In the last issue of the Chalcedon Report I began a careful study of the Great Commission as found in Matthew 28. In that article I focused on the authority of the Commission; in this concluding article I will reflect upon the actual mission of the Commission as commanded by Christ when He commanded us: “Go make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19).
Christ’s Resurrection Mission
The discipleship idea involves training in the Christian faith. The Greek word for “disciple” is the verb matheteuo, which involves exercising authority over another person so as to train him for service. In the Great Commission discipling is definitely redemptive in orientation, for it involves baptism in the Name of the Triune God. It is no simple humanitarianism; it is no social gospel.
The Great Commission does not merely speak of being a witness to all nations, else the word would have been martureo (from whence we derive “martyr”). It is not just to preach to all nations, or the word would have been kerusso. We are actually to disciple, to bring under Christ’s yoke and to train all nations.
Dispensationalists often misconstrue this. Charles Feinberg writes, “Nothing could be plainer in the New Testament than that in this age of grace God uses the church, members of the body of Christ, to be witnesses throughout the earth.” He then refers to Matthew 28:18-20. The terminology employed by the Lord will not allow this reduction of the concept of “disciple.” It will not tolerate the Great Commission to all nations becoming the Great Suggestion to scattered individuals.
Certainly this entails evangelism. That is the absolutely crucial and essential starting point for Christian discipleship. Apart from the saving grace of Jesus Christ in the heart of the sinner “the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God” ( Rom. 8:7-8). The Lord clearly taught that “as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn. 1:12-13). He also informs us that “unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:3).
We ought to be engaged in reaching out to the lost and presenting them the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. Historic, orthodox Christianity sees the fundamental need of man as a right relationship with God. And that cannot be gained apart from the supernatural salvation wrought by Christ: “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:1-2).
But it does not stop there, as dispensationalists are prone to think. Megachurch fundamentalist pastor Jack Hyles has written of the Great Commission: “Notice the four basic verbs: (1) Go. (2) Preach. (3) Baptize. (4) Teach them again. You teach them something after you get them saved and baptized. What do you teach them? To ‘observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.’ Now what did He teach us to do? Go, preach, baptize, then teach what He taught us to do. So, we teach them to go, preach, and baptize, that they may teach their converts to go and preach and baptize.”1
The Lord commanded that we should “teach them to observe all things that I have taught you” (Mt. 28:20). And it is abundantly clear that Christ did not limit His teaching to the message of individual salvation from hell. And He promised to lead His disciples into all truth (Jn. 16:13), so everything they taught was what He would have them teach. Yet they did not limit their teaching to personal redemption, either. Had such been the case, the Gospels would have been much, much shorter, as well as the New Testament as a whole.
In His first major discourse, the Sermon on the Mount, we read of the Lord’s reaffirmation of the law of God: “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fill it full measure” (Mt. 5:17). Paul states in Romans 3:31: “Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law.” And surely the Law of God cannot be limited solely to personal salvation. It must apply to the wider culture of man. Thus, this is one major feature of the “all things” Christ taught. Consequently, our discipleship instruction ought to include the law of God, as well.
When we read the New Testament we discover a broad scope in the teaching of Christ and His Apostles. Their scope is as broad as the world. Christ came to save individual sinners from their sin, to be sure. But as I have said, He came also to save the “world,” the whole system of men and things. Hence, the broad world and life teaching of Christ and the Apostles. The New Testament promotes a Christian view of social duty and involvement. One vehement amillennial theologian in the Presbyterian Church in America criticizes theonomic ethics by arguing: “If anything has changed [in my view of the sufficiency of Scripture], then, it is that I would now argue with equal zeal for the insufficiency of Scripture in other than religious or covenantal areas. As such, Scripture is not a sufficient guide to many aspects of life, other than in the sense of providing religious direction and motivation to all of life.”2
Of course, the New Testament is concerned with marriage and divorce (Mt. 5:27-32), family relations (Eph. 5:22-33), and child rearing (Col. 3:21), as all agree. But it also instructs us regarding the rich man’s duty to the poor (Mt. 25:31-46), employer-employee relationships (Eph. 6:5-9), honest wages (Lk. 10:17), free-market bargaining (Mt. 20:1-15), private property rights (Ac. 5:4), godly citizenship and the proper function of the state (Mt. 22:21), the family as the primary agency of welfare (1 Tim. 5:8), proper use of finances (Mt. 15:14ff.), the dangers of debt (Rom. 13:8), the morality of investment (Mt. 25:14-30), the obligation to leaving an inheritance (2 Cor. 12:14), penal restraints upon criminals (Rom. 13:4), lawsuits (1 Cor. 6:1-8), and more. In doing so, it reflects and supplements the socio-cultural concern of the Old Testament, urging the people of God to live all of life under Christ’s authority, not just the inter-personal or family or church areas of life. Hence, the command to “observe all things I taught you.”
