There are certain Bible verses most evangelical Christians know. There’s John 3:16. Who doesn’t know about how God so loved the world? The mere mention of John 3:16 brings “amens,” fells giants, and ends all theological debate. Genesis 1:1 has that power too. In the beginning God created and we’ve been quoting it ever since.
The closing words of Matthew’s gospel have that kind of power as well. Even if we can’t quote it verbatim, even if we’re not sure of the exact chapter and verse, those of us of the “born again” persuasion know of the Great Commission. We even spell it with capital letters to make sure we recognize its importance. Ask us what it means and we quickly tell you that Christians are to share their faith.
It seems, however, that many of us haven’t really read that verse. I mean really read it, actually let the verses speak to us and tell us what it means. Instead, we read it with a casual familiarity that lets us approach the text with a closed mind and certain evangelical presuppositions that have been informed by weak exegesis.
While I am convinced that too many Christians read the word “go” incorrectly in Matthew 28:19, I have a greater concern about the way in which many of us misread the text. We assume that the Great Commission only applies to Christians in that they are to be sharing their faith. The text says more.
Yes, Christians are to share their faith with unbelievers as they are going about their everyday lives. I wish I and others would do a better job of that. That said, most of us seem to believe that’s where the Great Commission ends, with us telling others about Jesus in hopes of seeing them come to faith. The Great Commission does not end there.
The successful fulfillment of the Great Commission does not end when the individual walks the aisle, prays the prayer, and joins the church. The text says that the Great Commission is more. It says that we are to make disciples. We are to baptize converts and teach them. The making of disciples remains incomplete until we have completed the tasks described by all three verbs in the passage (make, baptize and teach).
Too many of our churches are failing the Great Commission because we aren’t fulfilling it. We’re adding numbers to our rolls and notches on our evangelistic gun belts but we’re not making disciples. We shake their hand, we hand them a towel, and, if they’re lucky, we drop them off in front of a Sunday School room as we rush off to find another victim, er prospect, uh unbeliever. Discipleship has become an accidental perk in the lives of most new converts. They fail to receive it because we fail to give it. We assume they’ll get it by osmosis. In doing so, we fail to fulfill the Great Commission.
That leads me to my last concern about how many well-meaning Christians misread the Great Commission. We assume that the Gospel is for non-believers. We are to tell them about the Gospel and hope and pray that they believe it. When they do, we rejoice. When they don’t, we feel disappointed. As far as that goes, we’re handling the Matthew 28 correctly. But, that doesn’t go far enough.
The text assumes that you are speaking to unbelievers … at first. Going into the nations and making disciples assumes that we’re sharing our faith and seeing the fruit of our efforts. However, from that point on, the rest of the passage is dealing with our relationship with Christians, albeit new ones. We are to baptize Christians. And, we are to teach Christians all that Christ has commanded us.
In other words, most of the Great Commission is aimed at Christians. It’s for us. It tells us to share our faith. It tells us to bring new believers into the fold via baptism. And, it tells us to disciple them — Christians. We’re not done with the evangelistic process, we’re not done discipling them until they are evangelizing and discipling others.
A correct reading of the Great Commission has marvelous implications. If we’d rightly emphasize every word of the passage, not just the first few, we would make a concerted effort to reach people and teach people. We’d emphasize the importance of church membership with greater passion. If we’d let the text tell us what it means, we’d spend more time telling Christians what it means to be Christians and showing them how to do it.
This has profound implications in my own vocational context as well. When I as a Christian professor explain the Gospel to scores of heretofore unreached students, I’m doing more than teaching. When I teach Christian students how to act Christianly, I’m not just earning my paycheck. When I do those things I am fulfilling the Great Commission. I am making disciples. Nothing pleases me more than when I see them mature to the point that they’re doing the same.
Thus, the Great Commission is for Christians from beginning to end. We do it, the church, and fellow believers a great disservice when we forget that.