Jesus delivered the Great Commission. In it comes the command for all the peoples of the earth to be reached with the good news. But who was Jesus speaking to? Was it to the original apostles only? To the church at large? To particular local churches? To frontline, missions-minded people? Or is it given to each and every Christian? The question is from a listener named David.
“Hi, Pastor John. A friend recently suggested to me that we should interpret the Great Commission as a command to make disciples for the church at large, not as a command directed to every individual believer. Do you think this command to reach the nations is better interpreted when we see it challenging the apostles, church leaders, and even whole local churches? Or should we take this as a personal commission from Jesus given to every individual Christ-follower?”
Who Is the Church?
Let’s start by analyzing the questions themselves. So the first one is “Should we interpret the Great Commission as a command for the church at large, not as a command directed to every individual believer?” Now, what would that mean to treat the Great Commission as a command for “the church at large”? Wouldn’t that leave the very same questions for individual believers as if the command were given directly to him?
“Who’s going to risk their life among the remaining unreached peoples of the world? That’s the critical issue.”
If you think the command is given to the church at large, and you don’t think the whole church at large is going to reach all the peoples, but only individuals in that church at large, then you have to decide which individuals are going to do that in the church at large. And that would fall on each individual the same as if the command were directed to him directly: Does this mean I am going personally, or does it mean I’m supporting the cause through others going personally?
So I don’t think it really solves any practical issue at all to say that the command is directed to the church at large. That’s my analysis of the first question. Here’s the next one.
Not Everyone Goes
Same clarification is needed when he asks, “Should we take this as a personal commission from Jesus given to every individual Christ follower?” Well, if we say yes, then we have to clarify by asking, “Do you mean that Jesus commands every single believer to be a missionary to the nations with the gospel and a focus on crossing cultures and reaching all the nations, which is in fact the focus of the Great Commission (not just local evangelism)?”
The answer to that question from the Bible is clearly no, he doesn’t expect that or command that. And one evidence for that is that Romans 15, where Paul is recruiting people from Rome not to go with him to Spain but to support him as he goes to Spain.
He knows that all those people he’s writing to in Rome — all those Christians where the gospel is already rooted — have jobs. They have networks of relationships. And so he’s not calling them, saying, “Hey now, all you serious Christians, everybody get on a boat and go with me to Spain.” He’s saying, “Support me as I go.”
So it’s clear from the New Testament that God does not expect every person to hear the Great Commission as a summons to cross a culture and be a missionary. I do think that 1 Peter 2:9 instructs all believers to declare the excellencies of Christ in their network of relationships: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
But the New Testament does not teach that every believer should be a cross-cultural missionary, trying to penetrate unreached peoples as a frontier missionary.
To the End of the Age
So let’s go back for just a moment to the Great Commission in Matthew 28. Those words “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” are addressed to the eleven apostles. We see that in verse 16. It’s the eleven who are gathered.
“God mysteriously and miraculously and wonderfully calls his frontier emissaries.”
But the clue that Jesus intends for the command not just to be for the eleven, but to some group outliving the eleven, comes at the end of verse 20. The warrant, the ground, the support for the command is the promise “behold, I am with you.” And then he tells how long this warrant is going to last: “to the end of the age.”
So the task will last as long as God promises to help it last: “I’m going to be with you in this task to the end of the age.”
So the question is — and every generation of believers has to ask this — who picks up the mantle in the following centuries? It’s not enough to say either every individual does or the whole church does. That’s not enough because neither of those answers helps decide who’s going to do it.
Who’s going to actually get off their rear end and risk their life penetrating the remaining unreached peoples of the world? That’s the critical issue. Every individual doesn’t do it, and the church as a whole doesn’t do it. Specific human beings do it.
Hopefully these people are supported by every individual and supported by the whole church. It’s individual people that take the gospel across cultures to other people. Where do they come from? Who are they? How do they come into being? How do they get authorized, gifted, equipped, sustained?
Now here’s my biblical pointer toward an answer. Jesus said in John 10:15–16, “I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” In other words, Jesus shed his blood — “I lay down my life for the sheep” — to gather his sheep from other folds besides this Jewish fold.
“The nations and peoples will be reached by means of believers opening their mouths and sharing the good news.”
According to John 11:52, the sheep are scattered all over the world, and they are to be gathered in. He laid down his life to gather them in. Then he says, “They will listen to my voice.” How will they listen to his voice? They will hear his voice through human voices that make known the truth of Jesus.
Jesus prayed in John 17:20, “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word.” Now wherever the word of the apostles is echoed in the mouth of emissaries of Jesus, people come to faith.
So how will the nations and peoples be reached? By means of believers opening their mouths and telling the good news deposited by the apostles in the New Testament concerning the gospel of Jesus. And who are those cross-cultural emissaries? Who are they? Individuals.
A Mysterious Call
For 33 years in pastoral ministry — carrying this burden and raising this question and living with this reality of unreached peoples all over the world while I sit and work here in Minneapolis — for 33 years it was an absolute wonder and glory and beauty to watch God appoint from among his children those who felt a relentless, irresistible, biblically informed, spiritually mature, church-based, miraculous calling on their lives to get themselves to a cross-cultural frontier for Christ’s sake.
So my answer is that the Great Commission is to be loved and supported and advocated for by all who love what Jesus loves. How can you not?
Among these, in churches where the gospel is preached and the burden of missions is lifted up, God mysteriously and miraculously and wonderfully calls his frontier emissaries.