A Great Commission Church

Matthew 28:16-20 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. (17) When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. (18) Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. (19) 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, (20) and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Go .. Make Disciples

Matthew’s story of Jesus culminates in what is often called the Great Commission: go into all the world and make disciples of all nations.

I was raised (for the first 14 years of my life) in a church that loved the Great Commission. Missionaries on furlough visited and told about their work. The women’s organization, the boys group and the girls group all focused on promoting and supporting the denomination’s missionaries. Sermons and special messages emphasized the call to the mission field. The name for the denominational budget emphasized the local church’s participation in sending and supporting missionaries. We also observed two great special offerings each year, one for what was then called foreign missions and one for what was then called home missions, each named after missionary heroines. Whatever else you might say about the church that nurtured me from birth, it loved the Great Commission.

All Christians that now exist are beneficiaries of the missionary and evangelistic efforts of those who preceded us. We are all the fruit of a chain reaction that began on the day of Pentecost and continues to this very day. Someone or some church made a disciple of Jesus Christ, who then went on to make other disciples through the church in which he or she participated, who then continued the propagation of the faith through the making of yet more disciples.

One of the things that I think I understand better now than when I was young is that the chain reaction involves churches, not just individuals. The growth of the church is not simply a matter of person A telling person B, who then tells person C. It is churches that make disciples. It is churches that send missionaries and evangelists. Individual Christians can play a wide variety of roles within the church so that this chain reaction can continue. We are at the current end of that chain of events, but I pray that the chain does not terminate with us.

The 19th century was the great missionary century for the church. Since then, and especially in mainline churches, old-time missionary work has gone out of favor for a number of reasons, both good and bad. One of the reasons for the success of the 19th century missionary movement is also one of its problems. The missionary movement followed the pathways of European colonial empire and western power. The gospel sometimes became confused with western cultural values. As western influence has waned, traditional missionary work has become politically difficult. Many countries are not open to outside church planters or evangelists. Some nations remain open to western doctors, teachers, technical specialists in agriculture, aid workers and people with similar skills. While these tasks help us fulfill the second half of the Great Commandment (to love our neighbors as ourselves, Matthew 22:36-40), they may or may not further the work of the Great Commission.

The good news is that the evangelistic mission of the church no longer relies primarily on western missionaries. The church is growing in places like Africa and Korea because African and Korean Christians are making it grow. Korea has even become the second largest mission sending country in the world.

And even though the 19th century witnessed an explosion of missionary efforts throughout the world, the most significant Great Commission miracle is probably the one that took place in the first few centuries of the Christian church. That little, fragile church could have easily disappeared from the stage of history. Instead, it spread throughout the Mediterranean world and grew despite fierce opposition. Somehow, the early church found a way to make the Great Commission work.

To understand how the church spread so rapidly throughout the Mediterranean world, we need to understand something about Judaism in the centuries immediately preceding the birth of Christ. The Jewish population of the ancient world was not confined to Judea and Galilee. Those living outside of the land of Israel were known as the Diaspora (or “dispersion”). For several reasons, Jews had emigrated from Israel and had established Jewish communities in many places throughout the Mediterranean world. Wherever these communities existed, the Jewish population would build a synagogue.

Gentiles living in the same town would sometimes be attracted to the monotheism and morality taught and practiced by their Jewish neighbors. Some Gentiles would convert outright to Judaism. Conversion consisted of a time of preparation and teaching, followed by exorcism, baptism and, for males, circumcision. Early Christian conversion practices closely mirrored that of Judaism. Some Gentiles did not convert to Judaism, but attended the synagogue services and adopted Jewish morality nonetheless. These non-Jewish adherents were known as “God fearers.” Jewish literature of the Diaspora encouraged conversion, and there is good reason to think that Diaspora Judaism saw itself as fulfilling God’s promises to the nations. (For more on the Diaspora and its relationship to early Christianity, see Oskar Skarsaune, In the Shadow of the Temple, Intervarsity Press).

