The Great Commission

by Andrew Forrest

For the last four months, we’ve been reading through the Gospel of Matthew, and today we come to the end: the final words of Jesus to his disciples. What follows is a reflection on what those words mean for us today, and why we do what we do at Munger, the way that we do it.

The Mission of the Church

Organizations lose their way when they lose their why.

Michael Hyatt

Why does the church exist? What is its purpose? An uninformed observer, after visiting churches throughout the country, might conclude that the church exists to:

• Host worship services on Sundays; or

• Feed the poor in soup kitchens; or

• Mobilize marchers for a political cause.

And that observer would be wrong. Although churches should host services on Sundays and be in ministry to the poor and work for change in society, none of these worthy activities are the actual mission of the church.

Instead, the mission of the church is to make disciples.

This mission is found in its original context in the Great Commission of Jesus: “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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).

A disciple is a student. A Christian disciple is someone who is in apprenticeship to Jesus, so as to learn the Jesus way of living. According to Jesus, this is the point of the church: the church exists to make disciples.

Go Everywhere and Teach Everything

The mission of the church is to go wherever people are and teach them everything Jesus said and did. Jesus does not tell his followers that their mission is to have vibrant worship services or to feed the poor or to be engaged politically; he tells them to make disciples. If we take Jesus’ command seriously, we will inevitably host weekly worship services and be in ministry with the poor and we’ll be engaged politically, but these things are the results and implications of the church’s mission (i.e., discipleship) and not the primary mission itself.

Discipleship to Jesus is emphatically not narrowly confined to what we might call habits of personal piety such as prayers, moral living, and Sunday school attendance. Discipleship is not something we do for a few minutes in the morning before we engage with the real world. Note the words of Jesus in the Great Commission: “teach them everything I have commanded you.” Even the most cursory reading of the gospels shows that Jesus was not merely concerned with matters of personal piety. 

Likewise, discipleship to Jesus must be much more than habits of personal piety in our own lives. Discipleship affects all of life, from the personal to the political. After all, from a human perspective, it wasn’t personal piety that got Jesus killed — he was killed because he was a threat to the powers and principalities. Jesus was not killed because he was irrelevant to real life, but because he was specifically concerned with real life. 

Put On Your Oxygen Mask First

As a pastor, I’ve seen the following many times: a husband and a wife have children who become the focus and emotional fulfillment of their lives. They would do anything for their children’s happiness, and they often do. Over time, this focus on the children causes the husband and wife to neglect their own relationship, and the marriage begins to wither. One day, the husband and the wife come to the conclusion that divorce is inevitable, and they break the news to the children. Unintentionally, the parents’ apparent focus on the children – at the expense of the marriage – ends up harming the children in the long run.

First things must come first; our problem is that we tend to focus on second things, and wonder why we aren’t getting first results. There is a reason the flight attendant tells you to put your oxygen mask on first, before tending to your child. After all, if you asphyxiate and keel over, there will be no one to help your son or daughter. First things must come first.

The situation in many of our churches today is that we are spending our time focusing on good things, but they are secondary concerns rather than our first mission. Let me reemphasize, the problem is not that worship services and food banks and political engagement are bad things. In fact, they are good and necessary things we need to be doing, and things that Jesus commanded. The problem is that putting these outcomes of discipleship in place of discipleship itself means that we are setting ourselves up to fail, like a panicked mother who forgets to put on her own oxygen mask.

For example, hosting a vibrant worship service is not our first mission, though it is a good thing – a very good thing. If we are actively and effectively making disciples, we will have vibrant worship services on Sundays. But, if we come to believe that vibrant worship services themselves are the point and put our efforts toward that end, at best we’ll have superficial shows that lack the power to change hearts, and at worst our churches will be empty.

In a different vein, some American Christians have mistakenly concluded that you can have social justice without discipleship. It didn’t work for the Marxists, and it won’t work for us. This is because social justice is an abstract idea that is impossible without real men and women bringing it about. For example, if we want to see racial justice in America, it won’t happen apart from training men and women to die to themselves and sacrifice on behalf of their neighbors. In other words, it won’t happen without discipleship. To put discipleship first is not to abandon social justice: on the contrary, the only way to move toward social justice is through the ancient practices of discipleship.

