December 11, 2017

A Closer Look at the Great Commission

Gene Gurganus

Most organizations, businesses, and companies prepare a policy statement publishing their reason for existence and what they wish to accomplish. For example, my home church simply and eloquently expresses it thus: “Our purpose is to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ by bringing the saints into a closer fellowship with God and with one another through the study of His Word and obedience to its precepts and by seeking every opportunity to evangelize the lost both in the Greenville area and around the world.”

Likewise, in the Bible God speaks expressly concerning His aims and purposes. The seed plot of God’s plans appears in God’s call to Abraham. In just a few words God’s overall purpose is revealed: “In thee [Abraham] shall all families of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). In the Old Testament God prepared a nation that would ultimately produce a Savior through whom all families would be blessed.

So also our Lord Jesus Christ verbalized His goal in Matthew 16:18: “I will build my church.” Besides the work of redemption, Christ’s greatest work was to prepare the apostles to be the foundation of the church. Simon Peter reiterated and brought God’s purpose into clearer focus: “Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name” (Acts 15:14). These words also express God’s grand design for the church age—separating unto Himself a redeemed people through the gospel.

For goals to be realized, plans are necessary. Before His ascension into glory, Christ gave His apostles a plan called the Great Commission, various forms of which appear in all four Gospels and Acts. The clearest and most comprehensive commission is given in Matthew 28:19, 20: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: 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.” Although the Great Commission is quite familiar, seldom does one hear an exposition of it. Answering two simple questions will enhance our comprehension of God’s plan to evangelize the world.

To whom was the Great Commission given? Two wrong answers need to be corrected. The first error says it was given solely to the Twelve. Martin Luther and the Reformers held this interpretation. Since they did not believe the command was directed to them, the Reformers’ ministries were sadly lacking in missionary zeal and outreach.

The second error goes too far in the other direction, asking us to believe that every Christian is literally morally and spiritually obligated to go into the entire world preaching the gospel. In other words, one is either a missionary or a backslider. As a result some have gone to foreign countries ill prepared, causing more harm than good.

The truth of the matter is that the task of sharing the gospel with all nations is laid squarely upon the local church. The failure to evangelize the world is due, among other things, to the church’s lack of acceptance of this responsibility. Many local churches have transferred this God-given task to mission boards and individual missionaries.

Church programs often reflect a basic misunderstanding of the Great Commission. The Sunday school promotes Bible knowledge; the visitation program reaches out to the community; the Christian school educates the youth; and a missionary program sends missionaries to needy, unreached areas. Here’s the question: “Is missions a program of the church; or is the program of the church, missions?” There is a difference. The church’s missionary outreach must not be included as just another program of the church—not even a vital program. The missionary outreach is the very purpose of the church. Fulfilling the Great Commission is the church’s raison d’etre.

This, of course, is not to say that the aforementioned programs are nonessential or unimportant. However, no program should exist or function for its own benefit. Each one should be designed to further the great task of world evangelization.

Bible-believing, Christ-honoring churches do not have a range of options relative to program. The Head of the Church laid out His program very clearly: “Go ye therefore, and teach [disciple] all nations, . . . teaching all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19, 20).

Unfortunately, many churches have not taken this commandment seriously. How does the average church obey the Great Commission? A ladies-only missionary society undertakes minor projects for the missionaries supported by their church. Ten or twenty percent of the budget supports missionary outreaches. I do not want to appear critical, unloving, or ungrateful, yet it must be said that too many churches are guilty of tokenism. In other words, churches have not geared their programs to fulfill the Great Commission but have been content to make a contribution. There are exceptions, for which we praise the Lord.

God’s richest blessings are upon those churches filled with a vision, alive with a passion, and controlled by a purpose, i.e., obeying to the utmost the Great Commission. Certainly the various programs of the church will flourish in sublime unity if their goal, directly or indirectly, furthers world evangelization.

Just what is the Great Commission? As we read our English Bibles it seems there are a series of commands: to go; to teach; to baptize; and, again, to teach. But careful study of the text reveals that going (v. 19), baptizing (v. 19), and teaching (v. 20) are all participles. “Teach” in verse 19 (literally, “make disciples”) is an imperative verb and is the bottom line. It includes going, baptizing, teaching, and all the other things necessary to accomplish its objective.

Please note five distinct activities that contribute to making disciples and thus fulfilling the Great Commission.

Evangelizing sinners—The world is lost, alienated, and in active rebellion against the Lord of Heaven. Yet we read that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). To evangelize is to sound forth the good news that Jesus Christ is come to seek and save that which was lost. We must utilize every legitimate method to spread the message.

Edifying saints—“Other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice” (John 10:16). Wherever the gospel is preached, believers will be added to the Lord. Exhorting, encouraging, and grounding these new believers in the great doctrines of the faith occupies a key place in the Great Commission.

Establishing churches—The Lord Jesus said, “I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18). A study of the life of Missionary Paul gives insight into the Biblical plan of missions. The Holy Spirit called Paul and Barnabas from an active ministry in the church at Antioch to a specific work. That work was church-planting evangelism, and scores of churches resulted from their ministry. They left functioning, organized churches as they made their missionary journeys.

Equipping servants—Evangelizing the world can never be accomplished by a select group of “career” missionaries. To fulfill the task, an army of zealous, holy, dedicated, well-trained Christian witnesses must invade their local habitats with the life-giving gospel. Each local church should be a training center for Christian workers. Beyond this, gifted and called men and women should hone their ministry skills at Bible colleges and seminaries.

Escalating world evangelism—Multiplication is the secret of world evangelism. The need of the hour is soul winners reproducing their burden and skill in others who in turn duplicate the process. What blessings would result if world-minded churches (not worldly-minded) mothered young churches that would catch the vision to plant still more missions-minded churches.

A great missions-minded church, in the process of losing the vision, was awakened to its sad plight in a strange way. Across the front of the church was a neon sign: “WHERE THERE IS NO VISION, THE PEOPLE PERISH.” Vandals threw rocks at the sign and knocked out the “w.” When the lights came on, the sign read “HERE THERE IS NO VISION, THE PEOPLE PERISH.”


Bio at time of original publication: Dr. Gene Gurganus served as a pioneer church planter in Bangladesh from 1958 to 1975 and founded the Katalgong Baptist Church. He also founded the Bible Correspondence School of Chittagong, Bangladesh. He served as a mission representative from 1975 to 1995. He is now retired and serves as director of Prayer Ministry and Men for Missions at Hampton Park Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina.

(Originally published in FrontLine • July/August 2003. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)


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