In 2018, a Barna Group study found that about 51 percent of US churchgoers did not know the Great Commission.
Another 25 percent claimed to have heard of the Great Commission but couldn’t recall its meaning.
Today, such biblical illiteracy—even among professing believers—is hardly unexpected. But for swaths of US churchgoers to admit ignorance concerning their very mission on earth represents a particularly grievous crisis of discipleship.
The New Testament authors record Christ’s marching orders in multiple passages. Among them, Matthew’s account is chief:
“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’” (Matthew 28:18-20 ESV)
Yet even those who know and embrace these words can fall prey to common misunderstandings. Consider these common Great Commission missteps as you grapple with this familiar text.
1. Missing the Context
Jesus’ final address to his disciples doesn’t simply begin with the imperative “go.” His preamble is the foundation upon which the commission rests: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (v. 18).
With this statement, the risen Christ is identifying himself as the reigning Son of Man (Daniel 7:13-14), God’s anointed King (Psalm 2:6), and the ruler of the cosmos subduing his enemies (Psalm 110:1).
How dare we go into all the world and preach a gospel of grace deemed offensive by other religions and cultures? We can do so confidently because Jesus is not only our Lord but the Lord. If we do not begin our efforts with a sober recognition of Christ’s universal authority, we’ll buckle under the pressure of hostile nations.
A more literal rendering of verse 19 might read “disciple the nations[.]” We are not only called to convert individuals but to labor such that whole tribes, languages, and nations would obey Jesus.
We’re then told how: by baptizing and teaching. Both activities are carried out in the life of the church. Thus, to follow Jesus’ orders, we must gather in local congregations, submit to his Word, and practice the ordinances he provided. Both the end and means of this mission are corporate and not just individual in scope.
Though Jesus spoke these words directly to the 11 apostles, he was revealing his will to all his people henceforward. Woe to us if we only parse, exegete, and debate the meaning of his commission but fail to enact it.
May we each prayerfully seek to spend and be spent in this great task of discipling the nations through the Word of Christ.