What is “The Great Commission”? Is it Really Great?
Although “The Great Commission” is much talked about by “Christian insiders”, not many “normal Christians” know for sure what it is.
This interesting 2017 survey shows that only 17% of churchgoers recognized the term and could explain its meaning. If given a series of five quotes, the percent rose to 37%, an increase which is no more than you’d expect from random guessing.
So we should start off by quoting the Great Commission, as reported in Matthew 28:19-20 (verse 18 is sometimes included for context, we’ll show it too) (MEV)
18 Then Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “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 all things I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.
The essence of the Great Commission is the sentence starting in verse 19 and its completion in verse 20. There are four components :
- Make disciples
- Baptize them
- Teach them to follow Jesus’ teachings
These are the closing words of the Matthew Gospel, and are perhaps the second to last quoted words of Jesus after his resurrection and before he ascended to Heaven (see Acts 1:6-8 for his very last words, and note that the words in Acts 1 sound almost like another restatement/paraphrase of the words in Matthew 28).
Similar passages can be found in Mark 16:14-18, Luke 24:44-49, John 20:19-23 and Acts 1:4-8, although these similar accounts of the Great Commission are sometimes reported in different settings prior to the crucifixion.
There can be no doubt that Jesus wished his disciples to go out and proselytize, and the importance of this is implied by the repeated citing of his wish/command, as well as simply by using ordinary common sense. Of course this is a good thing to do. Everyone deserves to be given as full and fair an opportunity to consider the concept of Christianity and to choose to accept Jesus Christ as his personal savior. Plus, at a more selfish level, we as Christians can reasonably expect a better life here on Earth if we live in a Christian society, and more broadly, in a Christian world.
We don’t disagree with the concept/command, as expressed at the end of Matthew and everywhere else, at all (and, of course, how could we ever disagree with any teaching from Jesus!). But what does it mean to you, personally?
Does the Bible Name This as The Great Commission?
We should understand that the phrase “Great Commission” was nowhere used in the Bible.
Sure, Jesus does talk about “the first and greatest commandment” (Matthew 22:37-38) and immediately after that, adds a second ranked commandment (Matthew 22:39-40), but these and the ten Old Testament Commandments are more “universal rules for life” than a tasking order such as the “Great Commission”. But he never described what is termed “The Great Commissions” by saying “this is my greatest instruction and command to you”.
Yes, it could be said that because it was his last words to his disciples, it was especially important – to him and to us – and we’re happy to agree with that interpretation.
But the term “Great Commission” seems to have only started appearing in the 1600s, and was used by missionaries to underscore the importance of their chosen missions, and has been enthusiastically repeated by missionaries and more broadly, evangelists, for that obvious reason, ever since.
Our beef with this is seeing people try to give their preferred type of Christian activity a possibly higher priority and more validation than all the other elements of leading and sharing a good Christian life. Yes, it is a “commission”, but is it “The Great” commission? Is it more important than every other form of Christian service? In both cases, we don’t think so.
Is the “Great Commission” Still Applicable Today?
Even though pretty much the entire world has had missionary visits, usually for hundreds of years, and Christianity is well known, there’s little sign of global trends for the world to become a more Christian place. Besides which, each new generation of people can benefit from direct interaction with missionaries and other Christian evangelizers/evangelists. On the face of it, there’s as much need now to effectively “spread the word to the world” as there ever has been, and so it would seem the answer is very emphatically yes.
On the other hand, there are some elements of the original Jesus-stated “Great Commission” that may no longer apply in these days. That’s not to say we shouldn’t still do something similar, but is the specific “Great Commission” still in force? Opinions differ on that.
As a general issue, some schools of thought – held by people termed “preterists” – believe that some/much/all of what the Bible foretold has already happened. This is not a widely held view, and we currently have no well-informed opinion that would persuade us to accept such beliefs ourselves, other than to note there are some passages in the Bible that are difficult to reconcile with the concept of “far-future events”.
More specifically, some of the “Great Commission” quotes refer specifically to two factors :
1. The disciples were in-person witnesses of Jesus fulfilling the prophecies in the Old Testament
2. The disciples were to wait until they received “power from on high” before setting forth on their commission.
For example, the conclusion of the Book of Luke (Luke 24:44-49) tells us Luke’s version of the final meeting between Jesus and the disciples, adding some more details and omitting others that were in the Matthew version (MEV)
44 He said to them, “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and in the Prophets and in the Psalms concerning Me.”
45 Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.
46 He said to them, “Thus it is written, and accordingly it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day,
47 and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
48 You are witnesses of these things.
49 And look, I am sending the promise of My Father upon you. But wait in the city of Jerusalem until you are clothed with power from on high.”
So, do Jesus’ words to his disciples apply to us, too? Perhaps the best answer is to acknowledge that Jesus’ request to his disciples needs to be updated to reflect current times and our circumstances. Even if we can’t give witness based on personal interactions with Jesus and personal knowledge of the miracles he worked during his lifetime, we can still report on them as passed on through the Bible, and we can give personal witness of the miracles Jesus has worked in our lives.
