Have you heard of the Great Commission?
In the last paragraph of his gospel, Matthew wrote:
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.”
If you pay attention to grammar, you might notice there are four verb forms in that passage: go, make disciples, baptize, and teach. Only one of those is what my high school English teachers would have called the main action verb. It is the word which gives direction to this commission. And, no, it isn’t go.
The main thrust is make disciples.
In this sense, a disciple is basically a student who commits to following a teacher, learning from that teacher, then carrying on the work of that teacher. In modern society, we might see this in the trade unions, where a worker begins as an apprentice, advances up the ladder to master craftsman and then takes on his or her own apprentices.
Isn’t that a great picture of what it means to be a Jesus-follower? We see it biblically in the lives of those very disciples who first heard that commission. They met Jesus through a variety of circumstances. They committed themselves to following, helping, and working together with Him. They learned by doing as He began sending them out to do it on their own. At the point of this passage in Matthew, the disciples were ready to carry on the work of proclaiming salvation as Jesus returned to heaven.
This is what we want to see in missions.
But we can’t stop there. We can’t be content to just present the gospel and bring people to the point of following Jesus. Neither can we be content with just seeing these new believers grow as individuals. If we stop there, we have created a situation where we have to re-evangelize every succeeding generation.
That’s why I consider the last two verbs of the Commission to be so important to the entire passage. Going gets us where we need to be; making disciples starts the process which leads into the next verbs.
Jesus told His that first generation of disciples to baptize and teach.
Throughout the book of Acts, which is the history of the first generation of churches, we note that baptism goes hand-in-hand with believing. Time after time, the word goes out “repent and be baptized.” Baptism, in that first century, as now, is a public identification with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In a very real sense, baptism was also incorporation into the body of Christ, which is the church. No, not necessarily a specific local church or denomination as it might be now, but identification with and incorporation into the body that includes all believers, of all time, everywhere.
Through the book of Acts and the epistles, we also see local bodies of believers, with specifically-gifted people raised up to watch over, guide, and teach those people who identified with them. These bodies became associated with specific towns and cities, such as Philippi and Ephesus. In time, the size of these city-wide churches grew so large that smaller bodies (local churches) formed themselves, sometimes identified by the private homes in which they met for prayer and worship.
The final verb Jesus gave was teach. As He had taught His disciples, they were to teach the next generation, and so on and so on . . . right up until our generation today. That first generation of disciples, directed by the Holy Spirit, collected and recorded the words of our Lord, then often explained them in culturally relevant and understandable ways to the many people who came into the church. As these writings (i.e. Paul’s letters) were compiled and shared, the local churches became the centers of this teaching.
It would be so easy now for me to rabbit trail into a church history lecture or discuss the function of the local church. But that’s not what I’m presenting today.
Think. instead to the Great Commission as a process, rather than a series of commands. The process begins when those who know Christ go to those who don’t, wherever they might be. Having gone, we find ways to communicate the gospel, help people to make real, conscious decisions to believe in Christ for salvation and then to commit themselves to follow him throughout their lives. As people come to Christ, we bring them together into local churches which guide and teach, helping believers live and mature according to the teaching Jesus gave directly and then the Holy Spirit gave through the writings we know as the New Testament.
If we do this right and well, these same churches will send the next general of missionaries, who will make disciples, organize local churches, train leaders, etc., etc.
Does this work? You’re here, aren’t you? You, dear reader, are a product of your church, which was born from another church, which was born from another . . . No matter where we start, no matter our church or denominational affiliation, no matter our race or nationality, if we trace our spiritual family trees, we will all find ourselves together 2000 years ago on a Palestinian hillside with Jesus, hearing Him say, “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.”
Let’s keep this process moving ahead and actually get it done.