“Missional Discipleship: Reinterpreting the Great Commission”
In evangelical subculture the ubiquity of the Great Commission is matched by the poverty of its interpretation. Matthew 28:18-20 — the command to make disciples of all nations — is frequently summoned to validate countless and sundry discipleship and evangelism programs, ideas and practices, often ignoring the interpretive wealth of the text. It’s as if we expect that planting the Great Commission flag at end of a sentence will immediately summit our discipleship agendas.
One way to remedy this poverty of our interpretation is by reading the Great Commission in light of other biblical commissions. Depending on how we count them we there are at least five commissions, one in the Old Testament and four in the New (It is certainly possible that there are more commissions. In fact, the Abrahamic covenant in Gen 12:1-3 contains a programmatic mandate for all of Scripture: Go and God will make you a blessing to the nations, which is progressively manifested in making a new people of God, comprised of Jews and Gentiles).
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-driven commands. 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 – it is variously repeated in the Old Testament e.g. Gen. 9:1,7; 17:2-6; 26:3; 28:3; Ex. 1:7; Ezek. 36:11; Jer. 23:3).By producing more creators who rule and subdue the elements of the earth, the creation mandate is a command to produce peoples and cultures.
A surface reading of these Old and New Testament texts places them at odds with one another. 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 have chosen one reading over the other, soul-winning or culture-making, disciple-making or social action. These impoverished readings call for reinterpretation, one that that allows both Genesis and the Gospels to speak. In fact, reading the gospel commissions in light of the cultural mandate will reveal a multi-layered, missional mandate.
Moving beyond poverty-ridden proof texts and into the wealth of the biblical commissions, we will reflect on the differences between the texts. 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 an evangelistic program. 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. As Ralph Winter has advanced, the commission is not calling Christians to Christianize nation-states, but to evangelize ethnic groups. We get the word, “ethnic” from the Greek word for nations, which refers not to modernist geo-political states, but instead to non-Jewish ethnic groups. 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.
As Andrew Walls has pointed out, the command is to make disciples of all nations not from all nations. The Great Commission is not about soul-extraction, to remove the disciple from his culture, but instead, to make disciples within their cultural context. 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 [Andrew Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History, Maryknoll: Orbis, 1996, 51. The original Greek reading of Matt. 28:18 is literally “disciple all ethne” or “make disciples all nations” and does not contain a preposition. However, the grammatical construction of the phrase leads to an “of” reading, not a “from” or “in” reading]).
What we should strive for is distinctive discipleship, discipleship that uniquely expresses personal faith in our cultural context. Disciples in urban Manhattan will look different than disciples in rural Maehongson. These differences allow for a flourishing of the gospel that contributes to the many-splendored new humanity of Christ.
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, It is widely recognized that this verse and the latter portion of Mark’s gospel (16:9-20) is absent from many Marcan manuscripts. However, we cannot be certain that the ending is missing from the original text. If it was absent, our point concerning the “worldly gospel” of Mark still stands in that Mark repeatedly depicts Jesus as the Restorer of creation: driving out demons, healing the sick, resurrecting the dead, calming the sea). 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, as though what is to be proclaimed is of great importance. In this case, it is the gospel that is of utmost importance. This gospel is a worldly gospel — a message that is culturally relevant and creation renewing.
The Greek word for “creation” can be used both broadly and narrowly, referring to the cosmos or to people. Here 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). Thus, Paul perceives himself as an announcer of a worldly Christ-centered gospel, that through Jesus all things are reconciled 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.
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 brings death, but all are to be given the opportunity to be written into the story of God’s redemption of all creation.
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 would follow 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.
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.
Gospel of Luke: Resurrection Stories
Luke’s commission also emphasizes preaching the gospel: “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:47-48). In particular, we are called to preach “repentance and forgiveness of sins.” A social gospel will not suffice. Christ calls us to repent — to turn our heart allegiances away from all things other, and to receive forgiveness for betraying our Creator. But a forgiven and repentant person is not idle; they are compelled to witness — to tell the story of their transformation.
Where Matthew and Mark respectively emphasize distinctive discipleship and preaching a worldly gospel, Luke calls us to witness — to tell our distinct gospel stories. No two stories are alike, but all share the same Savior. What does it mean to be “witnesses of all these things”? Well, at the very least it means sharing Jesus’ self-sacrificing offer of forgiveness, but that is just one thing. What of the other things?
We are to tell of Jesus’ death, but we are also to tell of His resurrection.
Consider the context of Luke’s commission. The eleven disciples were discussing the reliability of Jesus sightings, when suddenly Christ appeared in the room. Thinking he was a ghost, they were filled with fright. Jesus responded: “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (24:39). To make his point, Jesus proved he had a body by eating some fish and chips. In flesh and bone, Jesus charges his follower to be witnesses of his resurrection.
The problem with many of our stories is that they contain all spirit and very little flesh. We communicate our mystical encounters with God, our mountain top experiences with Jesus, and our superhuman victories over sin. Many people see right through our spiritual stories, precisely because our witness is too good to be true. We fail to mention our bad, unless it is in the past, failing further to witness of resurrection, in the present. People want to touch redemption, which means they need to see resurrection power in our personal struggles.
