Misunderstanding the Great Commission

3 Mistakes We Make in Our Understanding of the Great Commission

Misunderstanding the Great Commission

Paul Durbin, September 2020

Many of us are quite familiar with the Great Commission. It’s one of the more famous things Jesus said, given to his followers shortly before he ascended. 

This is what He said,

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.” Matthew 28:19–20 (NIV)

As important as the Great Commission is, I feel we make three big mistakes in our understanding of it:

1. We Forget Jesus’ Promise

We put a lot of emphasis on the first couple words, “therefore go,” which means we tend to deemphasize the last few words, “I am with you always.” How unfortunate!

Because we fail to emphasize all of Jesus’ words — from beginning to end — we tend to carry the weight of the Great Commission on our own shoulders. As if the task was entirely up to us. But, it’s not.

That’s why Jesus said in John 16, 

But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. John 16:7 (NIV)

Remember that. We do have a big task, but we also have a big promise — that the Spirit of Jesus will be with us to the very end. Let’s learn to abide in him, trust in him, and know his voice.

2. We Emphasize the Wrong Verb

As said above, we tend to emphasize the verb “go,” when Jesus actually lays the emphasis on the verb, “make disciples.”

When you look at the original Greek — the language the New Testament was written in — you discover that “go” is written in a passive voice (literally translated as “having gone therefore”) while “make disciples” is written in an active voice. In other words, the grammar assumes you’ve already gone, so the real command is to start making disciples.


 Having gone therefore, disciple all the nations…

Why is our emphasis on the wrong verb a problem? Simply because when we emphasize “go,” it can lead us to think the most important thing to do is to literally go somewhere else (as if the people that don’t know Jesus somewhere over there need him more than the people that don’t know Jesus right here.)

And believe me, that’s hard to write for someone who HAS literally gone somewhere else! (My family and I served as missionaries in China from 2008-2019). 

But, please don’t get me wrong! I believe God has and still does call people to go somewhere different than where they currently are. But, that is not the most important verb in this verse.

The assumption of the verse is that we’ve already gone…and since we’re on our way, we’re left with the command to make disciples.

But that presents another problem, doesn’t it?

See, it’s easy to GO. We just get up and go! No big deal, right?  

The hard part — at least we think — is to do the real work of making disciples.

Why do we think it’s hard? Take a look at our third mistake.

3. We Equate Discipleship with Teaching

We might think, “I know I’m not much of a teacher,” so how can I possibly make disciples?

For whatever reason, we have this notion that discipleship is all about teaching people how to be a Christian or teaching them what a Christian believes

In other words, we think discipleship is just downloading content and information into someone else’s brain. But it’s so much more than that.

Take a moment to consider the definitions of the discipleship and teaching. 

To teach is to impart skills or knowledge to someone else.

To disciple is to instruct someone in the ways or teachings of someone else.

In other words, teaching is all about instruction, e.g., lectures, sermons, presentations, testing, etc.

Discipleship, on the other hand, is about demonstrating, teaching, showing, and sharing what it’s like to be in relationship with Jesus.

So, sure, teaching is part of it — but, so is faithfully living out the christian life, showing others what it means to follow him, and demonstrating his love toward them.

I like to see “making disciples” as the umbrella action for everything Jesus calls us to in the great commission. Within that umbrella is all the other verbs of the Great Commission, such as going, teaching, baptizing, etc.

Simply put, discipleship is reaching higher heights, and helping others do the same.

If that’s the case, then discipleship doesn’t begin when someone comes to Jesus. Not at all. Discipleship actually begins with the very first conversation we have with someone.

To put it another way, as followers of Jesus, I’d like to suggest that we are engaging in discipleship every time we open our mouth in conversation with someone.

If that be so — then you’re already making disciples in one way or another — so why not be a bit more intentional?

I’ll talk more about that in my post, Intentional Conversations.