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Finishing the Task? (Part 3): A Cautionary Analysis of Missionary Language

A closer look at the action steps of the Great Commission: making disciples and planting churches.
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, technological advances and transportation opportunities have made it conceivable for the first time in history that a single generation of Christians might be able to both access and evangelize all of the world’s peoples.

To this end, missionary agencies have employed mottos such as “Finish the Task” to rally Christians to complete the work of world evangelization. Often such efforts are connected to Matt 24:14 where Jesus promises that the gospel of the kingdom will be preached to all nations before the eschaton. Such mottos imply that the missionary task is coterminous with world evangelization. Yet the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18–20 will not allow for such a reduced conception of the essential missionary task. While world evangelization is a vital component of the Great Commission, missions strategies must not allow the promise of Jesus to distract from full obedience to his command.

The Command of Matthew 28:18–20

καὶ προσελθὼν ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἐλάλησεν αὐτοῖς λέγων, Ἐδόθη μοι πᾶσα ἐξουσία ἐν οὐρανῷ καὶ ἐπὶ [τῆς] γῆς.19 πορευθέντες οὖν μαθητεύσατε πάντα τὰ ἔθνη, βαπτίζοντες αὐτοὺς εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ πατρὸς καὶ τοῦ υἱοῦ καὶ τοῦ ἁγίου πνεύματος,20 διδάσκοντες αὐτοὺς τηρεῖν πάντα ὅσα ἐνετειλάμην ὑμῖν· καὶ ἰδοὺ ἐγὼ μεθ ̓ ὑμῶν εἰμι πάσας τὰς ἡμέρας ἕως τῆς συντελείας τοῦ αἰῶνος.

Long considered to be a key text in evangelical missiology, the so- called Great Commission as stated in Matthew is often cited as the chair text for missions work, though it is certainly more than a proof-text.44 As noted by David Mathis, Matt 28:18–20 “is part of a biblical symphony spanning the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation. From creation, God has been concerned with ‘all the nations.’”45 While the Great Commission may not exhaust the mission for which the church remains on earth, the church’s mission is certainly not less than what is contained therein. To that end it this paper will investigate the passage in order to illumine something of a minimum definition of the church’s role in order to determine whether or not the missions motto, “Finish the Mission” is appropriate in light of Matt 28:18–20.

The Command

The central verb in this famous verse can at times get lost in the English translations. Where the English versions tend to place the aorist participle “go” (πορευθέντες) prior to the imperative “make disciples” (μαθητεύσατε), the command to “make disciples” is in fact the main verb.46 As disciple-making is the task given here, Weber explains, “At the heart of our mission is the reproduction in others of what Jesus has produced in us: faith, obedience, growth, authority, compassion, love, and a bold, truthful message as his witnesses.”47

On this grammatical basis, some argue that the English verb should be “going” as a reference to one’s everyday activities as the context for one’s obedience to the main verb, “make disciples.”48 However, as ex- plained by Köstenberger and O’Brien, “The aorist participle ‘go’ (poreuthentes) modifies the aorist imperative ‘make disciples’ (matheteusate) as an auxiliary reinforcing the action of the main verb” and in so doing, it contains a “mild imperatival force.”49 Likewise, Osborne notes Matthew’s habit of pairing a participial “‘go’ as an introductory circumstantial participle that is rightly translated as coordinate to the main verb.”50 Thus, “Jesus was commanding his followers to go as well as to make disciples, though the emphasis falls on the making of disciples.”51 Indeed, as this passage includes the phrase “all nations” (πάντα τὰ ἔθνη), “going,” at least for some, will be a necessary aspect of obedience.

The command to make disciples is clearly given, though its implementation is no simple thing.52 Qualifying this main verb is another participial phrase, “teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.”53 Köstenberger unpacks this, saying, “Mission entails the nurturing of converts into the full obedience of faith, not merely the proclamation of the Gospel.”54 Where some missiologists would separate the task of “discipling” from the process of “perfecting,” this passage will not admit of this distinction.55 As disciples themselves are ever-growing, so might the task of making disciples be seen as a process that will not end until Jesus returns.

While this command, then, certainly includes both “go” and “proclaim” elements, it is not limited only to these, but it insists on the making of disciples, the planting of churches, and the teaching of obedience to all that Jesus has commanded. This teaching includes Jesus’ central teaching on the kingdom of God, which cannot simply be understood as the message of how one might find personal salvation.56 An investigation of the rest of the passage will bear this out.

