When most Christians hear the phrase Great Commission, my guess is that Matthew 28:18–20 comes to mind. While this passage is crucial to our understanding of the Great Commission, I want to encourage you to consider the Great Commission not as a single command from Matthew’s Gospel but as the collective whole of five commissioning statements that Jesus gave to his followers during the forty-day period between His resurrection and ascension.
I have written about this at greater length elsewhere,1 but the basic idea can be briefly summarized. And, to be clear, this is not merely an issue of semantics. If we are serious about obeying the mission mandates of Jesus Christ, then it is essential that we understand the nuances in each statement. Consider a few of those nuances below.
Surveying Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts
In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus issues an imperative: “… make disciples of all nations.” If we are going to be faithful in carrying out that mandate, then it is critical to investigate how Jesus defined a disciple. Any serious study of Jesus’s definition of a disciple must begin with the ten instances in which He used either the verb “to disciple” (matheteuo) or the noun “disciple” (mathetes).2 It is amazing to me that we run off trying to accomplish a task we have been given without allowing Jesus to describe what a disciple looks like. We can’t make disciples if we don’t know what a disciple is.
We should also pay attention to the global dimension of Christ’s commissioning statements.3 In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells us to go and make disciples “of all nations,” and this command extends to every church and every follower of Christ. Therefore, each of us should think strategically and intentionally about how our lives will be leveraged for this global purpose of God.
In Luke’s commissioning statement, Luke 24:45-47, Jesus highlights three foundational concepts from the Old Testament and then opens the minds of the disciples to understand these concepts. These three concepts must direct the life of every church and every follower of Jesus: (1) the crucifixion, (2) the resurrection, and (3) the proclamation of the message of redemption to all nations. The question is, Why do we make the third statement optional in our churches?
In Acts 1:8, we learn that whatever God calls us to do or to be, he grants us the power and ability to accomplish it through the “power” (dynamis) of the Holy Spirit and our union with Jesus. As we live in fellowship with the Triune God, we will be his faithful “witnesses” (martyrs).
A Closer Look at John
That leaves John 20:21. I wish I could rewrite the chapter I wrote eight years ago, because I missed an essential truth about how we are to accomplish the mandates of Jesus. I now believe that the tasks communicated in the above commissioning statements are built upon the foundational truth contained in the first commissioning statement that Jesus gave following his resurrection:
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you. (John 20:21)
A popular understanding of this passage is that Jesus is emphasizing that every Christian is a missionary. However, in the same way that not every Christian is a pastor, so also the missionary task has a specific biblical role in accomplishing the task of making disciples of all nations and planting churches where none exist. So does that mean we have an out, an excuse not to be involved in the global mission of God? No! Scripture clearly states that every believer is sent into the world to be strategically and intentionally engaged in the mission of God both locally and globally (simultaneously), but that is another article.
John also reports for us a similar statement that Jesus prayed four days earlier. The only variation in these two statements relates to the person or persons Jesus is speaking to. On the Thursday evening of the Last Supper, after Jesus’ final instructions to His disciples, He prayed for them and for us as follows: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:18).4
The essential question we must struggle with is, How did the Father send the Son? How we answer this question determines whether we conclude that this statement is just another way of expressing the task we’ve been given in the other commissioning statements or whether this commissioning statement establishes the foundation for how we accomplish the mission of Jesus. The answer is discovered in the portrait of Jesus that John paints for the reader.
One of the central messages in John’s Gospel is that Jesus is the sent one of God. Thirty-eight times John records that Jesus is sent by the Father.5 And John clearly tells us why Jesus was sent in John 3:17: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Paul affirms this in his first letter to Timothy: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 2:15).
So if Jesus came to save sinners, then we are sent as His ambassadors (as in 2 Corinthians 5:20)6 in order to share this message of salvation to the world. This is true, but it doesn’t explain how the Father intended for His Son to accomplish His mission or how we are to fulfill the mission we’ve been given.
