"Then Jesus came to them and said, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.'” (Matthew 28:18-20)
The final task Jesus gave the first disciples remains central to our Christian calling today. We call it the Great Commission. Why “great?” Because it was given highest priority, making it the most important among all of Jesus’ commandments. It is accented with the word “therefore;” and stands out for its ultimate, global, and metahistorical scale, extending to “all nations” and “to the very end of the age.”
This is all clear and, more or less, undisputed. But I want to add another dimension which makes this commission “great.” Jesus’ words need to be understood in the context of all of biblical history as a summation of our calling. In His final words, Jesus included the word “everything,” referring to all that He had commanded earlier and all that we can learn from the Old Testament and previous history.
As I share my thoughts on the Great Commission, I would like to map out an expanded and deepened understanding of it, connecting it to other biblical commandments. Without this connection, we risk allowing great omissions in our fulfillment of the Great Commission.
In his excellent book, The Great Omission, Dallas Willard notes that, sadly modern Christians can’t teach the world much, evidenced by the fact that they are in no hurry to learn what Christ taught us:
“Most problems in contemporary churches can be explained by the fact that members have never decided to follow Christ. For at least several decades the churches have not made discipleship a condition of being a Christian. One is not required to be, or to intend to be, a disciple in order to become a Christian, and one may remain a Christian without any signs of progress toward or in discipleship. The greatest issue facing the world today, with all its heartbreaking needs, is whether those who, by profession or culture, are identified as ‘Christians’ will become disciples—students, apprentices, practitioners—of Jesus Christ, steadily learning from him how to live the life of the Kingdom of the Heavens into every corner of human existence.”
The Great Commission is a brief expression of the holistic mission of God Himself. We are merely partners and collaborators in what He is doing in the world. This means that before acting, we need to understand His plan and our place in it.
Unfortunately, we often move ahead of God with our naive plans of salvation for the world. Often, we do things He did not command, while failing to do the things He did command. We teach things about Him that He did not reveal to us and teach others to obey that which we do not obey ourselves, which God does not want at all.
If we want to go, teach, and baptize the nations, then we first need to understand the fullness of what has been revealed and entrusted to us. Before we teach others, let alone other nations, we need to learn ourselves to understand and obey that which He has commanded us.
The Great Commission needs to be understood in the context of the entire biblical history of salvation, and in connection with other commandments. What do other texts tell us? How can they help us better and more fully understand the Great Commission? I want to remind you of just a few of them, which have gained new meaning as I have grown spiritually, and have enriched my understanding of the Great Commission.
First, we must remember the first commandment God gave humankind: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28).
We have almost forgotten this commandment, but God has not revoked it. It is not a coincidence that the Great Commission sounds like a continuation of this first commandment. We are called to reach the whole earth and all nations with our mission, multiplying disciples and filling the earth with the knowledge of God revealed in Jesus Christ, pointing to God’s ultimate authority, and acting in the power of the Holy Spirit. Both commandments have a global magnitude. They complement each other—different expressions of our same calling to care for our created, fallen, and redeemed world.
We are not likely to be able to care for the nations if we don’t care for God’s creation. We are not just talking about the environment. How can we love God if we don’t love His creation, if we can’t exclaim with the Creator, “It is good!,” if we can’t see God’s wonderful plan in creation and God’s indelible image in people?
This world is fallen, but it is still God’s world. We must see it as the world that Jesus died to redeem and as a place which will be renewed. This vision gives us motivation and strength to fulfill our mission in all spheres of life.
On the other hand, our dualistic perception of the world deceives us. We think that the world around the church is dark and hopeless and that the church is a last refuge, a tower under siege. My mother always said, “Be careful not to take even a single step into enemy territory.” With four kids of my own, I now understand her words much better than back then. However, we are not surrounded by enemy territory but by God’s world. And we are called to represent the power, truth, and values of our God—not just in the church but outside it as well. We are called not so much to protect our faith and defend the walls of our church as to go and teach. In other words, to spread our faith, share it, and make it known and influential.
That is why I appreciate the name of one of our ministries, School Without Walls. I also love churches with the same vision—Church Without Walls. Ten years ago we started another interesting ministry, Mission in Profession, through which we train the Next Generation of young Christian leaders in Eurasia to live out the Kingdom of God in the workplace, in professional societies, in the world of business, healthcare, education, law, and media. Today we are teaching young Christian professionals, those busy with “secular” jobs, personal development, everyday routines, unlimited consumption, and cheap entertainment, to find themselves in God’s mission and serve Him from within their everyday circumstances. This is a big challenge to Christian mission. We must remind the church about the first commandment, where God commanded us to care for His world and be worthy representatives of Him in all spheres of life.
