was a good reason why she was living as an outcast. John 4 tells us the woman had had five husbands and was now living with another man who was not her husband. She was probably the talk of the town, but not in a good way. When she walked down the street, everyone else would have moved to the other side. When she walked into a restaurant, all the people there would have called for their checks and left.
But then she encountered Jesus.
Jesus said to the woman, “Will you give me a drink?” (John 4:7). Now, if you don’t know any better, this seems like a very unassuming question. But culturally, this was a barrier-shattering question for at least two reasons. First, a good Jew would never willingly associate with a Samaritan. Jewish people considered Samaritans to be half-breeds at best and something less than human at worst. The Jews hated the Samaritans, and from the perspective of the Samaritans, the feeling was mutual. The Jews so despised Samaritans that, whenever possible, they would avoid even traveling through Samaria. Instead, they would take a well-worn path that went around Samaria. A Jew would never associate with a Samaritan, and a Jewish man would never speak to a woman in public. But in John 4 we find Jesus talking to a Samaritan woman. The woman was shocked. In fact verse 9 tells us, “The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’”
Jesus responded, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water” (v. 10). As the conversation played out, the woman was perplexed: she thought Jesus was talking about physical water when in reality He was speaking in spiritual terms. But Jesus had promised that He could offer water that would quench her thirst forever, so she said, “‘Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.’
“He told her, ‘Go, call your husband and come back.’
‘I have no husband,’ she replied.
“Jesus said to her, ‘You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true’” (vv. 15–18).
Very quickly the Samaritan woman realized the man she was talking to was not just an ordinary man. In fact, in the midst of the conversation, Jesus identified himself as the Messiah. After the conversation ended, the disciples returned from town and the woman returned back to town. Interestingly, she left her water jug behind. She traveled to the well to draw water to survive for the day, and yet she was so captivated by her experience with Jesus that she left the water behind. She came to the well physically thirsty and left the well spiritually quenched. When she traveled back into the town, she told anyone who would listen about her experience. You would expect that because she was an outsider and had no influence, no one would have listened to her, and yet verse 39 says, “Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I ever did.’”
Some translations say that as a result of her testimony, the whole town went out to meet Jesus and many believed. If a woman living on the bottom rung of society can share Jesus with a whole town of people, what is your excuse? What is my excuse?
Here is what you cannot miss: the Samaritan woman was not successful as an evangelist because she was an expert in the Old Testament law or because she was an eloquent communicator, but simply because she was Jesus’s witness, and she testified about what He did in her life.
One of the most effective ways to be Jesus’s witness to others is to share the story of what He has done in your life.
You could tell how Jesus rescued you from the depths of addiction, or how He redeemed a past that was checkered with criminal behavior. Such stories are incredibly effective, and I encourage you to share them anytime there is the opportunity.
But quite possibly you do not even feel like you have a story to tell about how Jesus has worked in your life. Perhaps you have been in church since the first Sunday out of the womb, you cannot remember a time when you didn’t believe in God, and you have had John 3:16 memorized since the time you learned to talk. Maybe the details of your life are a bit different, but I know there are many people who don’t really feel like they have a testimony to share. We tend to think that testimonies have to be flashy or full of shocking details, but the truth is that if you are a follower of Jesus, you have a testimony. Not only do you have a testimony of what Jesus has done in your life, but—whether you realize it or not—you have an incredibly powerful, earth-shattering testimony that has unleashed a raging river of implication coursing through heaven and hell. If you are a follower of Jesus, you have a captivating testimony even if you do not feel like you do.
The apostle Paul communicated our story as Christians this way:
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. (Eph. 2:1–5)
No matter what the other details of your story may be, it begins this way: “I was dead, but because of Jesus, now I am alive.” That is a pretty captivating story about what you have seen and heard and experienced of Jesus.
Going is not an event but a lifestyle. As you are going, serve as a witness.
As you go to work Monday through Friday from eight until five, don’t just trade your time for money; use the time as an opportunity to be a witness for Jesus.
As you go to school year after year, study hard and learn a lot, along the way serve as a witness for Jesus.
After you have retired, don’t settle for kicking back and coasting through the last couple of decades of life; be intentional about continuing to build new relationships so you can serve as a witness for Jesus.
And if you are a stay-at-home parent, don’t feel like you are exempt from being a witness; you have children who listen to every word you say and are watching your every move. You have a captive audience; as you are going through your day, be a witness for Jesus.
Going is a lifestyle defined by witnessing about what you have seen and heard Jesus do, not just in your life, but also in the lives of others.
Going Is an Option
I have often heard people attempt to rationalize their lack of participation in the Great Commission by explaining that witnessing is just not a gift they have been given. Well-meaning people often use 1 Corinthians 12:27–30 as the trump card to justify their personal lack of participation in the mission:
Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?
