18 Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
It’s a favorite “trick” of seminary professors, pastors and teachers to ask people this question: What did Jesus say we were to do? Finish this sentence: “Go ye into all the world and...”
They are waiting for you to say, “Preach the gospel,” because that’s what we all learned from the last chapter of Mark’s Gospel and from more than a few missionary hymns. Do you know why it’s a trick question? Because most seminary professors, pastors and teachers do not believe that the end of Mark 16 is authentic. It certainly is missing from some of the most important and most reliable of all early extant manuscripts. The early Latin fathers such as Jerome left it out because it did not appear in their Greek sources. The problem is compounded in that it does in fact appear in a few other early and generally reliable manuscripts, and some of the Greek fathers including Irenaeus refer to some of the verses in question. But we do have this account in Matthew 28 that is beyond dispute. And so, let’s look at a few important questions:
1) What do we call these words from the risen Christ? (The Great Commission)
2) To whom were they first addressed? (The 11 disciples)
3) What was the intended scope of their activity in terms of geography and timetable? (All nations... to the end of the age)
4) Was it realistic to suppose that the 11 could carry it out themselves? (Impossible)
5) What exactly were they asked to do? (Make more disciples, baptize and teach)
When the Great Commission was couched in terms of going into all the world to preach the Gospel, 99% of Christians for centuries understood the reference to apply exclusively to missionary endeavors and, rightly or wrongly, no verses have appeared as routinely in appeals by missionary conference speakers. That is absolutely the way I grew up understanding the Great Commission in all of my childhood churches. It was really important, but it had nothing to do with me.
And this is actually the real reason why seminary professors, pastors and teachers are throwing out their favorite trick question: a correct understanding of Matthew 28:18-20 shows us that these words of Jesus to His disciples were not intended to be restricted to the 11 nor to missionaries who accept the call to foreign fields. They are by extension meant to be heard and put into practice by every one of us who name the Name of Jesus.
Some of the problem lies with the incorrect translation of the two-letter word “go,” still perpetuated in nearly every modern translation. It suggests that the verb is in the imperative, making it a commandment the application of which we have made quite limited. But the verb is not imperative, it is a participle and should be translated “Having gone,” or “Going,” or, perhaps best, “As you go.” There is the assumption that Jesus’ disciples are on the move, whether it is “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, (or) even to the remotest part of the earth" (Acts 1:8), as Jesus said to His disciples immediately before His ascension (the observance of which comes up this week Thursday).
So much for the exclusive missionary appeal. Taken in context and compared with similar statements of Jesus Himself, we see that the witness to Jesus should take place wherever we find ourselves, starting with where we already are. We actually could paraphrase what Jesus is saying as “wherever you are, and whenever you are going anywhere...” Do what? Make disciples, baptize and teach.
What does that mean for us, practically speaking? Do we really want to know? This is a huge piece of being obedient to Jesus’ commandments, and we have seen that this is Jesus’ expectation of all of us, according to His own words in John 14 and 15: “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15). And so, as we go, wherever we go, whenever we go there, anywhere, we are supposed to be making disciples. This takes serious work. This definitely is more comprehensive than simply preaching the Gospel. This definitely demands much more from us.
Discipling people takes time, commitment and patience. It requires getting close to persons whose experience of the Christian faith is less advanced than our own, who have lacked our level of exposure to Jesus’ teaching, whose experience does not include a personal relationship to God through Jesus Christ. It is not a flash-in-the-pan relationship where we throw out a few crumbs of Gospel truth and leave our hearers to figure out where to go from there. It means actually knowing unbelievers well enough that they will ask us the right questions and we will lead them further in God’s truth.
Why is it that we so seldom actually do this? Each of us may have different excuses to offer. Often it comes down to a sense of inadequacy. But even the apostle Paul, speaking in terms of his own ministry, asked “Who is adequate for these things?” (II Corinthians 2:16). He also provides the right answer: “Our adequacy comes from God” (II Cor. 3:5). Then he adds another rhetorical question: “How shall (our) ministry of the Spirit fail to be with glory” (II Cor. 3:8) and he answers, “Since we have such a hope, we speak with great boldness” (II Cor. 3:12). And later he adds, “For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord... for God Who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One Who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (II Cor. 4:5,6).
One more observation from the Great Commission: note the order of things, and ponder how it relates to what we know about the way things were done routinely in the early Church: “Make disciples, baptize, teach.” What is the typical order in the Church today?
For adults, it’s “Make converts, teach, then baptize.” For children, its “Baptize, teach, then make disciples.” There is something wrong with both of these models. Far too often children are baptized in our churches without the least bit of follow-up with Christian Education, discipling and teaching. What happens to those infants?
We spent a lengthy period of intense disagreement in seminary over how long baptismal teaching of adults should last, with opinions ranging from a few sessions to a few years. But the NT model was to baptize immediately. The haste of the Ethiopian eunuch who said to Philip, “Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?” accorded perfectly well with the standard procedure of the disciples, who baptized entire families on their first profession of faith. But what is supposed to follow baptism is teaching: in Jesus’ words, teaching the newly baptized “to observe all things that I have commanded you.” That’s how new disciples are to be formed in the faith. And that is precisely what is lacking in many of our churches today. There are commandments of Jesus that need to be part of a systematic catechism in every single church.
We all comment on the uniqueness of the Bible Study, fellowship, meal-sharing and worship of Grace Fellowship. How wonderful it is that we are able to experience this. How blessed we are. But how sad that it’s so exceptional when it should be the norm, when it probably was the NT norm, and when we tend to keep it to ourselves without ever inviting others to join us for the experience!
Yes, the Great Commission is for all of us. It is an expectation that those of us who have been blessed with the life in Christ Jesus will obey His commission to share the good news of the Gospel with others. It is a spiritual discipline; and without our exercise of it, the Church would disappear. All of us should be in the business of making disciples and teaching others the commandments of Christ. With the help of the Holy Spirit, may we become obedient to this specific commandment in order to grow the Church of Jesus Christ and to bring about the expansion of His Kingdom on this earth. “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Amen