Matthew 28:19-20, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
To whom do the above verses apply?
Felicity Dale skillfully answered this question in a recent post.
I’d like to throw my thoughts out there on this issue:
The "churchly correct" way to answer the above question is to say that of course the Great Commission, as the verses are frequently called, applies to all of us. This answer usually stems from a loving desire to see as many people saved as possible. However, personal desire does not determine what the bible means. We must look at other places in scripture to correctly understand who Jesus intended to obey his command.
Matthew is generally narrative. Within narrative literature we cannot always apply all commands to ourselves. For example, Jesus does not want us to go into Jerusalem and find him a donkey to ride upon. However, he does seem to want to us to love our enemies. That said, does he expect us to obey Matthew 28:19-20 or was it aimed only at the original disciples?
The epistles can help us a tremendous amount in this. These were letters generally written to churches about what they should believe and how they should live. Because of this, we can more easily make application from epistles than gospels (although they all clearly contain much applicable material). Since Paul wrote the most letters, I’m going to briefly discuss one of his verses that helps us better understand Matthew 28:19-20.
We know that Paul had a personal desire to spread the gospel where it wasn’t. He famously writes in Romans 15:18-21, “For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience - by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God - so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ; and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else's foundation, but as it is written, ‘Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.’”
That is Paul’s personal ambition. However, what does he expect from the church? Does he think Christ-followers should be spreading the gospel where they live and abroad? Or, is the duty of only a select few in the church?
We find an answer in some of the first words Paul pens to the Thessalonian church. In I Thessalonians 1:8 Paul says, “For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything.”
The word of the Lord (the gospel) has “sounded forth” from them like a trumpet. The NLT renders it, “ringing out from you.” The good news has spread and continues to spread.
The message has gone throughout the surrounding region of Greece. More than that, it has gone everywhere (Paul uses hyperbole to make the point that it has gone great distances).
They have done so well in this that Paul has no admonition for them. They have done what he expects.
While some people naturally heard of the goings-on in Thessalonica simply because of the changed lives within the church, we can safely conclude that the Thessalonian Christians were proactive in advancing the spread of the gospel. It would not sound forth like a trumpet if they were simply going about their lives as usual.
This does not mean that everyone in the church was traveling abroad. It may simply have meant that those in the church were faithfully sharing the gospel where they naturally went. In light of Paul’s knowledge of Christ’s commands, we can surmise that the Thessalonians were not only hearing the gospel but also making disciples.
Paul is pleased that the Thessalonians were sharing the gospel to such great effect. He praises them for this using strong language. They were living as they should be living. A large area around them had heard of Christ because of their witness.
What can we deduce from this? Paul expected the Thessolonian church to spread the gospel. He loves that they did so. This shows us unmistakably that the Great Commission applied to them. Therefore, Jesus intended for Matthew 28:19-20 to apply to all believers, not simply his original disciples.
And if it applies to all believers, it applies to us.