Scripture: Luke 10:1-20
When I was in college, I was first a writer and later an editor of The Technique, Georgia Tech’s student newspaper. Yes, some of us at Toccoa First earned Ph.D.s in nuclear engineering from Georgia Tech. And some of us worked for the student newspaper… So… Potato, po-tah-to…
But one time we had an English professor—who was himself an editor of a national jazz magazine—come and talk to us about how to write newspaper articles. There’s no journalism school at Georgia Tech, keep in mind. And he said that the most important thing about writing news stories is that you need to try to answer the five W’s: Who, what, where, when, and why? And how?
Tom Law [or Billy Chism], did that professor sound like he knew what he was talking about?
With that in mind, I want to apply this principle to today’s scripture, about Christ’s mission in the world. I don’t have time to answer all six questions, but I’ll answer three: First, who is responsible for accomplishing Christ’s mission. Second, how is this mission accomplished? And third, why is there a mission in the first place? Who, how, and why?
First the who…
Look at verse 1: “After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go.” If you look back at Luke chapter 9, verses 1 to 6, you’ll see that earlier, Jesus sent out his twelve disciples in a very similar fashion… and gave them similar instructions… and empowered them with his Holy Spirit to accomplish his mission.
And if all we had about Jesus’ commissioning of disciples was Luke chapter 9, then we might conclude that this work of healing and proclaiming the kingdom of God belongs to the professionals… You know, ordained or licensed or commissioned clergy like April and me, for instance. But notice in today’s scripture he sends out a larger number, he draws upon a much wider circle of disciples: seventy-two
This number, 72, is symbolically significant… and its significance would have likely been understood by Jesus’ disciples: according to Genesis chapter 10, “72” represents the total number of nations in the world. If that’s the case, this is a foreshadowing of the very same mission Jesus gives after his resurrection, otherwise known as the Great Commission. The most familiar version of the Great Commission is found at the end of Matthew’s gospel, in Matthew 28:19 and 20:
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. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
But if today’s scripture is a foreshadowing of the Great Commission—and I believe it is—the first question we need to answer is, who is responsible for fulfilling the Great Commission? Most of us think we already know the answer: every disciple of Jesus… is responsible for fulfilling the Great Commission.
But are we sure? I really want us to be sure…
After all, Matthew 28:16 identifies the disciples to whom Jesus is speaking the words of this commission: “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.”
The eleven disciples—remember, at this point Judas was out of the picture… the eleven disciples were literally the ones to whom Jesus gave this commission!
So does that mean that Jesus gave this commission only to these original eleven apostles, and the rest of us disciples are off the hook? Not at all… For one thing, Jesus says, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” He doesn’t say, “Behold, I’ll be with you for the rest of your natural lives—until you either become a martyr for your faith—which was the case for ten of these eleven—or you die of old age—which was the case for John.” No, he says to the end of the age. And that “end of the age” obviously hasn’t happened yet: Christ has not come again and brought this present age to a close. Until he does, Christ promises to be with us disciples as we carry out this Great Commission.
So when he says “to the end of the age,” he is speaking not only to these eleven but to all future disciples as well.
Also, he gives a different version of the Great Commission in the Book of Acts chapter 1, verse 8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
When you read the Book of Acts, of course, you notice, first, that the Great Commission hadn’t come close to reaching to the “end of the earth.” The book ends with Paul under house arrest in Rome, hoping some day to take the gospel to Spain—we don’t know if he ever did. So the Great Commission wasn’t close to being finished. Second, we see in Acts that there are many, many disciples involved in fulfilling this mission—disciples like Stephen, Philip, Lydia, Timothy, Priscilla, Cornelius—not to mention the apostle Paul himself—none of whom were part of this group of the first eleven apostles. Scan the letters of Paul and find dozens of others who fulfill this mission.
The witness of scripture, therefore, is clear: the early church understood that Christ’s mission—the Great Commission—was for everyone who called Jesus their Savior and Lord! And the church has literally always interpreted it that way. Yes, by all means, we members of Christ’s body all have different gifts, but ultimately, if we’re disciples of Jesus Christ, we work together to fulfill this global mission—of which today’s scripture is just a foreshadowing.
