The Great Commission Part 3: Application

This is the third of three blogs on the Great Commission (Matt 28.19–20). In the first one I talked about the grammar of this passage and concluded that the standard English translation, “Go and make disciples… baptizing… teaching” is an accurate representation of the idioms of the Greek text. In the second blog I discussed the historical setting and noted that the command was given to the disciples to evangelize by going out of Jerusalem and to the Gentiles. The mission was eccentric rather than ethnocentric. That is to say, the apostles were to go out of their way to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to those outside of Jerusalem, including non-Jews. We also argued that in doing this, the apostles had to abandon 1400 years of food laws that had been ingrained in them, in their history, in their traditions. The gospel was for all people and the food laws, circumcision, the sacrifices, etc., were not to stand in the way of someone coming to faith in Christ. This was rooted in the nature of Christ’s cross-work rather than being merely an accommodation to Gentiles to make one’s congregation swell with numbers! But in this missionary attitude—an attitude that Paul captured so well when he said, “I have become all things to all people, so that by all means I may save some” (1 Cor 9.22)—the apostles had to move way outside their comfort zone. Imagine how repulsive it must have been to eat bacon with eggs some morning when you had never had bacon before and thought that pork was the most vile thing that one could put in your body. Years of training along those lines don’t simply vanish over night.

This gives us a helpful segue into application. When we apply scripture, we first need to determine what it meant historically. Then we can ask if it also was meant to carry over to us by way of direct application. Then, we can explore principles that are taught in such a passage whether the application was intended to be direct or not. In this passage, the application is both direct and indirect. It is direct because the last thing that Jesus instructed his disciples in Matthew was, “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt 28.20a). These instructions would surely include the previous verse! Thus, to go and make disciples is a command that is directly applicable to believers today.

There are two participles that follow the lone imperative (“make disciples”) in this passage: baptizing, teaching. These participles function in a different way than the first participle (“having gone”—which is idiomatically and appropriately translated “go”). They describe the means of making disciples. That is, they give a key part of what disciple-making should involve. They don’t necessarily give the whole of it, but they do give some key ingredients. The word order is also important: baptizing comes before teaching. I take it that, in light of how the apostles practiced this commission, baptism was done at the front end, right after someone confessed Christ. And I take it that we should follow the same posture today: baptism needs to be soon after conversion. Now it seems that if baptism is at the front end, it implies that proclaiming the gospel is a part of making disciples. But we have reversed this today: we often put a recent convert into a new believer’s class where he or she can learn about what Christians believe. The class might go for several months. And only after someone has shown that he or she is truly a believer—that the conversion ‘took’—do we dare baptize them. But this approach seems to assume that the responsibility to know whether a new convert is truly a believer is the pastor’s or elders’, rather than God’s. When Peter went to Samaria to check out the conversions that occurred at Philip’s preaching, he met Simon Magus, a man who was definitely not converted even though he made a public confession and was baptized by Philip. There is no record of Peter rebuking Philip for not checking this guy out a bit more. Indeed, it seems that Philip did the right thing to baptize him because that’s what the Lord had commanded. The Lord is responsible to know whether a person is saved; our task is to baptize and accept them into fellowship if they confess their sins and confess Christ. Part of the reason why we don’t consider baptism as more important nowadays is that we see it as simply an act of obedience (which should be reason enough!) when it may be more than that. But that discussion is for another time.

Let me retrace my steps and speak about direct and indirect application once again. I have heard it argued from pulpits that since we are no longer in Jerusalem, we are already fulfilling this command. No other going is needed. But it seems to me that such a view is only dealing with the direct application of the text—or, rather, is confusing interpretation with application, and there are problems with that view, too. The indirect application functions at the level of principle. And there are essentially two principles that I see in this text that are applicable to us today.

First, believers in Jesus Christ need to consciously get outside their comfort zone and go to where non-believers are, to be a witness among them. A common attitude today among Christians is that they need to bring a non-Christian to church so that the pastor can preach to him or her. To many Christians, evangelism means that the non-Christian needs to be dragged out of their comfort zone! That is precisely the opposite of what Jesus told his disciples: “Go and make disciples of all the nations….” This meant going to Gentiles, rather than bringing Gentiles to Jerusalem. Today, the application is similar: we are the ones who are responsible to go to where the nonbelievers are. We are responsible to love them, truly love them, befriend them, enjoy their company, eat with them, hang out with them. We must do this without compromising the gospel, but we must do this.

