“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them … and teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).*
“Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15).
“Repentance and remission of sins should be preached in [my] name” (Luke 24:47).
“Feed my sheep” (John 21:17).
“You shall be witnesses to me in Jerusalem … and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Go, disciple, baptize, teach, preach, feed, and witness: this is the Great Commission, the gospel of Jesus Christ as outlined in the first five books of the New Testament. Jesus’ final earthly command to us has become so passé that not only do we forget what it says, we don’t even bother to obey it.
Jesus died for our sins and rose again so that we might live in obedience to him through the Holy Spirit and spend eternity with him in heaven. We share this gospel through the Great Commission. It seems so simple. So why don’t we follow Christ’s earthly example and obey him? Do we no longer believe in his power to transform people? Do we even want to see them transformed? Or do we think we can surpass the Great Commission in changing people and societies?
Obeying Christ’s command without his power is the easiest mistake to forgive. At least these people are obedient! Jesus told us to “tarry” or wait in our Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49). Too many of us don’t wait. First we go. Then we witness. But without spiritual power, our efforts are in vain. It’s like trying to use an electrical machine without plugging the cord into an outlet. The Spirit is that outlet. He supplies energy! We might see a few souls saved. But we won’t have the spiritual bounty that Christ promised us (Matthew 13:23).
Hierarchical obedience is less easy to forgive. We let our pastor and staff teach, preach, feed, and baptize us while we attend weekly services and Bible studies. This structure can strengthen us in our Christian devotion, but we’re not obeying the Great Commission. We think we must find a staff position or be selected by our church’s mission board in order to do so. Meanwhile, we’re neglecting the mission fields of family, neighborhood, and workplace; “church” doesn’t train us to witness here. I think para-church ministries were created to give lay people something to do. Yet what these ministries do is the church. They shouldn’t have to come alongside it.
When they asked me … when I had received my call … I said, ‘I read Matthew 28.’ They thought I had misunderstood the question. They explained that a special calling was required before someone could go into the world and do this kind of work. … ‘No, you don’t understand. I read Matthew 28 where Jesus told his followers, “GO!” So I’m here trying to go.’
That prompted a thirty-minute explanation about the distinction between the call to salvation and the call to ministry. What was required, I was told, was then a call to take the gospel into the world, and perhaps a fourth call to a specific place in the world. Then they asked me what I thought about what they had said.
‘Well, it appears to me,’ I told them, ‘that you all have created a “call” to missions that allows people to be disobedient to what Jesus has already commanded all of us to do.’
Jesus never says if or whether you go; He talks about where you go! God may give instructions about the location – the where. But there is nothing to negotiate about the command to go. God has made our primary task perfectly clear.
– Nik Ripken, The Insanity of God (2013)
Ripken faced the unbiblical bureaucracy of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board. Does Jesus give people a special call to the Great Commission? No. We must seek him in prayer for the “where,” but the command to “go” is for every Christian.
But this isn’t the worst sin. When a person, local church, denomination, or para-church ministry ignores the Great Commission and gives Christians another task in its place, then the church has lost its raison d’être. This unholy exchange is unforgivable and borders on blasphemy.
Paul said, “If anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:9). I used to think this meant non-Christian religions and cults. A demon spoke to Mohammed, founder of Islam, and Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormons. Clearly these are “other gospels”; their followers are cursed unless they repent.
Now I have a second interpretation of Paul’s warning – forsaking the Great Commission. Some Christians think Christ’s command is not enough to transform people and societies spiritually. Others don’t bother with eternity, heaven and hell. Seeking the world’s applause or wanting to make the world a better place, they just save earthly bodies.
Jerry Falwell created the “Moral Majority” political movement in the 1970s. We should be involved in politics, as voters and goers. Washington, DC needs to hear the gospel of Christ. Yet this movement ignored the Great Commission. A top-down Christian “culture” rarely transforms society, as missionaries can attest. Many people tried it in the past and failed. Sadly, they’re still trying. The latest attempt is Bill Bright and Loren Cunningham’s “Seven Mountains of Culture” that we must reclaim for Jesus. This false gospel ignores the Great Commission, to its peril.
Christian apologetics is popular in some circles today. Ravi Zacharias, an Atlanta pastor and international speaker, is the most famous apologist of our time. But he doesn’t preach and this is his mistake. I do not believe that modern apologetics obeys the Great Commission.
The Greek apology means “defense.” Peter said, “Always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). He had in mind Jesus, “who before Pontius Pilate witnessed a good confession” (1 Timothy 6:13), and his own preaching before crowds and the Sanhedrin (Acts 2:14-40, 3:12-26, 4:8-12, 19-20; 5:29-32). A gospel defense means witnessing and preaching.
I think Peter would shudder if he were to see the “defense” we call apologetics today. We don’t teach, preach, or witness Jesus Christ. We just argue with sinners. Did you know we can win a verbal battle and lose a soul? “It pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe” (1 Corinthians 1:21). Yet we see preaching as sinners do: foolishness. No wonder we aren’t turning the world upside down or seeing people saved (Acts 17:6)! We just want to win an argument with an atheist for our spiritual resume.
God has given us the gift of reason. Yet unbelievers are always irrational in spiritual matters, sometimes in earthly ones. Thanks to conversion, only Christians think right. The heart must be transformed before the mind can be renewed (Romans 12:2). This is why preaching comes first.
Two years ago Atlanta pastor Louie Giglio said, “The world wants great, not a fish,” i.e. sinners hate mediocrity and won’t listen to Christians unless they’re as good as the world in every field. So Giglio told his audience to give them what they want. Huh? This sinful world needs Jesus Christ, whether it wants him or not. Without Jesus, it’s going to split hell wide open! Giglio’s message is a false gospel and he’s on dangerous ground spiritually if he clings to it. Giglio needs to read 1 Corinthians 1 over and over until the ways of God sink in.
We think the Great Commission is passé, but we don’t know how truly powerful it is. The beauty of the Great Commission is that it solves the root of this world’s problems, both now and in eternity. First, sin will send us to hell forever, but saving faith in Christ opens the door to heaven (Romans 6:23). Second, only people converted to Christ can produce a society that obeys God. The real spiritual battlefield is the individual human heart, not earthly cultures. So if we want to see people transformed, let’s go!
* All Scripture verses come from the NKJV.