“UNTIL THERE IS NO MORE LAND TO WORK”
Romans 15: 23
The Scope of the Missionary Mandate
Right from creation, God has intended that Man who is made in the image of the God-head would have dominion, rule and subdue every other created being (Genesis 1:26-28). This mandate (commission, assignment) given to the crown of God’s creation was to be carried out in terms of work within a prescribed space and context which encompasses the whole of God’s creation (Genesis 2:8; and in verse15: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it”). The all-encompassing scope of the divine assignment for God’s crown of creation is further indicated in the usage of such words like ‘every’, ‘all over’, ‘wherever’, ‘wheresoever’, etc, both in the Old and New Testaments. Examples: “I will give you every place where you set your foot” – Joshua 1:3; “Every Knee Shall Bow and Every Tongue Confessthat Jesus Christ is Lord” – Phil 2:10,11; “This Gospel of the Kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a witness to all nations – Matthew 24:14”; Believers are redeemed from every tongue, every tribe, every kindred – Rev 5:9 & 7:9. The other words used in the Great Creation Mandate as well as the Great Commission, indicate totally covering and occupying every space within the prescribed context of the mandate. For example: “Be fruitful, and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28); “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14); “Occupy till I come” (Luke 19:13 KJV). Acts 1:8 tops it up with the concentric nature of the scope of the bearing the witness of the Gospel beginning from Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and unto the utmost parts of the earth.
Paul definitely understood this concept because he described his missionary assignment thus “So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. It has always been my ambition to preached the gospel where Christ was not known; so that I would not be building on some else’s foundation” Romans 15:19-20. This was the reason he gave as the hindrance for coming to the Romans (verses 22) and therefore stating in verse 23 that now that there is no more pace for him to work in those regions where he has been doing pioneer missions, he was ready to now come to Rome, not for a pioneer mission work but a different type of ministry, thus, “I long to come to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong….that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith (Romans 1:11-12) …to enjoy your company for a while (15:24 later part)… so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and together with you be refreshed (15:12).
In other words, we do pioneer mission work in the places where Christ is not known yet, but another type of ministry i.e. perfecting, strengthening and encouraging the saints in the places where Christ is already made known and Churches are existing and flourishing, just as he recognized about the Roman believers thus: “I myself am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge, and competent to instruct one another”, hence the type of ministry he intended to do among them which was “writing them quite boldly on the same points as if to remind them of such things they already know and competent in doing among themselves” (15:14-15).
Implications of this Concept In Carrying Out the Task of Missions By Every Generation
When the Lord gave the children of Israel the mandate to take over the promised land, He insisted that every inch of the land must be possessed. When Moses was handing over to Joshua to lead the next push towards possessing the land, he reiterated to Joshua the instruction for total possession (Deuteronomy1:6; 7:5-6; 31:23).
After the death of Moses and during the commissioning of the Joshua generation, the Lord declared thus “Everywhere the sole of your feet shall touch, I will give to you for a possession” (Joshua 1:3). The two tribes of Reuben, Gad and half of Manasseh who had received their own portion of the land at the east of Jordan were still required to cross over Jordan to assist their remaining tribes-fellows to possess their own portions before they would return to continue enjoying their own inheritance already granted and secured for them before the death of Moses (Joshua 1:12-18). Joshua and his generation did a very great job in conquering the lands and possessing the nations (Joshua 12:1-24). But God insisted at the time Joshua was about to retire that were still much land to conquer (Joshua 13:1-7). However, at the time of Joshua’s death, there was still the challenge of the remaining portions to be claimed (Judges 1:1-26). But some tribes failed to completely take their own possessions and unconquered remnant-nations became thorns on their flesh and the heathen gods became a snare to those Israelite tribes that did not conquer and completely possess their own portions (Judges 1:27-2:3). Apart from the consequences of not completely dispossessing the heathen of the lands God has apportioned to the Israelites, the Lord also gave reasons for which He would not drive the remnant-nations on behalf of the new generation of the Israelite remnants (Judges 2:20-23) i.e. for the benefit of training and equipping that generation for accomplishing their own mandate (Judges 3:1-4)
The scope of the Great Commission as the Lord specified it in the new testament was as follows: “This Gospel of the Kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a witness to all nations and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14). “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:19). “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation…” (Mark 16:15). “And repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his nameto all nations, beginning at Jerusalem”(Luke 24:47). “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and unto the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Peter and his team obeyed only to the extent of preaching the gospel of the Kingdom and being Christ’s witnesses in Jerusalem ONLY as testified to in Acts 4:28ff; 5:28; 42; 6:1-7; 6:8-8:1. Their digging in on Jerusalem alone precipitated many issues which undermined the spread of the Gospel beyond Jerusalem, e.g. Peter arrogating to himself and his other eleven colleagues the ministry that all the saints were to be involved in, creating the clergy-laity dichotomy; misplacing of focus of the Church from the priesthood of every believer to that of fragmented utilization of the ministry gifts the Lord has endowed His children with by deploying the seven deacons who had the best qualifications for being ministers of the gospel to merely sharing food (Acts 6:3-5; 8ff; Acts 8:5-13). Eventually, the persecution which arose got the Church in Jerusalem to scatter though Peter and his team of apostles remained in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1).
