The Universal Scope of the Great Commission, by David Rogers
As I read Matthew’s version of the Great Commission, the term “all”, used both explicitly and implicitly throughout the passage, stands out to me as significant. First, I think it is significant that, occurring after the death of Judas, and before the incorporation of Matthias to the company of the twelve, all of the apostles are present and are evidently recipients on an equal basis of the commission given by Jesus in this moment. As you correctly observe in your last letter, there appears to be some divergence between the degree of pure worship, and the corresponding degree of doubt, offered by each disciple. However, I think it is significant that the legitimacy of each disciple as a recipient of the Great Commission is not called into question, regardless of the respective level of doubt or purity of worship. The Great Commission is given, without reservation, to all.
I also see as significant the declaration that all authority has been given to Jesus, as Lord and Guarantor of the Great Commission, and graciously imparted to his disciples. As recipients of the Great Commission, we do not depend on any human institution for the authority necessary to do the job with which He entrusts us. The authority with which we act, as disciples of Jesus, is the authority of Jesus himself. Just as the Father sent Jesus, anointing Him with the Holy Spirit to “preach good news to the poor, proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, release the oppressed, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” so also He has sent us, with the same anointing, to fulfill the same calling (John 20:21; Luke 4:16-21).
Next, I see a great amount of significance in the fact that we are to make disciples of all nations. As I understand the Great Commission, once an individual, as a result of the obedience of previously existing disciples of Jesus in proclaiming the gospel, comes himself to be a disciple of Jesus, this new disciple, in turn, becomes a recipient of the same Great Commission, with a newly conferred responsibility to make disciples of others. As a result of this, I believe we can legitimately state that the scope of the Great Commission includes both the making of new disciples among all the nations, as well as the raising up of a Body of native disciple-makers called out from among all the nations of the earth. I, from a missiological perspective, find particularly interesting and exciting the increasing incorporation into the missionary work force of cross-cultural ministers from places that have traditionally been viewed more as mission fields than as mission sending bases.
Next, I see in Matthew’s narration of the Great Commission an emphasis on the universal scope of the message we are to proclaim and instill into the disciples we are called to make. The disciple-making process does not end at the moment of the disciples’ public identification, through baptism, with their new relationship of trust in the saving grace, and submission to the lordship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It also embraces the comprehensive teaching of obedience to all the commands of Jesus regarding the revolutionary life principles embodied in the gospel of the Kingdom of God. As I indicated in a previous letter, I believe the ultimate scope, or “end-vision”, of the disciple-making process, is magisterially captured by Paul in the following words from Ephesians 4:13: “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
In the New Testament, we have specific commands, as Jesus’ disciples, regarding separating from false teachers and “every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching [we] have received from the [biblical writers]” (Galatians 1:6-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:6). At the same time, however, there are certain areas in which the duty to separate is not quite so clear. Never, for instance, do we find a command to separate from authentic disciples of Jesus due to variant understandings of disputable matters of Christian teaching and practice that have a secondary or tertiary connection to the central truths of the gospel. What we do find, rather, is the admonition to accept all those whom Christ has also accepted (Romans 14-15:7). In addition, the disciples, upon seeing someone casting out demons who was not one of their group, were warned by Jesus to not stop him, because “whoever is not against [us] is for [us]” (Luke 9:49-50).
Finally, we have the promise of Jesus that, as we seek to be faithful in the task of carrying out his Great Commission, He is with us “always, to the very end of the age.” Until the advent of the modern missionary movement, for many centuries, Christendom had, for the most part, misinterpreted the Great Commission, regarding it to have been given exclusively to the original apostles. However, the wording of Matthew makes clear that Christ’s presence would accompany his followers throughout all of history, as all of us, as legitimate heirs of the commission communicated verbally to the eleven, seek to be faithful stewards of the task entrusted to us by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The error of the Roman church, as well as of many other Christian denominations, has been to institutionalize the realization of the Great Commission, leaving it in the hands of ecclesiastical hierarchies, who use their misappropriated authority to “bind” where Christ has not previously “bound”, and, at times, to “loose” where Christ has not previously “loosed” (Matthew 18:18).
As Baptists, I believe we have much for which to be grateful as beneficiaries of a rich heritage of a by-in-large trustworthy transmission of the commands of Christ and faithful obedience to the Great Commission. However, I believe we must, at the same time, be ever vigilant to not allow pride for our heritage to prevent us from opening our hearts to cooperation with other true brothers and sisters in Christ who may not have had access to the same teaching and tradition as us. In keeping with the principle of semper reformanda, we must also endeavor to remain humble enough to receive instruction from other groups of Christians, who may have also received light from God in their own understanding of Scripture, without ever, at the same time, compromising on our submission to the authority of the inerrant Word of God as our supreme guide in faith and practice.
Letter #1, Two Requirements for a Universal Fulfillment of the Great Commission, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #7, Both the End and the Means are Established by the Lord, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #8, A Matter of Emphasis?, by David Rogers Letter #9, Complete Obedience versus Hesitant Discipleship, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #10, The Universal Scope of the Great Commission, by David Rogers Letter #11, Freedom, Power and Authority in the Great Commission, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #12, Enduring Submission to the Great Commission, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #13, Obeying the Commands of Jesus, by David Rogers Letter #14, John Gill on Romans 14 and 15:1-7, by David Rogers Letter #15, The Illustration of the Hypothetical "Common Loaf Denomination", by David Rogers Letter #16, A Condensed Response to Your Last Three Letters, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #17, Further Discussion on Cooperation and Obedience, by David Rogers Letter #18 (Part I), Faith and Faithfulness: Truth, Love, and the Limits of Fellowship, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #18 (Part II), Faith and Faithfulness: Truth, Love, and the Limits of Fellowship, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #18 (Part III), Faith and Faithfulness: Truth, Love, and the Limits of Fellowship, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #19, A Deep Division?, by David Rogers