IT IS OFTEN SUGGESTED that not every statement Jesus made is for the church today. I recently encountered this argument specific to the Great Commission. Jesus appeared to the disciples in the mountains outside Galilee after His resurrection: “And when they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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’” (Matt. 28:17-20, ESV). The word “in” in verse 19 is more accurately “into,” indicating the disciples were to baptize new believers into the name (the family) of God.
From the time of the early Christians until today, “church” has been referred to as the Body of Christ; the community of believers. Bringing the good news of Christ to all nations has been the responsibility of the church since the apostolic age. The initial mission was first to the Jews, then to the Gentiles. Paul said, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16). The gospel message was not yet being delivered to Gentile nations when Jesus appeared to the disciples and commanded them to go forth and make disciples of all nations.
Unfortunately, modern Christians are not always sure how literally they should interpret the Bible. Hellenistic Judaism had an impact on writing style in the early centuries of the church, which spilled out into the streets. Greek replaced Aramaic as the common language among Jews outside of Palestine. Koine Greek was a fairly standardized “street language” commonly spoken and written from the 4th century BC until the time of Justinian of the Byzantine dynasty in the mid-6th century. Greece, Macedonia, parts of northern Africa, and much of the Middle East had come under the influence or control of Hellenized rulers. A major school of biblical interpretation was allegorical in nature, rooted in platonic philosophy. Plato thought true reality lay behind what appeared to the human eye (1). This is often referred to as “the meaning behind the text.”
Hermeneutics—the branch of knowledge that deals with interpretation, especially of the Bible or literary texts—helps us unravel the meaning of ancient texts. The intent is to discover meaning in the text itself and consider how this meaning is implicated. Hermeneutics is related to epistemology* in that it relates to method, validity, and scope. The two main schools of thought in epistemology are empiricism and rationalism. Part of hermeneutic analysis is to determine the category into which a passage fits, such as law, poetry, prophesy, wisdom, literature, letter (e.g., epistle). Knowing this helps us to understand how the Bible applies to our lives today.
There will always be passages of Scripture that seem nearly impossible to understand, and those that we think we understand but fellow believers interpret differently. However, all truth is God’s truth, and Scripture does not contradict itself; there is an intended and appropriate interpretation for every Scripture. Every jot and tittle is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness (see 2 Tim. 3:16-17). Exegesis—what has been called “scholarly” reading—is the best approach for resolving disputes over scope of meaning or application. Historical-Critical exegesis (also known as “diachronic approach”) focuses on the origin and development of a passage in context of its “long view” (i.e., its longitudinal perspective). In the instant case, we are concerned with whether the Great Commission applies to the church for all ages.
The phrase “…baptizing them in the name of…” is best interpreted as “into the name of.” Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them into the name of the the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). This suggests bringing others “into the fold.” The Amplified Bible says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations [help the people to learn of Me, believe in Me, and obey My words], baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” A footnote in the ESV Study Bible says the imperative of Matthew 28:19 (make disciples, that is, call individuals to commit to Jesus as Master and Lord) explains the central focus of the Great Commission, wherein the Greek participles translated go, baptizing, and teaching (v. 20) describe the intended scope—all nations (2).
The apostles used three main approaches when interpreting OT prophesies. First, they mined OT historical and poetic sections to find predictions of the work of Christ and the church, using typological interpretation (e.g., patterns or symbols) to find events, objects, or ideas that anticipated NT activities in the church. Second, they applied literal-contextual interpretation to OT passages according to their “normal” meaning within their original contexts. Primarily, they looked at interpretation or application to NT Christian principles. Third, they used principle/application by interpreting the underlying principle regarding future (similar or identical) situations. It is never advisable to “cherry pick” Scripture to fit circumstances which are outside the scope of its original context. Accordingly, it is critical to recognize the evangelistic theme of Matthew’s Gospel in determining the applicability of the Great Commission to the church today.
The Apostle Paul on “In” and “Into”
Jesus told the disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them into the name of the the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). Paul places much emphasis on the phrases “in Christ” and “into the Body of Christ.” He writes in Ephesians, “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (2:6). Also, God shows us “…the immeasurable riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (2:7). Paul reminds us, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Cor. 12:12). In one Spirit we are all baptized into one body and made to drink of one Spirit. The Body of Christ does not consist of one member but of many (see 1 Cor. 12:13-14). God arranges all members into one Body (v. 18). We are the body of Christ and individually members of it (v. 27).
God delivered us “in Christ” from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son (see Col. 1:13). The mystery hidden for ages and generations is revealed in all His saints (see Col. 1:26). Paul expressed the perpetual nature of the story of Christ in Romans 10:13-14: “For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” Paul said we must “…preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things” (Eph. 3:8-9). Paul calls the church one body in Christ (Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor. 10:17; 1 Cor. 1). Further, he says, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6).
