After his resurrection and just before his ascension into heaven, Jesus came up with an interesting option for Christians. He said that if a select few people felt like it, if it wasn’t too much bother, they could tell people about him. This is called the Great Suggestion.
Um, really, no, it’s called the Great Commission and Jesus was hardly suggesting it as an option. He was commanding it, to all of his followers then and now. Yet today, many Christians treat his final words as a nice suggestion that somebody should be doing, as long as it isn’t them.
The Great Commission is found in Matt. 28:18-20, although frequently it’s listed as verses 19-20, and often only verse 19 is quoted. But it is actually verse 18 that is the key to understanding the rest of the Commission. Here’s what Jesus said:
“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, the Son and 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.’”
The very first thing Jesus states is that all authority has been given to him in heaven and earth. Not some authority, not just authority in heaven, but all authority in heaven and on earth – in other words, it’s all the authority there is, anywhere in the universe. No one has more authority than Jesus – not a police officer, not the president, not even your mom (sorry, Mom).
Jesus is saying that the reason he states his all-encompassing authority is to give us a command – not a suggestion, not an option, but a command.
What does it mean when someone has authority over you? It means they have the right to tell you what they want to have done. Someone in authority, ideally, will be someone who understands the big picture, understands what needs to be done, how to do it, and can give you the order to do so. We have learned to obey authority – if the blue lights start flashing because you chose to ignore the speed limit sign, you’d better pull over. If your boss tells you to get a project done by a certain date, you’d better get it done by then.
Why? Because we have submitted ourselves to these people as having authority over us – and because there will be consequences if we don’t obey that authority. Run from the cops and eventually you’ll be tasered and thrown into prison. Ignore the boss’s instructions and you’re soon standing in the unemployment line.
Yet how do we – how do most Christians – respond to Christ’s authority? Do we say, well, Jesus said it and he has all authority so I’d better snap to it? Or do we say, cool suggestion, Jesus; somebody better get busy on that, and then look around the room to find someone who should be doing it?
Jesus isn’t just telling us that he has all authority in heaven and earth to brag about it. It’s not, “Hey, I got all authority from the Father. What’d you get?” He is telling us this for a reason, and the reason follows in verse 19, which begins with Therefore.
Now, anytime you see the word “therefore” in the Bible you have to ask yourself, what is it there for? Because what follows the therefore is based on what was said in the previous sentence or paragraph. In this case, Jesus is saying that the reason he states his all-encompassing authority is to give us a command – not a suggestion, not an option, but a command.
And that command is to go and make disciples. There are two verbs that are connected here, “go” and “make.” Go means, of course, that you aren’t stationary. You aren’t sitting back waiting for these disciples to magically appear around you. It is an aggressive action on our part. But is that how we generally think of this process? I think most of us sit back, waiting for people to show up at our church and decide to become involved in the church activities. The closest we come to “go” is to occasionally invite someone to check out our church sometime.
So Christ, based on his absolute authority, is telling us it is absolutely necessary that we go make committed learners of every people group.
The second verb is make, and this is a modifier, describing the next word, disciples. Again, make is an aggressive action. Nothing is magically going to appear. It will take time and effort on our part. And notice what we are supposed to make – not more church members, not more people to sit in worship service, not even more people to lead Bible studies or sing on the worship team. The command is to make disciples.
For many years, this verse has been loosely and lightly interpreted as doing evangelism – simply telling people about the good news of Jesus and hoping they would attain salvation. But that is not what Jesus is commanding here. The Greek word for disciples is mathetes, meaning a student or committed learner. The two English words, make disciples, are actually summed up in one Greek word, matheteuo, which is in the imperative form in Greek – imperative meaning it is absolutely necessary, or a command. It also points to the words “make disciples” as the central focus of the sentence. The people to be made into disciples are every ethnos, or people group.
So Christ, based on his absolute authority, is telling us it is absolutely necessary that we go make committed learners of every people group. That hardly sounds like some passive action, or a suggestion.
But Jesus isn’t done yet. He goes on to describe what this disciple making will include. First, we will baptize these new believers in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Then we will teach them. What we’ll teach them is to obey or observe everything he commanded, through his words while on earth and through his revelations to Paul and other writers of the New Testament. In Greek, the word commanded carries the connotation that we are aware of the purpose of the commands – in other words, we don’t just obey blindly, but we do so because we know the purposes behind them. Again, there is an all-inclusive word here – we are to obey everything he commanded; not just the things we like or we approve of, but everything he told us to do.
The magnitude of conveying everything Jesus commanded, including the purposes behind them, indicates more than a one-time contact with someone. It requires more than a casual relationship with someone. It is an ongoing teaching process, one that Jesus took three years to accomplish with his disciples. But many of the early disciples took longer – Silas and Barnabas spent years pouring into Paul, who then spent years pouring into Luke and Timothy and Titus and others.
But just making disciples wasn’t the end goal. The end goal is to make disciples who make more disciples. After all, Jesus told us to obey everything he commanded, and one of those commands is to make disciples. So our disciples will have to obey that command as well.
His final words were to make disciples – to continue teaching what he’d taught to others, who would in turn teach others, who would teach others, throughout history.
Note also that making disciples is not listed among the gifts of the spirit. The gifts of the spirit are those special abilities that the Holy Spirit has endowed on some, but not all Christians. They are to be used together to build the body of the church. Among the gifts that some, but not all, Christians have are prophecy, teaching, hospitality, even evangelism. But discipleship isn’t listed because it is expected of all believers. It’s not something special endowed to just a few, but a command entrusted to all believers.
When Jesus came to the end of his time on earth, when it came time for him to say one last thing, to give one last command, to in essence to sum up everything he’d been saying all along, he chose to say this. It wasn’t to build big churches, to sing beautiful songs, to develop outstanding church programs, it wasn’t even to simply evangelize. No, his final words were to make disciples – to continue teaching what he’d taught to others, who would in turn teach others, who would teach others, throughout history.
The question now is, will we accept Jesus’ authority? Do we believe that Jesus has the right to tell us what to do? If so, are we willing to take action? Are we willing to enter into the long, involved process of making disciples rather than sitting in church letting words wash over us?
Perhaps the better question is, What authority do we have that exceeds Jesus’ authority to not do what he has commanded?