The Great Commission refers to the instruction of Jesus Christ to his disciples to spread his teachings to all the nations of the world. It is considered a fundamental mission of Christianity and a key basis for evangelism. The most familiar version of the Great Commission is found in Matthew 28:16-20:
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Here Jesus instructs his followers to “make disciples of all nations.” This involves going out into the world, baptizing new believers, and teaching them to follow Jesus’ commands. The scope is universal – “all nations.” And Jesus promises to be with them as they carry out this mission to the end of the age.
There are similar accounts of the Great Commission in the other Gospels:
And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:15-16)
And he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:46-47)
And at the beginning of Acts, just before Jesus ascends into heaven:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
Though the details differ slightly, the core elements are consistent: Jesus commands his followers to spread the gospel and make disciples throughout the entire world.
The Great Commission has profound theological implications for Christianity:
- It affirms the universal relevance of Jesus Christ. His life, death, and resurrection have meaning for all people in all cultures. No nation or ethnicity is excluded from the gospel.
- It gives purpose and direction to the church. Making disciples is the essential mission of Christianity in the world.
- It implies the inclusivity of the church. All nations are invited into God’s kingdom and covenant community.
- It asserts Jesus’ divine authority over heaven and earth, underscoring his deity.
- It promises Jesus’ abiding spiritual presence with his followers as they spread the gospel worldwide.
In summary, the Great Commission establishes evangelism and disciple-making as the core priorities for Christianity. It points to the intrinsic global nature of the faith. And it provides assurance of Jesus’ continuing presence and partnership in the task.
We can break down the Great Commission into several key elements:
Jesus commands his followers to “go” into the world, spreading outward from Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Rather than staying in one place or keeping to themselves, they are to take the initiative to reach out to all peoples. This implies being active, mobile, and willing to travel far outside one’s comfort zone.
The essential mission is to “make disciples” – to convert new believers and incorporate them into the family of Christ. This means evangelizing the lost and teaching them to follow Christ. It does not specify a particular methodology, allowing many different approaches to evangelism and discipleship across cultures.
Those who believe are to be baptized in the name of the Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Baptism serves publicly identify new followers of Jesus and initiate them into the fellowship of the church.
Baptized believers must be taught to obey all that Jesus commanded. This implies ongoing discipleship and moral instruction within the community of faith. The life of a disciple is marked by obedience to Christ’s ethical and spiritual teaching.
Jesus promises to be with his followers always as they carry out this commission. They do not engage in this mission alone, but have the abiding presence of Christ with them through the Spirit (Matt. 28:20, Acts 1:8). This brings encouragement and empowerment.
The commission is to reach “all nations,” extending to every people group on earth. No one is excluded due to ethnicity, geography, or culture. The commission has no geographic or temporal limits.
Responses and Applications
Christians throughout history have responded to the Great Commission in various ways:
- Evangelism and missions – Countless evangelists and missionaries have spread the gospel message near and far, driven by the Commission’s call.
- Bible translation – Translating Scripture into local languages allows all peoples to hear and respond to the gospel in their heart language.
- Global outreach – Building churches, schools, hospitals, and making disciples in nations throughout the world.
- Cross-cultural ministry – Developing multicultural competencies to share the gospel and make disciples across diverse cultures.
- Short-term missions – Volunteer teams traveling to other contexts for intensive evangelism and disciple-making.
- Financial giving – Supporting missions work and indigenous ministries through generous financial offerings.
- Theological education – Training leaders and workers for more effective evangelism and discipleship.
Yet millions remain unreached today. Estimates suggest that billions worldwide still have not heard a clear presentation of the gospel message. Thus the Great Commission remains unfinished. Churches continue to explore new approaches and renew their passion to complete the task.
On an individual level, Christians demonstrate obedience to the Great Commission through:
- Praying regularly for unbelievers to come to faith.
- Sharing the gospel with unbelieving friends and family.
- Giving financially to support missions and evangelism.
- Participating in short-term mission trips.
- Living a Spirit-filled life that attracts others to Christ.
- Studying Scripture and theology to better communicate the faith.
- Cultivating spiritual gifts and leadership skills for ministry.
- Encouraging and equipping fellow believers in evangelism.
- Being willing to witness for Christ in everyday circumstances.
The Great Commission does not call every individual to travel overseas. But every follower of Jesus is called to participate in spreading the gospel and making disciples in ways appropriate to their unique gifts and situation.
There are some debates regarding the Great Commission among Christians:
- Universality vs. exclusivity – Some argue the Great Commission and salvation in Christ are for all peoples, while others believe the gospel is exclusive to the elect or predestined.
- Literal vs. symbolic interpretations – Most take the basic command to evangelize and make disciples literally. But some see it as more metaphorical and fulfilled spiritually rather than geographically.
- Proselytizing vs. dialogue – Some promote aggressive evangelism tactics like doorknocking, while others favor interfaith dialogue and lifestyle witness.
- Particular doctrines – Debates on the necessity of baptism, teaching details, the Trinity reference, etc. for fulfilling the Commission.
- Salvation requirements – Controversy over whether conscious faith in Christ is absolutely necessary for salvation or if some may be “anonymous Christians.”
These debates reflect deeper theological differences over evangelism methodology, soteriology, exclusivism vs. inclusivism, etc. But most affirm the basic mandate to actively make disciples and teach obedience to Christ among all peoples.
There are several common criticisms of the Great Commission and how some interpret or apply it:
- It can promote cultural imperialism when missionaries impose their cultural ways on others.
- It can be abused to justify forced conversions or unethical evangelism tactics.
- An overly narrow view can lead to exclusion of other faiths rather than dialogue.
- It can create dependence of new churches on outside mission structures.
- Requiring baptism and theological precision may hinder some from the gospel.
- It risks syncretism or superficial discipleship when practices are not critically contextualized.
- Focusing solely on geographic spread can neglect deep disciple-making.
- Emphasis on numbers of converts or completing the task can devalue individual worth.
These potential pitfalls require wisdom in how Christians live out the Great Commission. Most agree sensitivity to local cultures, ethical approaches, and respect for other faiths are essential even while proclaiming Christ.
The Great Commission stands as the culminating call of Jesus to his church to continue his mission on earth. This mission of evangelizing, baptizing, and teaching all nations has motivated generations of Christians to spread the gospel worldwide. While not without controversy or potential for abuse, most evangelical churches and believers stand united behind the core mandate. Completing this mission requires harnessing the spiritual gifts and practical resources of the entire body of Christ. As the church seeks creative new ways to be Christ’s witnesses locally and globally, the Risen Lord continues to promise his presence to the end of the age.