What is the Great Commission?

Tue January 24, 2017 · Comments

The disciples spent three-and-a-half years with Jesus. They saw mind-blowing miracles and heard life-changing teaching. It must of been like drinking from a firehose. How do you remember it all? What stands out when everything you’ve experienced is life-changing and revolutionary?

Obviously, the crucifixion and resurrection changed everything forever. The euphoria of seeing Jesus’ triumph over death must have caused the disciples to look at their experiences with Him in a whole new light, infusing every post-resurrection interaction with incredible significance.

Matthew’s Gospel documents all of his experiences as a disciple. And he ends the whole story of Christ’s ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection by focusing on the responsibility that comes from believing in Jesus’ message:

“Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’” (Matthew 28:16–20).

These words would have been incredibly significant to the disciples. After everything they’ve seen and heard, Jesus is leaving them with this final call to action. Everything has been in preparation for this moment.

Why’s it called the Great Commission

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’ words much later.

As far as we can tell, 17th-century missionary Baron Justinian Von Welz was the first person to coin the term. Scholars can’t find any record of the “Great Commission” being used in this context before 1650. But even though von Welz may have first used the term, it was J. Hudson Taylor that popularized it.

Hudson Taylor was a successful missionary to China in the late 1800s and the founder of the China Inland Mission. He took Christ’s words about making disciples seriously.

“The Great Commission is not an option to be considered; it is a command to be obeyed.” ― James Hudson Taylor

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.

Examining Jesus’ words

When we look closely at this passage in Matthew, we gain a lot of insight into what’s expected of Christians.

“All authority in heaven”

Jesus establishes the expansive nature of His authority. He doesn’t just have the earthly jurisdiction that one would ascribe to a king or a Caesar. He has an all-encompassing authority that could only belong to God. His words echo Daniel’s prophetic vision:

“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed” (Daniel 7: 13–14).

“Therefore go”

Because all authority is His, Jesus is able to issue His command. It’s important to note that “go” isn’t the imperative command. “Disciple” is. A lot of the time, Jesus’ twelve disciples were in Jerusalem overseeing the spread of the gospel. If you’re interested in learning more, check out the post “Does the Great Commission Require Me to ‘Go’?”

“Make disciples of all nations”

Jesus’ words evoke something more involved than simple evangelism. They couldn't just go out and make new Christians. They needed to invest time in disciple-making. If the church was going to spread, it required converts with maturity and depth.

“Baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit”

In the first century, symbolic water purification had become part of the Jewish tradition. Although it wasn’t scripturally prescribed, rabbinic schools were baptizing new Gentile converts as a sign of spiritual cleansing. So Jesus’ words wouldn’t have seemed so strange to the disciples. What Jesus leaves out, however, is the circumcision that would have accompanied that conversion. That would have seemed like a glaring omission.

“Teaching them to do everything I have commanded you”

Teaching is an essential element of discipleship. The twelve disciples spent years with Jesus absorbing His teaching.

“And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age”

Not only do these last words reinforce Jesus’ divine authority, but they’re also intended as encouragement. The spread of the gospel would be fraught with dangers and tensions. All but one of the disciples would pay the ultimate price for following the Great Commission, but Jesus promised to be with His disciples in the midst of those tensions—and with us!  

The thread running through Matthew’s Gospel

This essential and final message from Jesus doesn’t come out of left field. When you read Matthew’s Gospel with the Great Commission in mind, you notice that it’s the whole point of the Book.

Becoming fishers of men

When Jesus first calls Peter and Andrew, He tells them that their profession is going to change—but it’s not going to be dissimilar to their old job. Instead of catching fish, they would become fishers of men (Matthew 4:19).

Being sheep among wolves

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matthew 10:16–20).

Early in their relationship, Jesus told the disciples that His ultimate goal was to send them out to share the gospel. For the good news to spread and take root, the disciples would find themselves living as sheep among wolves. The Great Commission is the fulfilment of Jesus’ words here.

The gospel needs to be sown

In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus uses the metaphor of soil to look at different reactions to the gospel. When the seed of the gospel is scattered, it reacts differently to the soil it lands on. Some earth is too rocky and the seed isn’t able to take root, and other ground is fertile and ready to receive the good news.