Of course, our own United Methodist Book of Discipline makes this clear when new members join the church. Since 2004, I think, we United Methodist pastors have asked prospective new members if they will serve Jesus and support the church through their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and—tying it into the Great Commission—their witness. And the word “witness,” of course, comes from the Great Commission in Acts 1:8: “You will will be my witnesses.” Every single one of us who is born again through faith in Christ is called to be a witness! And to be a witness means that we play an important role in fulfilling the Great Commission.
None of us is exempt from this mission! The “who” of Christ’s mission is you and me.
Can I confess that I feel apprehensive preaching on this topic of mission? I think you’ll agree it’s the unavoidable and central theme of today’s scripture. And I am following the church calendar of scripture readings for today, which is called the Lectionary. And the Lectionary has chosen today’s scripture for preaching. All around the world this morning, pastors are preaching on this text—so don’t blame me, I’m just the messenger!
But I’m aware that I am passionate on the subject of mission, and the Great Commission, and our responsibility to be witnesses. And I worry that my passion can be easily misunderstood. Over the years, for instance, people have told me, “Pastor Brent, we’re not like you. We’re not called or equipped to go out on the street and talk to complete strangers about Jesus… you know, the way you are.”
Well, first of all, you give me too much credit: I don’t witness nearly as much as I should! But even more importantly, I’m not asking you to go out into the streets and talk to strangers about Jesus. By all means, if you feel called to do that, let’s talk about how we can do that. I’ll join you.
But my point is, I’m not presuming that you have the exact same gifts that I or anyone else has for fulfilling Christ’s mission.
But I am saying that you have gifts if you are a Christian! And this brings us to Point Number Two: how do we fulfill this mission?
We the church fulfilled the Great Commission two weeks ago at Vacation Bible School. We started the week with 28 kids; we ended with 51. And we had at least a couple dozen volunteers. Teaching children the gospel of Jesus Christ and teaching them important truths from God’s Word is the very definition of fulfilling Christ’s mission.
But there are other ways… feeding children every night at VBS is also a part of fulfilling this mission. Playing games with children at VBS that relate to the Bible stories is also part of fulfilling this mission. And teaching these children science lessons that connect to and reinforce the Bible lesson and that glorify God for his good creation—and we did that at VBS. And this also fulfills Christ’s mission.
And not only that… paying for all of these activities—paying for supplies and food and advertising and air conditioning and the maintenance of all these buildings and utilities—also fulfills Christ’s mission. Stewardship of our money is a way we fulfill this mission!
And I know that many of you long-time church members didn’t participate directly in VBS. But earlier in your life, you volunteered to help shape many of today’s volunteers and church leaders… You taught Sunday school in the past, you taught VBS in the past, you led Bible studies in the past. In other words, in the past, you played a role in making disciples of children in our church who then grew up, and who are now making disciples of children today!
My point is, even if you didn’t actively volunteer for VBS, you played a role in fulfilling Christ’s mission two weeks ago. Praise God!
Maybe you’re tempted to think, “Yes, but how do we know whether or not we’ll reap a harvest from these efforts?”
And the answer is, We don’t… But one clear message of today’s scripture is, we are simply supposed to answer the call, and do what Jesus commands us to do to fulfill this mission, and leave the results up to God. In fact, the results are entirely up to him.
It seems clear from today’s scripture that the Lord doesn’t judge us for results… For instance, he warns some of these 72 in advance that they are going to face rejection. Some of the 72 won’t, but many will… Look at verse 11: “But if a town refuses to welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘We wipe even the dust of your town from our feet to show that we have abandoned you to your fate. And know this—the Kingdom of God is near!’”
The point is, we leave the results up to him.
Besides, Jesus says that if we’re faithful in doing our part, we have succeeded.
How else do we fulfill this mission? Most of you are parents, or grandparents, or great-grandparents… If so, you have the most important work of evangelism, or witnessing, or fulfilling the Great Commission—and you fulfill this mission in the lives of your children. Indeed, the most important witnessing that any of us does is in the lives of our children. Gosh, just last week, Mary Sue Crawford died, as many of you know. When I asked her children to describe some of their favorite memories of when they were kids—growing up with Mary Sue as their mother, here’s the first thing they said: “At the breakfast table every morning, Mom led us in morning devotions—of prayer and Bible reading. We didn’t leave the house until we did that.”
