I’ve seen a number of interpretations of the Great Commission, many of which appear to be aimed at avoiding it. It seems strange to me that people who have left their homes to serve the Lord halfway around the world should be questioning its validity for them.
Here are some thoughts.
Jesus actually gave a number of “commissions,” though the one you refer to in Matthew 28:16-20, is the one usually labeled thus. Others are found in Mark 16:14-16; Luke 24:46-49; John 20:21, 22; Acts 1:8.
Matthew 28:16-20 reads as follows: “And the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain that Jesus appointed to them. And when they saw Him they worshipped, though some doubted. And Jesus came and spoke to them saying, ‘All authority in heaven and earth has been given to Me. Go therefore and disciple all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things, whatever I have commanded you. And look! I am with you all the days until the consummation of the age!’”
Yes, the commission in Matthew is said to be spoken to the eleven disciples, elsewhere called apostles (Matthew 28:16). However, the text doesn’t strictly say only to the eleven. Some believe this appearance to be the same as that which Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 15:6: “Then He appeared to five hundred brothers at one time …” A mountain in Galilee would seem to be one of the few places where Jesus could have appeared to this number without drawing too much attention. The phrase “… though some doubted,” might also imply there were others. It would seem to me that by this time, the eleven would have overcome their doubts.
The passage in Mark, though in a disputed text, mentions two others who may have been included (Mark 16:12, 13).
The passage in Luke definitely includes the two Emmaus disciples (verses 33-35) and most likely a number of women (verses 9, 10).
John merely uses the words “the disciples,” which usually is used of a larger number of persons than merely the eleven. In verse 18, he mentions Mary Magdalene.
The commission in Acts seems to be clearly directed to only the eleven. Verse 2 refers to them as “the apostles.” In verse 11, they are addressed by two angels as “men of Galilee,” which would appear to exclude men from elsewhere, as well as women. But in verses 12-14, they are part of a much larger company in the upper room (120 according to verse 15). Could these also have been with the eleven when the commission was given? In Acts 2:1-4, “… they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues as the Spirit was giving them (the ability) to speak.”
So my belief is that, while the eleven – the apostles – were particularly singled out as recipients of the commission, it was directed at a much larger group of disciples, including many women.
But the commission is also continual and self-perpetuating and includes disciples even in this age.
First, Jesus says, “… teaching them to observe all things, whatever I have commanded you.” I would suppose that the “all things” that are to be taught to these new disciples would include the commission itself!
Secondly, when Jesus says, “I am with you all the days until the consummation of the age,” we need to ask to whom He is speaking. Certainly He is not implying that this event will necessarily occur during the lifetime of those He was addressing, even though they many have understood it that way. This promise, which is tied to the commission, goes beyond their lifetime and I believe must be meant for the whole church.
Now for a few words about the verbs in verse 19. There are four verbs:
- The main verb translated “disciple” or “make disciples” is matheteusate. It is an imperative – a command – and is in the aorist tense. This gives it immediacy – “just do it,” or “start to do it.” All the other verbs are participles modifying the main verb.
- “Go” (poreuthentes) is an aorist participle. This form is often used with an imperative to lend it more urgency – “do it NOW.” Matthew 28:5, 7: “The angel answered and told the men … ‘Go quickly tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead.’” Check out Matthew 2:8; 11:4; 17:27; Mark 16:15. Some have attempted to soften the command by translating, “As you go, make disciples.” This would require a present participle as in Matthew 10:7. To translate thus is faulty exegesis and even worse, irresponsible application.
- "Baptizing” (baptizontes) and “teaching” (didaskontes) are both present participles, which speak of continuing action. These are the means to be used in making disciples.
Also see: FEELING THE CALL and PAUL AND JESUS AND THE GREAT COMMISSION.