In Dallas Willard’s book, The Great Omission, he makes this statement:
But in place of Christ’s plan, historical drift has substituted “Make converts (to a particular ‘faith and practice’) and baptize them into church membership.” This causes two great omissions from the Great Commission to stand out. Most important, we start by omitting the making of disciples and enrolling people as Christ’s students, when we should let all else wait for that. Then we also omit, of necessity, the step of taking our converts through training that will bring them ever-increasingly to do what Jesus directed. Willard, Dallas. The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s Essential Teachings on Discipleship (pp. 5-6). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
That sounds bad. It falls right in line with this series on becoming a “grown-again Christian”. The main point of this series is to show how to move beyond being born-again – being baptized – and becoming more Christ-like. Grown-again.
Notice, the quote begins with the word “but”. That means something important came just before the quote I started with. Actually, there are two important thoughts before this paragraph. One is what Dallas Willard calls “The Great Disparity”. The other is “The Great Omission”.
The Great Disparity
Let’s begin with The Great Disparity
We’ll find out in a moment what the Great Disparity is. You probably want to know that first. Right now. But let’s stay with the order in which it’s presented in the book.
Transformation into goodness is what the “Good News” is all about…isn’t it?
Of course it is. But do we really understand what the transformation is? Here’s the only time the word transform actually appears in the NIV translation. It’s used by Paul.
Pressing on Toward the Goal
Phil 3:12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
This is part of Paul’s letter to the Philippian church. Because of the part where Paul says, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus, I think it’s important to look at a timeline of Paul’s life – from Christianity Today. As you read it, keep in mind that Paul is still working to “win the prize“, as he uses a sports description.
The Apostle Paul’s Birth & Education
c. A.D. 6 Born a Roman citizen to Jewish parents in Tarsus (in modern eastern Turkey)
c. 20–30 Studies Torah in Jerusalem with Gamaliel; becomes a Pharisee
c. 30–33 Persecutes followers of Jesus of Nazareth in Jerusalem and Judea
c. 33–36 Converted on the way to Damascus; spends three years in Arabia; returns to Damascus to preach Jesus as Messiah
c. 36 Flees Damascus because of persecution; visits Jerusalem and meets with the apostles
36–44 Preaches in Tarsus and surrounding region
44–46 Invited by Barnabas to teach in Antioch
46 With Barnabas visits Jerusalem to bring a famine relief offering
47–48 First missionary journey with Barnabas, to Cyprus and Galatia
49 At the Council of Jerusalem, Paul argues successfully that Gentile Christians need not follow Jewish law; returns to Antioch; confronts Peter over question of Jewish law
49–52 Second missionary journey with Silas, through Asia Minor and Greece; settles in Corinth; writes letters to Thessalonians
52 Visits Jerusalem and Antioch briefly; begins third missionary journey
52–55 Stays in Ephesus; writes the letters to Galatians and Corinthians
55–57 Travels through Greece and possibly Illyricum (modern Yugoslavia); writes letter to Romans
Paul’s Arrest & Death
57–59 Returns to Jerusalem and arrested; imprisoned at Caesarea
59–60 Appears before Festus and appeals to Caesar; voyage to Rome
60–62 Under house arrest at Rome; writes letters to Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon
62–64 Released; journeys to Spain?; writes letters to Timothy and Titus
64 Returns to Rome; martyred during perse Janet Meyer Everts is associate professor of religion, Hope College, Holland, Michigan. … Continue reading
So we see Paul is in his 50’s when he wrote this letter – and made the statement that he’s still pressing towards the goal. Not reached it. But pressing towards it. Furthermore, while he’s only been what we would call a Christian for about twenty years, his entire life was spent studying God. This would have to be the case, otherwise he never would have been accepted to study under Gamaliel. And after all that – Paul is still pressing towards the goal.
Phil 3:15 All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. 16 Only let us live up to what we have already attained.
Now, Paul says all who are mature in the faith should also consider themselves as still pressing towards the goal. Again – not as having reached it – but as working towards it. Even after decades as disciples of Jesus. And Paul’s not talking disciple in name only. He’s talking about the kind of disciple we’ll be seeing in the next segment of this series.
