The Great Commission

Introduction

Matthew 28:18-20 is considered by believers today as Christ’s Great Commission to the Church because it conveys the heart, purpose and mission of Christ which the Father had given Him but is now to be carried by the Church throughout the world through the enablement of the indwelling Spirit. The commission is so forcibly engraved in the mission of the churches to the great extent that we cannot sever the two asunder. In this report, the writer seeks to explain the given passage contextually, and then move on to discuss its theological significance, its consequences and its application. The writer will attempt to do so using the Bible as his benchmark.

Historical Background

The Gospel of Matthew is by tradition ascribed to one of Jesus’ apostles, Matthew, also known as Levi, the tax-collector, who was called by the Lord Jesus Christ at the initial commencement of His public ministry as he sat on the tax-collector’s desk. It has been argued by tradition and current scholarship that Matthew’s focus was on the believing Judaic community that as an evangelist, he set to announce to them the good news of the Messiah by writing his Gospel in a common language they understood. It is argued that Matthew’s composition can have been in Hebrew while others still maintain that it was composed in Koine Greek. However, this writer seeks to lean on a Hebraic authorship since the phrases contained therein have significant impact when understood from a Judeo perspective and the Messianic hope and the propagation of the gospel of the Kingdom.

Matthew then, gives a complete overview of Jesus’ earthly ministry in a nutshell, beginning with Christ’s genealogy as traced from Abraham, then on to David the King to Joseph his foster father. It appears then, that Matthew’s focus was to portray Christ as the promised Jewish Messiah and the Savior of the whole world to whom the promises of the prophets concerning the future salvation was fulfilled. His unique way of using the phrase “to fulfill that which was written…” greatly alludes to the author’s intention of informing his audience that Christ has indeed fulfilled the intent of all prophecies. This can well be assumed from his treatise on John when he said that “all prophets prophesied until John” and again, when he said to his disciples, “If you are to receive John, he is the promised Elijah”.[1]

Having introduced Christ’s early years, Matthew quickly shifts his attention to the public life of Christ which he again opens by quoting the prophet Isaiah who spoke at great length about the Messiah’s work. For Matthew, no one can fulfill such wonderful predictions except he be the true Messiah and Savior of the world. He then speaks of the ministry of Christ, his preaching, teaching and a few miracles and climaxes with the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, leaving for us a frame of reference for the context of the Great Commission passage.

Jesus’ earthly ministry had come to a sudden end at the Jewish Feast of Passover. His earlier predictions concerning His passion in Jerusalem had been fulfilled, for, the Messiah had fulfilled all the prophecies that had to do with His first advent. Paul writes, “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures.”[2] It was prior to His ascension that He came and spoke with His disciples as they were still contemplating on the events of the previous days as they awaited the festival of Pentecost, howbeit, locked away in closed rooms for fear of persecution by the Jews. It is to this group of the choosen apostles, that Christ came and looked at them and gave them a special commission, a command to carry out until the end of the world.

The Text

And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen[3]

Firstly, we observe that the Commission stems from an all-authoritative Christ. He claims that all power in heaven and earth has been given Him and on the basis of that authority, he is now in an exalted position to give orders to His Church as a sovereign Lord. Thus, He begins by reassuring the disciples to take note of, and to recognize the kind of authority and power Christ has to give them a unique commission. Using the Johanine language, Christ said, “Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you.”[4] Thus, the same authority that once sent Christ to the world “to seek and to save that which was lost”[5] now fully found in Christ, issues the same commission to the Church that Christ had established during his earthly ministry.

Secondly, we note that the mission involves action; it’s a going mission. This stresses the fact that the Church is mobile, and as it moves from place to place, it’s not wandering aimlessly, but going forth with a divine purpose in view. The divine purpose is to teach all that Christ has commanded, to make disciples of all nations. It should be noteworthy that Christ Himself is the greatest Teacher to ever walk on this planet. He carefully chose His apostles and taught them within a period of three and a half years in preparation for the ongoing mission of the Church which would later be carried out in His absence (physically) but with the enveloping presence of the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49). His teaching and instruction can be inferred from Luke’s thesis that it pertained to the kingdom of God.[6]

The third observation pertains to the scope, the geographical location where the believers were to teach the good news of the kingdom of God. It is clear then, that the Lord had all nations in view. Not only had He came for the lost sheep of Israel, Christ had come to redeem all mankind to Himself, first the Jew and then the Gentile.[7] His mission to the Jews had now expanded to encompass all nations in fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant to bless all nations through Abraham’s seed which the apostle Paul argue is Christ, in the book of Galatians.

