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10 Things I Wish Everyone Knew About the Great Commission

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We hear the Great Commission from the gospel of Matthew week in and week out in church, and for most, the main takeaway is “Go.” But this conversation between Jesus and his apostles is jam-packed with important things for us to know. I work for a company that’s practically named after the Great Commission — which means the nuances of these verses are on my mind a lot. I’ve made a list of Great Commission takeaways that I wish would get some more airtime. 10-facts-great-commission-infographic 1. It’s never called the Great Commission in the Bible. Let’s start with the name. I’ve heard this passage referred to as the Great Commission since I was a kid. Where did that name come from? If you look through the Bible in English, you won’t find Paul, Peter, or any New Testament author calling this command by that name. In fact, there’s no occurrence of “Great Commission” in the whole Bible. Period. So when did we start calling this passage the “Great Commission”? Lucky for me, I’m not the first person to ask this question. Robbie F. Castleman did a lot of digging on this for us, and she found that the term is a lot younger than we’d probably imagine. It turns out that this passage may have got its summary label from a Dutch missionary Justinian von Welz (1621–88), but it was Hudson Taylor, nearly 200 years later, who popularized the use of ‘The Great Commission.’ Is it a commission? Yes. Is it great? Absolutely. But it’s a relatively new nickname for Jesus’ last words in Matthew (when you consider the 1600+ years that passed beforehand). It’s interesting: the church was making disciples of the nations long, long, before Christians singled out and elevated this passage. 2. The Great Commission is given to a group, not an individual. Jesus was betrayed by Judas, one of his 12 apostles. After Jesus was crucified, Judas hangs himself in remorse. That leaves 11 apostles on the third day, when Jesus rises again. Later on, the 11 apostles make their way north to a mountain that Jesus designated ahead of time. Jesus meets them there, and delivers the Great Commission to the group. When Jesus says, “I am with you always,” the word translated “you” is plural — Jesus is making a promise to 11 people at this time. There’s some debate on whether or not the Great Commission was just for the 11 apostles or if Jesus’ instructions cascade through the generations to us today. Either way, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that the Great Commission was meant to be carried out in community. It’s not a solo mission. 3. It’s a call to “make disciples,” not to “go.” When we read the great commission in English, the first word we see is “Go.” That sets the tone for the rest of the passage. And of course, “go” coupled with “every nation” makes many of us think of taking the gospel of Jesus to a foreign country. However, Jesus wasn’t speaking English when he gave this command. And Matthew wasn’t writing it down in English. The Great Commission was originally given in Greek, so there’s a little more to the picture. Warning: it’s about to get geeky in here. In Greek, the main action in Jesus’ command is mathēteúō, which is the Greek word translated “make disciples.” The word for “go” (poreúomai) does mean “to move from one place to another.” However, it’s not the main directive in this sentence. Here’s a real-life example: “When you go to the store, get some eggs.” Even though this sentence assumes I’m going to the store, the main instruction here is to get eggs. The Great Commission is similar. Jesus assumes that the apostles will be going about. He tells them that, while they’re going, they should make disciples. That’s a major shift in focus from how I was first taught the Great Commission. Addendum (3-5-15): As Sandy points out in the comments, I should note that although the main imperative is to “make disciples,” this doesn’t mean we throw “go” out the window. Since Jesus told a group of only eleven guys to make disciples of all nations, the need to “go” would have been understood. 4. Disciples aren’t just followers. The word for “make disciples” isn’t just a matter of gathering people who want to hear about Jesus. Although the root of the word Matthew uses means “to learn,” it’s not just about winning an audience of curious students. When Christ talks about disciples, think apprentices. Greek scholar Spiros Zodhiates says this about disciples: Mathēteúō means not only to learn, but to become attached to one’s teacher and to become his follower in doctrine and conduct of life. That’s pretty intense. But that’s the kind of follower Jesus told his apostles to make. 5. Mark has another take on Jesus’ final command. This isn’t the only record of Jesus sending his disciples to the nations. In the last chapter of Mark, the resurrected Christ tells his followers: “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:15–16) Why did Matthew’s line get all the fame? Maybe because Matthew’s is a little more upbeat (no condemnation language). Maybe because Matthew’s mentions the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — more on that later. Maybe because Matthew’s command ends with a comforting promise of Jesus’ presence. My guess? It’s because Mark doesn’t end his gospel with this command. Mark’s story goes on for a few more verses. Matthew’s ends with a direct call to action: make disciples. 