Phil 3:17 Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you. 18 For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
Paul points out that we shouldn’t be like others. Our citizenship is in Heaven – even though we’re still here on earth. It may get a bit confusing when Paul uses the word that gets translated as “bodies“. But he’s not talking about our physical bodies. At least not only about that. Here’s a more complete sense of what Paul was saying:
4983 σῶμα [soma /so·mah/] n n. From 4982; TDNT 7:1024; TDNTA 1140; GK 5393; 146 occurrences; AV translates as “body” 144 times, “bodily” once, and “slave” once. 1 the body both of men or animals. 1A a dead body or corpse. 1B the living body. 1B1 of animals. 2 the bodies of planets and of stars (heavenly bodies). 3 is used of a (large or small) number of men closely united into one society, or family as it were; a social, ethical, mystical body. 3A so in the NT of the church. Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.
Obviously, Paul isn’t writing about animals or planets. But he is pointing out that our citizenship in Heaven makes us closely united into one society, or family as it were; a social, ethical, mystical body. [as] in the NT of the church.
Phil 4:1 Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!
Paul closes the thought with something he often says – stand firm. Press onward. Don’t go backwards. Don’t get off the path. Don’t give up. Persevere. Persist.
And so we have Paul writing all that – while he’s in prison. Nearing the end of His life. But still persevering to do even more for the Kingdom of God.
We just looked at what Paul felt after years of working for God. But what about us today? Dallas Willard continues:
But there is a great deal of disappointment expressed today about the character and the effects of Christian people, about Christian institutions, and—at least by implication—about the Christian faith and understanding of reality. Most of the disappointment comes from Christians themselves, who find that what they profess “just isn’t working”—not for themselves nor, so far as they can see, for those around them. What they have found, at least, does not “exceed all expectations,” as the standard evaluation form says. “Disappointment” books form a subcategory of Christian publishing. Self-flagellation has not disappeared from the Christian repertoire. Willard, Dallas. The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s Essential Teachings on Discipleship . HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
It seems that we must be missing something. There has to be a reason for this disappointment. But what is it that we’re missing?
But the disappointment also comes from those who merely stand apart from “visible” Christianity (perhaps they have no real knowledge of the situation, or have just “had enough”), as well as from those who openly oppose it. These people often beat Christians with their own stick, criticizing them in terms that Jesus himself provides. There is an obvious Great Disparity between, on the one hand, the hope for life expressed in Jesus—found real in the Bible and in many shining examples from among his followers—and, on the other hand, the actual day-to-day behavior, inner life, and social presence of most of those who now profess adherence to him.
So whatever this missing thing is, it’s noticed by both Christians and non-Christians alike. This wasn’t the case in Jesus’ time. Or in the early church. We see that, among other places, in this passage from Acts.
The Fellowship of the Believers
Ac 2:42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Look at the picture painted by this passage. Clearly, the believers were not disappointed.
But look at the last portion of the passage: praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. Obviously, other people noticed something both different and appealing about this early group of believers. And they wanted to be part of it.
But is this the case today? No. If anything, the number of people who even nominally call themselves Christians is declining. So is the opinion of Christians by the rest of the world.
The question must arise: Why the Great Disparity?
Here’s what Dallas Willard says:
If your neighbor is having trouble with his automobile, you might think he just got a lemon. And you might be right. But if you found that he was supplementing his gasoline with a quart of water now and then, you would not blame the car or its maker for it not running, or for running in fits and starts. You would say that the car was not built to work under the conditions imposed by the owner. And you would certainly advise him to put only the appropriate kind of fuel in the tank. After some restorative work, perhaps the car would then run fine.
Notice, even in this example, some inquiry is needed. Most people would assume that every car owner puts the appropriate type of fuel in their car. No one would assume the owner would put water in the gas tank. But if we don’t ask the question – we’ll never know. We have to look for the problem. But first, we need to even be interested enough to ask a question.
We must approach current disappointments about the walk with Christ in a similar way. It too is not meant to run on just anything you may give it. If it doesn’t work at all, or only in fits and starts, that is because we do not give ourselves to it in a way that allows our lives to be taken over by it. Perhaps we have never been told what to do. We are misinformed about “our part” in eternal living. Or we have just learned the “faith and practice” of some group we have fallen in with, not that of Jesus himself. Or maybe we have heard something that is right-on with Jesus himself, but misunderstood it (a dilemma that tends to produce good Pharisees or “legalists,” which is a really hard life.) Or perhaps we thought the “Way” we have heard of seemed too costly and we have tried to economize (supplying a quart of moralistic or religious “water” now and then). Willard, Dallas. The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s Essential Teachings on Discipleship . HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Again, we cannot just make assumptions. We need to ask questions. And we need to be interested enough to even want to ask even the most basic questions. How else can we learn? How can we find our way if we don’t have a map – or if we have a map but don’t know how to read it? Even Google Maps requires some level of knowledge – and someone to open the map and put in the destination. Why should Christianity be any different?
