The Great Commission: A Theological Basis

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There is no gainsaying that the Great Commission is one of the most-used phrases within global Christianity today. It has been the slogan that has powered some of the greatest evangelistic initiatives of modern times. Its closest association is with Matthew 28:18–20, and the expression is so familiar to the Christian ear, that it sounds like a phrase straight out of Scripture. It isn’t. What’s more, the popular use of ‘the Great Commission’ is no older than a hundred and fifty years. How then did it gain such currency?

It was Hudson Taylor (1832–1905), who first brought this to the frontlines of mission-speak. He had apparently borrowed it from the writings of a Dutch missionary, Justinian von Welz (1621–1688), who had used it as a title for Matthew 28:18–20. For 1600 years until von Welz, or thereabouts, this Matthean text had primarily served a broader purpose: ‘as the trinitarian foundation of ecclesiology, not as fanfare for missiology’.1 This historical note is significant because the contemporary application of the climax of Matthew may inadvertently undermine the Christological and ecclesiological emphases of his account that provide the necessary context for Christian mission.2 

The effective employment of the parting words of Jesus in Matthew (and Mark) as a biblical basis for world evangelisation, however, preceded Hudson Taylor. These words had given impetus to William Carey’s impassioned plea in 1792, which marked the turning point in modern missions.3 He wrote:

Our Lord Jesus Christ, a little before his departure, commissioned his apostles to Go, and teach all nations; or, as another evangelist expresses it, Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. This commission was as extensive as possible, and laid them under obligation to disperse themselves into every country in the habitable globe, and preach to all the inhabitants, without exception, or limitation.4

Consequently, with the renewed thrust towards missions in Asia and Africa during the heyday of the British Empire, the final words of Jesus to his apostles in the Gospels and Acts received fresh attention. Within these pericopes—which narrated Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances—were found scattered references specifying what the apostles were expected to do following Jesus’s departure. Most importantly they pointed to the international, global scope of their missionary undertaking, which resonated well with the existing world of European imperialism. As a result, these texts vied for attention as the ideal scriptural basis for motivating local churches to renew their commitment to cross-cultural mission and world evangelisation.

Furthermore, following World War II, the United States changed her foreign policy to engage more proactively with the nations of the world. This led US-based Christian mission agencies also to look outwards and to commit vast resources towards Great Commission work: the evangelisation of the unreached nations of the world.

Roots of the Great Commission

Broadly speaking, the Great Commission refers to the mandate that the Lord Jesus entrusted to the church through his apostles, to be operational in the period between his ascension and return. From a scriptural perspective though, rather than being an inaugural call, Matthew 28:18–20 may be viewed as the climax to a summons issued by God in the Old Testament, which dates back to the call of Abraham (Genesis 12:1–3). It is God calling a people to himself in order to make himself known to all humanity.5 This theme then continues to unfold in Scripture. There is hardly a discernible reading of any book of the OT that doesn’t point to the ‘Great Commission’ theme directly or indirectly.

The most striking feature of God’s mission mandate for Israel in the Old Testament is the great love God extended to nations beyond the Jewish people. We may see this in the promise that ‘all the families of the earth will be blessed’ on account of Abraham (Genesis 12:1–3) or in Isaiah’s prophetic vision of a day when the gentile nations will stream to Zion to be instructed in the ways of Yahweh (Isaiah 2:1–4). God’s commissioning of Jonah to go to pagan Nineveh (Jonah 1:2) powerfully illustrates this overarching Old Testament ideal of the mission of God through Israel.

The New Testament Basis for the Great Commission

The most famous Great Commission texts have been taken from a collection of the direct farewell instructions from Jesus to his eleven apostles. In addition to the primary reference, Matthew 28:18–20, the following are usually included: Mark 16:15, Luke 24:46–49, and Acts 1:8.6 Taken together these texts share a number of common threads.

