Barriers to the Great Commission - Part3

In the past two articles, we’ve established the internal challenges in the Church that present obstacles to the Great Commission, and we have examined the external challenges of the mission field that give our task its dizzying scale. In Part Three, we will look at what I believe is the most subtle, but most significant barrier to the fulfilment of God’s purposes for the whole world to be impacted by the good news. And it is that the Lord ordains free will.

God allows the imposition of other wills than his own upon the arc of the universe. The one who with a word created all that exists scandalously allows his creatures their “no!”.  Even Jesus, who was one with the Father and without sin, had to say in the moment of his own greatest trial, “Not my will, but yours.”

How can God be omnipotent and yet somehow obliged to honour the assertion of other wills than his own? Many are the attempts to parse this conundrum, and the disagreements can become particularly heated. But the best explanation I can manage – or rather, the one that has made the most sense to me – is simply that God is love. And love must permit the possibility of being rejected in order to truly be love. We know that love is patient and does not insist on its own way. We know that love bears all things and endures all things. True love must be freely given, and therefore the option to say “no” must also be present.

This paradox of God’s patient, enduring love and God’s inevitable cosmic triumph could melt our brains if we let it! But it is a testimony to God’s inestimable greatness. Every possible decision by every moral free agent across all of human history – an unimaginably vast number of decisions – has already been foreseen by God. No circumstance in the entire sweep of the created order takes him by surprise. And a divine sovereignty that anticipates and accommodates such mind-boggling complexity seems to me far more profound than a celestial bludgeon that simply pummels things until it gets its intended outcome.

We see in Scripture that God’s plan is inexorable, but also influenced by human choices. Peter writes, “The Lord is not slow to fulfil his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) A couple of verses later, Peter continues: “Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God”, (2 Peter 3:11-12a, emphasis mine). Pause a moment, and appreciate how those two little words are like a grenade dropped in our eschatology. Waiting for – and hastening! How Christians choose to live can actually accelerate – or delay – God’s timetable. This truth resonates through our entire understanding of the Great Commission. Human choices affect the timetable, and God seems willing to accommodate this.

God promises that Abram’s descendants will return to the land promised to them after years of slavery in Egypt. However, it would only be after generations, “for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” (Genesis 15:6 NIV)

Paul writes to the Galatians, “When the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.” (Galatians 4:4-5) Who can know how many factors determined when that time had fully come? Only God.

In Romans, Paul teaches that “Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in.” (Romans 11:25)

In the throne room in Revelation, the martyrs cry out, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Heaven’s response? “They were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been.” (Revelation 6:10-11)

Each of these scenarios ties the divine plan to some kind of fullness – conditions set by God himself. Yet the fullness in each of these cases is shaped by human decisions to obey God or to disobey.
In the context of mission, Jesus makes it abundantly clear that God’s timetable and the Church’s obedience are fundamentally linked. Christ states in the Olivet Discourse, “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.” (Matthew 24:14) The sequence cannot be clearer. A, then B. The trick, as it were, is that the word Matthew uses for nations here is ethne, from which we get the word ethnic in English. So, Jesus was saying that the end will come not after every political nation-state has heard the gospel, but after every ethnicity has heard the gospel. We do not possess any secret glimpse into a precise heavenly definition of ethne, nor a blueprint explaining exactly when an ethnicity has been sufficiently evangelized. But according to Joshua Project, we are still 7,246 ethnicities away (out of a total of 17,281).(1) Even if we remove the distinctions of nationality from ethnicity (such as considering a Tamil from Sri Lanka the same as a Tamil from Australia), there are still over 4,000 unreached peoples.(2)

We definitely don’t know the day or the hour, but we do have some broad parameters that Jesus left with his disciples. And we must not devise clever schemes to try to figure out when we will be done. We know that we are not done because Jesus hasn’t returned yet! The Lord’s patience in wanting to see sinners come to repentance and our own spiritual indiscipline offer explanations as to why.

But these are not the only two reasons.

It is essential to remember that humans are not the only entities with free will. The evil one had full and unveiled awareness of God’s glory and yet still chose to say, “Not your will, God, but MINE”. While we have to acknowledge that much of our biblical understanding of Satan is from inference and interpretation, Christian tradition has long taught that this awareness before the Fall is what places him and his kind beyond redemption.

We know that the evil one knows Scripture. He quoted it to Jesus to tempt our Lord in the wilderness. So, when Matthew 24:14, Matthew 28:20, Luke 24:47, Acts 1:8, Romans 11:25, and more shed light on the parameters of the end, we can be confident that Satan is acutely aware of them.

The book of Revelation offers a crucial principle in Satan’s own approach that would serve us well to remember. In chapter 12, the great red dragon makes war in heaven but is cast down. A loud voice in heaven cries out, “Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!” (Revelation 12:12) It later says that “the dragon became furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus.” (v17)

Why is that ancient serpent furious? Not because he was thrown from heaven, and not because the woman gave birth to a male child who will rule the nations. The text says that he is furious because he knows his time is short.

Every step that takes us closer to the fulfilment of the Great Commission is also a step closer to that final, irrevocable fate of the devil. Every people group reached, every prayer movement birthed, every sending movement mobilized provokes his fury because it accelerates his end. And as we draw nearer to the conclusion, the rage of the enemy increases. It is not dissimilar to the “cornered animal principle”, where a creature with no way out becomes more desperate and dangerous.

For reasons we cannot know, Satan and his angels still have some measure of say-so permitted by God. And of course, they are desperately using it to delay as long as possible the end of their narrative arc.

So, not only do we have to contend with humanity’s wilfulness expressed through unrepentance, and the Church’s wilfulness when it chooses not to strain every sinew to accomplish our Lord’s desires, but we must also deal with the enemy’s wilfulness as he furiously opposes God.  The world, the flesh, and the devil it is, then. God’s patience and forbearance in allowing the moral choices of others to impact the timetable is not what you may typically call a “Barrier to the Great Commission”. It’s certainly not the same as people groups being hidden from our awareness or of geographic inaccessibility or cultural/religious differences. Nevertheless, it may arguably be the biggest influence of the lot. Dealing with the world, the flesh, and the devil is no small matter!

On such matters, we are well served to remind ourselves that “The Lord is not slow to fulfil his promise as some count slowness, but is patient towards you, not wishing that any should perish.” (2 Peter 3:9). We are likewise instructed to “count the patience of the Lord as salvation” (v15). The Lord will fulfil his promise. And while it doesn’t make sense to our tiny human brains, it seems remiss to regard the kindness of God as a negative factor in the completion of God’s purposes. We do not have the benefit of divine perspective. We must trust that the beauty of God’s patience works alongside of the power of God’s sovereignty to accomplish a fuller and more glorious salvation for humanity.

In the meantime, we know that we have a job to do, we know what that job is, and we all know at least some next steps that we can take in “waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God”. With faith, with obedience, and with joy, let us get on with what our Master commands!
This article is an adaptation of a presentation given at the Flame International Conference in March 2023. It is the second of three addressing the barriers to the Great Commission.  You can watch/listen to the talks here.
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