Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20:21-23 ESV)
Christmas is the celebration of Christ coming to this earth to save us from our sins. He came because He was sent. And He sends us out into the world in the same way. Because of this, world missions is inseparably attached to the meaning of Christmas. These words He spoke were not meant only for the original apostles, but rather they are passed down to each generation of believers in Christ, as Christ commissioned the apostles, “Teaching them to obey all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19).
The Bible explains in great detail that the Son of God was sent to this earth. The word often used in the New Testament for “send” is apostello. It carries the idea of someone sent on a mission for a superior. The noun form became “apostle” in English, and teaches that the apostles did not go out on their own authority, but that they were sent out under the authority of our Lord. And we also are sent by our Lord into the world.
We cannot take this passage in John 20 without also considering John 3:16, where it speaks of God “giving” the Son for the sins of the world. This is the nature of being sent into the world for the Father, that Christ was given over to be mistreated by the world. And Christ sends us in the same way, into the world to be mistreated, misunderstood, and even abused by the world.
But also in John’s gospel, especially chapter 1, it says that Christ “came” into the world, and this emphasizes the choice of the Son in His coming to this earth. He was sent, but did not begrudgingly come. He was given, but not against His own heart and desire. God the Son and God the Father coexist in perfect agreement with one another, as does the Spirit of God. There is no schism in the Godhead, but the Great Three-in-One exist eternally in perfect harmony.
So we also are sent into the world as people on mission from our superior, the Lord Christ. And we are given to the world to fill up the sufferings “still lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, which is the church” (Col. 1:24). This passage does not mean that there is anything lacking in the payment of Christ for the sins of the world. He and He alone completely satisfied all that was required in the heart of holy God for the payment of the sins of the whole world. Rather it means that there are still people and circumstances where the followers of Christ are called to be inconvenienced and even persecuted for the benefit of certain people in certain places.
But we also come to the world in the same love and compassion of the Father and of the Christ. For example, the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 2, begins the chapter by speaking of his “coming” to the Corinthians as an apostle and evangelist, and he ends the chapter with the declaration, “We have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16). And could we find a passage that teaches this principle more clearly than Philippians 2?
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 2:1-5)
The Spirit of God puts people on our hearts today, and as we walk with Him in fellowship we find His love becomes our love. If we forget this point we will have a misshapen idea of the mission of the church. As imperfectly as we do this, let us continually open our hearts for the Spirit to place His love in our hearts.
A common observation made by some preachers is that when Christ said to Peter, “Do you love me? … Feed my sheep” (John 21:17), that Christ did not ask him, “Do you love my sheep?” There is a point to this observation in terms of our overall sending and obligation to preach to and care for those who we find disagreeable, and that it is our love relationship with Christ that will serve as the primary motivation to do so – His love in us and through us to others.
But it is incorrect and an abuse of scripture to suggest that anyone who walks with the Spirit of Christ will remain unloving in his heart. In the John 20 passage above Christ emphasized the role of the Spirit in going into the world. We need Him. As we grow we will also love in our hearts the ones whom Christ loves. Sometimes we love people out of our own sympathies, or because we simply “connect” with them and enjoy being with them. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this, but we must keep before us always, in the dominant place of our minds and hearts, not our own human sentiment for some people, but the eternal love of the eternal God who embraces all.
And the longer we are saved the more we should see all people in this light, as Paul wrote:
Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. (Col. 1:28-29)