His final instructions launched a global offensive
Our six-hour journey by canoes through Pirahhna-infested waters of the Amazon brought us to a village dubbed “Belen.” In Spanish, it means “Bethlehem,” the town in Israel where Jesus was famously born in a stable more than 2,000 years ago.
Nearly everyone likes that picture of the harmless baby Jesus. It is, or at least was, the reason for Christmas.
What gets under people’s skin is the adult, resurrected Jesus, the radical who said the point of his First Coming goes beyond providing one of the countless inspirational examples. It is “the Way.”
The one and only Way to heaven and the Creator-God he had the audacity to call “Father.”
Jesus’ final instructions were what business consultants call a BHAG (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal): evangelize “all nations” with this exclusivist message.
This “Great Commission” is why missionaries I embedded with as a journalist came to the Asheninka, an indigenous “people group” of the Amazon region of Peru, pre-dating the legendary Incas. It is the reason for the expansion of Christianity around the world, the foundation of what used to be called “Christendom,” the journey of Europeans to discover America, the retaliatory terrorist attack of Islamists on 9/11 and the controversial death of a 27-year-old missionary who risked his life in November trying to reach primitive natives on a remote island 700 miles off India’s eastern coast.
They shot and killed him with their bows and arrows.
This prompted an onslaught of media coverage more sympathetic to the killers than the man who was killed.
“The Great Commission” has changed the course of history, and will continue to do so, even though it is overlooked or dismissed by so-called experts who consistently pooh-pooh theology as a bunch of Mumbo Jumbo.
Hunter-gatherers with bows and arrows shot John Allen Chau, prompting media coverage more sympathetic of the killers than the killed. The New York Times alone has written 10 articles in the last nine days.
Only one Times article even mentioned the The Great Commission and that mention was superficial.
I think the anthropologist is right, and I say this as a Christian and former journalist who has traveled with missionaries and understand where they are coming from.
As I reflect on the big picture, I come to two overarching conclusions, one a prediction:
1. The Great Commission offends because it’s an organized, religious offensive.
2. It always has. It always will.
Even casual observers understand missionary work is about expressing one’s religious beliefs to persuade another person to change theirs. This is a human right recognized in the The Universal Declaration of Human Rights,adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.
Muslims, Hindus and other religions try to win converts.
What is unique and often overlooked about many (not all) Christian missionary efforts is an extra motivation based on interpretations of the biblical text of Christ’s last words, combined with other biblical prophecies.
The belief is this: If Christians get their act together to evangelize the world it will hasten the Second Coming of Christ.
Why should anyone not religious care? Because theology matters and is often overlooked as a driver of global megatrends. People are willing to give their lives to ultimate causes.
Any serious student of history needs to understand the power of The Great Commission.
- The Great Commission is the impetus of the remarkable global spread of Christianity from a small sect in Israel to the world’s largest global religion, followed by nearly a third (31%) of the Earth’s more than 7 billion people, according to the Pew Research Center.
- The Great Commission factors into the late Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington’s controversial hypothesis that people’s culture and religious identity will be the primary source of conflict in the post-Cold War era. He called it a “clash of civilizations” between the West and the world’s second largest religion Islam (now 24% of the world’s population). If you buy that hypothesis, and I do after personally interviewing Huntington, one way of looking at the 9/11 terrorist attacks is it was payback time for The Great Commission, which influenced The Crusades.
- The Great Commission is why the Southern Baptist missionaries I accompanied navigated their canoes through winding, Piranha-infested waters to bring the “good news” of the gospel to the roughly 50,000 Asheninka, one of thousands of groups Southern Baptists had pinpointed on multi-colored maps as “unreached” until missionaries Chris and Pam Ammons arrived.
Historically, the Asheninka resisted missionary efforts over the centuries by Catholics and Protestants, killing some. But the effort I sought to investigate was making undeniable progress.
I wanted an insider’s look at the Great Commission, not only for my news organization, the now-defunct Newhouse News Service, but myself, a Christian ambivalent about some of the motivation and methods of missionaries to reach native peoples. Because I knew an influential leader at the Southern Baptist Mission Board, missionaries Chris and Pam said yes to my 2001 request to join them on their next journey to the Asheninka.
The trip illuminated why missionaries do what they do and why it will always be controversial.
It took us two days to get to Belen, first by plane providing spectacular views of the winding rivers of the Amazon region, then six hours in wooden canoes called “peke pekes.”
Piranhas swam nearby, looking for prey. The South American fish with razor-sharp teeth have a reputation for feeding frenzies so vicious they are known to eat humans.
No one seemed to care. Jesus told Peter, the first missionary, to be “fishers of men.” That’s what the trip was about.
When our canoes finally came ashore, indigenous children scurried to the shore to meet the now-familiar face of Chris Ammons, a Southern Baptist with a doctorate in missionary work. This was his 12th such visit. He greeted the children not only in their own language, but with their Apurucayali dialect he had worked hard to learn.
“Kitaitirivi, ajininka, ari nopoki,” the missionary said.
Translation: “Hello, my people. We’ve arrived.”
In order to arrive you have to “go.”
Examine the biblical text and it seems that’s what the Great Commission is all about: Going to tell the story, even in places where people don’t want to hear it.
The last spoken words of any person carry special weight. According to the Bible, the resurrected Jesus gathered his 11 remaining disciples (Judas left them) on a mountain for final instructions before ascending to heaven. The disciples, all Jews, must have hung on every word. Their focus was Israel. They saw Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.
The Great Commission surprised, challenged and animated them to think socially and act globally.
It hinged on that active verb: “GO.”
The full sentence is this: “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.” (Matthew 28:19–20, New International Version)
“Go” changed everything. It meant Christianity is not a belief system you can keep to yourself. The Great Commission made it nomadic, disruptive, expansionist and assertive. Some would add exploitive because missionaries can bring new diseases and other problems to indigenous people.
