Sick beds, respirators, and temporary morgues. Shuttered businesses and people without work. Uncertainty. Lives in limbo.
As state governments debate when and how to reopen their economies in view of the pandemic, churches wrestle with similar decisions. Which activities are negotiable? Which aspects of life together remain essential to our identity and calling?
What is Essential?
Even during a lockdown, preaching and teaching must continue. God has tasked leaders with strengthening the church and equipping it for ministry. One way is through the ministry of the word (Ephesians 4:11–12; Acts 6:2–4; 20:27–31; 2 Timothy 4:1–5). Other activities are essential for us all. For example, person-to-person evangelism and discipleship are central to our commission from Jesus (Matthew 28:16–20). On the other hand, adult Sunday school and youth ministry are optional. We can help each other grow in other ways for now (Ephesians 4:15–16).
But what about “missions”? When giving is down or funds are limited, something must get cut. Is sending and supporting missionaries optional? Should new missionaries wait to fundraise until the pandemic is over? Should individuals and churches reduce or withdraw financial support for active missionaries? What about missionaries who are furloughed or have been evacuated? Absolutely not.
How else will people hear of Jesus Christ, trust in him, call on his name, be saved, and be nurtured so that they reach maturity? Those who know Christ must continue going to them, sending new workers, and supporting those who have gone. Otherwise, it is impossible for Christ's body to fully engage in the Great Commission. Missions is essential.
In Matthew 28:16–20, Jesus stresses three realities that can energize cross-cultural disciple making—even during a pandemic.
Every Nation Belongs to Jesus
After rising from the dead, Jesus met the eleven disciples on a mountain in Galilee and declared, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). Do you realize how astounding this claim is? Individuals who submit to Jesus are under his authority. So are people groups and nations that have values generally aligned to the Bible. But that's not all. Jesus has equal authority over everyone who opposes him. He rules the whole world and all of heaven. He has total authority.
Jesus's claim to have all authority not only supports the commission, it also comforts and challenges struggling disciples. On that very mountain, some worshiped Jesus, but the rest doubted (Matthew 28:17)! That is surprising.
“Jesus's claim to have all authority not only supports the commission, it also comforts and challenges struggling disciples.”
Jesus’s words were for the doubters as much as the worshipers. Regardless of how things looked and felt, his authority over everything in heaven and on earth would endure.
Many of Christ’s followers today need to be reminded of this. Have you forgotten? There is more to reality than what we see around us—sickness, pain, death, travel bans, frustration, unemployment, and the unknown. Those things are not the full reality. Every nation belongs to Jesus. He reigns over the whole earth and all of heaven. So making and training disciples must continue in all nations.
Jesus Is with Us
Jesus also promised, “Surely I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20). Something changes when we realize that the King is close by. Look to these men who were with Jesus on the mountain in Galilee, particularly those who doubted. What they discovered can help us in a time of global panic.
Jesus continued teaching them about God’s kingdom for more than a month. That time soon ended. Near Jerusalem, in Bethany, they watched as he was taken up into heaven—to his cosmic throne. But this time something had changed. They all worshiped him. They joined together in prayer. They all waited to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Jesus had promised he would empower them to go and make disciples (Acts 1:1–14; cf. Luke 24:45–53).
We may wonder when and how to engage a world that seems unfamiliar or even threatening to us. But we must keep going in Jesus's name—with his character, message, and authority—and keep sending and supporting others. Our King not only watches and leads us from “up there”; he is “right here” with us by his Spirit! The reality of his presence gives us confidence to continue making disciples at home but also abroad.
Jesus Is Coming Again
On that mountain in Galilee, Jesus promised to be with his disciples “to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). This phrase signals the disciple-making task will be complete once the King returns.
Luke writes that two angels suddenly appeared to Jesus's disciples as he ascended (Acts 1:10). The angels assured them that Jesus would return in the same way and asked a question: “Men of Galilee ... why do you stand here looking into the sky?” (Acts 1:11). There was much to do in the meantime. After receiving the Spirit, they went out as witnesses of Christ. And others sent them.
The last phrase in the Great Commission assures us that the end of our disciple-making task has been appointed. Viruses do not release us from our task. Neither do quarantines, mass unemployment, penny-pinching, or even suffering. The King has not yet returned, so we press on. We continue to make disciples, train disciples, and send and support others to do likewise across the globe until the end of the age. We do this knowing that our Lord will accomplish all his purposes. Since Jesus reigns, our mission is not impossible. And it remains essential until he returns.