The Holy Spirit and Mission: From Matthew to Luke and Back Again

Kirsteen Kim

Ever since William Carey founded evangelical missiology with the publication of his famous “Enquiry” in 1792, missions have been justified chiefly by recourse to the Great Commission of Jesus to his disciples in Matt 28:18-20, which Carey summarized as “Go, and teach all nations!” Carey was well aware in his day that traders were traveling to distant lands in search of profit and Catholic and Moravian missionaries were spreading their forms of Christianity to other nations. He used this passage to impress upon his own (Baptist) community the obligation to follow suit. Obedience to the command of Christ to “go” became the chief justification for mission during the colonial period. The verses in Matthew 28 pointed to a global missionary operation to teach nations and peoples, who did not know about Christ, how they might be saved from their sins.

However, the dismantling of the European empires in the decades after the Second World War and accusations that missionaries had been guilty of “colonizing the mind” of subject nations led mission theologians to search for an alternative basis upon which to justify world mission in a NT sense and to disconnect it from colonial activity. Since each of the Gospel writers concludes with a commissioning of the disciples, there are several alternatives to choose from (See Mark 16:15-18; Luke 24:45-49/Acts 1:8; John 20:21-23). What if one envisions the call to missions, not through the lens of Matthew, but from one of the others, say Luke? Would it make a difference in our mission practice?

Actually, switching our primary text for mission from Matthew to Luke is one way of summarizing significant changes in mission theology at the turn of the 21st century. In this essay, I will explore some implications for mission practice that emerge from what the leading missiologist, David Bosch, described in Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Orbis, 1991) as a “paradigm shift” in theology of mission. One of the effects of this turn is to draw attention to the close relationship between the Holy Spirit and mission, which is the focus of this essay. After considering this relationship, I will ask whether our new understanding of mission from Luke causes us to revise our understanding of Matthew’s Great Commission.

Pentecost and Mission

Luke’s version of the commissioning of the disciples serves as a bridge between his Gospel and his second volume, the Acts of the Apostles. Near the end of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus reminds the disciples that “‘it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (24:45-49). And at the opening of the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus is remembered as saying, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:8). Luke’s account looks forward to the Pentecost event (Acts 2) when the Holy Spirit came in the form of wind and flame upon the extended community of Jesus’ followers  as they gathered in the upper room.

In Luke’s account, Pentecost is the key event that forms the frightened disciples into a church and sends that church out in mission. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost excited and empowered the disciples to preach to the crowd, to speak in other languages that could be understood by the multi-cultural crowd gathered in Jerusalem at that time, and to do many signs and wonders. That day about three thousand persons repented and joined the community of Christ’s followers. They shared what they had with one another, and the witness of the first church’s life and worship impressed others and drew more into the fellowship. Pentecost is significant not only because of this pattern for our church life and mission practice but also because it offers a particular understanding of mission that is tied to the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Thus, what are some of the implications of mission practice when one begins from Luke’s theology of the Holy Spirit?

Mission as Empowerment: Being Filled with the Spirit

There are many reasons why, since the mid 20th century, mission theologians have focused on Luke’s version of “the great commission.” One is that Acts 2 is a passage of key interest to the Pentecostal movement. This movement grew so rapidly that it was claimed that by the turn of the century it encompassed a quarter of all Christians globally. Amos Yong is one of the world’s leading Pentecostal theologians. In his book on global Pentecostalism, The Spirit Poured Out on All Flesh: Pentecostalism and the Possibility of Global Theology (Baker Academic, 2005), he writes that since “Luke is the author most concerned with, and interested in, the operations of the Spirit,” then “for Pentecostals, Luke-Acts has served somewhat as a template for readers to enter into the world of the early church” (27).

Not only Pentecostals, but also Latin American liberation theologians who struggled in the 1970s and 80s against social injustice, called attention to Luke-Acts. Of all the Gospel writers, Luke appears to have the most interest in the economically poor, and it is his Gospel that includes the “Nazareth Manifesto:” “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (4:18). Here, Jesus both puts the poor at the center of his mission and also connects the poor with the Spirit’s initiative. In Breath of Fire (Geoffrey Chapman, 1979), the Indian Jesuit theologian Samuel Rayan described the Spirit as giving fullness of life as people are enabled to transform their social condition.

Pentecost reveals the Holy Spirit as the empowerer of mission. As Joel Green states in his commentary on Luke (Eerdmans, 1995): “The Holy Spirit is the power that puts into effect the will of God” (47). When one is filled with the Spirit, new movements—both religious and social—may result.

Mission as Promise: Joining in with the Spirit

The genre of Luke’s “great commission” differs significantly from that of Matthew. Whereas the emphasis in Matthew 28 is on obedience to the command to “go,” in Luke the command is to “stay” initially. However, mission—or witnessing—is held out as the fulfillment of the promise of the Holy Spirit: “you will be my witnesses.” Luke’s version disconnects mission from the militarism of the colonial era with its emphasis on obedience and duty. Instead, mission is the result of the gift of the Holy Spirit. In place of the external command, mission becomes an inner compulsion, a natural consequence of repentance and faith. Rather than human planning, mission begins with experiencing the presence of the Spirit of God and being swept up into the Spirit’s activity.

Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, once remarked that mission is a matter of “finding out where the Holy Spirit is at work and joining in” (Fresh Expressions website,, front page [Sept 2006]).  Although the mission is to the ends of the earth, Luke’s version of the commission also makes it local—in Jerusalem—as well as “in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The emphasis is on the mission of God on earth rather than on our sending from one place to another. The first act of mission is to discern where the Spirit is at work so that we can participate, and that may equally be in our own church or neighborhood.

Mission as Witness: Mission in the Spirit

The vocabulary Luke uses to describe the spread of Christianity differs from that of Matthew. Luke introduces the term “witness” to describe what is expected of the disciples. In Acts: The Gospel of the Spirit (Orbis, 2001), Justo Gonzales points out that “One cannot ‘witness’ to an idea or a doctrine” but only to “a fact, an event, the actions and words of a person”—to Christ (20). Throughout the rest of the Book of Acts we read about the witness borne by apostles, deacons, and members of the community. This mission was a gift of the Spirit and took place as the disciples lived, as the Apostle Paul has it, “in the Spirit.”

Their witness included verbal testimony and teaching, and also individual acts of healing, waiting on tables, joy in imprisonment, and the ultimate testimony of martyrdom. Furthermore, witnessing to new life in Christ was done by the whole church as Christians shared their possessions and served the poor. The early Christians were blessed with the Spirit of Christ and in this Spirit they went about doing good as Jesus Christ did. Mission was not understood as a particular task added to others but as a way of life, as a spirituality, as the way of discipleship.

Mission as Creation: The Mission of the Spirit

As John Levison explores in Filled with the Spirit (Eerdmans, 2009), when Jesus taught the disciples about the Spirit, he was talking about what they already knew (for his full discussion, see 109-117). Their Scriptures revealed the Spirit as the co-creator who blows over the deep (Gen 1:2), the giver of life to humanity who breathes into the first humans (Gen 2:7), and the sustainer of life. The Spirit speaks through the prophets and gives strength to leaders. The prophet Joel foretold the future outpouring that Peter in his Pentecost sermon identified with what was happening. What is more, the first chapters of Luke are full of stories about how the Holy Spirit was present and active in the lives of contemporary Jewish people: Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, shepherds, Simeon, Anna, and John the Baptist. The Holy Spirit was at work in the world long before the Pentecost event, and even the Incarnation.

Just as the Father sends the Son, the Father also sends the Spirit. Because the Holy Spirit is—together with the Father and the Word—the creative power of the universe, the “mission of the Spirit” is broad in scope. “Joining in with the Spirit” means committing ourselves to the future of the planet and to the welfare of all living beings. In mission, we will find common ground with others of the same faith, another faith, or no faith, who are similarly working for the common good. Both the scope of mission and the range of mission partners is broadened when we think about the mission of the Spirit.

The Spirit and the Kingdom

The recent turn from Matthew to Luke has helped theologians rethink mission and reenvision it as “being filled with the Spirit,” “joining in with the Spirit,” “mission in the Spirit,” and “the mission of the Spirit.” This turn has implications for why we do mission, where we do mission, how we do mission, and what we do as mission. In the end, is Luke advocating a totally different mission from Matthew or have we misunderstood Matthew’s version of the commission?

There are contextual differences between Matthew’s community and Luke’s that enable them each to develop distinctive theologies of mission. Matthew does not use the same language as Luke to describe the mission to which we are called. Where Luke describes an experience of “power from on high,” for Matthew mission is realizing the “kingdom of Heaven” that Jesus taught about. Spirit and kingdom are parallel ways of thinking about mission in the NT. Like Matthew, Mark rarely refers to the Holy Spirit but expresses Jesus’s mission as bringing the kingdom of God. John and Paul instead expect the new life of the Spirit, and Luke has “kingdom” on the lips of Jesus but focuses on the Spirit in Acts.

Nevertheless, if we examine Matt 28:18-20 in its biblical context, it seems to concur with Luke’s version of the commissioning in all four characteristics we noted above. First, when we read the whole chapter, we see that the commission in Matthew is, like Luke’s, an experience of empowerment for disciples who were fearful and filled with doubt. Second, the kind of mission Jesus enjoins in Matthew is, similarly, a participation in the pattern Jesus has already established. Although the mission will be more widespread, NT scholars, such as Bosch, have pointed out that the call to “go” is not what is stressed—rather, the emphasis is on “making disciples.” So, discipling “all nations” is, like the apostles in Acts, creating multi-ethnic spiritual communities “on the way.” Baptizing and teaching are directed to this end. Third, in Mathew’s Gospel, the disciples are expected to do mission in the Spirit of Christ. Jesus’ closing words are that he will always be with the disciples. In the context of Matthew, “baptizing” is a call for repentance, forgiveness, and conversion to Christ, and “teaching” refers most naturally to the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) with its concern for justice for the poor “little ones.” Fourth, the creative and transformational nature of this mission is indicated by the phrase “to the end of the age.”

In our post-colonial and post-monarchical age, rather than “Go and teach,” or “preaching the kingdom,” thinking of mission as “joining in with the Spirit” may help us to understand our calling better and fulfill this calling more faithfully.

Posted Apr 02, 2018