According to that passage, teaching is labeled as a gift. That verse seems to open the door for some people to excuse themselves from the mission because only some have the gift of teaching. Therefore, if you are not one of the some, you get a free pass. Now, there are very few who would actually articulate such an argument, but I also believe that mind-set is alive and well, and the quoted passage seems to justify it.
However, it does not. Are there some who are especially gifted as teachers and preachers? Of course. But does the absence of the ability to communicate the gospel to hundreds or thousands at a time serve as a valid reason to excuse oneself from the mission? Of course not.
Serving as a witness is not an option; it’s an obligation.
Perhaps the word obligation used in this context made you wince a bit, and understandably so. Obligation tends to carry a negative connotation. We are quick to think about certain aspects of life in terms of obligation: paying taxes, taking out the trash, and tasting our mother-in-law’s newest recipes. Obligations do not typically stir up warm and fuzzy feelings. In fact, many people would prefer to avoid the obligations of life, not embrace them.
When I label serving as a witness as an “obligation,” I am not thinking about the connotation we usually attach to the word. Obligation in this context is a “get to,” not a “have to.”
Almost nine years ago I willingly obliged myself to someone. In front of my friends and family, I sealed my promise to my bride with the words “I do.” When I said, “I do,” I obliged myself to care for her in sickness and in health, in poverty and in wealth, in good times and in bad, until death do us part.
I am obligated to her, but this is a “get to” obligation. Yes, I’m obligated to spend the rest of my life with my wife, but there is nothing else I would rather do.
Some obligations are not burdens, but opportunities you wouldn’t forego for anything.
In John 5 we read about a man who had been crippled for thirty-eight years. He lay beside the Pool of Bethesda, a place where the lame, the blind, and the crippled gathered because people believed that when the water was stirred, it could heal. Because of his condition, this man had never made it into the water, and so when Jesus encountered him, He asked, “Do you want to get well?” (v. 6). Perhaps Jesus asked that question tongue in cheek, because of course the man wanted to be well. The man told Jesus, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me” (v. 7). Jesus simply looked at him and said, “Pick up your mat and walk” (v. 8). And at once the man was healed. The Bible doesn’t say so, but I would guess he began hopping and skipping and jumping as he experienced flexibility and strength in his limbs, and surely he was shouting at the top of his lungs all the while. We are told very few details about this man’s life, but I love the way his story ends: “The man went away and told the Jewish leaders that it was Jesus who had made him well” (v. 15).
The crippled man was healed, and instantly he felt obliged to tell everyone everywhere the good news. Wouldn’t you?
Interestingly, the same Greek word used in the New Testament for salvation also means “healing.” And so if you are a follower of Jesus, this is another way to tell your story: “Jesus has made me well.”
Several years ago, the once famous (now infamous) athlete Lance Armstrong was interviewed about his tireless efforts to raise funds for and awareness about cancer research. During the interview he explained his motivation this way: “I guess it’s the obligation of the cured.”3
Serving as a witness for Jesus is not an option. It’s an obligation: the obligation of the cured.
When you truly understand you have been healed—not just of cancer, like Lance was, but of sin—telling others the story of what Jesus has done is not a “have to” but a “get to.” Not an option but an obligation.
Going Is about Places
When most people think about Going, they think in terms of geography: places. And so many people would say they would be all about fulfilling the Go mission if only they had the opportunity to go. If they had the time or resources to visit a distant land or an impoverished country or to cross a border, then they would be busy about the command to Go. There is an if/then mentality that can easily develop in this regard. If I could only Go to __________, then …
But what if the Great Commission isn’t about geography at all?
Now certainly, as Jesus explained the mission of the church to His closest followers, geography was a part of the conversation. In Acts 1:7–8 Jesus said, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Clearly, Jesus spoke in geographical terms, but even then His mind was filled with the names and faces of men, women, and children from every tribe, tongue, and nation. So of course, some Christians, perhaps even many, need to get passports and go through customs and fly over water if the Great Commission is going to be completed. But some of us also need to stay. The bottom line is this: all of us are called to Go even if we stay.
If you studied the entire book of Acts, you would find that the expansion of the church followed the model Jesus laid out. The first seven chapters describe the impact of the gospel in Jerusalem. Then, Acts 8–12 depicts the impact of the gospel in several places in Judea and Samaria. Acts 13–28 highlights the spread of the gospel to major cities throughout the whole Roman Empire, which at the time was the known civilized world.
Though going places—even distant places—is certainly integral to fulfilling the mission, thinking primarily in terms of geography does not fully encompass what Jesus was up to, and it offers too many Christians a free pass not to participate.
Somehow the Great Commission has become an assignment for certain people in the church—usually those who have a passion about international missions. And if participating in or carrying out the Great Commission implies traveling to or living in a foreign land, then just on a very practical level, most Christians are given a free pass to sit back and passively observe.
