It began with Jesus, who invited twelve guys to quit their day jobs and enroll in a three-year intensive, seminary-level program. By following Jesus, these guys learned Hebrew Bible, pastoral care, prayer and healing, theology, missions and evangelism, preaching and economics. At the end of three years, Jesus declared them ready (in fact, he called them his peers) and commissioned them with these words, found in Matthew 28:18:20:
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.
Authority has been given to Jesus, the King of an in-breaking Kingdom, and his intention is to conquer the earth not by force but through the proclamation of his gospel to every people, nation and language. According to the Great Commission, his vision for reaching the world is to mobilize those who now follow Jesus, sharing his authority with all followers so we can go, make disciples, baptize people into this community and teach them how to live this Spirit-led life.
If you’re looking for one theme to unify the whole Bible, this is it: God is building a kingdom on earth, so he can redeem a broken world. And he is using people to accomplish his purposes. The Great Commission belongs to all of us.
Forty-three days after this pronouncement, this first class of disciples was given not a diploma or a title but the authority of the Holy Spirit. According to Acts 1:8, Jesus told them that, “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 to the ends of the earth.” Sure enough, a few days later when they were filled with the Holy Spirit they were immediately compelled to begin sharing the story with people from many tribes and languages. The first day they went out, three thousand people joined up and began to follow Jesus as the Chosen One who came to rescue us from slavery to sin and death.
From there, the disciples began to fan out into Jerusalem, Judea and beyond, sharing this truth about how God is at work in the world. Having conquered the biggest learning curve of this course on the Kingdom of God — that being the embrace of Jesus as Messiah — the disciples were now challenged with breaking down their own cultural and religious biases. Could they imagine a God who is interested in people who are not like them? After all, for two thousand years they’d considered themselves God’s chosen people. His favorites. Everyone else was, well … not chosen.
Then Peter had a vision. We know it is a big deal because the story is told three times in the book of Acts. First, the writer describes how Peter is alone on a rooftop when he has a vision. Something like a sheet comes down from the sky and in the sheet are all kinds of animals Jews would never have touched — animals considered ritually unclean. A voice from the sky instructs, “Peter, you can have anything on the menu. Anything I’ve made, I will bless.”
The immediate and literal meaning of this vision is that Peter is welcome to eat anything he wants to eat. The rules are not the relationship under this new covenant. But deeper, much deeper, is the revelation that all people matter to God. When Peter recounts the story to friends, he shares this stunning insight (Acts 10:34): “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts those from every nation who fear him and do what is right.
For people who assumed they were God’s favorites, this changes everything. Peter’s vision changed the value of people (like finding out your maintenance man is a millionaire). Now the pond is an ocean; God is drawing from the ends of the earth to fill his kingdom. His vision also changed the value of Jesus’ own teachings. When he said, “God so loved the world that he gave his only son,” he was actually saying that the grace of God covers all people, not just one race of them. And when Jesus called himself the way, the truth and the life, he actually meant that it was no longer lineage or law that qualifies us, but Jesus himself who connects us to the heart of God.
What a way to smash a world view!
Getting from Jerusalem to Samaria and then to the rest of the world was first about understanding God’s love for all people, and second about separating the laws and customs of the Jewish people from the gift of salvation. Here’s how that happened. Paul and Barnabas were with a group of believers in Antioch when they heard that some were still teaching circumcision as a rite of passage into the kingdom (see Acts 15:1-3). Having the wisdom to do so, these two leaders took the question back to the apostles. They wanted clarity on just what this gospel means, so they’d be representing not just their own opinions but the collective wisdom of those who followed Jesus faithfully.
Let’s consider Acts 15:6-11.
The apostles and elders met to consider this question [of whether a person has to abide by any rituals in order to be saved]. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: ‘Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.
