Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Great Commission

One of the ideas you run into a lot in Christian circles is that of The Great Commission - the idea that God commanded all believers to go out and spread the word, so to speak. In churches that maintain this there’s usually a strong support of missionary work. I always had the feeling that the assumption is that everyone should be a missionary - if not on the mission field, then at least in our own neighborhoods. 

We should be knocking on doors and handing out pamphlets. We should be doing everything in our power to convert “the lost”. If we fail to embrace that, we are ashamed of Christ and we should question our own salvation.

I’ve never felt this was right and, frankly, I think it does more to drive people away from Jesus than toward him. I’ve always held that we all have different gifts and different callings. To force somebody into a role (such as evangelizer) for which they are ill suited is inefficient at best, and contrary to God’s will at worst. After all, God has blessed us with our unique gifts. We should pursue them - not what other people think we should pursue.

The idea of The Great Commission comes most notably from Matthew 28:18-20. Other places are Mark 16:15-18; Luke 24:44-49; and John 20:19-23. The passage in Matthew reads:

Matthew 28:18-20
“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.’” (NIV)

This raises two important questions. First (even though the word is never actually used), what is a commission? And second, what is a disciple? Before I answer these, I want to compare the NIV to the King James. The latter does not use the words “make disciples of all nations”, but rather, “teach all nations.” I accept the translations as roughly synonymous - the loosest definition of disciple being “learner”, but others elaborate.

The dictionary definitions for disciple are: a learner; a personal follower; one who accepts and helps spread the teachings of a famous person.

John Starke ( claims a disciple is, by definition, a multiplier. He uses Matt 13:23 to back up his assertion. But Jesus wasn’t speaking of disciples, per se, in that parable. He was speaking more generally about spiritual receptivity. Certainly Jesus expected his disciples to be receptive and to bear fruit - but that is beside the point he was actually making. 

So, while I agree with Mr. Starke’s sentiments, I find his particular argument wanting. For the sake of this posting, I’ll be using the definition of learner; which I think is closer to the King James idea of “teach all nations.”

Regarding the question of what is a commission, I first want to point out that most of the people I’ve heard talk about this have tended to emphasize that The Great Commission was a command(ment). As Mary Fairchild points out (, “As many have said, it’s not ‘The Great Suggestion’. No, the Lord has commanded us to put our faith in action.”

Not exactly. At least not the way I read it. First off, the word commission is not in any of the verses - it’s just what people call it. But assuming it’s an accurate word, a commission is not a command(ment). And it certainly wasn’t given to all of us. It was Jesus’ final instruction to his immediate disciples.

Matt Slick ( calls it “the final instructive word from Jesus to his church.” Again, not exactly. Not “the church” the way we usually define it, but a select group that, I would argue, preceded the church. He goes on to say, “This commission is mainly given to the disciples then present. But it applies to you as well.”

For a third time I say, not exactly. It applies to us only in the sense that the disciples of those disciples will/should teach the same things. But it’s a mistake to say that Jesus was giving this instruction to us. It was a clear delegation of responsibility. Jesus delegated to his disciples, who were then responsible for passing along the instruction. A fine-line distinction? Perhaps. But no more so than it being Adam’s responsibility to pass along the instruction to Eve. God held Adam primarily responsible for the failure, not Eve.

So, it is perfectly appropriate to call it The Great Commission. A specific group of people was commissioned with a task. But it was not a commandment. Jesus never uses a word as strong as “command” in these verses - at least not to describe this instruction. People may get confused because he says, “Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you:...” 

Note that he didn’t say, “I command you to teach all nations.” Rather, he instructed them to teach all nations ABOUT the things he commanded! Note also the slight difference here in the King James from the NIV. The NIV, you’ll recall, said “Teaching them to obey...”, but that’s not what the King James says. No, it says “Teaching them to observe...”!  The word translated as observe means to guard from loss; or to keep an eye on - in other words, to remember. That’s a totally different connotation than the word obey. I think this misunderstanding of what was being said is the primary cause for people thinking of The Great Commission as a command. What else would you think from the word obey. Too bad that’s not what he said.

