Next month, the Olympic torch will begin its journey from Athens, Greece to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. The journey will take 3 months and will cover 10,000 miles in an airplane and 12,000 more miles on the ground. Once the torch makes it to Brazil, hand after hand will pass it on until the final runner brings it into the Olympic stadium for the official lighting of the Olympic cauldron which is the flame of competition. What a journey! Person after person pass the torch, mile after mile until it reaches the climactic moment. In Matthew 28: 16-20 and Acts 1:8, Jesus lights the gospel torch and passes it to the disciples. Their commission was to take the gospel torch to the ends of the earth, leaving a trail of faithful disciples in their wake. I have heard these verses preached and taught most of my life. Every time it has been taught to me only as an evangelistic statement, but it is so much more than that. Could it be we have misunderstood this important statement? Maybe our churches are in decline not because we lack evangelistic fervor, but because we are not committed to disciple-making?
While the number of churches added each year has increased at a steady pace throughout the convention’s history, the number of baptisms has been in steady decline since 1999. SBC churches are seeing the fewest baptisms per church since the 1920s. Chuck Kelley states, “We have more churches, more pastors and staff members, more money and more resources and steadily fewer baptisms per church.” Last year, over 11,000 SBC churches recorded no baptisms. I am convinced that if churches will commit to be disciple-making churches we will see revival and revitalization.
The statement that Jesus makes in this passage is a clear mandate. Combined with his statements in Acts 1, this would be his last words to his church. These are verses we have heard for years, but I am under the belief that most Christians have not really examined what he said and how he modeled it. You see, the great commission is Jesus simply passing the torch to his disciples. In other words, he is asking them to do what he has modeled for them for the previous 3 years of his ministry. Every one of the eleven disciples who heard this statement had been reached and taught by him. Those guys were examples of how this commission is supposed to work. Everything he is telling them to do, he had done for them.
These 11 guys come to this mountain somewhat bewildered, confused, and unsure. V. 17 gives clear indication of that. They must be thinking, “what now?” Some worshiped, some doubted, but all listened. The statement that Jesus gives to them is of critical importance due to the information that Matthew has given us. There was a certain segment of his followers who were still unsettled in their faith. That is why the words of verse 18 are of super importance. Jesus made a declarative statement, “ALL AUTHORITY has been given to me.” Hard to argue with that statement considering he had been dead in the grave a few weeks before. The word authority (exousia) means delegated authority. His authority was given to him by his father. Authority over death, hell, sin, disease, the earthly realm and the spiritual realm. (Phil 2: 10). That authority was amazing, unprecedented and unparalleled, but the most amazing thing is what happens next.
Notice the transition after that verse, “Therefore, Go!” The word “therefore” was him imparting this authority over to them. Jesus is saying, “I have taught you, I have shown you, I have led you and all authority belongs to me, therefore I am passing it on to you.” They were not being commission simply to go in their own power and hand out gospel tracts. This statement is critical in understanding the rest of the verses. I have the authority and I am giving it to you so go in my name. Luke shares with us in Acts 1 that he also said that not only would they have authority to go, but they would be empowered to be effective. “But when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, you will receive power and will tell people about me everywhere…” Acts 1:8. And to make sure that you understand the “hand off” taking place, notice 28:20b, “And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” That authority would be signified by his presence which is being promised in perpetuity. The Gospel torch given to the disciples has been handed down to us. The delegated authority given to the disciples, given to Paul, Silas, Martin Luther, George Whitefield, Lottie Moon and Billy Graham has also been given to us. We cannot be the generation who allows the flame of disciple-making to fizzle. Verse 18 is a critical introduction to the Great Commission yet we often overlook it.
It is my belief that the following “take aways” from the Great Commission are critical to understand:
Evangelism isn’t something we “go and do” it is something that we “live and exhibit”. “Go (poreuomai) and make disciples.” V. 19. It is interesting to see how Young’s literal translation interprets this two letter word, “having gone, then, disciple all the nations, (baptizing them — to the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” The NIV says, “As you go”. The reason these translations use this phrase is the Greek word is in the present tense. In other words, it isn’t something you are GOING to do, it is something you ARE doing. We are all in the process of going. The great commission is to be lived out each day through the natural activity of our lives. We hear mission teams quote this verse as if they are fulfilling the great commission by GOING on a trip. While, there is certainly truth that this team is being obedient to the call to “go”, we shouldn’t relegate the commission to a mission trip or adventure. The commission of Christ calls us to make disciples every day of our lives and live as though we are on a perpetual mission trip.
