The Great Commission and God’s Law:
Pt. 1 – The Biblical Context
by Gerald R. Thompson*
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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.” Mt 28:18-20.
If you spent any significant amount of time attending a church that identifies itself as evangelical, then you would likely be familiar with these last three verses of the book of Matthew, commonly called the Great Commission. These are ostensibly the last words spoken by Jesus just prior to the remarks He made at His ascension in Acts 1:6-8.
If these verses are not familiar to you, they are viewed by many Christians as the marching orders of the universal Church. That is, the worldwide body of Christ through the years, not tied to any specific group, congregation or denomination. These verses sum up what it is that Christians are supposed to do in the world as Christians until Jesus returns.
The Great Commission is one of those statements everybody refers to, but no one actually pays attention to the words that were and were not used. The statement seems straightforward – until you see how people have mangled it over the years.
If someone were to ask you what the Great Commission is all about, quick! – what’s the first thing that pops in your mind? Evangelism and discipleship. Right? But is that right? Is that actually what the Great Commission is all about? Is the word evangelism ever mentioned in the Commission? How about the words gospel, preach, or good news? But you say, “See right there – it says to make disciples.’ And that means evangelism. Ha!” Yet, if that is the case, how does anyone get both evangelism and discipleship out of the Great Commission? Doesn’t that interpretation make them, in effect, the same thing?
And of course, culturally and ministerially, that is exactly what has happened. Making disciples (and baptizing them) is viewed as evangelism, and discipleship is viewed as merely taking those new converts and teaching them how to evangelize others. (OK, so maybe we also teach them how to be better Christians and fit into the church culture.) But even our lives, when lived piously, become an example by which we can draw others to Christ. So the only reason for discipleship, ultimately, is to serve the purpose of evangelism.
Have you ever heard anyone say, “evangelism is the most important thing we can do, therefore it is the only thing we will do.” Perhaps you haven’t. I have – for a number of years I was associated with a large international campus ministry, and that was the creed they lived by. I got out, because among other reasons, I knew that God had never called me to be an evangelist, and I was wasting my time there. Unfortunately, however, this way of thinking is not limited to campus ministries.
I daresay most of the Evangelical Church is infected with this mentality. (Point of fact: that’s why they call themselves evangelical.) Where every sermon, ultimately, is a call to salvation. Where every charitable outreach or special ministry event is primarily intended to reach the lost. Where seminars and small group sessions are mainly focused on being a better witness of the gospel. Where “you will be my witnesses to the end of the earth” is the constant rallying cry, along with “missions, missions, missions.”
Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing inherently bad about evangelism or missions. But this understanding of the Great Commission, as a matter of biblical interpretation, is seriously deficient. It puts the emphasis of Jesus’ words in the wrong place, drastically alters the true nature of evangelism, and completely misses the greater part of His commission. It is my intention in this essay to explore what most people have missed.
THE BIBLICAL CONTEXT
Before we actually try to interpret and understand the Great Commission, we should understand its larger biblical context. That’s because the Great Commission is not the single greatest set of marching orders ever given to people. If we look at how the Commission has generally been understood in the last 100 years, the main error has not been to underestimate its importance, but to overestimate it.
This has resulted from two related erroneous assumptions. First, that the Great Commission is the culmination of all of God’s prior commands to humanity. Second, that Jesus’ claim of authority, when stating the Commission, meant that He intended it to supersede all prior grants of authority.
The Four Great Commands
Many people miss the fact that God has issued four great commands in scripture, or sets of commands, not just one or two. Granted, many are familiar with Jesus’ statement of the Greatest Commandments (which I count as only one command), also found in the book of Matthew. But because of the general lack of regard for the laws of the Old Testament, few people grab onto the significance of the Dominion Mandate in Genesis. And most completely overlook scriptural descriptions of the authority of nations, except to use them to beat people into an unbiblical submission.
The key to understanding these four great sets of commands is to realize that each of them is given to people in different social capacities, or jurisdictions. Thus, the Greatest Commandments (Mat. 22:36-40) were both directed to individuals, all of the Dominion Mandate (Gen. 1:28-30) was given primarily to families, the purposes of civil power (1 Pet. 2:13-14) were directed to nations, and the Great Commission (Mt. 28:18-20) was given to members of the universal Church.
To have a mastery of these four great commands, you should understand what each includes and excludes, and how to interpret them without bringing them into conflict with each other. Then you are well on your way to understanding God’s overall plan for humanity and His will for society. Their importance cannot be overestimated.