That’s an important example of fulfilling Christ’s mission…
Now I want to share the most important way that we do it. Yet I fear this is often the most overlooked way.
Please notice verse 2. Jesus says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Jesus is using an agricultural metaphor to describe the work of mission. This verse is remarkable to me. “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore…” Therefore we might expect Jesus to say to these 72, “Therefore get to work… Therefore get out there into the ‘fields’—the mission fields—roll up your sleeves, and get to work… reaping the harvest. Time is of the essence: I’m no farmer, but if there’s a harvest, you only have a limited amount of time to reap the harvest before the fruit starts rotting on the vine—right? So get to it!”
That’s what we might expect Jesus to say… But that’s not what he says. The very first thing he says for his disciples to do is… what?
To pray… to pray that God would call and equip people to go.
So if you say, “I don’t know how to fulfill Christ’s mission”—oh, yes you do! Because every single one of us knows how to pray.
To pray… To pray that God will fulfill his mission through our church is the most important work that we can do!
How many of us, for instance, prayed…every day of VBS… that these children who came to our church would come to know Jesus through our efforts? How many of us prayed every day for the many volunteers? How many of us prayed every day for the success of our mission?
Or… how many of us thought, “Well, I’m not volunteering for VBS this year, so… out of sight, out of mind”; you didn’t give it another thought…
The “harvest is plentiful,” Jesus says… even right here in Toccoa, Georgia.
Are we reaping the harvest—even after we let the Baptists, and the Pentecostals, and the Christian and Missionary Alliance take their share of it. Are we Methodists doing our share of the work? Are we reaping our share of the harvest?
Because if we’re not satisfied that we’re doing enough—and I don’t think we should be satisfied, not when 85 percent of the population of Stephens County is sleeping in on Sunday morning… But if we’re not satisfied, the first and most important thing we need to do is… to pray.
Listen: I asked earlier, “Who’s responsible for fulfilling this mission?” Maybe that’s a trick question: because ultimately the Lord is responsible for fulfilling his mission. He’ll give us success! And of course we have a role to play. But whatever we do, we are depending on Jesus every step of the way—and of course we express our dependence on him through prayer.
But that’s Point Number Two… that’s the how…
Finally, Point Number Three… the why of mission? Why do we do it? In my opinion, this is the most important question because, if we understand the “why”—if we truly believe in the reasons that we have for doing it—well, I honestly believe the “who” and the “how” take care of themselves. I hope you’ll see what I mean…
Let’s look at verse 20… These 72 disciples have come back. Many of them are surprised and delighted because—through the power of God—they’ve been able to drive out demons from people in Jesus’ name: “Can you believe we had the power to do that?”
And Jesus tells them, in verse 20: “[D]o not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
The reason for Jesus’ gentle rebuke is this: These disciples are more excited by the miraculous display of God’s power that they experienced than they are by what this power has accomplished: which is… nothing less than the salvation of lost people! In other words, what really matters—what should bring these disciples the most joy—is that their “names are written in heaven.”
In other words, Jesus says, “What matters most is not this gift of power you’ve received; what matters most is this gift of grace that you’ve received… the grace by which your sins have been forgiven! The grace by which you’ve received eternal life! The grace by which you’ve become a beloved child of my heavenly Father forever.”
Let that be the source of your joy.
In other words, Jesus says, “I’ve given you power this power in the first place… so that you may help others also to receive this gift for themselves… so that their names may also be written in heaven—in the same way that your name is written in heaven!”
Brothers and sisters, if we understand what’s at stake in Christ’s mission—if we understand the “why” of this mission—if we understand that the fruit of our mission is eternal life for family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, fellow students, fellow townspeople… how could we not do all within our power to fulfill it? How could we not marshal all of our human and financial resources to fulfill it? How could we not use all of our gifts—spiritual gifts, material gifts—to fulfill it? How could we not give an even larger percentage of our church budget to fund mission work outside of the U.S., in places where people have never heard the gospel?
Because if Jesus is telling the truth in today’s scripture—and of course he is—then surely we need to understand that the biggest problem facing our world is not inflation or gas prices; it is not the economy; it is not whichever political party is in power; it is not the Supreme Court; it is not the Democrats or the Republicans… it is not the progressives or the conservatives… it not whatever the various hosts of cable news shows or talk radio shows are angry about today; it is not Russia or China or any other potential enemy in the world.