So, the disciples were to teach people to remember all the things he commanded them. What did he command them? Some say he gave them quite a few commands. This website: ( lists 49 of them - but, while I won’t dispute them, they seem to me to have been presented as instruction - like a mentor teaching about life. The commands that were clearly commands - Jesus actually called them commands - are found in Matt 22:35-40: You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, and with your whole soul, and with your whole mind. And the second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. These commandments are so important that Jesus said the whole Law and the Prophets depend on them. Then in John 13:34 he gives them a new command. Love one another. That, in essence, is what he was instructing them to teach. Love God. Love your neighbor. Love one another. These are things we can teach people to observe. Those should be the first things the disciples taught, to be followed, as believers mature, with the others in the list of 49. But it was his immediate disciples to whom he gave this commission.

Before closing I want to return briefly to the issue of what is a disciple - because it’s more than an academic question. A disciple is NOT a convert. Jesus did not say “go make converts.” He said (in the NIV) “go make disciples.” this is even more complicated because an argument can be made that his followers were disciples before they were converted!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Love of Place

Usually when I write these things I stand on one side or the other of a particular given issue. This time, though, I’m stuck in the thinking process and I’m not sure about my feelings.

As families sometimes do, we’ve been toying with the idea of moving - specifically to a warmer climate - and I find myself truly torn.

On the one hand, I like the idea. Even though I love the change in seasons, and actually don’t mind winter, there are limits. Every year around February it starts to get old. Yet every year winter lasts through February, through March, and sometimes into April. Seasonal Affective Disorder (which has the appropriate acronym of SAD) kicks in with an intensity that varies from year to year, and not just for me.

On the other hand, I genuinely love New England and have a very difficult time imagining leaving. I feel like I would be literally lost and out of place.

That last phrase, out of place, is the strongest fear. Most of my life I’ve felt that I didn’t belong. I always felt different from everyone around me and never felt like I was in the right place. 

I’m finally at a point in my life that I feel comfortable in my own skin. I seem to fit in with people I care about and my home finally feels like my home, rather than just the place I sleep and keep my stuff.

On the one hand, there’s a part of me that would love to have sun more often, and I suspect it would have a beneficial effect on my temperament. Also, my wife feels pretty strongly about wanting to be warmer and the fact of the matter is, she’s never been one to ask for a lot. We’ve lived in New England for more than 50 years. Maybe it’s time to warm up.

On the other hand, my passion for family history makes me want to stay. It goes back again to a feeling of belonging. My family have been in Massachusetts and New Hampshire for more than 375 years. We settled in New Hampshire before it WAS New Hampshire! For 13 generations we’ve been here and I guess I don’t want to be the one to leave. Maybe that’s silly, I don’t know.

The other day I was listening to John Denver, who had some wonderful songs about heritage and love of place (which was the inspiration for the title of this post). It got me thinking about all the songs by various artists about this subject and I realized that the feeling is somewhat universal.

Anyone who knows me well knows that music affects me in profoundly emotional ways. 

Just a short list of this type of songs includes: “Small Town” by John Mellencamp; “Where I Come From” by Montgomery Gentry; even, in a sense, “Calypso” by John Denver.

“Sunshine On My Shoulders”, while not specifically about a place, brings back memories of times and places when sunshine really did make me high - an experience and feeling made all the more powerful by living in a region where sunshine is at a premium.

Of course there’s “Massachusetts” by the Bee Gees, sung with such emotion, that has special meaning to someone from there. “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynard Skynard and “New York State of Mind” by Billy Joel both make clear how much those places mean to them.

Then we have the cream of the crop of “love of place” songs. These songs are unequaled in their ability to provoke emotional attachment to a place: Ray Charles makes me want to live in Georgia when I hear “Georgia On My Mind”, and “Take Me Home, Country Roads”, by the genius John Denver, makes me want to move to West Virginia. Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention “Rocky Mountain High”.

I guess the top of the heap would have to be “Back Home Again” by, once again, John Denver. This song is so poignant partly because, in addition to a very specific place (“this old farm”), it’s really more a song about family and love, and makes the point that that’s what makes a home a home.

So, with this last in mind, I’m no closer to resolving my dilemma . . .