6. The Great Commission flows from Jesus’ authority. Matthew’s whole gospel builds to this command. And it’s not a simple “take your shoes off in the house” command — Jesus is setting a new expectation for how his followers will live their lives. But why? Who is Jesus to tell these men how to live their lives, and why is Jesus so insistent on them gaining new followers for him? It helps to read the verse that comes right before the famous ones. Jesus tells the apostles, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). This authority is given to Jesus by God the Father (Matthew 11:27). Plus, Jesus rose from the dead — so he’s pretty much the boss now. 7. It’s the first time the Bible lists all three members of the Trinity. Jesus tells the 12 to make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Here’s something you may not have heard before: this is the first time all three members of the Trinity are explicitly listed side by side. Granted, the Bible has mentioned all three members together before. For example, when Mary is pregnant with Jesus, an angel of the Lord (Father) tells Joseph that Mary’s child (Son) is of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:20). Another example is Jesus’ baptism: Jesus (Son) comes up from the water, the Spirit descends on him like a dove, and the Father affirms him with a voice from heaven (Matthew 3:16–17; Mark 1:10–11; Luke 3:22). However, it’s not until the Great Commission that the Bible finally comes out and lists all three. There’s a Father, a Son, and a Holy Spirit, and disciples are supposed to be baptized in their name (and that’s a single name). Why don’t we get the message of the Trinity sooner? Early-church theologian Gregory of Nazianzus suggests that the concept of a triune God was too much for mankind as a race to take in at once: For it was not safe, when the Godhead of the Father was not yet acknowledged, plainly to proclaim the Son; nor when that of the Son was not yet received to burden us further (if I may use so bold an expression) with the Holy Ghost; lest perhaps people might, like men loaded with food beyond their strength, or presenting eyes as yet too weak to bear it to the sun’s light, risk the loss even of that which was within the reach of their powers. This should inform the way we make disciples, shouldn’t it? We love talking about Jesus (and we should!), but I think the Trinitarian nature of the Great Commission is too easily left out of the disciple-making process in the evangelical church. 8. Baptism was the mark of becoming a disciple. In English, we might read the Great Commission as a list of four instructions: Go. Make disciples. Baptize them. Teach them. But that’s not really how it’s worded. We’ve already established that the command here is to “make disciples,” but where do baptizing and teaching come in? The words for “baptizing” and “preaching” are what grammar geeks call “instrumental participles.” These words are here to tell us how something should happen. Which means that making disciples is the “what” and baptizing and teaching are the “how.” The examples of Christian baptism in the New Testament involve someone professing belief in Jesus Christ and being dipped in water (Acts 2:38; 8:12; 10:47–48; Galatians 3:27). The global church isn’t 100 percent in agreement on just how baptism should be done or what happens at the moment of baptism. But we do agree on one thing: when someone is baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, they are publicly identified with God. If baptism is about identity, then it makes sense that this is part of the “how” in the Great Commission. A public declaration of faith and devotion to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a pretty good sign that someone has become a disciple. 9. It’s not just about conversion. Our part in the Great Commission isn’t just about getting people to say a prayer, sign a decision card, or take a dip in the baptismal. It’s also about “teaching them to observe all that [Jesus] commanded.” Baptism is a one-time event. Teaching takes a lifetime. In fact, just learning and understanding all the things you’re supposed to preach takes a lifetime. So when we talk about the Great Commission, we’re talking about lifelong dedication to obey the Lord and teach others to obey him, too. This part of Jesus’ command requires a lot of patience and grace. We need to remember that the Great Commission doesn’t promise that once someone becomes a disciple, they immediately start observing everything Jesus taught. If that were the case, we wouldn’t need to teach them! 10. We don’t do this alone. We’ve already seen that the Great Commission was given to a group of 11, not an individual. But the company in this work of making disciples becomes even richer at the end of this passage. Jesus assures his disciples that he is with them, even until the end of the age. Then the gospel of Matthew ends. This is a powerful, assuring way to finish a book, but it gets even better when you zoom out to look at how this relates to the beginning of Matthew’s gospel. Matthew starts with the story of Jesus’ birth, which fulfils Isaiah’s prophecy that a “virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” — which means “God with us” (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:22–23). Now Matthew has reached the end of his story. God has walked with us, spoken with us, and lived life with us. And God will always be with us. What do you think? What are some of the less talked-about aspects of the Great Commission that you wish got some more attention?