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Short Lessons on the Church’s Mission 3: The Great Commission in John’s Gospel

Jesus’ Great Commission for the Church’s mission in Matthew’s Gospel alludes to Isaiah 66.18-23.  In Luke’s Gospel (and Acts), the Old Testament text alluded to is Isaiah 49.6,  In John’s Gospel, the Old Testament text is Genesis 2.7, with the related Ezekiel 37.9, 14 likely in view as well.  Having already considered the Great Commission texts in Matthew’s and Luke’s writings, we now turn to consider the Gospel of John.[1]

The Great Commission (usually a phrase reserved for Matthew 28.18-20) in John’s Gospel involves, as in the other Gospels, the risen Jesus’ commission of his disciples in ministry.  The mission is given to the disciples, but they represent the Church, and so the commission is not limited to the first disciples.  Jesus’ commission of the disciples and the Church extends the mission already undertaken by Jesus:

John 20:21-23 Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you."  22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit.  23 If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld."[2]

The passage highlights three things about the Church’s mission:
  1. The Church’s mission is based on Jesus’ mission, which was completed after his death and resurrection.
  2. The Church’s mission begins with receiving the Holy Spirit.
  3. The Church’s mission involves extending (or not extending) forgiveness.

‘As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you’

Jesus’ mission in John’s Gospel is understood as a representation of God’s presence before others.  Jesus says, ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father’ (John 14.9).  Anticipating this statement at the beginning of the Gospel, we have several key verses that establish the idea that Jesus is sent to the world to represent the Father:

John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and what God is the Word was (my translation).

John 1:14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 1:18 No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side,2 he has made him known.

John 1:51 And he said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man."

The point is that Jesus’ mission is to represent the Father, and this is fundamental to John’s Gospel.  It is why Jesus is said to be the only, beloved Son of the Father (monogenēs, Jn. 1.14, 18; 3.16, 18).  It is why God’s very nature of ‘grace and truth’ is found in Jesus (Jn. 1.16-17).  And, most profoundly, it is why Jesus’ death, his being lifted up on the cross, is presented in John as a revelation of God’s glory, his divine identity—in other words, that he is the I AM.  (Note the double meaning of ‘lifted up’—set upon the raised cross and glorified.)  Jesus said,

John 8:28 When you lift up the Son of Man, you will then know that I AM…. (my translation)

Thus, one way to explore the Church’s mission is through John’s understanding of what it means to represent the Father in the world.  We are not to take this idea that Jesus represents the Father in the world and then explore on our own what it might mean for the Church to do so as well.  Rather, we are to study John’s Gospel to learn what it meant for Jesus to represent God to the people.  This will be a very full study—more than can be presented here—of John’s Gospel.  We need to read John’s Gospel while asking, ‘How does Jesus represent the Father in the world?’ and then asking, ‘How does this determine ways in which the Church might extend this mission in the world through its own mission?’  By doing so, we will understand what Jesus meant by, ‘As the Father sent me, I am sending you.’

‘Receive the Holy Spirit’

Secondly, Jesus ‘breathes on’ (enephysēsen) the disciples so that they receive the Holy Spirit. This exact word is used in Genesis 2’s description of creation:

Genesis 2:7 then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into (enephysēsen) his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.

The same Greek word (in a different form) is used when Ezekiel reports God’s restoring life to the dead in the Valley of Dry Bones—representing the Israelites who had been exiled due to their sins:

Ezekiel 37:9 Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on [emphysēson] these slain, that they may live."

Both Old Testament passages (Gen. 2.7 and Ezek. 37.9) envision the ‘breath’ of God giving life (and in Greek and Hebrew the word ‘breath’ is the same as ‘Spirit’ and ‘wind’).  In John’s Gospel, one way to describe Jesus’ mission is in terms of life.  The disciples receive life from God, the Spirit, so as to offer life to others.

The term ‘life’ appears 47 times in John’s Gospel.  Jesus is the source of life for he has divine life in himself:

John 1:4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men.

Those who receive Jesus’ words and believe in him will receive the eternal life that he offers:

John 3:16 For God so[3] loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

John 3:36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.

And, in a passage in John’s Gospel reflecting Ezekiel 37’s vision of life being restored to the dry bones, Jesus says,

John 5:24-26 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.  25 "Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.  26 For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.

Thus, when Jesus breathes on his disciples the life-giving Spirit of God, he further reveals his divine identity as the one who has life in himself and gives life.  As Ezekiel 37 says,

Ezekiel 37:14 And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD."

Moreover, having received the Spirit and come to know Jesus as God (cf. John 20.28), the one who gives life, the disciples are sent out to offer this life to others.

‘If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven’

This final statement related to the Johannine Great Commission seem awkward for Protestants, as it seemed to Jews in Jesus’ day as well.  Is it not God alone who forgives sins? (Mark 2.7).  Is the Church really in a position to forgive sins?  The answer to this question lies in distinguishing Jesus’ mission and the Church’s mission, even as the two missions are related.

First, Jesus alone provides the sacrifice for sins through his shed blood on the cross.  John the Baptists testifies about Jesus’ unique role in providing forgiveness of sins:

John 1:29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!
Jesus says,

              John 8:24b … if you do not believe that I AM, you will die in your sins (my translation)

Second, however, Jesus’ offer of life is a ministry into which the Church enters as well, and such is the Church’s mission.  The Church offers to the world eternal life in Jesus Christ, the very one who took away the sins of the world through his shed blood on the cross.  As the Church is sent by Jesus with this offer, it has the role of extending forgiveness of sins in the world.

When the Church fails to offer a message of forgiveness of sins but tries to curry favour from the culture by presenting an accommodating message, it fails to present a life-giving message.  The Church has the role to clarify for the world what is sinful.  It plays a serious role in telling people that what they do is, in God’s eyes, sinful or not sinful.  Second, the Church has a role of offering forgiveness through belief in Jesus Christ to the world.  When the Church suggests that there are other paths to God, it fails to offer a life-giving message in its mission.  Certain mainline churches in our day are failing precisely in these two areas of mission: claiming that certain sins are not sins and claiming that there are other ways to God than belief in Jesus.


John presents the Church’s mission as a life-giving mission, with Genesis 2.7 and Ezekiel 37.9, 14 as background texts for this point.  Just as God breathed life into Adam and into the dry bones of the Israelites who had ‘died’ by being exiled because of their sins, so too Jesus, risen from the dead, gives life to those who are dead in their sins through his own sacrificial death on the cross.  In so doing, he reveals the Father in his love, grace, and mercy, as well as in his judgement of sin, and this is a mission that the Church, too, has.  The Church is to represent God in a similar mission in the world, and it is especially to point people to Jesus, that they might believe in him and receive eternal life.  The Church is also to declare to the world what is sinful, that they world may repent and believe in the one who forgives sins.  The Church is not to shirk this responsibility by softening sin in order to ingratiate itself to the world.  Nor should the Church suggest that salvation might be found in other religions or simply through God’s grace towards everyone no matter whether they receive Jesus or not.  The Church, in other words, has the mission of offering life and death to the world—forgiveness of sins—in light of Jesus’ dying for the sins of the world.

[1] Note: the Great Commission in Mark’s Gospel is only found in the verses that were added to Mark at a later time in Church history [Mark 16.9-20], and therefore it will not be considered.
[2] The English Standard Version (ESV) will be used unless otherwise noted.
[3] The Greek actually conveys the idea that ‘God loved the world in this way’ rather than that ‘God so loved the world’ in the sense of how intense his love for the world was.