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Reinterpreting the Great Commission – Part One

There’s a good chance you’ve misinterpreted the Great Commission. Jesus’ command to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:18-20) is frequently summoned to validate countless evangelism programs. Great Commission flags are planted at end of sentences and sermons in order to summit all kinds of discipleship agendas. What was the agenda of Jesus in giving these commissions to the church? What if the Great Commission means something different or deeper than we imagined?

In order to mine the meaning of the Great Commission, I propose we read all five commissions together.The four commissions in the NT are actually variations of the same mandate (Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:48-49/Acts 1:8; John 20:21), each issued by Jesus, emphasizing a slightly different aspect of what it means to be a disciple. The operative verbs in these NT commissions are: make disciples, preach, witness, and send. They are gospel mandates. The OT commission, frequently referred to as the creation or cultural mandate, was issued by God before the Fall of humanity, emphasizing creative activity with the following verbs: be fruitful, multiply, rule, and subdue (Gen 1.27-28).2 It is a creative mandate. Did the Great Commission swallow the Cultural Mandate? Are these commissions at odds?

Make Culture or Make Disciples?
A surface reading of these Old and New Testament texts certainly seems to pose two different mandates: one for culture-making and the other for disciple-making. In Genesis it would seem that the purpose of humanity is to produce people and culture, whereas the Gospels appear to advocate pulling away from people and culture. As a result, many choose one reading over the other, disciple-making or culture-making, soul-winning or social action. Depending on which we choose, we may end up leaning “liberal” or “conservative”. Misinterpretation over the Great Commission has lead to a great divide between Christians. The gospel actually bridges this divide. We need to allow both Genesis and the Gospels to speak into our understanding of Jesus’ great commission. In fact, reading the gospel commissions in light of the cultural commission reveals a multi-layered, mandate. When read in stereo, these commissions transmit a mission much bigger than we might have imagined.

The rest of this article will move beyond poverty-ridden proof texts into the wealth of the biblical commissions. This will require confrontation with the Bible’s demands to make culture and disciples, to care for creation and be agents of new creation. As a result, we will be challenged to understand and embrace discipleship as more than spiritual disciplines or evangelistic programs. We will see that Scripture calls us to missional discipleship, a following after Jesus that requires redemptive engagement not just with souls but with creation and culture.

Gospel of Matthew: Distinctive Discipleship
Part of what makes the Great Commission great is its scope. When Jesus said: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” he was orienting a primarily Jewish audience to a distinctly multi-ethnic mission. Ralph Winter pointed out that this is not calling Christians to Christianize nation-states, but to evangelize particular ethnic groups. We get the word, “ethnic” from the Greek word for nations, which refers not to modern geo-political states, but instead to non-Jewish ethnic groups (aka Gentiles). In other words, Christ does not advocate Christendom, a top-down political Christianity. Instead, in affirmation of the cultural mandate, he calls his followers to transmit a bottom-up, indigenous Christianity, to all peoples in all cultures.

In light of the cultural orientation of discipleship, Andrew Walls makes an interesting observation. He points out that the command in Matthew is to make disciples of all nations not from all nations. What’s the difference? If we interpret the command as “make disciples from ethnic groups”, then one could easily misconstrue the commission as a command to remove disciples from their culture. However, if his command means to “make disciples of all nations”, the command implies we are meant to make disciples within their culture. Is the gospel meant to rescue disciples from their cultures or from their sin? Is the Great Commission meant to quarantine Christians from the world in order to create one vast Christian subculture? Not at all. Walls comments:

Conversion to Christ does not produce a bland universal citizenship: it produces distinctive discipleship, as diverse and variegated as human life itself. Christ in redeeming humanity brings, by the process of discipleship, all the richness of humanity’s infinitude of cultures and subcultures into the variegated splendor of the Full Grown Humanity to which the apostolic literature points (Eph 4.8-13).3

What we should strive for is distinctive discipleship, discipleship that uniquely expresses personal faith in each disciple’s cultural context. As a result, disciples in urban Manhattan will look different than disciples in rural Maehongson. They speak different languages, worship in different buildings, eat different foods, and encounter different challenges. These differences allow for a flourishing of the gospel that contributes to the many-splendored new humanity of Christ. Matthew’s commission calls us to make disciples that reveal the various beauties of Christ across cultures. Jesus’ command is neither soul-centered not culture-centered but gospel-centered. When the gospel is transmitted within nations, it will produce culturally diverse, distinctive disciples.

According to the Gospel of Matthew, distinctive disciples are those who who, in following Jesus, refuse a one-sided, soul-centered gospel, and instead live out faith in context. The distinctive disciple retains the image of Adam — a culture maker — while growing in the image of Christ and becoming a disciple-maker.

Gospel of Mark: A Worldly Gospel
Mark’s commission reads: “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mk. 16:15).4 Where Matthew emphasizes the action of making distinctive disciples, Mark stresses the importance of preaching to all creation.

When Jesus used the word “preach” he did not mean converse. The Greek word for preach always carries a sense of urgency and gravity. What is to be proclaimed is of great importance. In Mark’s case, it is the gospel that is of utmost importance. This gospel is to be proclaimed to “the whole creation.” We might say it is a worldly gospel.

The Greek word for “creation” can be used both broadly and narrowly, referring to the cosmos or to people. Given Mark’s context, it should be taken broadly, referring to the world, its peoples and its cultures. Preaching the gospel of Christ has cosmic implications. So it is with Paul: “this gospel has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister” (Col. 1:23). Paul perceives himself as an announcer of a worldly, Christ-centered gospel. Jesus has reconciled all things to himself, whether on earth or in heaven (Col. 1:20). Paul preaches with Mark’s great commission emphasis — preaching for the redemption of all creation.

Interestingly, while this worldly gospel saves, it also condemns. In Mark, Jesus explains that not all will believe this grand Story or receive its great Savior: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mk. 16:16). Mark’s commission reveals the divisive nature of the gospel. For some it brings life; for others it acknowledges death, but all are to be given the opportunity to be written into the story of God’s redemption.

As with Matthew, the scope of God’s redemptive activity is important. From the beginning, God’s design for creation was for it to flourish and become inhabitable. Outside of Eden, the earth was uninhabitable. Humanity was charged with the task of caring for the earth and creating culture, making the uninhabitable habitable.

Adam failed to trust God with this task and sought to rule not only over creation, but also over God. As a result, the creation project was subjected to sin and calamity (Rom. 8:20). Israel followed in Adam’s footsteps. Then came Jesus. Jesus preached a worldly gospel, a restorative message that put the creation project back on track. His glorified, resurrection body is clearly proof of the new creation to come. He redeems both physically and spiritually.

Just prior to ascending to heaven, Jesus told those who believe that they will be given power to heal the sick, restore the demon-possessed, and to speak new languages (Mk. 16:17-18). This worldly gospel is for the redemption and renewal of the earth, the body, the heart, the mind, and the cultures of the world. It is a saving message that rescues people from their unbelief, not their world, and reconciles their alienation from one another, their world, and their Creator.

According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus died to bring life to all creation, to restore the environment, renew cultures and remake peoples, spiritually and physically. We are called to preach a worldly gospel.