Second, we must remember God’s commandments given through Moses. Usually we remember prohibitions. Jesus reminded us that the greatest commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.” (Matthew 22:37-38). All other commandments exist to help us fulfill this one—to fully love the Lord God, and worship and serve only Him. This Great Commandment precedes the Great Commission. Only when we fully belong to God do we find the strength to teach and influence others. We can teach all nations when, and only when, we ourselves love our Lord, and not simply having knowledge about Him from others’ testimonies or ancient books.
We can only survive the pressure of hostile surroundings and stay strong in our faith when we achieve an inner harmony between reason and feelings, deep conviction and rational clarity in God’s love. Only then can we pass the baton of faith on to our children, when we know the joy of knowing and loving God more than anything. Only then can we calmly and confidently challenge the culture of unbelief and faithlessness, slavery and fear, the way that Joshua did: “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve... But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).
God should be in first place. That is the only way to correctly align our lives and priorities in ministry. Only when we love Him and fill ourselves with His love do we gain the strength to love our neighbors, and even more, do we begin to see that our neighbors are created in God’s image. We demonstrate our love for God and serve Him by loving our neighbor and caring for others. If we love the Creator, then we must love His creation. If we love God, then we must love those who are made in His image. The second commandment is a continuation of the first: “And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:39-40).
Usually it is difficult for us to keep these two commandments together. Sometimes we are so taken up with our love for God that we don’t notice our neighbor. Such love is actually just a form of selfishness. The other extreme is when we get so caught up in social justice and compassion for others that we forget that God must be in the center of everything, and that without Him we can’t help others.
I remember when we started a network of non-profit bakeries in the war zone in eastern Ukraine. We wanted people to see the bread as something more—hope for peace, God’s love, and the care of Christians. That is why we called these bakeries “Bread of Life,” because each piece of bread reminded people that God is the Bread of Life.
God should always be at the center of our good deeds. We cannot forget that these two commandments are united, two-in-one. And we also can’t forget their order: God is in first place and our neighbor in second, then me and my own desires are in last place.
Third, we should refer more frequently to the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus reveals the nature of His Kingdom and the calling of messengers of His Kingdom.
The poor in spirit, those who weep, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure of heart, peacemakers, those persecuted for righteousness, and persecuted for Christ are all called blessed, because their seeming weakness turns out to be a strength and an advantage. It is just such people, those “not of this world,” who serve this world as an absolutely essential, saving, good power. They are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. These “strange” people testify by their lives much better than the most competent Pharisees and the most upright teachers of the Law. Consider how Christ called us to serve: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Jesus was encouraging discipleship as a way of life, not a special activity. Greatest is the one who “makes and teaches,” who lives what he teaches, who lives out the Kingdom of God in his own life, who makes his life the territory and sign of the Kingdom. We must not forget that being is much more important than doing.
Fourth, we must remember the love commandment and its connection with a successful pursuit of our mission. God is love, and He is made visible when people notice and feel His love among us, His disciples. Without that, no missions strategies will work. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). We can teach the nations the advantages of our Christian civilization and culture, with our spiritual traditions and sound theology, but without love no one will listen to us. I am afraid to say this, because it applies to me too, but I think that we are trying to compensate for a lack of love with an abundance of activity. We don’t know how to love and don’t want to learn, therefore we try to mask the emptiness with impressive good deeds. We are eager to teach people and whole nations without loving them. I don’t think anyone needs that. The Apostle Paul was very clear on this: “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (I Corinthians 13:3).
I frequently remember the words of Christ: “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Matthew 16:26). I ask myself these questions: what is the use of global missions projects if those closest to us see little of our love, or rather, Christ’s love in us? What good is it to me to teach nations at the ends of the earth if I lose my wife or children? I grew up in a Christian family, and I am grateful to God for that. But I saw many tragic situations where parents were so consumed by missions to the very ends of the earth that they lost sight of their own home and lost those closest to them. I lost many friends and family to alcohol or drugs, dangerous experiments and distractions, to pursuit of money or success. I myself was almost lost. Since then I am increasingly convinced that our mission field begins with the family. Not everyone is called to the ends of the earth to teach entire nations, but each of us must answer for our families and our inner circle.
The family and the church are the first two circles in which we can practice our love for neighbors as a testimony to the world. Love between Christians is the best sermon to the world, a sermon without words. People observe how we share, care, get along, and reconcile. They also observe how we treat brothers and sisters who have gone astray, lost their faith, and been disappointed in the church. While we must try to share God with those who do not yet know Him, we must not forget those who do know Him but live without Him; those who were with us but then were lost.
