Read Matt 28:18-20.
We began this year just like we did 2012 meditating on 3 important truths. 3 resolutions for us in 2013. The greatest commandment, the second greatest commandment and the Great Commission.
Two weeks ago, we covered loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. If you recall, I said, we can love God like this only in response to His love for us in Christ. This command to love God with all of our being and all we have is only possible if our hearts have been radically transformed. Obeying the greatest commandment presupposes that we have been born again. God loved us first and we love him second, in response.
Last week, we talked about loving neighbor from the parable of the Good Samaritan. It’s hard to know whether you and I love God because God is invisible. It’s like the gas tank in our hearts. We don’t know how much gas is left because you can’t see inside the tank. But there is a fuel tank meter which shows us how much gas there is. Loving neighbor is like looking at the fuel tank meter. You can’t see God, but you can see your brother or sister next to you. And how you treat them is often a good indicator of how much love we have for God in our hearts. Loving neighbor is not a guarantee that we love God because we can love God for all kinds of wrong reasons. But NOT loving neighbor is a guarantee that the love of God is not in us.
Today, I want to talk about the Great Commission, specifically, I want to dispel 3 common misconceptions when it comes to the Great Commission.
I believe there are many misconceptions that we hold, knowingly or unknowingly, which short-circuits even the possibility of obeying the Great Commission.
There are many misconceptions, but today, I want to begin by dispelling 3 of them.
The Great Commission is a famous text. You can I probably know it by heart. Recite Great Commission from memory.
1) First misconception: the Great Commission is only for super Christians.
2) Misconception: I don’t have the gift to disciple someone else so I don’t have to do it.
3) Misconception: I can be close to God without being a disciple maker.
1) Misconception: the Great Commission is only for super Christians.
Like missionaries. Or pastors, but not even many pastors these days seem to be talking about the Great Commission. So I am not even sure if pastors make the cut. When I was a kid growing up in the church and I heard the phrase, Great Commission, which was not all too often, but when I heard it, two images popped into my mind? One is a foreign missionary. Someone who goes overseas and crosses over to a new country, a new culture and shares Christ. And most often, at least for me, I think of some small unreached people group in a remote tribe in the middle of nowhere where the name of Jesus has never been uttered.
So Great Commission was a scary phrase. Some seekers even cite the Great Commission as a reason NOT to become a Christian. What if I become a Christian and then God sends me to Africa? Ever heard that excuse? I don’t want to go to Africa and live in a mud hut.
This misconception is prevalent, that the Great Commission only applies to super Christians, individuals who are called to overseas foreign missions. And so just the mere mention of the Great Commission scares people. And so if you think this way and you hear a sermon like today when the topic is the Great Commission, you end up giving yourself permission to tune out. Because you think, this message doesn’t apply to me. I’m not a missionary. I’m not a leader. I just attend church whenever I can. The missionary in Bangladesh and me here in Pasadena, those are worlds apart. Therefore, the Great Commission has nothing to do with me.
Let’s spend a few moments debunking this misconception by looking at the context and the grammar of this passage.
Who was the audience when Jesus gave the Great Commission? The disciples. Let me just clear it up from the outset. A disciple is a Christian. A regular Joe Shmoe Christian. A disciple is not a super Christian. A disciple is not a title reserved only for missionaries. A disciple is not a special Christian. An extra mature Christian. A seriously devoted Christian. A disciple is not someone with a higher level of commitment compared with just your average Christian.
The Bible never makes a distinction between regular members or what we would call Sunday churchgoers and disciples. A disciple is not a code word for leader, those in Jesus’ inner circle. As Protestants, we don’t believe in a two-tier hierarchy, i.e. the clergy and the laity. We all have equal access to God. You don’t have to go through a priest or a pastor to connect to God or to have everything in Scripture interpreted and spoon fed to you. You have a God-given brain. And guess what? He expects you to use it. Also, if you are a believer, God has given to you His Spirit so that you can discern spiritual things for yourself. You can connect directly to God on your own.
A disciple is a Christian. We are all disciples. Which means, we are part of the audience whom Jesus is addressing when he gave the Great Commission in Matt 28. The idea that the Great Commission is only reserved for super Christians, mature disciples and missionaries is simply not true.
