How unfortunate it is that just when large sections of the world are increasingly receptive to the gospel message the Church is hampered by uncertainty in some quarters over divine authorization for its mission! We are told that it is unethical to subject people of other faiths to Christian propaganda, that the presence of missions is legitimate but their proclamation is not. In other words, to provide an example of Christian life is fine, but to attempt to convert is wrong.

This timid approach gets support from the assertion that the Great Commission did not originate with the risen Lord but was attributed to him by the young Church. After all, the Lord did not write the Gospels. They emerged a generation or so later. We are told that they should be understood primarily to reflect the ideas and practices of the Church, even though they doubtless contain some information about what Jesus said and did.

Transferring the Great Commission from the risen Lord to the Church weakens the commission, even if one acknowledges that the Church was not guilty of wrong-doing in attributing it to him. If the Lord did not voice the Great Commission, the way is open to question the legitimacy of aggressive evangelism. But if the commission does indeed go back to Christ, then on the basis of his universal authority he not only advocated but commanded a ministry of verbal witness to those who already had a faith of some kind. The Jews were committed to monotheism, as were the Samaritans, and the pagan world had gods aplenty.

The storm center of the debate is Matthew 28:18–20. Here the going forth to win all nations is said to have three elements: making disciples, baptizing them, and instructing them in the commandments of the Lord Jesus. The first item covers conversion, the second baptism (which implies conversion and denotes incorporation into the life and fellowship of the triune God), and the third the regulating and maturing of Christian life.

The Command To Evangelize

Our first task is to try to determine whether the Lord actually spoke the words about discipling the nations. By his own admission he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matt. 15:24). In keeping with this limitation, when he sent out his disciples to preach and to heal during his own ministry he warned them against going to the Gentiles and to the Samaritans, charging them to restrict their work to Israel (Matt. 10:5, 6). At first glance, then, it may seem strange that in his final instructions he should set aside this restriction and command a ministry to all the nations.

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But close examination reveals that it is not strange at all. Are we really prepared to believe that the Lord who showed such concern for Israel that he sent out his disciples to minister to the needs of the people (Matt. 10) felt so little concern for the world beyond that even after he had accomplished redemption for all mankind he failed to send the same men forth on a larger mission by an express command?

Even when he was concentrating on his own people, Jesus had repeatedly shown an interest in non-Israelites—healing the centurion’s servant (Matt. 8:5–13), responding to the plea of the Canaanite woman for help (Matt. 15:21–28), predicting the dissemination of the Gospel to all nations throughout the world (Matt. 24:14; 26:13). But until his own nation had officially rejected him and until the basis for a worldwide proclamation of the Gospel had been laid in his death for all men and in his resurrection, concern for other nations had to be held in check. The enlargement of the scope of the disciples’ operations after the resurrection is strictly in keeping with the mind of Christ.

Though Jesus had been reared in Galilee and during his ministry had spent most of his time there, he had avoided its Hellenistic areas. But now that his mission was completed and full redemption was accomplished, what was more fitting than his selection of Galilee as the locale for prescribing a worldwide mission?

It would be sheer desperation for the critic to maintain that the compassionate overtures our Lord made to non-Israelites during his ministry and his predictions of a worldwide mission were deliberately inserted into the record to prepare the way for Matthew 28:18–20. Suppose we take Matthew 26:13 as a test case. Passover was just at hand when Jesus attended a supper at Bethany and was anointed with expensive ointment. He accepted this ministration as a preparation for his burial (v. 12), then went on to state, “Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” If in the oral stage the report of this incident had concluded with Jesus’ word about his burial, what writer would have imagined that with such a mood upon him the Saviour would talk about the worldwide proclamation of the Gospel? The sheer unexpectedness of it suggests that this saying could have originated only with our Lord himself.

The word truly points in this direction also. A study of the Gospels reveals that Jesus alone is reported to have used this expression. In this respect it parallels the Son of Man sayings. Schlier remarks that in this word, placed as it is before the solemn “I say to you” of Jesus, “we have the whole of Christology in a nutshell.” The Lord’s own person guarantees the truth of his utterances. It should be noted that the parallel verse in Mark, 14:9, also has the expression.

