Jesus was and is on God’s mission. It is big. And he calls us into it. But many of us have shrunk it into our truncated idea of “missions.”
God’s mission is literally of cosmic proportions. It is “to reconcile all things to himself through Christ—making peace through the blood of his cross—through him, whether the things on earth or the things in the heavens” (Col. 1:20).
In the end, no enemy will be left standing. He converts some enemies and conquers others. He is eradicating hostility in his whole creation. He is making cosmic peace by the blood of his resurrected and reigning Son.
God’s Great Commission in Christ
One essential part of God’s cosmic mission is his co-mission for Jesus’s followers. The triune God alone is in charge of the conquering aspect of creating cosmic peace. But he has brought us into the conversion part, calling us to “disciple all the gentiles [panta ta ethne], baptizing them . . . and teaching them” (Matt. 28:19–20). This commission is a co-mission, for King Jesus promises to be unshakably with us in it.
Our commission is a co-mission.
A few years after Christ delivered this co-mission, Paul and Barnabas were taking the King’s marching orders seriously. And yet they made some decisions that may appear strange to some missionaries, churches, and “missions” agencies today.
Paul and Barnabas’s Practical Example
Paul and Barnabas brought the good news of God’s kingdom to the unreached Jews and associated Gentiles of Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13). After a second Sabbath presentation, the Gentiles (the nations, ta ethne) rejoiced and glorified God’s Word. But many Jews and prominent people chased them away.
Paul and Barnabas journeyed 95 miles east (perhaps 30 hours of walking?) into southern Galatia to Iconium to share the good news of King Jesus with the unreached Jews and Greeks there (Acts 14:1–7). But the unbelieving Jews, the Gentiles (the nations, ta ethne), and the rulers nearly stoned the missionaries.
Paul and Barnabas fled another 20 miles south to Lystra (another six hours of walking?), the hometown of Lois, Eunice, and Timothy. They proclaimed the good news of God’s kingdom to the unreached people of the Lycaonian language (Acts 14:8–20)—part of “all the Gentiles” (panta ta ethne, v. 16). But Jews from Iconium (20 miles away) and even Pisidian Antioch (115 miles away) had come and converted the crowd. They stoned Paul and dumped his limp body outside the town. Paul got up and limped back in.
Paul and Barnabas pressed farther east through Galatia. To use popular missions language today, they must finish the task for this area. They must complete Christ’s mission for the Gentiles (nations) here in Galatia. So, they stumbled another 70 miles to Derbe (maybe 23 hours of walking, though perhaps longer since Paul was bleeding and bruised). They made “many disciples” among the unreached people of Derbe (Acts 14:20–21).
Pause. Most people read on quickly and miss something implicit but crucial here. A momentous missional decision takes place in Derbe in Acts 14:21.
A momentous missional decision takes place in Derbe in Acts 14:21.
Paul and Barnabas were at a crossroads. They’d proclaimed the good news of Christ’s kingdom to the Jews and all the nations throughout southern Galatia. As effective missionaries, what should they do now?
Use your sanctified imagination to picture a conversation between Paul and Barnabas at that crossroads (yes, with some modern turns of phrase):
Barnabas: “Well, what do ya think? We could easily loop around southeast through the Cilician Gates, maybe see your family in Tarsus, and then go back home to Antioch in Syria.”
Paul: “True. We do need to give a report to our sending church.”
Barnabas: “Yeah, and then go into another unreached region!”
Paul: “Yes, but . . . [pauses to think] . . . we could also turn northeast right here. The many unreached nations throughout Cappadocia need to hear the good news of Christ’s kingdom, too.”
Barnabas: “Definitely! So, what do ya think? How should we finish our King’s task?”
Paul: “Hmm. To finish the task” . . . [now thinking more about what it means to be a co-missionary under Christ]—“I’ve got it! We must go back to the people of Lystra, Iconium, and Pisidian Antioch who have already heard and accepted the good news!”
Barnabas: “Where you were just stoned? Where we were run out of town? Where they have already heard the good news and are no longer ‘unreached’? Amen!”
Is that the conclusion you expected?
Perhaps Paul and Barnabas hadn’t received the missions memo. You know, the one about how finishing the task is only about going to unreached peoples with the gospel.
Or maybe we are the ones chopping Christ’s great co-mission in half. Maybe Paul and Barnabas really got it.
What Are We Doing with Christ’s Mission?
Luke reports that Paul and Barnabas
returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. (Acts 14:21b–23)
Note that whatever time and energy Paul spent on further establishing and teaching believers and their local leaders was time and energy he did not spend on converting unreached people. Yet he chose this “less urgent” course anyway. His time writing to the Galatians was also time not spent converting new souls. And his time revisiting those churches in Galatia again and again and again (Acts 16:1–5; 18:23; 19:1) was likewise not spent reaching unreached peoples.
So why did Paul invest precious time and energy in going back, over and over? Because Paul understood that Christ’s mission is about making disciples—not mere converts—from all nations. And so he invested his life and resources, and the gathered resources from other Christians, accordingly.
Paul understood that Christ’s mission is about making disciples—not mere converts—from all nations.
Many current missions experts, however, would have coached Paul and Barnabas differently at those crossroads:
Brothers, the mission is obvious. Those in Galatia have already heard the gospel. Turn north and proclaim the good news to the unreached people groups in Cappadocia. Come on, finish the task!
This is actual coaching that friends of mine have received on the field. I’ve been in conversations with churches and people who would not fund people like Paul and Barnabas for going too slowly, working too inefficiently, and turning away from the unreached.
Even if well-intentioned, our shrunken mission hurts believers around the world. It hurts the durability and longevity of their ministries. And it hurts missions partners who might otherwise receive crucial funds—if we weren’t so unimpressed with their stats.
Let us think carefully about whether or how we have shrunk Christ’s co-mission through our work, our counsel, or our investments. While nothing can thwart God’s cosmic reconciliation and peace, we may not be helping as much as we suppose. Missions is urgent, so let’s be patient.