The great omission of the Great Commission

When we learn to love the unbeliever like Jesus, our evangelism efforts will bear fruit

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Someone has said there is one word many believers and unbelievers dislike with equal passion: evangelism. For many unbelievers, the word brings back memories of an insensitive and in-your-face Christian trying to “win them to Christ.” For some believers, the dislike is because they were that insensitive and in-your-face Christian trying to win someone to Christ, and they want out of the evangelism endeavor.

For other believers, though, they have gradually lost interest in evangelism, or they don’t believe evangelism is a priority. Biola University professor Gary L. McIntosh states in a 2016 Biola Magazine article that “90 percent of people are reluctant to engage in evangelism.” This is the same percentage I was acquainted with when studying at MB Biblical Seminary in the early 1980s.

What is equally alarming, according to a Barna study, is how “Christians increasingly believe that evangelism is the local church’s job, not a personal responsibility (10% in 1993 to 29% in 2018).” These have left the task to others.

But there are believers who have learned to integrate Jesus’ way of making disciples into theirs. They see evangelism as an honor. For them, it is both enjoyable and natural. And the results are longer lasting; those they reach also become active disciples/disciple-makers.

Balancing two priorities

What has helped me experience evangelism more like Jesus is learning to balance Matthew 28:18-20 with Mark 1:17. Matthew writes, “Therefore having gone, make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them…and teaching them to keep all that I commanded you” (DLNT). Mark records Jesus saying, “Come after me, and I will make you become fishermen of people” (DLNT).

In the Matthew text given at the end of his earthly ministry, Jesus focuses on the task of each Christian to make disciples, baptizing and teaching them. When we talk about evangelism and outreach, Matthew 28 is almost always cited. For years this Great Commission text was my principal point of reference.

Mark’s “Great Commission” text given at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry also calls the believer to reach others. But unlike the Matthew text, Jesus focuses first on the life of the disciple/disciple-maker. Jesus seems to be saying that seeking him and becoming like him are everyday experiences necessary for becoming successful fishers of people.

Mark 3:14-15 provides added counsel for being effective disciples/disciple-makers: spend time alone with Jesus. “And he appointed twelve…in order that they might be with him, and in order that he might send them out to proclaim” (DLNT).

Jesus invites each disciple to be with him, and then serve others. As we shall see later, this was Jesus’ practice with the Father. It is in these intimate encounters with Abba that he instructs us regarding discipleship and making disciples. You might call this the domino effect of Christian living. When his will is sought and heeded, something supernatural happens concerning personal holiness and emotional wellbeing. We become more Christ-like before others, something especially needed for healthy gospel proclamation. We also, as Jesus did, learn the details about how and when to evangelize.

Most of my life as a disciple-missionary-pastor has been about developing strategies to reach others. Sadly, I did this without regularly practicing a weekly Sabbath and fasting, two important spiritual disciplines along with listening prayer that keep us centered on the One who is the starting point for all Christian living and witness. For most of my life, I have focused more, both in practice and teaching, on evangelism than being with Jesus.

Jesus practiced what he preached

Becoming like Jesus has also been important, but I never associated this with effective outreach. Neither did I see it as important as doctrinal correctness. I also never developed a theology of change—knowing the steps to freedom over sin—until two decades ago. It doesn’t surprise me how many of my earlier ministries were marked by emotional turmoil, interpersonal problems and besetting sins. In many ways, I was guilty of the “great omission” of the Great Commission.

In recent years I have made many course changes. Greater delight in my soul has followed. However, there is still more road to travel to become a healthier disciple/disciple-maker. I continue to look to Jesus’ example for needed direction. Jesus practiced what he preached.

Jesus not only taught his disciples to be with him, become like him and proclaim his kingdom, but he perfectly modeled what he taught. What can we learn from Jesus? I will purposely highlight Jesus’ relationship with the Father out of which His own becoming and proclaiming flowed.

1. Jesus “followed” the Father

Jesus’ pursuit of the Father involved worship and service, but his understanding and practice of worship are much broader than that of many believers. For many today, worship happens at a certain place and time. The Samaritan woman thought this way, wanting to confine worship to a particular mountain. Jesus responds by saying, “true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth,” (John 4:23) implying worship is a daily activity practiced everywhere.

Mennonite Brethren New Testament theologian John E. Toews argues in his essay “Worship in the New Testament” that worship is much more than ascribing worth to God on Sunday morning. According to Toews, worship in the New Testatment never refers to a particular activity or practice happening in a Sunday “worship service.” Worship happens primarily between such meetings. As Jesus states, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.” (Matthew 4:10).  Worship has both an upward and outward dimension.