Whatever you may think of it, The Great Commission has yielded extraordinary results, turning a band of dumbfounded men on a mountain, minus its leader, into the world’s largest religion, as the motion graphic video created by Business Insider, shows below.
I could cite many missionary success stories that changed hearts, minds and cultures against all odds. Here’s one.
The Sidama live in a cone-shaped area of the middle of southern Ethiopia. The first missionaries to the Sidama arrived in the early to mid 1900s. They were martyred. But missionaries persevered in waves, as they often do, some coming from Norway, others from Denmark.
Why does its website provide detailed charts and maps, some interactive, tracking virtually every people group in the world with a focus on groups with the fewest followers of Christ? Why can you get an unreached “group of the day” by email or smartphone app?
Because, according the the group’s “About Us” website section, “Accurate, regularly updated ethnic people group information is critical for understanding and completing The Great Commission.”
The Joshua Project is just one of countless groups illustrating the seriousness and sophistication of completing The Great Commission. With their maps and stats, they plan and mobilize like soldiers figuring out which beaches to storm.
When examining the link between The Great Commission and The Second Coming of Christ, it’s important to note that belief in the Second Coming is not unusual. In fact, most American Christians say it will happen.
A 2009 Pew Research Center survey found that 79% of Christians in the U.S. say they believe that Jesus Christ will return to Earth someday. One-in-five believed the Second Coming will occur in their lifetime, a larger number than the 17% who did not believe in the Second Coming at all.
The Bible says no one knows the timing of Christ’s Second Coming. But certain things must happen before that history-culminating event. What is called eschatology is open to interpretation and heated discussion. Personally, I’m skeptical when people make definitive claims about biblical prophecy and details about the final destiny of mankind. I should add I don’t recall much talk of eschatology on the trip I took with the Southern Baptists missionaries.
Nonetheless, I have heard and read this line of thinking among many evangelical Christians who are, as the label suggests, evangelistic and missionary-minded. They make their case not just with the words of Jesus, but “signs” predicted by Old Testament prophets, including:
- The reinstitution of the state of Israel in 1948 as the fulfillment of a biblical prophecy marking Christ’s imminent return. (Amos 9:14–15)
- Increasing earthquakes and famines and other natural disasters not as climate change indicators but “end times” indicators (Matthew 24:7) that Christ’s return is soon.
- An exponential increase in knowledge (Daniel 12:4) (marked, some mow argue, by Artificial Intelligence, self-driving cars and 24-hour Internet surveillance) as more evidence that Christ will come back soon.
But there is still a major prerequisite to Christ’s Second Coming that has NOT been fulfilled: worldwide evangelization.
Jesus declared it a marker for his return when he said in Matthew 24:14, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”
To the impatience of some believers, the gospel has not reached the whole world, not by a long shot, despite sophisticated and coordinated efforts involving hundreds of denominations and thousands of missionaries willing to pack their bags. Blogger and publisher Justin Taylor framed the issue succinctly in a 2012 article in The Gospel Coalition.
“I know only one thing: Christ has not yet returned; therefore the task is not yet done. When it is done, Christ will come. Our responsibility is not to insist on defining the terms of our task; our responsibility is to complete it. So long as Christ does not return, our work is undone. Let us get busy and complete our mission.”
Deeper examination of the original meaning of the biblical text of The Great Commission has led biblical scholars to conclude it will be much tougher to fulfill than they once thought.
In 1997, the Southern Baptist International Mission Board, the world’s largest Protestant missionary organization, made maps that put nations like Peru in green if even one missionary was in any Peruvian city.
That was before scholars scrutinized the word “nations.” The International Mission Board decided that Christ’s “Great Commission,” to “go and make disciples of all nations” was to go to every ethnic group determined by language, not just to every nation defined by a political boundary.
That is what you call a game changer, the equivalent of moving the goal posts.
As of 2017, there were 3,250 “unengaged and unreached” people groups, totaling 220 million people, according to the Southern Baptist Conventions.
This theology and methodology drew little opposition when I reported and wrote my story. In fact, missionaries were applauded for giving the Indians medical care and education.
Anthropologists have long argued that indigenous people have proved since Christopher Columbus that such help does not help. Missionaries bring not only Bibles but social conflict, deadly diseases, crass commercialism and environmental degradation.
I asked Chris Ammons 17 years ago what he thought about such criticism.
“They are more interested in upholding their preconceived idea of the happy, noble savage,” Ammons said of the critics. He referred to the Enlightenment ideal of French philosopher Rousseau, who saw primitive man as essentially good until corrupted by colonial, Christian society. “They can’t relate to the fear, sickness and unhappiness among indigenous groups.”
One night in Peru, Ammons held a flashlight to his worn Bible and read from Revelation 7: “I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.”
He said the Asheninka will rejoice one day with us in heaven, in the throne room of God.
That made me squirm with discomfort. I didn’t say this to Ammons, but it came across as exclusivist, even arrogant, encapsulating my ambivalent feelings about missionary work, especially to native groups like the Asheninka.
It only hit me later: Comfort is not what this is all about.
A “disciple” as described by Jesus in The Great Commission is not supposed to be comfortable.A disciple follows a master, pledging his or her ultimate loyalty to the master, serving, if necessary, as an agent to the master’s mission. That’s what missionaries do.
So what’s my final point?
“The Great Commission” creates a powerfully motivational thread through modern history, explaining the work of the first disciples, my own missionary experience with Southern Baptists in Peru, the dramatic death of John Allen Chau and countless others who have and will continue to answer the uncomfortable call to “go” and make “disciples.”
The only comfort in this command is a big one: Christ’s promise that “I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”