The men crowded around, mouths gaping wide, as they stared into the sky.
This is the scene in Acts 1 as Jesus ascends to the Father. The disciples wonder if this is the end. Has the kingdom been restored? (Acts 1:6) Rather than giving them a date and time of the kingdom’s full arrival on earth, Jesus has given them a new, paradigm-shifting assignment. As the disciples receive power from the Holy Spirit, Jesus commissions them to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:8)
That’s Jesus’ crucial answer to their question: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” It’s not for them to know the times and seasons the Father has fixed. They simply need to know their responsibility to take the gospel far and wide.
And they will do this by planting churches.
A Mission That Cannot Fail
Before giving his disciples the Great Commission, Jesus made a promise to build his church. He guaranteed that not even the gates of hell can stop its advance (Matt. 16:18).
As a church planter, I continually come back to this great guarantee. Church planting is difficult and costly. It often feels like we’re in a battle with the forces of hell itself. But knowing that Jesus’ plan to redeem the world is accomplished through the planting of more local churches gives me great comfort and confidence. It’s a reality that keeps me pressing ahead, especially in the difficult days.
I know the Great Commission isn’t made to my particular church—or any single church, for that matter. My church might fail next month or next century—and yours might, too. But the guarantee encourages me nonetheless because I know the God I serve and preach about cannot fail as he gathers and builds up his people.
Shadows of the Promise
Recently, as I read through the book of Daniel, I reflected on Nebuchadnezzar’s first dream. American evangelicalism has often tied this dream to prophetic speculation. But this isn’t what the early church did. They believed this dream represented the victory of Christ and the unstoppable advance of the church as it fulfilled the Great Commission.
Daniel interprets the king’s dream by explaining what each of the precious metals of the image represented, and then he explains their destruction and the advancement of a new and never-ending kingdom:
Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, all together were broken in pieces, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth. (Dan. 2:35)
The first Christians believed that this prophecy guaranteed the advance of the church, which would finally culminate in the return of Christ and the resurrection of the dead. Irenaeus (130–202 AD) wrote: “Therefore, God who is great showed future things by Daniel and confirmed them by his Son; and Christ is the stone that is cut out without hands, who shall destroy temporal kingdoms and introduce an eternal one, which is the resurrection of the just” (Against Heresies 5.26.2).
Similarly, Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) interpreted the mountain as the church itself: “It is that mountain [the church] which, according to Daniel’s vision, grew from a very small stone till it overtook the kingdoms of the earth and grew to such a size that it ‘filled the face of the earth’” (Explanations of the Psalms 43.4).
If we reclaimed some of the early church’s confidence in Christ’s plan for his church, perhaps we would have a renewed vigor for pursuing a mission that cannot fail: fulfilling the Great Commission by planting churches.
But what about para-church ministries? I often come across this question in church planting discussions. Para-church ministries are wonderful tools to be used by and for local churches. They can help meet both physical and spiritual needs in various ways.
But Jesus didn’t die for para-church ministries; he died for the church. He didn’t promise the ultimate success of 9Marks, but the ultimate success of the churches this ministry seeks to support and encourage toward spiritual health. He didn’t command us to launch more para-church ministries and 501(c)(3)s; he commanded us to make more disciples which results in more churches.
Make Disciples, Plant Churches
The central command of the Great Commission is to make disciples (Matt. 28:16–20). Disciples are made in and through the efforts of the local church. As new disciples mature, they’ll multiply other disciples. As more and more disciples are made, more and more churches are born.
The command to make disciples, then, is a command to plant churches. Every church that takes seriously the Great Commission must take seriously the need to plant more churches that will make disciples who plant more churches . . . and this is the pattern until Christ returns.
Why the local church? Precisely because it operates under the authority of Christ (Matt. 28:18). It’s described as the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12–13). It’s where the people of Christ, empowered by the Spirit of Christ, celebrate and preach the gospel of Christ as we submit to the rule and reign of Christ.
Furthermore, it’s through the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper that we mark out citizens of the kingdom of heaven who care for the broken, elevate the downtrodden, and pursue justice for the abused—all while preaching a gospel that announces to the world the good news of a coming kingdom and a coming King.
Editor's Note: This post originally appeared at the 9Marks blog and is used with permission.