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A difficulty remains, however, for those who accept Matthew 28:19a as the words of the risen Lord. Would the early Church have been so tardy and even reluctant in taking the Gospel to the nations if the Master had commanded the apostles to do this very thing? The account in Acts shows concern for outreach only after several years had passed. Indeed, one might say that the Jerusalem church did little to promote Gentile evangelism in any direct way. Is this a valid objection?

It may be granted that outreach came somewhat slowly. Yet the contribution of the mother church was considerable, both in providing workers (e.g., Barnabas, Silas, and those who began the work at Antioch) and in clearing the way for the reception of Gentiles into the church without circumcision (Acts 15; cf. 11:18). The winning of Gentiles was acknowledged with praise to God (Acts 21:20).

Indeed, accusing the Jerusalem church of tardiness may be inaccurate. In his parting words to the apostles, Jesus named the spheres that would engage their witness—Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the regions beyond—but laid down no timetable. It was essential to establish a strong base in Jerusalem. Luke’s account shows how important this base was even for Paul, the leading missionary to the Gentiles, who kept up regular contact with it.

If the Jerusalem church had spread itself thin by early missionary endeavor in the Gentile world before it had made a solid impact on Jews in their own territory, its success in the wider field would have been seriously hampered. The question would naturally come up, If this new faith embodies the truth of God, why hasn’t it been more successful among those who were supposedly prepared for it by centuries of promise and anticipation? There is something natural, if not inevitable, in the gradual extension of the Church’s outreach—to the Jews of Jerusalem and Judea, to the mixed population of Samaria, then to the non-Jews of the world beyond. Note too that the impulse for the advance from the second to the third stage came by the direction of the Spirit in ever enlarging circles—the Ethiopian eunuch (chapter 8), the household of Cornelius (chapter 10), and the initiation of a large-scale missionary thrust among the Gentiles (chapter 13).

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Surely the early Church sought guidance from Scripture, if for no other reason than that the Lord had based his instruction on it during the post-resurrection appearances. In many passages the Old Testament taught that the ingathering of the Gentiles must await the rejuvenation of Israel. James’s use of Amos 9:11, 12 at the Jerusalem Council is instructive. He seems to have identified the emergence and growth of the Hebrew-Christian church with the promised rebuilding of the booth of David and on this basis proceeded to encourage the outreach to all the nations, the next stage in the Amos prophecy. The Acts and the Pauline epistles alike certify that there was no prejudice against having Gentiles in the Church (after all, Judaism was active in proselytizing them through the synagogue). However, some Jewish Christians were insisting that the practice of Judaism should prevail for the Church, namely, that these converts must be circumcised before being welcomed into the fellowship. In effect, this was to make them Jews before they could become Christians.

God chose to enlighten Peter on this matter first (Acts 10), showing him that the old distinction between Jew and Gentile as clean and unclean was no longer valid. In Peter’s words, “He made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:9). This was far more meaningful than a ritual purification by the rite of circumcision. Heavily influenced by Peter’s experience at Caesarea, the Jerusalem Council decided that no burden should be put on Gentiles who came into the Church: faith in Christ was sufficient. This decision opened the way for a greatly expanded ministry both to God-fearers and to pagans.


Out of the cloud a bright rosette

Out of the void, form.

Space and line,

A frost design

Tumbles from the storm.

Out of the timeless into time;

From pure spirit, clay.

Out of the night

Imperial light

The light, the truth, the way.


Matthew 28:18–20 is not alone in stating a Great Commission that takes in all the nations. Luke 24:47 does the same (cf. Acts 1:8). But another source, one that is easily overlooked, is the commission given to the Apostle Paul (Gal. 1:16; Rom. 1:5; 11:13; cf. Acts 9:15; 22:21; 26:17, 18). Critics who are skeptical about accepting as the words of Jesus many of the statements attributed to him in the Gospels and who are cautious about accepting some of the data are quite ready to admit the testimony of Paul contained in his acknowledged letters. His call to the service of Christ with its specific commission to work among Gentiles is stated in the clearest fashion in his epistles and is confirmed by the passages in Acts. Evidently the early Church did not interpolate this item. It was known and accepted that the Lord Jesus, no later than two or three years after his resurrection, had intervened to transform and redirect the life of the persecutor. Are we to conclude, then, that the Lord commissioned Paul to minister to the Gentiles but gave no such responsibility to the apostles whom he had personally chosen and trained to communicate his Gospel to the world? It is strange that anyone would think the Church stumbled along for many years, only gradually seeing in the Gentiles a proper mission field (recall that Judaism had been seeing them as such for a long time), and then, feeling it needed the Lord’s approval for what was now an accomplished fact, put the Great Commission into his mouth!