There is no command or law higher than these. They are supreme over all other laws and commands found in the laws of nature and nature’s God, equal in authority and importance with the divine covenants. Indeed, two of them are divine covenants (the Dominion Mandate – Adamic covenant; and the Great Commission – Church covenant). The Greatest Commandments and the principles of civil power, in contrast, summarize eternal principles of God’s universal laws for all people at all times.
Let’s look at each of these sets of commands briefly. The Greatest Commandments commend us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and love our neighbors as ourselves. Essentially, this describes God’s expectations for every person. Broadly speaking, the love of God includes what we would normally call morality and piety (legally, freedom of conscience and religion). The love of our neighbor includes a whole range of topics on human interactions and the ways in which we wrong each other (legally, all manner of wrongs and disputes, but also charity).
When I say the Greatest Commandments are directed to individuals, I mean two things. First, these commands and duties did not first arise only when Jesus said them. Nor did they arise when Israel received the Mosaic law (which Jesus was largely quoting). Instead, these commands trace back to the creation – they merely describe what God had implanted into the human soul back in the very beginning, when man was created in God’s image. Thus, these commands are part of our human nature, and part of the laws of nature (God’s will impressed upon the creation). For that reason, they apply to each individual for all time, without exception.
Second, I mean that these commands were not given to the other jurisdictions, as such. Sure, there is some overlap with the family (which also traces back to the very beginning of creation), in the duties of love and morality, etc. But mainly, the Greatest Commandments do not apply to either nations or the Church, for the fact is neither of them trace back to creation, but only came along thousands of years later. It is not the job of nations (via civil government) to promote or practice religion, which inevitably results in tyranny. Nor is it the job of nations to love people (which inevitably leads to a welfare state and an unholy redistribution of wealth).
Neither do these commands apply to the Church, strictly speaking. What I mean is that religious liberty is not a right, or a duty, of the Church, per se. Religious liberty does not spring from the Great Commission, because if it did, it would only apply to Christians and no one else. Each individual Christian does have religious liberty, of course, but because of their human nature, not because of their Christianity. When a church exercises religious freedom, it is the right of the individual members to do so, not the right of any institution or organization.
Similarly as to charity. Churches have historically sponsored many charitable works. But ultimately, it is the God-given right of church members to love their neighbor as individuals that furnishes the legal basis for those works. Go back and look at the Great Commission again. Are there any words authorizing charitable ministries? No. Again, I’m not saying church sponsored charities are invalid – I’m saying anyone can sponsor a charity, not just those people covered by the Great Commission. Charity is a right of individuals as humans, not as Christians.
The analysis of the other Great Commands is to the same effect. According to the Dominion Mandate, it is the job of families to bear children (be fruitful and multiply), and to take dominion (subdue the earth and rule over every living thing). This comprehends almost everything we normally think of as belonging to the private sector – property, commerce, industry, occupation, labor, reproduction, education, etc.
Is it the job of civil government, or the Church, to bear children? No. What about education? Here is a hard truth: civil government has no authority to educate children at all, and churches have only what authority parents voluntarily give to them. Is it the job of either civil government or the Church to subdue the earth, to drive the economy, to control industry and manufacturing, or to regulate employment? No, no, no and no. But that’s probably not what you’ve been told, is it?
Nations have the dual purpose of punishing those who do evil (which includes both criminal law enforcement and general dispute resolution via the court system), and praising those who do right (which historically has been understood as the protection of individual rights). Do we allow that individuals, families and churches may punish crimes, establish courts, maintain national defenses, or have the job of protecting individual rights? No, we do not.
As for the authority and purposes of the Church – well, that is what we will shortly examine.
Not a Lens for Viewing the Rest of Life
Each of the four main social jurisdictions (individual, family, nation and Church) have a commission from God to do certain things unique to that social capacity, which things are basically non-overlapping. God, by granting each jurisdiction only certain named purposes (or types of authority), expects each of them to stay exclusively within the express powers granted. Each jurisdiction is expected to refrain from doing the things committed by God to other jurisdictions. God, who is not the author of confusion, never intended for these jurisdictions to conflict with each other, that is, to fight with each other over who does what in society.
As long as everyone stays in the spheres of authority God gave them, society will benefit. From God’s perspective, this makes each jurisdiction co-equal with the others. The entire history of the world, in a sense, is one long example of people overstepping their proper authority and usurping the authority of others. And also overstepping God’s authority in matters that He never delegated to anyone to do, i.e., playing God.
