Every Christian knows that Jesus Christ’s “Great Commission” in Matthew 28:19 has been the motivation for his people launching out across the world and discipling all who respond to the good news of salvation since our Lord began the church. What many Christians do not know, however, is that an entire theology of God is present in this great epic statement. And a summary of our way of life and our hopes of glory are all here too.
Jesus delivers this charge as he brings to a close his ministry on earth. Everything is now behind him. The suffering of persecution, rejection, and, finally, execution is over. The triumph of his resurrection has stunned the religious community. The temple veil hangs torn and useless, and the glory of God’s presence has rushed out of the holy of holies and has taken up residence among the faithful followers of God-Among-Us. All abroad are risen saints—those, like Lazarus, who have been brought forth alive when the tombs were opened as Jesus died (Matt 27:51–53). Rather than figments of legend, symbolic, fictitious images that show a god has died, these risen reminders of Jesus’ resurrection circulated for years as a living testimony to the One who conquered death. Between the years AD 123/4 to 129, when the Emperor Hadrian, who had followed Trajan (into whose reign the apostle John had lived), was in Asia Minor,1 the apologist Quadratus wrote a well circulated pamphlet to Hadrian, defending the faith. In it, he wrote:
Our Saviour’s works were always there to see, for they were true—the people who had been cured and those raised from the dead, who had not merely been seen at the moment when they were cured or raised, but were always there to see, not only when the Saviour was among us, but for a long time after His departure; in fact some of them survived right up to my own time.2
No wonder all Jerusalem was astonished (Luke 24:13–24).
And now Jesus had gathered his eleven remaining disciples back to a mountain in Galilee, the faithful, the doubting, the thoroughly confused (Matt 28:16–17), and he gave them their directive. He announced: “Given to me is all authority in heaven and upon earth, go (literally, having gone), therefore, make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name (singular) of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:18–19).3
A. T. Robertson, the great grammarian, points out, “The copulative (connecting) conjunctions [in this construction, that would be “and”] . . . simply present the words or clauses as on a par with each other.”4 This means that the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit are “on a par” or equal to each other. Yet, there are not three names for God, but one “name” (singular), one united name. So, God is not comprised of three separate gods in agreement, but there is one God, with three distinct Persons (or faces, or personalities): all are the one God.
And, at the same time, we see orthodoxy, the theology of God as Triune specified in the passage, so do we also see spelled out clearly orthopraxy, or right practice. We followers of Jesus are told to teach all those to whom we reach out to obey everything Jesus commanded us to do. Our cue is to look at Jesus’ teaching, fleshed out in his example, and contextualize into our lives everything he told us to do.
Finally, our hope of heaven is here. Now Jesus uses what is called a “prompter of attention,”5 so that none of his disciples will miss the next part of his message. “Look!” he says (idou, which is often translated “behold!”), and then he delivers what he wants to say with a phrasing geared for emphasis, literally, “I myself—with you—I am, all the days until the completion of the age.”
This is the gospel in a summary: right doctrine of God, right guidance for living, the hope that encourages, and what to teach the new saints, that is, how to assist God in reconciling the world to Godself by correctly working to bring all under God’s rule.
In support of the orthodox teaching within the Great Commission, several Priscilla Papers issues ago, we introduced “An Evangelical Statement on the Trinity,” affirming once more that, following the doctrine Jesus laid down, as revealed here in the Great Commission, we confess:
We believe that the sole living God who created and rules over all and who is described in the Bible is one Triune God in three coeternal, coequal Persons, each Person being presented as distinct yet equal, not as three separate gods, but one Godhead, sharing equally in honor, glory, worship, power, authority, rule, and rank, such that no Person has eternal primacy over the others.
That statement has now been posted on its own Web site (www.TrinityStatement.com) along with explanations and an opportunity to sign for those who want to stand up with us and support this affirmation.
In the present issue of Priscilla Papers, we take a look at the other side of the Great Commission—the practical component, orthopraxy, the discipling side. Our issue begins with the words of a wise woman (in the spirit of the biblical sense of that title), General (Rtd.) Eva Burrows of The Salvation Army (that is, The Army’s former “chief discipler”), as she offers cofounder Catherine Booth as a role model to follow in ministry. Next, Prof. Amy Davis of Nyack College explores contextualizing rites of passage as a form of discipling girls in the Christian community. Matthew and Christa McKirland of Talbot School of Theology follow with an examination of the use of authority in forming Christian community, asking who should be entrusted with authority and how it should be employed to nurture to maturity the members of the body of Christ. I review Christian novelist Becky Wooley’s searing mystery satire Non-Prophet Murders. Finally, CBE staff member Charity Kroeker, in a most creative manner, puts it all together in a question in her poem about women caught “Between.”
In essence, every sincere Christian on either side of the gender debate wants to please God and implement correctly the teachings of Jesus as they are recorded in the gospels and embedded in the Great Commission. But how do we know which way is right? Jesus announced in John 10:10 that thieves come to steal, kill, and destroy; that is the work of any abuser. When any of us leaders (under any covering or creed) wield our authority in the church not to grow and nurture disciples of Christ, but to aggrandize our own importance, enrich ourselves materially, and sabotage any evangelical competitors who attract the attention of those we consider to be “our” people, we are not discipling but abusing. The steps to verbal abuse (often a means to achieve those ends) and physical abuse (the final objectifying of those we are called to care-take) are small. Jesus, however, assured his followers he had come to serve them, to give them life in abundance, not death in small doses—or large ones, as in the case of cults like Heaven’s Gate or Jim Jones’s People’s Temple, among many others.6
A good rule to go by, then, is this one: Is the discipling method I am employing in my ministry to others actually developing all the gifts of all of those I am serving (both women and men) and helping them grow measurably in all the fruits of the Spirit and the graces of God, or is my present program all about control, stifling their spiritual fruits, gifts, and graces for some theoretical idea about the faith that I am superimposing on those in my care?
The Rastafarians, with whom I have reasoned much about faith and the true message of Christ over the years,7 have created a term for this sort of pernicious manipulation: downpressing. Not one of us who wishes to follow Christ wants to become a downpresser. If we find that is what we are doing in the name of discipleship, we need to repent in the classic sense—turn around—and go the other way to find an approach that uplifts those in our care. Our goal is to model in word and deed wholesome teaching so those we serve can become healthy, godly disciplers who too will uplift those given into their care. After all, our work in the church is a commission from Christ, not an entitled dictatorship for ourselves. The Great Commission is our working orders. And the General who issued it is checking on our and God’s people’s progress constantly. Therefore, may our Lord bless all of us to bring life to those we disciple, as Jesus did—and that in abundance—as the Holy Spirit gives us guidance and strength.
- Quadratus, cited in Eusebius, The History of the Church, trans. G. A. Williamson, rev. Andrew Louth (New York, NY: Penguin, 1989), 411.
- Quadratus, cited in Eusebius, The History of the Church, 106 (4.3).
- All translations by the author.
- A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1934), 1178.
- Walter Bauer, Frederick William Danker, William F. Arndt, “idou,” A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG), 3rd ed. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 468.
- See Ted Daniels, ed., A Doomsday Reader (New York, NY: New York University, 1999) for the lethal techniques of mind control and subordination by cult leaders.
- See my book on the place of Jesus in Rastafarian reasonings, teachings, writings, and song lyrics in Dread Jesus, now available in the United States in a new printing from Wipf and Stock (as well as in the British edition from SPCK), and the general book on Rastafari: Chanting Down Babylon: The Rastafari Reader, which I co-edited with Professors Nathaniel Samuel Murrell and Adrian Anthony McFarlane (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University, 1998).