Yesterday, I wrote:
Great Commission: “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” (Matthew 28:19-20).
I’ve had this thought a lot before, and I’m now able to verbalize it:
To suggest that someone obeys the Great Commission by making disciples because the main verb of the verse is “make disciples” is like saying that if you asked your friend, “Can you drive me to the grocery store in 15 minutes?” he or she has fulfilled your request by driving you.
Here is a lengthier explanation of my quote.
I found out a little over a year ago that the main verb of the Great Commission is “make disciples.” I am no Greek scholar, and I have no reason to doubt the faithful men who have told this to me. I am, however, an English minor and someone who is, like most people, able to understand sentences. So it strikes me as incomplete for Christians to say, “The main verb of this verse is ‘make disciples.’ So are you? You have a missions field in your backyard. Your workplace is a missions field. The international students at your school are a missions field. The parents at your children’s school are a missions field. You can be faithful to the Great Commission by making disciples in those missions fields. So are you?”
Because Jesus doesn’t just say “make disciples.” Of course, we should make disciples, because that command is established in other parts of Scripture (see Titus 2:1-8). But I wouldn’t be very happy if I asked my friend, “Can you drive me to the grocery store in 15 minutes?” and he just drove me around town. Or drove me to the park. Or the library. Or came by four hours later, my stomach growling for lack of comestibles. The way sentences work is that we use clauses to clarify and modify the main verb. The main verb of my question is “drive me,” but there are two prepositional phrases that shape the main verb: “to the grocery store” and “in 15 minutes.” Another example? How about this:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. (Philippians 2:3)
In the first half of the verse, the main verb is… “do nothing.” And yet despite the intention of high school believers with intentionally (or jokingly) poor hermeneutics, to do nothing is not to fulfill the intent of Paul’s instruction. There are again two prepositional phrases which shape the main verb: “from selfish ambition” and “from conceit.” The things that we ought not do are from selfish ambition or from conceit. All other things are not addressed. Is this a humorous, almost trivial example? Yes. (And don’t get me started on “counting others.”) But it illustrates how we don’t hold to a “main verb isolation” hermeneutic in other parts of Scripture, and we shouldn’t do that to the Great Commission.
Likewise, if I am making disciples but not “go”-ing or making disciples of “all nations”–or, for that matter, not “baptizing them in the name of” the Trinity or “teaching them to observe all” of Jesus’ commandments–I think it is fair to say that I am not fulfilling the Great Commission in the manner Jesus intended. (I could write a whole new post on how social justice efforts, though God-honoring and necessary, are not in and of themselves a fulfillment of the Great Commission. Another time, perhaps.)
God’s gospel is a global gospel, planned by God to redeem “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9).We do not fulfill the Great Commission if we make no reference to the global, “go”-ing, “all nations” plan of God. Indeed, as the psalmist writes, “Let the nations be glad and sing for joy” (Ps. 67:4)!
To wrap up, I want to answer a couple of questions:
- Why do some pastors and teachers suggest that Christians should live out their obedience to the Great Commission by focusing on “make disciples”?
- Does every Christian need to “go” to “all nations”?
I think it is important to consider the first question to understand the intent of those pastors and teachers. I think that their intent is noble and their hearts genuine. I imagine that they want people to cultivate a heart for evangelism and for local, domestic missions. And every believer should! Moreover, “make disciples” is the main verb of Jesus’ commission, and so we do indeed fall short if we as a church, as a missional institution, do not make disciples. So we ought to be doing that both abroad and at home. Moreover, I think that pastors and teachers want their congregations to be involved in missions, and encouraging them to take part in and love the Great Commission by making disciples is one way of doing that. So I think their heart is in the right place. But we still can’t ignore the modifiers “go” and “all nations.”
Which brings us to the second question: Does this mean that every Christian must go and make disciples of all nations in order to be obedient to the Great Commission? No. I think that God graciously allows for people to participate in and fulfill the Great Commission as a “send”-er rather than a “go”-er. In 3 John 8, John says regarding missionaries, “[W]e ought to support people like these, that we may be fellow workers for the truth.”
I want to spend some time thinking about and explaining the 3 John 8 passage, and this post is getting long as it is, so I’m going to save that for part 2.