If you’ve invested time in the pew of an evangelical church you’ve heard sermons from the darling Bible passage of the group, Matthew 28:19-20, called the Great Commission. The King James Version (KJV) of Scripture offers 31,102 verses, but these two, along with their sister verse in Acts 1:8 are seemingly elevated above the other 31K passages. Is there justification to support Matthew 28:19-20 as holding more weight than the teaching in say, 1 John 3:18? Perhaps the Great Omission might be a better title for Matthew 28:19-20 given the selective way the words of the commission are implemented in the church.
The KJV and mainstream versions such as the English Standard Version (ESV), New American Standard Bible (NASB), New International Version (NIV), and New Living Translation (NLT) have similar renderings for the Great Commission.
Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen. Matthew 28:19-20 KJV
Some translations word the first portion as “Go and make disciples…,” an accurate description of the process being taught. Disciples don’t just happen. The church began with a small band of believers, about 120 gathered in an upper room in Jerusalem (Acts 1:12-15). From that humble beginning and powered by the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8) the group grew as the believers shared the message of Christ. In God’s economy the body of teaching is passed from believer to new believer. Making disciples must be part of the fabric of the church.
The wide-spread implementation of the disciple-making process often seems limited to a subset of Matthew 28:18-20. Today’s Gospel-slingers preach their own translation which reads something like, “Go and nail a new believer. File a notch in the spine of your Bible. Search for another victim.” Is that really what the passage says? What happened to the responsibility of “teaching them to observe all things…”?
We’re hearing an increasing urgency to answer the question, “Who’s your one?” Evangelism remains, and rightly so, a stalwart ministry of the church, but is our implementation fulfilling all the instructions Jesus gave us in this commission?
As the church flares in evangelistic fervor we note a decline in the lost art of opening the Word and teaching the precepts in venues outside the primary worship service. Sunday School and similar Bible-focused ministries for adults, once ubiquitous, have fizzled. Small groups in myriad flavors now dot the landscape. While some of these small groups do dig into the Word together many function as care groups or social meetings. Often the focus in those gatherings becomes “What do you think?” instead of “What does God’s Word teach?”
Meanwhile Bible illiteracy swells across the church, a heartbreaking development affecting multiple generations. Yet the issue has not garnered enough leadership concern to include solutions in our vision statements. In our evangelistic model often a new believer is left to figure things out for himself. In some congregations the turnover rate is high with last month’s converts slipping out the back door as the new harvest enters the front. The early church in Acts, the standard held out so often as the pattern for today’s thrusts, was not a revolving door.
Something is amiss.
Take a walk through the Gospels and note the number of times the verb teach is coupled with Jesus. The Savior taught in the temple (John 8:20), in synagogues (John 6:59), beside the sea (Mark 4:1), over a simple meal (Luke 24:27) and on a mountain (Matthew 5:2). The venue was not important nor was the size of the group. What mattered was the sharing of the Word to the listeners. Why the urgency on teaching? Consider these words…
When Jesus went ashore, He saw a large crowd, and He felt compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and He began to teach them many things.
Mark 6:34 NASB
Sheep need a shepherd, one who can give them guidance. For the believer that guidance comes by devouring God’s Word. Maturity and spiritual growth cannot happen apart from a steady diet of the Word as Peter clearly spelled out.
like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord. 1 Peter 2:2-3 NASB
Paul’s writings reflect his zeal for sharing the body of truth. In his final admonition to protégé Timothy, Paul urged him to “Preach the word…” (2 Timothy 4:2) The wise mentor understood the critical need to ground disciples in the Word so the precepts could one day be passed to others.
The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. 2 Timothy 2:2 NASB
Will our generation remain content to focus on a portion of the Great Commission? Is it time for a deliberate focus on the life-change that comes when a believer concerns himself with understanding what God expects, what God has spoken in His Word? in His Parable of the Soil (found in Matthew 13, Mark 4 and Luke 8) Jesus explained the dismal future for a groundless convert who has no root in the Word.
If your church offers opportunities for hungry believers to get into the Bible (outside the worship service) why not take a minute and give God thanks for that blessing? Next, consider sharing a word of encouragement with those who volunteer to lead those ministries. And finally, ask what you might do to support their efforts.
The Great Commission does not end with a period after verse 19. The comma includes verse 20.
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