The Last Commandment of Christ
Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” –Matthew 28:17-20 (NIV)
This passage is sometimes referred to as “The Great Commission”. According to Matthew’s Gospel it is one of Jesus’ last instructions, and arguably one of his most important commandments. If you are a Christian, you probably have heard this passage taught at one point of your life or another. My goal in this post is not to share anything that is new, but rather to remind you of the importance of this commandment in all of our lives.
The Reason for the Commission
Before Jesus gives his last commandment, he tells the disciples “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me”. This shows that the reason for the commandment is because Jesus has already been given all authority. By the power of his obedience in his death and resurrection, God the Father has given Christ authority over all things in heaven and on earth. Since it is a present reality that Christ has overcome all things—even our sin—in his death and resurrection, this should compel us to make disciples. There is no greater person in the world to learn from, worship, and obey. Because of this truth, in our joy of already being his disciple, we are to make more disciples of Christ.
The Commission Itself
The central commandment in the Great Commission is to “make disciples”. Many times I have heard it taught that the Great Commission has two parts “go and make disciples”. Although most of our translations make it sound like “go” is a commandment on equal footing with “make disciples” this is not how it sounds in the original language. Instead it more literally translated as “Therefore, going make disciples…” The word “going”, similar to the words “baptizing” and “teaching” used later in the passage, is a helping verb that describes how to make disciples. So we find that there is one commandment (“make disciples”) and three things we need to know about how to make disciples (“going”, “baptizing”, and “teaching”).
Jesus says in order to make disciples, we have to go. I have heard it taught that by saying “going” vs “go”, Jesus meant that along the way “as we go” we are to make disciples. Although I appreciate the realization that “going” is a helping verb, not a commandment itself, the “as you go” understanding of “going” falls short of what Jesus meant. Whenever a helping verb is used in conjunction with a commandment (an imperative) it takes on some of the force of the commandment. Therefore, because Jesus commanded us to make disciples, he also commanded us to “go”. This means that we cannot simply expect people to come to us to learn more about Jesus Christ, we must go to them. The Church needs to be a people always going out of its way to reach out to people of all nations and bring them into the family. Indeed, if nobody ever went out to the nations, the Church would never have spread outside of Jerusalem and most of us, if not all of us, would not be disciples today. “As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’” (Romans 10:15).
To make disciples we do not only have to go, but we also have to baptize. All disciples of Christ should be baptized because it is a sign marking ourselves apart from the world. When we are baptized, we show that we have died to ourselves with Jesus on the cross and are now resurrected to a new life with Jesus. Baptism also shows that we have been cleansed from our sin since water represents purity. Jesus says we are to baptize in “the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” When we are baptized in this one name, we declare to the world that we belong to the family of Christ. It is crucial for all Christians to be baptized to publicly declare their belief in the gospel.
Not only are we to go make disciples of Christ and have them publicly declare their faith through baptism, we also are to teach them. Jesus says we are to teach them “to obey everything that he has commanded”. This shows that the Christian faith is both about right thinking and right living (orthodoxy and orthopraxy). It is not enough to only be taught the right things about Christ, we also need to obey what he has commanded. Often times this is the difficult part of the Christian faith—especially for us evangelicals. We may believe that Jesus came to save us, but we fail to take seriously his commandments against divorce and sexual immorality, the need to care for the poor, turning the other cheek, welcoming sinners, etc. This side of death, we will never be able to fully obey Christ’s commandments. We are dependent on grace. Nevertheless if our lives never reflect the truths we know about Christ, it begs the question if we really are disciples. As Jesus said, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” (Matthew 7:18-20 NIV). This stands as a sober warning for all of us to produce the fruit that is in line with our new lives in Christ.
Comfort for the Commission
Right after Jesus gives his final command to his disciples, he reminds them that he is with them always “to the end of the age”. Faced with the great task of making disciples of all nations, we can feel overwhelmed. There are too many people groups to reach, too many things that need to be taught, too many people to be baptized. Our comfort for when we feel overwhelmed is the truth that we are not alone. Jesus is with us strengthening our work, the Holy Spirit is empowering our work, and the Father is controlling our work in all of history. We do not need to feel overwhelmed because ultimately God is the one who works in us and through us (and sometimes despite us). Instead, we are to be comforted that Christ is always with us even in our darkest moments. We can draw great strength from this reality as we wait for Christ’s return. Until he does, you and I are to be making disciples. Let’s get to work.