The ‘How’ of the Son’s Mission
The portrait that John develops of Jesus is of the Word that was not only with God but also was God (1:1). This Word “became flesh” and lived in the world among us (1:14). Yet, in His humanity, Jesus did not accomplish His mission through his own self-determined effort or authority, as you might expect from One who is fully divine. No, John highlights the reality that Christ, the God-man, lived in intimate submission to the Father. Jesus did nothing on his own initiative; he only did what the Father desired (5:19); he only said what he heard from the Father (3:34; 7:17); he only judged as the Father judged (5:30).7
How, then, did the Son, as the Word made flesh (John 1:14), fulfill the mission the Father sent Him to accomplish? He did it through daily, intimate submission to the Father’s will and direction.8 And this is how we are to fulfill our mission as well.
As the redeemed of God, we have been sent into the world by the Word made flesh so that, by pursuing daily intimacy with the Father, submitting to His will and direction, and being empowered by the Holy Spirit, we might glorify God as we accomplish the mission he has given us. The key principle and privilege in this statement is the daily, intimate submission to the Triune God. The bride of Christ accomplishes the mission of God, making disciples of all nations, as she responds to the invitation of intimacy and walks in submission to the Father’s directives.
Jesus’ prayer in John 17:21-23 captures this concept. In verses 17-19, He asks the Father to set His followers apart for his service as He sends them into the world. Verse 20 awakens us to the fact that Jesus’ prayer extends to all his followers throughout the ages. He prays,
. . . that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. (John 17:21–23)
Notice how Jesus’ invitation to participate in intimacy is so that the world may believe and know that the Father sent the Son. This is what we have been sent into the world to do. Jesus prays that the church would be a faithful manifestation of the union and intimacy of the Father and the Son to the world. Then Jesus invites his followers to experience the intimacy of their union. Of course, this can only happen because Christ has granted us the gift of eternal life, which He defines as knowing God and the One whom God has sent (John 17:2–3). Jesus then states that He has given us the glory that the Father has given him so that we might live with one another in a way that expresses the intimacy of the Father-Son relationship. I would maintain that the glory Jesus is referring to is the glory of the cross, since there is no way that I will love people who are not like me unless I die to self.9 I’m staggered by the thought that this is central to accomplishing His mission.
If the Son of God incarnate carried out His mission by fully relying on His heavenly Father, what makes us think that such reliance is unnecessary as we seek to carry out the mission we’ve been given? Are we wiser than Jesus? Is it possible that we blindly go about trying to accomplish His mission in the wisdom of the flesh and through self-effort, while ignoring His commissioning prayer for us?
I believe that the only hope for the church to accomplish Christ’s mission in this generation is that we must pursue the intimacy of the Father through the knowledge of the Son and the indwelling Spirit, abiding in His Word, yielding to His daily guidance, as we make disciples of all nations. Though it may sound simplistic, should we not be still and know that He is God, believing that He will be exalted among the nations (Psalm 46:10)? My prayer is that instead of a local church trying to create a brand, the church would become all that Jesus prayed for her to be, so that all nations would be discipled for the glory of His name.
1. See my chapter titled “God’s Great Commissions to the Nations” in Discovering the Mission of God, eds. Mark Barnett and Robin Martin.
2. Mathew 10:24-25 (Luke 6:40 is a repeat of Matthew 10:24), 13:52, 28:19, Luke 14:26, 27, 33, John 8:31, 13:35, 15:8
3. As noted in many English translations, the commissioning statement in Mark 16:9–20 is not contained in some of the earliest and most reliable manuscripts of Mark’s Gospel. Therefore, many scholars do not consider these verses to be a part of Scripture. However, regardless of one’s view of Mark 16:9–20, the command attributed to Jesus in Mark 16:15 is consistent with the other passages on the Great Commission addressed in this article.
4. In John 17:20 Jesus applies this prayer to all believers.
5. John 3:34; 4:34; 5:23-24, 30, 36-38; 6:29, 38-39, 44, 57; 7:16, 28-29, 33; 8:16, 18, 26, 29, 42; 9:4; 10:36; 11:42; 12:44-45, 49; 13:30; 14:24; 15:21; 16:5; 17:3, 8, 18, 21, 23, 25; 20:21
6. 2 Corinthians 5:20
7. John 4:34, 5:19-24, 5:30, 6:38-40, 8:16-19, 38, 10:38, 12:44, 49-50, 14:3, 17:4, to list a few.
8. For other passages dealing with the Son’s mission, see John 1:14; 3:16-17; 5:19-47; 17:4.
9. John 12:27-28, 17:4, Luke 14:27