And Jesus came and spoke unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:
Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen. (Matthew 28:18-20)
Matthew 28:19 is among the "linchpin" verses of the Christian Faith. Once saved and knitted into the fellowship of the beloved, the new believer is supernaturally drawn to the Great Commission as his natural assignment. He is to go and make disciples sharing with others the Gospel (the good news) of Jesus Christ. Perhaps more than in any other portion of Scripture, the treatment of this passage its interpretation and exposition illustrates the theological distinctives between the modern evangelical church and the historic, orthodox Faith.
If such words as "hermeneutics" and "exegesis" make you shrink in discomfort, remember that rightly dividing the Word of truth is a requirement of all of us. These high-sounding terms simply refer to the interpretation of Scripture. Alas, the "Great Commission" has been reduced to the "great omission" due to the faulty hermeneutic of a pietistic, twentieth-century church.
Rule Number One may well be: Don't take verses out of context. What is happening here and now? Jesus has returned, resurrected, and is giving His disciples His final admonition. Note that, just before he "commissions" them, He proclaims: All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Christ Himself does not hint that His preeminence or reign will occur at some future date (after the church has been beaten up by the devil), but exists now. In heaven and in earth. Heaven and earth are rightly His (a fait accompli, as the French would say: an accomplished fact).
Now comes the key and most abused verse: go ye therefore, and teach all nations; or as some versions render it, make disciples of all nations. Each word here is pregnant with Bible truth, not the least of which is the word "therefore." Therefore, referring to what? To the fact that all power is His, that heaven and earth are His, and that we are (therefore) to exercise these facts as believers. Herein lies the real great, commission.
Coming of Age
For those of us who have come out of the unarticulated feel-good faith typical of the church today and into creedal orthodoxy, there have been some notable, new, concepts to embrace. One of these is the dawning idea of the corporate or public intent of the promises of Scripture over and above the personal and private. Thanks to the pietistic exegesis of Scripture after Scripture (by pastor after pastor, year after year), most of us viewed everything from covenant, to holiness, to evangelism, as essentially individual functions in the past. How did we manage to gloss over the multitude of references to "nations" and to "peoples" and to "generations"? Indeed, how can 90-something percent of the pulpits today continue to disregard the corporate nature of the Christian life, or of the very Bible itself? Once we grasp the intent of the Word to apply to peoples over and above the self-centered believer we are baffled that others choose to ignore the corporate nature of the Gospel as they do.
Our fathers in the Faith understood the wider scope of the prerequisites and promises of God, and would be dumbfounded at the bless-us-four-and-no-more heresy of the typical Christian family today. They knew that nations were to be brought into conformity to the commandments of God, and were, typically, outward looking. It was all part-and-parcel of their understanding of covenant. Their exploits, over which we marvel, were inspired by an extroverted, corporate faith not introverted, introspective, "personal" holiness. Read the Bible! Read the historic covenants! Read the letters, journals, documents!
The fact that our fathers also (rightly) understood that God's Word applies to believer and unbeliever alike demolished the abominable notion that we Christians have no right to "impose" our "religious beliefs" on those around us. Ralph Reed's brand of political pragmatism would be grounds for treason to the great reformers, and for certain untimely death in the Bible. We have every right to assert the law-word of God to the Christian and to the infidel, precisely because all power in heaven and earth belong to Him whose name we bear.
Go, Fight, Win?
The "go" in "go-ye-therefore" has meant go away, go far, and go it alone, to most of the church for two centuries. The covenant idea of succession, the passing on of the Faith by making disciples of our children (lots of them) has certainly been lost for a long time. The emphasis has been on making converts. While the saints who have labored in foreign and domestic mission fields for two hundred years deserve crowns for their unimaginable sacrifices and service, the commission of Christ has at least as much to do with commandments as with converts.
The large "evangelistic meeting" has also been a vehicle for making converts for some time. We cannot ignore the effectiveness of this tactic, insofar as the preaching of God's Word has been used for His election purposes for those who have ears to hear. The validity of this brand of evangelism, however, regarding the Great Commission, is in direct proportion to its fidelity to the whole commission. Is the culture changed with all the converts? Are the nations being reformed by the converts? Lately, mass evangelism has forgotten the greatness, the totality, of the Great commission and has been satisfied with fire insurance instead. If we were truly making disciples, we would see more fruit in the cultures "reached for Christ." Period.
We contemplate, in awe, the days of the Great Awakening on our own soil, or of the great revivals of the ages. Yet they are not so mysterious after all, when with a closer look, we see what actually happened.
Revival, Spiritual Awakening and Societal Reformation
One of the most provocative and productive studies one can undertake is to read the accounts in Scripture of the revivals among God's people. It is eminently clear that great revival (and then spiritual awakening among the heathen) is always preceded by the recovery and public pronouncement of God's commandments. Likewise, in historic revival through the ages, it is the Law Word replete with the goodness and severity of God that brings what the pietistic pundits would attribute to a "move of the Spirit."