If the Great Commission is primarily about geography, then very few people will feel compelled to be involved in the work. Sure, they may send a check or two throughout the year to help finance the work of those who are participating in the Great Commission, but the efforts will likely stop there. Honestly, if the Great Commission is reduced to only distant geographical locations, then I understand the disconnection that seems to have taken place in the hearts and minds of so many Christians.
But what if the Great Commission is not about times zones but about men, women, and children? What if the emphasis is not on cities but on souls?
What if the Great Commission is simply about names and faces?
If the Great Commission is about names and faces—and it is—then there are no more free passes to avoid participation. The if/then mentality gets replaced by a right-here, right-now mentality. Christians do not need to wait for the opportunity to Go to a certain place to be on mission; the mission begins “here,” wherever your “here” may be.
The Great Commission is about names and faces.
In your community.
In your neighborhood.
In your school.
In your office.
In your living room.
Hopefully you will have opportunities to Go “there” to help complete the mission, but in the meantime, be on mission “here.”
Going is not an event but a lifestyle.
Going is not an option but an obligation.
Going is not about places but about people.
These principles each represent elements of common confusion, even in the midst of the familiarity with Jesus’s command to Go. Yet the core issue hindering the mission is something much deeper and more serious.
The sense of familiarity has eliminated a sense of urgency.
You have probably heard Aesop’s fable The Boy Who Cried Wolf about the little boy who cried out for help because of a wolf too many times when there was no wolf in sight. And in the end, when a wolf really arrived, the boy cried wolf, but no one heeded the warning. He had cried wolf one too many times.
In some scenarios, familiarity reduces a sense of urgency.
When the flight attendant shares the safety speech, there should be eerie music playing in the background because the scenario described is one of life and death. But because the information is familiar, people treat the message as anything but urgent.
The same thing has happened with the command to Go. It is literally a matter of life and death for millions of men, women, and children, yet many of us settle in and tune out Jesus’s call to Go. The message is urgent, but in many ways our response to the message would suggest it is anything but.
Your sense of urgency in regard to the Go command will be in direct proportion to the way you view people.
When I walk into the grocery store or post office in my community, I often notice the bulletin board that is covered with the faces of missing children. Occasionally I will pause for a moment or two to take a closer look, but after a brief hesitation, I’ll continue on my way to buy the milk or bread or mail a letter or two. My guess is that you respond in the same way. Perhaps you give casual interest, but not much more. However, imagine how differently the scenario would play out if your child was missing. Each time you passed a bulletin board with missing persons on it, your eyes would hungrily devour the faces, ensuring your child’s picture was on display. Not only that, but you would also run and shout and flail your arms, doing whatever necessary to share a photo with anyone and everyone in sight. All day. Every day. In the relentless pursuit to find your child, the amount of necessary resources would be irrelevant; any kind of concern about how people perceive your actions and words would be nonexistent, and complacency would have no place in your life. Instead, urgency would be your constant companion.
When Jesus said “Go,” He wasn’t sending us on a mission to seek and save a nameless, faceless crowd. He sent us to save children—not someone else’s children, but His children. I like to envision that the walls of heaven are covered from floor to ceiling with names and faces of men, women, and children from every tribe, every tongue, every nation—and that all of them have these two things in common: they are children of God, and they are lost. And every time a person is found and enters into a relationship with Jesus, a picture is pulled down from the wall and shredded into confetti … and the party begins.
In Luke 15:10 Jesus said, “I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Go is not a suggestion but a command. Not about religion but about relationship. Not about a crowd but about children.
The instruction to Go may be familiar, but it couldn’t be more urgent.
“Therefore Go and make disciples …”
Reflect & Discuss
1. If you are honest, are you serving as a witness “as you are going”? Do you find yourself regularly sharing with others about what you have seen and heard Jesus doing?
2. If you are not actively sharing Jesus with others, what do you believe is the most significant obstacle? Lack of knowledge? Lack of opportunity? Lack of courage? Discuss practical ways to overcome these apparent obstacles.
3. Reflect on the story of how you began a relationship with Jesus. Now think about how to share your story with others in a meaningful way.
4. Ultimately, Going is about names and faces. Take some time to list people within your circle of influence with whom you can intentionally share Jesus. If you have trouble thinking of the names and faces, answer these questions: Whose numbers are programmed into your cell phone? Who lives next door to you on both sides and across the street? Who do you report to on the organizational chart at work? Who reports to you? Who lives in your house?
If you answer these questions, you will likely develop a list of people within your circle of influence. Now Go, tell, share, and make disciples.
Father, You have sent me on Your behalf to make disciples of all nations. Whether I am nudged to another time zone or simply across the street, give me courage, boldness, and willingness to be a witness for You. In times when I feel overwhelmed and underqualified for the task and by the task, remind me that I am not alone and that I am capable. Stir me up and remind me of the great urgency in regard to this task. Children are lost—Your children. Let me live with an appropriate level of energy and urgency. In Jesus’s name.
© 2014 Jamie Snyder. Thou Shall is published by David C Cook. All rights reserved.