Fourthly, those who would have accepted the teaching of Christ would then be immersed in water. While immersion had in the past been done by John the Baptist and his disciples, it was a sign that national Israel had faith in God’s sent-one, the Messiah who was to come (Matthew 3 and Luke 3). However, this new baptism would be different since it conforms a person’s new identity with the crucified, died, buried and resurrected Christ (Romans 6). Another thing of note is that, the disciples were not just going to teach anyhow. The teaching had content and the contents were the words, the teachings that Christ had given the apostles during his earthly ministry. Thus, all would-be disciples would have to accustom themselves to the teachings of Christ, and we are grateful to have some of His teachings handed to us in the form of the written Gospels and apostolic tradition.

Fifth, there is the reassurance of Christ’s presence to the faithful disciples who would carry forth His mission of teaching the nations and baptizing them. He who has all the authority in Heaven and earth, claims His omnipresence to the end of the world as His faithful people carry forth His bidding.

The Text’s Theological Significance

In approaching this text, it is important to assume that one’s views of Christ, impacts his understanding of this great passage. If Christ is not God, or who He claimed to be, then His words have no value; they are just mere words of a deluded Jewish fanatic who wanted to make an impression. But, if Christ is who he claimed to be, God in the flesh, then His words should be taken more seriously as the commands of a highest order. It is to the second presupposition that this writer subscribes.

The Sovereignty of Christ. In verse 18 of the passage under study, it is clear that Christ Jesus has a sovereign rule of all powers, in heaven and on earth. He is more than a carpenter from a little village in Nazareth. He is the Sovereign Lord of All whose sphere of reign far exceeds the known territories of heavens and earth. He rules and reigns; he is not a future king or the soon coming king Jesus. He reigns now as the king of Kings and Lord of Lords. The apostle Paul testifies, “For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet.” (1 Corinthians 15:25). Thus, the Great Commission affirms Christ’s sovereignty and deity. The church has no choice but to obey its Lord, Master and Savior.

He has all authority and the church has nothing to fear as it plunges deep into the world of heathen nations establishing the kingdom reign of Christ in places where Christ had never been named before. It is also proper to infer that, Christ’s sovereignty had to be reassuring to the Church since the Church would engage the enemy, the spiritual hosts of wickedness that had shackled the masses to false religion and superstitions that needed the power of the risen Christ to liberate Satan’s captives of sin and unrighteousness.

The assurance of Christ’s victorious conquering of death and the forces of hell would indeed stand as testimony that Christ is indeed building His Church and the gates of Hades cannot prevail. He conquered Satan, hell, death and the grave and has partnered with humans to win a long staged battle against the forces of darkness. Thus, as the Church engages in its mission to teach the nations and bringing people to Christ, physical and spiritual opposition would occur, but the Church would be safe in the hands of whom who wields all power in heaven and on earth.

The Missio-Dei. That God is a missionary God cannot be disputed. Beginning with His first revelation of the Gospel in Genesis 3:15, God has always had a saving plan in which He would reconcile mankind to Himself by destroying Satan. Thus, the first proclamation of the Gospel, the proto-eungaleion was first announced by God himself to the devil in the presence of the disobedient Adam and his wife who had joined Satan in his rebellion against God, signifying the death of Christ but his enormous victory over the forces of evil. The mystery of the Gospel was thus proclaimed and salvation was promised to all the sons of Adam. Ever since then, God had been working with countless people to work out a plan to bring salvation to the nations. This he further did by choosing Abraham and his family, and particularly the line of Judah through to David to be the seed-line for the promised Messiah who would come to save mankind from their sins. Now that this Messiah had come to seek and save the lost, his blood had purchased and obtained eternal salvation for all those who would believe. In his own word, Christ said, “Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And ye are witnesses of these things.”[8]

God has a plan for the nations and they play a very crucial role in his drama of redemption. He is not only concerned in individuals or their families; He is the God of the nations and so eagerly desires to save the nations. Thus, the Great Commission passage broadens the sphere of the church’s mission to encompass not only individuals but all nations in God’s great redemption story. The Church that fails to reach nations is failing in its God-given mandate. Nations should be reached for Christ and there should be disciples in each nation whose aim is to reproduce Christ in people as was the case at Antioch in Acts 11. God is a missionary God who cares for the nations. No longer Israel alone but Gentiles too have been grafted into God’s mission field and the Great Commission clearly spells it out for the Church.