For Toews, “Worship is mission; it does not call people out of the world but rather sends them into the world to serve in spirit and in truth.” Such was Jesus’ experience. Soon after his temptation experience and testimony of allegiance, his ministry to the world began (Matthew 4). Such was also the disciples’ experience. Following a worship encounter on a Galilean mountain (Matthew 28:17), Jesus then called the 11to make disciples of all nations. Paul and Barnabas’ missionary call also came in a worship encounter (Acts 13:1-3). In each case, evangelism flowed out of a worship encounter, an excellent model for every worshipper today.

Praising God in song in our Sunday gatherings is edifying. But let us not strictly define this as worship. Worship is 24/7.

Jesus’ pursuit of the Father also involved solitude and prayer (Matthew 14:23, Mark 1:35, 6:46, Luke 5:16, 6:12). One might think that Jesus followed the custom that many Christians do today in their private devotions. They read a Bible text and present their heart petitions to God. This is to be commended but there is more. Jesus’ understanding of prayer (proseuche) also calls us to discern any counsel the Father might have regarding our petitions.

Jesus knew that when he spent time alone with the Father, his Father would invite him to collaborate with him in working out his perfect plan for his life and ministry. Such is what he is inviting us to do as well regarding making disciples. I believe it is in these moments of abiding intimacy when he gives us direction about how to serve others through evangelism.

Jesus’ pursuit of the Father also involved trust and obedience. Jesus lived his life in full trust and obedience to the Father. “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34; see also John 5:30, 6:38, 8:26).

2. Jesus became the only perfect human

Jesus never experienced conversion. Neither did he have to repent. “We have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15). He could have sinned, but he chose not to. He learned to trust and obey from birth. Even with imperfect parents, Jesus “was obedient to them…And he grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:51-52). His witness flowed from righteous living.

Perhaps what contributed most to Jesus’ perfect witness is how he dealt with suffering. “Even though Jesus was God’s Son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered…and he became the source of eternal salvation for all those who obey him” (Hebrews 5:8). Because of his obedience, he became “the firstborn among many brothers and sisters” (Romans 8:29). As we conform our lives more to his image, our witness to the lost will mature.

3. Jesus preached the good news of the kingdom

Preaching, like worship, has more to do with spiritual activities practiced outside the Sunday morning service than in it. A study of the verb “to preach” in the New Testament reveals that it has less to do with an elder/pastor behind a pulpit and more with believers moving from the pew to the marketplace.

Properly understood, an elder/pastor teaches, and we believers preach—one to believers, others to unbelievers. Preaching, evangelizing and proclaiming tend to be convertible terms having more to do with our life mission than a pulpit experience.

My pastoral experience has taught me that church members oftentimes are more interested in the pastor’s “preaching,” both in a negative and positive sense, than in God’s call for them to preach to the world. I remember several occasions when members would eagerly share a word of counsel with me about my “preaching,” but not once did they seek my counsel about how they could better evangelize and preach to their families, co-workers or neighbors.

Becoming more like Jesus

The teaching ministry of the local church is important. Doctrinal purity is vital. But if we believers neglect the call to be, become and proclaim, we have truncated his work in and through us.

There is a plethora of great books, articles and resources on personal evangelism. What are some resources that can help us be with Jesus and become more like Jesus? A popular resource that provides a balanced approach to Jesus’ Mark 1:17 “Great Commission” is the Rooted series (Mariner’s Church). Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life is also helpful in showing us how to move from being to proclamation and conversion to evangelism.

An excellent resource designed to help us slow down to be with Jesus and practice daily encounters with him (Daily Offices) and a biblical Sabbath is Pete Scazzero’s Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. John Baker’s Life’s Healing Choices resource is beneficial for experiencing life-transformation. Mary and I are doing this course with a group of Spanish-speaking Christians for the sixth time. Celebrate Recovery and re:generation are two other ministries greatly benefitting many of our friends in their quest for emotional healing and becoming more like Jesus.

While it is good to learn from others, sadly, many Christians have attempted to duplicate another’s success without first consulting the Father. They have failed to realize that another’s success is quite possibly due to them being with and becoming like Jesus, and that God then helped them evangelize others in a Spirit-led and natural fashion.

So, learn to know Jesus better (John 17:3). Spend time in silence and solitude with him. Allow Jesus to transform you more and more into his image, and he will do the rest in and through you as well. In so doing, you will join the ranks of those about whom Paul says, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news.”

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