First, they are spoken in the context of Jesus’s highly-charged post-resurrection appearances to his disciples. In the early church, such narratives and their content would have acquired great significance as the final words of their victorious leader. Second, in every such instance, Jesus specifies the responsibilities that the apostles were to undertake: ‘make disciples’ by ‘baptizing’ and ‘teaching’ (Matthew), ‘proclaim the gospel’ (Mark), and ‘be witnesses’ (Luke and Acts). In the unfolding story of the church—as can be ascertained from Acts and the epistles of the New Testament—we see how these very activities took centre-stage: evangelisation through witness, proclamation and demonstrations of power, incorporation into the church through baptism, and maturation in discipleship through teaching. Third, each of them pointed to an international, global audience: ‘all nations’ (Matthew, Luke), ‘all creation’ (Mark), and ‘the ends of the earth’ (Acts).

Due to these features, these chosen texts provided the ideal grist for the mill of cross-cultural mission-motivation and offered a revised paradigm for world mission from the late nineteenth century onwards. Christians were urgently called to travel to previously unevangelised regions of the world and to win people to faith through personal witness and public proclamation.

In retrospect, it is clear that the explicit requirements of the selected Great Commission texts had significantly nuanced the theology and praxis of the missionary enterprise. The emphasis on responding to social needs and working toward societal transformation—which had previously been considered an irreducible minimum in Christian mission—was increasingly marginalized and often dropped altogether. Such a separation of the societal dimension from the proclamation dimension of evangelisation would create enormous tensions within global Christianity and push the church inexorably towards some resolution of that tension. The later recognition and appropriation of the ‘Great Commission’ in John’s Gospel (20:19-23), enabled the church to do just that.

Matthew 28:18–20: Authority, Scope, and Purpose of the Great Commission

The Matthean Great Commission brilliantly summarises the concerns of the entire Gospel of Matthew7 and is widely regarded as the fountainhead for understanding what Jesus expects of his church in the period between his ascension and return.

The Great Commission was issued as a directive to follow, a command to obey, and a decree to execute. It was a mandate with unparalleled legitimacy. In Steve Hawthorne’s words, ‘Never has there been such power in the hands of any person. He will never be surpassed. He will never surrender His kingship. He will never stop until He has finished the fulness of the Father’s purpose.’8

In other words, the Great Commission is more than just a personal or political statement. It’s a statement that announces the supremacy and universal Lordship of Jesus Christ. It is because of who Jesus is that we must call all people to faith in him and no other—to leave other allegiances, religions, false gods, and contradictory ideologies to follow him alone.

The Great Commission comes directly from the resurrected Lord, the head of all principalities and the possessor of all things. This communicates the weight of the commission and the debt we owe in its pursuit. We can’t call him Lord and take his word for granted. The Matthean formulation is striking in its emphasis on comprehensiveness marked by the term ‘all’:

1. All authority: Jesus assures his disciples of his all-encompassing authority: ‘All authority in heaven and on earth is given to me.’ He has the right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience. This authority is legitimate because it has been ‘given’ to him, not stolen or snatched (Philippians 2:9–11). Moreover, it is not an authority limited to this world, but one which applies equally in both the terrestrial and celestial realms. The commissioner is not struggling to be in charge, ‘For the Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son . . . And he has given him authority to execute judgment because he is the Son of Man’ (John 5:22, 27).

That the Great Commission is premised on this authority says a lot about the intent of God in getting the work done. With this authority, not only are we sure that we will be delivered from harm, but we are confident that when it matters most, we will not be let down, since the Father has put ‘everything in subjection under his feet’ (Hebrews 2:8).

2. All the nations: When Jesus said, ‘go . . . make disciples of all nations’, he established the unlimited scope of the Great Commission. But we must pay particular attention to the call not just to go and proclaim, but to ‘make disciples of the nations’ (bring people from all people groups to a true followership of the Messiah). It is not among a few carefully selected groups of people, but to all. This extensive scope of the commission suggests that in every generation, Christ’s followers must seek to influence all to consider the valid claim of Jesus as Lord.