Diaspora Judaism, then, was a missionary religion, and it is good that it was. The first century church that we read about in the letters of Paul and the book of Acts depended upon the network of Jewish communities and their synagogues. The earliest Christian faith traveled the synagogue circuit as it fulfilled Jesus’ command to go into all the world. Paul, for example, went to the synagogue A map of early Christian communities and a map of ancient Mediterranean Jewish communities have a very high level of correspondence (Skarsaune, pp. 80-81).

Paul’s missionary journeys, for example, took him not to every Greek town, but primarily to those with Jewish populations. His first stop in town was the synagogue where he preached to Jews, both native-born and converts, and God-fearers. The church’s most significant inroads into the Gentile world came through the Gentile-born contacts that Christians made at the synagogue.

Jesus was very aware of Jewish missionary efforts, and as he did on a number of matters, he had something to say about it. Just as we sometimes criticize our own churches when we believe they fall short of what God wants for them, so Jesus criticized some leaders within his own faith tradition when they fell short of God’s intent (and Jesus was a much better judge of such things than we are). So, we find Jesus saying in Matthew 23:15

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and then you make that convert twice as much a child of hell as you are.”

This is part of a larger unit of thought (Matthew 23) in which Jesus castigates religious leaders for their manipulation of God’s truth for their own benefit, their pettiness, their callousness, their lack of God’s perspective, their hidden corruption and their hypocrisy.

Given Jesus’ concerns about the missionary movement of his own people, I think it’s safe to say that he doesn’t want us to make disciples just for the sake of our pride in large numbers or our temptation to exercise power over the lives of others. He wants us to have a genuinely Christian impact on people’s lives and not make them more “a child of hell.”

Jesus’ intent – his Great Commission – does not end with “make disciples of (or from) all nations. Jesus’ command to make disciples has two sub-components in Matthew 28:

  • Baptizing them into the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
  • Teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you

To these sub-commands, we will now turn our attention.

Baptizing them into the Name

The word “nation” in the Great Commission does not mean “sovereign political entity with established boundaries.” It is the word “ethnē,” more akin to our concept of “ethnic group” than “country.” It refers to people, not institutions. It’s the same word that is often translated “Gentile.” The ethnē were all the non-Jewish identities by which the people of the world were known. As we shall see, Jesus’ command to make disciples would give people a new identity.

Luke and Matthew use different words to describe the act of baptism “in the name” of the Lord. In Luke-Acts, (Acts 2:38), Peter calls the crowd to be “baptized upon (epi) the name of Jesus.” In Matthew 28, Jesus instructs his disciples to “baptize them into (eis) the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Most English translations render both prepositional phrases as “in the name of.”

In the minds of most English speaking people, “in the name of” seems to suggest the proper ritual wording for the act of baptism. To baptize “in the name of” the Father, Son and Holy Spirit means to say those words when we baptize. The actual words of Matthew and Luke, however, suggest different emphases.

In Peter’s speech in Acts 2, Peter calls on his hearers to be baptized “upon” the name of Jesus, suggesting the authority or foundation for the act of baptism. We baptize because of who Jesus is and what Jesus did. Receiving baptism is an act of faith in the power and authority of Jesus. How can Peter promise that those who repent and receive baptism will have their sins forgiven and receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38)? Peter is certainly not suggesting a mechanical view of baptism here. Those who accept Peter’s invitation are acting “upon the name of Jesus,” by faith in Jesus’ authority and the power of his saving acts.

In Matthew 28, however, Jesus tells his disciples to baptize disciples “into the name” of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Matthew’s wording points to the new identity of the one baptized.

When I baptize and infant, I ask, “What name is given this child?” We call this name the “Christian name.” It is the personal name given at baptism. There is another name, however, given at baptism that is even more important. It is the family name to which this baptized person belongs. The baptized disciple belongs to the family of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

When we call people to be disciples, we’re not just calling them to be a part of a advertising campaign or a marketing scheme. We are calling them to be a part of a community.

