Thursday, February 20, 2014

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 ( 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 (, “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 ( 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: ( 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!


  1. Interesting. I hadn't noticed that the KJV said "teach all nations", I'll have to look that up.

    I think the point about disciples vs. converts is a stronger one, and that is the one I've thought on some. That you don't make a disciple by knocking on someone's door, but over the course of time.

    However, on the other side, some would use this argument to never talk to anyone, or to say "preach the gospel to all, use words if necessary" (which I've heard St. Francis didn't even actually say...), and I know for myself at least, it was easy to think along those lines to reduce any guilt or conviction I might have had about speaking about my faith.

    James tells us to be *ready* to speak in and out of season, and I think it is easy to "miss out" on those opportunities if we aren't looking for them.

    It is also important to point out that God has given us different gifts, and we are each to act according to those gifts. I know some people who are gifted evangelists, and I shouldn't take their gift away from them, just as they shouldn't try to force their gift on me.

    I don't think I buy your argument about that Jesus was only talking to his disciples. If you use that argument, it seems to me you could use it on any scripture that you wanted to say was *only* cultural, or aimed at a certain group of people, and reduce the bible to not say much to us, in our life, at all.

    1. Hi Jon. Thank you for reading and commenting. I appreciate you taking the time to do that.

      I agree that some would attempt to use my argument to “get out of” talking to people about the Gospel, but that’s not at all what I was saying. I think we should preach the Gospel, but I think we should do so because that’s what we were taught by the people before us - not because Jesus gave the command to us (because I still maintain that he did not).

      This is the way I see that Jesus intended it to go: Jesus commanded his disciples to teach all nations. The people who they taught then, in turn, teach the same thing to others, etc. Again, some would call this a fine-line distinction, but I think much of scriptural teaching is often that way.

      Your point about missing out on opportunities is a good one, also. I just think we need to balance our gifts. Speaking for myself, I do not go out of my way to talk about my beliefs, except with people I know, or unless someone brings up the subject - then I will. I just don’t feel confident in my ability to speak off the cuff. I don’t have verses memorized as some do. On the other hand, I know more or less where things are said in the Bible, and I know how to find verses - so I feel confident writing about such things, because I have time to think and prepare. That luxury doesn’t exist in dynamic conversation.

      Regarding your assertion that one could use the argument (Jesus was talking to his disciples and not us) on any scripture, I disagree, and here’s why. There are plenty of places where Jesus spoke directly to the masses and not his disciples directly. There are also many places where he spoke to his disciples only. Luke 8:9 makes clear that Jesus teaches differently to his disciples than to others.

      I find it ironic that many Christians will immediately point out that Jesus was talking to his disciples, or to the masses, on every other occasion but this one. For some reason, this one is different. He was talking to his disciples, but it applies to all of us. I just find the logic inconsistent.

      Also, Jesus‘ initial mission to his disciples was restricted - to Israel, not the Gentiles. I believe this is a direct parallel. With the Great Commission he removed the restriction. To his disciples. In essence: Remember what I told you about not going to the Gentiles? Now the time is right. Now I give you a new command. Teach all nations.

      Again, when he fed the 5,000, he had his disciples there, and also the masses. He performed the miracle and gave the food to his disciples, who in turn, gave it to the people. Just like the Great Commission. He could have just as easily simply made food appear in front of every individual. I don’t think one miracle is any more miraculous than the other. I believe he chose to do it a certain way for a reason.

      Lastly, John’s account also makes it pretty clear. In John 20:21 Jesus says, “As my Father has sent me, even so send I you.” This was obviously to the disciples alone. More evidence is in the very next verse. In verse 22 he breathes out the Holy Spirit on them. That’s a pretty specific gifting.

      As an aside, and I never thought of this until now, but it might be an interesting study to compare exactly what Jesus said to his disciples to what he said to the masses.

  2. Sorry, I didn't mean to say it that way - I agree that Jesus was talking specifically to the disciples in that particular instance. What I was cautioning against was the argument that because he was only talking to his disciples that we can ignore those words because they aren't to us. But, I think you aren't saying that, so that is good.

    Your thought on a a study comparing who he was speaking to sounds interesting.