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The commission given to Paul, while it featured the Gentiles, did not exclude Israel. With this in mind, the emphasis in Matthew 28:19 is seen to be not on all the nations but on all the nations. Israel is not being overlooked or excluded.

One cannot fairly appeal to Mark 16:15, 16 as the words of Jesus, since the whole passage (16:9–20) has inferior textual attestation. However, this portion at least reflects the belief of the Church at an early period that Jesus had commanded a universal proclamation of the Gospel to be followed by the baptism of those who believed. More to our purpose is the observation that if we had the original ending of Mark it would very likely contain something corresponding to Matthew 28:18–20. This inference is based on the fact that most of the substance of Mark is reproduced in Matthew. What supports the inference is the twofold mention in Mark of the plan of Jesus to meet his disciples in Galilee after his resurrection (Mark 14:28; 15:7). Galilee, of course, is the setting for the Great Commission as reported in Matthew.

The Command To Baptize

This element of the Great Commission must be included in our investigation, for if this one can be successfully challenged, the entire passage can more readily be set aside as not emanating from Jesus himself.

One such attempt made in the area of textual criticism is an article by F. C. Conybeare entitled, “The Eusebian Form of the Text Matthew 28:19” (Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 2 [1901], pp. 275–88). He pointed out that in quoting this passage Eusebius usually made use of a shorter form that did not mention baptism. In only three citations did he quote the verse in its full form as we have it in our Bibles. It had to be granted, of course, that this was an isolated phenomenon, for otherwise the entire textual tradition consisting of manuscripts, versions, and patristic quotations failed to support the abbreviated form. Nevertheless the discovery was somewhat disconcerting. However, in an article entitled “The Lord’s Command to Baptize” (Journal of Theological Studies 6 [July, 1905], pp. 481–512), C. H. Chase showed that when Eusebius omitted the command to baptize in quoting the verse he did so because this portion of it was not germane to his discussion. He noted further that this habit is common among other writers both ancient and modern. Consequently one can fairly maintain that Eusebius is not actually a witness for an abbreviated form of Matthew 28:19 that omits the words about baptism.

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However, a more serious reason has been advanced for questioning that our Lord spoke the command to baptize, at least in the form Matthew gives. It is said to be inconceivable that the practice of the early Church, as reflected in the Book of Acts, would fail to follow the Master’s command. That is to say, if he actually commanded baptism in the name of the Trinity, the failure of the Acts to report any baptism after this manner is inexplicable.

A reply can be suggested on the following order. What we find in Acts is simply Luke’s report that on several occasions people were baptized in the name of Jesus Christ (2:38; 10:48) or in the name of the Lord Jesus (8:16; 19:5). The variation in the terminology—Jesus Christ and the Lord Jesus—is enough to warn us that this is not to be understood as a precise formula. In fact, it was intended not as a formula at all but as an indication that when the candidate confessed that sacred name, Jesus Christ was central to the new relationship that was being certified in the baptismal rite. “The fulness of Christ’s saving work is contained in his name” (Bietenhard in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, V, 273).

But what of the trinitarian terminology in Matthew 28:19? Is it intended, in contrast to the short form noted above, to serve as a liturgical guide, specifying the words to be used by those who administer baptism? Jesus did not say, “You are to baptize, saying, ‘I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’ ” Therefore we can reasonably maintain that just as the shorter expression indicates that the convert is to recognize the crucial importance of Christ for salvation, the longer form is meant to show that those who administer the rite are to communicate to the candidates for baptism that they are being brought into relationship with the whole Godhead conceived as a unity (note that name, not names, occurs here).

