The Great Commission: Suggestion or command?

A world evangelism Bible text? Jesus' Great Commission in Matthew 28:19 and His words in Acts 1:8 come to mind.

World missions: The heart of God

Two mini-essays on Christ's well-known command

Need ideas for a sermon on the Great Commission? Here they are.

"Go and make disciples of all nations,1 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" -- Matthew 28:19-20.

Question: Which Bible verse is most often associated with world evangelism? Easy answer: The Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20.

Jesus spoke those words after His resurrection and not long before His ascension. For most Christians, these final words of Matthew's Gospel immediately come to mind in conversations about Biblical motives for world missions.

The Great Commission follows up on God's promise that all peoples on earth would be blessed through His people (Genesis 12:3). The Great Commission also reflects what the Old Testament says about the "light" of salvation reaching "the ends of the earth" (Isaiah 49:6). It's an achievable command. Indeed, Revelation 7:9 describes an End Times vision in which the Apostle John saw the results of Great Commission fulfillment.

"Most important passage in the Gospel of Matthew"

German theologian Thomas Schirrmacher calls the Great Commission the most important passage in the Gospel of Matthew. He says, "The Great Commission in the Gospel of Matthew (28:16-20) is not only the end of the Gospel of Matthew. It is also its climax and its goal."

Quotes about the Great Commission

References to Christ's Great Commission abound in material about world evangelism. Here are some samples from the writings of missionaries and missions mobilizers:

A majority of churchgoers have no idea what the Great Commission is -- a recent poll by the Barna Group

Audio of Matthew 28:18-20

"I really appreciate William Carey's use of the word obligation when it comes to the apostles' role in the Great Commission. I wonder if we would use such a strong term today if it would make a difference. . . What if we called Matthew 28:19-20 the Great Obligation? That sounds much stronger and maybe more fitting." -- Kristopher Powell, Northwest Nazarene University graduate student

Discussion questions

  1. In what ways does the Great Commission relate to God's promise in Genesis and the Old Testament prophecy of salvation reaching the ends of the earth?
  2. What is the Church's current challenge in fulfilling the Great Commission, and why is passion so important?
  3. Why do you think many people consider the Great Commission to be the most important passage in the Gospel of Matthew? What is there about the Great Commission that makes it achievable?
  4. Why do you think a majority of churchgoers have no idea what the Great Commission is? What can be done to raise awareness and encourage greater participation in world missions?

Acts 1:8 -- Linear or simultaneous?

"You will tell everyone about me in Jerusalem, in all Judea, in Samaria, and everywhere in the world." -- Acts 1:8, Contemporary English Version

Just prior to His Ascension, Jesus talked about the Holy Spirit coming upon His followers. Then, He said to them, "You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). For most of us, these words seem parallel to those of the Great Commission of Matthew 28. Others, however, contend that Acts 1:8 is a step-by-step road map.

Thus, they say, Jesus meant for us to concentrate first on our hometown (our "Jerusalem," they say). When evangelization there is complete, then we can go to our Judea, and when we're finished there, we can go to our Samaria. At some point in the future, we can go to the ends of the earth.

The problem with that interpretation is that it doesn't square with what the Early Church did. It did not proceed to evangelize in a linear or concentric circle fashion in which outreach in one area had to be completed before moving on to the next circle.

Persecution caused early believers to simultaneously scatter into Judea and Samaria. So, Philip was preaching in Samaria (Acts 8) before all of Judea was evangelized. The Early Church did not seem to struggle over whether to cross geographic boundaries. By the time of Paul's conversion, there were churches in Gentile cities like Damascus and Antioch in Syria. Indeed, the Antioch church is the congregation that commissioned Paul and Barnabas as missionaries.

The one question early on was about whether there was a cultural boundary that had to be crossed. In other words, did Gentiles who embraced Jesus need to become Jewish? The Jerusalem Council described in Acts 15 decisively settled that issue, and there's no evidence that people waited to make sure evangelism in any one area was complete before they went to other places. There are stories about Thomas planting churches in India and Andrew evangelizing in Greece. Early church history sources refer to Bartholomew having gone to Armenia and James "the younger" to Egypt. Jude (Thaddeus) may have gone to Persia and Matthew to Ethiopia.

Evangelizing everywhere simultaneously

Clearly, First Century Christians thought Christ envisioned evangelism going on everywhere at the same time. Apparently, they saw the list of places in Acts 1:8 not as a map to be meticulously followed but simply as another way of saying "make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19-20) and "preach the good news to all creation" (Mark 16:15).

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many Protestant Reformers taught a linear progression ("make sure your hometown is evangelized first and foremost"). They were wrong. It took people like William Carey to get the Church back to evangelizing everywhere simultaneously -- "from and to all six continents," as the Lausanne Covenant expressed it.

Could it be that the idea that world evangelism is to be linear ("I have to first take care of my 'Jerusalem'") is mainly a way of postponing any responsibility for evangelizing the rest of the world?

