I have argued a couple of times recently that Jesus’ post-resurrection instruction to his followers to make disciples of all nations, which we call the Great Commission, is actually more restricted in its scope than we have traditionally understood it to be. There was some discussion of this point under What is a missional church? And why I think Mark Driscoll is wrong; but you could also have a look at Matt. 28:16-20 - The not so Great Commission.
My basic argument is that the instruction is given within a pressing and historically relevant eschatological horizon and with a limited purpose in mind. So first, the reference to the ‘end of the age’ has in view the war against Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem; and in light of that, secondly, we should suppose that Jesus’ purpose was to ensure that this new community of restored Israel, centred around his disciples, would be securely established as an international movement, in fulfilment of eschatological hopes outlined chiefly in Isaiah, before national Israel was consumed by the foreseen political catastrophe. To be baptized in the name of the Father who restores Israel, of the Son who suffers in expectation of being vindicated, and of the prophetic and renewing Spirit was to be initiated into a community of eschatological transition, through whose faithfulness and endurance the people of God would be saved from destruction - and indeed, from historical irrelevance.
If this is correct - if as a matter of strict biblical interpretation we should read this is as a contextually limited instruction analogous to Moses sending spies into Canaan to spy out the land - are we then to assume that this Great-ish Commission has no relevance for the ‘post-eschatological’ church, the church after AD 70 or after the collapse of Roman paganism - or however we wish to characterize the ‘end of the age’? A friend recently sent me the following comments, which provides a good opportunity to draft a response to that question.
I was interested to note your view that the Great Commission was set in the context of disciples living in the expectation of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, which makes a lot of sense to me. I read the discussion on Open Source Theology but would be interested in more detail as to how your understanding of the Great Commission affects the church today. As far as I see, your argument is that the task of making disciples needs to be looked at in the immediate context in which a local church finds itself. Is this a fair summary?
Historical truth is not inferior to metaphysical truth
I would insist, in the first place, that the fact that Jesus’ commission to his disciples relates to a particular moment or period in the history of the people of God does not mean that it has no relevance to the church today. But the relevance it has must be construed, in the first place, historically or narratively. We find this difficult because our modern minds are so accustomed to dealing with religious ideas on an ahistorical or existential or metaphysical basis. We make the Platonic assumption that historical reality is somehow inferior to abstract, absolute, and universal truth. So we can’t help but think that if we shrink the Great Commission to these restricted historical proportions, we have diminished its religious value in some way. I don’t think that’s the case.
I think that the effect is rather to elevate the significance of the community as it relates to God not merely in its geographical or cultural context but in its narrative context. Not least at a time when the future of the church is very much a cause for concern in the West, it is important to recognize that scripture is always preoccupied both with the past and the future of the people - that is, with the narrative which is continually being told in order to account for its existence. We have forgotten how to do that because we have come to think of the church as an unchanging entity, doing what Jesus told us to do, happily floating along on the river of history, paying little attention to the passing scenery - or the treacherous rapids that lie ahead. What a historical reading of the New Testament teaches us is that we are not the early church; we have to learn to trust God, make sense of what it means to call ourselves the ‘people of God’, under our own pressing historical circumstances.
To my mind that does not diminish but rather enhances the ‘truth value’ of scripture. It is of enormous importance to us that Jesus sent out followers to make disciples from all nations who would learn the radical obedience and trust necessary for a people - communities, fellowships, churches - to walk the narrow path leading to life. But the question still remains.
Should we still be making disciples?
To be a disciple of Jesus was to learn to walk the road that he walked, which meant leaving behind family and home and livelihood, enduring rejection and vilification, proclaiming that the God of Israel had acted in defiance both of national Judaism and pagan Rome in raising Jesus from the dead, quite possibly facing imprisonment, physical punishment and death, clinging to the hope that through all this they would be vindicated as a community along with Jesus. This is not some sort of generic, one-size-fits-all, Sunday-school discipleship: it is the specific adoption of a radical calling and a radical lifestyle under the extreme eschatological conditions that are foreseen in the New Testament. It is a quite literal ‘imitation of Christ’ - a willing participation in his sufferings and vindication, which is why I think there is a problem with current approaches to mission and church that focus on the person of Jesus in isolation from his narrative context (see also Being a disciple of Jesus is not enough).
So how do we proceed from here? The New Testament defines a community of eschatological transition, called and discipled for that purpose. But this community makes that transition in Christ, through the upheaval of war, the devastation of national Judaism, and the eventual bankrupting of Roman paganism, for the sake of a people of God that was always meant to be ‘new creation’. I see this as a much more expansive, creative, humane, social, encultured vocation than the definition of a Christ-like community that we find in the New Testament. But I also think that this post-eschatological ‘new creation’ vocation is anticipated in the New Testament, not least in the emergence of the conviction that the Jesus who died and was raised for the sake of the historical restoration of the people of God is also the one through who all things are made. The one who is ‘firstborn from the dead’ is also ‘firstborn of all creation’ (Col. 1:15, 18).
The New Testament community located itself primarily in the story of the one who suffered and was vindicated, the story of the Son of man, the ‘firstborn from the dead’, who was eventually given victory over the pagan oppressor; and it undertook the task of discipleship on that basis. The post-eschatological community - that is, the church as we know it - locates itself primarily in the bigger story about the renewal of creation, in the story of the cosmic Christ, the ‘firstborn of all creation’; and we do ‘discipleship’, if we want to retain the term, on that basis. But then discipleship becomes learning how to do life well, learning how to exploit and experience the fulness of life that is found in this cosmic Christ, as a prophetic sign that God is creator and that he will not ultimately be rendered ineffectual or redundant by the corruption of creation. That is a possibility for us because the early church pursued a much narrower and much more constrained form of discipleship, taking up its cross in imitation of the one who suffered and was raised from the dead.
But then again…
Having said that, it is important to recognize that we are always ‘new creation’ under difficult conditions: there are always contextual challenges. In particular, the church in the West is having to learn how to be authentically and prophetically ‘new creation’ after Christendom, and there is perhaps some point to seeing that situation as analogous to the situation of the early church: we are in structural transition, and this imposes constraints on the life of the community to which our ‘discipleship’, if we choose to retain the term, must adapt (see also We have to go back, but not to square one). So I think that we have to ask ourselves serious questions about how we shape and develop communities that will successfully make the journey from Christendom - or from the modern church, if that is easier to get a handle on - to whatever lies ahead.
Perhaps in that thought of shaping communities lies a key to what it means to do discipleship as ‘new creation’ under present conditions. Modern ecclesiology has put the emphasis on making individual disciples - though ironically any individuality was usually ironed out in the process. In our post-modern, post-Christendom context I suggest that we need to think much more in terms of fashioning a certain type of community life, a certain type of culture, adapted to local conditions, but cognizant of the community’s place in the narrative.