The missionary imperative of Jesus at the close of Matthew’s Gospel (28:18-20) is a key text for Christians:
18 Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. 19 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, 20 teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (CSB)
But it’s easy for us to take some wrong turns in our understanding of Jesus’s instruction. Here are five ways we sometimes get the Great Commission wrong.
1. When We See ‘Teaching’ as Exclusively or Primarily Informational
The first pitfall is seeing the “teaching” component of disciple-making as exclusively or primarily informational rather than holistic. David Sills puts his finger on this weakness, saying,
“The heart is often overlooked in discipleship programs and traditional classroom models. Focusing intently on the body of information to be learned, many simply assume that the heart and character of the disciple will automatically grow in Christlikeness.”
Instead, Sills recommends that Christian missionaries see the goal of discipleship as more than the transferring of information. The goal is “developing a heart for God as well as a mind for Truth.” Prioritizing the head over the heart stems from an anachronistic reading of a classroom educational model back into the first century, as if this kind of teaching is what Jesus had in mind.
Likewise, Sills recognizes the kind of teaching that takes place through modeling the Christian life before others. More than simply drilling information into young believers, Christians should serve as mentors, coming alongside others and showing them what it means to walk as a disciple of Jesus. This emphasis on guidance coincides with the ancient Israelite concept of teaching, where, as Wendy Widder explains:
“. . . the task of a teacher was to create the conditions in which learning could occur—and those conditions would be most effective when the learner had direct contact with relevant ‘on the job’ experience.”
2. When We Weigh Christ’s Imperatives
Another way we can misinterpret the Great Commission is by divorcing this command unintentionally from other commands of Jesus, as if the imperatives of Jesus are weighted, with some being more valuable than others. John Stott urged Christians to consider this danger.
“. . . the Great Commission neither explains, nor exhausts, nor supersedes the Great Commandment. What it does is to add to the requirement of neighbor-love and neighbor-service a new and urgent Christian dimension. If we truly love our neighbor we shall without doubt share with him the good news of Jesus.”
Loving one’s neighbor includes sharing the gospel. Proclaiming the gospel includes tangible demonstrations of loving one’s neighbor.
3. When We See Its Application as Primarily Individualistic
A third way the Great Commission can be misconstrued is by picturing this command of Jesus as primarily individualistic rather than communal. Individual Christians are envisioned leaving home for foreign fields in order to share the Gospel.
Of course, this kind of cross-cultural ministry is, indeed, a part of what it means for the Great Commission to be fulfilled. But we do well to remember that this Commission is given for all the disciples. In fact, each of the gospel-commissioning texts (Matt 28:16–20; Luke 24:45–49; Acts 1:4–8; John 20:19–23) is given to the disciples as a group. The followers of Jesus constitute a new people, and this people’s identity is constituted by this disciple-making agenda.
Michael Goheen is right. The Great Commission “. . . is not a task assigned to isolated individuals; it is an identity given to a community.” The corporate aspect of the Great Commission is important for eschatological discipleship, because it grounds all disciple-making efforts in the community of faith, not in individuals alone.
4. When We Isolate the Commission from Old Testament Foundations
A fourth misunderstanding of the Great Commission occurs whenever we isolate this command from its Old Testament foundations. When placed within the overarching story of the Bible, the universal scope of this commission finds its origin in the promise God made to Abraham in Genesis 12. It is no wonder that Matthew begins his Gospel by retracing Christ’s lineage to the forefather of the Jewish faith (Matt 1:1–17), and then ends his Gospel with a commission that has in view the worldwide extension of blessing initially promised to the patriarch.
When the Old Testament foundations are considered as the backdrop for the Great Commission, it becomes more difficult to limit the implications of this command to mere evangelism or religious instruction. Our understanding of discipleship is strengthened by seeing how the biblical storyline reveals the mission of God from Genesis to Revelation, in both Old and New Testaments.
5. When We Isolate the Commission from the Gospels’ Vision of Discipleship
A final misunderstanding of the Great Commission is the tendency to interpret the command to “make disciples” apart from the vision of discipleship put forth in Matthew’s Gospel. Failure to consider the primary thrust of Jesus’s command in light of the gospel in which these words find their fullest meaning leads to a reduced and shriveled view of discipleship. Isolating the commission from the Gospels’ vision of discipleship is detrimental to eschatological discipleship, because it fails to present a clear portrait of what it looks like to “make disciples.” David Bosch offers this warning,
“It is inadmissible to lift these words out of Matthew’s gospel, as it were, allow them a life of their own, and understand them without any reference to the context in which they first appeared. . . . No exegesis of the ‘Great Commission’ divorced from its moorings in the gospel can be valid.”
To avoid this pitfall, one should note the multiple threads woven throughout the Gospel that draw together in Matthew’s conclusion. That’s something I try to do in Eschatological Discipleship, as part of my efforts to show how we can be Great Commission Christians with a holistic, God-glorifying way of life that leads others to Christ.