It has been said that the average Christian has no non-Christian friends within five years after conversion. I don’t know if that statistic is still true, but it wouldn’t surprise me. Read Dan Kimball’s They Like Jesus but Not the Church to get a sense of how we ought to relate to our society today. Kimball’s book is Joe Bayly’s The Gospel Blimp for a postmodern world. One of the things that most impresses me about Kimball’s book is that he is more concerned about nurturing a relationship with nonbelievers than in winning scalps. He obviously is concerned about the individual’s spiritual destiny, but he recognizes that nonbelievers are often hostile to Christians today. And we only add fuel to that fire when we sit in judgment of nonbelievers rather than love them. When was the last time you went out for a beer with your neighbor? Or had some non-Christian friends from work over for a barbeque? What about seeing a ballgame with them? A friend of mine goes to a bar every Sunday after church during football season. He drinks beer, watches his team lose, and shares the gospel. For many of us, we would rather die than let alcohol touch our lips. There may be good reasons for such abstention, but there are many bad ones, too. (I am of course not saying that Christians must drink alcohol for the sake of the gospel in spite of some slanderers who claim I have argued this!) Or consider getting together with your lesbian co-worker. Invite her and her partner to your house for a meal, or just enjoy some java with them at the local Starbucks. What about your Muslim neighbor? Obviously, you don’t want to offend them by eating pork in front of them! Becoming all things to all people sometimes means restricting your freedom in Christ for the sake of the gospel. The questions we all need to ask are, Am I resisting making Christ known because I want to stay inside my comfort zone? Am I afraid to speak because of possible embarrassment? Am I more willing to judge my neighbor than love them?

The problem is compounded by so many of our seminaries today. Way too many seminary students—future pastors—are cookie-cutter Christians. They have conformed to a style of living that is not messy enough to be real. Kind of an aesthetic asceticism—you know, ‘professional casual’… monks. But God doesn’t typically use a person fully unless and until that person has gone through a severe crisis first. And what happens is that the believer then realizes that to live for Christ is more precious and more central than anything else. And when he or she realizes that, concerns for conformity to one’s cultural subgroup don’t seem quite as important any more. The apostles recognized this, I suspect, by the very fact that they were persecuted by Jews and Gentiles because of their faith. Persecution has a way of distilling what’s really important, of helping a person to see what matters most. Frankly, Christians are often geeky enough to get persecuted just for their geekiness! Let’s make sure that if we are persecuted it is for radically following Jesus Christ rather than for non-essentials. And let’s strategize on how to reach all people groups by some of us even identifying with them. This leads to the second principle.

Second, when it comes to global missions, a formula for disaster is to resist becoming like the people that one ministers to. Some missionaries in years past would not only refuse to learn the native language but would insist on importing western culture at every point. To be sure, some aspects of western culture are due to Christian values and it would be foolish to jettison all of it. But all too many aspects are simply differences, no better and no worse than the culture that a missionary finds himself or herself in. Missionaries need to examine how committed they are to the gospel, how willing they are to fit in for the sake of Christ, and whether certain habits that they bring are simply comfortable forms from home or are a part of what it really means to be a Christian.

Much, much more could be said about the application of the Great Commission today. But since this is supposed to be a blog, I’ve already said too much. Now it’s your turn.

Addendum: In my initial blog on the Great Commission, some readers took issue with my understanding of the inapplicability of the Mosaic food laws to Gentile Christians. Rather than take up that discussion here—which could distract from the main point of this blog—I ask you to continue the discussion only in the comments section of the first blog.


23 thoughts on “The Great Commission Part 3: Application

  1. b”h

    Professor Wallace,

    Why is Matthew 28:19-20 awarded the title “Great Commission” and not Acts 1:4-8 ?

    IMHO, to properly read the Luke-Acts set, one must not impose Matt 28:19-20 on Acts, but one should recognize Luke’s “Great Commission” within the bounds of Acts 1:4-8. Then one is forced to deal with a very difficult issue, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit in not many days.” And in all actuality, this in turn ought to influence how Matt 28:19-20 is understood. Hagner’s commentary on Matt quotes Carson who admit that there’s no evidence that Matt 28:19-20 is the ipsissma verba of Messiah. It would certainly be the ipsissma vox of Messiah, told through his representative emissary, Matthew. But the apostle Matthew may simply be summarizing Messiah’s will as it was revealed in the decades up to his writing of the gospel. In any case, there is no justification for imposing Matthew on Acts when trying to understand the how and why of the proclamation of the Good News in Acts. Obviously Matthew wrote his account for his purposes, and Luke wrote Luke-Acts for his. The two authors should not be cross-applied until each is well understood in their own right. That means figuring out why in the Lukan account the risen Messiah said, “John baptized with water…”

    Best wishes.


  2. I appreciate you words sir, especially about sacrificing self in order to win souls. I think many (I’ll point the finger at myself first) have been guilty of putting self ahead of others in evangelism, which is not what Jesus did. Also, as someone who does immerse so that one may receive forgiveness of sins, I appreciate you touching on the immersion aspect of this passage. I appreciate your grammar’s case against a causal eis in Acts 2:38, and often appeal to this very passage’s “eis to onoma” to show the importance of immersion. So, if you could not tell, I would be very interested in you touching on immersion in a future blog haha. All in love and kindness!


  3. Craig Beard

    I hope statement “But that discussion is for another time” at the end of your comments on the timing of baptism is more than just a passing thought. I wholeheartedly agree with you about the brief bit you said, and I would very much like to see your comments fleshed out.


  4. halloftyrannus

    Hello Dan, I would like to know as to whether the right translation of “ethnos” is nations (US, Canada, India etc) or ETHNIC people groups (Navajo, East Indian, Zulu etc)? Is the right translation of the word “ethnos”among these two understandings of the word important ? If so how?