1Note: In the Bible, the word "nations" does not mean political entities like China, India, and the USA. Rather, it means people groups or societies in which people speak the same language, have the same culture and live in or have originated in the same area. "Nations" is thus synonymous with the plural word "peoples." In other words, "nations" in the Bible means all of the world's people groups other than the people of Israel.

"[Acts 1:8] is both a charge and a promise, a nudge, and an assurance. Filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus' followers from all over will take the good news everywhere to everyone." -- Shane Bennett

Reflection questions

  1. Some people interpret Acts 1:8 as a step-by-step road map for evangelism. What problems are there with that interpretation?
  2. How did the Early Church go about trying to fulfill Christ's Great Commission? What does this suggest about the interpretation of Acts 1:8 as a road map?
  3. What cultural boundary issue was settled by the Jerusalem Council? How did this impact evangelism in the Early Church?
  4. How did many Protestant Reformers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries approach evangelism? What was wrong with their approach?
  5. What is the significance of the definition of "nations" in the Bible? How should shape our understanding of Acts 1:8 as a charge to evangelize the world?

These two 500-word mini-essays on a world missions Bible passage were two of over three dozen articles in the "Heart of God" series published in Engage, magazine. That series explores what the Bible says about missions.

Points to Keep in Mind

In conclusion, Jesus' words in Acts 1:8 did not mean that the disciples had to completely finish evangelizing Jerusalem before moving on to Judea and Samaria, nor that they had to finish in Judea and Samaria before moving to the ends of the earth. What He provided instead was a vision of an ever-widening circle of witness, empowered by the Holy Spirit, that would spread outward from Jerusalem and eventually reach the entire world.

Harvest is great; workers are few

The task remaining and Christian resource allocation

People ask: "How we be concerned about other countries when there is so much evangelism yet to be done here at home?"

Here's a graphic that can help answer that question.

Worker-to-need ratio: North Africa has only one Christian pastor or missionary for every two million people.

North African ratios applied to the USA/Canada

What if?

If the ratio of Christian workers to the total population in North Africa was applied to the U.S. and Canada, those two countries would have about 185 full-time Christian workers. Alas, there would be only about seven Christian churches in those two countries, a tremendous difference from the more than 50,000 churches now existing in those two countries.

Can we really grasp what the church situation in the U.S. and Canada would look like if the worker-to-need ratio existing in the countries of North Africa was applied to the US and Canada? Here's a graphic to help us visualize that scenario:

Drawing of the Christian worker-to-need ratio from North
Africa applied to the U.S. and Canada

Good news in terms of global evangelistic outreach: Reports suggest that 10,000 people come to Christ every day in one huge Asian country alone.

Information from issues of Mission Frontiers, a publication of the U.S. Center for World Mission

The challenge to fulfilling Christ's Great Commission: Lack of passion

A.W. Tozer said: "The great of the kingdom have been those who loved God more than others did."

Tozer's statement goes to the heart of the matter. The question for us is: At what point will I tell Jesus "No"? How far is too far? How much of a sacrifice is too much to pay?
    -- Nazarene Bible College student Kenny Chapman

What keeps us from fulfilling Christ's Great Commission for our generation?

In a telephone interview done for an online class in World Evangelization at Nazarene Bible College, student Angela Wetmore posed this question to Nina Gunter: "From your perspective, what will be the single greatest challenge to world evangelization in the coming decade?"

Nina Gunter's response was:

"Dealing with believers' lack of passion for the lost. People are so focused on themselves that they lack passion for the lost.

"The single greatest challenge is reviving that passion for the lost. Historically, the church has grown most when it ignited in people a desire to reach the lost."

photo of Nina
GunterNina Gunter became a Nazarene General Superintendent after serving as director of Nazarene Missions International, a denominational world missions promotion and mobilization arm.

"The church will soon die . . ."

"The day the Church of the Nazarene loses her interest in foreign missions and rescue work (compassionate ministries), she may run awhile on her reputation, but she will soon die as dead as any formal, ecclesiastical church in the world. May God keep this vision before us"
    -- A. J. Vallery, superintendent of Bethany Training Home, Memphis, TN, June 16, 1920

Bible passages on caring for the poor

Becoming a Global Christian

"If I truly seek to have the heart of Jesus, I will seek to think the way He thinks, not just about myself and my ministry, but about the world. I will seek to feel what He feels, to cry over what He cries over, to laugh about what He laughs about, to see what He sees every day I live. I will not just sing songs in worship services about honoring Him in all I do. I will seek to prove my faith and commitment to the vision of Jesus with action. That's the message of James 2:18.

"It is the vision of Jesus that calls me to wake up every day and think about the world. All too often the world is out of our vision as Christians; we do not regularly think about it. God sees the world; He thinks about the world 24 hours a day, seven days a week. As global Christians, we should too."
   -- church planter Larry McKain in Falling in Love with the Church, p. 245

Q&A on Christ's Great Commission

Questions and answers about Christ's "Great Commission" (Matthew 28:19-20, Mark 16:15, and Acts 1:8) that have appeared in Internet searches.