We are not commissioned to merely convert the lost. “Go and make disciples”. The church has turned this statement of Jesus into something it was never meant to be. It was never meant to be simply a call to convert people. In this view we become like spiritual snipers touching souls for a moment and moving on to the next lost person. I recently spoke to a lady whose husband had made a profession of faith a few months ago during a church service. With tears in her eyes she told me that her husband has now shrunk back to his old ways and rarely has an interest in attending church. Could it be that the church has failed this man? What if when he walked the aisle of that church and gave his heart to Christ the church would have paired him with a mature follower of Christ initiating a disciple-making relationship? I guarantee that he would have a much better chance of being a growing believer today. Today, we have a large group of Christian refugees who are waiting on someone to disciple them, “teach them”. They have become a number on the church’s annual church profile but not a fully committed follower of Christ.
Tragically, over the years the church has created two anti-great commission movements:
* The first is the idea that there is a “gift of evangelism” and only a few specially gifted and anointed people can effectively share their faith. Nowhere in Scripture is there found such an idea. In Ephesians 4 Paul speaks of service gifts for the church. “He is the one who gave these gifts to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ…” (4:11-12). This doesn’t speak of an evangelism gift, it speaks of an office of the church. The truth is that we have all been given the “ministry of reconciliation” 2 Cor. 5:18. We are all called to be disciple-makers.
* The second anti-great commission movement has been the one time evangelistic encounter movement. This is where churches send people out to find the lost, convert them and move on to the next “soul win.” We can’t see lost people as those to be “won over” or conquered. They aren’t numbers or statistics. Each one represents someone who not only needs to be converted, but discipled. Yes, the Great Commission is an evangelistic statement, but it is also a disciple making statement.
We are commissioned to “make disciples.” “Go and make disciples”, “Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you.” V.20. It has been my experience that the majority of people misunderstand this important commission because they neglect verse 20. We spend so much time talking about verse 19 that we miss the importance of verse 20. Two words here in this passage “Teach” and “disciples” are of prime importance if we really want to understand the great commission of Jesus Christ. The word teach (didaskó) means to impart instruction. We see the word 220 times in the NT so it is a very important term. In this verse it is in the future tense. That changes the way we see this verse because what Christ is saying is “continue teaching them”, not just teach them in a new members class or teach them by reading the next page of the gospel track. The word gives us the idea that Christ meant that a disciple-disciplee relationship was to ensue if the Great Commission is to be correctly applied. The next word of importance is who we will be teaching, “teach these new disciples”. The word is used for the second time indicating importance. It is the word disciple (mathéteuó) is the word learner. We get our English word Math from this word. I like the way one word study commentary describes the word disciple, helping someone to progressively learn the Word of God to become a matured, growing disciple (literally, “a learner,” a true Christ-follower); to train (develop) in the truths of Scripture and the lifestyle required. We are to teach them on an ongoing basis to be learners of Christ. Jesus says “teaching them to obey” or “observe” ALL the commands I have given you. That is not only a Sunday school class experience. Obey or observe, “to guard over” my teachings. The end result of the Great Commission is not a mission trip or a witnessing event. It is a converted soul who has been taught to obey, observe and guard over the teachings of Christ. We have relegated the word discipleship into a program or a group of classes where we come and sit down for an hour and leave. Nothing wrong with planning discipleship opportunities. But we must understand that discipleship is much more than a program or an hour of Bible study. We must first be committed disciples (learners) and then we are to engage in discipling someone else.
For so long I have gotten this wrong. As a pastor, I remember seeing people to come to Christ and placing them in a new members class. However, I didn’t match them with a mature follower of Christ to walk with them and show them what it meant to be a disciple. I have learned from my mistake and now believe I didn’t truly understand the Great Commission. Think about the new believers in your church and what you can do to ensure that they remain committed to Christ. Re-imagine how your church is fulfilling the Great Commission. We are not called to make converts, we are called to make disciples!
For more information on disciple-making, read “4 Chair Discipling” by Dann Spader. Also, plan to attend the Flashpoint Conference coming to Samford’s Wright Center January 2017.