Recite the Great Commission and you may learn something about yourself. Go on and try to say Jesus’ last command in Matthew 28:18–20 for yourself. Don’t skip this part. I’ll do it too. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Jesus is Lord! Good start. “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations….” Now we’ve got down the main command. “Baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit….” Our allegiance is to God who is three-in-one. “Teaching them…” Go on…
Wait… teaching them what?
I often hear one of two omissions when someone reaches this point in these verses. Some people, even New Testament scholars and missiologists, have said, “teaching them all that I have commanded you,” and forgot, “to obey,” or, “to observe.” And some, missions practitioners and church planters included, have said, “teaching them to obey what I have commanded you” or just, “teaching them to obey,” and left out, “all,” or, “everything that I have commanded you.”
You might dismiss the omissions as accidents, but these have been published. No doubt, many, including you, get it right or catch the error and give Jesus’ correct statement: “teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
We speed through the Great Commission (not to mention other familiar Scriptures) and don’t give it a second thought. But we need to give it a second thought. What we omit betrays a misunderstanding of Christ’s commission to us.
We omit certain words to emphasize others. Which words do you tend to leave out of the Great Commission? Which words do you emphasize? I’m not just asking about the omissions in our memories, but the omissions in our strategies, efforts and teachings. These omissions and emphases steer missionaries and theologians — and those we disciple.
We will make healthy disciples neither through knowledge nor obedience alone. We must hear and teach God’s Word and do it in a way that leads disciples to obey it, even obey through suffering (Heb. 5:8) and to the point of death (Phil. 2:8). We must give disciples not some of Jesus’ commands, as if this commission to make disciples were Jesus’ first or only command, but “the whole counsel” (Acts 20:27). We are not faithful to the Lord if we emphasize either education or multiplication at the cost of the other.
Does obedience or knowledge take precedence over the other? Is it a balance between two opposing objectives? The relation of obedience and knowledge deserves it’s own study. For now it’s enough to say that in Matthew 28:20 we have one objective, not two: to teach disciples to obey all that Jesus commanded.
We are not commissioned to knowledge-based nor obedience-based discipleship—though we labor for the fruit of knowledge and obedience. It will always be inadequate to base our discipleship on anything other than Jesus himself, “the founder and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:2). We should seek, like Paul, “to bring about the obedience of faith among all the nations for the sake of his name” (Rom. 1:5, 16:26). This obedience is based on Jesus, from beginning to end, from the faith in his “all authority,” through the speaking of his “commands” in love, to the hope of his ongoing presence: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” We bring about obedience by aiming for the faith, hope and love that are in Christ Jesus.