Remembering the Great Commission

by Justin Lonas

"And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age'" (Matt. 28:18-20).

From the very first Sunday school class we attend to the very last missionary presentation we listen to, the verses of Christ's "Great Commission" are drummed into us. Is it possible that we've forgotten the powerful meaning of this passage through its frequent repetition?

To treat the final words of Mathew's Gospel as anything less than the crucial command of the entire Bible is to misunderstand the theme of reconciliation that runs through both the Old Testament and the New. God promised reconciliation almost immediately following the Fall (Gen. 3:15), and His plan culminates in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ and the subsequent disciple-making by the church (see 2 Corinthians 5:18-20).

Churches today, however, seem to dwell on anything but the fulfilling of the Commission. Many conservative churches are so concerned with avoidance of sin and the corruption of contemporary culture that they fail to present the gospel on its terms ("come and be cleansed," not "be clean before you come"). On the other end of the spectrum, "seeker friendly" churches abandon real disciple-making by watering down the truth in effort to entice unbelievers to accept the message. Even churches that have the correct doctrine on evangelism seldom put it into practice in their own neighborhoods.

Perhaps John MacArthur said it best in his commentary on Matthew's Gospel:

"The supreme way in which God chose to glorify Himself was through the redemption of sinful men, and it is through participation in that redemptive plan that believers themselves most glorify God. Fellowship, teaching, and praise are not the mission of the church but are rather the preparation of the church to fulfill its mission of winning the lost...training should never be confused with or substituted for actually competing in the game How tragic that so much of Christ's church is preoccupied with trivialities."

We would do well to be reminded of the criticality of Christ's supreme command to us. I'd like to offer a few pointers (as much to move myself as stir you to action)"

1) The Great Commission is made possible by God's sovereignty. We are told to make disciples of all nations because we are under Jesus' authority. He was commissioned to reconcile all humanity by the Father, and in turn He commissions us as His "foot soldiers." In doing so, He reminds us that the task is not ours alone, but that He is using us as tools to complete God's divine plan-He enables the "go."

2) Discipleship is natural to the Christian life. MacArthur makes a just comparison to Gen. 1:28 ("Be fruitful and multiply...") in explaining why the Commission was issued only once: "Reproduction in kind is natural to life. The call to make disciples is stated only once because it is natural for the new creation to be reproductive." We've got to stop treating outreach like an activity in our churches and start reinforcing it as a way of life. Making disciples should follow as naturally as baptism and taking communion once a person is saved.

3.) Discipleship is coaching, not sales.You cannot "close the deal" on someone's salvation-only God has the power to do that. Understanding the Greek word translated as "make disciples" in verse 19 ("teach" in the KJV) can shed some light on this. Mathetes, according to the Key Word Study Bible, means "to become a pupil," or "to enroll as a scholar." This clearly illustrates the idea that making disciples is a process, not an event.

As MacArthur put it, "The root meaning of the term refers to believing and learning. Jesus was not referring simply to believers or simply to learners, or He would have used other words. Mathetescarries a beautiful combination of meanings. In this context it relates to those who place their trust in Jesus Christ and follow Him in lives of continual learning and obedience."

If we really desire to fulfill the Commission of Christ, we have to get beyond the "Bring them to church and let the pastor share the gospel" attitude prevalent among American Christians. The call to make disciples is coupled with a command to "go"-we cannot simply sit back and wait for unbelievers to come to us. We have to actively pursue them to reconciliation with the Father.

4) The Great Commission is a standing order, not a goal to be attained.Much has been made of the interpretation of 2 Peter 3:12, which says that we can speed up the Lord's return by evangelizing all people. While many scholars agree that this is an acceptable reading of the text, the Western Church has latched onto it to the detriment of real discipleship.

If we see Christ's command as a goal, our tendency is to rush to its completion, spending our resources and time to spread the gospel to the four winds with little thought to the results of our sowing beyond a numerical representation of "decisions." When we attempt to rush the outcome, we deliver a product that may not actually represent what is desired.

This approach has largely hijacked the nature of evangelism-most Christians are intimidated out of discipleship because they aren't seeing immediate results. The biblical model is one of longsuffering personal interaction and real conversion-i.e., cultivating a lifestyle of growth and learning in Christ that leads to future disciples being made. It is not as simple as a head count at a church service. While there is never a drawback to the hearing of God's word, we cannot abandon the personal nature of conversion. It is often not enough that people hear the word but that they see it make a difference in our lives, especially in regards to what lengths we are willing to go so that they can understand it more fully.

5) The Great Commission is for every Christian.Another unintended side effect of the goal-oriented approach is the division of the church into "those who go" and "those who send." While it is very true that the body is variously gifted (Eph. 4:11-13), the command to make disciples is one that applies to all of us. It is perfectly right for the body to send out those who are especially equipped to bring the gospel to another culture, but not at the expense of the larger command. When we put support for world missions in the place of our own responsibility to the ongoing ministry of reconciliation, we are not honoring God's command.

6) Discipleship should be taught from the pulpit often and by example.Pastors have to lead the way in bringing the Great Commission to life for the church. Unless church leaders continually remind the church of its responsibility, Christians will not turn from complacency to action. Just preaching it is not enough. Pastors should lead by example in witnessing to the lost, and actively engaging in friendships, conversations, and social interaction with those who have not yet received Christ.

7) Discipleship starts with prayer. Most Christians today are so cloistered within the church and parachurch social groups that they have little to no meaningful contact with nonbelievers. This will change only if we pray for the Lord to open our eyes to opportunities to become involved with those who need Him. Truly loving our neighbors as ourselves has to involve discipleship. All too often, we forget the Commission (for a variety of reasons), and we cannot commit to make it a daily priority without the Lord's guidance, insight, and careful prodding to remember His commands.

These seven points are by no means exhaustive. They are, however, a reminder of the crucial importance of this command to our lives. May we never allow the meaning of our mission to be lost on us for any reason. May we work to allow our churches to sift through all their programs to return to the central focus of the Christian experience. May we be faithful to make disciples for Christ.

Justin Lonas is publisher of Pulpit Helps.

2011 Disciple 155x50 2011 AMG 155x50
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