I Am the Object of the Great Commission

I told a friend recently about a conversation I had with some people who are not Christians. “What a great gospel opportunity!” he replied. This left me with an odd feeling that I took some time to excavate.

I have come to see conversations as ends in themselves, as occasions for enjoying another person and coming to appreciate them more deeply. I don’t like it when I feel I’m talking with someone who has an agenda, so I don’t treat other people that way. I don’t see conversations as opportunities for something else.

Because I am a Christian, I think often of Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:12: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

For a while now, I have thought about how odd it is that Christians are taught to do the opposite of this. I am referring to the training I received in evangelical environments where I was taught how to turn conversations into evangelistic opportunities.

Such training is based on the Great Commission:

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matt. 28:19-20).

In an individualistic era, it is easy to understand this charge as a mission for me. I am an evangelistic agent who uses conversations as “gospel opportunities,” looking to “present the gospel” to the people I encounter throughout my day.

I think this is a mistake.

I think it’s better to regard Jesus as speaking to the church, directing it to train people within the church to cultivate the fruitful behaviors and attitudes that make up faithful kingdom life. This is a multiple generations-long project of growing in the community habits of serving the poor and needy and welcoming the marginalized. This discipleship runs counter to the sort of culture that trains us in selfishness.

Jesus said in Matthew that the church is to be the kind of community that feeds the hungry, gives drink to the thirsty, welcomes the stranger (i.e., the foreigner), gives clothes to those that need them, looks after the sick and visits prisoners. It is crucial that we train in these kinds of practices because they are the basis of the judgment the Son of Man will render at the final day (Matt. 25:31-46)

The church is not the training ground for individuals to go out and evangelize. It is the arena in which we cultivate these specific community practices.

I think that we have gotten Jesus’ words wrong and it has led to Christian training that makes us manipulative. It makes us treat others in a way that we don’t like to be treated. Jesus tells us not to do this.

We need to reconsider the Great Commission. It is not a charge to me that I fulfill with non-Christians. Jesus speaks to the church, directing it to train me in becoming the kind of person who encounters others in a posture of service and welcome.

We may ask, “well, how else are we going to build the kingdom if we do not evangelize, if we do not turn conversations toward presentations of the gospel?”

Jesus nowhere directs the church to “advance” or “build” the kingdom. Jesus says that he will do this (“I will build my church” [Matt. 16:18]). Our task is to learn the kingdom practices of forgiveness and restoration, service and hospitality.

Encounters with non-Christians, therefore, are gospel opportunities for me. I am involved in a discipleship process of becoming the kind of person who encounters others in a posture of openness, rejoicing in their triumphs, mourning with their griefs, and enjoying all the richness that they have to offer me.

I am happy to speak about the realities into which I have been brought by the Spirit, if people are interested in knowing. But I don’t manipulate conversations to get there.

15 thoughts on “I Am the Object of the Great Commission

  1. The Barrow Boy

    Amen and amen. You express it so well. My young adult life was devoted to street evangelization and more. Was taught to never take “no” for an answer. I have come to see it as completely wrong, a misinterpretation of Jesus’ message.

  2. Nathan Bell

    Have to comment to be notified of new posts. Ever grateful for the role God had you play in my life. Actually, preparing to teach my first Survey of the NT class Sunday evening. Believe it or not, I kept and have referenced my notes from your class over 10 years ago. Been reading up again just this week.

  3. gjohnston2244

    I emphatically agree … with the exception that we should regard Jesus as addressing the commission to the twelve as Matthew depicts it in his gospel narrative. This text finds its significance in the context of the entire gospel narrative and not in the context of a doctrine of evangelism. Granted, it is the church who buys into the gospel story and plays a role appropriate to that story. This would include evangelism.

  4. Ryan

    The Greek emphasis on “while going,” make disciples…should be considered. In other words, while going about our lives with Jesus, becoming like Jesus and doing Jesus-y things, we make disciples.

    1. gjohnston2244

      Why would you translated πορευθέντες “while going”? If Jesus was not sending the Twelve to the nations, why would he expect them to go? The main verb is to “to make disciples of” or “to disciple” and the object is ALL THE NATIONS. They would not be able to disciple the nations unless they went.

      Second, you speak of the commission as being addressed to us. It wasn’t. It was addressed to the Twelve.

      Finally I am not convinced by our comfortable with “doing Jesus-y things” as a general standard or guideline for discipleship. The gospel writers depicted Jesus as doing a lot of Jesus-y things but they don’t see to present those things as models for us to imitate.

      1. timgombis

        I think the participle is more likely attendant circumstances than imperatival. And while he is speaking to the disciples, I think it’s worth considering the manner in which this is also a commission to the church to be a community of learners.

      2. Ryan

        Hi gjohnston, in response to your first point, the aorist participle-aorist verb construction allows for the dependent participle to be a temporal contemporaneous participle; thus, it may be translated “while going, make disciples.” Also, compare the construction with Matt 9:13. The same aorist participle-aorist verb construction, and so it could be translated “while going, learn.”

