The Great Commission: on the importance of teaching

This post reproduces in part (with minor edits), President Dr. Michael Morrison's address at the Grace Communion Seminary 2023 graduation ceremony.

"Christ with His Disciples" by Mironov
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The Great Commission

In Matthew 28:18-20 (NRSVUE), we read these important words spoken by Jesus to his disciples:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to follow all that I commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

Matthew ends his Gospel with this passage, often referred to as The Great Commission. Its literary placement at the very end of the book gives it some prominence. These are the words that Matthew wants us to remember. Matthew is telling us how Jesus wants us to respond to what he has done and what he has taught.

When we hear the words “Great Commission,” we usually think of evangelism. That’s what the commission is about: going into all the world, preaching the gospel, making disciples, and baptizing them. But wait – there’s more! The Great Commission has four important verbs in it. I label these verbs the four parts of the Great Commission: 1) Go; 2) make disciples; 3) baptize them; and 4) teach them. I believe we need to be more attentive to the fourth verb: we need to teach believers to obey all the commands of Jesus. Jesus gave commands, and his disciples repeated those commands – we see them not only in the four Gospels, but also in the letters of Paul and other New Testament writings. The church accepts these writings as inspired and authoritative for what we are to believe and how we are to live. One important step in teaching the commands of Jesus is to be sure that we understand them, that we are teaching accurately. We all need to learn before we can teach, and we all have much to learn. There is still a lot that we don’t know, and we all need to be lifelong learners as well as a lifelong teachers.

Make disciples

In the Great Commission, Jesus gives his disciples a command: Make disciples of all nations. Can an individual Christian keep this command? No, not directly. No one lives long enough to go to all the nations of the earth, and we don’t have time to learn all the languages and make disciples in all the nations. This command is really given for the church as a whole. It’s a collective mission. It is something that Jesus wants his disciples as a group to be doing. 

Now, the fact that no one individual can do what Jesus says here does not mean that we should just ignore what he says. Rather, it means that we need to work together. The church needs to have a global vision, and individual members need to support the church in that mission. 

The Great Commission is actually a self-perpetuating command: Jesus says to teach all the disciples to obey everything he commanded, and one of the things he commanded, and one of the things that we teach people, is that disciples are to go to all the world and teach. Each believer should be involved – even if indirectly. Each person should be giving something to support the work of the Great Commission.

It is often observed that Jesus is at the beginning and the end of the commission. This is a reminder to us that it is his work, his ministry, and making disciples is not just a bright idea that the church came up with later. We are being invited – commanded even – to join Jesus in his ministry, and he will be with us as we do it. 

We learn by teaching

Jesus is quite capable of doing all the work himself, but he wants to involve us in what he’s doing. And why is that? If he doesn’t need our help, why does he want it? 

Many people have compared it to a parent, asking a young child to help make something. The parent can do it easier working alone, but the important thing here is not just the job, but it’s also about a relationship with the child, and teaching the child about work – and about working with people.

Similarly, Jesus involves us in his work not just because he can boss us around, like some slave labor, but he involves us because he loves us, and it is good for us to be involved. He is doing work in our lives as we are involved in the work he assigns us to do. 

I think many of the books about the Great Commission miss this important point. Sometimes they present it just as a job that we have to do, as if Jesus cannot do it without us. The focus is on the work, with little attention to the relationship, and with little attention to the work that Jesus is doing in us as we work with him. It’s actually good for us to be doing this. 

See, there’s something bigger going on here. We are not just worker bees trying to bring more honey to the hive, and eventually we run out of steam and end up worn out crawling on the sidewalk. No, it’s really more like the parent who wants to involve the children in working together. 

When we are involved in doing what Jesus commands here, we need to see not just what we are doing “out there,” but also see that through our participation in Jesus’ work, he is doing something “in here,” in our hearts and minds. It’s part of his plan to make us more like he is, to bring us into conformity with what Jesus is. 

Sure, he can do the work without us, but he doesn’t want to. He wants to involve us – even though we slow him down and we don’t do it very well. There’s something bigger going on here. 

God doesn’t need us, but he wants us. As Karl Barth said, he does not want to be God without us – and the Great Commission is part of his plan to bring us more and more completely into his life. Our work is part of our preparation. If we want to be like Jesus, we need to want the things that he wants.

What do we teach?

As we go into all the world, we are to make disciples. A disciple is someone who learns; that’s what the Greek word means – a “learner,” an apprentice. And what are these disciples learning? Here we can refer to a passage in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 24, verse 47: “Repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations.” 

Luke presents this as a prediction – this is what’s going to happen. But he’s talking about the same message, a message that goes into all nations. It includes repentance and forgiveness. 

In the Gospel of Mark, we also find it as a prophecy – Mark chapter 13, verse 10: “the gospel must first be preached to all nations.” 

It’s three ways of saying the same thing: the message to all nations is called the gospel, the good news. It’s a message about repentance and forgiveness, and people who accept this message are “disciples” –learners. They are learning about God’s grace and love.

Repentance means to change the way you’re thinking, and that will result in a change in the way you are living, as well. But not just any change will do – it has to be in the right direction. The message needs to tell people what to repent from, and what to think instead. 

