“And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’”– Matthew 28:18-20
The Great Commission is a task that has been conferred upon the church by the Lord Jesus Christ. The nature of a task implies that practical means must be employed for its accomplishment. In the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20, three means are given through which the task of the global evangelization is to be carried out – going, teaching, and baptizing. This simplicity reflects the truth that is burned into the history of the early church and the Epistles—the power to advance Christ’s cause is found in the proclamation of Christ’s gospel to the nations and calling them to repentance unto God and faith in Christ, resulting in public identification with Christ as Savior and Lord. In this article we will consider the importance of going.
As we have already stated, the great command in our text is not “go” but “make disciples.” However, as some scholars have remarked, both too much and too little has been made of this observation.1 On one extreme, some pastors and churches, recognizing that “go” is not a command, are only concerned with evangelizing in the place where they have been planted and they neglect the rest of the world. On the other extreme, other pastors and churches, thinking that “go” is the priority, fall into a frantic pragmatism and the practice of sending anyone to the field that is willing to go regardless of their maturity as a disciple or their capacity to make disciples. The more balanced view is to recognize that making disciples is the command and ultimate goal, and yet “going” to the nations is absolutely necessary to carry out the command. All the while keeping in mind that we must go biblically, sending only qualified men and women who know the Word of God, are imitators of Christ, are capable of making disciples, and meet the necessary qualifications to plant and organize biblical churches.
A second important truth related to the going and sending of missionaries is that the Great Commission is an incarnational endeavor.2 We live in an age of media, internet, and cyberspace. In the last several years many of the advances in technology have proved to be very beneficial for spreading the gospel, especially in areas that are normally off limits to missionaries. Nevertheless, these things will never replace the flesh and blood missionary. In other words, we cannot fulfill the Great Commission on-line! “Biblical missions” is about sending people to people. When God desired to reach out to humanity, He did not write the gospel in the sky or send archangels to carry it to every corner of the globe. He robed Himself in flesh and dwelt among us.3 Now He sends us in a similar fashion – flesh and blood to flesh and blood.
A final important truth regarding the Great Commission is that we must not only go in the will of God, but we must also send in the will of God. Obviously, not all Christians are called to go to the foreign field as full-time missionaries. Most are called to stay, not only to represent Christ among their own people, but also to send those who are called as missionaries on their way “in a manner worthy of God.”4 The missionary enterprise is actually quite simple. In fact, it can be divided into two specific categories—We are either called to go or we are called send. Either way equal dedication is required. William Carey said, “I will go down into the well of India, but you men must hold the rope.”5 And so we either go down into the mine or we hold the rope for those who go down. Either way, there will be scars on our hands.
In the order of our text, “baptizing” immediately follows “going.” However, drawing from the teaching of the entire New Testament, we know that in between the two, the gospel must be preached. This becomes clear in light of two other Great Commission passages in Mark and Luke:
“And He said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.’”6
“And He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.’”7
Not only does the missionary go forth preaching the gospel to every creature, but he also calls for a definite and decisive response—repentance and faith that is evidenced by a public confession of Jesus Christ through baptism. For our purposes, we will briefly consider three important truths drawn from the ordinance of baptism:
First, the disciple must embrace the entirety of the Christian message to the exclusion of all other gods and contradictory religious opinions. This is communicated through the phrase: “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”. The God of the Bible is not the God of the Koran. Christ is not Krishna. There is no kinship between Christianity and the other religious “isms” of this age. The missionary is not offering the nations their same god with a different name. He is not building bridges between divergent views or making a new religion from the best insights of all. He is proclaiming to every nation, culture, and creature the only Name by which they might be saved.8 For this reason, the Christian missionary must guard himself, his message, and his new converts from all forms of syncretism.9 He must not yield one inch10 to the temptation to alter the uniqueness of the Christian message or to blend it with the prevailing religious ideology of the culture in which he serves. He must clearly proclaim the distinctives of the Christian faith without compromise and demand the same from all those who would identify with it through baptism.
The second truth that comes forth from the requirement of baptism is that the disciple must openly or publicly identify with Christ. This truth is supported by the teachings of Christ and the Apostles. Jesus warned, “Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven.”11 The Apostle Paul wrote, “If we endure, we will also reign with Him; if we deny Him, He also will deny us.”12 This truth applies to the church globally, even in places and circumstances where it can be obeyed only at great cost to the individual and the church. There is a sense in which suffering and world missions go hand in hand.13 The apostles did not teach their disciples to avoid suffering, but they told them beforehand that they would suffer, and then prepared them for that suffering.14 Thus the church must never avoid persecution for sake of self-preservation, yet the church must be wise. In areas of persecution, not only is great boldness required, but also great wisdom. For this reason, Jesus admonished His disciples: “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.”15
The third truth that we glean from the requirement of baptism is that the disciple must openly or publicly identify with the church. The Great Commission is not limited to the making of individual disciples but involves bringing each believer into an interdependent relationship with others in the context of a local fellowship of believers who have openly identify with Christ through baptism. Although Christianity appreciates and seeks to uphold the uniqueness of individual believers, it is a religion of community. The missionary is not merely called to “make disciples” but also to “make fellowships” of disciples who love and serve one another according to the standard of Scripture. Jesus said, “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”16 Such abiding relationships are only possible within the context of a local church.