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However this may be, one has to grant that by the third or fourth generation thereafter, fairly early in the second century, the Lord’s command in Matthew about baptism was treated as a liturgical formula, for directions are given for administering baptism by using these words (Didache chapter 7). In the second of two references it is stated that if running water is not available, the one who performs the rite is to pour water three times on the head “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” So it may well be that the practice of the Church prior to this time followed the same pattern. Of great interest is the fact that the Didache also speaks of those who have been baptized “in the Lord’s name” (chapter 9). Since it is highly unlikely that two differing formulas would be recognized in the one document, the latter expression must indicate the significance of baptism, reflecting the terminology used in the Book of Acts. So there is no more need to see contradiction between Matthew 28:19 and the language of Acts than to see it between the two passages in the Didache.

We come to a more delicate question. Is it essential to hold that in Matthew 28:19 we have the very words of the risen Lord? Chase is willing to concede that the words in Matthew need not be identical with the actual words of Jesus. On principle, one is obliged to agree, for where we have parallel accounts in the Synoptic Gospels the language frequently differs. So, for example, Mark reports that at the Last Supper Jesus said to his own, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mark 14:24), whereas Matthew has, “For this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28). However, the language in Matthew 28:19 about baptism is such that one can hardly imagine anything different coming from the lips of Jesus. What else could he have said that would be similar but different?

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If one is inclined to stumble over the trinitarian character of the expression, feeling that it is too early for such a statement to be made, especially since Jesus had not used such language prior to the cross, then it is wise to reflect on the fact that less than thirty years later the Apostle Paul penned a benediction that has a trinitarian framework (2 Cor. 13:14). It is impossible to prove that he is indebted to the language of Jesus for this, but nevertheless it is likely that the triune terminology was familiar to those who received the letter, which in turn tends to carry back the source of the conception to the very beginning of the Church’s life. After all, the triune God figured in the baptism of Jesus at the Jordan (Matt. 3:13–17), and the Saviour’s teaching had included the Spirit along with the Father (John 14:16, 17; Luke 12:10–12).

The Command To Catechize

Rounding out the Great Commission is the injunction to teach those who have been evangelized and baptized. There was much for converts to learn—about the Lord himself, about the Scriptures that foretold his coming and his redemptive work, and about the obligations of discipleship. It is not surprising, then, that immediately after the 3,000 Pentecost converts were baptized they were placed under the instruction of the apostles (Acts. 2:42). Incidentally, this very obligation meant that the apostles were not free to fan out to remote regions of Palestine and beyond. The apostles could not be expected to impart in a few days what it had taken them the greater part of three years to acquire. And the Spirit was adding more to their store of knowledge (John 16:13).

To be sure, it is disappointing that we have no information at this point in Acts about the content of the teaching. Some scholars, especially those who take a rigid form-critical approach to the Gospels, have questioned the existence of any considerable body of teaching derived from the Lord himself and passed on through the apostles to the Church. Instead, they have persuaded themselves that the Church, faced with the need to instruct its members, took the few things that were remembered and greatly added to them, so that our Gospels represent the final stages of the growth of the tradition. The effort to arrive at the authentic words of Jesus in the Gospels and separate them from the contribution of the Church involves tremendous uncertainties. No wonder those who are engaged in it fail to agree among themselves even about the criteria to be used.

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It would be cavalier to dismiss the difficulties that beset one who insists that the exact words of Jesus are reproduced in Matthew 28:18–20. The vocabulary is distinctly Matthean at several points. It is enough to maintain that we have a directive from the risen Lord himself rather than a late formulation by the Church. One is bound to be impressed that all the Gospels have a command of some sort attributed to the Saviour (assuming that the original ending of Mark as well as the so-called long ending had it also), and this testimony is supplemented by Acts 1:8. Since the Matthean passage relates to a scene at which 500 brethren may have been present (1 Cor. 15:6), the certification of our Lord’s commission must have been singularly impressive for all concerned and for those to whom the recollection of the scene was imparted.

We have ample reason to be convinced that behind the Great Commission stands the authority of the person of Jesus and his plain, insistent direction to his Church. Christ is cause, not effect; he is subject, not object. The Church is his own (“my church,” Matthew 16:18), and he prescribed in advance how it was to be nourished and guided, even by the words of truth that he had spoken, words that the Holy Spirit had impressed on those who were now equipped to communicate them to others.

On reflection one can readily see that all three parts of the Great Commission are fundamental to the Church’s life and work. The first leads on to the second and the second to the third. Together they form a perfect trilogy, a fitting counterpart to the Trinity itself.

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