The gospel went beyond Jerusalem not by the voluntary obedience of the Apostles who had dug in Jerusalem and were, like the descendants of Noah, were building and growing the Church on one spot (Acts 6:7). It was through the divine intervention with persecution that scattered the Church they were building on one spot in Jerusalem and released the believers from the docile enclave into which Peter and his colleagues turned them thereby freeing the preaching of the gospel from the monopoly of the ‘clergy’ and unleashing God’s missionary forces on all Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:2-4). It was also during this period that God, through the divine encounter that Saul the persecutor had with the Lord, recruited him into the missionary force that would overcome the reluctance of the docile Apostolic team in Jerusalem and push the frontiers of missions beyond Judea and Samaria to the uttermost parts of the earth (as summarized in Acts 9:31 and Acts 11:19-30).
It is noteworthy that the universal scope of the fulfillment of the Great Commission was advanced as the Lord of the Harvest through the act of the Holy Spirit (God’s agent of Missions) commissioned Paul and Barnabas to take the gospel beyond Antioch to regions beyond (Acts 13:1-4). It was in this era of missions to the Gentiles that Paul came up with the various concepts and truths about missions which he stated in the various chapters of the Book of Acts and his epistles to the believers in the various regions, cities and provinces where he and his team members have gone to preach the gospel, covering the scope of his missionary journeys, the missionary activities, the outcomes/results of the missionary activities, and the fact that different generations, individuals, groups have assigned roles and varying contributions to make in accomplishing the Great Commission.
For example, Acts14: 21-28 (the summary of their first missionary journey), Luke recorded the places they covered after being sent forth from Antioch, the missionary activities they carried out, and what made them to conclude that they “had now completed the work” for which they “had been committed to the Grace of God” at the time of their commissioning at Church in Antioch (Acts 14:26).
The second example is the account of how the Holy Spirit intervened in the attempt by Paul and his team to continue preaching in the areas they had planted Churches in their first missionary journey, and through a dream directing them to places where they needed to begin another pioneer work (Acts 16:6-9).
A third example is shown in Acts 18:9-11 where Paul had thought that his ministry in Corinth had ended and was contemplating to leave that place and the Holy Spirit told him in a dream that his assignment there was not concluded which led to an extension of his ministry there for one and half years.
A fourth example is in Acts 23:11 where he was assured by the Lord that his arrest in Jerusalem and extradition to Rome was a means of extending the witness he bore for the gospel in Jerusalem to Rome, a mission he fulfilled as summarized in Acts 28:16-31.
At the fullness of time of his assignment, and the time of passing the baton to the successor (Timothy) Paul could testify thus: “But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry. For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award toto me on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearance” (II Timothy 4:5-8 NIV)
From all that transpired as the Church in the various generations, ages, times, seasons and contexts highlighted above tried to understand and carry out the Great Commission, we can deduce that the scope of the Great Commission is not only in terms of the geographical space to be covered, but also in terms of specific groups to be targeted and diverse activities and roles to be played by different individual or groups of believers. It is also observed that the fulfilment of the Great Commission is trans-generational and time-bound. Therefore, the extent to which the individual, group or generation carried out their own specific assignment within the portion of the scope (whether geographical space, target or timing) determined whether they have fulfilled God’s purpose for them or not. Paul clearly understood and declared that while Peter and the earlier Apostles were called to minister to the Jews, he and his own team were called to minister to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:1-10). He also made it clear that the roles expected to be played in the execution of the Great Commission vary from one individual believer and generation to the other (I Corinthians 3:6-9). As the fulfillment of the Great Commission is described in terms of planting, growing, and harvesting, which occur at different seasons, environmental conditions, requiring different tools, appliances, and methods, we need to understand the season in which we are and to determine which task is before us and what tools we need to employ in carrying out the task in our own season. The Lord Jesus Christ made it clear in John 4:35-38, that this is a season of RIPE HARVEST, and that we are called to gather the harvest for which others before us have labored. It then behooves us to ensure that we look out where the ripe harvests are, and make use of the right ‘harvest’ tools with such sense of urgency about the danger of delayed or misplaced action.
Rev Reuben Ezemadu