The Great Commission – An Exploration of the Old and New Testament

The Great Commission as Climax of the Four Gospels
In Christian tradition, “the Great Commission” is a term for the instruction of the resurrected Jesus Christ to his disciples—that they should spread his gospel to all the nations of the world. In a narrower sense, the term defines five specific texts in the New Testament. In an even narrower meaning, the term often just defines Matthew 28:16-20.

Jesus' most important concern between the resurrection and his ascent into heaven seems to have been world missions, made possible by his sacrificial death on the cross as the most important aspect of his suffering, death, and resurrection. All four Gospels include some form of the Great Commission given in the period of time following the resurrection (Matthew 28:16-20; Mark 16:15-20; Luke 24:13-53, particularly vs. 44-49; John 20:11-23, particularly vs. 21-23; and Acts 1:4-11).

In each Gospel the sending of the disciples into the world at the end points back to the twelve apostles being chosen by Jesus in the beginning. Jesus chose the disciples “that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach” (Mark 3:13). From the very beginning, the goal of their intensive training through living and working with him was to prepare them for the Great Commission.

Their training as missionaries was not arbitrary, but clearly according to Jesus’ deliberate plan:

  • First, Jesus preached alone.
  • Second, Jesus preached while the disciples observed.
  • Third, Jesus let the disciples preach while he observed.
  • Fourth, Jesus sent the disciples out for a short mission (Matthew 10:1-11; Mark 6:7-13; Luke 9:1-6) and discussed the results with them.
  • Last, Jesus sent the disciples alone. They then began to do the same with other Christians.

Thus, training toward independence is a central element of missions. The Great Commission in the Gospel of Matthew (28:16-20) is not only the end of the Gospel of Matthew, it is also its climax and its goal. For this reason, Matthew emphasizes from the first chapter on that the good news is also for the heathen (e.g., 5:14; 9:37-38; 12: 8-21).

The Great Commission and the Old Testament
Although the apostles spoke of Jesus' commandment several times after Pentecost (Acts 1:2, 10:42), they never cited the Great Commission directly. Peter combines the Great Commission with a reference to the Old Testament as an argument for his preaching the gospel to the Gentile Cornelius (Acts 10:42-43).

According to Jesus, all parts of the Old Testament
speak not only of his coming, dying, and rising, but
of forgiveness to be preached to all nations.

For this reason, it is not surprising that the Great Commission according to Luke is derived directly from the Old Testament (Luke 24:43-49). According to Jesus, all parts of the Old Testament speak not only of his coming, dying, and rising, but of forgiveness to be preached to all nations.

The Content
Jesus' Great Commission in Matthew's Gospel justifies world missions by the assurance, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth” (28:18), and that he will always be with his Church (28:20). Thus, the Great Commission is not only an assignment but also a promise. Jesus himself carries the responsibility for discipling all nations, for, he says, “I will build my church, and the gates of hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew16:18). The success of world missions confirms the promise of Christ's dominion.

The Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20 includes the command to make all people “pupils” (disciples). The first step is personal conviction and repentance. Baptism in the name of the Trinity must be experienced personally. This is still the way God has chosen to win whole nations. Thus, the goal of converting whole people does not contradict the need for per¬sonal repentance.

Conversion and baptism according to the Great Commission do not mark the conclusion, but the beginning of personal renewal, as well as the renewal of the family, church, economics, state, and society. Every individual should become a pupil (disciple) of Jesus Christ. In the command to teach “them to obey everything I have commanded you,” the Great Commission includes the exhortation to teach the whole range of biblical ethics. In transforming the individual, his or her everyday life, and his or her environment, mission overcomes sinful structures and visible injustice.

The prevailing historic view until the eighteenth century was that the Great Commission had been directed to the New Testament apostles alone. However, there were theologians who held to the modern view. These included St. Augustine, the German reformer Martin Bucer, and the Dutch Reformed missiologist Gisbert Voetius. The change was introduced in 1792 through William Carey’s book, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens.

Carey pointed out that the Great Commission was binding “even to the end of the age.” One of his best arguments for the validity of the Commission was the fact that it included the command to baptize that all churches and theologians considered valid. If the Great Commission was directed only to the apostles, churches would have had to stop baptizing people. Carey also argued that the Great Commission would be fulfilled, as was authorized by the power of the Lord of Lords.

Carey’s view became more and more common, and soon the Great Commission became the most quoted base for Christian mission in all confessions. In the 1960s, missiologists in the ecumenical movement wanted to exchange the commission or command for the missio Dei concept. Today, however, both views are seen to complete each other.

In higher criticism there have been several attempts to prove that none of the Great Commissions in the New Testament stem from Jesus. However, the debate has not come to a common conclusion.

In the Church Growth Movement, initiated by the American Methodist missionary to India Donald McGavran, the Great Commission according to Matthew received special emphasis. The Church can only grow if it spreads within people groups; and it can only grow if people are not made Christians, but are discipled into mature Christians who then again make the Great Commission their own task.

Dr. Thomas Schirrmacher is professor of ethics and sociology of religion in Germany and Turkey. He is also president of Martin Bucer Theological Seminary, spokesman for human rights of the World Evangelical Alliance, and director of the International Institute for Religious Freedom (Bonn, Cape Town, Colombo). Schirrmacher has four doctorates (theology, cultural anthropology, ethics, and sociology of religions).