Not Evangelism “Only” But Discipleship Making. While most churches today are so much focused on evangelism, evangelism is not the end of the whole story. Evangelism is the starting point of introducing Christ to the people. However, it is the opinion of this writer that, the church’s mission is half-baked when evangelism becomes the only thrust and discipleship is ignored or overlooked. Christ should be formed in people and the only way is through teaching, training and mentoring. It is the teaching or doctrine of Christ that is dwelling in a person’s heart that is able to build a person who can be Christ-like in conduct, character and conversation.

The purity of Christ’s teaching. If the Church has to be faithful to Christ’s great Commission, then the church has to safeguard Christ’s teachings and ensure their purity. The church today is far removed from the apostolic church that had the witness of eye-witnesses, the apostles and their disciples. Here the Church stands with the Bible and apostolic tradition handed down from generation to generation. If the Church has to be successful in the mission fields, then doctrinal purity and integrity is essential. To this end, the apostles warned and exhorted that church leaders should be “apt to teach” and should “teach according to sound gospel”. Jude wrote, “earnestly contend for the faith that was once for all delivered.”[9] Christ’s teachings should be sought; they should be taught. The believers cannot be fully obedient to the mission if they are unaware of the mission and what it involves. Thus, church leaders have a spiritual responsibility to study to be sound and instruct others in the way and manner of Christ. The Great Commission thus enthrones Christ as the preeminent in authority, the Head of the Church who should be obeyed. There is no room for being ignorant for the Master expects total obedience.

Obedience is Doing. Christ further instructs to “teach them to observe”. The word translated as observe in the New testament Greek is tereo. It means ‘to guard from loss or injury, to hold fast, to fulfill a command’, etc. Thus, Christ not only foresees a situation where the Church would just herald news about Him, but as a Sovereign and King, He expects all subjects of the kingdom to comply and abide by His rules and principles. People should not only hear about Christ, but they should conform to His word, for, those who only hear His words and fail to do them are self-deceived.[10]

The Omnipresent Christ. Interestingly, many believers today would love to quote and pray this verse “and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.” However, Christ gives a reassuring promise only in the context of obedience to His command. That indeed the passage is a command is clearly evinced from the 18th verse were Christ begins by appealing to His authority. Thus, the passage is not a suggestion but a command to be obeyed. When obeyed, only then can the believer realize that Christ is always with him in His mission. If the Church chooses to be disobedient to the heavenly vision, Christ has not promised to be with it. This call for serious reflection on the part of the Church: should we obey God or institutional rules and traditions that have no room for Christ’s commands? The hymn writer once sand, “Trust and obey, for there is no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”

The Consequences of the Text

Having looked at some of the theological significance of the text, the writer will briefly consider the consequences of the text. This report could not be more just if these consequences are not addressed.