There is a reason the world is such an unjust place, and that reason is sin. It makes people selfish and it makes people cruel. The only cure for sin is the gospel, and it is through the journey of discipleship that Jesus “breaks the power of cancelled sin,” as Charles Wesley proclaimed. If the church focuses on training people to be apprentices to Jesus, that effort will unleash ferocious forces of compassion into the world — we’ll do more work with the poor, not less. 

Branches Don’t Need Management Consultants

At the Last Supper, Jesus spoke to his disciples about vines, branches, commitment, connectedness, and fruitfulness. Here are a few selected verses:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower.…  Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches.… If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”

John 15:1-8

The branches don’t strain and they don’t strategize; the branches produce fruit naturally, effortlessly, because they are connected to the vine. Jesus promised his disciples that if they stayed connected to him, then their ministry would be fruitful. To see an example of fruitful ministry, we look to the ministry of Jesus himself and we see that through him, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matthew 11:4-5). Once again, a focus on disciple-making is not a focus on personal piety: the mission of disciple-making is the only way to actually transform the world.

It Worked!

“How was it possible for this obscure Jewish sect to become the largest religion in the world?”

Sociologist and world religions scholar Rodney Stark asks an excellent question in his book, The Triumph of Christianity:

“[Jesus] was a teacher and miracle worker who spent nearly all of his brief ministry in the tiny and obscure province of Galilee, often preaching to outdoor gatherings. A few listeners took up his invitation to follow him, and a dozen or so became his devoted disciples, but when he was executed by the Romans his followers probably numbered no more than several hundred. How was it possible for this obscure Jewish sect to become the largest religion in the world? [emphasis added].

Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity, 1.

Christianity grew because the followers of Jesus did exactly what he told them to do: they made disciples by going everywhere and teaching everything Jesus commanded. 

Churches grow when they make disciples. It’s possible to grow churches through the superficial, but it won’t last — in that case both the people in the church and the church itself will be like the seed that fell on rocky soil. To experience true and lasting growth, we need to focus on making disciples.

One of the criticisms of disciple-making is the charge that the “real” work of the church will be neglected. What that is meant to convey is that if we focus on making disciples we will become inward-focused, irrelevant, and neglectful of those in need. 

What’s fascinating, however, is the original disciples trained other disciples, who trained others, and that, in the early days of the church, these fledgling apprentices to Jesus were known even by their enemies for their care for others – particularly the poor. For example, during the plagues that afflicted the Roman Empire, Christians stayed behind in the infected cities to care for the sick, though this action meant that they often died themselves. As Professor Stark explains:  

“Indeed, the impact of Christian mercy was so evident that in the fourth century when the emperor Julian attempted to restore paganism, he exhorted the pagan priesthood to compete with the Christian charities. In a letter to the high priest of Galatia, Julian urged the distribution of grain and wine to the poor, noting that ‘the impious Galileans [Christians], in addition to their own, support ours, [and] it is shameful that our poor should be wanting our aid.'”

Stark, 118

A disciple learns from his teacher. The early Christians learned from Jesus to lay down their lives and love their neighbors as themselves. The church’s focus on discipleship meant that the church grew, because the pagans saw the witness of the disciples of Jesus and were convinced of the truth of the gospel.

The gospel is true and actions based on that truth will be effective. If you rotate crops and fertilize correctly, you will have a bountiful harvest. If you base your life on the words on Jesus, the things he said would happen, will happen. The words of Jesus aren’t a theory: they are the truth about the world itself. The words of Jesus are as true as gravity, and as inescapable. 

And so for 2,000 years, whenever the church has taken the Great Commission seriously and put its effort into making disciples, it has flourished.

When Jesus used his last words to tell his disciples their mission was to make disciples, he knew what he was doing.

The question is, do we?


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1 comment

John Wesley Leek April 26, 2019 - 1:25 pm

Love this, Andrew. Thank you for your faithfulness.

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