To which we’d re-affirm that it is a good thing to share and spread the Good News of the Gospels and Christianity as far and wide as is appropriate and possible.
Does the Great Commission Apply to Everyone?
There may have been more people present than just the eleven disciples when the event reported in Matthew occurred. The words in Matthew 28:17 (“some doubted”) hint at this. But (and as reported where similar tasking is stated elsewhere on other occasions) it seems the specific commission was given primarily to his eleven (remaining) disciples. There is no quote anywhere in the New Testament of Jesus issuing the same command to everyone.
Moving now to the present day, we know that we are all given different gifts, talents, and strengths by God, for example, Romans 12:4-8 (MEV)
4 For just as we have many parts in one body, and not all parts have the same function,
5 so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and all are parts of one another.
6 We have diverse gifts according to the grace that is given to us: if prophecy, according to the proportion of faith;
7 if service, in serving; he who teaches, in teaching;
8 he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with generosity; he who rules, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.
It seems a reasonable inference that the “Great Commission” was handed to the eleven people with the strongest skills and appropriate gifts for that tasking. Maybe you know you too would be well suited for following the Great Commission, but if that does not sound like you, then you absolutely should not feel any embarrassment at not wishing to follow this.
This concept of different gifts for different people is important. This is one point where we take gentle issue with some other Christian churches that seek to encourage all their youth to go on missions, whether the individuals are well-suited for this or not. Is going on a mission character-building and praiseworthy? Yes, but the effects and achievements of such dedication are greatly variable and dependent on how well suited as missionaries the individuals are.
Some churches, we feel, have ended up becoming unfortunate caricatures of the Christian faith because of their ardent missionary activities. If a person chooses to take up the responsibility of sharing the Word of God to non-Christians, and to encourage such people to embrace Christianity and make it their own, then we think an inseparable part of that responsibility is to be well trained and well able to do so with positive outcomes.
To restate the “different gifts/different activities” concept, we are told by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12, that we all have our parts to play in God’s great plan, and we are all important. The entire chapter is totally relevant, let’s look at it here (MEV – our comments in square brackets)
1 Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant.
2 You know that you were Gentiles [pagans], carried away to these dumb idols, however you were led.
3 Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed!” And no one can say, “Jesus is the Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.
4 There are various gifts, but the same Spirit.
5 There are differences of administrations, but the same Lord.
6 There are various operations, but it is the same God who operates all of them in all people.
7 But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to everyone for the common good.
8 To one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom, to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit,
9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit,
10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues.
11 But that one and very same Spirit works all these, dividing to each one individually as He will.
12 For as the body is one and has many parts, and all the many parts of that one body are one body, so also is Christ.
13 For by one Spirit we are all baptized into one body, whether we are Jews or Gentiles, whether we are slaves or free, and we have all been made to drink of one Spirit.
14 The body is not one part, but many.
15 If the foot says, “Because I am not the hand, I am not [a part] of the body,” is it therefore not of the body?
16 And if the ear says, “Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body,” is it therefore not of the body?
17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?
18 But now God has established the parts, every one of them, in the body as it has pleased Him.
19 If they were all one part, where would the body be?
20 So there are many parts, yet one body.
21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”
22 No, those parts of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary.
23 And those parts of the body which we think are less honorable, upon these we bestow more abundant honor. And our less respectable parts are treated with much more respect,
24 whereas our more respectable parts have no need of this. But God has composed the body, having given more abundant honor to that part which lacks it,
25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that the parts should have the same care for one another.
26 If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honored, all the parts rejoice with it.
27 Now you are the body of Christ and members individually.
28 God has put these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, and various tongues.
29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all workers of miracles? [Or, stylistically in each case, “Not all are apostles, are they?” etc]
30 Do all have the gifts of healings? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?
31 But earnestly covet [strive for] the greater gifts. Yet I [will] show you a more excellent way.
However You Participate is Good and Valuable
Our point is that each of us doesn’t have to possess and act out the full range of Christian taskings. God has chosen our gifts, our abilities and skills, and the resources we each have available to devote to our part in his great plan. If he wished more of us, he’d have given us more to start with.
If you are called to missionary work, then by all means, answer your calling, and you have our respect, admiration, and support. But maybe there are other ways you can participate that are closer to home, and in making such a choice, no-one should think any the less of you.
Yes, living a good Christian life does have some obligations associated with it. But this doesn’t mean you must become a missionary, nor does it mean that becoming a missionary is the highest possible calling. Most of all, it doesn’t mean your life should become onerous and miserable because of your faith. Absolutely not!
Maybe God has blessed you with prosperity, and you can provide financial support for other people’s missionary activities. Or maybe there are other ways you can help God’s great plan, closer to home, and perhaps working with the already-Christian rather than the yet-to-be-converted.
In the chessboard that is life, some of us are knights, some are rooks, some are bishops, and so on. Don’t agonize over what you’re not. Appreciate and use what you have. Even pawns – the most common chess pieces, after all – have potentially invaluable roles to play.