What Is the Great Commission?

It’s time to go back to the basics of missions and measure our methods, techniques, and tactics by the foundational principles of Christ’s command.

Every year at the start of pre-season training, the great football coach Vince Lombardi would gather his team and begin with the most elementary principles of the game.

Standing before seasoned professionals who had spent countless hours studying the playbooks and playing the game, he would begin: “Gentleman, this is a football.”

By analogy, this what we as Christians must do with the Great Commission. The Great Commission is so basic and foundational to the missionary task that oftentimes we brush over its full meaning and assume we know and understand it. Let this article serve as our back-to-the-core moment: “Brothers and sisters, this is the Great Commission.”

The Great Commission is our biblical mandate for missions, most commonly referring to Matthew 28:18-20:

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.”

An Announcement of Authority

The Great Commission contains three foundational principles. First, it was given by Jesus himself after his resurrection. He begins his commission by announcing his authority: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (v. 18). Jesus possesses this authority as a result of his death and resurrection. This self-evident point can often be overlooked. While he holds supreme authority as the eternal Son of God, and he had authority in his earthly life before the cross, the authority he claims here was given to him through accomplishing redemption and becoming the established head of the church. It is the kingly authority he holds as one crowned in resurrection glory. He proclaimed the kingdom during his earthly life, won the kingdom by his death and resurrection, and now builds the kingdom through the conversion of the lost and the salvation of many. The Great Commission is better seen as the King’s Commission.

 ‘Go,’ or ‘As You Are Going’?

Second, the Lord commands us to go (Matthew 28:19). Sometimes you’ll hear that the grammar in this verse is debated. I can remember listening to sermons in which the pastor suggested that the Greek verb “to go” is a participle that should be translated “as you are going.” Many a well-meaning preacher has bungled the grammar to make an admittedly good point that making disciples should be something we do all the time, “as we are going” about our daily lives. While this is a fine application on its own, it is neither the point of this text nor faithful to the Greek grammar. In Greek, there is a well-known grammatical construction in which a participle (“as you are going”) followed by an imperative (“make disciples”) should be understood as two imperatives. Using this construction, Matthew is telling us that Jesus commanded two things: (1) go, and (2) make disciples.

The commission from our King instructs us to go out and take the message of the gospel to all nations. Throughout Matthew’s gospel, “nations” are highlighted as those people outside of Israel for whom God has a heart and will send a means of salvation (Matthew 4:15; 6:32; 10:5; 12:18; 21:43; 24:14, 25:32). In parallel passages to Matthew 28, both Luke 24:47 and Acts 1:8 communicate the expectation that the gospel is to go to the nations, and Mark 16:15 records Jesus’ command to go into all the world and preach the gospel (though the textural criticism on this passage is debated). Jesus is calling us to go and make disciples everywhere and among every people group.

In the Old Testament, Israel was strategically located in the geographical center of ancient empires like the Hittites, Egyptians, Assyrians, and Babylonians. In this way, she shone as a light to the nations. Just by virtue of her location, people could travel through the land on ancient trade routes, and, if she was being faithful, hear about the true and living God. A great example of this appears in 1 Kings 10, when the Queen of Sheba heard of Solomon’s renown and traveled up to Jerusalem.

The redemption accomplished through Jesus’ death and resurrection, however, means that rather than the nations coming to God’s people in God’s land, God’s people within the church are to spread out into the nations.

Jesus does not envision the disciples staying where they are and simply letting the world pass through their region and encounter churches. Jesus commands that the disciples now go outward and take to the nations all that he has preached and taught. While building and growing churches where we live is important, the King’s commission is that we continue to go. We are to find places where the gospel has not yet spread and take it there, make disciples, and plant churches. We find this same longing in the Apostle Paul when he writes, “thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation” (Romans 15:20). The King’s commission entails the clear command: “Go.”

Discipling the Nations

Third, the Great Commission commands us to make disciples of all nations. It is worth noting that the commission does not say “evangelize the nations” but “make disciples.” Of course, disciple making entails evangelism (Acts 14:21), but the task of disciple making does not finish when someone professes faith in the Lord Jesus (Acts 14:22). We must proclaim the gospel and continue beyond merely soliciting belief if we are to be faithful to the Great Commission. Unfortunately, many godly evangelists and revivalists have limited their role in the Great Commission to crusade events that blow through town, giving little to no instruction to would-be disciples beyond “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.” Yet faithfulness to the Great Commission is exemplified in diverse aspects of the call: for example, Paul plants churches and Apollos waters them (1 Corinthians 3:6). Watering and cultivating the local church are as much a part of the Great Commission as the itinerant evangelist who plants gospel seeds.

The ministries of missionaries, pastors, and churches must seek to reach the lost and proclaim the gospel through pervasive proclamation and build up and strengthen believers in the church through careful instruction in the Word of God (1 Timothy 4:2, 5).

As Matthew 28:19-20 continues, Jesus describes the means by which we make disciples: baptizing and teaching. These actions entail a holistic ministry that is concerned with both reaching the lost and rooting and grounding believers in all the instructions that the Lord has given. The ministries of missionaries, pastors, and churches must seek to reach the lost and proclaim the gospel through pervasive proclamation and build up and strengthen believers in the church through careful instruction in the Word of God (1 Timothy 4:2, 5). It is not a mystery then why Paul in his missionary journeys often circled back to churches he planted in order to build them up (Acts 14:21-22; 15:41; 19:21; 20:1-3; 1 Corinthians 16:5).   

