From Genesis to Revelation, the Scriptures reveal the mission of the triune God to actively engage and redeem mankind for His glory. This redemptive record has been referred to in Latin as the missio Dei—the mission of God. There is a growing emphasis among evangelical believers today to become “missional” by aligning themselves with this directive, but there is a wide variety of opinions about precisely what it is.
I believe that the making of disciples, resulting in the creation of disciple-making movements and the establishment of local churches, constitutes the mission of God as defined by Jesus Christ and revealed in the New Testament. This belief is rooted in careful study of the nature and scope of Christ’s mission, based on His post-resurrection authority.
Christopher Wright, in analyzing salvation history, states that “Jesus Himself [emphasis added] provided the hermeneutical coherence within which all disciples must read these texts, that is, in the light of the story that leads up to Christ (messianic reading) and the story that leads on from Christ (missional reading).” Robinson also claims that Christ’s ministry fulfills both a messianic role regarding Old Testament prophecy and an ongoing missional role in the New Testament:
Jesus Himself asserts that the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms are all fulfilled in Himself, and here He obviously has more in mind than what are ordinarily considered messianic passages – Jesus is speaking of the whole of the Old Testament. The Old Testament is part of one story, and that story ultimately is about Jesus Christ and His mission, continued in the New Testament.
The redemptive work of Christ and His post-resurrection authority form the core of His great commission. The missio Dei has once and for all been focused upon the missio Christi. God’s mission in the world is now defined solely by Christ’s mission to make disciples and establish his church among all peoples (2 Cor. 5:18-20).
Alan Hirsch describes how the missio Christi is a continuation of larger concept of the missio Dei. The different persons of the Godhead are involved in particular ways to fulfill the missio Dei in this age. He sees in Scripture a “biblical monotheism” that focuses the missional activity of a distinct Person of the Godhead in salvation history. In the Old Testament, the monotheistic missional focus of the Trinity centered on God the Father and His relationship to Israel. In the New Testament, the monotheistic missional focus is on the Christ and His redemption of mankind.
This “Christo-centric monotheism” has a missional focus based on Jesus’ authority and mission to build His church and make disciples of all peoples. God the Father and the Holy Spirit support the advancement of the mission of Christ in the world. The missio Dei has become in Jesus the missio Christi. All that the triune God intends and plans to do in salvation history during this age is defined by and characterized by the mission of Christ.
The Authority of Christ to Direct His Mission
From the Gospel accounts, Matthew presents a crucial summary of the promises and commands that define the mission of Christ in the world. There we see it is twofold: 1) Christ’s promise to build His church (16:18), based on His imminent sacrificial death for mankind; 2) Christ’s command that His followers make disciples of all people (28:19). The essence of Christ’s mission is making disciples from all peoples, resulting in disciple-making churches among all peoples.
Matt. 28:18 states, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” The word “authority” denotes Jesus’ divinely bestowed and unlimited power, and right as God’s Son and mankind’s Savior, to freely act. Christ’s right to rule was mutually invested in Him in perfect agreement between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
In the original language, the form of the verb “to give” (εδοθη) in Matt. 28:18 denotes sovereign power and authority that had already been given to Jesus. Alfred Plummer notes it is “not mere power or might (δυναμιs), but ‘authority’ as something which is His by right, conferred upon Him by One who has the right to bestow it (Rev. 2:27).” It is the authority of the King of kings and the Lord of lords.
With this authority, Jesus is declared as the sovereign Ruler who initiates a new age and exercises universal dominion through His followers for making disciples of all people (Rev. 5:12-14; 19:6). In Matthew’s gospel, Christ is presented as the “the King of the Jews” (2:2; 21:4-5; 27:37), fulfilling the messianic promises. Based on His sacrificial death and resurrection, He is presented as God’s appointed and empowered Lord over all created beings, His followers and all nations (c.f. Phil. 2:6-11).
Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert stress the importance of Jesus’ authority as declared in Matt. 28:18, “The mission Jesus is about to give is based exclusively and entirely on His authority. There can only be a mission imperative because there is first this glorious indicative. God does not send out His church to conquer; He sends us out in the name of the One who has already conquered.”
Christ’s universal post-resurrection authority forms the basis of His mission. “Because of this authority, Jesus has the right to issue His followers their ‘marching orders,’ but He also has the ability to help them carry out those orders.” The mandate to “make disciples” given by Christ to His followers is a divine command, given by the One who possesses and has gained the right to rule over the universe.
Christ is Lord of His Church
The title that appropriately describes Jesus’ authority and mission in this age is “Lord.” The title “Lord” comes from the Greek term “κυρίος” with the basic meaning of supremacy. Jesus used the title “Lord” to delineate an important characteristic of His relationship to His followers in Mark 12:37. Here, Jesus refers to King David’s use of the term “Lord” in Psalm 110:1 where David’s “son,” the promised coming all-powerful Messiah, is called the κμρίος (Lord) in the Greek version of the Old Testament (Septuagint). This is one of several Scriptures that Jesus used referring to Himself during his earthly ministry that led believers to think of Jesus as their coming Messiah, the divine κμρίος.
