Was the Great Commission given only to the eleven disciples?

Reach out
Photo credit: Alvaro Canivell (Creative Commons)

What does Jesus think about missions?

The Great Commission was given by Jesus to the eleven disciples after his resurrection. Here’s the Matthew version:

Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20)

The Mark version:

And then he told them, “Go into all the world and preach the Good News to everyone.  Anyone who believes and is baptized will be saved. But anyone who refuses to believe will be condemned.  These miraculous signs will accompany those who believe…:  (Mark 16:15-18)

I’ve heard some people say that the Great Commission was only given to the eleven disciples. It doesn’t include us. Our lifestyle together should be enough to attract others. The verses that people use for this argument are ones such as John 17: 23

I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me.

There is something incredibly attractive about a group of Christians relating well together. But if we believe that is all that is necessary, it gives us a great cop out. We are no longer commissioned to reach out to those who don’t yet know him.

It is dangerous to selectively omit verses that were given only to the disciples. If we applied that principle consistently, we would lose many of the teachings of Jesus recorded in the Gospels.

Personally I  I believe we need to be witnesses, too. Here is some of my reasoning:

  1. Earlier in the passage in John 17, Jesus says this:  Just as you sent me into the world, I am sending them into the world…  I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message.  I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me. 

            It is clear that Jesus is sending not just the eleven disciples into the world but also those who believe in him through their presentation of the Good News.

          2.  In Peter’s exposition of the Gospel, he says this: Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  This promise is to you, and to your children, and even to the Gentiles—all who have been called by the Lord our God.”  (Acts 2:38-39)

According to Jesus, one of the reasons the Holy Spirit is given: But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere— in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

I believe that all of us are called to be ambassadors, those who represent the Kingdom of God to the rest of the world. Obviously, how we do it, and what motivates us is important too.

What do you think?



24 replies on “Was the Great Commission given only to the eleven disciples?”

Absolutely! I turn to Acts 8:1-4 where we see the church *except* the apostles scattered and they…went to church on Sunday morning and sat quietly?…NO!
And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. (Act 8:1-4)
The church was out preaching the Word! If the great commission was intended only for the apostles, these early Christians were being disobedient. Clearly they were not and the call to preach the Gospel is the calling and privilege of every Christian.

I think Matthew 28:20 makes it quite clear: “Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you.” Those commands include the great commission, so it is passed onto all of us in turn.

I think Paul makes it pretty clear in 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
” So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and GAVE US THE MINISTRY OF RECONCILIATION: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

This is so relevant for me. Our church group has been looking at the Great Commission and the Bible’s teachings related to going and making disciples (I guess you could argue the whole Bible is about that directly or indirectly), and this very question has come up more than once. Thanks for this post! I also appreciate others’ comments. I will be forwarding this on to my friends and family. Happy New Year!

I know for my self, the ‘difficult & overwhelming ‘commands of Scripture are not the ones I am really balking at. But this one, “if anyone wishes to come after me he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me…”. As unkleE mentioned above…”teach them to do” is pretty clear.
It’s the personal sacrifice that I balk at….but then God “is a rewarder of those who seek HIm”…. and “those who honor Me I will honor”…. So I must trust that as I obey the great commission He will take care of my fears, inadequacies & physical needs.

Thank you all for these comments and the Scriptures, all of which are intensely relevant. I personally believe the current house church movement in this country may stand or fall on our willingness to reach out, both in our own nation and across the world. If we fail to take the Great Commission seriously, we’ll end up as just another blip in the church history books.

The question and problem I have is that in the US we evangelize with an eye towards gathering into a building. Evangelism with the end in mind of “come to church.” So much of what I have learned, heard, etc. ties evangelism into building the church as opposed to come to Christ. Then you end up with this drive to evangelize as opposed to a natural flow out of one’s life. So do we really know what it is to be “fishers of men?”

Too many people insert what they want to think into passages that aren’t there. When Jesus told the Apostles to go out and preach the Word, He was speaking to THEM. If he’d meant it for the masses He would have told it to the masses, but He didn’t. Unless I’ve missed something I can’t find a single scripture where Jesus is commanding people to go out and preach the gospel. He meant it for a select few. In 1 Corinthians 7:7 it says “I wish that all men were as I am. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.” Ephesians 4:11 says “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers.” You can’t get clearer than that.

