I recently received an email from someone who has a friend who had a couple of points to make about the so-called Great Commission. She wants to know what I think.
- Since Jesus tells his followers to make disciples of all “nations” rather than of all “people”, what he means is something like “make Christians among all people groups”, not “make everybody a Christian”.
- The mission of Jesus is to redeem a people whose role in the world will be to ‘exemplify and manifest God’s characteristics “as a city on a hill”’. It is not, as Evangelicals would have us believe, to crowd as many people as possible into that city.
What I think is that this is basically right as far as it goes but that it doesn’t go far enough. The shift from mission as maximizing the number of saved individuals to mission as developing communities which, as she puts it, “enact God’s blessings of justice, peace, love, etc. on his behalf” is biblically appropriate and practically necessary—see, for example, “Fitting the baptism of John into the missional narrative”. But in my view this is still not dealing properly with the context.
So let’s look again at the Great Commission….
They worshipped Jesus
On the mountain in Galilee the disciples “worshipped” Jesus—not as God but as the one to whom God had given all authority, which would ultimately be the authority to judge and rule over the nations (cf. Matt. 26:64; Acts 17:31; Phil. 2:10-11).
Go and disciple the nations
In view of the status which Jesus now has and the apocalyptic expectation attached to it, the disciples are to go and “disciple (mathēteusate) the nations”, teaching them to do everything that Jesus commanded them. They are sent out to start communities that will indeed be cities set on hills. But they will be a sign not merely of “God’s characteristics” but of the coming eschatological transformation—or rather, they will be a sign of the God who is characterized by the fact that he is about to overturn the ancient pagan world. Their existence is story-bound.
Here’s an example…
Luke’s brief account of the ministry of Paul and Barnabas in Derbe gives a good indication of how the Great Commission worked out in practice (Acts 14:20-21). The apostles proclaim the good news to the city and disciple (mathēteusantes) many. That doesn’t tell us very much in itself, but throw in a bit of context and we have a much clearer picture of what was at stake.
Paul and Barnabas have just come from Lystra, where they had proclaimed the good news that “you should turn from these vain things”—that is, from the worship of pagan gods—”to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them” (Acts 14:15). The good news, in other words, is that something better than idolatry (and its disastrous ethical consequences: cf. Rom. 1:19-32) has at last been made available. (Notice that nothing is said about Jesus dying for their sins.)
Then the apostles go back to Lystra to encourage the people they have just discipled, telling them that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (14:22).
So becoming a disciple, in the perspective of the risen Jesus, involved a person 1) abandoning the worship of idols, 2) learning to worship the one God of Israel, and 3) suffering persecution until 4) he or she entered the kingdom of God. This is an apocalyptic narrative. Paul writes about the Thessalonians in exactly these terms: they have turned “from idols to serve the living and true God”, they suffer persecution, and they wait for Jesus to come from heaven to deliver them from the wrath to come (1 Thess. 1:6, 9-10).
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
The disciples are baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19). This is not a mere religious formula, meant to remind us that Christian theology is Trinitarian. It would have labelled very clearly the distinctive eschatological identity of those who were discipled with regard to the coming kingdom of God. People became disciples in the name of the Father who brought into existence communities of eschatological transformation; of the Son who had been given authority to judge and rule over the nations; and of the Spirit who gave life to and empowered these prophetic communities in the ancient world.
Until the completion of the age
The eschatological frame is finally reinforced by Jesus’ promise to be with his disciples “all the days, until the completion of the age” (Matt. 28:20). The “completion of the age” (tēs sunteleias tou aiōnos) does not mean the “end of the world”.
The phrase occurs in three other passages in Matthew. In the parable of the weeds (13:36-43) and the parable of the net (13:47-50) it refers to a coming temporal judgment on Israel. In Matthew 24:3 the “completion of the age” coincides with the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. In Hebrews 9:26 “completion of the ages” refers to the moment of transition from the old covenant to the new covenant, from a system of repeated sacrifices to the definitive atonement for the sins of Israel through the death of Jesus. This is naturally associated with the destruction of the temple.
Jesus promises to be with his disciples until their mission is fulfilled, which will be when Israel has been judged, when the reign of God over the ancient world has begun, when the Son has come from heaven (symbolically) to deliver his persecuted followers from their enemies, when the nations of the empire will bow the knee and confess that God has made Jesus Lord. Then their mission will have finished… and something else will have begun.
The Greater Commission
Where does that leave us? It leaves us having to deal with the continuing after-story of that eschatological transformation. Do we still have a Great Commission? Of course we do, just not the commission that Jesus entrusted to his disciples. We have a commission—in many ways a greater commission—to live as a righteous people of God, under Christ as King, in the power of the Spirit, subject always to grace, for the sake of the glory of the Creator.
That is not something that comes naturally. It has to be learned. So we still need to make disciples.