The call is to establish Christ-loving, sin-hating, God-honouring communities of worshippers from generation to generation and from nation to nation. It demands a measurable effort to harvest the obedience of those reached. The Great Commission’s fulfilment is not measured by the distances travelled as much as by the quality of the followership of those who were brought in and nurtured to give allegiance to Christ in their daily living.

3. All the commands: Those Christ sends must teach all his commands. The Great Commission forbids a selective attitude to Christ’s demands on all who follow him. We cannot pick and choose or add what we like. His instruction is to teach ‘all that I have commanded you’.

4. All the way: The way Jesus wrapped up the commission implies the continuity of his presence no matter the circumstance or the clime in which the Great Commission is carried out. He promised to be with his followers always, even till the end of the age. That end may mean the end of time or the end of the inhabited world, notwithstanding the danger, perils, and trials. 

This phrase ‘I am with you always, even to the end of the age’ is comforting, no matter what assails us as we go to the uttermost parts of the world. With this statement comes the certainty, the prestige, and the power of his all-time presence.

Making Disciples as the Definitive Purpose 

‘Make disciples’ is the core of Jesus’s command in Matthew 28:19. In the Greek, the imperative form of this rare verb—mathēteuō—is uniquely used.9 ‘Baptizing’ and ‘teaching’ occur in participial form and are subordinate to the main command to make disciples.10 The Great Commission’s discipleship assignment is both global and instructively cross-cultural. In the Great Commission, we see the dimension of God’s passion for all peoples, tongues, tribes, and languages of the world. Jesus here uses the phrase ‘make disciples of all nations’ (ethnos). This goes beyond the generalisation of geo-political states to what has been termed ‘people groups’,11 of which there are an estimated 17,453 in the world today.12 

With thousands of missionaries fanning out across the globe under the auspices of numerous mission societies, the evangelisation of the two-thirds world has reached unprecedented levels of accomplishment. Christian communities that had been planted in Asia, Africa, and Latin America in the nineteenth century were watered by mass evangelistic initiatives of Western evangelical organizations in the twentieth. Simultaneously, unprecedented numbers of indigenous mission-movements throughout the Global South intensified efforts at witnessing to Christ in ways that were contextually effective.

The result has been exponential church growth leading to the surprising realization by the turn of the twenty-first century that the face of Christianity was no longer stereotypically white. The image of Christianity in the world was more likely to be black African, Latin American, or East Asian.13 Philip Jenkins projected in 2002 that of 2.6 billion Christians estimated for 2025, ‘633 million would live in Africa, 640 million in Latin America, and 460 million in Asia. Europe, with 555 million, would have slipped to third place’.14

Timothy Tennent points to the unprecedented 5,000 percent growth of independent indigenous Christian movements in the Global South ‘from only eight million at the turn of the twentieth century to 423 million by the close of the century’.15

Never since the early centuries has Christianity grown so rapidly in previously un-evangelised societies in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The most-recent stories of church growth in Asia for example—in places such as China, Iran, and Nepal—are nothing short of miraculous, because the gospel has thrived in predominantly communist, Islamic, and Hindu contexts where sustained antipathy and hostility have been most vocal and active.

Yet, unlike the apostolic and post-apostolic periods, the modern church’s commitment to witness has not been accompanied by a concomitant commitment to disciple-making. As a result, we are forced to concede that today, global Christian spirituality is at risk of becoming ‘a mile long and an inch deep’. In the evangelical church’s enthusiasm to contend with liberal theology and assert the uniqueness of Christ and the necessity for evangelistic proclamation, did she fail to prepare adequately for the harvest of new believers that would emerge following the faithful witness of vibrant church communities?