Fifth, we should remember the special role played by the church in witnessing to all nations. The Apostle Paul expressed it this way: “to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ephesians 3:8-11).
If in the past God revealed Himself through prophets to Israel, and through Israel to the world, then now He mainly speaks through the church as He builds His Kingdom. Are we prepared and capable of “preaching to the Gentiles,” that is, to people and groups far from God, in order that they may discover the “unsearchable riches of Christ” and the “plan of the mystery”? Are we prepared to share our home and our possessions? Are we prepared to acknowledge that Christ is not just ours, but His Kingdom has room for all people and all nations? To what extent do we ourselves understand and accept the riches of Christ? How willing are we to share them? How much can our church be Christ-like (i.e., rich, generous, open to all nations, races, cultures, and political leanings)? Is it not a sad fact of Christian history that the church is more often divided than united? How can we change this? How can we create a room for other people to help them recognize the “riches of Christ” in the church and become part of the family of God, a new chosen nation of God’s Kingdom? We must not forget the nature of God’s Kingdom, which encompasses all nations, from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.
Here is a very personal story: I love beautiful countries where there are things to see and good food to eat. I especially love the country of Georgia, a nation with majestic mountains, ancient churches, and incredible cuisine. As I was enjoying fellowship with some Georgian brothers and praising their nature and cuisine, I noticed out of the corner of my eye the sad expression on the face of my friend from Armenia. Fighting tears, he whispered, “Brother Michael, our country is just as wonderful, don’t forget about us.” I will never forget that moment, just as I could never forget Armenia with its deep and tragic history, it’s melancholy yet beautiful music and equally delicious food. Praise God, I don’t need to choose. I can love both of those countries, and appreciate what is special and unique to each of them.
But now I’m thinking of nations which have lost their sovereignty, their freedom, and their national dignity, who are scattered and persecuted, rejected and forgotten. I am thinking of the dark corners of the world where it is difficult to love, which scare us and robs us of our peace. I remember when I was asked why I traveled to an unfriendly country when there were so many other interesting places I could go. But can we really choose? Are we not called to go to where it is dark so that these words could be fulfilled? “The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light” (Matthew 4:16).
The church has a special role in inviting all people and all nations into God’s richly diverse yet peaceful Kingdom. Let’s not forget that we are called to serve everyone, but first and foremost the neediest, poorest, and weakest.
What do we see in the Great Commission if we examine it in the context of all Biblical revelation? We see a continuation of familiar principles introduced to us through previous commandments, but also a new expression of our responsibility in the greater mission of God. It is connected with the other commandments by the familiar principle, “These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23). Remembering the last commandment, we learn to understand our mission more holistically and on a larger scale. We see ourselves as part of a continuing story, which belongs to God and is written by Him. It is His-story, the history of His world, the history of His mission in the world. We are invited to be living, active participants, to learn from Him in order to go and teach others about Him.
We are given these commandments not just for our own personal salvation, so that everything ends well and we can be assured that we will go to heaven when we die. We must teach others to be obedient and faithful in fulfilling God’s will, fully obeying all of His Word.
Jesus’ authority extends across heaven and earth, covering all spheres of creation and human life. Salvation is not just individual but collective, and it includes entire communities and nations.
We can be confident that God is present in the world and continues His work of salvation. He will be with us till the end of time as Lord and King. Therefore, we should not take on more responsibility than we are given by God. We are not the saviors of the world. We simply fulfill His assignments, acting according to His commandments and His authority. We want His presence to be with us to the end of the age, to be visible to all people and nations. We want to treat each of His commandments as great or as part of the Great Commission. We want His name to be praised and lifted up in His church and among the nations by the way we honor all that He has commanded us.
As we fulfill the Great Commission, let’s remember the first commandment—to care for creation and be good stewards of God’s world in all spheres of life. Let’s remember his Great Commandment, putting God in first place and our neighbor in second. Let’s remember the nature of God’s Kingdom and our calling to be salt and light. Let’s remember that our love for one another is our main testimony to the world, and that the church is the beginning of God’s Kingdom for all people and nations. Then the Great Commission will not just be an unfeasible task for lazy, weak, delicate, and forgetful disciples, but a great, saving power, working in us and through us as witnesses and ministers of the Good News.
Dr. Michael Cherenkov, Executive Field Director
and Mission Eurasia Field Ministries Leadership Team