To hammer this point home, let’s consider the broader context. Jesus, after he had resurrected but before he ascended, left a bunch of Jewish disciples with this mission to make disciples of all nations. If you think about it, ever since the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden, God has been on a mission to save the world. All the way back in Genesis, Abraham was given a promise that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. That he would be blessed, not just for himself, not just for his family or even his nation of Israel. But that he would be blessed so that he can be a blessing to all nations.
This thread continues throughout the Old Testament. In Isaiah, God reveals through a series of judgments that although the nation of Israel was given this mandate to be a blessing to all the nations and a light to the Gentiles, they had failed in their mission because the blessing did not go beyond themselves. Instead of the blessing going out to all the nations, the nation of Israel had become proud that they were the chosen ones. They put themselves on a pedestal. So God had to break everything up and start over because the servant Israel had failed in their mission. And because the servant Israel had failed, a new Suffering Servant was promised, which of course, is a pointer to the coming of Christ.
Given the repeated failures of God’s people to be concerned about the other nations, we shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus’ final farewell address to these Jewish disciples is, guys, make sure you go out and make disciples. Please. Don’t be content that you are part of this holy club. Go out there and tell others about me.
Unfortunately, old habits die a slow death. It was unnatural for ethnocentric Jewish men of Jesus’ day to be concerned about the salvation of anyone other than fellow Jews. In Luke 10, two prayers are recorded that contrast the attitude of a Pharisee and a tax collector. The tax collector is humble, he’s broken and contrite in his prayer. He can’t even look up to heaven. Compare that to the Pharisee, who said, I thank thee Lord that I am not like this tax collector over there. That attitude is reminiscent of Jewish boys who thanked God each day for 3 things. Thank God that I am not a slave. Thank God that I am not a woman. And thank God that I am not a Gentile. Jews hated Gentiles. No wonder they didn’t want to share this message of salvation with them.
Even in Acts 10, Peter, as one of the prominent leaders of the early church, has difficulty accepting the fact that Jesus wanted him to be concerned with the salvation of all nations and not just HIS nation. Peter receives a vision through a dream. A sheet being let down from heaven to earth and it’s filled with all kinds of unclean animals. And Peter said, I’m not eating that. It’s unclean. And God says, do not call anything impure that I have made clean. To Peter, the Jews were clean and the Gentiles were unclean. Peter heard the Great Commission and the message of salvation for all nations but he wasn’t ready to live it out just yet.
If the mission was left up to leaders like Peter or the rest of the Jewish disciples, it is doubtful whether the gospel message would have gone very far. On their own, they probably would have stayed in Jerusalem and built up a megachurch filled with only Jews in one location. So what does God do? He scatters them forcibly through Roman persecution. God also raised up new leaders like Apostle Paul. And the message eventually went forth to all the nations. Because every Christian in the first century started to believe–I am a disciple of Jesus and I need to obey this Great Commission.
I want to say, if are a believer, this Great Commission applies directly and personally to your life. This is your marching orders. Even Peter, who could never conceive of loving his Gentile neighbors before, began to believe that this Great Commission applied to him. Even Jewish Christians who were scattered due to persecution began to live out the Great Commission because they were forced out of their comfort zone. The context of Matthew 28 and what we see in the historical events that unfold in the life of the early church, as recorded in the book of Acts, confirms that Christians started to catch on and believe that this Great Commission applied not just to a select few, the super Christians, but to each and every one of them. The context shows it.
The grammar also shows it. There are 4 verbs in the Great Commission: 1) go, 2) make disciples, 3) baptize, and 4) teach. Back in the day, when the SAT was scored on a 1600 point system, in addition to Math and Verbal sections, there was a third section called the TSWE, the Test of Standard Written English. I studied for that thing and I got a perfect score on the TSWE. Later I found out, nobody really cared about that section. It was experimental, and of course, it was dropped some years later. Just to say, I’m a bit of a grammar geek. I don’t normally want to bore you with technical details, but I believe in this case, the grammar is very revealing, it’s important and it deserves some attention.
From the translation here, 2 of the verbs appear to be commands–go and make disciples. The other 2 are clearly participles–baptizing and teaching. These participles modify the main verb, which in this case, is the verb, “make disciples.”