Think of it like the original design for the constitutional separation of powers between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. They each have their own set of defined powers which are expressly granted. The same powers are never given to more than one branch. No branch can assume authority that has not been expressly given to it. The people (like God) have some powers that they never granted to any branch of government. When any branch assumes power given to another branch, or assumes rights or powers retained by the people, it is a usurpation.
Bottom line: this makes the three branches of government co-equal. Co-equal with each other, and co-equal in their relationship to the ultimate source of political power, the people. Same thing regarding individuals, families, nations and the Church. In God’s universe, they are co-equal with each other, and co-equal in their relationship (and accountability) to Him. After all, God Himself is the Creator of all of these social jurisdictions. He made individuals, He made families, He made nations, and He made the Church. Equally. Not all at the same time – but equally.
This is the proper context for looking at the Great Commission. Yes, it is pretty darn important and well worthy of our attention, as would any statement beginning with the phrase, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Yet, at the same time, this statement is not over or above the other great commands of God. The Great Commission does not supersede or control the Dominion Mandate, the Greatest Commandments, or the nature of civil power. It is equal, not dominant.
One thing we must completely avoid is the common historical mistake of using the Great Commission as the lens through which we view the other Great Commands, the will of God, or the rest of life. That is not its function. We are not to understand the other Great Commands as a subset of the Great Commission any more than individuals, families and nations are subsets of the Church. They are separate, and functionally autonomous. The Church is not the great supervisor for the rest of society.
When teaching or preaching the laws of God, pastors and teachers should resist the urge to Christianize the discussion, e.g., What does a Christian family look like? It’s not about Christian families. It’s about what God’s plan is for all families as a dominion-taking institution that He has created. Focus on the fact that since God created the family, it was never man’s place to redefine it or to reshape the principles by which it is governed.
It’s the same way regarding government. It’s not about what a Christian government would look like. What are God’s laws for all nations, and all civil governments? What – they never taught those laws at your pastor’s seminary? I’m really sorry if a discussion of God’s will for the nations doesn’t lend itself to an altar call, but if your pastor feels the need to turn every sermon topic into an evangelistic moment, that’s a big part of the problem. That’s why your church congregation is so ignorant.
Fundamentally, people should realize that God does not have two sets of rules – one for Christians under the Great Commission, and another for everyone else. All of the universal laws of God apply to everyone regardless of their personal spiritual salvation status. When you start distinguishing Christians from non-Christians in the examination of God’s laws, you are going down the wrong path.
It Came Last
Let me give you one more thing to chew on regarding the Great Commission compared to the other Great Commands of God. Namely, as between individuals, families, nations and the Church, the Church came last. Some people think what came last supersedes and/or incorporates what came earlier. Or at the very minimum, that what came last is the culmination of everything that came before. Not so – what came last was least essential to existence. Don’t get your hackles up – I am not trying to minimize or downplay the Church, or its importance historically and spiritually.
I am, however, looking at the Church in the context of the full history of humanity. We cannot ignore the fact that people existed for at least 4,000 years without the Church and only 2,000 years with it. And the timing of the inauguration of the Church was determined by God, not man. If the Church was as crucial to existence as the bearing of children, then God would have introduced it into history much earlier. Can you imagine if the situation was reversed: if the Church was introduced at creation and the Dominion Mandate only came along 4,000 years later? Humanity would never have survived.
But if you’re looking for a great culmination in history, folks, the Church wasn’t (and won’t be) it. No, that, my friends, will be the coming of the physical kingdom of Christ on earth after the Second Coming. The Church is just a preview – not the main event. The spiritual kingdom is not the physical kingdom.
WHAT DID JESUS MEAN?
Jesus’ Commands Are God’s Laws
Now let’s look at the words of the Great Commission itself. The Commission, in very condensed form, is to “make disciples, baptizing and teaching them.” The best construction of the words is to make disciples by 1) baptizing; and 2) teaching. In other words, the Commission does not have three separate purposes (disciple, baptize and teach). Instead, it has one main purpose – to make disciples – which is accomplished by baptizing and teaching. Disciples are the goal, and baptizing and teaching are the means by which disciples are made.
Admittedly, when all the wordplay has been done, understanding the Commission is going to look a lot like make converts and train them. And to most people’s ears, that’s going to sound like evangelize and disciple. But the real question is what it means to teach people all that Jesus commanded. Does it mean to train or disciple people mainly to make more converts? God forbid!
Allow me to suggest that what Jesus meant is actually much more comprehensive, and ultimately, much more useful. Namely, that the commands of Jesus are in fact all of God’s laws (that is, all of God’s laws for all nations). It’s not that hard to grasp. Jesus is God, and Jesus is the Logos, the Word, the mouthpiece of God. Whatever Jesus says, is what God speaks. And since Jesus is also the great I AM, that is Jehovah (Jn. 8:58), then whatever God said in the Old Testament as Jehovah is also the word of Jesus. Jesus’ words are God’s words, and vice versa.
