And Jesus came and said to them,
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name
of the Father
and of the Son
and of the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
I am with you always,
to the end of the age.”
Matthew 28:18-20 ESV
The Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) is important because it is Jesus’ final words to His disciples before He ascended into heaven. Christ wanted these words to be ringing in our ears until He comes back. We would, therefore, do well to pay attention to them.
But the beauty and weight of the Great Commission does not begin in Matthew but in Genesis.
Allow me to explain.
The first book of the Bible opens with the sweeping account of God creating everything. Within the span of six days, the heavens are formed, the seas are filled, and the earth is sculpted. All of creation was created and placed into order in less than a week by God the Creator, and the capstone of His creation was Adam, the first human. We are told that humans are unique from all other forms of creation because they alone were created in God’s image.
Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.’ (Gen. 1:26)
Because of their status as God’s image-bearers, the Creator also gave humans dominion over all the earth. Every animal that swam, flew, walked, or crawled fell under the authority of those who bore God’s likeness.
But He didn’t just give them dominion. He also gave them a mission: multiply.
Humanity’s primary job was to fill the whole earth with more humans.
That’s it. Manage the earth and have children. Not a bad deal if you ask me.
But have you ever wondered why God would command Adam and his wife, Eve, to multiply and fill the earth with humans?
After all, God could have instantly created billions of humans, filling the earth as it is filled today. Why then did He only create two humans and command them to multiply?
The answer hinges on humans bearing God’s image.
If the earth was filled with humans, it would also be filled with God’s image.
By living in obedience as God’s image-bearers, we were created to display and to fill the earth with His glory.
And God intentionally left the earth unfinished, only creating two humans, in order that they might serve as His instruments for filling the earth with His image. Being made in God’s likeness meant being invited to participate in God’s work.
All of that sounds great, but of course, we know that things went downhill fast.
In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve disobeyed God by doing the ONLY action that was forbidden, plunging humanity into a battle-to-the-death against sin.
Providentially, God was not ready to give up on His image-bearers just yet.
The life of Jesus is the most astonishing act in all of human history.
Because of our continuous sinning against God, we deserve nothing from Him except His wrath. As the Creator of everything, He demands absolute perfection from us and even the smallest of sins bears eternal consequences because He is an eternal God. We are trapped in a well of sin with no hope of escape.
Enter two of the most beautiful words in the entire Bible: but God.
They appear whenever God intervenes on our behalf, which means they appear often. Sin and its consequences are bad news, but God intervenes by bringing good news to His broken creatures.
The good news is that God came into the world as a man, Jesus Christ. Being fully human and full divine, Jesus lived the perfect sinless life that we were commanded to live. He then died a horrific death for us, even though He had no sin by which to earn death. Jesus lived His life and died His death in substitution for us. But the good news doesn’t stop there. Jesus did not merely die for us; He also rose again to life, defeating death permanently.
It is from this position of death-conquering that we receive the Great Commission for Jesus Himself.
Before ascending to sit at God the Father’s right hand, Jesus gathered His disciples to Him for one final in-person teaching. He gave them a declaration of His authority and their final mission until He returns.
Notice that Jesus prefaces His commands with a declaration of His authority. Just as God gave Adam the First Commission as Creator, Jesus commissions His disciples as Lord of all, as the Re-Creator. We must, therefore, keep this authority in mind as we move forward to the commands.
As with the First Commission, Jesus issues four commands, but they are summed into one. The heart of the First Commission was the order to multiply. Being fruitful was accomplished through multiplying, and filling and subduing the earth could only be fulfilled via multiplication. Likewise, making disciples is the heart of the Great Commission. We go to all nations, baptizing and teaching, in order to make disciples.
We are called to make disciples, and this call comes from our Lord, who has absolute authority.
Making disciples, therefore, is not optional.
We can only either obey or disobey the command, but we cannot opt out of it.
But why does Jesus call us to make disciples anyway?
Jesus did not command His disciples to multiply simply for the sake of creating more disciples. Jesus never played the numbers game. John 6 gives the account of Jesus feeding the 5000, and after doing so, Christ had more than 5000 followers because everyone loves free food. But seeing that they were not actually interested in His words, He told them that by eating His flesh and drinking His blood they would find real food that satisfies. Almost everyone left because no one likes to get free food from a possible cannibal.
Jesus was never afraid to thin the crowd by separating the wheat from the chaff, the sheep from the goats. But still Christianity has become the most culture-shaping force on the planet, with Christians being found in every nation. How is this so?