You might find this surprising, but in the Greek, the verb “go” is not a command. You can’t tell from the translation, but the verb “go” is actually a participle instead of a command. “Go” is a participle so the more literal translation ought to be something like, “as you go,” or “while you are going.” So the spotlight here is really on the one single imperative verb, the command, make disciples. The rest–going, baptizing and teaching–give additional details as to what making a disciple entails. It entails going, it entails baptizing, it entails teaching. In other words, the verbs “go,” “baptize,” and “teach” are all participles which derive their force from the one controlling verb “make disciples.”
The question remains, then, why is the first participle translated, “go” instead of “as you go,” or “while you are going?” Why it is translated in the imperative instead of a participle?
I know this is technical, but stay with me. This is important. Remember the context. Jesus spoke these words knowing full well that it was going to be a stretch for these Jewish men and women to go to all the nations. If one of the key leaders, Peter, was still having trouble interacting with Gentiles in Acts 10, how on earth would the church be engaged on mission to reach Gentiles? Jesus knew the challenges ahead. He knew the inertia to stay put where it’s familiar and comfortable. So when he said, go, Jesus probably had in mind, go, don’t stay in your narrow world. Get out there. Souls need to be saved. Go to the nations.
D. A. Carson, a theologian who is much smarter than I am, says this and I quote–“While it remains true to say that the main imperative force rests with ‘make disciples,’ not with ‘go,’ in a context that demands that this ministry extend to ‘all nations,’ it is difficult to believe that ‘go’ has lost all imperatival force… we must first read this commission in its historical context, not from the perspective of a late twentieth-century reader. These apostles of the soon-to-be inaugurated church did not move from Jerusalem until after the martyrdom of Stephen. The reason for this reticence was due, in part at least, to their Jewish background. As Jews, they were ethnocentric in their evangelism; now as Christians, they were to be ektocentric, bringing the gospel to those who were non-Jews. In many ways, the book of Acts is a detailed account of how these apostles accomplished the command of Matt 28:19-20.”
What’s he saying? Carson admits, “go” is a participle in the original Greek. And the main emphasis is on the imperative verb “make disciples.” But given the context, he argues that “go” has not lost its imperatival force. Translators must have agreed with Carson so that’s why the NIV84 reads, “go” instead of “going.” Because if you agree with Carson that “go” has not lost its imperatival force, then to avoid confusion, why not just translate it as an imperative. A command. That’s the logic.
If it is true that “go” is a command, then we should all drop out of school and quit our jobs. Sell our things. Pack our bags and move to a Muslim country like Bangladesh. Whose population is 162 million people and less than 0.3 % are Christian. If “go” is a command, shouldn’t all of us be in a place like that? If you think this way, then anyone who does not go is sinning. Disobeying a clear command of God. And so to get us off the hook, we conclude, the Great Commission, it doesn’t apply to me. Only the missionary. The super Christian. Therefore, making disciples, that’s not my gig. Someone else can do that and I’ll write a letter to the missionary or send him a check. Isn’t this how we think?
If it is a command, shouldn’t we all be overseas somewhere? BUT, if it is a participle, which it is, then there is a wider application. Translating this as a participle, it should read, as you go, as you go to your classes, as you go to your workplace, as you go to the grocery store, as you go to your kid’s soccer game, as you go back to your home, make disciples. You see the difference? You got to understand this.
If God calls you to overseas missions, you better believe that you are going to read Matt 28 and hear it as a burning, personal conviction, a command to go. And because you are so sure of this command to go and God’s call upon your life is crystal clear, you are going to look at other Christians and wonder, why aren’t they going, what’s up, what’s wrong with them? Simple answer. Just like the missionary is called to go. The rest of us are called to stay. Both are valid callings.
Either way, the marching orders is the same. Wherever you are, overseas or in the States, make disciples. Go and make disciples. Or as you are going through life here or wherever, make disciples. Making disciples applies to all Christians. You can’t argue that the Great Commission only applies to missionaries because they are the ones who obeyed the first part to go, and therefore, the rest of the Great Commission also applies to them only.
But if you don’t go, don’t worry about the verses that follow. The Great Commission doesn’t apply to me because I’m a student here or because I am living here and working here. I’m off the hook. I can ignore the rest of the verses. No, it’s not true. That’s a serious misconception. Making disciples applies whether we go or stay. The Great Commission is not reserved for super Christians. It includes all Christians, all who profess the name of Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.