  1. The text calls for obedient faith in Christ, the supreme-lawgiver of the New Testament law. It is not enough to simply say, “I obey Christ because I go to church.” To obey Christ is to love Him and do His commands. When the believers fail to fulfil the command to go and make disciples of all nations, they testify against themselves that, they have never known Christ or, they are a rebellious church, guilt of treason in Christ’s kingdom.
  2. The text calls for a serious timed mission. As earlier indicated in this report, how people view Christ determines their attitudes to Him and His words. The noted commentator David Guzik once wrote, “It is His authority that sends us, His authority that guides us, and His authority that empowers us.”[11] If this is true, then the church should take this commission seriously knowing that it is in a race against time in winning the lost at any cost before Jesus returns. Not being serious minded about God’s mission is treat holy things as profane.
  3. The text calls for a missional worldview. With the understanding of Christ’s commission, it is apparent that the Church has to be missional, to reach pas ethnos (all nations). A church that is not missional is stubborn and disobedient to Christ. It’s rebellious, working in partnership with the enemy to subvert and thwart God’s plans for world redemption. It will not prosper.
  4. The text calls for serious training and instruction. The commission involves teaching and training leaders of future generations since it is a task that has to be passed from generation to generation. This further proves that no one on earth can claim to have reached the entire nations with the Gospel, but rather, each member of the body of Christ should be equipped and released to play his part in the mission fields. Those who have been taught should go and teach others. In this text, the law of multiplication, the principle of duplication is at play. Like begets like. It was to this end that Christ instructed Timothy, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” Again, he had earlier told him, “And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.”[12]
  5. Baptism is part of the Great Commission. There are several churches today that have sprang up teaching that water baptism is no longer valid for the believer today except for Spirit Baptism. The command in the text does not do so. It does not call for partial obedience but for total obedience. The Church should be careful not to invalidate certain portions of the word simply because they don’t feel comfortable carrying out the whole command. It is an obligation that true churches should carry forth. While baptism itself does not save, obedience to the Gospel ensures that all believers be baptized. The early Church did so and so should the modern church.

Application of the Passage

The reason why Christ left the Church on earth was to continue and fulfill the work that Christ Himself had came for. He came to bring salvation to the lost. But because He is now enthroned back in the heavens, the Church on earth is now an extension of His mystical body, since He is the Head of it. Universally, believers from all walks of life makes the sum total of Christ’s body, thus, they carry forth His mission to the nations. The Greek text uses the words ta ethne to refer to the nations. The ‘ta ethne’ suggests that “Jesus never suggested governmental nations, but cultural ethnic groups that are scattered throughout the world. Christ wanted the church to make disciples in every ethnic group of the world through preaching and teaching the gospel.[13]

Referring to the Great Commission, the respected missionary to Africa, Dr. Roger E. Dickson, has made an amazing observation. He writes,

The apostles were not personally and physically able to accomplish this commission in their lifetime. Therefore, it was through those they taught who went into all the world in their generation. It is our responsibility today to carry on with the Great Commission of Jesus. The world can be evangelized in every generation of the existence of the church if disciples will arise to the occasion to assume individual responsibility to preach the gospel. God did not give the church in any generation an impossible task.[14]

The Great Commission is a command which needs serious reflection and action. Those who truly believe are saved by Christ and they feel obligated by His love and grace to be individually motivated to do His work. They should do so in a proper manner that manifests their obedience to the Gospel. The Church’s mission is not geographically centered, it encompasses all spheres were humans can be found as the evangelist Mark puts it, “And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.”[15]

Read in the light of early church history, the Great Commission was carried out even in very hostile environments. The current hostility that confronts the church today in Islamic countries, in Korea, Nigeria and other places that are hostile to the Gospel should not be considered as a great hindrance or an apt excuse to evade the mission challenge. Historically, “the persecution of the church in hostile environments is often a stimulant to intensify the commitment of Christians to carry out their responsibility to evangelize the world.”[16] It appears to be what Christ had in mind when He explained to the apostles that they should not occupy themselves with when and how the kingdom was going to be established in Israel, rather He indicated that they would receive empowering from the Holy Spirit to be Christ’s witnesses (Acts 1:8).

Interestingly, the word witness comes from the Greek martus meaning a martyr, a faithful witness who seals his testimony by his own blood. Thus, in saying He had all authority in heaven and earth, and that He would be with the disciples throughout the world, even to its very end, Christ assured those who would take the Great Commission seriously that even in persecution or in death, He is with them and as He had overpowered death, they too are ensured of a better resurrection and a glorious triumphal life. Thus, the gates of Hades cannot prevail against the church. This is faith, this is the call to trust the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, for “it’s not by mighty or by power” that His work is accomplished in the world, “but by My Spirit saith the Lord.”[17]

There is no excuse for carrying forth the Gospel to the world. The Great Commission should be carried out in its entirety. The veteran evangelist, TL Osborn has indicated that the greatest single hindrance to carrying out the Great Commission is not church buildings. Rather, churches don’t want to get out of their buildings to go out and win the lost outside their sanctuaries.[18] He writes, “Consequently, the church today sits comfortably within her sanctuary walls, pretending to care about sinners by praying for them and by inviting them to come into the church to be saved but actually remaining out of contact with the lost.”[19]