It’s not even close to that…
If our greatest source of joy—according to Jesus—is that “our names are written in heaven,” then it stands to reason that our greatest potential sorrow is the frightening possibility that the names of people we know and love are not written in heaven. And if our Lord is calling us, expecting us, commanding us… to go about the urgent task of proclaiming his kingdom in order that people repent and believe… in order that their names be written in heaven… well…
You tell me what that means… You tell me what that says about the priority we should place on fulfilling Christ’s mission!
Brothers and sisters, I’m completely serious when I say that if your only response to this message is, “Pastor Brent, I have no idea how I can fulfill Christ’s mission. But I’ll tell you this: I know that I want to do something to fulfill it. I want to play a role. I know that nothing is more important.” If that’s your only response, well… I believe the Lord will have done some important work in your heart this morning!
The magician and comedian named Penn Jillette is one half of the comedy magic duo Penn and Teller. Some of you have likely seen them on late-night TV over the years. If you know their act, Jillette is the one who speaks; his partner, Teller, is always silent. Jillette is an outspoken atheist. He doesn’t believe in God, much less the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Years ago, on his blog, he posted a video of himself. He said he was signing autographs after one of his performances. He said that one of his fans identified himself as a Christian businessman. This man told him that he was a fan, that he enjoyed the show, and that he wanted to give him something. Then he gave Jillette the gift of a Bible. And Jillette held this Bible up for his viewers to see. The man said to Teller, “Listen, I know you’re not a Christian, but I want to give you this Bible and encourage you to read it. Because Jesus means everything to me, and I want you to know him, too. This book will tell you how to have eternal life. Please read it.”
And you can see in the video that Jillette—this hardened skeptic—was deeply moved by this gift; tears were welling up in his eyes as he described this gift. Given Jillette’s abrasive personality, given the fact that he’s an outspoken atheist who utterly rejects Christ and the gospel, Jillette’s response to this man may surprise us. But in this video, Jillette said:
How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? I mean, if I believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that a truck was coming to hit you, and you didn’t believe it, and that truck was bearing down on you, there’s a certain point where I tackle you. And [eternal life] is more important than that!
While I might quibble here and there with Jillette’s verbiage, it’s hard to argue with his logic. Isn’t it?
Again… maybe you hear this story and think, “I could never do what that bold Christian did. That is so far outside of my comfort zone! I’m way too shy or introverted.” And that’s fine. That’s not my point.
My point is… you can do something. Jesus is commissioning you to do something! Jesus has given you particular gifts for ministry in order that you do something!
And if you believe Jesus is telling the truth here in today’s scripture… How can you not do something? How can you not make “doing something to fulfill Christ’s mission” your highest priority in life?
Pastor John Piper has said many times that when it comes to fulfilling Christ’s mission, we Christians need to adopt what he calls a wartime mind-set. Because we are in an urgent spiritual war with the devil and the forces of evil to win lost people to Jesus Christ.
When you have a wartime mind-set, what happens? You sacrifice; you devote as many resources to the cause as you can spare; you devote yourself to the cause. You give whatever you can and do whatever you need to do in order to win the war. You even lay down your life for the cause, if necessary.
Piper wrote the following. I like it. You might like it too:
I need to hear this message again and again, because I drift into a peacetime mind-set as certainly as rain falls down and flames go up. I am wired by nature to love the same toys that the world loves. I start to fit in. I start to love what others love. I start to call earth “home.” Before you know it, I am calling luxuries “needs” and using my money just the way unbelievers do. I begin to forget the war. I don’t think much about people perishing. Missions and unreached peoples drop out of my mind. I stop dreaming about the triumphs of grace. I sink into a secular mind-set that looks first to what man can do, not what God can do. It is a terrible sickness. And I thank God for those who have forced me again and again toward a wartime mind-set…
Given the vulnerability of my heart to the seduction of the peace-time mind-set, which is pushed into my mind every day by media and entertainment, I need [this reminder]. We are at war, whether the [stock market is] falling or climbing, whether the terrorists are hitting or hiding, whether we are healthy or sick.1
Brothers and sisters, may we at Toccoa First recognize that we are at war; may we have a wartime mind-set; may we put on the “full armor of God”; and may we be ready every day to fight!