It seems like such a simple command. “Go”, said Jesus, “...and make disciples of all nations...” (Matt. 28:19). But who exactly is supposed to go? Some have claimed that Jesus’ command to go and make disciples was only for the original apostles, and that the Great Commission was subsequently fulfilled by those apostles. But such an enormous task would have been impossible for just eleven men to complete. And Jesus’ promise to be with them “to the end of the age” implies that the validity of this commission would extend beyond the lifetime of the apostles. If that’s so, then the church has inherited this commission from the apostles. And it is the church’s responsibility to obey the command of Christ until He comes again.
It is important to note that Christ’s commission to go and make disciples is given to the entire church, not merely individual Christians. It is popular to view the Great Commission as a command that every individual Christian should be involved in evangelism. And some missions advocates have claimed that unless you have a specific calling to stay home, you must become a cross-cultural missionary in obedience to the Great Commission. As well-intentioned as these viewpoints may be, they miss the mark when it comes to putting Christ’s command in the context of the New Testament’s teaching on the body of Christ. The Apostle Paul wrote, “For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them” (Romans 12:4–6). While every Christian has a role to play in the Great Commission, we don’t all have the same role.
For sure, there are some who have the role of missionary, evangelist, pastor, or Bible teacher. And some will go to the other side of the planet to fulfill those roles. There is a huge need in the world today for cross-cultural missionaries and the mission field is a fantastic place to serve Christ. But its not for everybody. When Jesus said, “Go”, he wasn’t commanding all his disciples to go abroad. Just before His ascension, Jesus was very specific about the geographic locations where He expected his disciples to go. He told them, “[Y]ou will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). When Jesus said these words, He and his disciples were in Jerusalem. Jesus wanted them to start testifying to His life, death, and resurrection right where they were - Jerusalem. But they weren’t to stop there. Some of them would go to other parts of Judea, sharing the Gospel with other Jews. But others would cross cultural and religious boundaries, making disciples in Samaria. And beyond that, some of Jesus’ disciples would go to the ends of the earth, making disciples in places that were completely unlike their homeland. Jesus takes for granted that some of his disciples would go to the uttermost parts of the earth. But He did not envision all of his disciples hopping on a boat to some far-flung part of the world. The New Testament puts a much greater emphasis on faithfulness in the situation that we find ourselves than it does upon physical travel. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “[A]spire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thess. 4:11-12).
Even though we won’t all be flying across the globe to share the Gospel, or teaching and baptizing in our local church, it doesn’t mean that we can’t be involved in “going” in obedience to the Great Commission. Like the original disciples who were in Jerusalem, we seek to live faithfully in the place where we find ourselves, “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). And regardless of our station in life, there are ways that we can have a part in making disciples of all nations. For starters, we can learn about evangelism and missions. Read a missionary biography such as the story of Adoniram Judson or John Paton. Find out which missionaries your church supports. Get on their mailing list, read their prayer letters, and pray for them. Support missionaries financially. In our globalized world, people are traveling like never before and the nations are coming to us. Have an international student over for a meal or befriend the immigrant family who moved in across the street. Keep an eye out for those in your church who might be good missionary candidates, and encourage and support them in that direction.
While not all Christians will “go” in the physical sense, we are all a part of the body of Christ and have a role to play. How will you “go” today?
This article first appeared in Tabletalk, "The Great Commission" April 2014 Vol. 38, No.4, Pages 14-15, and is republished here by permission of Ligionier Ministries.