1. What is the significance of the Great Commission in Christianity?

It is the clear call for Christ-followers to seek converts to Christianity in every ethnolinguistic people group of the world. Not tied to a specific culture.
The obedience to the Great Commission by of Christ-followers has made Christianity a missionary religion.

2. Who were the disciples to whom Jesus gave the Great Commission?

On all three occasions (Matthew 28, Mark 16 and Acts 1, Jesus was speaking to eleven of his twelve chosen disciples (sometimes mpe referred to as "apostles."). The name of this close followers of Jesus can be found (with some variations) in Matthew 10, Mark 3, and Luke 6.
Note: Since Matthew 28, Mark 16 and Acts 1 record post-Resurrection meetingss, Judas Iscariot was no longer alive.

3. What exactly did Jesus instruct his disciples to do in the Great Commission?

Jesus told his followers to go make disciples in all the world's ethnolinguistic people groups, The new Christ-followers were to be taught, trained, and mentored.

4. How does the Great Commission relate to the mission of the Church?

The Great Commission is the mission of the church.

5. What is the geographical scope of the Great Commission?

It's global in scope. The Matthew 28 version says "all the world" while Acts 1:8 ends with the words "ends of the earth" or "everywhere in the world," as the Contemporary English Version puts it. The Worldwide English New Testament renders Matthew 28:19 as "`Go into every part of the world."

6. How does the Great Commission impact modern Christian missions?

It is the driving force (or should be). Because a third of the world's population still has no access to the Gospel message, the Great Commission calls the Church to press on until all have heard.
For those on the front lines, it points to discipleship as well as to evangelism. So, just getting the Gospel out is only part of the task of modern Christian missions.

7. What are some different interpretations of the Great Commission?

Here are three contrasting pairs of interpretations.

Pair 1

Pair 2

Pair 3

8. How does the Great Commission align with other teachings of Jesus?

Jesus' three parables in Luke 15 are about searching and finding lost things.
At a well in Samaria, Jesus calls his disciples to look at the ripeneed harvest fields. (John 4)
Jesus words in Jewricho at Zacchaeus' house. "The son of man came to seek and to save the lost."
The Lord's prayer ("your will be done on earth").
The sending out of the 72 to preach the Gospel, saying to them "The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few" (Luke 10)
Luke 6:38 The VOICE: "Don't hold back give freely, and you'll have plenty poured back into your lap."
Jesus' words in Luke 24:46-47: "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,"

9, How can individual believers apply the Great Commission in their daily lives?

While all will not be "goers" to the ends of the earth, we can all be senders by supporting world evangelism in prayer and financially as well as moral support.
Being witnesses to all those around us.

10. What role does evangelism play in fulfilling the Great Commission?

Evangelism, in the sense of proclaiming the Good News that God has come in the person of Jesus Christ to reconcile the world to Himself, is a key element of the Great Commission.

11. How does the Great Commission inspire global outreach and missionary work?

Those who commit themselves to Jesus as their Savior and make Him their Lord should be more than willing to participate as either senders or goers in the cause of fulfilling that Great Commission.

12. What challenges did the disciples face in carrying out the Great Commission?

13. How does the Great Commission emphasize the importance of discipleship and teaching?

In Matthew 289, Jesus said to make disciples and then to teach these new disciples "to obey all the commands I have given you" (New Living Bible).

14. How does the Great Commission relate to the spread of Christianity throughout history?

In many cases, it's been the driving force.

15. What are some practical strategies for fulfilling the Great Commission in today's world?

Work to foster Christ-ward movements rather than just individual conversions;
Raise up indigenous leaders and avoid paternalism by truly empowering them.
Make contextualization a priority so things don't feel like foreign imports
Use infinitely reproducible organizational structures and ministry patterns
Minister in incarnational and holistic ways

16,n How does the Great Commission intersect with cultural and social contexts?

When the Gospel is truly contextualized (as it was for Jews and Greeks of the First Century), Christ-followers will speak out against whatever evil enslaves people, while the Gospel's transforming power will bring out the best in people.

17. How does the Great Commission influence Christian perspectives on evangelism and outreach efforts?

18. What is the role of prayer in the context of the Great Commission?

"The man or woman at home who prays often has as much to do with the effectiveness of the missionary on the field, and consequently with the results of his or her labors, as the missionary." -- R. A. Torrey
"All movements of the Spirit in China, in our experience, may be traced to prayer," said missionary Jonathan Goforth.

19. How does the Great Commission shape the identity and purpose of the Church?

It calls us to be outward-focused and to "go."

20. What are some common misconceptions about the Great Commission?

Where does the Bible start speaking about world evangelism?

arrow pointing rightWhere does mission begin in the Bible? A good place to start is Genesis 1:1. [ more ]

    -- Howard Culbertson,

Afterword: Why do People Attach Great Importance to the Great Commission?

More for you on Christ's Great Commission

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