Now what about this word commanded as used in the Great Commission? You can look it up in any exhaustive concordance – the words command, commanded and commandment as used in the New Testament are all variations of the same word. In essence, command is the verb form, and commandment is the noun form, of the same word. And commanded is just the past tense verb form. So what are the things Jesus commanded? His commandments. And what is the difference between who spoke commandments in the N.T. and who spoke commandments in the O.T.? No difference. God never spoke a command that Jesus did not also (as the Word of God) command.
Scripturally, there is a strong connection between Jesus, the creation, and the laws of God which existed before His birth in Bethlehem. Scripture tells that not only is Jesus Jehovah, He is also the Creator of the universe. “For by [Christ] all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through him and for him.” (Col. 1:16).
It is no mere coincidence that the universe was created by speaking it into existence. (Gen. 1). Jesus is the Creator because He is also the Word of God. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” (Jn. 1:1-3).
Thus, Jesus’ commands are not limited to things said in His First Advent. Nor are they limited to the words printed in red in your red letter edition of the Bible. They include all of the laws of nature. Is it no wonder then, that Ps. 19:4 specifically refers to the law of nature as speech, knowledge and words evident in both the heavens and all the earth? And the laws of nature, remember, apply to all people and all nations.
Jesus’ commands also include the laws of nature’s God (the will of God revealed in scripture). After all, what is scripture except the written Word of God? And who is the Word of God, but Jesus? That makes the entire Bible the words of Christ. Who are we, to limit the scope of His commands to things said while He was in the flesh, when His authority extends to all things past, present and future? Again, I am specifically referring to God’s laws for all people as are found in scripture.
Look at Col. 1:16 again – Jesus created all thrones, dominions, rulers and authorities. What are any of those things without laws? Therefore, if Jesus created those things, He must also have created the laws that govern them. When you put together the facts that Jesus has Himself declared all the commandments of God, is the author of both the laws of nature and the laws of scripture, and has created those things which require laws for their own existence, is it not crystal clear? The commands of Jesus, or if you will, the things He has commanded, are all of the laws of God for all people.
Some of you are no doubt thinking that what I have just said cannot possibly be true. You have had it drummed into your head all of your church-going life that God’s laws were relevant in the Old Testament, but not the New Testament. But you have been sold a bill of goods. Teaching and following God’s commands is not a concept negated by the N.T., but rather embraced by it. Let’s allow the scripture to speak for itself.
And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. Whoever keeps his commandments abides in him, and he in them. 1 Jn 3:23-24.
By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. 1 Jn 5:2-3.
I rejoiced greatly to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as we were commanded by the Father. And now I ask you, dear lady not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but the one we have had from the beginning that we love one another. And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, so that you should walk in it. 2 Jn 4-6.
Do you really think what is meant by these verses is that we should get out there and preach the gospel? Is that what it means to keep his commandments? Some people would like to think so – that believing in Jesus and loving one another are the full extent, or limitation, of Jesus’ commands. However, the full context of scripture paints a much broader picture, as we have seen. People find all kinds of ways to try to limit Christ’s commands – to the Mosaic law, to the gospel, or to the New Testament, etc. But Jesus is fully God – and that means the full extent of God’s laws are Jesus’ commands. That is – and I’ll pick this up in a bit – the full extent of God’s laws for all people.
Give Jesus some credit. He knows very well that some of His laws were given exclusively to the Jewish people, the nation of Israel. By telling us to obey His commandments, and teach His commandments to all nations, that does not include those laws which only apply to Israel. So don’t think for a second that what I am advocating in this essay is an application of the Mosaic laws to Gentile nations, or to the Church. Nothing could be further from the truth.
All the prior discussion was meant to show is that just because we live in the age of grace does not mean that obedience to God’s commandments has somehow become irrelevant. God has commandments that still apply to all people and He expects us to still obey them. What those universal laws are, we will look at shortly.
These same laws are the commandments of Jesus that the Church is supposed to be teaching the nations pursuant to the Great Commission. But, Lord help us, the Church is NOT teaching the universal laws of God to anyone, much less the whole world. In fact, just the opposite. Asserting the pseudo-argument of law vs. grace, we negate the Great Commission and do the very opposite of what Jesus commanded – all while we claim to be doing His will. So before we look at God’s universal laws, we need to deal with the pseudo-problem of law vs. grace.
