Feb 20, 2014 10:53 AM

The Great Commission

One of the ideas you run into a lot in Christian circles is that of The Great Commission - the idea that God commanded all believers to go out and spread the word, so to speak. In churches that maintain this there’s usually a strong support of missionary work. I always had the feeling that the assumption is that everyone should be a missionary - if not on the mission field, then at least in our own neighborhoods.

We should be knocking on doors and handing out pamphlets. We should be doing everything in our power to convert “the lost”. If we fail to embrace that, we are ashamed of Christ and we should question our own salvation.

I’ve never felt this was right and, frankly, I think it does more to drive people away from Jesus than toward him. I’ve always held that we all have different gifts and different callings. To force somebody into a role (such as evangelizer) for which they are ill suited is inefficient at best, and contrary to God’s will at worst. After all, God has blessed us with our unique gifts. We should pursue them - not what other people think we should pursue.

The idea of The Great Commission comes most notably from Matthew 28:18-20. Other places are Mark 16:15-18; Luke 24:44-49; and John 20:19-23. The passage in Matthew reads:

Matthew 28:18-20
“Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’” (NIV)

This raises two important questions. First (even though the word is never actually used), what is a commission? And second, what is a disciple? Before I answer these, I want to compare the NIV to the King James. The latter does not use the words “make disciples of all nations”, but rather, “teach all nations.” I accept the translations as roughly synonymous - the loosest definition of disciple being “learner”, but others elaborate.

The dictionary definitions for disciple are: a learner; a personal follower; one who accepts and helps spread the teachings of a famous person.

John Starke (thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2012/10/24/give-up-your-weak-definition-of-disciple-2/) claims a disciple is, by definition, a multiplier. He uses Matt 13:23 to back up his assertion. But Jesus wasn’t speaking of disciples, per se, in that parable. He was speaking more generally about spiritual receptivity. Certainly Jesus expected his disciples to be receptive and to bear fruit - but that is beside the point he was actually making.

So, while I agree with Mr. Starke’s sentiments, I find his particular argument wanting. For the sake of this posting, I’ll be using the definition of learner; which I think is closer to the King James idea of “teach all nations.”

Regarding the question of what is a commission, I first want to point out that most of the people I’ve heard talk about this have tended to emphasize that The Great Commission was a command(ment). As Mary Fairchild points out (christianity.about.com/od/glossary/f/greatcommission.htm), “As many have said, it’s not ‘The Great Suggestion’. No, the Lord has commanded us to put our faith in action.”

Not exactly. At least not the way I read it. First off, the word commission is not in any of the verses - it’s just what people call it. But assuming it’s an accurate word, a commission is not a command(ment). And it certainly wasn’t given to all of us. It was Jesus’ final instruction to his immediate disciples.

Matt Slick (carm.org/christianity/sermons/matt-2816-20-great-commission) calls it “the final instructive word from Jesus to his church.” Again, not exactly. Not “the church” the way we usually define it, but a select group that, I would argue, preceded the church. He goes on to say, “This commission is mainly given to the disciples then present. But it applies to you as well.”

For a third time I say, not exactly. It applies to us only in the sense that the disciples of those disciples will/should teach the same things. But it’s a mistake to say that Jesus was giving this instruction to us. It was a clear delegation of responsibility. Jesus delegated to his disciples, who were then responsible for passing along the instruction. A fine-line distinction? Perhaps. But no more so than it being Adam’s responsibility to pass along the instruction to Eve. God held Adam primarily responsible for the failure, not Eve.

So, it is perfectly appropriate to call it The Great Commission. A specific group of people was commissioned with a task. But it was not a commandment. Jesus never uses a word as strong as “command” in these verses - at least not to describe this instruction. People may get confused because he says, “Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you:...”

Note that he didn’t say, “I command you to teach all nations.” Rather, he instructed them to teach all nations ABOUT the things he commanded! Note also the slight difference here in the King James from the NIV. The NIV, you’ll recall, said “Teaching them to obey...”, but that’s not what the King James says. No, it says “Teaching them to observe...”! The word translated as observe means to guard from loss; or to keep an eye on - in other words, to remember. That’s a totally different connotation than the word obey. I think this misunderstanding of what was being said is the primary cause for people thinking of The Great Commission as a command. What else would you think from the word obey. Too bad that’s not what he said.

So, the disciples were to teach people to remember all the things he commanded them. What did he command them? Some say he gave them quite a few commands. This website: (iblp.org/questions/what-are-commands-christ) lists 49 of them - but, while I won’t dispute them, they seem to me to have been presented as instruction - like a mentor teaching about life. The commands that were clearly commands - Jesus actually called them commands - are found in Matt 22:35-40: You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, and with your whole soul, and with your whole mind. And the second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. These commandments are so important that Jesus said the whole Law and the Prophets depend on them. Then in John 13:34 he gives them a new command. Love one another. That, in essence, is what he was instructing them to teach. Love God. Love your neighbor. Love one another. These are things we can teach people to observe. Those should be the first things the disciples taught, to be followed, as believers mature, with the others in the list of 49. But it was his immediate disciples to whom he gave this commission.

Before closing I want to return briefly to the issue of what is a disciple - because it’s more than an academic question. A disciple is NOT a convert. Jesus did not say “go make converts.” He said (in the NIV) “go make disciples.” this is even more complicated because an argument can be made that his followers were disciples before they were converted!


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