People can’t really understand what forgiveness is, or what grace is, unless they have some concept of what they should have done, and where they went wrong, and why forgiveness is needed. Forgiveness implies some sort of relationship that needs to be restored. 

Discipleship starts when people repent of thoughts, words and deeds that disrupt our relationship with God, and we are assured by the gospel that those things are not barriers to our relationship with God – and that is good news for all of us. 

What then? 

Matthew 28:20 says, “and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” We don’t just teach what Jesus commanded – we are also to teach people to obey what he commanded. We have sometimes not done this as well as we should have. We are sometimes so afraid of being legalistic that we are afraid of teaching people to obey Jesus. 

Legalism is when we think that we can earn our salvation by keeping the law. We come before the judgment seat of Christ and he asks us, Why should I let you into my kingdom? And we respond by saying that we’ve done this, or we’ve done that. We think that our behavior, or our performance, is the ticket to eternal life. God is obligated to accept us because of how much we have done.

However, the proper answer, and the right mindset, is that we fall short. We need mercy, we need forgiveness, we need the death of Jesus on our behalf. If we are ever asked what makes us think that we can get in, all we can say is that it is only by grace – knowing in advance that our judge is full of mercy and he has already suffered the penalty of sin on our behalf. It has already been done. We can point to what Jesus did for us, but we cannot point to what we have done. 

Jesus brings us grace. He also gives us commands, and tells us that we should obey. It is not legalistic to say that we should do what Jesus commands; we just don’t want to think that this obedience earns us a spot in eternity. 

When we realize that God is smarter than we are, and that he loves us, then we are going to want to do what he says. The Creator knows a lot more than we do about how to live in love, joy and peace, and he has given us these instructions for our own good.

Obedience is part of a good relationship with God – it shows that we trust him. He’s got authority, he’s got wisdom, he loves us and knows what’s best for us. When we go against what he has told us, it shows disrespect. It shows a lack of trust.

Now, we are sometimes uncomfortable with the word “obey.” Western culture in general doesn’t like the word “obey.” Dallas Willard says that the Christian world in general has been reluctant to teach people to obey what Jesus taught. We make converts, he says, but we are not making disciples. He calls this “the great omission.” 

Teaching and learning

Jesus tells the disciples, and through them, he also tells us, that we should teach people to obey what Jesus commanded. The church of Jesus Christ should be a teaching church, and the people of Christ should be a learning people. This is not some add-on, some footnote – this is part of the message that should be preached to all nations, and should be preached in the churches, too.

However, this isn’t always easy. It isn’t always easy to obey, and it isn’t always easy to figure out what it is that we should obey. It requires some discernment – some principles of biblical interpretation. That is one role of the church. We don’t just each of us decide for ourselves which commands we want to follow. 

We come to the Bible not just as individuals, but as members of a community, people who seek together what Jesus wants us to be doing. As Jesus reminds us, he will be with us as we gather in his name. People who go it alone, who lean on their own understanding, sometimes come to strange conclusions. 

Jesus commands the leaders in his church to teach. Teaching is a long-term commitment on the part of church leaders and it implies a long-term commitment on the part of all church members, that we all continue to learn, that we are willing to be taught. The teachers also need to continue learning, and growing in our willingness to do what Jesus commands.

The teaching we do is actually part of the learning that we do. The work we do is part of the way that God is working not just through us, but in us, because there’s still a lot of work to do in each of us.

It goes back to the big picture: God is recruiting us not as slaves who do his work for him – no, he is recruiting us as family, as children with whom he wants to live and spend time with for ever and ever. He does not want to be God without us, and that’s what the gospel is about, and that’s what the church is about, and that’s what ministry is about.

Those who serve are also being served; the ministers are being ministered to. We are being prepared for eternal life with God through the work that we do. We are learning together, teaching together, and growing together by working together. 

The church is to work together to understand how we are to obey the commands today. The rest of the New Testament gives us some guidance on how that was done in the first century, and we look to that example, and the continuing guidance of the Holy Spirit, to help us obey Jesus today.

So we might say that the church has a ministry of teaching, and we all have an ongoing ministry of learning, and we can also say that we have an ongoing ministry of obedience. As we do what Jesus has commanded, including teaching, we are continuing his ministry in the world and in the church. As we do good in our neighborhood, we are continuing the ministry of Jesus. As we care about the people around us, we are continuing the ministry of Jesus. 

Jesus wants us to be doing something good. One of his commands is, Let your good deeds be seen, so that people will praise God for it (Matt 5:16). They will not only see the good works, but also know that God had something to do with it, that we are doing these works because Jesus has motivated us to do something good. 

Our life needs to match the words that we speak, and both need to match what we see in Jesus. We don’t do this as well as we’d like, but that’s what we need to aim for, and try to get better at it as we go forward. Words and deeds go together, the Great Commission and the Great Commandment go together. It’s all part of the package God is using to prepare us for eternal life with him. It’s good news, and good works. It’s good.

The last command in the book of Matthew is in verse 20: It’s “Behold” (NASB translation), which is a command. It means: Take note of this: “I am with you always, until the end of the age.” He is with us, and we join Jesus in his ministry of making disciples, teaching them to obey what Jesus has taught us. That is The Great Commission.