There is no doubt that the third Person of the Trinity visits, manifestly, in times of conversions. He is our promised, indwelling, paraclete as we bow our hearts to Christ. The truth, however, that "signs" follow the reading or preaching of the Word (Mk. 16:20, etc.) is undeniable. What Word? The Word of God. The unedited, unabridged, Word of God. Read the sermons of the preachers of the Great Awakening. Is it any wonder that the Holy Spirit was quick and active as these instruments of God faithfully proclaimed His Word? Did these preachers toil over "seeker-sensitive" messages, or simply obediently perform Christ's instructions: "teach all nations . . . to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you"?
It is not much of an intellectual stretch to put together what we know to be the theology of the American church for the past nearly two centuries, and then calculate her effectiveness in the Great Commission. Yes, we have sent out more missionaries than any other nation in the history of the world. Yes, we have done more "good" around the world than any other nation. But who is winning? Are the nations in Africa, India, Central and South America, Asia, or Europe for that matter, more Christian in the 1990s (with all of their "converts") than they were before the great mission organizations were spawned in the 1800s? Are there more disciples?
If the THEOLOGY of the sending organization is Arminian, premillennial, dispensational, pietistic and ascetic, then the preaching of its missionaries will be Arminian, premillennial, dispensational, pietistic and ascetic. They will produce Arminian, premillennial, dispensational, pietistic, ascetic converts not world-changing disciples of Christ with the equipment and the guts to advance the Crown Rights of the King of kings. With all the reach-every-people-group-by-the-year-2000 goals in the church today, our missionary effectiveness is pitiful. We have dropped the last half of the Great Commission.
We can trace the (im)potency of our modern missionary efforts directly to the heresies that infected the church in the nineteenth century. Only God knows what proportion of the saints who are currently in Christian "vocations" are completely indoctrinated in the law-is-bad/grace-is-good error. The purpose here is not to expound on the correct Puritan views that all vocations and avocations are kingdom-cause related, that the Law is gracious, and that grace is law-filled. The aim is not to list the errors in the church today. The point is that error is transmitted from seminary to pulpit to believer to convert. The result is legion upon legion of infantile, cowardly converts who are only following the lead of "evangelists" who debunk the commandments of God as being contrary to grace.
All Things Whatsoever I Have Commanded You
It would be preaching to the choir to delineate the "all things" that Christ intended when He instructed His disciples to teach all nations what He had commanded. We all ought to be convinced of the unity of Scripture, and of the blessings promised to the people who keep His commandments. It remains a puzzle, however, that so much of the church can tip-toe around His meaning in Matthew 28, when it is so clearly based on the immutable, Old-and-New-Testament law. What else, on earth (or in heaven) would it be? Our Great Commission is plain: to teach all nations to observe all that He commands us to do, baptizing them ("immersing" them) in the Trinity, and to bear the name of, the living Triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
All Nations, Under God
Finally, let's take a look at what Matthew 28 does not say. It does not say: go ye therefore, and teach all churches, or teach all Sunday school classes, or teach all Christians, but teach all nations, all that Christ has commanded us. Nations, by nature, are social entities, political entities, economic entities, cultural entities, ethnic entities. To presume that we can accomplish the Great Commission while confining our "fellowship" to those around us in the pews and prayer meetings is utter nonsense.
We must view the Great Commission in terms of impacting the national life of any nation we inhabit. The arts, education, technologies, political arenas, must all be reached with His commandments. How? By the vigorous participation in all of these areas by the elect of God. Our very presence, of necessity, teaches others. God always provides opportunities to teach others. While some of us will be commissioned to go elsewhere, most of us will fulfill or reject the call right where we live.
The "Great Commission" has been misunderstood, misdirected and misused. It is one restatement of Jesus' great conclusion to the beatitudes; that is, that we are to be salt and light to the nations as His people, a city set on a hill. We cannot be what He wants us to be if we are embarrassed about His commandments, or apologetic about the consequences of refusing Him. When the church zealously embraces His commandments, embodied in all of Scripture and with zeal proclaims them then we shall see the nations baptized, awash in the blessings of the Triune God. As long as the church tries to side-step the commandments, with the despicable falsehood that "the law" is dead, the Great Commission will remain the romantic notion of a few missionaries. With proper esteem for the second half of Christ's instructions, "teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you," we have His promise that He is present with His church to complete the task, even unto the end of the world. Amen.
- Abby Oberst
Abby Oberst is currently serving on a free-lance basis for Cleveland-based Christian Endeavors and Reformation Bible Institute, and for writers and publishers in Christian Reconstruction, including Ross House Books. After extended terms in marketing communications, non-profit organizations and teaching, her role as bulletin editor for Shiloh Christian Church provides the medium for much of her writing. For more information about Shiloh Christian Church write to: P.O. Box 638, Painesville, Ohio 44077 or [email protected]. Shiloh's home page can be found at http://www.shilohcc.com/index.html/.