The Great Commission may be the most abused title given to any teaching in Scripture. Sadly, this stems from a lack of understanding what commission truly means. The synonyms for commission are: command, directive, instruction, charge or contract. While these words are synonyms, they also communicate some very specific things about the Great Commission. However, in today’s modern church culture, the Great Commission has become less a command and more a suggestion.
One cannot not help but wonder how those who decided what the sub-headings should be; determined to use of the phrase the Great Commission. Furthermore, there is no way that those erudite scholars didn’t know the message they wanted to send. I believe, from years of observation, that the broader church has misunderstood the use of the phrase Great Commission. Subsequently, this misapprehension of the word has led to massive confusion.
Additionally, I believe that there is something powerfully profound in the Great Commission that isn’t given a passing thought. As I stated in a previous article (My Confession), the elders and pastors of most churches are failing in a key area. They don’t seem to recognize the need to instruct their flocks on the necessity of the Great Commission. Furthermore, this failure flows out of a lack of understanding what is at the root of the Great Commission.
The Power Behind The Great Commission
Throughout the Gospels Jesus is often approached and questioned by the Scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees. Perhaps the most poignant of these interactions takes place when Christ is approached and asked which is the greatest of commandments. The questioners are expecting Jesus to pick one of the ten. Moreover, they think they have Him in a carefully laid trap.
If Jesus answers incorrectly He proves Himself a false-teacher. Furthermore, any attempt He would make to explain an incorrect answer would drive His disciples away. However, Jesus is on to them. Christ can’t be that easily wrangled.
Jesus answers them, but not just with a single response; He leads them into their own trap. “The greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength.” He goes on, “And the second is like it, love your neighbor as yourself.” But He isn’t done, “In these are all the law and the prophets.”
These enemies of Christ are caught. Jesus has them in their own trap. He has effectively proven that not one commandment is greater than the other. Furthermore, Jesus has established the continuation of the Eternal Moral Law of God for all believers in the New Testament. At the same time, He has banished all the legalistic law keeping of the Pharisees. He’s proven them inadequate to the challenge. He has established the power that drives the Great Commission.
Paul Exposits The Two Great Commandments
Many times, as I have read Paul’s words to the church in Philippi, I have been struck by a thought. Paul is reproving the people in Philippi and he says to them, “Do not look out for your own interest, but look out for the interest of others. Esteem them more highly than yourselves.”
What is Paul saying here? I am convinced that Paul is hearkening back to Jesus’ words to His would-be adversaries. “These two sum up all the law and the prophets.”
“Look,” Paul says, “The law commands that you love God above all else. Furthermore, God commands you to love others more than you love yourself.”
Isn’t that what it means to esteem others more than you esteem yourself? What is the word esteem? It means to revere or honor or regard. It can really be understood as placing in a position of great honor, as if on a pedestal. The natural bent of the human heart is to esteem self above even God, not to mention other people. Paul is correcting that in his epistle to the church in Philippi.
Yet, how do we understand what it means to esteem others more than ourselves? We must look at what God has taught us. And that is what Jesus was teaching in his summation of the law and the prophets. He was telling us that love for God and neighbor is our highest motivation for righteous conduct.
If we are loving God and neighbor properly, we will not murder others. We will not steal from others. Furthermore, all our actions towards others will be sacrificial and self-debasing. Isn’t the model that Christ laid out with His life? He allowed Himself to be humiliated throughout His entire life for our sakes.
The Audience And Intent Of The Great Commission
What was it that our Lord and Savior was saying to us in the Great Commission? Just what was He communicating to His disciples, then and now? Furthermore, how did those hearing His words understand them?
As we read Holy Writ, especially the New Testament, we are faced with two fundamental ways of understanding each passage. When can read them as descriptive or prescriptive. However, it isn’t up to us to decide which passage is read which way. The surrounding context of each passage determines our interpretation of the passage and how we understand it.
Subsequently, when we read, “That which you do go and do quickly” it may read like a command, but it isn’t for us. This interpretive motif is the very cornerstone of understanding Scripture. It is this building-block that prevents us from misusing passages and verses to suit our own ends. Additionally, if we labored to understand this correctly, we would not abuse many passages. Consider Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” and how terribly that verse is misused. It is this method that keeps us from misunderstanding the thief on the cross and making it a prescriptive text.