So once again, what’s missing?
Dallas Willard continues:
But just there is the problem. Who, among Christians today, is a disciple of Jesus, in any substantive sense of the word “disciple”? A disciple is a learner, a student, an apprentice—a practitioner, even if only a beginner. The New Testament literature, which must be allowed to define our terms if we are ever to get our bearings in the Way with Christ, makes this clear. In that context, disciples of Jesus are people who do not just profess certain views as their own but apply their growing understanding of life in the Kingdom of the Heavens to every aspect of their life on earth.
We’ll get more into what a disciple really is in the next installment of this series. However, for now, this brief statement will give you an idea that “something’s missing” begins right here.
In contrast, the governing assumption today, among professing Christians, is that we can be “Christians” forever and never become disciples. Not even in heaven, it seems, for who would need it there? That is the accepted teaching now. Check it out wherever you are. And this (with its various consequences) is the Great Omission from the “Great Commission” in which the Great Disparity is firmly rooted. As long as the Great Omission is permitted or sustained, the Great Disparity will flourish—in individual lives as well as in Christian groups and movements. Conversely, if we cut the root in the Great Omission, the Great Disparity will wither, as it has repeatedly done in times past. No need to fight it. Just stop feeding it.
That’s pretty deep. Much more so than may be immediately clear. Rather than make it clear right this instant – just keep it in mind as we continue.
Jesus told us explicitly what to do. We have a manual, just like the car owner. He told us, as disciples, to make disciples. Not converts to Christianity, nor to some particular “faith and practice.” He did not tell us to arrange for people to “get in” or “make the cut” after they die, nor to eliminate the various brutal forms of injustice, nor to produce and maintain “successful” churches. These are all good things, and he had something to say about all of them. They will certainly happen if—but only if—we are (his constant apprentices) and do (make constant apprentices) what he told us to be and do. If we just do this, it will little matter what else we do or do not do. Willard, Dallas. The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s Essential Teachings on Discipleship . HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
As has been pointed out many times in this series – becoming a Christian – getting baptized – is not the destination.
I want to especially point out something: He did not tell us to arrange for people to “get in” or “make the cut” after they die, nor to eliminate the various brutal forms of injustice, nor to produce and maintain “successful” churches.
These things, in and of themselves, are not bad. But neither are they the goal. If the goal is to make disciples, then these things will be a product of successfully making disciples. Doing the “right” things for the “wrong” reason isn’t our goal. Let’s go back to Philippians one more time:
No Confidence in the Flesh
Phil 3:1 Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you.
Phil 3:2 Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh. 3 For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh— 4 though I myself have reasons for such confidence.
If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.
Phil 3:7 But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
Everything that isn’t done for Jesus is loss – and rubbish. Sure – I write about politics and religion on my other site – whichgodsaves.com. About the so-called religious right – and the things Republicans do to the poor, gun rights, Etc.. And about how democrats, although they support abortion – also try to do things for the poor. But it’s not about who to vote for or against. It’s about being careful to remember that politics isn’t Christianity – and Christianity isn’t politics. The goal is to be Christian first.
If that’s what’s missing – what went wrong?
Dallas Willard goes on to say this:
A different model of life was instituted in the “Great Commission” Jesus left for his people. The first goal he set for the early church was to use his all-encompassing power and authority to make disciples without regard to ethnic distinctions—from all “nations” (Matthew 28:19). That made clear a world-historical project and set aside his earlier strategic directive to go only to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6). Having made disciples, these alone were to be baptized into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Given this twofold preparation, they were then to be taught to treasure and keep “all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). The Christian church of the first centuries resulted from following this plan for church growth—a result hard to improve upon. Willard, Dallas. The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s Essential Teachings on Discipleship (p. 5). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
The first part of this quote – authority to make disciples without regard to ethnic distinctions—from all “nations” – seems pretty obvious to us today. At least it should. We have to remember that this was a change from the nation of Israel being the chosen people. Now, the opportunity to be one of God’s people was to be available to everyone.