  5. Jeremy

    I found these 3 posts to be very liberating. Even if subconsciously, I have dealt with an unnecessary burden of thinking that I have to keep the world at arm’s length, yet follow the command of the Great Commission. In other words, there is the notion that I need to maintain some (false) level of holiness, yet somehow get to people who do not believe in Jesus and tell them about him.This is an immobilizing tension that I have not seen among Jesus’ struggles, while he was on earth. But the command “Go”, actually solves that tension, especially when we look at how this was applied by the disciples. Thanks for your helpful work, Dr. Wallace!


  6. I think you make a good point about Peter and Simon Magnus. Many Christians insist that someone has to have to understand everything perfectly before being baptized. No room is allowed for maturity and growth that can occur afterward.


  7. Luke C.

    @ Jenny:

    I think you’re exaggerating a bit. As a convert to Orthodoxy, I’m glad that I wasn’t rushed into it, and my priest made sure I understood what I was getting into first. And it seems that, despite lengthy preparation beforehand, I discover more room to grow every year. On the other hand, many “revival” conversions never end up amounting to anything – is it a case of “easy come, easy go”?


  8. Surely, you know the Pastor Roque Albuquerque of Brazil who teaches at the Baptist Seminary Cariri and translated his book “Greek Grammar” for the Portuguese. He, in his Greek classes, speaks highly about you.

    I’m just doing my exegesis in Matthew 28:19-20 (The Great Commission). When I saw your articles, get excited. I liked your considerations.

    If you have any suggestions (book review, emphases, etc..) For the development of my exegesis, I appreciate if you give me.

    thank you

    At service of the Master
    Tibério Bezerra


  9. So it would seem Paul kinda muffed the Great Commission? 1 Corinthians 1:17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel.

    And why would the Lord, of all people, put baptism first in the “great commission” which in fact says nothing about preaching the Gospel or conversion? Baptizing spiritually dead people does little good, as many in our jails can testify. And then try to “teach them all things”…frustrating, to say the least.

    However, if we remember what Christ told the Apostles: Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

    This speaks of the Millennial Kingdom, a time that will begin with the restoration of Israel when the New Covenant kicks in and their hearts become a blackboard for God to write His Law on. Entering into that time will also be a huge number of “sheep” Gentile believers who are saved, but not instructed in Kingdom living.

    Here and only here, can the command to baptize (they are already saved) and to teach EVERYTHING Jesus taught applicable. The Kingdom principles taught in the Gospel, especially Matthew simply do not fit the church, the living organism sustained by its place in the Vine, Jesus Christ, through whom flows the life giving/sustaining Spirit of God.

    Isaiah tells of that time:2 In the last days, the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains;it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it.3 Many peoples will come and say,“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,to the temple of the God of Jacob.
    He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.”The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

    The “many peoples” are saved Gentiles from the Tribulation period. They will be brought into the saved nation of Israel through water baptism (just as in the OT for Gentile proselytes) and then instructed in Kingdom living. God bless all who think on the scriptures.


  10. I’m currently serving as a missionary in Asia and I just wanted to stop by and say these blogs you’ve written on the Great Commission (GC) were absolutely excellent. I’d always been somewhat confused by the exegesis of Matthew 28:19-20, and wasn’t quite sure what to do with those participles! Moreover I’ve witnessed some strange exegesis (much like you’ve pointed out) concerning the GC that indeed seemed to minimize that importance ‘to go’. Everything you’ve pointed out, especially in the blog on application, I couldn’t agree with more and indeed wish our congregations at home paid more attention to. The GC commands us to leave our comfort zone for Christ, and yes, even be willing to learn another language besides English (!) to bring the saving news of the Gospel to the lost! This is my current plight. And now I’m engaged in learning a language which, as it turns out, has proven to be far more challenging than Greek!
    In Christ,


  11. Tim Wood

    “They describe the means of making disciples.” A quote from your entry. Kostenberger and O’Brien in Salvation to the Ends of the Earth (2001) IVP state, “The two present participles ‘baptizing (baptizontes) and ‘teaching’ (didaskontes) specify the characteristic mode of making disciples” In a footnote (72) they state, “Though not the means: see Carson 1984: 597.” EBC vol 8, I assume. I have never been able to work out this distinction. You clearly opt for “means”. They specify “mode” but I am at a loss to understand and apply the distinction. Sadly I do not have access to Carson at this time.


  12. I’ve stumbled upon this blog while goggling “Dr. Michael S. Heiser” and read all three of your post on The Great Commission. I must say, “ask and you shall receive!!”…Thank you for your articles they are informative!!


  13. Thank you for clarifying the focus of the Great Commission. Mobilizing a group of people who are used to the pastor doing much or all the work of evangelism is not easy. Casting a vision to get out of our comfort zone to make significant connection with unbelievers takes time and surely lots of Holy Spirit revelation and prompting. May God help us to “go,” me included. Thanks again for the post! Blessings in Christ!!!


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