John 20:19–23: A Paradigm for the Great Commission

We noted above how the explicit emphasis on verbal witness and proclamation that characterized the selected Great Commission texts appeared to invalidate the longstanding Christian tradition of charity and social action as missional imperatives of the church. This tension has since led to the unfortunate dichotomization of ‘evangelism’ from ‘social action’ and has dogged missionary initiatives for much of the twentieth century.16

It was in such a context that another ‘Great Commission’ text gained prominence (John 20:19–23). Termed the Johannine Great Commission, the incorporation of this text within the cluster of the Great Commission passages has played a major role in shaping our theology of the Great Commission.

John Stott is rightfully recognised for skillfully demonstrating its validity and contribution to a biblical understanding of the Great Commission.17 Although this too belonged to the records of Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances and instructions, its evident vagueness in terms of specific responsibilities had precluded its inclusion as a Great Commission text (‘As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.’ John 20:21).18

Unlike the instructions given in the Synoptics and Acts, the Great Commission in John is conspicuous in its silence about specific tasks that the believers are expected to perform, such as to ‘proclaim’, or to ‘witness’. It also shows no interest in detailing the specific contexts in which the church should conduct her commission, such as ‘all nations’, ‘all creation’, or ‘the ends of the earth’.

How then does John contribute to the church’s understanding of her mandate from Jesus Christ? As we shall see, this unique formulation in John’s gospel significantly broadens the scope of Christian engagement in the world. Rather than setting an agenda for the apostles following Jesus’s ascension, the Johannine Great Commission (20:21) presents a paradigm that they are to operate out of.

So, instead of specifying the tasks and activities that would accompany Christian mission or the places in which it would be conducted, the uniqueness of the Great Commission in John is that there Jesus tells his disciples how to think about what they are to do and where they are to do it.

Incarnation as the Posture of the Agents of the Great Commission

What did Jesus mean when he said, ‘As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you’ (John 20:21)? We can never understand how we are sent if we have failed to appreciate how the Father sent the Son. How indeed then did the Father send his beloved Son?

In response to this question, we are immediately drawn back to John’s prologue and to its defining declaration of the Son and his mission: ‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth’ (1:14 ESV). Here we find that the fundamental posture of the divine Son was incarnational, expressed by two outstanding terms—‘became flesh’ and ‘dwelt’.

With regard to the former, John deliberately uses the Greek term sarx (flesh), which bore the connotations of corporeality, physical limitations, mortality, and passions. Within the Greek worldview of the time, sarx was considered antithetical to that which is spiritual and noble. John could have used other words to describe the incarnation of the divine Son, such as anthrōpos (human) or sōma (body). But his radical use of sarx underscores his intention to establish that Jesus became utterly human when he was ‘sent’ to do the Father’s mission. He would identify completely with his human creatures as ‘flesh’ himself.

The second term—‘dwelt’—is a translation of the unique verb eskēnōsen, which John coined for the purpose of his incarnational Christology. Using the noun skēnos (tent), and alluding to the Old Testament tabernacle in Israel, John creates the unique verb ‘he tabernacled’ to powerfully convey how the mission of Jesus demanded a settled presence in the world, by which the glory (1:14) and grace (1:17) of a holy God would be mediated to a rebellious humanity.

Such an understanding of Jesus’s mission forces us to set the notion of the Great Commission within the broader frame of the whole of Jesus’s person and work, as recorded in the gospels. No longer can the mission imperative to the church be limited to merely the selected texts from the Synoptics and Acts. While the latter may provide a sharp focus to the church’s calling to be verbal witnesses to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Johannine text challenges and directs us to embrace the consonant paradigm and broader demands of that calling.

When we take a fuller understanding of Jesus’s life and ministry into account for expressing the Great Commission, we note how the Lord seamlessly wove public proclamation, acts of compassion, demonstrations of power, and meaningful presence into his sustained witness to the in-breaking of the kingdom of God.