While the Great Commission may not exhaust the mission for which the church remains on earth, the church’s mission is certainly not less than what is contained therein.
Matt Bennett

The Content

As noted above, Jesus’ command to “Go and make disciples” is not a bare command given devoid of content. Matthew 28:18–20 includes two additional participial clauses that shed further light on how one is to make disciples: baptizing (βαπτίζοντες) and teaching (διδάσκοντες). Clearly, as those discipled by Jesus themselves, the eleven disciples understood something of what making disciples might entail. While an investigation of the narratives of the disciples’ personal experiences of being discipled by Jesus might prove fruitful, this study will limit itself to the implications of these two participles and the phrases of which they are part.

Baptism and Ecclesiological Implications. The first participial clause that sheds light on how the eleven disciples are instructed to “Go and make disciples of all nations” is “baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (βαπτίζοντες αὐτοὺς εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ πατρὸς καὶ τοῦ υἱοῦ καὶ τοῦ ἁγίου πνεύματος). The Trinitarian formula identifies clearly the fact that this is explicitly Christian baptism, a symbol of entrance into the people of God by way of God’s own tri-personal name.57

As a sign or sacrament symbolizing the entrance into God’s family, baptism implies an intimate relationship with the community of God’s people. Indeed, many see this command to baptize disciples as being directly tied to churches into which the new disciples are baptized and integrated.58 With this understanding in mind, then, Russell Moore can claim that “a theology of the Great Commission is inextricably tied up with a theology of the church.”59 Likewise, Köstenberger and O’Brien emphasize that in the New Testament, “conversion to Christ meant incorporation into a Christian community.”60 The command to baptize, here, as an ordinance of the church, can be understood to assume church formation and planting as a part of the Great Commission itself. The second participle gives even further instructions on disciple-making.

Teaching Total Obedience. The addition of the phrase, “teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you” (διδάσκοντες αὐτοὺς τηρεῖν πάντα ὅσα ἐνετειλάμην ὑμῖν) sets the disciple-making and church planting standard. Jesus does not give his disciples permission to set aside aspects of his teaching in order to streamline their task or to speed its spread. Instead, as Jesus himself claimed that his own ministry would not allow a jot or a tittle of the law to fall away, he holds his disciples as disciple-makers to the same standard of upholding his commands (Matthew 5:18).

This is not always reflected in missions strategies. Often, between the difficulty of intercultural communication and the desire for reproducible models that rapidly multiply, aspects of Jesus’ teaching go unaddressed.61 For example, in Donald McGavran’s influential early work, The Bridges of God, McGavran puts off much of Jesus’ ethical teaching by distinguishing between “discipling” and “perfecting.” He describes this division by saying, “In discipling, the full understanding of Christ is not the all-important factor, which is simply that He be recognized by the community as their sole spiritual Sovereign.”62

In so doing, McGavran—and many who follow in his stead—declares the discipleship stage to be finished (and thus “finishable”) once Jesus is seen as a community’s leader. The assumption, then, is that the work of the Great Commission is done among this people, and sanctification (or “perfecting” in McGavran’s terminology) will continue either with or without the missionary’s teaching.

There is, however, no textual warrant for redefining discipleship or for the bifurcation of discipling and perfecting. This is not a tenable position when considering the command of Matthew 28:18–20, particularly in light of the second clause, which requires teaching total obedience.63 Contra McGavran’s definition of discipling, David Mathis writes, “‘Disciple’ refers not merely to conversion and personal spiritual maturity but to the personal investment of the discipler’s life in others.”64 Likewise, Chan and Beuving explain that “teaching people to obey Jesus’s commands is an enormous task. . . . We are never really ‘done.’ . . . We never finish the discipleship process.”65 Despite the grand scope of the process of making disciples, Matthew 28:18–20 insists that this is the task to which the church has been commissioned.

