Why are we commanded to make disciples of all nations?
This post is a chapter from Dr. Timothy Tennent’s book, 30 Questions: A Short Catechism on the Christian Faith available for purchase from our store. This resource makes for a great teaching tool in local churches, especially for catechesis purposes. We’re featuring a chapter each week in hopes of encouraging you to pick up the book and share it with others as well.
All four of the Gospels conclude with Jesus giving a final commission to his disciples. These commissions are all given by Jesus Christ after the resurrection. They are given at different times and places throughout the forty days between his resurrection and his ascension. Each emphasizes different ways in which the church is called to bear witness to Christ between that time and his final return. In Matthew’s gospel we are commanded to “make disciples of all nations.” In Mark’s gospel we are commanded to “preach the good news to every person in the whole world.” In Luke’s gospel we are commanded to be “his witnesses.” Finally, in John’s gospel we are “sent” by Christ just as Christ himself was sent into the world.
It becomes clear upon reflection that Jesus is giving the church four distinct ways to extend his mission into the world. Some are called to the ministry of discipleship. Notice that Matthew does not merely say “disciple individuals,” which is how we often interpret this passage. Instead, he calls us to disciple “the nations.” This, of course, includes the important ministry of discipling individuals, but it also means that we have a responsibility to shape and instruct the entire life of a nation. Christianity is never only about individual faith and devotion. Christ has called us to manifest his glory in the whole life of a culture, including art, architecture, politics, education, social arrangements, family life, and so forth.
Mark’s gospel reminds us of the special role of preaching or proclamation which has been given to the church. We often hear the phrase, attributed wrongly to St. Francis of Assisi, that we are to “preach the gospel at all times; use words if necessary.” If this is taken to mean that we are to live out the gospel in our lives and deeds, then it is a noteworthy point worth remembering. But, it should never supplant the need for the gospel to be spoken and proclaimed in words to the entire world. The people of God have been given revelation and a message to share, and that must be articulated both in word and in deed.
Luke’s gospel commands us to be “his witnesses.” This implies the laying down of our lives for the sake of the gospel. This does not only mean being willing to be a martyr for Jesus Christ, but includes all the ways that we “lay our lives down” for the sake of the gospel. It includes things which seem as mundane as giving up of our time to serve in a soup kitchen or volunteering to teach a Sunday school class. We are called to sacrificially give our lives and our gifts for the gospel in whatever way he leads us.
Finally, John’s gospel reminds us that the church must be a sending church. We must send people forth to bear his message to the ends of the earth. We should support those who are called into full-time pastoring or mission work. The church needs these laborers and they are worthy of our support and encouragement. We all have resources which we are called to invest in Kingdom work, and we should freely offer those to Christ.
These commissions of Christ were not just meant for the original disciples; they are commissions for all disciples of Jesus Christ. We should never forget that we are all called to become full participants in his mission in the world, not merely performing tasks, but participating in extending his life, his Kingdom, and his purposes in the world. We should all see ourselves as joining with him in his mission, rather than as isolated individuals obeying commands. What a joy it is to know that, ultimately, he is the great redeemer and reconciler of the world. We have the privilege of sharing with him in this work of redemption.