Application of the Great Commission Today
We can draw on a number of amazing criteria regarding whether the Great Commission was intended only for the eleven disciples Jesus spoke with before His ascension. Jesus was an itinerant preacher, and His message is meant for a universal audience. Considering the diversity of Matthew’s evangelical themes, it is unwise and misleading to specify only one purpose or audience regarding the parting command of Jesus. Specifically, Matthew shows a spreading of the good news from the moment of its seeming meager beginnings. Jesus is encouraging all Christians to evangelize beyond their own culture and society. The Great Commission is about Jesus, not a limited Christian community. Indeed, the community of believers we identify as Christian is parallel to the entire Body of Christ. Richard Bauckham wrote, “Matthew’s intended readership was not a well-defined ‘Matthean church’ but Christians everywhere” (3).
D.A. Carson notes four key factors addressed in Matthew’s evangelical message: (i) the period of revelation of Jesus; (ii) the inauguration of Jesus’ coming and ministry; (iii) the period beginning with the exaltation of Jesus among all nations for all time; and (iv) the consummation and beyond (4). The consummation concludes with establishment of God’s kingdom—His “eternal purpose.” Matthew’s Gospel describes the extent to which the kingdom had already been inaugurated and the extent to which it is yet to come. Carson further notes how “the closing periscope” of Matthew 28:16-20 is fully intended to be the climax toward which all of Matthew moves. The Great Commission is perceived to be the result of God’s providential ordering of history (1:1-17, 21). Jesus promised to go ahead of His disciples into Galilee (26:32), using the present tense proagei which means “is going ahead”. The verb tense in the Greek is also used regarding the Great Commission—not a progressive present but a dynamic and vivid future.
Much of the apostolic and evangelistic activities of the New Testament were performed either by Paul or his disciples as further promulgation of the gospel. Not only did Paul obey the Great Commission, he also instructed all believers on the importance of sharing the story of Christ (Col. 4:4-6). Paul said, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). The biblical gospel is the message of Jesus Christ, the message of the apostles, and the teachings of Christianity. Ultimately, Jesus Christ is the primary source of both the teachings of Christianity and the message of the apostles. Christ is the author and the finisher of our faith (see Heb. 12:2). The heart of the gospel is the good news of Christ’s love and sacrifice. But that doesn’t mean Jesus is the only messenger for the gospel. The Bible describes both the message of the apostles and Christian teachings as perpetuation of the gospel.
Jesus did not foresee a time when any part of His teachings would be considered outmoded, no longer applicable, or without power. The very proclamation of the gospel is the impetus for repentance and faith. Discipleship will always involve baptism and instruction, which strongly suggests coming into relationship with and coming under the lordship of Jesus Christ. By handing down everything Jesus taught, the first disciples (the very eyewitnesses of the life and teachings of Jesus) call new generations (“ear” witnesses) to pass on the story of redemption. Matthew refers to Jesus as Immanuel, “God with us,” in 1:23, and He is still God with us to the very end of the age. The Greek word used in Matthew 28:20 for always means “the whole of every day,” and is not found anywhere else in the New Testament.
The Great Commission is meant to be ongoing (“going forth” as it were into all nations). A perpetual evangelical mission that will not end until the return of Christ. Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given me” (28:18). This ties together all authority, all nations, all things, all the days—everything, always. It is not Jesus’ authority per se that becomes more absolute, as it has always been so. Rather, the realm in which He exercises all authority is enlarged to include all heaven and earth for all time. Indeed, the universe. Jesus is the one through whom all God’s authority is mediated. The Son of Man, who was despised, stricken, and crucified, who had no majesty, no beauty, no esteem, now is “high and lifted up” (Isa. 52:13-53:10).
Carson writes, “Because He now has this authority, therefore his disciples are to go and make disciples” (5). This is the dawning of the new age of messianic authority. Carson believes the main imperatival force of the Great Commission rests with making disciples, not with going. The context demands this ministry be extended to all nations for all time. Consequently, it is difficult to believe that “go therefore” has no perpetual or imperative force (6). Disciples are those who hear, understand, and obey, regardless of era or dispensation. Even if it can be argued that the injunction “go, therefore” was given to the eleven, it was not given to them as persons, but in their role as disciples (28:16). The eleven disciples are paradigms for all disciples. It is because of the foregoing that I believe the Great Commission applies to the church today and until Christ returns for his church.
Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology
(1) Plato, “The Republic” (514a-520a), in The Oxford History of Western Philosophy, A. Kenny, ed. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1994), 22-28.
(2) Michael J. Wilkins, ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 1888.
(3) Richard Bauckman, ed., The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 1998.
(4) D.A. Carson, “Matthew,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 56.
(5) Ibid., 665.
(6) Ibid., 666.
* The branch of philosophy dealing with the study and theory of knowledge. What is knowledge? How is knowledge acquired? What do we know? How do we know what we know?