Our church is seeking to grow in our understanding and effectiveness in evangelism so I am teaching an eight-week class on practical evangelism and discipleship. Among several other texts, I am using Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus by J. Mack Stiles. I received the book from attending the Together for the Gospel conference this year. Each Monday, I will be posting a short summary of that week’s class. I hope it is helpful.
The Great Commission
This passage of scripture in Matthew 28:16-20 is probably the clearest command for evangelism and discipleship in the New Testament. We have talked about this passage several times throughout the class and have frequently come back to it because of its importance. The purpose for looking at it in this particular class was specific to the word “go” in the passage. There are different ways that this word is taught in relation to the emphasis from this passage.
The eleven disciples have been through the years of Jesus’ ministry, their desertion of him, his crucifixion, the falling away and suicide of one of their own, Jesus’ resurrection and now He is issuing this command to them on a mountain. The disciples had been through an incredible whirlwind with Jesus. It is helpful to think on where they had been up to this point as they heard these words from Jesus there on the mountain in Galilee.
They had not yet been far away from home, they had not been out among territory that was unfamiliar to them. We don’t hear about any of the apostles going outside of their close, familiar area until after the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7. Acts 8 is the beginning of travels for Philip the evangelist. Acts 9 is Saul’s conversion. Acts 10 is Peter’s vision that it is God’s will for the gospel to go the Gentiles. Soon after this, the gospel grows farther out. So it seems that the book of Acts in many ways is how the Great Commission was obeyed and carried out by the apostles and the subsequent disciples. It is where we see how Acts can be considered theological history, in that it is both narrative and theologically didactic.
Go or As you go
There is much debate in scholarly circles and the like about the nature of how to both translate and teach this passage, particularly around the word go. Depending on the translation you have, you might have “go therefore, therefore go or go ye therefore.” You might have heard an emphasis that we are called to go, we have to go out to the corners of the earth and find people. You might have heard this taught with a missions emphasis or a great emphasis on reaching lost people. Also, you might have also heard this passage emphasized with a more “as you go” translation (see the NASB footnote). This type of emphasis says that while going is fine and people are sent, there is more of a sense in as we go, meaning for us as we go through life, God puts people in front of our faces, in our path. I would contend that both emphases are correct.
Starting with as you go, to look at the individual words in Greek, the word for go, would be literally translated by itself, “having gone,” which is where we get the “as you go” emphasis from. But words are only important when they are joined with other words and they then take on different nuances. Because of some grammatical rules in translation, when the type of verb that go is (aorist participle) is in the same sentence as the type of verb that make disciples (aorist main verb), it changes the impact of the participle (go). Basically, you can’t make disciples unless you go, whether that is specifically for the disciples hearing Jesus say this or for us. Whether it is go or as you go, there is still going, going on.
Make disciples is the main verb from verse 19 to the middle of verse 20. The rest through the middle of verse 20 are participles that we see with “ing” at the end: baptizing and teaching. Because make disciples is the main verb, that elevates the importance of go (literally having gone) and changes it to match the mood of the main verb. The mood of the main verb, make disciples, is imperative which is commonly used for commands like stop, go, run, etc. That is why though it is literally having gone on its own, when structured as it is, it is translated in English as go. Another example of this in Matthew is in 2:8,13. The reason for the structure to be this way rather than just saying make disciples, shows the beginning of an ongoing task and that this task is of the utmost priority, showing its importance and immediacy. Daniel B. Wallace, in Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics goes into greater detail about the Great Commission and the grammatical structure of the passage, (Wallace, pg 640-645).
What is our going?
Much of the disciples going throughout Acts was very much a going, a literal travel and going to new places and new people to which they were not accustomed. There were also other times when the mission happened more while they were on their way somewhere as in that was not the end goal, but evangelism and discipleship happened along the way. In Acts 8:26 the Lord tells Philip to go to the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, but the event took place on the way there. There was no specific direction as to where to go, however we can assume that Philip was headed toward Gaza because that is where the Ethiopian eunuch was going. These encounters we have as we go, are not mistakes or coincidences, there are no coincidences in the universe. Everything is sovereignly dictated by God. They seem random to us, but not to God. Noticing them and being successful with them takes a readiness, watchfulness and preparedness on our part.
All of this begins to connect as we look back at our study of the passage in relation to this and compare our experiences to Philip’s. When God tells us to go to the road to Gaza, if you will, we should go fully expecting God to do something on the way to Gaza just as much as when we get there. In my opinion, when we are clearly going (missions), we don’t have as much of a problem being open to God working because we fully expect it and prepare for it. But where we struggle and where we lack that expectation, preparedness and watchfulness is in the going of everyday life. The Christian life is a mission. Everywhere God sends us and everything God sends us to do is a mission: where we live, where we work, what family we are in, where we buy our groceries, where we eat our meals, where we get our cars repaired and on and on. It’s all going and with that going there is a command to make disciples.
Mack Stiles talks about the Great Commission and say that one way we can help each other as a church is as we bring new people who are not yet believers to church to visit, we don’t have to just rely on one or two people sharing the gospel that day for the friend to hear, (Stiles, pg 54). With a culture of evangelism, everyone understands the command to share the gospel that Jesus gave because everyone understands the urgency to go. Our going is not a chance to gather people around us, but instead an opportunity to gather people into the local church and ultimately to Jesus. We don’t want to go or be going and leave people out there once we have shared with them, we want to fold them into the church. We need to keep in mind that wherever we are going everyday God is sending us there and He had more for us in mind than just a trip to the grocery store.
I gave the class some homework. During the next two weeks, they were challenged to have some kind of conversation with someone about Jesus. I encouraged them to pray and ask God to give them an opportunity. As we have started each class, we have prayed for all the people in our lives that we are wanting to see come to know Jesus. For the next class, we will begin to shift from theoretical thoughts on evangelism and discipleship to practical.