I find it fascinating that Matthew 28:16-20 was not always called the “Great Commission” and was not always viewed as a mission text in the way we see it today! There were many passages in the scripture used to show that we should tell the good news of salvation to all men and women everywhere but this passage wasn’t always on the top of the list.
To show the power of an idea, William Carey biographers love to tell this story –
At a meeting of Baptist leaders in the late 1700s, a newly ordained minister stood to argue for the value of overseas missions. He was abruptly interrupted by an older minister who said, “Young man, sit down! You are an enthusiast. When God pleases to convert the heathen, he’ll do it without consulting you or me.”
That such an attitude is inconceivable today is largely due to the subsequent efforts of that young man, William Carey.
This same William Carey single handedly made Matthew 28 the “Great Commission”.
William Carey’s reinterpretation of the Great Commission changed the understanding of Matthew 28:16 – 20 from authorize to make disciples and to baptize, but to a command that one must go and teach to all nations. The extra-Biblical label “Great Commission” serves as a translation guide for Matthew 28:16 – 20 that may overshadow the text. The English word “commission” generally carries with it the sense of authorizing a person to carry out a certain task or to take on certain powers. “Commission” sometimes carries a sense of “command.” The focus changed from a gift (Gospel) to an obligation (Law). The emphasis on the word, “Go,” in Matthew 28:19, created the chief “proof text” for international missions and overshadowing other emphases.
We are going to be looking carefully at Matthew 28 for a while because it reveals as much about the churches and individuals attitudes about evangelism, missions, and witnessing.
My thanks to Dr. Al Colver, the Director of Church Relations for the LCMS for his insights published in a paper called LOEHE: MISSION SOCIETIES, THE CHURCH IN MOTION AND MISSIO DEI presented at the Loehe Theological Conference IV; 24 July 2014