Where in the Bible does it say we should go to other nations to preach the Gospel? Ever since William Carey’s appeal to Matthew 28:19-20, this text has been regarded as ‘the Great Commission’, to assert the church’s need to be involved in missions overseas and across cultures. Doesn’t it straightforwardly state:
“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. (NIV)”
While this verse seems straightforward enough, Colin Marshall and Tony Paine claim that the emphasis in Matthew 28:19
“is not on “going.” In fact, the participle is probably better translated as “when you go” or “as you go.” The commission is not fundamentally about mission out there somewhere else in another country. It’s a commission that makes disciple-making the normal agenda and priority of every church and every Christian disciple. (The Trellis and the Vine, p. 13)”
So, should we continue doing mission across cultures? Or should we rather focus on disciple-making, wherever God has placed us right now? Anyhow, is it good to put those two commands of Jesus, to go and to make disciples, in opposition to each other like this?
To solve the issue, I think we should zoom out a bit and read the words of Jesus in Matthew 28:18-20 as a whole. I think the remark of Marshall and Paine responds to an isolated use of Matthew 28:19-20a. The Great Commission is just a part of Jesus’ speech to the disciples after his resurrection. If we look at Jesus’ words, it gives as much insight about the Commissioner as it informs us about the Great Commission. While Jesus’ speech discusses the need to go and make disciples of all nations, there is much more to discover in this passage. What Jesus at this point is the following:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 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, 20 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)”
Before I discuss the Great Commission’s real focus in detail, let me just note that the commands ‘to go’ and ‘make disciples’ don’t stand on their own, but are “sandwiched” between two statements by Jesus. Jesus starts with revealing a Great Truth about his identity, then gives the commission and concludes with his Great Promise for those who obey his voice. Trying to get the Great Commission without proper focus on Jesus in this passage is like eating a sandwich without the bread on top and below. I doubt that we can call that eating a sandwich at all… This is not a simple trick of words. During my years on the mission field in Asia, it was really helpful to see our role in the great commission as being reliant on Jesus as the Commissioner.
The Great Truth
Let’s start with the Great Truth of Jesus’ authority. What is the kind of authority that Jesus has after the resurrection? Jesus is given all authority in heaven and on earth, but it is not yet fully visible. You just have to look around to see that there is still brokenness. In the country where we served, getting a visa was not easy to get, and officials decided whether you got a visa. Sometimes I was nervous when I had to go again for some inquiry about our paperwork. A local believer used to tell me that the possibility to stay in the country is ultimately up to God, not in the hands of government officials. When I had to go to the government officials, this was a really encouraging thought. All authority in heaven and earth is in Jesus’ hands.
There are often many layers of authority in hierarchical societies, and you cannot just bypass these. Whatever hindrances you may face, if the Lord has called you for cross-cultural missions, He will guide you in your ways. This is not a substitute for preparing well for missions, but it may make us humble and trusting that we should not and certainly cannot carry out the mission to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our authority and strength.
In short, there is first of all a Great Truth in Matthew 28 that we need to be aware of. If there is any Great Commission, it is only because of Jesus, who has the authority, in whose name we go.
The Great Commission
Priority of disciple-making
That brings me to the second point. We have a Great Commission. I started with a quote from Marshall and Paine about the priority of disciple-making over going. I think they are right in pointing out that ‘make disciples’ is the only command (or imperative), grammatically speaking. ‘Go’ is a participle, just like ‘baptizing’ and ‘teaching’. So I agree that we should make disciple-making the normal agenda and priority of every church and every Christian. If only that would happen, how would ‘Christian’ countries look like? I think a lot would change.
Make disciples of all nations
However, while discipling is the key priority, the command in Matthew 28:19 is not just ‘make disciples’. It is ‘make disciples of all nations’. For that reason, it will not do to put a contrast between ‘making disciples’ in your home country and ‘going’ on cross-cultural missions to make disciples.
In this way, the Great Commission is in proportion to the greatness of Jesus Christ himself. Jesus is the Lord of all the earth and is given all authority. For that reason, we cannot be content with just making disciples around the corner, wherever we live right now. Living as disciple-making disciple of Jesus Christ is an important and crucial start. If you are not a true discipling disciple in your home country, it will be tough to share the Gospel elsewhere as well. But since Jesus is given authority over heaven and earth, we are called to make disciples of all nations. It is impossible to obey Jesus’ command to make disciples of all nations without some believers going to other countries. For that reason, the Great Commission is still highly relevant, and churches should be serious about committing funds and able candidates to ‘make disciples of all nations’.
