The five verses that comprise the commission contain information that powerfully transformed the lives of the original recipients. Some have argued that the commission was delivered to over 500 recipients.[i] At any rate, we do know that at least the 11 disciples were present and the text indicates they worshipped but some doubted. In what way did they doubt? Surely they did not doubt the identity or the ability of the risen Lord. The term employed here for doubt occurs one other time in the New Testament. It occurs in Matthew 14:31 to describe Peter’s hesitation when walking on the water. It appears as though these disciples, though fully convinced of the Lord’s identity were perhaps hesitant about the future ministry entrusted to them. In order to comfort and assure them, the Lord speaks the words that we have come to call the Great Commission.
The content of the Commission identified. Perhaps the simplest way to indentify the content of the commission is to follow the structure set forth in the four uses of the term “all.” The commission was given by One who had received supreme authority over all realms and peoples. His followers were to go and seek to form disciples from all the nations and people who lived in the realms that were now under Christ’s authority even though that authority was not yet recognized on earth. They were to teach those disciples to obey all that had been taught by the One who had received supreme authority. And they would be comforted, enabled, protected, and preserved by Christ in all places where they went to fulfill this commission. All authority, all nations, all commandments, always present. This is the substance of the Commission Jesus gave His disciples.
The content of the Commission clarified. Many contemporary approaches to the Great Commission have focused on the Lord’s instruction to go to all nations. In other words, for them, the dominant responsibility of the commission is to go to the nations. However, the grammar of the Lord’s statement makes clear that the central imperative of the Commission is the making of disciples. That central imperative will be accomplished by three accompanying activities – going, baptizing, and teaching.
Making disciples is at the heart of the Lord’s command. Until we have done so, we have not fulfilled our obligation regardless of how many countries we have visited or how many times we have presented the gospel message. The early church modeled this as Paul and Barnabas took the gospel message and made disciples (Acts 14:21). Making disciples is more than preaching the good news. It is more than getting a decision from someone. It is much more than just announcing the gospel. It is preaching the gospel until someone turns to Christ and becomes a permanent, public, obedient believer in Christ.
Many times we hear stories of preachers going to foreign soil and preaching the gospel and thousands coming to Christ. However, unless there are those who are truly born again and evidence their new birth by persevering in the faith obediently, it is doubtful that Great Commission activity really took place. Jesus was sending His disciples out to make more of the same kind of disciples He made out of them! That is what the Great Commission entails. The emphatic purpose for which Jesus sent out His followers was to make disciples.
Making disciples involves three activities on the part of those who seek to fulfill its expectation. First, fulfilling the Commission to make disciples demands that believers involve themselves in this calling with wholehearted passion and dedication. Going does not mean traveling to a foreign field and coming home after a week of missionary surveying. It means making the task of making disciples a way of life regardless of where a person is geographically. In fact, it seems pointless to expect a person who is not engaged in Great Commission living at home to succeed on foreign soil. Churches would perhaps be well served to insist that there be ample evidence over an extended period of time of a person’s commitment and ability to make disciples at home before committing any of God’s funds to supporting such an individual on foreign soil. Disciplemaking is not a geographically enhanced activity. It must be done among all nations including, and perhaps especially, one’s own nation. This is not in any way to discourage sending disciplemakers to other nations. It is simply to observe that many who go to other nations fail because they were not doing it first at home.
Second, disciplemaking involves initiating people into the faith of Jesus Christ and connecting them to His body, the Church. Baptism here is not for salvific purposes. Rather, it is the means by which a person who has truly believed on Jesus identifies himself with his new Lord and with His established community on earth. Part of fulfilling the Commission involves taking people who have become disciples and insisting they become active, healthy members of a local body of believers. Christ’s design and desire is for His disciples to be growing and healthy members of local expressions of His body so that His message to the world can be modeled in that loving community and his mission to the world can be accomplished by that obedient community.
Third, making disciples involves instructing converts to become obedient to all that Christ has taught. Wilkins has it right when he states, “The completion of the commission is not simply evangelism. Rather, it means calling unbelievers to be converted and embark on the process of being transformed into the image of Jesus in lifelong discipleship.”[ii]
[i] Although the text specifically only identifies the 11 disciples, many commentators argue that these 11 were sent to Galilee where they met a larger group who witnessed the Lord’s appearing and heard his teaching. Paul mentioned that over 500 at one time saw the resurrected Christ (1 Cor 15:6) and perhaps this was the occasion of which he refers. Others argue that the text indicates limits the audience to only the 11 disciples. Good arguments for both cases can be found in the standard commentary literature on this text.
[ii] “Matthew” in The NIV Application Commentary, Zondervan, Grand Rapids Michigan, 2204, p. 954.