Why do none of Paul's letters make any reference to Jesus' Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20? Doesn't it seem strange that Paul, who bears the label "the greatest Christian missionary," would never quote the Great Commission? This is the same Paul who is the focus of a 100-year-old book titled Missionary Methods: St. Paul's or Ours?
Let's think about that a bit. Paul never quoted Matthew 28:19-20. He never quoted Acts 1:8. Luke, the author of Acts, was one of Paul's traveling companions. So, Paul would have known Jesus' words recorded by Luke in Acts 1:8: "You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." Paul would surely have heard or read Luke's version of the Great Commission: "This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem." (Luke 24:46-47).
So, does Paul's lack of direct reference to the Great Commission mean that world evangelism was not on his radar? No. Absolutely not. To begin with, Paul referred to himself as "an apostle to the Gentiles" (Romans 11:13). To First Century Jews, Gentile was not a nationality nor a specific ethnic group. Gentiles were simply people who were not Jews. The word meant everyone in the world apart from the biological descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For this reason, the Bible League International's Easy-to-Read Version translates Paul's words in Romans 11:13 as "I am an apostle to the non-Jewish people."
A few years after Paul's conversion on the Damascus road, the Holy Spirit led Antioch believers to commission him and Barnabas as expatriate missionaries. On successive trips, Paul spent considerable time evangelizing in several cities around the northwestern rim of the Mediterranean. Publishers frequently include maps of those "missionary journeys" in the back of Bibles. Paul's 15-20 years of apostolic ministry resulted in clusters of church plants in four Roman Empire provinces. So, it can be said that Paul obeyed the "go" of Christ's Great Commission even though we have no record of him ever quoting that command of Jesus.
We do not have to read between the lines in the New Testament to see that Paul was drawn to the frontiers where the gospel had not yet been proclaimed. There are, for instance, his words to believers in Corinth about preaching "in the regions beyond you" ( 2 Corinthians 10:16). Paul's letter to the Romans mentions a future trip to Spain (although we do not know if he actually made that trip). In terms of the various locations named in Acts 1:8, Paul's church planting all took place in the "uttermost parts of the earth" category. So, even if Paul never quoted Jesus' Great Commission, he seemed driven to do what that commission calls God's people to do. Some theologians have even tried to argue that Paul and other First Century believers completely fulfilled Christ's Great Commission.
The question then is: Since Paul spent years doing what the Great Commission exhorts us to do, why didn't he quote those words of Jesus? Well, he did, . . . at least in a sense. He often referred to Abraham. Why is that significant? Well, Abraham's call from God in Genesis 12:1-3 speaks clearly of world evangelism. In Galatians 3:8, Paul says God announced the Gospel to Abraham, including the fact that all the people groups of the earth would be blessed. In Paul's mind, the Great Commission was not something brand-new. He understood that the call to make disciples among the nations had been announced two thousand years earlier to Abraham. Indeed, that idea of proclaiming God's message to the whole world is referred to in various ways throughout the rest of the Old Testament. In pointing to what God said to Abraham, it can be said that Paul was referencing the "original" Great Commission. Matthew 28:19-20 is simply a restatement of Genesis 12:3 and its repetitions in Genesis 18, 22, and 26.
Let's assume that Paul saw his church-planting ministry as a fulfillment of God's desire expressed in Genesis 12 (a desire repeated in Matthew 28:19-20 and Acts 1:8). Did Paul's walk match his talk? Was his ministry as an apostle to the Gentiles consistent with what the Great Commission says about making disciples everywhere and baptizing and teaching those new converts?
From what we can see in the book of Acts and in Paul's letters, the answer to that question is "yes." Paul did preach the Gospel to lost people who had not heard it. For Paul, however, things did not end there. When people converted, he made sure they were baptized and discipled. Toward that end, he established churches in which believers were expected to grow into mature disciples. Indeed, flowing through all of Paul's writings is a concern for Christian maturity.
Then, it must also be said that Paul was never a Lone Ranger type of missionary. He went out because he was sent by a church, and he never traveled or evangelized alone. He traveled with people like Barnabas, Silas, Luke, John Mark, and Timothy. In addition, there are a dozen or so other people named in the New Testament as Paul's co-workers at one time or another. Paul's team members helped him fulfill what Matthew 28:19-20 calls us to do. Furthermore, Paul seems to have wanted all believers to be involved in some way in the cause of world evangelism. Thus, Paul's letters exhort congregations to become his senders and prayer partners.
Thus, the fact that Paul did not refer to what we call Jesus' Great Commission does not mean he failed to embrace it. It is clear that Paul embraced the initial announcement of the Great Commission when God told Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that through them and their descendants, all ethnic groups on earth would be blessed.
-- Howard Culbertson,
This article appeared in Illustrated Bible Life, a curriculum piece for adult Sunday School teachers that is published by The Foundry.