Did the Apostles Get It Wrong?

The early Apostles must have tragically misunderstood the Great Commission. Or did they? Judging by the practice of many denominations and the priority reflected in many church budgets, the Apostles should have stayed in Palestine to refine the disciple-making process, or possibly they should have worked in food pantries and homeless shelters or chaired their local church building committee. Or they could have focused on the latest media craze or youth ministry strategy. 

The early church did much in the way of compassionate ministries, no one would argue that. My intent is not to criticize existing church ministries, but to call attention to the obvious priority set in motion by our Savior. The Apostles understood the Great Commission to mean taking the Gospel message to the far ends of the earth, and they understood it to be their top priority — not constructing elaborate buildings,  funding local charitable causes, or installing the latest bells and whistles in sound and video technology. All of the above ministries may well have their place, but are they top priority? 

Take a moment to revisit Matthew 28:19. Notice the phrase“making disciples of all the nations.” Do you see a period after “disciples”? Look again. Possibly get another version.  Maybe the NASB or KJV or ESV includes a period. Does it?  The insertion of a single period after the word “disciples”  would have significantly changed the ethos of the 1st century church. It might well have prevented Mark from going toEgypt, Paul from going to Asia and Thomas from going toIndia. It might have prevented their martyrdom. WesternEurope (and subsequently much of the world today, includingAmerica), might not have the Gospel if the Great Commission had been viewed the way much of the church views it today. 

The passion of the early church is unmistakable. It can easily be seen in the DNA of the first Gentile church: the Antioch church (Acts 13:1-3). Very few times in Scripture do we actually get a word-for-word quote from the Holy Spirit. This is one of them. The Holy Spirit names the two people to be sent out as missionaries. The Antioch church was not given the luxury of recruiting one or two of its members who couldn’t seem to fit in anywhere else. They didn’t send a few people who were well-financed and had a romance with travel. They were instructed by the Holy Spirit to send out their two top leaders — Barnabas (the senior pastor) and Paul (the new associate). Had the Holy Spirit not named them, the church most likely would have recruited others — certainly not their two most gifted and respected leaders.

Can you imagine the response of a vibrant, growing church if their board was presented with the idea of sending its senior pastor and top associate to another country as field missionaries? Imagine the panic, the looks going around the room and the raised eyebrows. Imagine the subsequent conversation and the excuses offered. With the Antioch church, after much praying and fasting, God spoke and named names. The recruitment question as to who was a moot point. When God speaks, it is either obey and know God’s blessing and favor, or disobey and face the consequences. One might also wonder if the church leadership would have even heard God speak, if they had not been fasting and praying.

Awakening Lives to World Missions (ALWM) believes every local church can be faithful to the Great Commission by placing global missions as top priority — top in prayer, top in energy and talent, and top in giving. ALWM wants to give Lutheran pastors hands-on opportunities for teaching in developing nations where training is desperately needed. When the pastor goes and sees first-hand how God can use his or her knowledge of the Scriptures, both the pastor and local congregation are enriched and engaged in the global enterprise that continues to bring God’s amazing blessing and presence to entire societies and people groups. We might ask, “Is it fair for a person to live in one part of the world and during the course of his/her life to hear the Gospel 1,000 times, while another person living in another part of the world will never hear the Gospel even once?” Though most major continents have a Christian presence in some form, statistics reveal that several thousand people groups in the world are yet to be reached with the Gospel in any form — not Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox. I personally know of primitive, tribal groups in the mountains of India who are mostly untouched by civilization and the “modern” world. No Christian missionary has ever gone there — not in our generation or any generation throughout history. Who cares enough to send missionaries to these people groups? Will the Chamber of Commerce send missionaries there, or the Lions Club or our government? Who will do it? Who will assume this responsibility if the church of Jesus Christ doesn’t?

It is estimated that of the 7.2 billion people alive in the world today, 3 billion of them live in unreached people groups with little or no access to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. According to Joshua Project, there are approximately 16,300 unique people groups in the world with about 6,500 of them considered unreached.* Though Lutherans were the pioneers in Protestant missions, they are now woefully behind in global mission support. Pentecostal and Baptist groups are busily strategizing and funding the majority of global mission work done today. It is not unusual to hear of these groups commissioning their own sons and daughters to go to distant lands as missionaries, but it is rare to hear of a Lutheran congregation commissioning a son or daughter as a field missionary. Some Lutheran congregations still hold mission festivals, but the majority do not. The fire for global missions that once burned in many of our congregations has all but gone out.

Without question, our own nation has many “lost” people. In every community across America there are “lost” people. But understand, the Great Commission is not to make our own country 100% Christian. This will never happen. The Apostles could have stayed in Palestine for their remaining years, as there were many lost people in Palestine. They could have limited themselves to the Roman Empire, as it was a brutal, secular government with vast regions of non-Christians. But they didn’t. The Apostles understood Jesus to say, “Go” to the far corners of the earth ... and they obeyed. It can also be argued that God is bringing many people from foreign nations to us. Americans can now share the Gospel with people from Africa, the Middle East and other nations by looking to their own communities. That is true. But it was also true in the 1st century for those living in Palestine. The challenge to share Christ should never be viewed as “either/or” meaning either here in our country or over there in distant lands. It is both, but top priority is given by our Lord to people who have never heard or had the chance to hear the Gospel.

Christianity in much of the world is growing at an unprecedented rate. Unlike here and in Western Europe, where societies are becoming increasingly resistant to the Gospel, multitudes of people in different parts of the world, once considered unreachable, are eager to hear and to embrace the call of Christ in discipleship. Jesus said, “The fields are white unto harvest ... pray ye the Lord of the harvest to send out workers.” What about your church? What about you as a church leader or chair of a missions team? What about you? Will you resolve to change the status quo? Will you step out and enlist your leadership to fast and pray about the role your congregation has in global missions? Will you as a pastor offer yourself for two or three weeks to teach basic Bible to pastors who have little or no formal training? Is your response like Samuel’s when the Lord spoke to him in the Temple? Will you say, “Here am I, send me”? Or will you say, “Here am I, send someone else”?

*Joshua Project. Retrieved September 29, 2016: https://joshuaproject.net/global_statistics

For more information, contact Tom at: tcurry2@juno.com