The Great Commission is a foundational Scripture and seemingly clear-cut. However, the way that you interpret and apply it will affect your church’s vision when it comes to missions. We would like to make two general observations.
When you think of the Great Commission, you probably focus on the imperative “to go and make disciples,” but is this interpretation correct?
Former missionary David Lewis, who with his wife Irene run a missionary care program, share how the Great Commission is “more indicative than imperative.” What does that mean?
Going, Baptizing, Teaching
Without getting all greeky, you need to know that the imperative is not found in the command “Go!” In spite of the sermons that we have heard, Jesus is not commanding us “GO!” followed by a bunch of participles which explain what we are to do (make disciples, baptize, teach).
Instead, the imperative is found in Jesus telling us “DISCIPLE!” after which he then explains what we are to do! In the Greek, the “GO!” that we actually think of, is a participle which indicates a continuous action, something that is already happening and that will continue to happen in the future. You can read this as “when you go” or “as you go” your focus is to be making disciples.
With that in mind, the Great Commission contains descriptions and instructions of something that is already happening and should continue to happen. Thus it is more indicative of the nature of Christianity and the church than imperative.
In a sense, Jesus is saying that our imperative or main goal is to make disciples, and the way in which this is done is by going, baptizing, and teaching.
Another way of reading it would be “As you are going–disciple!, baptizing and teaching, etc.” The emphasis on the Great Commission is found in the main goal of discipling.
And discipleship isn’t something that follows evangelism, but is part of it! We baptize people from their old life into new life in Christ, giving them a new identity and a new way of life. Jesus instructed that we are to teach them–not just convert them by reciting a prayer or attending a church–but to instruct them to move from belief to obedience.
A second observation is in regards to the recipients of this Great Commission.
Within the evangelical world, this command of Jesus has almost always been used as an individual command. A prominent leader within missions shares how every single Christian is to be a disciple maker, explaining that the church is a lot like the army which has as its slogan “Every man a rifleman.” In the army, no matter what specialty you have, everyone is trained as a rifleman. In the same way, no matter where you are or how you serve in the church, every believer is to fulfill the Great Commission by being a disciple maker. However, is this really the case?
For some, the Great Commission is directed only at the disciples present at that exact moment and not applicable to us today. Others have interpreted it as a sacramental command applicable only to priests, or ordained clergy. Some, per our illustration above, apply it to all individual Christians.
Yet, we believe that the Great Commission is given to the church. In this view, the Great Commission applies to God’s people–and everyone has a role to play in the fulfillment of it, even though they may not play the same role.
Simply put, the wording of the Great Commission involves discipling, not just evangelizing and winning converts. This discipling process involves going, baptizing, and teaching new believers so that they “guard all things” Jesus commanded.
Within Scripture we find that while all of us should be able to give a reason for the hope that we have (1 Pet. 3:15), not all of us are able or apt to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2), which is a qualification of eldership. Furthermore, James warns us that not many should become teachers” (Jas. 3:1).
Were the Great Commission meant to be applied to every individual Christian to carry out, the scope would not only be daunting, but some of its very elements would be contradictory to later teaching by the apostles.
Keith Edwin Schooley sums up the reasons for the Great Commission to be applied to the church as a body, and not the individual when he states that
the Great Commission does involve everyone. Each member of the body of Christ has his or her own part to play. No one is left out; no one is unnecessary. But we all don’t have to be the same sort of person, doing the same sort of thing, in order to accomplish the goal. In fact, the more we try to fit people into a cookie-cutter mold, the less able each person will be to fulfill the aspect that he or she was intended to fulfill. The entire job simply can’t be done by all of us doing the same thing. And God never intended for us to even try to do it that way.
We see this lived out in the lives of the apostles themselves, who most certainly were obeying the Great Commission, although they were not necessarily fulfilling each element of it.
Consider Paul’s words to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 1:13-17):
Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
We all have our part to play in the Great Commission, and we all are to be about discipling which involves going, baptizing, and teaching, but it is the body of the church who is about this task.
The Great Commission isn’t just a great suggestion or an optional ministry: it is to be the ministry of our lives.
When it comes to your church missions program, resist the temptation to only focus on those who go at the expense of the whole. Furthermore, consider deeply that while there are all types of ministries that are worthy to bring God’s kingdom to earth, there is a special emphasis on discipling that must not be forgotten. Christ has come to restore a broken world, but His main mission was to redeem the lost.
The Great Commission isn’t just a great suggestion or an optional ministry: it is to be the ministry of our lives. Our churches need to sharpen their focus on discipling.
(Excerpted from Andrew J and Chris Irwin, Missions in Focus: 10 Essential Conversations for Effective Sending [Joplin: College Press, 2020]. Used by permission.)