NOTICE: Store prices and specials on the Banner of Truth UK site are not available for orders shipped to North America. Please use the Banner of Truth USA site .

Section navigation

The Great Commission – Part 1

Category Articles
Date February 4, 2004

How far have we to go?

Erroll Hulse

The well known great commission recorded in the last paragraph of Matthew (28:16-20).

If you put yourself in the shoes of one of the eleven disciples that event will come to life. To start with you would have made a four day journey of 80 miles from Jerusalem to Galilee. It would be a bonus to see your family. You would not go all that way and not do so. The text says some doubted. Traumatised by the terrible events in Jerusalem culminating in the crucifixion of Christ you might well be coming to terms with his resurrection. You would think to yourself I will certainly want to feel his body. That is not irreverent. Thomas the doubter had been invited to do so. John was proud to have done so (1 John 1:1). Then there was the fearful thought of being sent back all 80 miles to Jerusalem. What grisly end would face me if I meet head-on the hatred of the Sanhedrin that sent Jesus to his death? From Acts chapter five we know that these disciples would have been killed but for the timely intervention of Gamaliel.

The great commission of Matthew 28:18-20 consists of a mandate for the work to be done and an assurance.

First the work to be done.

There are two parts to the work. The first is pioneering, making disciples and baptising them. The second is consolidation. ‘Teaching them to observe all things I have commanded you.’ We cannot afford to neglect the first and if the second is neglected the churches fall into errors and heresies of all kinds. For instance the numerical state of the Church in Nigeria is large but the majority seem to have fallen into the prosperity gospel. Widespread corruption in Nigeria does not seem to be checked by the salt or light of Christianity.

The commission is universal in scope, all nations. Its’ terminus with regard to time is the very end of the age. It will be helpful to look how this is stressed in the text:

kai idou ego meth humon eimi pasas tas hemeras heos tûs sunteleias tou ainonos.
and behold I am with you all the days until the completion of the age.

Note the emphasis to the very end of the age. When this age or dispensation ends that is the very end. (Mt 25:1; Lk 17:30; 1 Th 4:13-18; 2 Th 1:7-10; 2 Peter 3:10); Rev 1:7).

When we contemplate the enmity of sinners and the opposition because the kings of the earth take counsel against the LORD and against his anointed this commission is overwhelming (Ps 2:1). These rugged simple disciples had no resources and no influence of note. The commission passes from them to us. We like them are weak. As I will show the work is overwhelming in its difficulty.

The work is huge in extent and difficulty. But then there is the assurance that goes with it, an assurance that is commensurate with the vastness of the work. He will be with us every day until the very end of the age. There is no day that he will not be with us. He will attend us with all his power every day.

Christian history has run its course for 2000 years. My purpose is to ask, How far have we progressed in the fulfilment of the great commission?

How far have we to go to complete the task?

In facing this question I take nations to mean people groups and languages as it says in Revelation 5:9 people from every tribe and language and people and nation. This is nearly always ethnolinguistic, a distinct people together with their language. An example of diversity in Eastern Europe is Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo and Croatia.

I will develop the subject as follows:

1How many unreached peoples are there left in the world?
2What will it take to reach these peoples and how long?
3A look back over 2000 years of missionary endeavour
4How should we face the unfinished task?

1How many unreached peoples are there left in the world

In 1791/92 William Carey published his 57 page work with the short title The Enquiry. He included a 24 page survey of the world with regard to mission. This could well be regarded as the first edition of OPERATION WORLD (OW). Carey followed the journeys of Captain Cook and recorded as much information as possible. The knowledge gathered is remarkable when we consider the limited resources available to Carey. OW together with additional website information provides 10,000 times more information than was available to Carey.

The human race has spread into such remote places that it has only been during the last ten years that a reasonably accurate and full survey has been achieved.

It is helpful to define a little of what is meant by an unevangelised people group(UPG). In 1982 a group of mission leaders made this definition:

‘A significantly large ethnic or sociological grouping of people who perceive themselves to have a common affinity for one another because of their shared language, religion, ethnicity, residence, occupation, class or caste. As suggested above it comes down in almost every case to ethnicity and language.’

OPERATION WORLD divides the world into twelve affinity sectors of peoples which add up in all to an aggregate of 12,000. The presentation is overwhelming. It is a shock to see how many UPGs there are. For instance there are 773 in South Asia which includes much of Pakistan, all India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and part of Burma.

A reader of OW can follow this up in more detail to find that in the state of Bihar Jharkhand in North India there is a population of 75 million. This is about the most neglected mission field in the world. There are 80 UPGs in this area.