In light of the Great Commission, it’s helpful to recognize the importance of the farmer. For the seed to create a crop, someone would need to sow it. We now see that all of us who put their trust in Jesus are sowers of that seed.

The other commissions

Although Matthew’s words have come to be known as the Great Commission, they aren’t the only commissioning texts in Scripture. Every Gospel and the book of Acts include a commission from Jesus to His followers to begin growing the church.

Mark’s Gospel

“He said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.’

“After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God. Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it” (Mark 16:15–20).

While some of the earliest manuscripts of Mark don’t include this passage, it includes some interesting features.

First of all, Jesus tells the disciples to go preach the gospel to all creation. This is meaningful because the impact of God’s reconciliation with mankind would have an impact on the whole earth. Paul tells us that a groaning creation “waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed” (Romans 8:19).

Jesus also promises that powerful signs will accompany the proclamation of the gospel.

Luke’s Gospel

“Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, ‘This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high’” (Luke 24:45–49).

Luke’s version of the Commission reiterates the preaching of forgiveness to all nations. Here we see the importance of spiritual empowerment. The gospel wasn’t going to go forth in power without the Holy Spirit’s involvement.

John’s Gospel

“On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

“Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’  And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven’” (John 20:19-23).

.In John’s Gospel, we see that the disciples are sent out as His representatives—in the same way that the Father sent Jesus. This reinforces Paul’s words that we are Christ’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20).  

The Book of Acts

On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command:

‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’

Then they gathered around him and asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’”

He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’” (Acts 1:4–8).

There’s a significant progression in Jesus’ words here. The disciples were in Jerusalem when these words were spoken. Immediately after the Holy Spirit arrives, Peter preached a message to the Pentecost crowds where more than 3,000 people were saved and baptised. Just as Jesus suggested, they began as witnesses in Jerusalem.

Judea is the province where Jerusalem is located. You can think of the relationship between Judea and Jerusalem as similar to the relationship between Texas and Houston. Naturally the gospel will spill out from Jerusalem into Judea. We see this happen in Acts chapter 8. After Stephen’s martyrdom, full-scale persecution breaks out and believers are scattered outside of Jerusalem.

When Jesus tells the disciples that from Judea they’re to go to Samaria, He’s making a very important statement. Normally, Jews would go out of their way to avoid the province of Samaria. If they wanted to go to Galilee, they wouldn’t take the fastest and easiest route through Samaria. They’d add days by crossing the Jordan River and travel through Perea and Decapolis before crossing the Jordan again into Galilee. That’s how much they hated the Samaritans.

Jesus isn’t just telling them that they’re to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. He’s going out of His way to tell them that this includes taking the good news to their worst enemies.

The enduring legacy of the Great Commission

Jesus’ marching orders have had a profound impact on the world. Because of the disciples’ obedience, more than 2 billion all over the world, claim to be Christian. But the work still isn’t finished, so the Great Commission continues to inspire and instruct us.

Consider these quotes:

“We must be global Christians with a global vision because our God is a global God.”― John R.W. Stott

“I believe that in each generation God has called enough men and women to evangelize all the yet unreached tribes of the earth. It is not God who does not call. It is man who will not respond!”― Isobel Kuhn

“Never pity missionaries; envy them. They are where the real action is — where life and death, sin and grace, Heaven and Hell converge.”― Robert C. Shannon

“The opportunities for using our financial resources to spread the gospel and strengthen the church all over the world are greater than they’ve ever been. As God raised up Esther for just such a time as hers, I’m convinced he’s going to raise us up, with all our wealth, to help fulfill the Great Commission. The question is, what are we doing with that money? Our job is to make sure it gets to his intended recipients.”― Randy Alcorn

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).

Making disciples of all nations

Until Jesus returns, the church is still expected to work out His injunction to make disciples. This responsibility should still inspire the same kind of urgency that it did when these words were spoken thousands of years ago, driving us to befriend the lost and share Jesus’ life-changing story with people near and far.

It also means that the church needs to take a good look at its evangelistic strategies. As helpful as it is to provide a place for people to come and hear the message, the call is still for us to go. To head into our communities and, ultimately, into the world.

If you’re interested in bringing the story of Jesus to the world, come check out some ways that you can invest in reaching the people all over the globe.

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