What Exactly IS the Great Commission?
My family and I were missionaries in Brazil for over fourteen years. The Brazilian church has an expression that refers to the Great Commission passages of Matthew 28 and Mark 16 based on the command of Jesus to “Go.” Basically, they turned the verb into a noun and declare we need to obey “the go” of the Lord into the nations. It is certainly easy to think that the focus of the Great Commission is to go to the nations and share the gospel because Jesus seemed so emphatic in his command. But is simply going and preaching the main thrust of the Great Commission?
A Look at the Verbs
I prefer to examine Matthew 28:19-20 when considering the Great Commission, although we certainly have important texts in Mark 16:15, Luke 24:45-47, and Acts 1:8. In the English language, Matthew 28:19-20 contains four central verbs — go, make, baptize, teach.
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe (obey) all that I have commanded you. ESV (parenthesis added)
Let’s start with the easy verbs. Baptizing and teaching are in the standard present participle form, a present action with the typical “-ing” ending in English. The verb “go” is not quite as clear. It also is a participle verb but is in a passive form. It reflects an action that has begun in the past but still continues, and also appears to be directly linked to the command of making disciples. The only command verb in this passage is “make disciples” as it is in the imperative form. Clearly the focus of the Great Commission is to make disciples.
The other three verbs in this passage of Matthew can be used to describe the actual process of making disciples. First, we need to go and find someone with whom to share the gospel message. Second, when a new convert is water baptized he is identifying with the death and resurrection of Christ and often with his new Christian family and community. (This is not a reference to membership in a certain congregation or denomination.) And third, the new believer needs to grow through life-giving teaching based on believing and obeying the Word of God. Making converts is NOT the command; we must make disciples.
One more point about the verbs, and this is the real surprise. The word “make,” the key verb in our passage, is not even in the original Greek! The verb is directly “to disciple.” The command of Jesus, the Great Commission, is to literally “disciple the nations.” Therefore, we could clarify Matthew 28:19-20 as follows:
Having gone (and continuing to go), disciple the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.
The Great Commission is the Mission of Every Church
The last 25 years has seen the tremendous rise of the “vision and mission” movement in the church. This movement was clearly “inspired” by the business world, but there is some value to it. In fact, in the international ministry organization where I serve, we just spent weeks refining our vision and mission statements!
At the same time, I once read a Christian leader comment that our mission statements should not vary too much from church to church because Christ already gave the mission for the church until His return — to make disciples. We must realize the Great Commission is not just for the missions committee; it truly is the mission of every church, every day. All that we do should be screened through the lens of “how does this help us to make disciples?”
Every Church, Every Person
Making disciples is also the call of every single believer. The Great Commission is a command to every Christ follower. We are each called to be a disciple and to make disciples. We all have our unique role to play in the process because of the spiritual gifts we receive through the Holy Spirit. However, all believers must be prepared to make disciples. That is not just the responsibility of leaders. Church leadership is called to equip the saints to do the work of the ministry, and that sits squarely on the call and ability of every believer to make disciples.