Wilkins highlights the “all-inclusive” scope of Christ’s authority from Matt. 28:18-20 as the declaration of His missional purpose for this age. The repetition of the adjective all—all authority, all nations, all things, all days—provides a comprehensive declaration of Christ’s Lordship over every aspect of His followers’ lives. Christ’s authority is focused in His right to rule over the lives of all believers so they obediently carry the gospel and make mature or holistic disciples of the nations.
With the coming of the Holy Spirit recorded in Acts 2, Christ’s promised church becomes a reality and believers begin to refer to Jesus as their Lord. Blaising and Bock emphasize that as the source of salvation for all mankind, Christ is now recognized as the divine Lord who saves:
On the basis of Jesus’ current authority over all, Peter makes his emphatic call to the crowd to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:38) …Those who would come to God must come through Jesus. The Lord on whom one must call to be saved (Joel 2 and Acts 2:21) is Jesus, the Lord at God’s right hand (Psalm 110 and Acts 2:34-46). Jesus’ ascension elevates him to the point where what was said of Yahweh in the Old Testament can now be said just as easily about Jesus!
Christ’s lordship is a key factor in motivating obedient disciples to submit humbly to Him. Jesus stated that the greatest commandment was to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:23-40; Mark 12:28-34). Bietenhard observes, “In reply to the Jewish teacher’s question about the great commandment Jesus declares that their kurios is to be given complete and undivided attention.”
This authority to rule is, at least in part, the fulfillment made in Daniel 7:13-14 regarding the coming “son of man.” Jesus is the Son of Man and He is Israel’s promised Messiah. He alone was given the authority, based on His death and resurrection, to rule as the King and Lord “in heaven and on earth.” (Matt. 28:18)
Wilkins rightfully understands that Christ’s universal authority is demonstrated through His right to rule in the life of every believer, summarizing what Jesus meant when He announced that all authority in heaven and earth had been given to Him:
A new authority or regime is established in the hearts of Jesus’ followers. That authority affects all that we are, in all that we do, in all spheres of life. The motif of the kingdom means that there is not a scintilla of life that does not come under the authority of Jesus Christ. Fundamentally we are kingdom people, which means that Jesus is Lord in our hearts, homes and workplace; our attitudes, thoughts, and desires; our relationships and moral decisions; our political convictions and social conscience. In every area of our interior life, personal relationships or social involvement, we seek to know and live the mind and will of God.
Defining the Mission of Christ in the Church Age
In light of Christ’s biblically established authority and lordship, it is vital that we understand His mission, and align ourselves with it. Contemporary evangelical literature delineates a variety of definitions. Wright defines mission as “a long-term purpose or goal that is to be achieved through proximate objectives and planned actions.” To understand the nature of Christ’s mission, it is vital to recognize that its purpose and fulfillment are centered solely on His person and redemptive work. Peters emphasizes the nature of Christ’s mission when he states:
While Christianity is God-centered, it is so only as God is known in and through Jesus Christ. Therefore, it can be stated that Christianity is Christocentric. Christianity is God-centered in orientation and purpose and Christ-centered in revelation and salvation. Christ in revelation and mediation becomes the foundation for Christian mission.
Understanding the Christ-centered nature of Jesus’ mission is essential. He alone defines and determines its goals. It is clear, strategic and quantifiable only because it is founded on the person, work and word of Christ. Ott and Strauss observe:
The intimate connection between Christ’s life and work and the Great Commission makes inescapable the conclusion that the missionary mandate is not simply one among many good things that the church should do . . . . This mandate is the climax of Jesus’ teaching, a logical consequence of his redemptive work, his marching orders for the church, and his parting words as the threshold of a new era in salvation history.
Some scholars promote a broader understanding of the mission of Christ than making and reproducing disciples and building His church. They appeal to other scriptural texts, rather than the great commission passages (Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:47). They assert that the mission of the church is to emulate the Messiah’s pre-crucifixion ministry by prioritizing people’s physical and social needs, citing passages such as Luke 4:18-19 and Luke 7:22. Hesselgrave counters this understanding of the mission of Christ:
If we do not exercise care, confusion growing out of unwarranted exegesis and prioritizing will first distract and then deter us from fulfillment of the great commission . . . . Often lulled into quiescence by spiritual exercises and numbed by overwhelming world-wide physical, social and political needs, all Christians need to respond in obedience to the Great Commandment to love God and neighbor. But, united in our commitment to the great commission, it is imperative that we examine our marching orders carefully and respond to them obediently.