I think there is some validity in the point of Marshall and Paine about the priority of disciple-making. Unfortunately, there are also stories of people that emphasize ‘going’ at the expense of ‘discipling’. Suppose you really understand that the first priority is about making disciples. In that case, you should not try to go on a long-term mission without having a solid foundation. Cornerstone Bible College for Mission Training is a place that offers a well-balanced training program to be equipped to be a disciple-maker of all nations.
Another caveat that is increasingly present is to confuse social, humanitarian work with missions. While I believe that we should pursue a holistic mission, not just preach the Gospel and be untouched about poverty and slavery. Church-sponsored endeavours that do not aim at making disciples are not really part of fulfilling the Great Commission. Only when discipleship and rootedness in Christ are actually taking place, we contribute to the fulfilment of the Great Commission.
The rest of Jesus’ Great Commission discusses baptizing and teaching. We are called to baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that Jesus has commanded. Both are part of discipleship as well. Baptizing and teaching go together. Proper teaching is needed to understand the nature in baptism. On top of that, in some countries and cultural contexts, it can be very costly to be baptized. In my experience, many Hindu believers do not have difficulty coming to church and learning about Jesus. Still, when it comes to baptism, many are more cautious. Baptism is often seen as irreversibly giving allegiance to Jesus as Lord. It marks a serious division marker in their life, between before and after following Jesus. It is a precious moment. It often requires a lot of discipling and teaching about what Jesus has commanded before baptism occurs. I know many Hindu background believers that lost good contact with family members, jobs or their houses. Sometimes, they lose government benefits and in rare cases even their lives. In many countries, the words of Jesus about the cost of following Him are very real. To have a little impression of both the cost to follow Jesus, but also the great price there is in following Jesus, watch the this video.
All of this shows that the Great Commission is may be even bigger than you thought. Fortunately, Jesus didn’t give us a Great Commission that we have to accomplish on our own. The task is so huge, especially if we really that making disciples of all nations is the aim. For even in ‘Christian’ countries, there is much that is not in line with the Gospel yet. On top of that, a significant number of countries where people live that have not yet heard the good news about Jesus are putting up restrictions for missionaries to come and preach the Gospel. So how are we going to fulfil the Great Commission?
The Great Promise
Fortunately, Jesus didn’t leave it at revealing a Great truth about himself and a Great Commission. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ last words are a very Great Promise: And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. Wow. That is something. Personally, I have experienced this promise as very encouraging on the mission field. We do not go to the mission field in our authority and strength. I have seen the Lord provide in our lives, often when we needed it most. When we needed an encouragement, we received encouragement in often unexpected ways. A message or a song in the local church we attended, or via a card, an email, a WhatsApp message from prayer partners in our home country. Jesus promises us to be with us if we are obedient in following him.
One day, I had to preach for a group of students at a Bible college in India. I was asked if I could preach with only 10 minutes of preparation time. I normally like to prepare well – because the Holy Spirit is not limited to giving us insights last minute – but I strongly felt at that time what I should share about. I should encourage the Bible students to make a determined choice to follow the Lord today and not to wait for an opportune moment in the future. Circumstances may change, but God wants us to trust Him from this moment onwards. You never know for sure what the future will hold. After my message, I learned that one girl, Maninder, had lost her father earlier that morning. I doubt I would have had the courage to hold that message in the same way if I would have known about it before my sermon– but I didn’t know. Several Bible students let me know afterwards that they were really touched by the message, especially in combination what with happened afterwards.
I have also seen several instances of protection. We once were held up for a while shopping when a large stone construction fell from a three-high balcony just next to our house. If we had not been held up before, we probably would have walked there when the stone construction had fallen down. At that time, we really experienced God’s protection. At other times, we experienced Jesus’ presence with us by going through difficulties. My wife got bitten by a dog, so we needed rabies vaccine, there were extended times of crying out tot the Lord, because of the difficulties we face. Jesus’ Great Promise doesn’t guarantee us an easy life if we are willing to listen to Jesus’ words. However, I would just like to conclude with the following: If we are prepared to go and make disciples of all nations, we may rest assured in the Great Promise, that Jesus will be with us always.