In the same way, we would argue that evangelistic witness to the gospel of Jesus as Saviour and Lord is most effectively accomplished through the integration of the church’s proclamation, praxis, and presence in the world. It is to such an integration of missional priorities that the church must aspire, as she renews her commitment to the Great Commission.


People with a kingdom mindset are known to take the Great Commission seriously in their everyday life. They carry the message of the kingdom—God’s victory over sin and Satan—with daring convictions. They pursue the mission of the kingdom and world evangelisation of all peoples till Christ’s name is known and honoured worldwide. This critical kingdom value drives them.

If we are the beneficiaries of God’s good news in Jesus, we receive power to become disciples—students and followers—of Jesus our master. The Holy Spirit gives us the power to be witnesses. And if we are truly learning from him, what we’re learning is too good to keep to ourselves. We will be led to share it. That is the nature of the Christian faith and the direction of the Holy Spirit, who is always leading us to testify about Jesus and glorify him (John 15:26 and 16:14).

There are hundreds of thousands of church congregations with hundreds of millions of followers of Jesus Christ. But to successfully execute the Great Commission, we need a fitting church with Great Commission hearts and minds. We must raise a community of believers united in purpose and pursuit, seeking to carry out Jesus’s command to the letter. We need church leaders who understand the very heart of the Great Commission.

The Great Commission is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end. The future is the presence of all tribes, tongues, nations, and languages worshipping the King at the end of the age. In the words of John Piper: ‘The end is not missions. Worship is. Mission is only a means to an end. Missions exists because worship does not.’19 To put it another way, when the Great Commission is carried out with biblical faithfulness, it will lead to the worship of the King from all the nations of the world.


  1. Robbie F Castleman. ‘The Last Word: The Great Commission: Ecclesiology’ Themelios 32, issue 3 (2007), 68.
  2. ‘It is inadmissible to lift these words out of Matthew’s gospel, as it were, allow them a life of their own, and understand them without any reference to the context in which they first appeared.’ David Bosch. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (New York: Orbis, 1991), 57.
  3. See Timothy Tennent, Invitation to World Missions (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2010), 258-264.
  4. William Carey, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1792), 7.
  5. ‘The Church from all nations stands in continuity through the Messiah Jesus with God’s people in the Old Testament. With them we have been called through Abraham and commissioned to be a blessing and a light to the nations.’ An excerpt from The Cape Town Commitment in J Cameron ed. The Lausanne Legacy (Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 2016), 124.
  6. If we follow the logic that has undergirded the identification of these ‘Great-Commission’ passages—direct, parting instructions by Jesus to his apostles in terms of their specified responsibilities—one other similar but neglected text demands our attention: Acts 26:15–18. It is the account of the great commissioning of Paul by the risen Christ. The fact that the Book of Acts alludes to Paul being in effect the twelfth apostle—although in his words, ‘as one abnormally born’ (1 Cor 15:8) —makes his unique commissioning and the scope of his calling as ‘the Apostle to the Gentiles’ (Gal 2:8) of great import in determining our Lord’s intention for the church’s mission. It would seem that the potential of these references must also be taken into account in developing the New Testament basis for contemporary world mission.
  7. ‘Matthew has, as if in a burning glass, focused everything that was dear to him in these words and put them as the crowning culmination at the end of his gospel.’ Gerhard Friedrich cited in Bosch, Transforming Mission, 57.
  8. Ralph D Winter and Steve Hawthorne ed. Perspectives on the World Christian Movement–A Reader (Pasadena: William Carey, 2009), 99–101.
  9. Of only four occurrences of mathēteuō, three are in Matthew (13:52, 27:57, 28:19; Acts 14:21). 
  10. ‘Encompassing all these efforts is discipling. Not only does it involve the other components of ministry – sending, going, preaching, witnessing, baptizing, teaching, and receiving the Spirit – but it directs every activity to the desired end, namely, to “make disciples” of Christ – men and women who not only believe the gospel but also continue to follow the way of Jesus.’ Robert E Coleman. The Great Commission Lifestyle (Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, 1992), 19–20.
  11. Coleman, Great Commission Lifestyle, 20: ‘The words do not refer to geographic boundaries, but rather to all peoples of the earth.’
  12. ‘Global Summary.’ The Joshua Project. Accessed 29 September 2023.
  13. Philip Jenkins. The Next Christendom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 2: ‘[T]he stereotype holds that Christians are un-Black, un-poor, and un-young. If that is true, then the growing secularization of the West can only mean that Christianity is in its dying days. Globally, the faith of the future must be Islam. Over the past century, however, the center of gravity in the Christian world has shifted inexorably southward, to Africa, Asia and Latin America.’
  14. Jenkins, Next Christendom, 3.
  15. Timothy C Tennent. ‘Lausanne and Global Evangelicalism: Theological Distinctives and Missiological Impact’ in Margunn Serigstad Dahle, Lars Dahle, Knud Jorgensen eds. The Lausanne Movement: A Range of Perspectives (Oxford: Regnum, 2014), 58.
  16. ‘The relationship between the evangelistic and the societal dimensions of the Christian mission constitutes one of the thorniest areas in the theology and practice of mission.’ Bosch, Transforming Mission, 401.
  17. ‘The “Great Commission” in John has not been generally perceived by either missiologists or evangelists. In recent times, we owe it to John R. W. Stott, “the architect of the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization” (1974), the open recognition of a Johannine version of the last commission.’ Mortimer Arias and Alan Johnson. The Great Commission–Biblical Models for Evangelism (Nashville: Abingdon, 1992), 79.
  18. ‘[John Stott] confessed that he had missed it because he had concentrated on the verbal proclamation of the “three other major versions of the Great Commission” (in the Synoptic Gospels)’. Arias and Johnson, The Great Commission, 79.
  19. John Piper. Let the Nations Be Glad! The Supremacy of God in Missions (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 17.