We should note that disciples, being students, embody the characteristics of their teacher. It is a nature process to become like whomever you follow. This thought is captured in the word Christian, which essentially means “like Christ” or “little Christ”. As Christians, we desire to become like our Lord and Teacher, meaning the goal of creating a disciple is to create one who bears the image of Christ.
The First Commission and Great Commission, therefore, both have the same goal: the glorification and exaltation of God. And both accomplish this goal through multiplying and filling the earth with God’s image-bearers.
Making disciples means creating more image-bearers of Christ.
As disciples of Jesus, we should desire to make more disciples of Jesus.
We should desire to make the good news that God saves sinners like us known to the world.
As the Church (the collective followers of Christ), our aim and mission is to make disciples, which is both the expansion of Christ’s kingdom and the glorification of Jesus Christ.
Because local churches are composed of their members, each individual church congregation will change continuously with each member that goes and comes, but this mission does not and cannot change. The function of the individual Christian and the Church collective is to make disciples.
A Christians that does not make disciples is no Christian.
A church that does not make disciples is no church.
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:42 ESV)
Speaking about the importance and preeminence of making disciples is great; however, most of it is meaningless if we never ask the next question: how? How do we make disciples?
There has been a wonderful movement over the last several years to reclaim discipleship. The state of the modern church was looking rather bleak. The need to be comforted and encouraged slowly replaced the gospel call toward holiness and sanctification. Leaders began catering to worship-style preferences to the loss of joyfully solemn worship of the Holy One. And many saw these changes as the failure to make biblically-mandated disciples.
The response was to bring discipleship to an individual level, emphasizing that each Christian has the responsibility to make disciples. Typically, one-on-one regular meetings are promoted most, though discipleship within small groups has also become tremendously popular.
As I said, this is a wonderful and much-needed movement, but we must also be careful not to jump to another equally dangerous extreme in reaction. I believe discipleship, like our own walks with the Lord, occurs on two fronts, individually and communally. In the past, we tended to rely upon the church community alone to make disciples, but we must be wary of over-emphasizing individual discipleship now, lest we ignore the benefits of community discipleship.
Within Acts 2:42, we can see three means of communal discipleship: Scripture, prayer, and community. The apostles’ teaching later came to be known as our New Testament; thus, they devoted themselves to Scriptures. Fellowship and breaking of bread together describes the tight-knit community that believers are called to become. They also devoted themselves to prayer, petitioning the Father on behalf of one another and the mission. Through their devotion to Scripture, prayer, and community, the early church made disciples as a community.
Because this book is primarily focused upon the church as a whole, I will spend more time covering those three forms of communal discipleship within the next three sections. But for now, let us briefly discuss the three broad ways that we are able to make disciples at an individual level: witnessing, evangelism, and discipleship.
We know that we have found the good news of God, but that truth is invisible to the outside world unless we make it known to them. One way we can do this is by living as a witness for Christ. Witnessing, or testifying, is about displaying Jesus to a lost and dying world. When we witness, we attempt to live like Christ before the world in order that they might get a glimpse of His beauty and grace.
The word martyr comes from the Greek word for witnessing. Martyrs, therefore, witnessed about Christ to the world via their deaths. By boldly and joyfully facing their end, they displayed the hope and victory of Jesus over death to the watching world. Their actions were a living portrait of Christ.
In the same way, our lives should be a constant testimony of who Jesus is. We see this principle in the word Christian. Likely started as a derogatory term, Christian means little Christ or Christ-like, which is entirely fitting. We are meant to be small, imperfect versions of Christ before the world. In fact, we are the only Jesus they get to see.
This is why Paul gives us commands like the one in 1 Corinthians 10:31, “So, whatever you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” What a blanket statement! Whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God. There is nothing so small or insignificant that it cannot be done worshipfully to God.
Colossians 3:17 speaks the same theme, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” We all called to do EVERYTHING in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Throughout high school and college, I worked as a teller in a bank. The bank would provide us with shirts to wear that sported the bank’s logo above the left breast. Whenever I went to a restaurant or ran an errand during lunch, I would be slightly more conscious of how I behaved because by wearing the bank’s logo, I knew that my behaviors (for good or bad) would be attributed to the bank. Even if it was subconscious, it was inevitable. As long as I sported the bank’s name, I was their representative to the world.
This is true of the Christian life as well. We bear the name of Christ in all that we do. We are His representatives to the world, so we should do everything in such a way as to bring Him glory.
