We are accustomed to referring to Matthew 28:18-20 as “the Great Commission.” A commission is “an instruction, command or duty given to a person or group of people” (Oxford Languages), and this passage certainly qualifies as that. In fact, however, there are five passages where Jesus gives final instructions to his followers. We will look at each, in turn, and then summarize what they teach us as a whole.
Each account of the commission is addressed specifically to the eleven apostles (minus Judas Iscariot), and so some people have concluded they do not apply to us today. It seems highly unlikely to me, however, that the Lord no long cares whether the good news about Christ is told far and wide. Though all the particulars of these commissions may not apply directly to every Christian, to me it seems best to view his commission as now entrusted to the church as a whole. Working together, we are to continue Jesus’ mission in the world. The church will never be what God wants it to be if we do not hear the commission Jesus has given.
The focus in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ commission (Matthew 28:18-20) is on “make disciples” (28:19). This is the only verb in the passage that is in the form of a command (imperative mode). A disciple is a learner or student. Americans tend to think of learning primarily in terms of education and information, and there are certainly many truths from Jesus that we need to understand. But Jesus was not merely teaching information but rather information that leads to a different way of life. So “follower” may capture the meaning more completely than “learner.” We are to make “followers” of Jesus—people who will learn from him and apply his truths in their lives.
The word “make disciples” occurs three other times in the New Testament (Matthew 13:52; 27:57; Acts 14:21). The latter passage indicates a key part of making disciples not mentioned in Matthew 28, “When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples…” (ESV). Preaching the good news about Jesus is prerequisite to all disciple-making.
In Matthew’s account there are two verbs that accompany the command to make disciples, and these indicate two aspects of what is involved in doing so. These are “baptizing them” and “teaching them to obey” (vv. 19-20).
When Jesus’ first followers carried out his mission in Acts, and people accepted the good news about him, sure enough they baptized in the name of Jesus (2:38, 41; 8:12-13, 36, 38; 9:18; 10:47-48; etc.). To be a disciple entails dying to our old life, being joined with Jesus in his death, and being raised up to live a new life (Romans 6:1-14; Colossians 2:6-15). Baptism is also the occasion when God regularly gave people the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38; 9:17-18; 19:2-3; 1 Corinthians 12:12-13; Titus 3:5; for more on this and for a couple of exceptions, see the post on The New Way of the Spirit 1).
Making disciples also entails “teaching them.” Though they certainly need to hear the good news before they are baptized, they also need much teaching afterward. Notice that the teaching needed to make disciples is thorough, including “everything” Jesus commanded the twelve (Matthew 28:20). Note, too, that it is teaching them to “obey” (v. 20). Again, discipleship is not merely a matter of acquiring information but also of living a life obedient to Christ.
In the historical context and the context of the book of Matthew, there is also a focus on making disciples “of all nations” (v. 19). Jesus’ own ministry was directed primarily to reclaiming the Jews (Matthew 15:24). When he first sent out his followers on a limited training mission, he told them, too, not to go to the Gentiles or Samarians but only to “the lost sheep of Israel” (10:5-6). But in his final commission, in strong contrast, he sent them to all nations (28:19). Because of this, some have even referred to this passage as the “great redirection.” Jesus’ focusing on the Jews and then sending his followers to all nations is the way God planned to include the entire world in the blessings of his kingdom (cf. Isaiah 49:5-6). All this means that the word “go,” which does not technically have the form of a command, does have the force of a command. Although many “nations” now frequently live in our own neighborhoods, still, in order to make disciples of all nations, at least some of us will clearly have to “go” elsewhere.
So Matthew’s account of Jesus’ final commission emphasizes the command for us to make disciples of all nations which includes the two important aspects of baptizing them in his name and teaching them to obey all he taught.
Jesus’ words here give us two more helpful insights. First, he prefaced his words with “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (28:18). In light of his suffering and resurrection, God has made him both Lord and Christ (Luke 24:26; Acts 2:36). God has made him the reigning Ruler of his kingdom and has placed all authority in his hands. That means the words he speaks here are not to be ignored. It is absolutely imperative that Jesus’ followers make disciples of all nations. A church that is not making disciples is not embracing the lordship of Christ.
Second, Jesus said he would surely be with us always as we seek to fulfill this commission. Making disciples is not easy. Though he has chosen to include us and work through us, we are not left to our own insight and ability. Making disciples is his will, his mission, his work. We find assurance and confidence in knowing he will be with us as we act on the mission he has entrusted to us.
So the key components of our commission, in Matthew’s account, are the authority of Jesus, going/all nations, making disciples, baptizing, teaching, and his powerful presence with us. Would you say this is the preoccupation of the church today? Would you say it is your preoccupation? What is a step you could take to begin heeding these words of the Lord?