OW has served to stir up the creation of other agencies zealous for prayer and world-wide evangelisation. One is OPERATION CHINA edited by Paul Hathaway. It is his fifth ethnographic book. OC is the result of a team working for ten years with researchers travelling to the remotest areas of China. This included more than 100 trips into the interior by Paul Hathaway himself. There are 704 original photos.

Woven into the largest population on earth is the ‘hidden China’, non Chinese people groups making up more than 100 million. OC introduces the reader to hidden minority cultures as diverse as the pale, blue-eyed Muslims of Xinjiang and the tribal peoples of the jungles of Yunnan with their intricately embroidered costumes; the Tibetans in the west, proud of their heritage, and nomadic hunter tribes, related to the Eskimos located in the extreme Northeast of China. The invaluable OC describes 574 UPGs.

Although numerically the minorities of China account for only 6.7 of the overall population, they inhabit 62.5 percent of China’s territory. From this 700 page book of small print published in 2000, I will refer to two UPGs which are typical. All the UPGs are diverse in character and language.

There are the A Che people, about 35,000 in number with their own language. They live in the Yunnan province which borders Vietnam. They have their own customs. They are polytheists. There are no known Christians among them. [p 23]

The Buriat number about 65,000 living in China but overlapping into Mongolia and Russia. In religion they are shamanists. There are no known believers among them.

Another book modelled on OW is devoted to the UPGs of Indonesia. This volume published in 2001 highlights 155 UPGs in 23 clusters. 70 UPGs are found in Sumatra, an island of 473,000 sq km, three and a half times the size of England (130,400 sq km). England has a population of 50 million and Sumatra 40 million.

I will highlight the western tip of Sumatra. Here we have the Aceh people numbering about 3.5 million. Like a fortress within a fortress the Gayo people form an enclave of territory within what is Aceh land. There are about 35,000 Gayo. There are no known believers among them.

OPERATION INDONESIA describes 70 UPGs in Sumatra and these are all in the firm grasp of the prophet of Mecca. The only parts of Sumatra that have been evangelised are animist tribes. The Dutch Colonial rule allowed missionaries to the tribes only not to places staunchly Muslim.

2What will it take to reach these peoples and how long?

There are about 6,000 UPGs in the world. This estimate is based on the criteria that a people group is not reached until a viable church is established within that group. Initially it will take an army of about 150,000 missionary families highly gifted, well trained, dedicated and determined to win these UPGs for Christ. That estimate is probably far too little since some UPGs are large. The largest is the Sunda people of Java (32 million). Teams of missionaries will be needed to reach so many. First there has to be access. In most places there is fierce resistance. That is why prayer is vital. If every church adopted an UPG that would be excellent progress. Wherever possible it is helpful to visit UPGs and by means of the dispersion of knowledge seek a new missionary awakening.

Reaching the UPGs in the next 120 years is achievable especially since missionary work is increasingly being taken on by those nations affected by the escalation of the number of believers in Latin American, sub Saharan Africa and many parts of Asia. It may well be that the Chinese Church, at present locked in by a Communist regime, will one day send out an army of missionaries. Secular analysts suggest that by 2050 China will be the largest economic block in the world overtaking the USA and the EU.

Brazil and the Philippines are nations that send out more missionaries then they receive. From Nagaland a province in NE India where there has been a revival missionaries now go out into the unevangelised parts of India.

The unfinished task can be viewed through the lens of UPG surveys but can also be viewed by looking at the nations as independent political entities. OW describes 230 nations which vary greatly from the vastness of China and India, Indonesia and Brazil, to the relatively tiny island states of the Caribbean such as French speaking Martinique or English speaking Barbados.

In the 10/40 window (see OW p.17) there are Muslim strongholds, monolithic nations of North Africa, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. Central to the 10/40 window is Saudi Arabia with a population of 21 million. With about 25 percent of the world’s known oil reserves Saudi Arabia is a rich country and billions of dollars are spent to propagate Islam round the world. Saudi Arabia is a nation impregnable to the gospel. Christianity is prohibited and the Bible is outlawed. No Christian is allowed to set foot in the holy city Mecca. All Christian missionary work is banned.

Does our Lord’s return depend on the on the condition of the establishment of churches in every nation? The great commission ‘teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you seems to imply that. What then are we to make of Saudi Arabia a nation of about 21 million? Christians have been excluded from Saudi Arabia for 1,300 hundred years. They are forbidden to work there. When will that change? Will it be the same for the next 500 years?

To enter monolithic Muslim nations will require a revolution greater by far than the revolution of 1989 when the atheistic stranglehold of the Soviet Union was broken, the iron curtain removed, and Eastern Europe liberated. That was an astonishing international event. It came after much prayer. Fervent prayer is needed if doors are to open in nations that are securely locked up. There is also an increasing international awareness that something is radically wrong if heaven is only attainable by blowing infidels to pieces in suicide bombings. It is true that there are more Muslim converts to Christianity than ever before. It is also true that there is a turning especially among Iranians. But we must be realistic all this is the tiniest trickle compared to those who live in areas where church planting is prohibited.