And that is how we are to approach the Great Commission. Who is it being said to? What is being commanded? Does it apply to anyone other than the original audience?
The audience of the Great Commission were the gathered disciples. The intent of the Great Commission was to leave the audience with a command. Furthermore, that command was to be passed on from that original group of disciples to all the subsequent disciples to follow. Moreover, all disciples are to make more disciples and teach them all Christ commanded.
The Root of the Great Commission
It is imperative that we understand that the Great Commission is not devoid of a category. Christ is explicit in His words to the original audience. “Teach them all that I have commanded you.” Christ is pointing back at something here and we would be remiss if we didn’t look at it carefully.
All Christ’s earthly ministry was teaching His disciples over and over again. Additionally, He taught the same things in varied ways. How often do we read Christ saying some variation of “Do you not yet understand?” This is indicative of a certain righteous exasperation that they couldn’t get certain things through their thick skulls.
Furthermore, Christ had summed up, in a rather succinct way, the Eternal Moral Law of God . Jesus taught this constantly. He taught it in the Sermon on the mount. He taught it when He answered the question about the greatest of commandments. The core group of disciples that were constantly around Jesus knew what it was to love God and love others. There was no escaping it.
So, on that day, as He prepares to ascend to His rightful place beside His Father, Jesus leaves the disciples with one final summation of His entire earthly teaching. “Go into the whole world. Preach the Gospel to all people. Make disciples. Teach them all I have commanded you.”
The disciples got it right away. They knew this was a command. Furthermore, they knew that the command was built on the foundation of the two greatest commands. They knew that they were to instruct new believers in what it meant to love God and others. It was unavoidable. There was not a chance there would be any confusion.
The root of the Great Commission? The law and the prophets…
The Great Commission Embodies The Great Commandments
In several places we learn that we are known by our fruit. The Bible speaks of the fruit of salvation and the fruit of spirit and fruit in keeping with repentance. Fruit is a powerful analogy because it is readily understood by even the simplest of folks. Bad fruit is bad to eat. A tree with bad fruit needs to be destroyed. Ahhh! Yet, so does a tree that bears no fruit. And when Christ taught these things His audience understood.
Jesus wasn’t just leaving behind a suggestion with the Great Commission. He was commanding His disciples to bear fruit. His teaching was about heart change. The bitter rotten heart hates the law. Yet, the converted heart, loves the law of God and considers it like honey on the lips. The disciples knew this when Jesus commanded them to go into the whole world preaching the Gospel and making disciples.
There was no doubt that they knew this was an imperative. It was something they had to do. Moreover, they knew that to fail to keep this command was a great and bitter sin. It would demonstrate a lack of fruit at best, and at worst, rotten fruit.
The clearest and most poignant way for any follower of Christ to demonstrate that they love God and love others, is to obey the Great Commission. You cannot end run around this. There is no loop-hole clause that dismisses your culpability. Name one other command, embodied in love God, and love others, that you can break, and not be in sin.
I will wait…
The Conclusion Of The Matter
I know this seems heavy. It is incredibly uncomfortable even writing it out. Yet, it needs saying. Failing to obey the Great Commission is sin. Furthermore, it breaks all of the commandments at once.
Certainly, we are not all going to obey the commandment of the Great Commission in the same way. A mother with children may spend all of her Great Commission time preaching the Gospel to her children. A man with an unconverted spouse may invest the brunt of his energy in executing the Great Commission in the presence of that spouse. Some may fulfill it by going out into the world through foreign missions. Still others may be local missionaries in their own communities.
Some of the work of the Great Commission will take place through deeply personal relationships. Some of it may be through the advancement of the Gospel in a brief interaction with a stranger. The point I am trying to make is that each believer WILL engage in the making of disciples through the preaching of the Gospel in varied ways.
However, know this, if you are not actively obedient to the command of the Great Commission you are sinning against God and neighbor. In short, my conclusion is that the Great Commission is a summary of the two Great Commands. Again, which command can you disobey and still be displaying love for both God and neighbor…?
Soli Deo Gloria!