The Domestication of the Great Commission. Matthew 28:18-20
When I was studying at Wheaton Graduate School in the eighties, it was said of the distinguished Dr. Merrill C. Tenney that every time he taught the book of Romans, he grammatically diagramed every sentence as he prepared each lesson. I was particularly impressed with that dedication because at the time I was trying to relearn English grammar so I could study New Testament Greek. It wasn’t easy. Dr. Tenney was dedicated to understanding the meaning of the text.
By contrast there is a phenomenon mentioned in the textbook industry where errors in popular textbooks are repeated through several editions and even in other textbooks because no one does the hard work of thinking through afresh what everybody knows.
A similar phenomenon is occurring in the church growth/mega church movement. Many people are writing books on how to “do church” and they often begin with the same mistake. The author looks to the Great Commission as the mission of the church, does a brief exegesis of Matthew 28:19-20, concludes that “make disciples” is the heart of it, and proceeds to write a book about how to get many people like you to come to your church.
Is the Great Commission serving as a true platform of conviction or is it simply an accepted platform of convenience? Are we guilty of the thoughtless “textbook error” or are we using the Scripture like the proverbial drunk uses a lamp post – more for support than illumination? Because we are basing the mission of the local church on this Scripture (the other Great Commission texts are rarely cited although The Great Commandment often is), it is crucial to correctly understand the text.
Let’s look at the text again.
‘And Jesus came and spake unto them saying, “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you, and lo I am with you always, even unto the end of the earth.”’
Most versions say, “Therefore go and make disciples.” Many authors exegete this as follows:
- “Go” is a participle, meaning “as you go,” or “when you go” (or perhaps “if you go” but no one has said, “by means of going”[instrumental participle]).
- The heart of the command is the imperative, “make disciples.” The core of the Great Commission is to make disciples.
There is a minor grammatical glitch here that has had large unintended consequences. The word “teach” comes from the noun, μάθητης, meaning learner, pupil, disciple. The verb form, μάθητεύώ, can be an intransitive verb, meaning to become a learner, pupil, or disciple, or a transitive verb meaning to produce a learner, pupil, or disciple.
In this text, the verb is a transitive verb. A transitive verb requires an object to complete the thought. You can’t say to someone, “Go call ….” It doesn’t make a complete thought until you say, “Go call your father,” or “Go call the dog,” etc. Call is a transitive verb.
Similarly, you can’t say “go teach,” or “go therefore and teach…,” without an object. The thought is incomplete.
In this case the object of the verb is “all the nations,” παντα τά εθνη. It goes together. It cannot be separated. You cannot say, Go ye therefore and teach… without …all nations.
However, when it came to modern versions of Scripture, the verb teach seemed too weak for the passage. It is more than teaching; it is helping others become transformed, to develop a whole new life, to become disciples of the Savior. The meaning would best be conveyed by “therefore go and disciple all nations.” But disciple is not a proper English verb. So to maintain proper English, it is translated “Go and make disciples of all nations.” Note that there is no word equivalent to “make” in the Greek text.
Now here is the unintended consequence. In this sentence, make becomes the main verb. It is a transitive verb that requires an object. The object supplied is disciples. “Make disciples,” is a complete thought in itself and “of all nations” is downgraded to a prepositional phrase. A prepositional phrase is a qualifier or modifier. It is subordinate to the main thought and is easily overlooked.
In a recent class of the Perspectives on the World Christian Movement course, the facilitator was reviewing material by asking the class some questions. One question was, “In the Great Commission, what is the main verb?” Because, “go(ing),” “baptizing,” and “teaching” in the Greek are participles, the “correct” answer (from the King James Version) is “teach.” However, one student, familiar with modern versions, said “make.”
There are three things indicated by the text that are often missed. First, the objective of discipling, the “nations,” is a plural noun. It is, if you will, a plural of a plural. The singular, έθνος, means “people” or “people group,” or “ethnic group” or perhaps “tribe.” The plural thus indicates multiple groups, “peoples,” “people groups,” “ethnic groups.” Thus the Great Commission is more about discipling groups than individuals.
Second, the object of discipling is παντα τά εθνη, all the nations, all the tribes, all the people groups, not just our people group, our culture, our neighborhood, or even our country. It is comprehensive.
Thirdly, the word “nations” (εθνη), often translated gentiles, means non-Jews (literally ethnic groups). It was the Jews’ word for foreigners. This is what made it so radical and difficult for the early disciples. They were responsible to take the gospel to all the peoples unlike them, the ones they didn’t like.
Now we might say that we are the gentiles, the non-Jews. But the point is that the Great Commission tells the people who have the gospel to disciple those that don’t, those who are foreigners to them. The Great Commission does not command us to make disciples of people in our own culture. It’s primary thrust is to go and disciple all the other peoples, the other ethnic groups.
But in many of our churches today, and especially in the books on how to “do church,” all the other nations are given a low priority status. In truth, the Great Commission, which we proudly cite for our mission, is neglected, often relegated to a budget item, an annual emphasis, a committee, and/or the denomination mission board. As the twelve disciples must have said, “After all, there is plenty of need right around here.”
Thus the Great Commission has been domesticated. It has become the basis for reaching people like us in our own community. And the clear responsibility to go across language and cultural boundaries to disciple the nations has been neglected. As someone has said, “We have taken the basics for granted for so long that we don’t remember the basics any more.”
To demonstrate the point, let me report an incident that happened as I was preparing for a presentation to which I had given the title, “The Great Commission-Driven Church.” A pastor called me and said, “I have taken training and been doing some teaching on “The Great Commission Church” and I would like to ask you to expand this subject and spend some time talking about global missions.”
When a pastor looks at a workshop on the Great Commission and assumes it’s going to be locally focused, then it seems that modern writers and church experts have domesticated the Great Commission!
Let’s try to illustrate what this means by means of a story. Let’s suppose that my wife is going away for a week to care for her dad. Before she goes, she asks me in a very kind tone, “Honey, you know your folks are coming soon after I get back and since I’m leaving in a hurry, I haven’t had time to clean up the house. There is one thing I would like you to go while I’m gone. I’d like you to clean the house.” And knowing I’m often not listening, she continues, “I’d like you to go through the whole house and clean all the rooms.” Again, just before she leaves, she sticks her head in my office, gives me a kiss, and says, “Good-by honey. Remember, please go into all the rooms and clean them.” “OK,” I say as she gets in the car, and I continue working.
As the week goes on, I’m busy. I’m working in my office and occasionally I remember my wife’s words, “Go into all the house and clean every room.” And I think to myself, “She really wants me to clean up around here.” I look around at my messy office and think, “I’d better get busy cleaning.” And I start shuffling some papers around and throwing out some accumulated piles of stuff.
In my more introspective moments I think to myself, “the heart of what she’s saying is that she wants me to clean up.” “I’ve got to clean up.” And I throw a little more effort into organizing my office.
I only go in the kitchen to get a bite to eat. I throw the dishes in the sink for later. I don’t even go in the living room or the guest bedroom. While she’s gone I’m terribly busy in the office.
I spend a fair amount of effort cleaning up the office and things look a bit better when one day my wife breezes in the door with a cheery, “Hi, honey, I’m home!” But the smile quickly fades as she looks around the living room with a half-inch of dust and walks into the kitchen where the wastebasket is overflowing and the sink is full of dirty dishes. “What happened?” she moans. “What happened to cleaning the whole house?”