After His resurrection, Jesus’ guidance of His disciples changed from “Come and see” (John 1:39) to “Go and show” (Matthew 28:19, 20) — from training His followers to sending them out to fulfill His commission. That Great Commission was to be the chief goal of the church until the end of the age.
Yet today many churchgoers do not even know what the Great Commission is. A Barna Group research study, conducted in 2018, found that 51 percent of churchgoers were unfamiliar with the term and were unsure what it meant. Only 17 percent of respondents said they knew the term and the Bible verses associated with it. Even within that small 17 percent, few realize the true scope of the commission itself.
This is because the Great Commission is usually associated with Jesus’ words recorded in Matthew 28, which gives its longest form. But Jesus’ commissioning of His disciples was actually recorded in all four Gospels. We can learn much by putting their accounts together.
Matthew. “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them . . . and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (28:19, 20). Jesus had earlier instructed His disciples to baptize and teach (John 4:2; Luke 9:1, 2), but not specifically to make disciples. The importance of this new command is heightened by the fact that in the Greek text, “make disciples” is the only direct command. The primary thrust of the Great Commission in Matthew is the making of disciples by baptizing and teaching them.
Mark. “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (16:15). Mark’s version of Jesus’ commission is followed by a list of signs that would accompany believers: casting out demons, speaking in languages they did not know, not being hurt by deadly creatures or poisons, and healing the sick (vv. 16-18). But His abbreviated summary of the commission clearly stresses the preaching of the gospel to those who have not heard it.
Luke. “The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations . . . You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (24:46-49).
While Matthew stressed that the disciples were to go, Luke stresses that they must stay until they were spiritually equipped to perform the commission they were given. It centered on being witnesses (cf. Acts 1:8) and preaching repentance and forgiveness to the world.
John. “‘As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (20:21, 22). The words indicate that the missionary work of the disciples was to be a direct continuation of the mission of Jesus himself. John’s Gospel clarifies Luke’s statement regarding the power with which the disciples would be clothed. This was the Holy Spirit, fully poured out later on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4).
Each Gospel records Jesus commissioning the disciples after His resurrection, but each evangelist stresses a different aspect:
- Matthew – Jesus’ disciples were themselves to make disciples, baptizing and teaching them.
- Mark – The gospel would be proclaimed to the whole world.
- Luke – Repentance for the forgiveness of sins was also to be proclaimed to all nations.
- John – The disciples, empowered by the Holy Spirit, were to do the same work that Jesus was sent to do.
With all Gospel accounts combined, we can see the breadth and richness of the Great Commission often overlooked by believers if they focus only on Matthew’s account. But this best-known statement is incomplete by itself. As is so often true with the four Gospels, we must put them together to get the full picture God has made available to us.
Having done this, we return to Matthew 28 and Jesus’ unique, double encouragement for His commissioned disciples. This Gospel writer alone records that Jesus told His disciples He had been given all authority in heaven and on earth (v. 18). This claim helps us understand the nature of Jesus, but it is also important to our understanding of the Great Commission. Jesus emphasized that all authority was His in the context of the commission itself. He tells us, in effect, that He can fulfill the work. No hurdle is too great, and nothing can stop His work being done — if we will let Him work through us.
Jesus also made it clear in Matthew’s Gospel that the Great Commission was not to be just for that generation but for future ones as well: “I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (v. 20). It is not only a richly multifaceted call to do the work of God but also a twofold promise that the Son of God will always be with us — and with all the power necessary — to accomplish the commission He has given us to “Go and show!”