“The Great Commission” of the Old Testament – Proclaim The LORD
In reality though – this wasn’t an entirely new concept. Here’s an excerpt from the Jewish Encyclopedia:
As soon as the Jewish people were scattered among other nations, and thereby found the opportunity of drawing comparisons between other beliefs and their own, it was inevitable that they should be so impressed with the superiority of their faith as to look forward with perfect confidence to its ultimate triumph, like Abraham, conscious of their mission to proclaim the only God everywhere and to establish His kingdom throughout the earth (Isa. ii. 2, xv., xlvi., xlix.; Zech. viii. 23; Gen. R. xxxix.; see also Polemics and Polemical Literature); and this hope for the final victory of pure monotheistic truth over all pagan error found powerful utterance in the daily prayer of the Jew (see ‘Alenu), and especially in the solemn New-Year liturgy (see Liturgy).
So we see the Jewish people were to do something very much like The Great Commission. Obviously that didn’t really happen / work out. However, before Christians get too full of ourselves, are we really doing a great job? After reading Dallas Willard’s book, any sense of doing an amazing job at fulfilling the intent of The Great Commission should give way to the realities of The Great Omission.
In case a reminder is needed to see where the Old Testament says anything about the nation of Israel having a commission, think back to the word proclaim. Here’s but one example, from 1 Chronicles.
1Ch 16:13 O descendants of Israel his servant,
O sons of Jacob, his chosen ones.
This is addressed to the descendants of Jacob.
1Ch 16:14 He is the LORD our God;
his judgments are in all the earth.
1Ch 16:15 He remembers his covenant forever,
the word he commanded, for a thousand generations,
1Ch 16:16 the covenant he made with Abraham,
the oath he swore to Isaac.
The covenant with Abraham and the oath to Isaac. Not the promises to Abram (Abraham’s name when Ishmael was born) and Hagar (Ishmael’s mother).
1Ch 16:17 He confirmed it to Jacob as a decree,
to Israel as an everlasting covenant:
1Ch 16:18 “To you I will give the land of Canaan
as the portion you will inherit.”
1Ch 16:19 When they were but few in number,
few indeed, and strangers in it,
1Ch 16:20 they wandered from nation to nation,
from one kingdom to another.
1Ch 16:21 He allowed no man to oppress them;
for their sake he rebuked kings:
1Ch 16:22 “Do not touch my anointed ones;
do my prophets no harm.”
1Ch 16:23 Sing to the LORD, all the earth;
proclaim his salvation day after day.
Proclaim the LORD and His salvation to all the earth. Not just to the descendants of Jacob, but to everyone.
1Ch 16:24 Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous deeds among all peoples.
Again, among the nations, not just to Israel. And to all people, not just the descendants of Jacob.
1Ch 16:25 For great is the LORD and most worthy of praise;
he is to be feared above all gods.
No matter who the idol of other people may have been, the LORD is the one above them all. That was to be proclaimed as well.
1Ch 16:26 For all the gods of the nations are idols,
but the LORD made the heavens.
1Ch 16:27 Splendor and majesty are before him;
strength and joy in his dwelling place.
1Ch 16:28 Ascribe to the LORD, O families of nations,
ascribe to the LORD glory and strength,
These two verses talk of strength, joy and glory.
1Ch 16:29 ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name.
Bring an offering and come before him;
worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness.
Give the LORD the glory that is due to Him. And proclaim it to everyone.
That’s what the Israelites were supposed to have done in Old Testament times – from Abraham and Isaac to the time of Jesus’ birth. It didn’t happen.
The Great Commission of the New Testament
Here’s what Jesus said to the 11 disciples, after His crucifixion and resurrection:
Mt 28:16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 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, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
It’s been nearly two thousand years since Jesus spoke those words. Gave that command to His followers. And it’s still not completed.
The quotes from The Great Omission that we’ve looked at so far indicate that there’s a disconnect between the way the early church operated and the way churches operate today. They point to a difference in the amount of teaching / training that’s done for new converts to the faith. Dallas Willard says the church of the first century made disciples first – and baptized them second. The third step was then to be taught to treasure and keep “all things whatsoever I have commanded you”.
