What Is the Great Commission?
Mark Vowels, CGO Director
This month, the Center for Global Opportunities blog will focus on the Great Commission. I’ll start with a post that seeks to answer the basic question “What is the Great Commission?” In the weeks that follow others will explore these questions:
Matthew 28:19-20 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." (ESV)
So, what is the Great Commission? The words of Jesus Christ to His followers on a hillside in Galilee that are recorded in Matthew 28:19-20 have been variously labeled over the years.
Some refer to it as a final command or last will and testament (although Jesus’ final words to his disciples came later in Jerusalem as recorded in Acts 1). Others call it such things as the “mandate on the mountain” or the “marching orders of the church.” But most commonly it is known as the Great Commission.
As I write this, my son is in Officer Candidate School for the United States Marine Corps. He has been serving as an enlisted Marine since 2011, but hopes to transition to being an officer as soon as he finishes his college degree. As soon as he graduates, he will receive a commission. That is to say, he will be given orders by the Marine Corps regarding his immediate and future activities.
Anyone in the military can tell you that being commissioned is a big deal. A commission represents responsibility. It signifies duty, trust, and loyalty.
The Great Commission constitutes Jesus’ orders to His disciples following His resurrection. It represents the climax of the book of Matthew (which was designed to manifest Jesus’ position and authority). It provided direction, both for his disciples and for all generations of Christians who follow, regarding how we must live out the hope of the Gospel – the message that Jesus died, was buried, and rose again to deliver us from our sin and to bring us into relationship with God.
Other commission statements by Jesus to his disciples are found in Mark 16:15, Luke 24:46-48, John 20:21, and Acts 1:8. Later, He similarly commissioned the Apostle Paul in Acts 22:14-15 and Acts 26:18. So why is the statement found in Matthew 28 commonly labeled as the “great” commission?
That label does not appear in the Bible itself and it is uncertain when in church history that description began to be used, but it certainly has been around for a long time. Why would anyone refer to this particular passage as the Great Commission?
One reason may simply be that it appears as the first of such statements in the New Testament. Matthew is the first NT book, so this is the first commission statement we come to in our reading. More likely is the greatness of its scope. It is comprehensive; it includes the whole world. Or perhaps it is great in its simplicity. Certainly it is great in its expectation – both of us and of what Christ will do through us.
Within the context of the biblical text, Matthew 28:19-20 is about an expected response to what has just transpired. In the verses leading up to the commission statement, the disciples had seen Jesus and were divided in their response (some worship and some doubted – vs. 17). Given the fact that by this time they had seen the risen Lord a number of times, they could not have been doubting the certainty of his resurrection, so they must have been wavering in their response to his resurrection. “What do we do now?” was surely the question running through their minds.
Jesus’ answer in verse 18 is a declaration that He has been granted complete authority over all of the universe. Because of that reality, it follows logically that these committed followers would gladly employ their lives in making other committed followers of Jesus.
As one Bible translation of verse 19 reads, “So wherever you go, make disciples of all nations.” So the Great Commission is simply the words of Jesus about what follows His victory on the cross and over the grave.
We tell others. We make disciples.
Let me wrap this discussion up by reminding us what the Great Commission is not.
First, it is not a message only for “missionaries.” All followers of Jesus are commissioned to make more followers of Jesus wherever we go and whatever we do in terms of career.
Second, it is not primarily a strategic plan. Yes, there is an order to the components of the Great Commission (which will be considered on this blog in future posts), but Jesus’ words are more about motivation than they are about methodology. Because we joyfully worship the all Sovereign King of the universe, we eagerly want to lead others to follow him too.
Third, these verses are not merely information which forms the background of our culturally Christian experience. They form a truly vital, great commission from a worship-worthy Savior who loved us and gave Himself for us.
 Jesus, as the Son of God, always possessed authority as the Creator, but now he is given authority as a resurrected human. We don’t often consider the fact that that the one who rules over everything is a man.
 God's Word: Today's Bible Translation That Says What It Means, God's Word Series (Grand Rapids, MI: World Pub., ©1995).
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The CGO Blog
Written by the CGO staff, with guest posts from students and other faculty/staff at BJU to provide thought leadership for missions in a new millennium.