The placement of teaching after baptism does not mean that there should be no instruction prior to conversion or baptism. The proper communication of the gospel not only requires proclamation but also explanation. Philip asked the Ethiopian who was reading Isaiah 53:7-8, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The Ethiopian replied, “Well, how could I, unless someone guides me?”17 The placement of teaching after baptism simply reinforces what we have already learned about a genuine disciple of Christ—he is someone who, having been justified by faith, devotes his entire life to learning to walk like His Master. Thus, the work of the Great Commission is not finished when a person is converted but continues throughout his or her entire life. As long as the disciple remains upon the earth, he is to be taught all that Christ is and all that He has commanded His people. Throughout this guidebook we will return to this theme over and over again. The Great Commission is primarily a didactic18 endeavor. In other words, it has to do with teaching the gospel and the full counsel of God to those who have yet to hear. Missions is not about merely sending missionaries, but about sending God’s truth through missionaries—men and women who are approved to God as workers who do not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.19
Finally, there are three other truths about the role of teaching in the Great Commission that must be briefly mentioned. First, the goal of teaching is not merely the increase of knowledge, but the transformation of lifestyle. Jesus commanded His disciples to teach the nations “to observe” all that He commanded.20 The teachings of Christ are inseparable from submission to His rule. For this reason, He says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me” (Matthew 11:29). Secondly, teaching is not only through instruction, but also imitation. Jesus told His disciples, “Teach them to observe all that I commanded you.” The disciple-maker is under the same commands as the disciple being made. He must therefore exemplify what it means to submit to the will of His Master. This truth is illustrated in the life and ministry of the Apostle Paul who wrote to the church in Corinth, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.”21 Thirdly, the commandments of Christ and the full counsel of the Scriptures are to be the source of all our teaching. This is powerfully demonstrated by John Albert Broadus (1827-1895), who wrote:
“The Lord does not foresee a time or circumstance when any part of His teaching will become antiquated or untrue, inappropriate or needless.” Also, we might add that the Lord does not see any extra revelation being added.”22
- Craig Blomberg writes, “The main command of Christ’s commission is ‘make disciples’ (matheœteusate). Too much and too little have often been made of this observation. Too much is made of it when the disciples’ ‘going’ is overly subordinated, so that Jesus’ charge is to proselytize merely where one is… Too little is made of it when all attention is centered on the command to ‘go,’ as in countless appeals for missionary candidates, so that foreign missions are elevated to a higher status of Christian service than other forms of spiritual activity. (Matthew -NAC 22; ed. E. Ray Clendenen; Accordance electronic ed. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992, p.431).
- The word “incarnation” is derived from the Latin verb incarnare [in = into + carn = flesh]. Biblical missions requires that we send real “flesh and blood” missionaries to real “flesh and blood” people.
- John 1:14
- III John 6
- William Carey, S. Pearce Carey, p. 108
- Mark 16:15 – Italics mine for the purpose of emphasis.
- Luke 24:46-47 – Italics mine for the purpose of emphasis.
- Acts 4:12
- Syncretism – “The amalgamation or attempted amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought” (New Oxford American Dictionary)
- Regarding his conflict with the Judaizers who sought to conform Christianity to Judaism, the Apostle Paul wrote, “But we did not yield in subjection to them for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel would remain with you” (Galatians 2:5)
- Matthew 10:32-33; see also Luke 12:8-9
- II Timothy 2:12
- Matthew 10:16-33
- I Thessalonians 3:3-4; Philippians 1:29
- Matthew 10:16
- John 13:35 – Italics mine.
- Acts 8:30-31
- The word “didactic” is derived from the from Greek verb didaskein which means to teach. An endeavor is didactic because it has to do with teaching and instruction.
- II Timothy 2:15
- Matthew 28:20 – The goal of teaching is not merely gnosis but praxis, not merely orthodoxy but orthopraxy.
- I Corinthians 11:1
- Commentary on Matthew, p.1001
Paul serves as the HeartCry Coordinator in Western Europe. He is currently overseeing our missionaries in Italy, Spain, and France. He is also the founder and director of the HeartCry Missionary Society. Paul lives in Radford, Virginia with his wife Charo and their four children: Ian, Evan, Rowan, and Bronwyn.More By Paul David Washer