The last mandate of Christ to His disciples—commonly known as the Great Commission—was to comprehensively evangelize the whole the world. He said: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20).
The implications of this mandate are revolutionary and have literally altered the course of world history. Jesus asserted that all authority in heaven is His (Psalm 103:19). The heights, the depths, the angels, and the principalities are all under His sovereign rule (Psalm 135:5-7). But all authority on earth is His as well (Psalm 147:15-18). Man and creature, as well as every invention and institution, are under His providential superintendence (Psalm 24:1). There are no neutral areas in all the cosmos that can escape the authoritative regency (Colossians 1:17).
On that basis Christ says, believers all across the wide gulf of time, are to continually manifest His Lordship—making disciples in all nations by going, baptizing, and teaching. This mandate is the essence of the New Covenant, which in turn, is just an extension of the Old Covenant: Go and claim everything in heaven and on earth for the everlasting dominion of Jesus Christ (Genesis 1:26-28).
It was this mandate that originally emboldened Christ’s disciples to preach the Gospel—first in Jerusalem and Judea, then in Samaria, and finally in the uttermost parts of the earth (Acts 1:8). It was this mandate that sustained the faithful church through generations of hardship, persecution, calamity, and privation—provoking it to offer light and life to those ensnared in the miry clay of darkness and death. It was this mandate that sent explorers like Columbus, Balboa, da Gama, Magellan, and Cabot out across the perilous uncharted seas. And ultimately, it was this mandate that became the catalyst for a remarkable resurgence of missionary efforts—both in word and in deed—that followed on the heels of the great European expansion and colonization during the nineteenth century.
Just as no corner of the globe was left untouched by the explorers, soldiers, merchants, and colonists, the selfless and sacrificial efforts of missionaries left virtually no stone unturned either. Peoples everywhere were not only glorious converted spiritually, they also tasted the abundant benefits of Christian civilization. And, chief among those benefits of course, was a new respect for the dignity of every human life—a respect that was entirely unknown anywhere in the world until the advent of the Gospel.
As missionaries moved out from Christendom to the “uttermost parts of the earth” they were shocked to discover all the horrors of untamed heathenism. They found abortion all too prevalent, infanticide all too commonplace, abandonment all too familiar, and euthanasia all too customary. They were confronted by the specters of endemic poverty, recurring famine, unfettered disease, and widespread chattel slavery—which the Christian West had only recently abolished. Cannibalism, ritual abuse, patricide, human sacrifice, sexual perversity, petty tyranny, paternalistic exploitation, live burials, exterminative clan warfare, and genocidal tribal vendettas all predominated.
Again and again, they had to affirm in the clearest possible way—in both word and deed—that Jesus Christ is the only perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world and that through Him had come the death of death (Romans 5:6-18).
Most of the missionaries knew that such a liberating message would likely be met with strident opposition. And it was. Especially toward the end of the great missionary era--during the sunset of Victorianism—missionaries were often forced into conflicts with Europeans and North Americans who subscribed to the Enlightenment notions of Darwinism, Mercantilism, and Pragmatism. As these ideas took a higher and higher profile at home, leaders in government and academia—and gradually even in the church—began to increasingly believe that the vast difference between Christian culture and pagan culture was actually not rooted in religion but in sociology and race. So, Christian soldiers stationed in British colonies, for example, were often reprimanded for attending the baptisms of native converts because as representatives of the government, they were obligated to be “religiously neutral.” Thus, missionaries found it increasingly difficult to persuade the Western governments to abolish heathen customs and impose the rule of humanitarian law.
Thankfully, the vast majority of the missionaries on the field held the line against such latitudinarianism. They continued to sacrifice. They continued to care for the hurting. They continued to succor the ailing. They continued to value the weak. And they continued to stand for the innocent.
As missionaries circled the globe, penetrated the jungles, and crossed the seas, they preached a singular message: light out of darkness, liberty out of tyranny, and life out of death. To cultures endemic with terrible poverty, brutality, lawlessness, and disease, those faithful Christian witnesses interjected the novel Christian concepts of grace, charity, law, medicine, and the sanctity of life. They overturned despots, liberated the captives, and rescued the perishing. They established hospitals. They founded orphanages. They started rescue missions. They built almshouses. They opened soup kitchens. They incorporated charitable societies. They changed laws. They demonstrated love. They lived as if people really mattered. Wherever missionaries went, they faced a dual challenge: confront sin in men's hearts and confront sin in men's cultures.
Thus, the nineteenth century missions movement was more than simply a great era of Biblical preaching. It was a great era of Biblical faith. The great pioneers of nineteenth century missions have thus left us a remarkable multi-faceted legacy. They were church-planters and culture-shapers. They were soul-winners and nation-builders.
May we be so bold as to walk in their footsteps.