Make the Commission Great Again
Trigger warning: This article focuses on Christian discipleship. Although it plays on certain political themes in recent memory, CO/CF Ministry is neither taking a side nor criticizing one. The main point of the political allusions in this article is for us Christians to refocus our attention to matters of faith and mission instead of the temporal politics of nationhood.
It was an inauguration ceremony to remember. The streets were packed with visitors from all over the world, and each of the local small businesses operated in the black for weeks to come. After many years of poor leadership and divisive culture wars, the working class hoped for a fresh start and a brighter future. The newly appointed leader of a nascent populist movement addressed the estimated crowd of about 300,000 people, which fell short of some higher expectations by thousands if not by millions. The man was known for making bombastic remarks, and even his accent was off-putting to many commentators. However, this did not stop him from giving a historic and riveting speech that launched a successful administration.
He was Simon Peter, a blue-collar Galilean who was known for his temper and speaking his mind. He was now the keynote speaker for the Way, as the Jesus movement was called at this time. This day was the inauguration of the Christian church. During this Jewish feast of Pentecost (Hebrew: Shavuot; H7620), about May AD 30, Peter began, "Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel" (Acts 2:14b-16). In his speech, Peter connected an Old Testament prophecy to the mysterious events going on that day. Jews from across the Roman Empire and beyond heard the eleven apostles speaking in other languages they never learned on their own, but somehow testifying about Jesus' messiahship. Before the world's end, God promised that he would send visions to all demographics, whether they were male or female, slave or free, Jew or gentile (Joel 2:28-32; cf. Gal. 3:28).
All nations . . .
Peter's sermon at Pentecost was about ten days after Jesus issued the Great Commission: "Go therefore 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 that I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:19-20). While the apostles waited in an upper room of the temple mount, the Holy Spirit inspired them to immediately carry out Jesus' command.
These were the nations with the first baptized Christians: Parthia, Media, Elam, Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Roman Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libyan Cyrene, Rome, Crete, and Arabia (Acts 2:9-11a). They roughly correspond to the modern countries of Iran, Iraq, Israel, Turkey, Egypt, Libya, Italy, Greece, and those on the Arabian Peninsula (i.e., Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen). The distance from east to the west stretched for about 3,182 miles (5,122 km; see here), and from north to south for about 2,766 miles (4,452 km; see here). This area roughly matches the dimensions of the conterminous United States (see here & here). On the first day of the Christian church alone, 3,000 Jewish pilgrims repented from their rejection of Jesus as their national Messiah and received baptism (Acts 2:37-42). Once they all returned home, the gospel reached a wide expanse which included the continents of Africa, Asia, and Europe. This dispersion of Jews was instrumental to the growth of Christianity across the Roman Empire and beyond. Even in his time, Paul of Tarsus was able to write, "[The gospel] has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven" (Col. 1:23c).
Still Greatly Commissioned
We are Christians today because someone once baptized our ancestors and turned them into Jesus' disciples. This may have occurred at any time between the first century to now in this twenty-first century. Yet, the Lord still greatly commissions us to make disciples of the nations and to baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Throughout church history, we have successfully taken the gospel to every country in the world. However, those of us Christians in the West now find ourselves in a peculiar situation when we need to evangelize our nations before committing ourselves to others any time soon. Yes, we need to make the Commission great again!
You may ask, "Didn't Jesus tell us to baptize the nations?" Of course, but we must understand the actual meaning of the text. When Matthew recorded the Great Commission, he applied the Greek noun ethnē (G1484) that we receive as "nations." We do better to interpret this word as "ethnicities," as the biblical jargon implies a group of non-Jewish people rather than a political unit. Simply put, Jesus commissioned the church to evangelize the Greeks instead of Greece, the Italians instead of Italy, or the Ethiopians instead of Ethiopia. Today, he calls us to bring the good news to the Chinese instead of China, the Iraqis instead of Iraq, the Colombians instead of Colombia, the French instead of France, and the Somalis instead of Somalia. That said, more of us need to stay at home and evangelize the Americans instead of the United States, the Canadians instead of Canada, or the British instead of Great Britain. We need to reach out to all the "leavers" who decided for "Chrexit" (i.e., exit from Christianity) and address their doubts. Nonetheless, Jesus did not commission us to make churchgoers but to baptize disciples to be the church. Only then can we proceed to the task of Christian nation-building, to infiltrate all levels of government and social infrastructure.
The Cost of Discipleship
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) wrote a book titled The Cost of Discipleship in which he distinguished costly grace from cheap grace. As a pastor whose resistance to Nazi Germany led to his execution at the end of World War II, Bonhoeffer knew something about the cost of discipleship. He wrote,
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. . . . It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son (pp. 44-45).
The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) also uses "The Cost of Discipleship" title for the passage in Luke's gospel in which Jesus teaches about it. He warned, "Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost" (14:27-28). Parenthetically, this lesson requires a mathematical answer. The word "disciple" translates the Greek mathētēs (G3101), which derives from the verb manthanō (G3129, "to learn"). Yes, this is the same root from which our term "mathematics" comes from, as it defines the learning of factual knowledge. To be a disciple, a learner, of Jesus means to count the cost of following him. This must be a deliberate calculation on our part. To put it in business lingo, we must prepare a risk-cost-benefit analysis and choose the most profitable course of action. Jesus asks, "For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?" (Matt. 16:26).
Peter's sermon at Pentecost was the inauguration ceremony for the Christian church. It is our ecclesiastical "birthday" in which the streets of Jerusalem were packed with Jewish pilgrims from all over the Roman Empire. After several decades of mediocre leadership from the Herodian dynasty and the Sanhedrin, the people wanted change. Divisive culture wars pitted Hebraist against Hellenist, Pharisee against Sadducee, Jew against gentile, and Judean against Galilean. However, most of the people were simply working-class folk hoping for a new beginning. Peter took charge as the keynote speaker of the Way, a populist movement based on this "good news" (Greek: euaggelion; G2098) that changed the world. Ancient writers such as Josephus believed as many as two million Jews came to Jerusalem for the festival pilgrimages, while others give a more conservative estimate of about 300,000. Peter, a man known for speaking his mind and his Galilean accent, convinced 3,000 of these Jewish visitors to repent from their sins, receive baptism, and accept Jesus as their Messiah. Today, we read this powerful discourse in the light of Christendom's triumphant history.
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, we pray for you to prosper all those who proclaim the gospel of your kingdom throughout the world, and strengthen us to fulfill your Great Commission, making disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to obey all that you have commanded. Amen.
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Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Touchstone, 1995.
The Book of Common Prayer. Huntington Beach, CA: Anglican Liturgy Press, 2019. p. 111. http://bcp2019.anglicanchurch.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/BCP2019.pdf.
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