Baptism is like adoption into a family. It gives a new name. To fulfill the Commission requires, then, not only that we “go” into all the world but that we “be” the family of God, honoring the family name, living up to the family values, remaining connected to our brothers and sisters in the faith. In Acts 2, the baptized are seen at worship, communion, prayer and paying attention to the apostle’s teachings about Jesus. They are seen sharing their lives and possessions with each other. These things would be a part of Matthew’s vision for the church as well.

Teaching them to Keep Everything I Commanded You

In Ben Witherington’s Smyth and Helwys commentary on Matthew (and in Jesus the Sage), Witherington argues that Matthew sees Jesus as a sage or teacher in the line of Israel’s wisdom tradition, and yet greater than anything that had come before. Jesus is the Son of David in the sense that he is a wisdom greater than Solomon. He is the Son of God and Immanuel (God with us) in the sense that he is the wisdom of God personified. Matthew sees his own role to be one of a Christian scribe who faithfully transmits and applies the teaching of the master sage. Being a disciple, in Matthew’s community, means to learn the teachings of Jesus, to live them and to faithfully transmit them to others.

No wonder, then, that Matthew’s gospel culminates with Jesus calling his disciples to “make disciples” and “teach them to keep everything commanded.” Jesus’ teaching is central to Matthew’s understanding of Jesus’ identity.

Contemporary religious discussions often distinguish between the religion OF Jesus and the religion ABOUT Jesus. It’s pretty clear that Matthew believes the religion of Jesus – the religion Jesus lived and taught – is central to the Christian faith. If there is one gospel to which the so-called “Red Letter Christians” can turn to support, it is the Gospel of Matthew. Of all the gospels, Matthew is closest to the Red Letter Christian idea: Christians must keep Jesus’ teaching.

The phrase “keep (tēreo) everything I command (entello)” is interesting. The combination of tēreo and entolē is common in the Johannine writings. As an English idiom, “keep” in the sense of “obey” is so common that we don’t even think about it. In Greek, it appears it can have the same sense. The basic meaning of tēreo, however, is keep, preserve or guard. Similarly, entello can and often does simply mean “command.” The etymology of the word, however, suggests a sense of purpose or completion: en + teleo. And while there are other words for both “obey” and “command,” it’s unwise to read too much into etymology.

Still, it makes me wonder. Is Jesus asking for simple, literal obedience to the letter of his commands, or is he telling his community to keep his vision and his ideals alive as they preserve his teaching and apply it to their own life circumstances? Is he asking us to act more like a pilot going through a pre-landing checklist and executing each step precisely as outlined in the manual, or is he asking us to act more like more like an Soldier executing an Operation Order who knows the commander’s intent and who seeks to accomplish it within the operational environment of METT-TC (for non-Army types, that’s mission, enemy, terrain, troops, time available and civil considerations). There are reasons in Matthew to believe that the evangelist thinks that it is more the like the latter than the former.

One functional translation of tērein panta hosa enteilamēn humin might be “to preserve, apply, implement and transmit all the precepts and principles I gave you.” I think that captures Matthew’s intent.

Witherington locates Matthew’s milieu in Galilee in the post-temple era, a time and place in which Jewish-Christian disciples in some ways resembled the Pharisaic community (which was growing in importance following the destruction of the temple), and in some ways competed with that community within the greater Jewish population.

Matthew’s community – scholarly, intentional, probably Galilean or Syrian – was not far removed in time, space or social setting from Jesus. In Matthew’s world, simple imitation of the master was still quite possible. There are signs in Matthew’s own gospel, however, that even Matthew’s community required application and interpretation of Jesus’ teachings, and not simple imitation. There is more on this topic than we can possibly say here and I will return to it in a future essay.

In the 21st century, simple imitation is not really possible for those who don’t remove themselves into isolated communities. I read a lot of writings from people who talk about imitating Christ and living literally by his teachings today, but I find that it is a highly selective form of imitation.

