Historians credit seventeenth-century Lutheran missionary Justinian von Welz with coining the phrase “The Great Commission” to describe Jesus’ “go and make disciples of all nations” missionary charge to the disciples in Matthew 28:18–20; however, it took Hudson Taylor, nineteenth-century missionary to China and founder of the China Inland Mission, to popularize the phrase’s use. If Taylor popularized it, contemporary evangelical Christianity seized upon it and emphasized it so completely as to overshadow the even greater—that is, more comprehensive—commission given to the human race in the very first chapter of the Bible:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Genesis 1:26–28, NIV)
As author James Davison Hunter notes, the “Great Commission” of Matthew 28:18–20 is a remedial commission, not a replacement one. At the conclusion of Jesus’ earthly ministry, it is the launch of the next chapter of the redemption story, which takes the whole Bible to tell. That story describes the restoration of human beings to the station for which they were created, namely, receiving the lavish philanthropy of God and pouring it out in its fullness upon all creation:
There is a strong tendency, especially within the pietistic branches of Protestantism, to see formation or, if you will, “the great commission” as a new and different work for the people of God in history; that redemption is of a different nature than creation. It is absolutely true that the incarnation of God in Christ, his life, his suffering, his death and resurrection represent a radical rupture in human history. This is the euangelion, the “good news,” and to proclaim it and live out its meaning is a calling for all believers. But this rupture in human history does not represent a departure in God’s purposes. Indeed, redemption through Christ represents a reaffirmation of the creation mandate, not its annulment. When people are saved by God through faith in Christ they are not only being saved from their sins, they are saved in order to resume the tasks mandated at creation, the task of caring for and cultivating a world that honors God and reflects his character and glory. (From James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 236.)
This is the Work of Mercy of reigning. The term carries such triumphalistic overtones that its mention is likely to prompt recoiling, derision, and protest not only on the part of non-Christians but even on the part of many Christians as well. The disciples themselves descend repeatedly into triumphalism as they grapple with what the Lord is equipping them to do and be, and they have to be rebuked out of their completely wrongheaded notions by the Lord sternly and often. Even so, a search of Scripture reveals that the New Testament and the entire span of Scripture are saturated with the witness that God is absolutely determined to see it come to fruition.
The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. (Romans 8:19–21, NIV)
(This post is excerpted from my book, The Whole Life Offering: Christianity as Philanthropy. (c) 2011 from .W Publishing. All rights reserved.)