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The Great Commission

What is the Great Commission? Not too many years ago, the average Christian could explain it and cite the Bible reference for it. Today, that is far from the case; it is an almost forgotten item. Those that have heard of it will probably say that it is Christ’s call for missionaries and pastors to evangelize the world. This, though, is only a partial truth. The Commission is far more than a call to evangelize and it isn’t directed primarily to the clergy; all Christians are called to participate in it.

What Is It?

18 And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.   19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:  20 Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you:  and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.   Amen. (Matt. 28:18-20)

This passage tells us:

  1. Jesus has unlimited authority in heaven and earth. He is the supreme and rightful ruler of all the nations in the world.
  2. His disciples, and with them all Christians, are instructed to teach and baptize the nations of the world.
  3. The nations are to be taught to obey all Christ’s commandments.
  4. The nations are to be baptized in the name of the Triune God.
  5. Jesus will be with His obedient followers until the world ends.

The passage does not say:

  1. The world belongs to Satan.
  2. Only missionaries and pastors are involved in this effort.
  3. Only the people of the nations and not the nations themselves are to be taught and baptized.
  4. The baptism may be done in the name of any other god or gods.
  5. Christians involved in the Commission are on their own.

Let us consider these points. First, what is the nature of this authority that Jesus asserts? He spoke these words soon after His resurrection. He had just defeated Satan by giving His life on the cross to atone for the sins of every Christian believer. Satan’s power was broken and transferred to Jesus. Mankind was no longer entirely under Satan’s control as it was since the Fall. The Seed of the Serpent now faced a formidable enemy, the Seed of the Woman, one that would eventually crush the Serpent’s head. There remained the working-out of these tasks but the outcome was assured. Christ was the new King and the world was His in principle and will be His in fact in the course of time.

Second, all Christians, with the promise of an eternal future, are His emissaries that are here sent to claim His kingdom. They are sent to bring the laws of the nations of the world into conformity with God’s law (Jesus’ commandments).

Third, this is to be done through teaching and baptizing, not just the people but the nations. It is the nations, as nations that are to be taught and baptized. But how is a nation to be taught and how is it and not just its people to be baptized? Is this just a foolish statement or is it not meant to be taken literally? Doesn’t it mean that we are to teach and to baptize the people of the nations? This, of course, must be done but God does not speak to us in riddles. When our Lord says that the nations are to be taught and to be baptized He means just that.

What, after all, is Christian baptism? It is the ceremony that celebrates the entry of a new member into the Christian community. It is an action that is taken by a congregation that by it declares that this new person is now a member of this congregation. The ceremony is usually conducted by an elder or pastor but it is the congregation as a whole that accepts and welcomes the new member. The official performing the ceremony does so, not as an individual but as a representative of the congregation. It is not the official that performs the ceremony so much as the entire congregation that is responsible to God for each individual it baptizes.

When a nation as a nation in its official decisions declares itself to be a Christian nation and makes its laws conform to the law of God, we can say that that nation has been taught to obey Christ’s commandments. When the people of that nation affirm their acceptance of this decision and pledge their allegiance to that nation, that nation can be said to have been baptized into the Christian faith. As with the congregation, God holds the people of the nation and not its officials responsible for the maintenance and purity of the newly baptized nation. This is precisely what Jesus has commanded all believers in the Great Commission. This surely is a GREAT commission; it is a commission to restore, not just a portion of the people but the entire world to what God created and intended it to be.

The Track Record

Why though has it not yet been fulfilled? Is it so great a task that it requires more than 2,000 years of effort, effort replete with continual setbacks? The early church with all its imperfections accomplished much; the Roman Empire declared itself Christian in three centuries. The church went on to correct much of its earlier heretical influences in the ecumenical councils. It seems, though, that its success was too much for it to handle. The church became more and more an institution and less and less the Body of Christ that it was earlier. The institution usurped the name “church” for itself instead of the Body of Christ that it stands for in Scripture. The institution came to be dominated by power-seeking men that elevated themselves above the common believers. A hierarchy formed culminating in the establishment of the Papacy.

The Great Commission was reinterpreted to be an activity of the clergy and not what they termed “lay” Christians. The kingdom of God of which Christ was the head was narrowed to include only the church and not the nations of the world. A new head of all Christians was created in the Pope of Rome.

The institution became so corrupt that the Reformation was inevitable. The Reformers corrected much of the pernicious evil that was introduced earlier but it did not correct all. Most significantly, it did not correct this view of the Body of Christ as being associated with and responsible to an institution. It attempted at first to restore the original meaning of the Great Commission but this did not last. The institution, now many institutions, retained its position of control, and clerical superiority over lay believers was soon almost universal. The Body of Christ, subjugated by these institutions, was rendered almost impotent and progress on the Commission languished.

The Status Quo

The 19th century saw the introduction of some major doctrinal changes. As a result, most of today’s churches now see the Christian life through eyes colored by a dualistic philosophy, one that has its roots in the Ancient Greek philosopher, Plato. He taught that man’s spirit or mind was good but his body, consisting of matter was evil. This philosophy, viewing man as consisting of conflicting elements, influenced Scriptural interpretation in almost all of today’s churches. It sees Scripture, especially the New Testament, as speaking to man primarily in spiritual, rather than physical terms. The Gospel is seen purely as a message of personal salvation that affects man’s mind or spirit and not the surrounding material world. The life-work of the Christian is then inwardly directed to protect himself and his faith from a) the sin tendency that lurks within his material physical being and b) the evil influences of the sinful surrounding world. The only outward direction remaining then is to do what he can to save others. There is no place here for the work of saving the nations and the Great Commission is narrowed down and limited to evangelistic activity. The nations are seen as a mission field outside the realm of Christ’s kingdom.

The result, as one would expect, is that secular humanism, having an open field, has so infiltrated and taken control of the nations that the Christian faith is now under attack and is being systematically removed from every area of public life. In America, for at least a century now, each generation has become less Christian than its predecessor. The nation is retreating back to the paganism that permeated the Ancient World.

What Next?

There is a bright side to the above sad story. America, despite its theological decline, is still the home of many Christians. They have been marginalized by the media and the educational establishments and discouraged from action by their churches but they still remain a force to be reckoned with. They are steadily growing more and more uncomfortable with the direction they see society taking. They do not yet see the connection between the cultural decline and their failure to do the work of the Great Commission; but they know something is fundamentally wrong and are beginning to feel anxious about doing something to halt the current trend. The Holy Spirit is working in their hearts and making them uncomfortable with their passive inactivity. They represent a currently latent but potentially powerful force for cultural change, one that once unleashed would rapidly reverse the current trend.

Sadly, most of America’s 300,000+ pastors, while very upset with the cultural decline, have not made the connection between it and Christian inactivity. They should be at the forefront but are too steeped in their limited view of the church to take the lead. To the extent they can be encouraged, provoked or driven by their congregations to begin teaching the truth about the Great Commission, they can do much good. Christians need to hear this message.

What is needed now, for those of us that do see this vital connection, is to pass the word on to others. Our numbers, while growing, are still quite small and the most urgent need is to expand the base. God’s truth and God Himself are on our side. He has promised us success but also requires us to take action. He will not do for us what He has commanded us to do but He will bless us when we obey and will be with us to the end of the age. The day will come when the Great Commission will be fulfilled and the nations of the earth will have been baptized. Our task today is to get the ball rolling.