At that meeting, the key leaders in this Jesus movement discerned the will of God and decided that if any action other than faith is required to bring salvation into a life, then Jesus alone is not enough. And since Jesus himself never asked anything other than a willingness to follow him, then how could they? Paul had been set free from all that legalism and he wasn’t about to enslave anyone else in it. So he took this gospel of freedom to the Romans and the Corinthians and the Ephesians and the Philippians and even to the jailers who held him prisoner for preaching it, that we are saved by grace through faith. Salvation is a free gift of the one, true God, secured for us by the sacrifice of Jesus of Nazareth.
Which doesn’t sound dangerous but it is. By the middle of the first century, Christians were being killed for teaching salvation by grace through faith in Jesus. Stephen, the first martyr, was killed for nothing more than claiming this. He was the first of a faithful brand of follower that has been part of our journey ever since. In our time, more than 170,000 Christians are killed annually for the cause of Christ. In fact, more Christians were martyred in the 20th century than all the other centuries combined.
Our faith is characterized by a willingness to die. In fact, the church of Jesus Christ grows best when it is oppressed. The more Christians have been persecuted over the centuries, the more the movement has spread. Christianity is growing fastest today in countries like China, Cuba, and in African countries where war, disease and poverty are driving people to the only true source of hope. Even while Nero used Christians as garden torches, people from all over the known world were traveling to Rome, getting infected with the good news and taking it back to their own countries. Philip converted an Ethiopian, who went home and spread the good news. Thomas spoke the name of Jesus into the soil of India.
Can a person be a Christian without telling anyone? I don’t think so. It is in our DNA to spread the word.
Do you remember the dramatic rescue of 33 men who were trapped in a mine in Chile a few years ago? For 17 days, it was believed that all 33 were dead, until somehow they got word to the surface that they were all alive. Not just some, but all. For the next 52 days, that little group of men became an international fixation as the world watched their survival and rescue. They were coached in the art of survival, taught how to discipline their days so they could maintain sanity while they waited for those on the surface to figure out a rescue plan.
Eventually, a plan was devised and the rescues commenced. Do you remember how it was for us on the watching end? Every miner pulled up from beneath was celebrated. Every one of them. All 33. Many of them dropped to their knees upon reaching the surface to thank God for their life.
Mario was number nine. I can’t imagine Mario coming up out of that shaft feeling so good about his own rescue that he forgets to care about the 24 still down in the mine. I cannot imagine the people of Chile losing interest after the first few rescues, shrugging their shoulders and leaving the scene for the boredom of it. That’s not how great rescue stories work.
And in the same way, I cannot imagine a follower of Jesus coming up out of the darkness and shrugging his or her shoulders over those who are still down there, who will die down there if no one goes in after them. I cannot imagine a person with the spirit of Christ saying that the others don’t matter.
That is why we go to the ends of the earth. We go because it’s our commission but really, we go because they haven’t all been rescued yet, and because no follower of Jesus should feel complacent or comfortable as long as there are people still down there in the pit waiting to get out.
This part of the story isn’t really new, and wouldn’t have been for those first-century Jews who followed Jesus. The most famous passage of scripture for a Jewish person is Deuteronomy 6:4–9, which distills into precious few words the truth and what we are to do with it.
Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength … commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
It has always been God’s plan for the story to spread through the simple act of one person talking about God with another — at home with our children, in our communities, out on the road, even to the ends of the earth. The truth, we’re told, should be such an obvious part of our lives that it hangs between our eyes and emanates from our doors.
But if I begin to live like this, won’t I sound weird? Won’t I lose something of myself? No! To the contrary, it is our own stories God most wants to use. And in the ways we are most able to uniquely share. Oswald Chambers says the Christian life is characterized by spontaneous creativity. I think that applies especially in the art of telling your story. Helping someone know what you have found in Jesus isn’t about a set of principles or verses. It is an opportunity to tell your story in the context of the moment. Who were you before you found Jesus? What happened to make you change your mind about him? How has that changed you? Who are you now? What have you learned by following Jesus? Can you put into words the difference between the moment you came to believe in Jesus, and the life you’ve lived by following him?
The story after the Nativity is your story. This is the one God intends to use to build his Kingdom on earth. Nothing less, more or different than the story of how Jesus rescued you from the pit and gave you another chance at life.