Thus, the Christian discipleship program should teach the whole Word of God, which equips us for every good work (2 Tim. 3:17). The Christian disciple should be engaged in exposing works of darkness (Eph. 5:11). He should not only engage in negatively confronting the works of darkness through rebuke, but supplanting them through a challenge with the Truth and by a positive reconstructing of all of life: “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:4-5). Thus, as Paul says: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Rom. 12:1-2).
Christ’s Resurrection Expectation
The Great Commission truly establishes a great commission. It institutes a program of immense proportions, a program calling for world transformation. Christ commands the discipling of all nations in all things He has taught. He lays upon His people the task of bringing all men and their cultural endeavors under the redemptive Lordship of the Triune God.
How can such a program be accomplished? Surely He did not expect it to occur overnight. Millions of evangelicals teach that Christ’s coming to end history as we know it has been imminent ever since He ascended into heaven. They live by the standard of pop-theologian Hal Lindsey: “We should be living like people who don’t expect to be around much longer.” Who would set themselves to the long, expensive, difficult, time consuming task of world transformation if he believed the world as he knows it could end at any moment?3
But the language of the Great Commission clearly demands the historical long run. Christ states literally: “I will be with you all the days.” He did not say: “Expect me to return to cease your labors at any moment.” Just as the preceding “all”s are to be understood in their fullness, so is this statement of the duration of His presence with His people to ensure the accomplishment of the task.
How extensive is Christ’s authority? It encompasses “all authority in heaven and on earth.” How broadly is the ministry to be applied? It is to involve the discipling of “all the nations.” How thorough is the training to be? In “all things whatsoever” He taught. How long is the time He left for His disciples? He did not say, “Perhaps I’ll be back tomorrow.” Rather He speaks of the ever-lengthening vistas of the future, declaring: “I will be with you through all the great number of days stretching out before you.”
Had He not taught His disciples to expect a long delay before His return? In the Parable of the Virgins He warned that “while the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept” (Mt. 25:5). In the Parable of the Talents He warned: “After a long time the lord of those servants came and settled accounts with them” (Mt. 25:19). He even dissuaded His disciples from short-term expectations in Acts 1:6-7: “And so when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, ‘Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?’ He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority.” “Times and epochs” speak in the plural of great spans of time.
Christians, we must train our children and those who are converted to Christ through our evangelism to dig in for the long haul. It was in the past century (the 1900s) that we witnessed what secularists called “the triumph humanism.” It was also in that century that we saw the triumph of the dispensationalist imminency doctrine and its cultural retreat, which effectively removed an earlier widespread Christian cultural endeavor.4 Too many Christians have withdrawn from culture to await Christ’s “any-moment” appearing. I think the triumph of dispensationalism is partly related to the triumph of humanism.
The task before us is enormous. But the equipment is sufficient: The Resurrected One with “all authority” directs us. He has given us “all the days.” And He promises us: “I will be with you.” In the Greek this statement is greatly emphasized. It literally reads: “I, I will be with you.”
We may confidently expect success in the long run. Christ, the Resurrected Christ is with us. The Old Testament prophets, the New Testament Apostles, and the Lord of glory all look to glorious days in earth’s future in which all nations “from the river to the ends of the earth” will come and bow down before Him. And He uses His people to get the task accomplished under His administration.
The Great Commission ends appropriately in the Majority Text: “Amen.” Amen means simply, “So be it.”
1. Jack Hyles, Let’s Go Soul Winning (Murfreesboro, Tenn.: Sword of the Lord, 1962), 22. John R. Rice agrees in his Why Our Churches Do Not Win Souls (Murfreesboro, Tenn.: Sword of the Lord, 1966), 22.
2. T. David Gordon, “The Insufficiency of Scripture,” in Modern Reformation (Jan.-Feb., 2002), 22.
3. For a rebuttal of the notion of imminence see: J. A. Alexander, “The End is Not Yet,” in Gentry, ed., Thine Is the Kingdom.
4. See a thorough critique of the imminency doctrine in J. A. Alexander, “The End is Not Yet” in Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., ed., Thine Is the Kingdom: Studies in the Postmillennial Hope (Vallecito, Calif.: Chalcedon, 2003).