The Great Commission and Theology

Then Jesus came up and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

I’ve already argued that Christian theology must begin with Christ, and I firmly believe that. So as I continue to explore what it means to be a theologian and what it means to do theology it only seems right to turn to Christ for my marching orders. I’ve chosen to begin with the Great Commission, Matthew 28:18-20.

There’s a common misconception out there that I should clear up before we move on. First of all, the Great Commission is not the most important thing Jesus ever said. There are four whole books cataloging Christ’s ministry that both explain and demonstrate what the ministry of the church should be. But even more than this, one should not make the mistake of assuming the words Jesus spoke on earth are any more important than the rest of Scripture. If all Scripture is God-breathed and thus inspired by God, if the words of the text are the very words of God, then why should we privilege the Gospels over the rest of the Word? It’s an understandable mistake, but a mistake nonetheless. (Yes, this is also jumping ahead; we’ll get to the theology of Scripture someday.)

With that out of the way, I admit I could have picked any number of passages to begin with. Perhaps I will. I once heard N. T. Wright say something to the effect that doing theology is a matter of choosing your favorite verses and reasoning from there. While I don’t have any particular sentimental attachment to these verses, they are a foundational part of Evangelicalism as I understand it.

On occasion I have been attacked with this passage. “Jesus said ‘go make disciples,’ so stop whatever you’re doing and go witness to people.” Or “You want to stay in America? Jesus said GO make disciples! You need to be a missionary!” Over and over I get push-back about aspiring to academia, and rightfully so. Convictions need to be challenged. And my response is, “Jesus said to TEACH THEM. That’s what I want to do, that’s my role in the Commission.”

But recently I’ve come to see that my interpretation was incomplete. Somehow I’ve managed to read “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” as “teach them the truth.” Of course God’s commands are truth, and one needs to understand those commands truly in order to truly obey them. But now I see that knowledge isn’t the end—action is. What’s more, how could I truly claim to know something without putting it into practice?

My point is this: the truths of Scripture must be lived in order to be fully understood. This stems naturally from the concept of faith seeking understanding, of believing in order to understand. “Unless I believe, I shall not understand” describes a situation in which I do something before I know why. The doing alone will not teach me, and the search for understanding alone will come up short. Only when I am living the Christian life in order to understand the Christian life will I come to understand the Christian life.

This has huge implications for my role as a disciple and a disciple-maker.

2 thoughts on “The Great Commission and Theology”

  1. Have you explored along with your idea all hte account of what seems to be the same instance.

    Matthew 28: 16-20
    Mark 16: 14-18
    Luke 24: 44-49
    John 20: 21-20

    In John t he disciples have the ability to withhold forgiveness, and in Mark you need to be able to pickup snakes, drink deadly poison (and not die), speak in tongues, and heal the sick. These are some amazing actions that if this applies to all we are asked to do. I’m not sure I’m there yet.

    Anyway just a quick thought.

  2. Hey Jake!

    Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond. Your comments really surprised me… I’d never heard that take on this verse before, and it makes a certain amount of sense. What’s more, I’m currently enrolled in an intro class on world missions and the concept came up there a couple of times since then. I’ve put a lot of thought into this, but I’m not sure I have a good answer yet. But in the spirit of this blog, I’ll jump in anyway. =)

    1. I personally don’t believe the longer ending of Mark is original. [*Ducks under table.*]
    2. It’s wrong to simply assume on the face of it that a commission given to the apostles would apply to everyone after them.
    3. I think the whole testimony of the NT verifies that everyone in the church is tasked with sharing the Gospel and encouraging one another in the faith.
    4. I’m not comfortable with the idea of just anyone baptizing people, but it’s obviously work someone must be entrusted to do.

    In conclusion, I think the Great Commission is only for the apostles directly, but in one form or another it is addressed to the rest of us indirectly.

    Thanks for your input! I’ll try to respond more quickly next time. =)

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