what is the great commission?

I guess you could call a lot of things about the story of the life of Jesus great. His coming was great. His miracles were great. His baptism was great. His compassion was great. His death was great. His resurrection was great. Great doesn’t necessarily mean grand or fun to look at or posh or attractive. Great can also mean of significant consequence. 

For instance, “The Great Commandment” is what Christians have entitled Jesus’ declaration that loving God and loving people are the most important elements of the law. There’s also what Christians have called His “last words,” so to speak. Found in Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus affirms His authority and asserts His intentions for the ongoing mission of His followers. He commands those who follow Him to make disciples as they are going throughout life, teaching and baptizing, living His teachings while teaching them to others and calling those others to the same public commitment. These three verses have been a stalwart of protestant evangelical promotions since the days that the “re-baptized” took an involuntary swim in the rivers across Europe. These three verses have been called “The Great Commission.”

Jesus commissioned His followers with a purpose and focus for their everyday living. They were to learn and live the ways of Jesus together, encouraging others to follow Jesus and learn and live His ways together, so that others would follow Jesus and learn and live His ways together, and so on. That is how the movement Jesus called the “church” would go on, for quite some time, and continue through today. And that is why that commission is so great, because it is so central and so significant to the mission of the people who follow Jesus together, known as the church. 

There has been one very impactful flaw, in my opinion, in the promotion and follow-through of this Great Commission in the last 100-plus years or so. At least in baptist life, which is the base of my background in church culture. That flaw? What baptists have made synonomous with “The Great Commission.”

I have heard three synonyms. “The Great Commission” is “missions.” “The Great Commission” is “evangelism.” “The Great Commission” is “discipleship.” Of these three, I would suggest that the latter holds truer to the Matthew 28 text than the two former synonyms. However, as I wrote about in a previous post, even that latter one to me is lacking. The bottom line _ The Great Commission is simply to “make disciples.”

I have always appreciated how my dad has taught this word “disciple.” He is a Greek scholar. You wouldn’t know. He doesn’t flaunt it. Ask those who have known him at New Orleans Baptist Seminary. They’ll tell you. That way you will know it’s not just his biased son. Anyway, he has always emphasized that the word literally means “learner.” Thus, the definition for “discipling” that I gave above. 

And that is “The Great Commission” – discipling. Locally and globally, as we go, 168 hours per week. Living sent daily.

Earlier today, a friend of mine tweeted this message:

mtg with NAMB’s task force looking at how to promote the Great Commission among and in our churches.

It struck me in such a way that it prompted me to “direct message” him a few thoughts. He probably thought I was stalking him, because I sent six messages in a row. However, you can only type 140 characters or less on Twitter. So, really, it wasn’t that long. 

Nonetheless, here is what I direct messaged to him. 

Hey bro, I would suggest to start by redefining “The Great Commission” emphatically as discipling rather than missions, evangelism, or discipleship. No offense, but if NAMB thinks that local churches don’t promote “The Great Commission,” then they are out of touch. It’s what they are promoting AS “The Great Commission” that needs to be addressed. A construct shift. 

I would suggest that the promotion needs to focus on a construct shift, or the result will be no different than before. Once the construct is shifted, the values and behaviors will follow. In that effort, here are three possible emphases to include in the promotion:

  1. As already stated, “The Great Commission” is discipling. Let’s unpack that for people. The GPS promotion is a valiant effort, but do we really think pastors are going to select that piece of mail as the one not to toss in the trash can among the stack of junk mail that sits on the desk? It’s going to take more than mail, no offense to the author of the GPS stuff. It’s going to take actually “going.” It’s going to take ongoing “teaching” through relationship. Kind of like what Jesus emphasized in “The Great Commission” – as you are going, make disciples. I suggest that people will “learn” (as they are discipled) that kind of everywhere and anyone mentality if it is taught to and modeled for them in coaching. The result will be a rethinking of and a renewal of “The Great Commission.”
  2. Furthermore, “The Great Commission” is AWD. That’s “all wheel drive.” It’s on all the time. You don’t switch it on. You don’t turn it off. It’s not like “four wheel drive.” It’s “all wheel drive.” All the time.
  3. Further-furthermore, if we are going to carry out “The Great Commission,” we may have to change where we are “going.” If our “as we are going” never takes us into the midst of the culture that church sub-culture tends to so heavily criticize and separate from, then we will not make disciples. Both among the church and among culture at large, we need to allow people to become. Jesus did. Met them right where they were. Did life with them there. Told them and showed them He was their friend. Then laid down His life to prove it (John 15:13). He told us to love people in the same way.

“Evangelism” is still important. Being messengers of the “good news” is a part of discipling, because discipling includes “pre-conversion” relationships and people who don’t follow Jesus observing the love of those who do. “Missions” is still important. Going all over the world to love people and share with them the “good news” of Jesus and serve them wherever they are is a part of discipling, because discipling includes “as we are going” both locally and globally. “Discipleship” as it is called is a part of “discipling,” because teaching followers of Jesus more and more about His ways is a “post-conversion” element of discipling. It’s interesting, because some of you reading this equate “discipling” with “discipleship,” but Jesus didnt. He never divided these concepts up. Never spoke of them in three different ways.