Dallas Willard then went on to say that the church today is often too interested in baptism first – get people to be church members. That practice then results in two great omissions from the Great Commission. He followed that up with this:
Most important, we start by omitting the making of disciples and enrolling people as Christ’s students, when we should let all else wait for that. Then we also omit, of necessity, the step of taking our converts through training that will bring them ever-increasingly to do what Jesus directed. Willard, Dallas. The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s Essential Teachings on Discipleship (pp. 5-6). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
After I first read this, I thought it was a great conclusion. Obviously, we need to do more teaching / training and not just baptize people into church membership.
The next thing that came to mind though, is that the church I attend has separate classes for baptism and membership. They are also different events, so baptism does not also confer membership on the person. Even for Communion, we have an “open” Communion, meaning that the person must be a believer, but does not have to be a member.
Then, I didn’t remember ever reading that any of the disciples were ever baptized. Just to be sure, I went back to check. The Bible never mentions baptism for any of them. The Catholic Church, of which I’m not a member (anymore), teaches that they must have been baptized. While that seems like a reasonable assumption, there must be a reason why God-inspired scripture leaves this out.
We also have the case of one of the other two men on the crosses with Jesus. There’s no indication that the one Jesus told, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise”, was ever baptized either.
I certainly do not want to say baptism isn’t important. It is. However, I do want to make the training / teaching the focus of this article. If all we do is baptize people and then tell them to have a great life, we’re doing them a great disservice. It’s opening them up to attacks from the devil with no protection of any kind. The most likely scenario is that they walk away from the faith.
Ultimately, if all we do is baptize people, but not teach or train them, it will eventually spell the end of Christianity. Even in the New Testament church, those who didn’t really know the Gospel were guilty of false teaching. Why should we expect anything different today, especially if we just baptize people and them leave them to work out the rest on their own?
The Great Omission
So let’s back up a little more in the book. Here are the two paragraphs immediately preceding what we’ve already read.
The picture of “church life” presented by this book conforms generally to American Christian practice. But does that model not make discipleship something entirely optional? Clearly it does, just as whether the disciple will become a “worker” is an option. Vast numbers of converts today thus exercise the options permitted by the message they hear: they choose not to become—or at least do not choose to become—disciples of Jesus Christ. Churches are filled with “undiscipled disciples,” as Jess Moody has called them. Of course there is in reality no such thing. Most problems in contemporary churches can be explained by the fact that members have never decided to follow Christ.
In this situation, little good results from insisting that Christ is also supposed to be Lord. To present his Lordship as an option leaves it squarely in the category of the special wheels, tires, and stereo equipment. You can do without it. And it is—alas!—far from clear what you would do with it. Obedience and training in obedience form no intelligible doctrinal or practical unity with the “salvation” presented in recent versions of the gospel. Willard, Dallas. The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s Essential Teachings on Discipleship (pp. 4-5). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Maybe you attend a church that does more than just crank out baptisms and memberships. However, given that this quote is coming from Dallas Willard, it becomes apparent that there are plenty of churches that do exactly what we just read.
Vast numbers of converts today thus exercise the options permitted by the message they hear: they choose not to become—or at least do not choose to become—disciples of Jesus Christ. Churches are filled with “undiscipled disciples,” as Jess Moody has called them.
Escaping from (sort of) The Great Commission – undiscipled disciples
Here’s what Dallas Willard has to say about the “Undiscipled disciples”
Undiscipled Disciples For at least several decades the churches of the Western world 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. Contemporary American churches in particular do not require following Christ in his example, spirit, and teachings as a condition of membership—either of entering into or continuing in fellowship of a denomination or local church. I would be glad to learn of any exception to this claim, but it would only serve to highlight its general validity and make the general rule more glaring. So far as the visible Christian institutions of our day are concerned, discipleship clearly is optional. (italics are from the book) Willard, Dallas. The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s Essential Teachings on Discipleship (p. 4). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
So – is discipleship really optional? More to the point – was discipleship optional in Jesus’ time? Let’s look at The Great Commission one more time:
mt 28:18 … “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 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, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Verse 19 starts off with “therefore“, which refers to all authority having been given to Jesus. As a Christian, that statement should mean a lot. Further, it should remove any fear about doing what comes after the word therefore. No matter what happens while we’re in the process of making disciples – even though Satan is the prince of the earth – Jesus has all authority. Including authority over Satan.
