In my previous post, I took up the question of what the Bible has to say about the relationship between the local church and missions. I began by looking at the words of Jesus in Matthew 16:13-20. Obviously, Jesus did not outline a full-orbed missions strategy, but his teaching and commands are clearly foundational to the discussion. Before moving to the book of Acts, I would like to look at one more foundational “Jesus-text” – the Great Commission.
Matthew 28:16-20 reads: “16Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (ESV)
We note immediately that the commissioning of the disciples took place in Galilee, not in Jerusalem, heretofore the center of the Lord’s historical-redemptive actions. The Book of Acts chronicles the subsequent growth of the Church from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8), but the largest growth did not come as a result of the apostles who were gathered in Jerusalem sending out missionaries to the nations (as we might expect after reading the first few chapters of Acts). Rather, the center of missions sending, as recorded in Acts, shifted to the local church gathered in Antioch. Jesus paved the way for this transition by giving his disciples their marching orders, not in the marble halls of the Temple in Jerusalem, but in the hot and dusthills of Galilee.
When the disciples saw Jesus, they responded in worship. Now, we could read verse 17 as a simple record of what took place: The already bewildered disciples spy the resurrected Lord and they fall to the ground in worship at which point Jesus happens to commission them to make disciples of the nations. But the coordinating conjunction kai (“and”) that begins verse 18 will not allow us to do that. Jesus’ commissioning of his disciples is directly linked in the narrative to their worship of him and Matthew intends us to read it that way. The Great Commission is given in the context of worship. Therefore obedience to the Great Commission is first and foremost an act of worship. A church that truly worships Jesus Christ will be concerned to obey his commands to make disciples of the nations (cf. John 14:21). A church that is not concerned with issions, or does not give priority to it, is not obeying nor is that church worshiping the Lord as it should.
We find also that the disciple-making mandate is inextricably tied to the authority of Jesus. Before giving his command, Jesus established his authority by saying, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (28:18). “Heaven and earth” function as a merism, signaling the totality of power that has been given to Jesus. Such power cannot be sourced in human machinations, nor can it be demonically granted. Recall that Satan offered Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” if Jesus would “fall down and worship” him (4:8-9). Jesus refused to engage in such idolatry. Instead, he was obedient to the point of death on a cross and was rewarded with far more than Satan could give. “All authority in heaven and on earth” is clearly divine authority that can only be granted by God the Father. Hundreds of years earlier, Daniel foresaw the day when “one like a son of man” was “given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom is one that shall not be destroyed” (Dan 7:14). Jesus Christ is the recipient of that expansive kingdom of “all peoples, nations, and languages” and he has the right to send his followers to make disciples of those same nations.
There is no place that the Lord will send one of his heralds that his sovereign hand does not reach.
In the narrative, Jesus moved from authority to mission, leading us to conclude that it is the authority of Jesus that makes the mission possible (observe Matthew’s use of the connecting particle, oun, “therefore”). Missionaries and the churches that send them should be confident that wherever the missionary is sent, the Lord Jesus Christ exercises authority in that exact space. The authority granted to Jesus is not limited to the spiritual realm, but includes all power on earth as well. There is no place that the Lord will send one of his heralds that his sovereign hand does not reach.
Jesus’ command is clear: “make disciples” (matheteusate). The manner of disciple-making is prescribed by three participles: “go,” “baptize,” and “teach.” A number of observations pertinent to the local church are in order.
First, Jesus’ mandate is not to evangelize, but to make disciples. Surely evangelism is a necessary step on the way, but it is only that – a necessary, but on its own incomplete, step on the way to obeying Jesus’ command. A local church’s missions program cannot end at conversion. Further, the making of disciples is prescribed by Jesus as going, baptizing, and teaching. This manner of making disciples is not merely a good idea or one option among many, but is the command given by the One who possesses all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, churches formulating a missions strategy should give due consideration to that mandate. Perhaps not every missions program, due to lack of resources, can cover all aspects of disciple making equally well. And perhaps some missionaries are more gifted in one area than another. But lack of resources and specialization should never be used as an excuse to ignore the Lord’s clear imperative to make disciples. The end goal of any missions program should not ever be anything less than the multiplication of disciples of Jesus.
Second, Jesus commands his disciples to go. Some authors are so zealous to emphasize the command to make disciples that they teach that because the word commonly translated “go” is actually a participle, verse nineteen ought to be translated, “as you happen to be going, make disciples….” The sentiment to emphasize disciple making wherever you are is legitimate. The denial of the imperatival force of “go” is not. There is a reason that every major English translation renders Jesus’ words, “Go and make disciples.” The participle translated “go” takes on the mood of the finite verb (“make disciples”) and is rightly translated as a command. Therefore, it will not do for a church to ignore the nations and focus on making disciples at home, in its immediate neighborhood. Each local church must have a vision as broad as the command given to it: the nations. Obviously, every church may not be able to send a missionary from its own ranks overseas, but each church can invest the resources entrusted to it in partnering to send someone to the nations. Besides, missions allocation is rarely a zero-sum game. Churches that are serious about reaching the nations will find that reaching their neighbors will take on an urgency not felt by those unconcerned about taking the gospel beyond their borders. And even the smallest churches, nourished on a diet of faithful preaching regarding the mandate to go, will often find that the Lord uses that teaching to call some from their midst to go.
Third, the mandate to make disciples by baptizing and teaching surely involves the multiplication of churches. Baptism is an ordinance given to the church for initiation into the Christian faith and church, and it is instructive that Jesus ordered baptism before teaching in the disciple-making process. I believe that baptism functions here as a metonymy, the part substituted for the whole of repenting and believing the gospel followed by initiation into the body of Christ. The work of disciple-making then moves to teaching them to obey everything that the Lord commanded his followers. The order cannot be confused. One enters the Church and then one learns the way of Jesus (including the Kingdom ethic prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount). As will become more evident when we turn to Acts and Paul’s missionary journeys, the priority of local church missions should be the planting of churches, where teaching and discipling can effectively and faithfully take place.
Finally, Jesus promised his attendant presence to his disciples as they made disciples by going, baptizing, and teaching. Whenever and wherever the church goes, Jesus’ empowering presence will also be there. It should be of great comfort and confidence for the church that Jesus’ mandate to go and make disciples is framed by his personal affirmations of his unlimited authority and his omnipresence.
The making of disciples is not a clever idea that ensures the perpetuity of the church. Nor is it one possible missions strategy to be considered among the equally plausible options of evangelism crusades or social justice ministries (though each may play a role in the overall process). Churches that do not have disciple-making, by going, baptizing, and teaching, at the center of their missions program are not listening to Jesus. Disciple-making is a royal and divine summons, a command to be joyfully obeyed.
This post is modified from an original run on Credo Magazine.
About Todd Miles
Dr. Todd Miles is the Director of the Master of Theology Program and Associate Professor of Theology at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. Before his doctoral studies Todd was a Research Engineer at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory for ten years. Now Todd teaches Systematic Theology, Hermeneutics, and Ethics at Western Seminary. Todd serves as an elder at Hinson Memorial Baptist Church in Portland and is the author of "A God of Many Understandings? The Gospel and Theology of Religions" (Nashville: B&H, 2010).