Authors' Bios

Victor Nakah

Victor Nakah is an ordained Presbyterian minister and the international director for sub-Saharan Africa with Mission to the World (MTW), the mission sending agency of the Presbyterian Church of America. He holds master’s and PhD degrees from the University of South Africa and Stellenbosch University.

Victor served with Scripture Union and IFES in Zimbabwe before becoming the seminary president of the Theological College of Zimbabwe from 2000-2010. He was chair of the Lausanne Cape Town GlobalLink initiative and was on the drafting committee of The Cape Town Commitment. He has also held leadership roles with Overseas Council International and CURE International.

In addition to his primary ministry responsibilities with MTW, Victor supervises students with the South Africa Theological Seminary (SATS), teaches at the Africa Reformation Theological Seminary (ARTS) in Uganda, and serves on a number of boards including the Child Theology Movement-Africa, Khulasizwe Trust (Zimbabwe), Emmanuel Christian University (South Sudan), Partners in Health Trust (Zimbabwe), and Forgotten Voices International (US).

Victor serves the Lausanne Movement as the co-chair of the Theology Working Group. He is married to Nosizo and they have two daughters.

Ivor Poobalan

Ivor Poobalan has served as the principal at Colombo Theological Seminary (CTS) in Sri Lanka since 1998. CTS is an evangelical, interdenominational, trilingual seminary. Ivor’s first job was as youth pastor for churches in Colombo. He graduated with honours from the London School of Theology (UK) with a BA in theology and from Trinity International University (Illinois, US) with a ThM in Old Testament and semitic languages. In 2015 he was conferred a PhD by the University of Cape Town for his dissertation titled ‘Who is “The God of This Age” in 2 Corinthians 4:4?’

Ivor serves the Lausanne Movement as the co-chair of the Theology Working Group. He is married to Denisa and they are parents to daughters Anisha Eng and Serena.