Other scholars claim that the great commission account in John 20:21 provides a more complete understanding of Christ’s mission – to bring peace (shalom) between God and mankind, and among people themselves. Hesselgrave, referring to the views of John Stott, states:
It has been argued that the traditional understanding of the Great Commission is faulty. According to this line of reasoning the “crucial form” of the Great Commission is the Johannine. “As the Father hath sent me, even so send I you” (John 20:21). In this statement, it is maintained, Jesus made His own mission a model of ours (“as the Father hath sent me, so send I you’). This does not mean that we become saviors. But it does mean that we become servants . . . The mission encompasses all that the church is sent into the world to do, including humanitarian service and the quest for better social structures. In short, according to this view, social and political activities are partners of evangelism and church growth in the Christian mission.
A concern for the physical and social needs of people is an important part of what it means to live and love like Jesus, in obedience to His word. The greatest commandment calls all Christians to love their neighbors as they love themselves (Luke 10:27). The parable of the “Good Samaritan,” teaches that mercy and compassion for the abused and marginalized demonstrates our love for neighbor.
According to Matt. 28:18-20, when people are taught to obey all that Christ has commanded, they will follow His example of showing love and compassionate service to the marginalized and needy. Good works will be the result of obedient discipleship, living in a way that consistently demonstrates Christ’s love, grace and others-centered compassion to the world.
The Priority of Matthew 28:18-20
Many scholars agree that Matt. 28:18-20 presents the most precise, comprehensive and measurable statement of Christ’s mission in the Gospels. Wilkins notes:
As Matthew comes to the final three verses of his Gospel, he encapsulates the primary thrust of the whole book . . . . In this famous “great commission,” Jesus declares that His disciples are to make more of what He has made of them. In that sense, the commission encapsulates Jesus’ purpose for coming to earth, and its placement at the conclusion of this Gospel indicates Matthew’s overall purpose for writing. Jesus has come to inaugurate the kingdom of God on earth by bringing men and women into a saving relationship with Himself, which heretofore is called “discipleship to Jesus.”
Authors Ott and Strauss observe:
Here the gospel mandate is made the foundation of the missionary task. Preaching the gospel, making disciples, and gathering these believers into communities whose members are committed to one another and to God is foundational to all else. This reflects the Great Commission according to Matt. 28:19-20. This is the gospel mandate. Missions must begin here, or it does not begin.
Bosch states, “In Matthew’s view, Christians find their true identity when they are involved in his mission, in communicating a new way of life, a new interpretation of reality and of God, and in committing themselves to the liberation and salvation of others.”
Hesselgrave emphasizes the clear and compelling nature of Matt. 28:18-20: “If we take our Lord seriously, our task is indeed an encompassing and exacting one – much more than many of us have thought it to be.”
In divinely ordained salvation history, the mission of God in this age is founded upon the post-resurrection authority, promises and commands of Christ. The missio Dei is focused on the missio Christi. The objectives—making disciples and building His church—are clear, measurable, and achievable through the obedience of His followers and the ministry of the Holy Spirit. As stated by DeYoung and Gilbert:
It is not the church’s responsibility to right every wrong or to meet every need, though we have biblical motivation to do some of both. It is our responsibility, however – our unique mission and plain priority – that this unpopular, impractical gospel message gets told, that neighbors and nations may know that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing, they may have life in his name.
 Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 41.
 W. Mitchell Robinson, Mission: A Mark of the Church? Toward a Missional Ecclesiology (Master’s Thesis, Reformed Theological Seminary, 2008), 26.
 Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, ReJesus: A Wild Messiah for a Missional Church.(Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2009), 133.
 D. Edmond Hiebert, “An Expository Study of Matthew 28:16-20,” Bibliotheca Sacra 149: 595 (July- September, 1992), 346.
 Alfred Plummer, An Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to S. Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1953), 428-29.
 Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, What is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 45-46..
 Craig L. Blomberg. Matthew, The New American Commentary, vol. 22 (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press, 1992), 431.
 George Eldon Ladd, Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans Publishing House, 1993), 169.
 Wilkins “Matthew,” 951.
 Craig A Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, editors, Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church: A Search for Definition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), 54.
 H. Bietenhard, “Lord” in The New Testament Dictionary of New Testament Theology, General Editor Colin Brown, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: The Zondervan Corporation, 1976), 516.
 Greg Ogden, Transforming Discipleship: Making Disciples a Few at a Time (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 28.
 Wright, The Mission of God, 23.
 Wright, The Mission of God, 66.
 George Peters, A Biblical Theology of Missions (Chicago: Moody Press, 1972), 30-31.
 Craig Ott and Stephen J. Strauss, Encountering Theology of Mission: Biblical Foundations, Historical Developments, and Contemporary Issues (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 40-41.
 Ott and Strauss, 41.
 Hesselgrave, “Confusion,” 203.
 David J. Hesselgrave, “Confusion Concerning the Great Commission,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 15:4 (October 1979): 201.
 Michael J. Wilkins, “Matthew,” 950.
 Ott and Strauss, 158.
 David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002), 83.
 Hesselgrave, “Great Commission Contextualization,” 139.
 DeYoung and Gilbert, 249.