I literally cannot count the number of times (bad memory? too few fingers?) I heard sermons on Matthew 28:18-20 in my early adulthood. Every missions conference, every year, there was at least one urgent exhortation to “Go—go, don’t stay!—and make disciples of all nations!”
I remember, too, some more nuanced conversations around this “Great Commission” given by Jesus. Did the “go” mean “go!” as in a command to get off your duff and head out into the hinterlands to make disciples? Or did the “go” mean “as you go,” meaning “as you go about your daily lives” make disciples? In other words, do we all have to be missionaries in Africa, or can I stay home?
I also remember some conversations around how exactly we were to “make disciples.” The general gist?
We make disciples by sharing the gospel with people, that is, sharing the good news that Jesus died to take the punishment for their sins and so, if they simply confess their sins and believe Jesus died for them in this way, they can be forgiven by God and have the assurance of eternal life in heaven. This would be followed at some point by baptism, of course—the “baptizing them” clause of the Great Commission.
And then there is to be some “follow-up” to this evangelism. After they’ve made a decision for Jesus, after they have accepted Jesus into their hearts, they should go to church and read their Bibles and pray and strive to live a godly life by God’s grace and power. Ideally someone mentors them in all this. This is the “teaching them” clause of the Great Commission.
At some point, however, this way of understanding the Great Commission didn’t cut it for me. I read and studied the Gospel of Matthew as a whole, and I realized Matthew’s Great Commission didn’t mean what my evangelical guides had taught me it meant.
If sharing that particular version of the gospel is so important for fulfilling the Great Commission, why isn’t that actually stated? (And while we’re on the topic, why isn’t that “penal substitution” version of the gospel found in any of the evangelistic sermons in Acts? or in any of the summary descriptions of the “gospel” anywhere in the New Testament, for that matter?)
What makes baptism the important marker for new Christ-followers in Matthew’s Gospel and not a “decision” or “conversion”? (Pro tip: go back to Matthew’s account of John’s baptism, including John’s baptism of Jesus, and see how that shapes what “baptism” signifies in Matthew’s Gospel. One hint: “repentance” is different than mere “confession.”)
The “teaching them” is qualified by “to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Sure, in Matthew’s Gospel this includes church participation (yes, “church”), prayer, and living in righteousness. But what about all the other things Jesus teaches in Matthew, that are all part of the “everything” Jesus commanded? (Like those uncomfortable bits about hungering for justice, showing mercy, building peace, not retaliating, loving enemies, not serving wealth, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and generally seeking God’s kingdom and justice first.)
And, most importantly, how does this understanding of the Great Commission fit with what Jesus has to say in Matthew’s Gospel about being a “disciple”? (Like that bit about denying yourself and taking up your cross and following Jesus if you want to be his disciple…)
As I asked and answered these questions for myself, I came to the conclusion that modern Christians—and especially evangelical, evangelizing Christians—had made the Great Commission into their own image. The Great Commission means “go and make modern evangelical Christians who will make more evangelical Christians, thus perpetuating evangelicalism unto the end of the age.”
Okay, maybe that’s a bit cynical. But you get my drift.
The Great Commission doesn’t call us to “make decisions for Jesus.” Jesus doesn’t care if we say the right words in the right way—many call him “Lord” but don’t do what he says, or they babble senselessly in prayer. “Decisions for Jesus” and “sinner’s prayers” are meaningless markers, in and of themselves. Stop counting “decisions.”
The Great Commission doesn’t call us to “make converts to Christianity.” Jesus doesn’t care if we call ourselves “Christians” and fit into the religion we call “Christianity”—or “Evangelicals” or “Anabaptists” or “Catholics” or “Mennonites” or whatever. He himself was a practicing Jew. He didn’t come to found a new religion. Stop making converts to your special version of religion.
Rather, the Great Commission calls us to “make disciples of Jesus,” people who will follow the resurrected Jesus in his cross-shaped footsteps, expressing their devoted love of God through their committed, compassionate, peacemaking, justice-seeking love of others—neighbours, strangers, and enemies alike, and especially the last, the least, and the lost in our world.