Mathew 28:18-20 records Jesus’ clear command to his disciples that holds within it a mandate for every believer down through the centuries…to us…and beyond until the end of the age.
Jesus begins by clearly revealing His authority, His right to make the demands he outlines, and the authority we claim as we follow through in obedience. Discipling the nations is not our idea…it’s His! He combines two imperatives…go and make disciples of all nations. The structure of the language makes them inseparable. It is not one or the other; it has to be both….together! And then He describes the very basics of what disciple-making includes.
His final promise to be present with obedient believers, right down to the end of the age, hints at when we will no longer need to obey this command. Note it’s more a time issue, than a geographic one. (And, by the way, might we conclude that Christians who are not obedient to this command don’t have the right to claim the promise?)
Some make much over the fact that the weaker of the two verbs is “go.” Perhaps Jesus was suggesting that he clearly understood that his disciples would spread out – the Holy Spirit would see to that – so wherever they landed, their main task was to make disciples. Perhaps there’s a sense that “wherever you go” from your next door neighbor to the far flung reaches of the planet, you should keep disciple-making in the forefront of your thinking. It’s possible that He cared less about the mechanism of travel in comparison to the strategy of making disciples.
Possibly Jesus knew that in our day, the missions enterprise would make a great deal more out of the “go” than they would of the “make disciples.” Evaluate how much of our global outreach effort has a disciple-building component.
Some feel that this mandate could have been fulfilled many centuries ago because of the exponential spread of the Gospel in the decades right after Jesus’ resurrection. Like wildfire it took on a life of its own — until two things happened: 1) the eventual acceptance of Christian faith as a state religion, thus suspending the persecution the early Church experienced, and 2) the accompanying determination of the Church to build buildings and invest in property. These two, combined, stalled the out-of-control spread of the Gospel message and its acceptance.
Things simply got bogged down. Everyday experiences were built on comforts and safety; life got complicated with the cares of this material world. The mandate to go where it involved risk and sacrifice, and only worked when supported by a very simple, unencumbered lifestyle got buried. It happened then; it happens now.
One might predict that if every believer today, every three years, were to disciple twelve others to the point where each of these twelve would disciple twelve to disciple twelve, before too long, God would have His followers positioned near every remaining dark corner, ready to follow Him in with the light of the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus. Whew! By His Spirit, every last stronghold would be broken!
North American Christians would probably not have a major role in this process any longer. Not that we North American Christians don’t have a part to play. We do – every one of us – as we act upon the call which Paul describes as the “obedience of faith.” (Romans 1:5) We follow the orders of our Heavenly Commander to active duty. He chooses to send us somewhere or he calls us to stay put.
But wherever we go, or however we’re called to stay, it’s hard to think that anyone, anywhere would run out of opportunities for making disciples. And, please, don’t forget the strategic role of parents with their own kids, though I’m not suggesting every family have twelve children! My four children, for instance, have given me fourteen grandchildren. At this rate, with no attrition, there would be almost 9000 individuals in six generations, if I’ve done my math right. But imagine what it would be if everyone of Frank’s and my descendants were disciple-makers as described above!
In 1957 Frank and I accepted the invitation to serve God on a university campus in Liberia, West Africa. We were loosely affiliated with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IFES) and had the international director, Stacey Woods, as our “senior missionary.” I can remember well his advice to Frank: Pray for no more than twelve students whom you can disciple…in whom you can pour your life to see them move toward spiritual maturity. I’m not sure how seriously we took that advice, but looking back, I am sure it was biblical, workable and certain to bring glory to God as He was building His Kingdom in that place, at that time.
‘All power in Heaven and on earth has been given to Me. You, then, are to go and make disciples of all the nations and baptize them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to observe all that I have commanded you and remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.’ Amen!