Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore 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. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
– Matt 28:18-20 –
I grew up thinking “The Great Commission” was a mandate for Christians to pack their bags, move overseas, convert the natives, and teach them to memorise the Bible (don’t laugh at me – I grew up in an evangelical, Bible-memorising, missionary-sending church with a passion to “win souls to the Lord”). I figured pastors and overseas missionaries were the only ones obeying the text, and set my heart towards missions work from an early age (as a woman, the role of “pastor” wasn’t open to me, back then).
However, over the years I’ve learned to re-read this section of the Bible, and three main points have leapt out at me (that I never saw when I was younger).
1. It’s not just talking about overseas missions.
It’s easy to get confused by the reference to “all nations” and think Jesus was telling us to pack our bags and head somewhere “over there” – where we need to spend many years learning the language and culture and customs, and probably will never be fully accepted as a local. Sure, there’s room for that approach, but it’s one part of the big picture. God has cleverly placed each one of us within a community, within our extended family, in our workplaces and schools and sports teams, as a minster of reconciliation. We already know the language and culture. We already have connections and relationships. We are strategically scattered throughout the nations, to have maximum impact and be part of an unstoppable, grassroots movement. What brilliant planning on God’s part!
2. Discipleship begins before conversion.
This one gets me really excited. This changes everything. We can start to invite our unchurched friends and relatives into a God-centred, others-focussed way of life long before we see any outward signs of conversion. I find my unchurched friends are very open to joining me in my “ministry” (welcoming newcomers and looking after some of the lonely people in our area) – more open than many of my churched friends (and often more socially appropriate). In the process, they start to change and become more open to God and His ways, and some of them have made a commitment to Christ (the Holy Spirit’s doing, not mine!). I never invite anyone to church anymore – I find they invite themselves when they are ready for that form of input. I’ve learned I am not responsible to “convert” anybody – that’s up to God – but I am responsible to actively and intentionally model God’s ways for others to observe and follow.
3. It’s about obedience, not memorisation.
Nearly every “discipleship” course I’ve ever done has involved memorising verses and sections of Scripture. Most churches I’ve been part of have been obsessed with “Biblical literacy”, and knowing what Jesus said, rather than just going out and doing it. There is a place for knowing your Bible, but Jesus instructed us to teach people to obey, not memorise. Those two key words make all the difference. I’ve realised my friends don’t have to quote a single memory verse in the process of hands-on, real life obedience.
Re-reading the text has opened me up to a bigger picture, a more sustainable and effective plan for reaching the world than most churches currently practice. Jesus set a movement in motion when he gave “The Great Commission” – a model for naturally-occuring reproduction of “Jesus-followers” throughout the world. He never intended his people to farm out their responsibilities to the paid professionals – he wants all of us to intentionally and organically live as disciples, who make disciples…who make disciples!