I am with you always
As a reminder, Jesus closes with that same thought when He says, surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. Jesus has all authority. And Jesus is with us always. What more could we possibly ask for?
However – is this enough to make “disciple making ” a requirement? After all, it doesn’t say anything like “you must do this”. In today’s language, it sounds more like “you should do this”. Many even water it down to “you might want to do this, but it’s OK if you don’t”.
But is that what Jesus meant? Is that what Jesus said to the eleven disciples who were with Him? That’s important to know. If we claim to be disciples of Jesus – which is what we should be as Christians – don’t we want to know what Jesus’ charge to His disciples really was? Really is, even today?
It’s only two letters. We think of them as meaning something like moving from point A to point B. Point A is the starting point. Point B is the destination. So simple. But is that what Jesus really said to those listening to Him at the time?
Take a look at how the original Greek word from Matthew’s Gospel is translated. Then look at the meaning behind the word. Clearly, a great deal gets lost in the translation.
4198 πορεύομαι [poreuomai /por·yoo·om·ahee/] v. Middle voice from a derivative of the same as 3984; TDNT 6:566; TDNTA 915; GK 4513; 154 occurrences; AV translates as “go” 117 times, “depart” 11 times, “walk” nine times, “go (one’s) way” eight times, and translated miscellaneously nine times. 1 to lead over, carry over, transfer. 1A to pursue the journey on which one has entered, to continue on one’s journey. 1B to depart from life. 1C to follow one, that is: become his adherent. 1C1 to lead or order one’s life. Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.
We see concepts like to pursue the journey on which one has entered, to continue on one’s journey. This looks like something other than just point A to point B. If we’re continuing a journey, as opposed to just starting one, then it has to be at least Points A, B and C. Point A is where we originally started from. Point B is where we are now. And Point C is where we want to be in the future.
That thought is further strengthened when we read to follow one, that is: become his adherent. In our case, Jesus is the one we’re following. From the root of adherent – sticking to. So we should be sticking to Jesus. Not just following along behind and watching – but sticking to and experiencing life with Him. For Jesus, of course, being baptized wasn’t the end. It wasn’t until after His baptism that Jesus started His ministry. But remember, baptism wasn’t the starting point for Jesus either.
go – Point A – being born
The Boy Jesus at the Temple
Lk 2:41 Every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. 42 When he was twelve years old, they went up to the Feast, according to the custom. 43 After the Feast was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. 44 Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. 45 When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”
Lk 2:49 “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” 50 But they did not understand what he was saying to them.
Lk 2:51 Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.
If anything then, Point A could / should be when we’re born. When He was only 12, Jesus was already on His way. We could say that Jesus was “special”. That we don’t have to, or even shouldn’t, start so young.
Sorry – that’s really not true. Even though my parents forced me to go to church when I was only a few years old, I still remember some things from that. Even though they didn’t seem to really believe any of it for themselves, they still made me go. Even though I didn’t really want to go sit in some hot church instead of playing outside, it’s still the single best thing my parents ever did for me.
Just as with Jesus, the time between when we’re born and when we actually get baptized is the journey from point A (being born) to Point B (being baptized).
go – Point B – getting baptized
The Baptism of Jesus
Mt 3:13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
Mt 3:15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
Mt 3:16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
No, we’re not going to have the experience that Jesus did when He got baptized. And yet, it is a step along the way. As we saw earlier, there will be cases where a person isn’t baptized, but still is saved and goes to Heaven. But for the vast majority of us, baptism is Point B. It’s not the start. Neither is it the end. It’s Point B. On the way to point C.
go – Point C – following Jesus
The Calling of the First Disciples
Mt 4:18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” 20 At once they left their nets and followed him.
Mt 4:21 Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, 22 and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.
Since “go” from The Great Commission actually means pursue or follow Jesus, then we know where to “go” after baptism. It’s not to stay where we are. It’s not to run in place – being busy with “Christian” like activities but going nowhere with them. It’s to go to wherever this leads:
The Shepherd and His Flock
Jn 10:1 “I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2 The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep. 3 The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech, but they did not understand what he was telling them.
This part probably sounds weird or unbelievable to a non-Christian. As unreal as is may sound, this is real. It does require listening. And it does require paying attention. However, it’s something that can be counted on.