3.A look back over 2000 years of missionary endeavour

In his monumental work Transforming Mission – Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission by David Bosch the author describes six epochal paradigms in the history of Mission. The word paradigm is slippery in its meaning. I use the word paradigm as Bosch uses it namely, the overall general character of a movement.

It will be profitable to glance at these developments which Bosch calls paradigms and to remind ourselves of important principles.

Paradigm one , – the paradigm of primitive Christianity up to end of the book of Acts.

This is the story told by Luke in the book of Acts. Mission begins in a more orderly and systematic way from chapter 13 onwards as the Holy Spirit working in the church of Antioch sends out Paul and Barnabas on that first missionary journey. The aim is church planting and we observe from that time to this that without church planting Christianity will never take root. Whatever missionary work we support, and there are many worthy missions, if at the end of the day there is not a self perpetuating church there is no future. That may be unpopular but is it is irrefutable. A practical application at this point is that if we are working with street children in Brazil or with establishing villages for AIDS orphans in Africa. We should look always toward church planting. The Bible way is church centred and church based. Paul and Barnabas, great and gifted as they were returned to Antioch to report to the church there about the progress of their mission.

A bible-believing church is by its very nature mission minded. We should note that the New Testament is all about mission. Jesus is the prototype for all missions. He came on a mission out of eternity to live among us. That is the essence of mission. He came to live among us, not in ‘Buckingham Palace with royalty’ but as a carpenter in a humble home in the lowly village of Nazareth. He came to every condition of mankind, to the poor, the broken-hearted and to prisoners (Isa 61:3). He came ministered to ‘bruised reeds’ and hurting people of all kinds (Isa 42:3). Above all he came to lay down his life as a propitiation for our sins, not for ours only but for sinners to the very ends of the earth who will only be reached by missionary endeavour.

The NT is a book about mission. The book of Acts and especially the story of the apostolic missionary journeys describes mission. The letters of the NT are written to newly planted churches. These are designed to consolidate so that these churches would in turn reach out to plant other churches. There is the example of the church at Ephesus which gave birth to at least six other churches described in Revelation 2 and 3.

One of the marks of a Christian is concern about mission. A true Christian church will be involved in supporting missions.

Paradigm two , , the Patristic period (the fathers) up to the Council of Nicea in 325 and beyond up to about 600

The Greek language dominated during the early years but gave way in due course to Latin. It was the time when the Roman Empire prevailed. Jewish influence continued as opposition but gradually receded away. Roman Emperors tried made every effort to exterminate Christianity. This time was a baptism in suffering and blood. ‘No merely human religion could have stood such an ordeal of fire for three hundred years , the Church of this period appears poor in earthly possessions and honours, but rich in heavenly grace, in world-conquering faith, love, and hope; unpopular, even outlawed, hated, and persecuted, yet far more vigorous and expansive than the philosophies of Greece or the Empire of Rome; composed of persons of the lower social ranks, yet attracting the noblest and deepest minds of the age, and bearing in her bosom the hope of the world , conquering by apparent defeat, and growing on the blood of her martyrs; great in deeds, greater in sufferings, greatest in death for the honour of Christ and the benefit of generations to come.’

The war of extermination waged by heathen Rome against defenceless believers went on for 300 years, carnal power on one side and spiritual power and holiness on the other. Historians have reckoned that there were ten great persecutions and range these under the despotic Roman Emperors Nero, Domitian, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, Septimus, Severus, Maximinus, Decius, Valerian, Aurelian and Diocletian.

Ignatius bishop of Antioch is typical of this early time. In about 117 he was condemned to die transported to Rome and devoured by wild beasts in the Coliseum. Another leader was Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, who for the crime of refusing to deny Christ was sentenced to die by being burned alive at a stake. He was 86 years of age when he as martyred in 156. He had been a personal disciple and friend of the apostle John.

As we move forward to the time of the Council of Nicea in 325 we note that theology was systematised. Great councils were organised for establishing doctrinal definition particularly with regard to the Person of Christ and the Trinity.

I have concentrated on the time of persecution. When eventually the Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity an entirely new order began which we nickname sacralism. That is whole nations became ‘Christian’. That means that there are many merely nominal Christians which is the case here in England. It is sad to observe that it was not long before the nominal majority began to persecute real believers. Every state-church has more or less persecuted dissenters in direct violation of the principles and practice of Christ.