Writing to His disciple, Titus, Paul applied this principle to how bondservants should work for their masters:
Bondservants are to be submissive to their own masters in everything; they are to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, not pilfering, but showing all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior. (Titus 2:9-10)
Some have interpreted adorning the doctrine of God to mean that our lives beautify the teachings of Scripture, but that is not what it means to adorn something.
Consider this example. My wife is gorgeous. She is a smoking hot, Colombian supermodel. And she loves scarves and hats. She loves them to the point that I had to declare that our holding capacity is reached, so if she gets a new hat or scarf, she must give away an old one. Honestly, I think she pulls off scarves and hats beautifully, but like any good accessory, they merely accent and call attention to her beauty. They in no way beautify her.
In the same way, the doctrines of God are beautiful. Far more beautiful, in fact, than we presently understand or realize. Our lives can do nothing to increase the beauty of God; they only call people’s attention to their beauty.
When employers begin to notice that their best employees are all Christians, the doctrine of God is adorned. When teachers realize that their kindest and most respectable students come from Christian households, the gospel is adorned. When Christian marriages are seen to be healthier and happier than most marriages of the world, the teachings of Scripture are adorned.
The call to witness for Christ is the call for each and every Christian to adorn the gospel by living our lives to the glory of God.
To be honest, I never thought of evangelism and witnessing as two separate actions until recently. In his short (and free!) ebook, What Is the Great Commission?, R. C. Sproul writes:
Evangelism, on the other hand, is the actual proclamation—either oral or written, but certainly verbal—of the gospel. It is declaring the message of the person and work of Christ, who He is and what He has done on behalf of sinners like you and me.
That means there are several things that evangelism is not. It is not living your life as an example. It is not building relationships with people. It is not giving one’s personal testimony. And it is not inviting someone to church. These things may be good and helpful, but they are not evangelism. They may lay the groundwork for evangelism. They may allow others to relate to us, or they may cause someone to be curious about why we live the way we do. But they are not evangelism, because they don’t proclaim the gospel. They may say something about Jesus, but they do not proclaim the person and work of Christ.
Witnessing does not necessitate words, but evangelism must use words, either written or spoken. We see this thought from the word evangelism itself. It comes from the Greek word for gospel, which means good news or good message. Therefore, evangelism is gospelism. It is making known the gospel, and because the gospel is a message and messages must be expressed, evangelism is a verbal act.
Many Christians become incredibly fearful at the thought of doing evangelism, while others write it off as a special gifting for some Christians. While there are some Christians with the passion and gifting of evangelism, all followers are called to the task.
We see this principle in the book of Acts. Following the death of the Stephen, the first martyr within the church, the Christians of Jerusalem fled across the Roman Empire. Here is how Luke describes the act: “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” (Acts 8:4)
As they fled from Jerusalem, they continued to preach the word wherever they went. They continued to tell the good news that Jesus Christ is Lord. They kept proclaiming the truth that God saves sinners from the consequences of their sins.
This powerful statement is only made more powerful by who Luke is describing. He is not merely writing about the original disciples of Jesus, like Peter or John. He is not talking about the newly formed church leaders, like Stephen’s fellow deacons. No, Luke is describing the Christians in general. Normal, everyday followers of Christ preached the word of God wherever they went, and the world was irrevocably changed.
Evangelism is the work of every believer, but please realize that this does not mean you need to have a PHD in theology. John writes that Christians overcome satanic forces “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (Revelation 12:11).
You do not need to know the ins and outs of systematic theology in order to share the gospel; you only need to have experienced the power of Christ’s saving blood and be able to express how He saved you in words. If Christ’s blood and our proclamation of how He saved us is enough to conquer Satan, it is also entirely sufficient for delivering the gospel message to a heart that is dead in sin.
One more thought on evangelism before I move on. Your salvation was the work of God, not yourself. You were dead in sin, an object of God’s wrath, but Christ made you alive because of God’s great grace and love. Therefore, lay aside the weight of thinking that you will save people with evangelism. We can save no one. Even if we argue someone into Christianity, someone else can always argue them out.
We are simply called to share the gospel, to proclaim the good news.
God does everything else.
As a farmer sows seed but God produces the growth, may we also be faithful to share His truth, knowing that God alone can bring the dead to life.