Nicaraguan Pastor Napoleon Meneses talks with a family who attends his church. Photo: Ken Robinson
Baptism as Public Profession

In the New Testament, baptism is closely associated with one’s profession of faith. While one does not need to be baptized to be saved, the biblical example demonstrates that a public profession of faith made at baptism serves as a sign and symbol of the union with Christ obtained when we place our faith and trust in him. Remember, new believers in the ancient world did not “walk the aisle” or “fill out the contact card” to indicate a profession of faith. Instead, baptism functioned as the outward indicator of the inward change experienced through faith in Christ. Through baptism, a new believer testifies of Christ’s work in their life: “Through faith alone, in Christ alone, I have died to my sin, being crucified with Christ and receiving resurrection life in my heart, so I am no longer under condemnation, nor a slave to my sin (Romans 6:4-7). Christ is my Lord, not sin (Romans 6:11-12, 22-23).”

Profession and confession are crucial for true disciples:

“[B]ecause, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” (Romans 10:9-10).

While a person may confess their faith in Christ privately in their heart, Jesus makes clear that salvation should be evidenced publicly by joining the people of God in a local church and claiming him as Lord via baptism. It is equally important to remember that baptism flowing out of a confession of faith does not signal the end of the discipleship journey, but the beginning.

[B]aptism flowing out of a confession of faith does not signal the end of the discipleship journey, but the beginning.

The Content of Our Teaching Matters

The second means by which we make disciples is through “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). Unfortunately, some modern missions methodologies assert that we should just invite people to read the Bible and try to obey the commands of Jesus before they decide to trust and confess him as Lord. This is the gravest of errors. It amounts to loading people with heavy burdens (Matthew 23:4) instead of first calling them to come and find rest in Jesus, whose burdens are light and is a balm to our soul (Matthew 11:28-30; 12:20).

The content of our teaching must begin with the gospel. The King’s commands to “go” and “make disciples” means that we are calling people to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, to receive forgiveness of sins, and to experience redemption in Christ. If we are not teaching that Jesus is Savior and Lord and calling people to faith and repentance, we are not fulfilling the Great Commission and we have no business going into all the world.

Once we have new believers, fulfilling the Great Commission means that we must continue to teach them all that Christ has commanded us. We must strive to bring to them the whole counsel of God’s Word. As Paul charged Timothy, the pastor of the fledging church of Ephesus, we must “preach the Word in season and out of season” (1 Timothy 4:1-2). Gathering for worship, strengthening the saints, taking communion as a church body, listening to Scripture-centered sermons, and communally praising God in song are all aspects of making disciples.

Likewise, making disciples includes teaching people the doctrines of Scripture, like Christology (who Jesus is), justification by faith (our righteous standing with God), and sanctification (our growth in righteous living). It incorporates training in spiritual disciples, such as prayer and personal Bible reading, as well as how to love one another and how to faithfully keep Jesus’ instruction.

Sometimes in our culture, we glamorize the missionary like the Apostle Paul who pioneers gospel ministry in a new location, considering him to be the only one fulfilling the Great Commission, but forget that the Apollos-type person who follows to water the new believers is doing just as much to fulfill the Great Commission. This division of labor remains an integral part of fulfilling God’s one commission, and is, in part, why God has given a diversity of gifts to the body.

Back to the Basics of Missions

There is a simplicity to the Great Commission. We are to go. We are to make disciples.

It is also crystal clear how we are to do this. We are to baptize, and we are to teach. Throughout church history, the elements of baptism, serving communion, and preaching or teaching the Word have been often termed “the ordinary means of grace.” This phrase referred to the fact that if we are faithful to these most basic tasks—that are actually quite simple—God will bless the work, the Holy Spirit will bring salvation, and disciples will be made and grow. God has clearly and specifically revealed the empowered tools he has given us to get the job done.  

Brothers and sisters, this is “the football” of missions. Like new players intently studying the massive playbooks of a football franchise, we can get so swept up in methods, techniques, and tactics that we inadvertently set aside the most basic elements of our task: those non-negotiables that God has given to spread the gospel and grow the church. The Great Commission gives us both the what—“go and make disciples”—and the how—“baptize and teach.” If we are going to be Great Commission thinkers and practitioners, it is time we go back to the basics and measure all our efforts, methods, and practices by these fundamental and foundational metrics.

Tim Bertolet

Tim Bertolet serves with ABWE as Director of Instructional Design and Theological Education. He’s served in pastoral ministry for sixteen years and knows the life of an MK firsthand. With a Ph.D. in New Testament Studies from the University of Pretoria, and degrees from Westminster Theological Seminary and Lancaster Bible College, he specializes in Bible and theology and is passionate about applying it to life and ministry. Tim’s also an adjunct professor, research fellow with BibleMesh, and a published author. Tim lives in York, Pa. with his wife and kids. He enjoys reading, writing, science fiction, and gardening roses.