When I think of “discipling” as Jesus used the word, it involved all three. Most importantly, it involves doing life together with both people who don’t follow Jesus and people who do, living the teachings of Jesus at all times in love and speaking the teachings of Jesus when prompted to do so in conversation. To emphasize one of those three is not “The Great Commission.” To emphasize only one of those three would not be true to how Jesus taught discipling. Therefore, it would be lacking His intent to emphasize just one of those three as “The Great Commission.” So, the synonym for “The Great Commission” is “discipling.”

What would you suggest that the synonym for “the Great Commission” is? What would you suggest needs to be done to promote it? Please leave your thoughts.

I guess I am passionate about this, since this is my 2nd “southern baptist” post in like two weeks. I hear the talk of the “Great Commission Resurgence.” Here’s the thing. If baptists are going have a “Great Commission Resurgence,” then we may need to start by giving adequate time promoting what “The Great Commission” actually is.

7 thoughts on “what is the great commission?

  1. I mostly agree with you, and since I’m not scholar, and don’t have a father who was one, I’m afraid I can’t tear the Greek apart to make my case. I’m not SBC either, so that helps. But anyway, I would say that you are very correct in saying that the Great Commission is about making learners, or disciples.

    However, we can’t forget that Christ, in Acts 1, expanded the “all nations” thought to include the three main areas of the world (Jerusalem, Judea/Samaria, all the world). I would think then, that missions plays a huge role.

    As far as promoting it, I think that we need to train the individual church member/goer that they need to do it themselves. Too many people think that you have to have a degree or be an ordained minister to disciple/teach. This isn’t true.

    Again, I’m young and I don’t have all that much training yet, but this seems right to me. Thanks for your post!

    • Hey Dan! Thanks for commenting. Sorry if the dad is a scholar thing came across as arrogant. Wasn’t my intent. You probably are helped not being SBC. That’s funny.

      Please read the post again. You and a few others mentioned some things that made me realize I had not communicated well my opinion that “discipling” encompasses all three of the other used synonyms. I try to explain in two extra paragraphs I added. Let me know if you agree. The other post I mention I think explains that, as well.

      I completely agree with you about the everyday “church member.” Discipling is the command for every follower. I actually write about this in a writing project I just completed. Check it out at http://www.LiveSent.com.

      Look forward to more dialogue. Thanks.

      • Hey, no worries on the fatherly thing! I would have loved to have had a father who was a Greek scholar! But instead I learned how to farm…kind of. Anyway, I didn’t think you were being arrogant. I would say it’s a great use of a resource.

        Thank you for clearing up your position a little more. Since I’m just now in seminary, I’m still learning how I feel about things like this. I’ve been actively doing most of it, unofficially, on the USS Antietam, where I am stationed, but as far as the theory goes, I’m still working it out.

        Thank you for your resource also. I’ll look it over as soon as I can!

  2. Jason, you are in the bullseye. If we don’t change the construct, we keep getting what we’ve been getting and that is not disciples. It is taking someone with us as we follow Him and discipling all the time as we live among and interact with the culture. That is what Jesus did. Seems like when Jesus called Matthew there was a gathering at Matthew’s house with a bunch of tax gatherer types, and when he encountered Zaccheus, He went home with him. He did that as He was going in the natural flow of life in the culture He came to love, redeem and draw to Himself. I think that is what He wants us to do.

  3. I thought about this very topic closely the last few days. I see it starts when God was first seeking us. He spent the first part of history with a heart for us to want to live. Ezekial 18:23,32. Then he sent Jesus to seek us out with the same heart. Then he taught and made disciples and traveled all over to show the disciples who he was and give them an understanding of how to disciple. Then in Matthew 28:18-20 he passes the baton, so to speak, to his disciples. When he sent the holy spirit to be our guide we became the seekers. The ones commissioned to seek the lost, hungry and downtrodden. We are, as the church, to teach each other and go out with each other from our homes and offer to others the opportunity to be a seeker. I am most convicted when I realize I am reconciled with God but yet unwilling to help others to find their way to the same reconciliation.

    Living sent.

    • Great word Brad. That God has included us as both the recipient and participant in His mission is mind-boggling. He writes us into His meta-narrative, and it is a beautiful story amidst a world of self-absorbed chaos that continues to unfold. Let’s keep living sent together, remembering whose we are and from where we’ve come.

  4. Jason,
    It seems this has been a topic all over the place the past couple of weeks because it is so vital to our lives as Christians. The issue is nothing that is being presented by SBC leaders or pastors seems to be practical. Walking through 1 Peter there is a lot of practical teaching about how living “good” in our daily lives promotes the sharing of “the excellencies of He who called you out of darkness and into His marvelous light.” Far too much of our teaching is filled with cute illustrations and far too little of practical biblical examples of how to “Live Sent.” But then again it all goes back to the disciplining and sadly it is this key aspect of it that is lacking. There is no longer the emphasis made on the learning, growing and showing. There has to be a shift of focus or a re-focusing or otherwise all these conversations end up being is academic. It’s also vital that those who are looking at how to reach culture actually live in it and not just in their “christian space capsules.”

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