THE FIRST COMMISSION
Written by Doug Ponder on January 16, 2013
What are people for?
It’s an intriguing question, isn’t it? Why are we here? Why are we different from the rest of creation? What, in other words, is the point of being human?
Some have said that God needed a playmate. That’s a pretty low view of God, though, and it overlooks the fact that the Trinity enjoyed an eternity of love and fellowship without us. So God didn’t create us because he was lonely or bored.
Others have said that people are for “worshipping God.” Now, it’s true that humans are supposed to do that. No Christian denies this. But that doesn’t explain why God made us, considering all the rest of his creation already worships him in its own way (Psalm 19:1, 145:10; Luke 19:40). It would be redundant for God to make humans distinct from the rest of his creation if our purpose were exactly the same as theirs.
So, what are people for?
The World as It Should Be
From the beginning God has desired the world to be filled with objects, artifacts, ideas, sounds, stories, relationships, attitudes, tastes, rituals, habits, and desires that reflected his glory. In other words, God wanted his world to be filled with God-glorifying culture. (Culture isn’t evil, by the way. It’s just the word we use to describe what human beings make. Creation is what God makes; culture is what we make.) So God wanted everyone and everything to reflect his goodness, wisdom, and power in every way imaginable. Everywhere you’d look would be signs of God’s greatness, like endless waves of credit and honor and glory all returning to their original source in him.
But how would God bring this state of affairs to pass?
The Missing Link
God decided to do all of this through people. That’s right, you and me. This explains why God created human beings to be different from the rest of his creation. We have a different job to do, and none of his other creatures can pull it off. We might call this job the “First Commission,” because it is the first authoritative order that God gave us. In fact, the First Commission existed before we did (Gen. 1:26), so it’s hard to deny that we were created in order to fulfill this very purpose.
God made us “in his image” (Gen. 1:26-27), which describes both who we are and what we are supposed to be doing. We are God’s creatures designed to bear his resemblance, and we have been called to represent God in the world. Here is how God says we do this: We are called to “have dominion” over what God made, which means that we must rule responsibly on his behalf (Gen. 1:26). We also must “be fruitful and multiply,” so that the earth might be full of people who “fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28), which means cultivating the resources of the world and filling it with God-glorifying culture. Had the first human beings not plunged creation into corruption, the earth would now be full of obedient worshipers who loved God with all of their being and glorified him in all they said, did and made.
The World as It Is Now
The world today is not like that, as we all know. But that doesn’t mean that the plan of God has changed. In fact, to demonstrate that God still wants us to fulfill the First Commission, he repeats it immediately after Noah and his family leave the ark (Gen. 9:1-7). Think about that. After the flood, the earth would have looked much the same as it did at the beginning. God purposefully choose this moment to remind his people of what they were here for.
The problem, thanks to humanity’s rebellion and subsequent corruption, is that we are incapable of fulfilling the First Commission as we were designed to do. Instead of filling the earth with people and things that reflect the glory of God in every way imaginable, we have filled the earth with people and things that reflect all kinds of evil and injustice. This is the point of the gospel, as several New Testament authors make clear. God redeems us through Christ’s work, giving us a new heart by the power of the Spirit, so that we will become “eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:14).
The Gospel and the First Commission
“This is all well and good,” you may say, “But what about the Great Commission? Didn’t Jesus say that was our main responsibility now?” Well, yes… and no. It depends upon what you mean. Technically, Jesus says in the Great Commission that we must teach his followers to “obey all that [he] has commanded” (Matt. 28:19), which certainly includes the First Commission.
But even if you focus only on making disciples—a central command of the Great Commission—it’s clear that the purpose of disciple-making is to create the kind of people who can resume the great work that God has created us to do from the very beginning. Think about it like this. Suppose you need to fill a tire with air. You pull out the air pump only to realize that it isn’t working properly. Instead of filling the tire with air, the pump takes what little air is left in the tire. You can’t ignore the broken pump, because then you won’t be able to fill the tire. On the other hand, it would be just as foolish to fix the pump without actually filling the tire once it is repaired.
That is how the Great Commission and the First Commission work together. We are like the broken pumps (“people”) incapable of filling the tire (“earth”) with good air (“culture”). Through the gospel we are “fixed” by receiving the Spirit to dwell inside of us, who unites us to the redeeming death and resurrection of Jesus and renovates us from the inside out. And as you would expect, people such as these begin to change the world in tremendously God-glorifying ways.
In view of all this, it’s not a stretch to say that the Great Commission was given in order to fulfill the First Commission. God’s new community of Spirit-filled followers of Jesus are enabled to resume our responsibility—not perfectly, but genuinely—to “have dominion,” to “be fruitful and multiply,” and to “fill the earth and subdue it” for the glory of God. This is why, at the end of the age, God tells us that his people will be co-regents with Christ (Rev. 5:9-10), ruling over God’s world and bringing him glory as we do his will perfectly from the heart.
What This Means for You
First, don’t forget that without the Great Commission—that is, without making followers of Jesus through the proclamation of the gospel—the First Commission can never be fulfilled. This means that we must always be telling others about Jesus and displaying the good of news of Jesus through our lives.
Second, Christians should never see it as their primary job to be a critic of culture. It’s true that some things will need to be critiqued, rejected, or resisted on God’s behalf, and we must do so with humble conviction. But to fulfill the First Commission we can’t be critics of culture only; we must also be creators of culture that positively glorifies God and truthfully demonstrates who he is to the world.
So, write stories. Sing songs. Design and make. Dig wells. Build hospitals. Tutor in schools. Clean up your city. Craft with your hands. Use your senses. Use your mind. Tell people about Jesus. And employ every gift and talent that God has given you, not to inflate your ego, to serve yourself or to “follow your dreams.” But use them to serve others and to increase the knowledge of the glory of God until it covers the earth as the waters cover the seas (Hab. 2:13).
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.