That said, I am certain that most Christians use that excuse to let ourselves off the hook. Most Christians need to take the direct teaching of Jesus – and his clear intent – more seriously. In Matthew, Jesus insists that discipleship involves “keeping everything I have commanded you.”

Who is Jesus?

For Matthew, Jesus is a wise teacher whose precepts are to be preserved and lived. He is not, however, just a teacher among teachers – not even the wise teacher par excellence. He is the one to whom all authority in heaven and on earth has been given (Matthew 28:18). His resurrection has established his universal authority. His teaching is not only wise, it has God’s own authority.

Jesus is also the one who will be with the disciples until the end or completion (sunteleo – there’s that “completion” root again) of the age (Matthew 28:20). This connects the Great Commission with chapters 24-25 of Matthew which concern the coming of the Son of Man at the end of the age. Several of the parables in this section make a similar point: Jesus expects his disciples to be living as he taught when the he Son of Man comes, the final judgment takes place and the Kingdom of Heaven is established in all its fullness. See, for example Matthew 24:45-46 (the parable of the faithful & wise servant), Matthew 25:1-13 (the parable of the bridegroom and the foolish virgins) and Matthew 25:14-30 (the parable of the talents). Matthew 25:31-46, however, concerns the judgment of the nations (ethnē, as in Matthew 28:19). The ethnē will be judged on how they respond to Jesus’ disciples who, we find out in the Great Commission, will be inviting them to Christian discipleship.

The end-times allusion in the Great Commission reminds the reader that Jesus is both the eschatological figure who will appear at the shift of the ages AND a continuing spiritual presence in the discipleship community. Both of these emphases again point to Jesus as something more than a wise teacher.

Finally, the risen Jesus is an object of religious devotion. “When they saw him, they worshiped him.” (Matthew 28:17). The parallelism of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the baptismal formula (Matthew 28:19) also points to Jesus as divine and somehow equivalent to the Father and the Spirit. Jesus not just a wise and authoritative teacher; he is the Son of God. He is Emmanuel (God with us) (Matthew 1:23).

Who is Jesus? He is not just a wise teacher; he is God’s wisdom personified. He is the one who bears all divine authority. He is the eschatological Son of Man and a continuing spiritual presence in this age. Like the Father and the Holy Spirit, he is an object of divine worship.

For Matthew, then, being a disciple doesn’t mean just following Jesus’ teaching, it means recognizing Jesus identity and authority. There is no separation in Matthew between the religion of Jesus and the religion about Jesus.

Conclusion

The Great Commission is exhaustive in its scope and It is a fitting conclusion to Matthew’s gospel.. Three times Matthew uses the word “all.” Jesus is over all; he is the one with all authority in heaven and on earth, now and forever. Jesus is for all; his disciples come from all nations and belong to the one family of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Jesus concerns all; Jesus’ teachings touch every part of his disciples’ lives and they keep all his precepts.

The church in which I was raised was right to emphasize the disciple-making, church building ministry of global missions and evangelism. We should support missionaries globally and evangelism locally. The church commissions and sends men and women in the name of Christ to make disciples. Some Christians are good as cross-cultural evangelism. Cross-cultural evangelism is both a gift and calling. Others are gifted for making disciples closer to home. We haven’t talked about that much in this essay, but that’s part of the Great Commission mandate, too. Paul’s letters remind us that we all have different roles to play in the great commission: some are better direct communicators, others are better in supporting roles. The Great Commission to make disciples is at the heart of our identity as Christ’s church.

To really fulfill the Great Commission, though, the disciples that we make must be connected to the family of God and shaped by Jesus’ words and deeds. Mission, community and obedience are not three separate things; they are three aspects of one thing. Fellowship, study, and Christ-like living are not simply nice-to-have add-ons to Christian discipleship. They are part-and-parcel of Christian discipleship. If we don’t have a church that lives its life together in a Christ-like manner, there is no way that we can truly fulfill the Great Commission of our Lord.

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