Sometimes church folks are good at coming up with any and every excuse. At times, church activities and programs are allocated huge financial budgets and people claim they can’t go out and carry forth the Great Commission. This entails that people’s hearts are not set on Christ who said, “Where your heart is, there will your treasure be also.” If people in the Church really love Christ enough, they should be zealous to keep His simple commands. Keeping the Great Commission is a way of expressing your love and worship to Christ. It will be vain worship to sing “I love you Lord” when you do not care about His words, His commands and His laws in the New Testament that specifically shows and speaks of the urgency of the hour. It was Christ who said, “The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few; Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth labourers into his harvest.”[20]

Conclusion

It was the purpose of this article to show that Matthew 28:18-20 is Christ’s Great Commission; it is His supreme command that He gave to the Church in every generation. As Don Flemming notes, “Jesus’ purpose in this activity was to establish his church (cf. Matt 16:18), as his followers preached the gospel, baptized those who believed, and taught the converts to understand and follow his teachings. As the converts, in turn, passed the message on to others, the church would continue its worldwide expansion, assured always that the victorious Jesus was working with his people (Matt 28:18-20).[21] Any church that claims to be the true Church of the living Christ should be willing to obey His orders and expand His kingdom on earth. The Church is composed of the called-out ones that have been called from the world through the proclamation of the Gospel message. These called-out ones have a greater responsibility to keep calling and gathering, building the body of Christ. The only way they do so is through their obedience to the Great Commission. A missional vision stemming from a missional mindset lies at the core of the Great Commission. The love Christians have for Christ is tested by their conduct and how they obey Christ’s command to disciple all nations.

It is apt to conclude with a quote from one of the writer’s earlier book,

In our witness to the world, we declare our allegiance and obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ who has commanded us to be His witnesses into all the world (Acts 1:8). We are not only supporting the church’s work; it is our work, it is God’s unfinished business, and, because we side with God, we have to make sure that we work together with Him in fulfilling His desire for the nations.[22]

 

References

  1. Dickson, Roger E. Dickson’s Teacher’s New Testament, Cape Town: Africa International Missions, 2006.
  1. Fleming, Don. Bridgeway Bible Commentary, 2005, The Word Software, 2015 edition.
  2. David Guzik, David Guzik’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, undated, The Word Software, 2015 edition.
  3. Musekiwa, Ernest. How to be A Successful Christian, Harare: Every Soul for Christ Publications, 2015.
  1. __________________. Evangelism: The Unfinished Task, Harare: Ernest Musekiwa Publications, 2015.
  1. Osborn, TL. Outside the Sanctuary, Tulsa, OK: Osborn Publishers, 1986.

[1] Paraphrased, author’s own words. All Scripture quotations are from the Authorized King James Version.

[2] 1 Corinthians 15:3-4

[3] Matthew 28:18-20, KJV. The Word Software

[4] John 20:21

[5] Luke 19:10

[6] Acts 1:1-9

[7] C.f. Matthew 10:6 and Romans 1:16. Paul’s treatise in Ephesians 2:12-19 is of course a masterly explanation of the whole drama of redemption for the whole universe in which Christ is the Savior of the whole world and not Jews only.

[8] Luke 24:46-48

[9] Jude 14

[10] James 1:22-25

[11] David Guzik, David Guzik’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, undated, The Word Software.

[12] 2 Timothy 2:15 and 2 Timothy 2:2

[13] Ernest Musekiwa. Evangelism: The Unfinished Task, (Harare: Ernest Musekiwa Publications, 2015), 61.

[14] Roger E. Dickson. Dickson’s Teacher’s New Testament, (Cape Town: Africa International Missions, 2006), 110.

[15] Mark 16:15-16.

[16] Dickson, p.354.

[17] Zechariah 4:6.

[18] TL Osborn. Outside the Sanctuary, (Tulsa, OK: Osborn Publishers, 1986), 30.

[19] Osborn, p.87.

[20] Matthew 9:36-37.

[21] Don Fleming, Bridgeway Bible Commentary, 2005, The Word Software.

[22] Ernest Musekiwa, How to be A Successful Christian, (Harare: Every Soul for Christ Publications, 2015), 93.

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