Do you recall a cherished, final conversation with a beloved parent or grandparent? Those significant, last words may have been carefully chosen to motivate you for the rest of your life.
As Easter approaches, we’ll hear the life-altering stories of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. But what were Christ’s last words with the eleven disciples?
Jesus told His friends, “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. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20 NIV).
Known as the Great Commission, Matthew 28:19-20 contains three participles: “go,” “baptizing,” and “teaching” plus one imperative verb, a command: “make disciples.” Jesus’ primary admonition in this passage is for His followers to make disciples. The participles explain how to do that—we make disciples by going, baptizing, and teaching.
Dr. Robert Deffinbaugh sheds light on the Master’s command for His Church. He reminds us, “Apart from His sacrificial work on the cross, the most significant thing our Lord did upon the earth was to make disciples.”
Whose Responsibility Is this Commission to “Make Disciples”?
The assumption of contemporary Christianity is that discipleship (making disciples) is the individual responsibility of every Christian. To follow this assumption through to its logical conclusion we must end up by saying that every Christian is to go, to evangelize, and to instruct. To some extent, of course, this is true. But when seen in its full-blown implications, it means that I personally am responsible for the total life and spiritual growth of certain persons. I should be evangelizing and edifying a certain number of individuals if I am really spiritual and if I am really obedient to the Great Commission. It is my contention that what we expect of ourselves, the eleven disciples themselves failed to do. It is now my task to defend this contention.
1. Please note with me that the eleven did not go. Look at the words of the noted church historian, Luke: “… and on that day [the day of Stephen’s stoning in which Saul played a part] a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria; except the apostles” (Acts 8:1).
Now this is an amazing thing. The very ones who received the command to go forth with the gospel stayed home in Jerusalem. This certainly was not because it was the path of least resistance. They, as leaders in the Christian community, were the most likely targets for treatment similar to that of Stephen. Those who went forth to the Gentiles were not the eleven.
2. So far as we are told in Scripture, the eleven did not ‘make disciples’ in the same fashion as the Lord worked with them. We know of no examples of the apostles attaching to themselves a select group of followers, to carry on their work. Their work seemed to concentrate on a ministry to the masses, as the account in Acts 6:1-6 implies. The apostles did devote themselves to the proclamation of the gospel (cf. Peter and John, Acts 3-4) and to the ministry of the word (Acts 6:2,4).
3. Discipleship is the corporate responsibility of the church. The bottom line is simply this: the Great Commission was not given to the eleven as individuals, but to them as the church in embryo. We rightly recognize that the Great Commission was not merely a command to the eleven apostles. It was a mandate to the church, of which they were the foundation (Ephesians 2:20). More than this, it is not a command to every Christian to apply independently so much as it is for the church corporately. Discipleship is the corporate responsibility of the church. Although every Christian should give testimony of his faith, some are given the gift, the special, spirit-given ability, to evangelize (Ephesians 4:11, etc.) to teach (1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11), to help, to lead (1 Corinthians 12:28), and so on.
The church is the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27). What He began to do and to teach, the church is to continue (Acts 1:lff). No Christian individually and independently can fully represent or reflect the person of Christ. Only the church can do this corporately. Each and every Christian is a valuable member of His body, and each has its unique function (1 Corinthians 12:20-30).
We agree with Greg Herrick: “The Great Commission is not just another good idea—though it is that—it is the church’s marching order. As far as I know, He never communicated another plan.” Let us be found making disciples in Jesus’ name.
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Robert L. (Bob) Deffinbaugh graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary with his Th.M. in 1971. Bob is a pastor/teacher and elder at Community Bible Chapel in Richardson, Texas. Excerpt used with permission Bible.Org