The Terrible Texts: Be Fruitful and Multiply and Subdue the Earth

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 24 September 2003 0 Comments
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If you do not favor conversion activity, how do you interpret the Great Commission?


The Great Commission, found in Matthew 28:19 directs the disciples to go into all the world and to proclaim the Gospel. It was written before the Christian Church had actually split from the Jewish synagogue. Christians were at that time, in Matthew's context, "revisionist Jews" who believed that they had found God present in Jesus and who yearned to incorporate this Jesus into the ongoing Jewish tradition. Matthew also wanted his Jewish nation to fulfill its vocation, given to Abraham, to be a blessing to all the nations of the world. So he opens his Gospel by placing a star into the sky to announce Jesus' birth. A star did not just shine on the land of the Jews but was seen by all the people on this planet, that is by those the Jews called, rather pejoratively, 'the Gentiles.' That star drew these Gentiles, in the persons of the Magi, to the place where Matthew said Jesus was born. Matthew then proceeds to tell the whole story of Jesus, climaxing with the narratives of his crucifixion and resurrection. The Risen Christ is then made to say but one thing to the disciples, which was what we now call the Great Commission. It was as if Jesus through Matthew was saying, now that you know me you have the responsibility to move beyond the boundaries of your tribal identity and your tribal religion and to tell of God's love for all the people of the world. That is the context of the Great Commission. It had nothing to do with imposing rites of baptism or forcing people to believe certain doctrines, dogmas or creeds. To proclaim the Gospel is to live out the infinite love of God. That takes many forms. Violating the culture and values of another people so that they become adherents of your version of a religious system that Jesus never knew is not one of them.

-- John Shelby Spong





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