Law vs. Grace
Some of you, no doubt, have already been thinking, “But we are under grace, not law!!” In effect, this is an argument that the Great Commission cannot mean we are to teach God’s laws, even limited to His universal laws, because we are under grace, not law, and we cannot give a construction to the words which puts us “back” under law. To be sure, grace has come, thanks to Jesus. But this argument about grace vs. law when applied to the Great Commission is just all kinds of wrong.
To start, let’s review what the scripture says about law and grace:
For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! (Rom. 6:14-15). See also, Gal. 2:21; 5:4.
The problem isn’t that grace and law are two different things – the problem is what is meant by the word law. In the vast majority of instances, when the New Testament writers use the term law, they mean specifically, and only, the Mosaic law. This is clearly the sense intended by the apostle John:
For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (Jn. 1:17).
And of course, the main thing about the Mosaic law is that it was only ever given to, or applicable to, the Jewish people, i.e., the nation of Israel. It is impossible that people who were never under the Mosaic law in the first place, namely Gentiles, could ever go “back” under that law. That law never applied to Gentiles in either the Old or New Testament periods. The apostle Paul was acutely aware of this:
For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. (Rom. 2:14). See also, 1 Cor. 9:21-22, where Paul again makes this plain (Jews are under the law, Gentiles are outside the law).
By referring to the distinction between Jews and Gentiles, we know that when speaking of law and grace Paul was not speaking of all law in general, the law of nature, or what we would call civil or municipal laws (i.e., the laws by which nations govern themselves). Rather, he was speaking exclusively about that law which was given to ancient Israel through Moses. Also remember that Paul was himself a Jew born under the Mosaic law (as were many early believers). So from his vantage point, one of his principal concerns (especially in Galatians) was to convince fellow Jewish believers not to “return” to a reliance on the Mosaic law.
In Romans, however, writing mainly to Gentile believers, Paul’s concern was different. There, he was addressing the fact that Gentile believers did not have to become Judaized (Jewish converts) in order to follow Christ. Ultimately, this problem was addressed and resolved by the Jerusalem Council (see Acts 15:1-29). When Paul said (in Rom. 6), you are not under law but under grace, he was simply stating a fact. The grace of Christ applied to Gentile believers, and the Mosaic law did not. There was no need for Gentiles to become Jews in order to become Christians.
Consequently, no Gentile believers today were ever under the law given to Israel through Moses to begin with. We cannot therefore, consider ourselves as having come out from under that law, because it was never over us. And unless you are a biological Jew, your ancestors were never under the law given to Israel through Moses either.
However, whether a Jew or a Gentile, your ancestors were under the laws of nature, and so are you. Your ancestors were also under the divine covenants mediated through Adam and Noah, and so are you. In fact, insofar as the laws of God are concerned, you and your ancestors (even going back more than 3,000 years) were and are under the exact same laws of God. The birth, death and resurrection of Jesus had absolutely no impact on which universal laws of God applied to which people.
I have a challenge for you, if you care to consider it. Name one law of God that applied to the Gentiles nations before the First Advent of Christ that no longer applied to them after grace had come. Go ahead. I’m waiting. There’s, uh, and there’s this other, uh …. Nothing. There are no such laws. Admit it. As to Gentiles, there are no laws of God that grace has obsoleted or displaced.
The whole law vs. grace thing has only a very narrow and limited purpose, i.e., to illustrate the change in program between the Mosaic covenant and the Church covenant as far as the means of redemption for the Jews is concerned, and to extend the means of grace to the Gentiles. Yes, of course, as Gentiles we can use the discussion of law vs. grace to help us better understand the nature of grace and appreciate how much better it is than if we had been under the Jewish law. Just because Gentiles were without grace in the O.T. period, does not make them under the law at the time.
Remember what the Great Commission says: make disciples of all nations, teaching them Jesus’ commands. By definition, Jesus could not have meant for the Church to teach all nations (which are 99.9% Gentiles) the Mosaic Law, which only ever applied to the Jews. Jesus certainly knew what John, Paul, Peter and the Jerusalem Council knew. Therefore, when He urged us to teach all that I have commanded you, He must have meant something else. He must have meant for us to teach the nations all of God’s laws which actually apply to all nations, that is, His universal laws.
Consequently, the words of the Great Commission in Matthew are what they are. Either they are God-breathed and authoritative, or they are not. We need to accept the fact Jesus knew what He was saying, and His words carry divine authority. Now, assuming the words of Jesus in the Great Commission mean what they say, what are the commands of Jesus (the laws of God) that we should teach?