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Defining Terms: The Great Commission

Once while I was living in Uganda, I watched my Bible college students destroy an old termite mound. It looked to me just like a pile of earth, but what at first appeared simple and straightforward on the outside revealed a fabulously multilayered and elaborate network of interlocking tunnels on the inside. I was mesmerized!


The Great Commission also appears to be a simple and straightforward concept at first. After all, it’s founded on one of the most familiar passages in the New Testament—“go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19). Yet as we dig deeper we find remarkable depth, significance, and intricacy! Whole books are written, whole conferences are organized, and whole theses are published about its meaning and implications, so please bear in mind that a short blog post like this can but scratch the surface …


Here are five characteristics of the Great Commission:


The Great Commission Is Climactic

“The Great Commission” is the title most commonly applied to Jesus’s final words in Matthew’s Gospel (28:18–20). In that passage the resurrected Christ meets his disciples on a mountain in Galilee, announces his supreme authority for them and eternal presence with them, and calls the eleven to “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.” But we should not limit our understanding of the Great Commission to that passage alone. Similarly dramatic and epic commissions are recorded in Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances in the other Gospels, as well as in his final pre-ascension words as recorded in Acts (Mark 16:15–18; Luke 24:46–48; John 20:21–23; Acts 1:6–8). For that reason it might be better to think about the Great Commissions (plural), or even better to understand the Great Commission as a consolidation and integration of Jesus’s final teachings before his ascension, with the multiple versions adding potency to the overall impact. Certainly, the role these passages play as a climactic finale in each Gospel (and for Acts as the foundation and guide of the whole book) invites readers to reflect on them carefully as the Gospel writers clearly intended us to.


So, let us not downplay our Great Commission!


The Great Commission Is Contemporary

Many Christians today are unaware that these climactic commissions from Jesus haven’t always been understood as applicable to all believers through time. In fact, for many centuries the assumed interpretation was that the commission was intended only for the eleven disciples and was fulfilled and finished through their first-century missionary efforts. However, the reproducible dynamics implied in Jesus’s words (disciples will make disciples who will in turn make disciples who will …) combined with the vast scope (“all nations”) and long timeframe (“I am with you always until the very end of the age”) mean that Jesus’s commission mustn’t be applied to the original hearers only but, rather, functions as an extended invitation to all Christ-followers that cascades through the ages right up to the contemporary church today!


So, let us not dismiss our Great Commission!

The Great Commission is not to be a fringe activity on the sidelines of congregational life but, rather, something embedded in the DNA of our corporate Christian service day to day.

The Great Commission Is Captivating

We don’t normally have to look too far in our churches to find brothers and sisters who think the Great Commission is something only really relevant to a few committed (perhaps slightly odd?) Christians. Some can exhibit an “it’s fine for you, but it’s not really my kind of thing” posture, or even a “you’re called to that, but I’m not” attitude. But following his sin-defeating death and his death-defeating resurrection, Jesus commissions and empowers and equips his disciples—all of us, as we’ve just seen—to witness joyfully to the redemption and reconciliation that he earns for us. The Great Commission is not to be a fringe activity on the sidelines of congregational life but, rather, something embedded in the DNA of our corporate Christian service day to day. It would be tragic if the Great Commission were to become a grinding chore or a begrudging burden on our already extensive spiritual to-do list instead of being evidence of God’s love for the nations filling and empowering us to join him in his great global plans for Christ’s name to be worshiped unto the ends of the earth.


So, let us not dodge our Great Commission!

The Great Commission is not a checklist of tribes to mark off one by one. It’s more a posture than a program.

The Great Commission Is Continuous

It is common to hear people speak of the Great Commission as a task to be finished and a mission to be accomplished. Such ambitions often appeal to our target-driven, goal-oriented mindsets, and can even feed an excitement that “the final era” of history must be upon us and the return of Christ imminent as the gospel at last reaches the ends of the earth. But it would be prudent to slow down a little here. Jesus deliberately declines to identify any metrics that mark out an exact missionary finish line. At what point might a nation be considered discipled, given that disciples always require discipleship? How do we know when the ends of the earth have received adequate witness? Yes, we send and go and pray and partner because we long for everyone on earth to enjoy the same blessings of redemption and restoration and reconciliation that we have received so graciously, but that doesn’t mean the Great Commission is a checklist of tribes to mark off one by one. It’s more a posture than a program. Jesus calls us all to make disciples wherever he scatters us, including some of our own western “reached” settings, like my own in the U.K., where people can live and die without truly knowing a Christian or hearing the good news adequately explained to them.


So, let us not downgrade our Great Commission!


The Great Commission Is Convicting

It can be tempting in our modern relativistic, pluralistic settings to think that the Great Commission is an outdated relic of a bygone era. Yet Jesus roots his commission in his own eternal presence and supreme authority rather than the cultural currents of any given moment, and he sends his Holy Spirit to equip and empower all his followers to partake in it. Of course, the manner, methods, and means we employ must depend on context, but each of us has the responsibility to prayerfully consider how we might enjoy the privilege of participating in his glorious gospel purposes. May all Christ’s followers embrace Christ’s commission so that he may be known and honored both in our local communities and beyond, even to the ends of the earth!


So, let us not disregard our Great Commission!

 

Chris Howles was Head of Theology at Uganda Martyrs Seminary Namugongo between 2011 and 2023. He has now returned to the U.K. with his wife, Ros, and three children to begin a new role as Director of Cross-Cultural training at Oak Hill College (London) in January 2024. He has a doctorate in intercultural studies and is founder of the mission resources website From Every Nation.


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