‘Disciple’ refers not merely to conversion and personal spiritual maturity but to the personal investment of the discipler’s life in others.
David Mathis

David Sills summarizes well what has been seen in this study, saying, “The Great Commission is not just about witnessing or church planting. Jesus said to make disciples of the ethnic groups of the world, and to do so by teaching them to observe all that He commanded us (Matthew 28:19–20).”66 Evangelism, church planting, discipleship, and teaching total obedience are bound up together in the command left to the church in the Great Commission. It might be noted that there is more that can be said biblically regarding the mission of the church. However, as the church strategizes about how to make disciples of all the peoples of the world, she will do well to remember that her task is not less than full obedience to the Great Commission.

Summary

To the degree that the pursuit of world evangelization is a first step, leading to deep, full disciple-making discipleship and consequent church planting of “kingdom outpost” churches, let the church throw herself towards the strategic targeting of the unreached. However, to the degree that world evangelization as a task draws the church’s attention away from the robust disciple-making process of the Great Commission, let the church reconfigure her methodologies to reflect the command with which she has been entrusted rather than the promises which are God’s to ensure. Likewise, if missions mottos serve to give the impression that the task of missions is less than making life-long disciple-makers, the mottos too must be discarded.

As has been shown, if Matthew 24:14 is taken as the basis for missions strategy, one runs the risk of screening out the emphasis Jesus puts on discipleship, church planting, and teaching. While world evangelism should certainly be part of the goal of missions strategies, the whole command of Matthew 28:18–20 given to the church must be taken into account in assessment of appropriate tools, strategies, and methodologies. Though world evangelism might move faster from a human standpoint if strategies are stripped of the expectation of substantive teaching and life-on-life discipleship, it would do so at the expense of Great Commission obedience. Having studied the relevant texts, it will now be helpful to consider some practical aspects of missions strategy in light of Matthew 28:18– 20.


Editor’s Note: This article is part 2 of the Finishing the Task series.


44. David Bosch, “The Structure of Mission: An Exposition of Matthew 28:16–20,” in Exploring Church Growth, ed. Wilbert R. Shenk (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 218–20.

45. David Mathis, “Introduction: Remember, Jesus Never Lies,” in Finish the Mission, ed. John Piper and David Mathis (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 18.

46. Blomberg, Matthew, 431.

47. Weber, Matthew, 484.

48. Morris, Matthew, 746n.30.

49. Andreas J. Köstenberger and Peter Thomas O’Brien, Salvation to the Ends of the Earth: A Biblical Theology of Mission (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001), 103–4.

50. Blomberg, Matthew, 431.

51. Morris, Matthew, 746n.30.

52. Paul Borthwick, Western Christians in Global Mission (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 50.

53. Köstenberger and O’Brien, Salvation to the Ends of the Earth, 105.

54. Ibid., 104.

55. Donald A. McGavran, The Bridges of God: A Study in the Strategy of Missions (New York: Friendship Press, 1981), 15. McGavran divides these concepts; Bosch demonstrates the division to be untenable in “The Structure of Mission,” 221.

56. David J. Bosch, “The Structure of Mission,” 246.

57. McGrath, Christian Theology, 230. McGrath shows that this formula itself was cited in the formulation of the Trinity by Athanasius and others.

58. Cf. John Hammett, “The What and How of Church Membership,” in Baptist Foundations: Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age, ed. Jonathan Leeman and Mark E. Dever (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2015), 192.

59. Russell D. Moore, “Theology Bleeds: Why Theological Vision Matters for the Great Commission and Vice Versa,” in The Great Commission Resurgence: Fulfilling God’s Mandate in Our Time, ed. Charles E. Lawless and Adam Wade Greenway (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 117.

60. Köstenberger and O’Brien, Salvation to the Ends of the Earth, 268.

61. Sills, Reaching and Teaching, 32.

62. Donald A. McGavran, The Bridges of God: A Study in the Strategy of Missions (New York: Friendship Press, 1981), 15.

63. David J. Bosch, “The Structure of Mission: An Exposition of Matthew 28:16–20,” in Exploring Church Growth, ed. Wilbert R. Shenk (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 46.

64. Mathis, “Introduction: Remember, Jesus Never Lies,” 18, 20.

65. Francis Chan and Mark Beuving, Multiply: Disciples Making Disciples (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2012), 32.

66. Sills, Reaching and Teaching, 29).

About the Author

Matt Bennett is an Assistant Professor of Missions and Theology at Cedarville University. Previously, Matt served as a missionary in North Africa and the Middle East. Matt holds a Ph.D. in missiology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Follow Matt on Twitter.

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