The Oldest Command in the Books
It’s easy to compare the Old and New Testaments and think of missionary activity – the outward-focused spreading of faith in the God of the universe – as something new and unprecedented until Jesus’ time. After all, there is little evidence that Israelites traveled very far outside the Promised Land except as prisoners of war. However, a closer look at the Hebrew Bible shows that God had threaded mission as a constant theme throughout his word, and even into the very fabric of Creation.
Let’s look at the very beginning, Genesis chapter 1. Here we see darkness, chaos, and nothingness. Enter the Holy Spirit, hovering over the waters. At a command – “Let there be light” – light shines in the darkness, and from there God brings order out of the chaos and existence out of the nothingness. Finally, on the sixth day he creates a man and a woman in his own image, and gives them a command: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
Thus, in the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, we have two commands. “Let there be light,” and “be fruitful and multiply.” But what do those have to do with mission?
John gives helpful insight into this. Retelling the creation story through the lens of what he saw and learned as a disciple of Jesus, he associates Jesus with the life who gives light to men, with the true light that gives light to everyone. He returns to the language of Genesis to explain what Jesus accomplished and what he is doing – like the light being the first part of bringing order from chaos at the beginning, so the light of Christ brings life and light into the hearts of sinners. In fact, the process of conversion and sanctification mirrors Genesis 1 – the Holy Spirit gets involved first, then allows for the in-breaking of the Light, Christ. Then in the light of Christ, the new believer orders his or her life more and more. But what about the second command?
If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’re familiar with the Great Commission. The Gospel writers record different sayings of Jesus, each with its own emphasis, but the best known of the four is the one out of Matthew: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
These are our marching orders as Christians. Just as we have received the Light of Christ, we are called to be his witnesses. Remember the second command from the end of Genesis 1? Just as God put humans on earth to be his image, the stamp of his presence and rule over creation, and his agents for bringing even more order to all created things – some of which, we find out in chapter 3, were rebellious - so too he calls us to be fruitful and multiply.
Just as God called his first people to multiply, so he calls us; we are to make disciples from among all nations. Just as he called his first people to subdue the earth and all its rebellious inhabitants, so he calls us; now that Christ has bound the rebellious prince of this world, he calls us to plunder the earth and save all we can from the false king’s dominion. He calls us to save individuals, families, tribes, whole societies from the grip of chaos and the Evil One.
The command and urgency to bring others to know Christ, our light, and make them into disciples is nothing new. There have been signs since the beginning of Creation.
Hunter Van Wagenen is an ordained deacon and Curate at Church of the Redeemer in Greensboro, NC. Hunter has a master of divinity from Beeson Divinity School and is a life-long Anglican. You can read more blogs from Hunter at caminoprovisions.com, where he offers advice and reflections for those considering pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago in Spain. You can reach Hunter by email here.