In the early centuries we do not find famous missionaries. The Word spread and prevailed as believers, men and women, young and old, slaves and servants shared their faith and testimony. Later in this period the gospel was carried eastwards. We know for instance that after Nestorius was condemned at the Council of Ephesus (AD 431) his disciples fled and set up a school in Persia (now Iran) and this became the most famous centre of learning in all Asia outside China.

The emergence of sacralism leads on the next era.

Paradigm three , – the Roman Catholic era of the Middle Ages 600 -1517

Following Constantine the Church became predominantly nominal and this meant a huge influx of worldliness. To combat and preserve purity and holiness there developed at amazing speed the idea of retreat from the world into the wilderness. The principle of self denial spread. There was fascination with asceticism a word derived from the Greek word for ‘training’. How can I become a spiritual athlete? This can soon descend into unbiblical fanaticism in the absolute suppression of the earthly for the heavenly. Also there is the rejection of marriage as inferior to the celibate state. Following closely to this preoccupation with asceticism was monasticism which spread with incredible rapidity. Endorsed by the great early leaders of the Church such as Athanasius, Basil, Augustine and Jerome. Thus instead of going out into all the world the idea was to retreat from the world into monasteries. Orders of monks and nuns multiplied over the years: Benedictines, Dominicans, Cistercians, Augustinians, Carmelites and others.

There is much that can be said in criticism of the monasteries. However we must concede that they were used to preserve Christianity during times of great disorder, uncertainty and upheaval. The Lord in compassion used monasteries to preserve libraries, provide havens of refuge for the destitute, care for lives, to provide hospitals for the sick and render compassion to the poor and needy when there was no other source of help.

In many instances monasteries became mission centres from which missionaries were sent out, sometimes 13 at a time. Boniface of Crediton (680-754) missionary and martyr has been described as ‘a man who had a deeper influence on the history of Europe than any Englishman who has ever lived’ Philip Schaff describes Boniface as the apostle of Germany and provides extracts of his preaching. S M Houghton in his ‘Sketches from Church History’ describes the martyrdom of Boniface together with 51 companions.

In the year 754 Boniface went for a second time to Frisia, where his efforts to preach the gospel met with great success. But the enemies of the Christian faith were wide awake and knowing that near the village of Murmerwoude many converts were to be baptised, they marched to the spot early in the morning of the appointed day and began to make trouble. The Christians wanted to defend their beloved leader and prepared to fight. But Boniface admonished them, saying, ‘My children, do not fight; let us follow the example of our Lord in Gethsemene. We shall soon see him. Let us pray’. They all knelt in prayer, but as they did so, the mob, yelling and shrieking passionately, fell upon them and killed Boniface and 51 of his companions.

A strength in this paradigm, namely the monastic period, is the regard to convert kings and rulers and transform societies as well as looking for the conversion of individuals. The thing went bizarre when it lost its biblical and evangelical moorings and ventured out with the sword to subdue in Crusades. That is a way similar to Islam, a religion of force: convert or have your throat cut!

Paradigm four , The Protestant Reformation paradigm 1517 to 1800

The 16th Century Reformation is the most significant event in the 2000 year history of the Christian Church. In fast moving drama the terribly corrupt Papal hierarchy was confronted and in four years 1517-1521 much of Europe was won over to Protestantism. The reformers are sometimes accused of being non-missionary minded. The fact is that they were locked in a battle for the gospel and in the application of that gospel to European nations that had lost their way. John Calvin did support a pioneer missionary effort to Brazil but that was easily snuffed out by Roman Catholic opposition. Calvin trained 88 pastors for the evangelisation of France. That was a dangerous work. A number of his missionary pioneers sent out from Geneva to France were martyred. In the end there were over two million members of the Huguenot churches in France.

Another example of ‘mission’ was the conversion of Sweden to the gospel of justification by faith. Two brothers, Olaus and Laurentius Petri, who trained under Martin Luther were dynamic preachers. They were wonderfully used to achieve this change.

The English Puritans were absorbed in the work of reformation. When New England began to develop it was John Eliot (1604-1690) of Puritan stock who translated the whole Bible into the Algonquin language. Eliot was instrumental in planting six Indian churches which together made up 1,100 members.

(Please continue with second portion of this article.)

Latest Articles

Hope of the Church 15 October 2021

To help us in the dealings of our lives we should have such a conception of God as not to limit him in our thoughts. When we are in extremity we must not tie him to this thing or to that thing. He can make matter out of nothing. Why should we limit the unlimited […]

The Prayer Meeting 3 September 2021

Why bother coming to the prayer meeting? In the pecking order of many congregations, it is somewhere below the much-lamented evening service. In the priorities of too many Christians, it seems to have little value. It’s the one we can afford to miss. It’s the one to which we don’t, or maybe wouldn’t, take our […]