        Now, Gombis makes a good observation below about translating the beginning of Matt 28:19 as an attendant circumstance participle. This is a recent and popular option among Greek scholars, but it is disputed. The question that needs to be considered with an attendant circumstance participle classification is should we translate a symantically dependent participle as a verb?

        In response to your second point, I’ll just agree with Gombis below.

        In response to your third point, “doing Jesus-y things” does not mean that everything Jesus did his disciples will imitate. Of course his disciples did not calm storms or know the thoughts of others, but they did do many things that Jesus did because they were his apprentices and he taught them what to do. Paul continued such “a general standard or guideline for discipleship”(your words) by writing, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (1 Cor. 11:1). I think Paul is talking about doing Jesus-y things as part of being disciples of Christ.

        It is okay to not be convinced by my comments or my phraseology, but to say you are not comfortable is not really relevant in such intellectual discourse. Feelings and comfort levels should be limited when responding in intellectual discourse. I hope that helps.

  5. Rick McGarry

    Where there is “forgiveness and restoration, service and hospitality,” there the kingdom is. Where you find talk of “temporal contemporaneous participles,” not so much..

    1. Ryan

      Well Rick you certainly make a Christian anti-intellectual and anti-exegetical response because there was nothing nefarious or unwarranted about my analysis. It was a respectful, intellectual response to a question by another commenter.

      As students of Scripture, we should analyze the syntactical construction of the text because this is how we derive meaning and understanding of God’s word which enables us to know God and his kingdom. We know the meaning of kingdom “forgiveness, restoration, service and hospitality” because throughout the centuries people have translated the Bible which so happens to involve understanding “temporal contemporaneous participles.”

      Also, I’m assuming that you read commentaries, study Bibles, or listen to sermons. These all derive from the discipline of exegesis which involves syntactical analysis. Are you enjoying the fruit of the exegesis by others and then saying that such talk about participles is missing the kingdom?

      I recommend you reconsider your comment. Maybe consider not making such a dichotomy between practice and study.

  6. Dale Gish

    As Christians, there is much that we have to repent of and some of the ways we have evangelized are worthy of repentance. At the same time, I think that Jesus longed for and continues to long for each person to come into his Kingdom. It seems to me that we as his followers should join him in that longing. I agree that we should not be manipulative and that it is important to enjoy interactions with people without an agenda. And then at the same time, we believe and should be aware of the ways that God is already at work in the people we meet. Therefore we seek to be sensitive to the movement of the spirit, to invite people into the life that Jesus is offering.

  7. Caden McCune

    Great thoughts, I completely agree that the manipulative strategies and sometimes downright gross attempts at conversion miss the point by a long shot. I also love what you had to say as letting the church be the tool of discipleship, and let IT be the thing that compels people to follow Jesus, not individuals. However, it seems you were saying that we should focus more on the practices than any sort of verbal presentation of the “Gospel.” I would love to hear your thought of how that squares with the constant exortations of Jesus and the Apostles to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God?

    1. timgombis

      Thanks for this, Caden. What strikes me is that there are so few commands to proclaim the gospel in the NT. It’s really shocking, given how highly this has been prioritized, certainly among American evangelicals. And that is such a recent phenomenon as I’ll talk about in my next podcast episode. The church is called to embody kingdom life by doing all that Jesus and the apostles exhort us to do. But there are no commands in the NT letters for the church to do this–to preach the gospel to outsiders, or even evangelize. The disciples are told to do this as they go out to Israel and proclaim that the kingdom has arrived, calling people to inhabit it, receive it, enter it, etc. But they don’t tell the people who then enter it to go on preaching.

      1. Caden McCune

        Right, so what are the “evangelists” and “preachers” that Paul talks about in Ephesians 4 and elsewhere? Also how then is anybody to find out about the kingdom unless they are told (I think that’s what Romans 10:14 is saying but I could be taking that out of context). Thanks for the great and thought provoking article. I really enjoyed it and it is making me really consider how I need to go about witnessing.

      2. timgombis

        Apostles and evangelists in the first century are church-planters. They go to towns without a church and preach the gospel in order to establish a church. When that happens, they move on and the church gets about the long-term project of growing into a kingdom of God community through learning all its practices. And when a church is established, evangelism is done. Paul says this in Rom 15:19-23. Gospel preaching is done when a church is established. And the church does not become a base for evangelism, but becomes the site where learning about kingdom life is done, and that’s an intense and long-term project.

        In Romans 10 Paul is talking about preaching to Israel, and then admits that they have known.

        There are many texts that are used inappropriately to talk about the priority of evangelism, but they are often not treated well. Not that evangelism is a bad thing, but it isn’t the church’s task–at least according to the NT. So, how does the church grow and how do people find out about the gospel? Well, Jesus said he’d build his church, so it’s up to him and we should leave it to him. Also, in 1 Cor 11, Paul says that when the church gathers as a multi-ethnic, cross-social class group, and eats a meal to celebrate their unity, the Lord’s death is proclaimed until he comes. When the church does its job of being a kingdom community, God mysteriously does the work of growing it. It will remain a mystery, even though we’ve certainly tried to take that job from him and de-mystify it with our strategies and techniques!

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