Jesus’ body was resurrected as an expression of God’s commitment to creation (1 Cor. 15). God does not jettison the body for the soul. His gospel of redemption is for the whole world, beginning with enfleshed people. His resurrection is a bright reminder of new creation in the midst of bleak darkness, of tangible transformation in gross dilapidation. The stories we tell should boast of Jesus’ death and resurrection, of his forgiveness of sin and of his restoration of sinners — reconciled families and marriages, restored and housed homeless, renewed life among AIDS orphans, and so on.
According to the Gospel of Luke, we are to be witnesses of death and resurrection, to live and recount the stories of a resurrected, fleshly Jesus who lives in the midst of broken humanity offering healing and hope.
Gospel of John: Humble and Cultural Accommodation
John’s commission is short and sweet: “As the Father sent me, I am also sending you” (John 20:21). Whereas the previous gospel writers emphasized Jesus’ command to make distinctive disciples, preach a worldly gospel, and witness a fleshly Jesus, John stresses Jesus sending his disciples. As the text continues, Jesus makes plain that the disciples are sent as a forgiving community, offering the grace they have received from him to others.
According to John Piper, we are either goers, senders, or disobedient, but according to Jesus we are all the sent. Missionary activity is not the exclusive task of people who sell all their possessions and move overseas. All followers of Jesus are called to live as missionaries in their culture. If we are all sent into our cultures as distinctive disciples to share a worldly gospel about a fleshly Christ, how then are we to live as the sent? Jesus said, “As the Father sent me, I am also sending you.” Our paradigm for living a sent life, a missionary life, is the sending of the Son by the Father.
When the Father sent the Son, Jesus left the glory of his trinitarian abode and became a helpless infant in the care of humans he created. This required an accommodating humility. Jesus grew up and became a first century, toga-wearing, sandal-sporting, temple-frequenting Jew. He accommodated first century Jewish culture (also known as contextualization). So, within reason we should take on the trappings of our culture in order to contextually relate the gospel. This can entail wearing broken-in jeans, togas, hand-made sandals or a suit and tie.
However, our accommodation is not purely cultural; it is missional. It leads us to immerse ourselves into the humanity of our neighborhoods and cities in order relate the gospel to people and their needs. Being a local missionary requires more than relevant attire; it demands humility of heart to listen to the stories of others, to empathize with their frustration, suffering, and brokenness and to redemptively retell their stories through the gospel. To be sent by God is to follow the example of the incarnation, to redemptively engage others with a humble heart and cultural accommodation.
In John’s commission, the paradigm of accommodating humility is accompanied by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is not too holy for distinctive discipleship. After sending his disciples, Jesus breathed on them and they received the Holy Spirit (John 20:22). The power of missional living does not spring from cultural savvy or social sensitivity; it requires the otherworldly, utterly personal power of the Holy Spirit. Only the Spirit of God can make men new.
According to the Gospel of John, we have been sent as missionaries to humbly demonstrate and culturally accommodate the gospel of Christ through the power of the Spirit. In being sent, we do not abandon the cultural commission, but instead, unite it with our redemptive mission.
The Gospel of Genesis: Creation Mandate
The “good news” of Genesis 1-2 is that God created all things to be enjoyed, managed, cultivated, and recreated by humanity. The gospel of Genesis 3 is that, though Adam rejected God, God did not reject Adam. Still possessing the creation mandate, Adam was expelled from Eden, but clothed with the hope of a new creation (Gen 3:15, 21).
The creation mandate charges us to be fruitful and multiply, to rule and subdue the earth. This fruitful multiplication continues both physically and spiritually through the reproducing ministry of missional disciples, who increase in number and good works (Acts 6:7; Col. 1:6, 10). These good works include ruling and subduing creation through the careful, creative arrangement of the elements of the earth into art, technology, infrastructure etc. for the flourishing of humanity. The basis for our cultural activity is found in Genesis.
Retaining the cultural impulse of Genesis, the Gospels call us to a missional discipleship that entails creation care, cultural engagement, social action, and gospel proclamation. Missional disciples will not content themselves by preaching a culturally irrelevant, creation indifferent, resurrection neglecting message. Instead, they redemptively engage peoples and cultures through Christ for the renewal of his creation.
By digging deeper into the great commissions, we have unearthed a wealth of cultural and theological insight. This rereading of familiar evangelistic texts has demonstrated that God in Christ has called us not to mere soul-winning, but to distinctive discipleship, to heralding a worldly gospel of a fleshly Christ who humbly accommodates human culture and understands the human condition. These commissions call us to missional discipleship — to redemptive engagement with all peoples and cultures.
About the Author: Jonathan Dodson (M. Div; Th.M, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) serves as a pastor of Austin City Life in Austin, Texas. He has written articles in numerous blogs and journals such as The Resurgence, The Journal of Biblical Counseling, and Boundless. Dodson has discipled men and women abroad and at home for almost two decades, taking great delight in communicating the gospel and seeing Christ formed in others. His first book – and its fantastic – was published by Crossway Books and is called Gospel-Centered Discipleship. This article originally appeared on http://www.boundless.org on February 12, 2008.