Too often, we think of discipleship and evangelism as two entirely distinct enterprises, but they are, in reality, two sides of the same coin. Both are sharing, proclaiming, and teaching the gospel. They only differ in their audience. During evangelism, we teach the gospel to non-Christians, and during discipleship, we teach the gospel to Christians. Therefore, discipleship is evangelism for believers, and evangelism is discipleship for non-believers.
The process of discipleship is important because our call to make disciples is not complete after someone becomes a Christian. Jesus did not command us to make converts; He told us to make disciples, which are students and followers of Him.
How then do we continue the process of discipleship after someone becomes a Christian?
Our Lord answered the question Himself in the Great Commission: by teaching them to obey all that He commanded us. Each generation is called to teach Jesus’ teachings to the next wave of disciples.
As with evangelism, God does give to some in the church the specific gift of teaching; however, each Christian is still called to teach in some capacity. Consider Paul’s charge to Timothy, “and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also (2 Timothy 2:2).” Paul encourages Timothy to continue the process of teaching other men what it means to follow Christ.
But the process is not for men only.
In Titus 2:3-6, Paul gives Titus these words for women: “Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanders or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled.” Notice that Paul commands older women to teach and train younger women.
Both men and women are called by the Scriptures to teach those who are younger in the faith. I say younger in the faith because physical maturity is not indicative of spiritual maturity. A young man might be quite mature in Christ, while an older man is still an infant in the faith.
Of course, this does not mean that less mature believers have nothing to share. Just as we are told to submit to each other out of reverence for Christ, so should we teach one another the truths of God that we find in Scripture (Ephesians 5:21). We should mutually build one another up in the Lord, teaching one another to continue walking faithfully with the Christ.
This process of discipleship can be as intentional as meeting regularly with someone or a small group to study and discuss Scripture, or it could be as relaxed as two families eating together, discussing what God has been teaching them recently. Appendix A of this book provides three outlines of biblical texts that can be used for discipleship when meeting with another brother or sister in Christ.
The key is to actually discuss the Scriptures and what God is doing. If we meet with brothers and sisters in Christ without discussing Christ, what makes us any different than the world?
We cannot conclude our study of the first value without also considering the call and cost of being a disciple of Christ. As we have stated, a disciple is a student or follower; therefore, all Christians are Jesus’ disciples. We can be nothing else.
To each of His disciples, Jesus gave a single command: “Follow me.” Peter and Andrew left their fishing nets and boat behind to follow Christ. John and James left their fishing gear as well as their father to be Jesus’ students. Matthew left behind his high-paying, low-effort job as a tax-collector to go wherever Jesus went. Paul abandoned his prestige as an up-and-coming Pharisee to join the people he was having killed.
They each left behind their entire way of life to follow Christ, but many did not. Luke 9:57-62 gives three accounts of Jesus challenging would-be disciples.
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
The cost of following Jesus is great. He demands our entire life to follow Him. If we love anyone or anything else more than Him, we are not worthy of being His disciples (Matthew 10:34-39). This means that our own wants and desires must be sacrificed continuously by choosing to do His will. The Christian knows that Christ alone has purchased his soul from the eternal consequences of sin; therefore, he cries out with Paul that we are not our own but have been bought with a price, so we glorify God with our bodies (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Followers of Christ forfeit their own rights, desires, and goals. They shun all efforts of honoring and glorifying self, seeking instead to exalt the name of God alone.
If you are indeed a disciple of Christ, the call of make disciples is not a suggestion. It is not a side project. It is not an item on the to-do list. Making disciples is the reason Jesus saved you. You were made into a new creation in order to proclaim the excellencies of the gospel (1 Peter 2:9). Everything in your life must revolve around this one command. Everything that you do must be for the exaltation of God’s name that He might be worshipped by all people.
Those saved by grace can do nothing less.
Read Genesis 1:28 and discuss the following.
- Why did God command humanity to multiply and fill the earth?
Read Matthew 28:18-20 and discuss the following.
- Why does Jesus command His disciples to go to all nations and make more disciples?
- How can each Christian obey the command of making disciples?
- How do you actively make disciples?
- How does the church as a community make disciples?
Because Scripture profits us through teaching, reproving, correcting, and training us, reflect upon Matthew 28:18-20, and ask yourself the following questions.
- What has God taught you through this text (about Himself, sin, humanity, etc.)?
- What sin has God convicted or reproved you of through this text?
- How has God corrected you (i.e. your theology, thinking, lifestyle, etc.) through this text?
- Pray through the text, asking God to train you toward righteousness by conforming you to His Word.