“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age’” (Matthew 28:18–20, New International Version).
These last words in Matthew’s gospel have come to be known as the Great Commission. Of course Jesus never said, “OK, gather ‘round! I’m about to give you the Great Commission.” The label became attached to Jesus’s words much later.
As best we can tell, the term originated with Dutch missionary Justinian von Welz sometime in the late 17th century. But it wasn’t until nearly 200 years later that famous missionary Hudson Taylor gave the label its staying power.
Regardless of when this passage became known as the Great Commission, you have to admit that it’s a fitting name. The way Matthew uses it to end his gospel gives it a sense of gravity. Think about it. Matthew was present when Jesus ascended into the clouds, and he still felt it more powerful to end with these words rather than one last dramatic miracle. It’s as if he sees Jesus’ whole story as a set up for this assignment—and in many ways it is.
God’s plan to build His church
The Great Commission encapsulates God’s plan to build His church. This strategy consists of creating and affirming disciples and overseeing their continued instruction.
Jesus begins by establishing His authority. He has conquered death and will soon sit glorified beside the Father. And in this setting, Jesus is not just the disciples’ buddy making a request. This is the God of the universe issuing a command—a command without expiration. We know that the commission extends to us because Jesus promises to be with as we fulfil it “to the end of the age.”
The thrust of the command is “disciple.” In the Greek, it’s a verbal imperative with no noun. It tends to be translated with “make” as the verb and “disciples” as the object, but it actually says “disciple!” in the same way you might say, “run!”
Here is how some translations render the passage:
- “Therefore go disciple all the nations and baptize them in the name of The Father and The Son and The Spirit of Holiness. And instruct them to keep everything whatever I have commanded you, and behold, I am with you every day, even unto the end of time”(Aramaic Bible in Plain English).
- “Therefore having gone, disciple all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things, whatever I commanded you. And behold, I am with you all the days, until the completion of the age” (Berean Literal Bible).
- “Therefore, as you go, disciple people in all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I've commanded you. And remember, I am with you each and every day until the end of the age” (International Standard Version).
- “...having gone, then, disciple all the nations, (baptizing them—to the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit—teaching them to observe all, whatever I did command you,) and lo, I am with you all the days -- till the full end of the age” (Young's Literal Translation).
While the emphasis often gets placed on the word “go,” the act of discipling is really what Jesus is encouraging. He’s telling us that after we have gone, we are to disciple. While sharing the gospel all around the globe is profoundly important, there is no pass for Christ’s followers who are not able to travel the world. As we go about our daily lives, we are to disciple others.
Baptizing others and teaching them aren’t addendums to discipling, they are integral to the discipleship process. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “As you go to all the nations, disciple others. You are to do that by baptizing them and instructing them to do all that I’ve commanded.”
Why is baptism important?
Our ultimate goal isn’t to meet people and simply convince them to agree with the tenets of Christianity. It’s to help them make a commitment to following Jesus. My life is to be a daily process of leading the people around me into a commitment to Him. An element of that commitment is a public proclamation and affirmation of faith through baptism.
This kind of discipling is what we see Philip doing with the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40. He is led to the eunuch by an angel of God where he begins to teach and instruct the eunuch about the passages he’s reading. When the eunuch responds enthusiastically to the news about Jesus, Philip baptizes him.
While it’s ideal whenever possible to baptize someone into a community of faith, there is nothing that precludes one believer from baptizing another. As a follower, you have the authority to cement someone’s commitment to the Lord by baptizing them in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. You have been commissioned!
Recognizing the centrality of the gospel
It’s important to recognize that, for this commission to be truly “great,” we can’t diminish the value of the gospel. If people were better off not knowing the good news, we wouldn’t have been given the command to disciple the nations.
God is at work reconciling the world to Himself through the cross. Christ died to save mankind from its sin and rose that we might also conquer death. We cannot embrace the truth of the Great Commission without recognizing the exclusivity inherent in the gospel. People need Jesus.
Paul sums it up beautifully in the 10th chapter of Romans:
“But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim Him? And how are they to proclaim Him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’” (Romans 10:14–15, New Revised Standard Version).
In the Great Commission, every follower has been sent to proclaim the good news. Through that message God is redeeming the world. What an honor to be part of His strategy.