Jn 10:7 Therefore Jesus said again, “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
This is the key point in this passage, at least for this discussion. Jesus has come that we may have life to the full. Not the kind of “life to the full” preached by the so-called prosperity gospel. There is no such promise in the Bible that we’ll be rich, healthy, only good things will happen, Etc.
However, if you’re goal is to really be a follower of / adherent to Jesus, knowing Jesus’ voice, listening for His voice, and following His voice is the way to go.
And it’s not the same for everyone. It’s not a cult. It’s not a group of robots. It’s a group of individuals, created by God with a purpose, trying the best we can to fulfill that purpose.
Jn 10:11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
Jn 10:14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17 The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”
I include the rest of the passage for completeness. To show the difference between what Jesus offers and what the alternatives are. None of them – nothing – can come close to Jesus’ offer of life to the full.
For example,when I was working, I had a successful career. But it really wasn’t anything compared to what I do now. The sense of fulfillment and even joy is so much greater now than it was running a multi-million dollar data center at a large university. For many in the field, that would have been the ultimate dream. But following Jesus is so much better.
It all makes sense. Since “go“, in the context and culture of Jesus’ statement, actually means “follow me“, and “follow me” is the path to having “life to the full“, then following Jesus should be so much better than any other way we might try to go.
Go – Follow – but is it required or optional?
Dallas Willard says too many American churches treat The Great Commission as optional. But is it really something that was meant to be required?
The New Testament is a book about disciples, by disciples, and for disciples of Jesus Christ.
If this statement is true, it’s certainly pointing to follow me as not being optional.
But the point is not merely verbal. What is more important is that the kind of life we see in the earliest church is that of a special type of person. All of the assurances and benefits offered to humankind in the gospel evidently presuppose such a life and do not make realistic sense apart from it. The disciple of Jesus is not the deluxe or heavy-duty model of the Christian—especially padded, textured, streamlined, and empowered for the fast lane on the straight and narrow way. He or she stands on the pages of the New Testament as the first level of basic transportation in the Kingdom of God.
This way of life can only be reached and maintained by following Jesus. Again, this points to follow me as not being an option.
For at least several decades the churches of the Western world 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.
This seems like a good way to measure your church. Or maybe I should say, it’s a way to measure your participation and involvement in your church.
Contemporary American churches in particular do not require following Christ in his example, spirit, and teachings as a condition of membership—either of entering into or continuing in fellowship of a denomination or local church.
If your church offers these things, you are very fortunate. If they don’t, it’s up to you to pray about either being involved in starting them – or finding another church.
If they are offered, but you don’t take advantage of them, I can only ask – why not?
I would be glad to learn of any exception to this claim, but it would only serve to highlight its general validity and make the general rule more glaring. So far as the visible Christian institutions of our day are concerned, discipleship clearly is optional. Willard, Dallas. The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s Essential Teachings on Discipleship (pp. 3-4). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.
Discipleship wasn’t an option for Jesus.
Let’s close out this segment with one final thought from the book:
What Jesus expects us to do is not complicated or obscure. In some cases, it will require that we change what we have been doing. But the Great Commission—his plan for spiritual formation, “church growth,” and world service—is pretty obvious. Let’s just do it. He will provide all the teaching and support we need. Remember, “when all else fails, follow the instructions.” Willard, Dallas. The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s Essential Teachings on Discipleship . HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
If we are going to do something about the Great Disparity between Christianity as promised in the Bible versus Christianity as experienced in life today, we really must perform The Great Commission, not The Great Omission.
|↑1, ↑7||Willard, Dallas. The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s Essential Teachings on Discipleship (pp. 5-6). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.|
|↑2||Janet Meyer Everts is associate professor of religion, Hope College, Holland, Michigan. https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-47/apostle-paul-and-his-times-christian-history-timeline.html|
|↑3, ↑10||Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.|
|↑4, ↑5, ↑12||Willard, Dallas. The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s Essential Teachings on Discipleship . HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.|
|↑6||Willard, Dallas. The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s Essential Teachings on Discipleship (p. 5). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.|
|↑8||Willard, Dallas. The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s Essential Teachings on Discipleship (pp. 4-5). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.|
|↑9||Willard, Dallas. The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s Essential Teachings on Discipleship (p. 4). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.|
|↑11||Willard, Dallas. The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s Essential Teachings on Discipleship (pp. 3-4). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.|