Only when we realize mission can not be accomplished by our own authority should we turn our minds towards it. Evangelism is Jesus’ responsibility. And our participation in his mission is only possible because of our participation in him. Jesus does, however, by his authority commission us.
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. – Matthew 28:19-20a
Perhaps it would be useful if we listed a few things to which Jesus does not call us in this passage. We are NOT commissioned to:
- convince people to believe a particular list of doctrines.
- get people into a church building on Sunday morning (or any other day and time).
- plant churches.
We ARE commissioned to make disciples. I’m not suggesting planting churches is wrong. Or that inviting a friend to worship with you on Sunday is a mistake. I’m only listing a few (a very few) of those things which have seemed to take precedence over disciple-making these days. Even my own mission team here in Tanzania is often referred to as a “church-planting team.” I much prefer the term “disciple-making,” because our focus isn’t on churches but on disciples.
So what’s a disciple?
Jesus, in this passage,* defines a disciple as a baptized person who is learning to obey all of his commands.
John King, one of my mentors in Christ, wrote a 3-post series for me on discipleship. You can find his thoughts here:
You know Jesus never once used the word Christian? Actually, a pretty good (I think excellent) argument can be made that the word Christian, all three times it is used in the Bible (yes, a whopping three), is meant as a derogatory term for followers of Jesus — and was not how they referred to themselves. The term believers is used more often (I read 14 times), but never by Jesus.
Jesus only refers to his followers as disciples, students, or learners — all of those being translations of the same word (mathetes).** I wonder if there’s not something to that? Christianity has in many ways become about merely believing in Jesus, adhering to particular doctrines, and/or church attendance. Perhaps we’d be better off simply thinking of ourselves as students at the feet of Jesus?
Jesus’ description of a disciple is both straightforward and clear, but we must not confuse simple definitions with simple tasks. Jesus’ words absolutely necessitate obedience to his teachings — something many of our definitions of Christian don’t necessarily involve. I’m afraid we’ve so wanted to distance ourselves from works-based religion that we’ve muddled (if not ignored) the very words of Jesus.
Are we worried we don’t possess within ourselves the ability to be obedient to Jesus’ teachings? If so, I happily concede this point. This I see as one more reason it’s so very important we read The Great Commission within its context. Remember that Jesus couches our assignment (and his description of a disciple) in these words:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
“Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Obedience to Jesus is assumed in the life of a disciple. But so is the presence and authority of Christ. Just as participation in mission is made possible only through participation in Christ, so is obedience to his words.
This post is the third in a series on The Great Commission. Other posts can be found here:
* And I do try these days, as much as is possible, to let each passage interpret itself.
** With the exception of referring to the 12 as apostles.