Elena, if we removed everything that Jesus only spoke to the disciples, we would be much poorer for it. For example:
the sermon on the mount (Matt 5)
the verses about taking up your cross and following Jesus (Matt 16:24)
the sending out of the 72 (Luke 9 and 10).
The Matthew version of the Great Commission tells the eleven disciples to make disciples… teaching them to obey “all the commands I have given you.” If Jesus had told the disciples to make disciples and to preach, then our obedience includes that too.
Having said that, it is only the Mark version of the Great Commission that talks about preaching. I don’t think it means giving a public sermon which is the meaning we usually put on it. The word means to proclaim.

There are about 38000 churches all different and teaching different things, which one has the truth? Which one is fulfilling the great commission? Does it matter? Are we to just pick one? We need to do away with middlemen and go to God directly and ask Him to teach us directly. We have no need that any man should teach us.

Lee, I totally agree that we need to listen to the Lord without any middlemen. The Lord may on occasion use others to speak to us, but in general we hear from him directly. And he will show you where to go or what you are to involve in within his Kingdom.

The Apostle Paul describes what people will be like in the last days and that a great deception will deceive many people. Jesus gave his life so that through him we can have access to God, so if we set up extra mediators like pastors, popes or any that call themselves our spiritual conduits to God we fail to see the connection Jesus provided. All of us need to go to God through Christ with a sincere and humble heart and ask God to teach us His truth and in faith believe what is revealed. We will become like prophets and prophetesses as Peter and Joel said and as Moses desired. In all of the confusion God can teach us by prophetic revelation by the Holy Spirit so that we have no need that any man should teach us. This is the fulfillment of Ezekiel 34. The church in the last days is scattered to the four winds and is an unorganized body of people mostly unaware of the presence of the others but are all being taught by God through Jesus. The Elijah to come is the Holy Spirit sent to believers in the last days to restore all things and prepare a people for the second advent of the Lord, to turn their hearts back to God and Gods heart to them. If the Holy Spirit is our guide and teacher then how can a man be? Even Paul knew that he and Apollos could plant or water but it was God who gave the increase. God adds to the church such as should be saved. True Christians receive spiritual knowledge by divine revelation just as the prophets and Apostles did.

Also, the bible does not make a distinction between the immediate
disciples of Christ and those following. That is evident by Christ’s admonition
to “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the
name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to
observe all things that I have commanded you”. (Matthew 28:19-20 [NKJV]) Jesus,
at that very moment, is commanding his apostles to “make disciples of all the
nations”. He then admonishes them to teach their own disciples to observe all
things they were commanded. Were they not commanded to “make disciples”?
Certainly! Therefore, they must teach to do the same; and in that way their
message would be perpetuated. Therefore, we see that no distinction is made
between the original teachers and those following them, but that all walk in Christ. (Colossians 2:6-7)

Then the question should be asked “are all believers apostles?”

If we consider that an “Apostle” is one who is commissioned to bring a message or to be an ambassador.
“(Gk. apostolos [ajpovstolo”]). Envoy, ambassador, or
messenger commissioned to carry out the instructions of the commissioning aget.”

the great commissions of Mathew, Mark and Luke was indeed addressed to the Apostles to Israel .They were to teach them all that Christ taught them . That is the Law . Christ Jesus was sent ,then, only to Israel . Christ Himself was born under the Law and died whilst under the Law . Check it out . Be as good as the Bereans . Read the text -Carefully . More info from an Open Bible Trust CD or . The true commision for the Church may be found at Eph chapter 3 and verse 9 in particular . What do you know about it ?. check it out read your Bible but especially those addressed to the Gentiles and any individual Jews 🙂 .

Eph 3:9 is Paul talking about what HIS roles were. Not what OUR roles were. In verse 1 he wonders if they have heard about the stewardship that has been given HIM. He then takes the rest of the chapter to unfold what his specific stewardship was. Read my comment above for that breakdown.

The problem here is that we make it too complicated. We put our own historical and cultural baggage into the text when we read it. Looking at the Greek the only command given to the apostles is to “Make disciples” and they were to do this by ‘going into the world, baptizing, and teaching.’

There isn’t any qualifier to say that once this is done, it should not continue, or that they were only supposed to do this to a small subset of people. We know we are to make disciples today, and the way Christ told the apostles to do it was clear. And how were the people that were responding to their work to supposed to react? They were to believe, be baptized, and be taught. So… how is Christ’s message propagated? Those people that believed, were baptized, and were taught then go, baptize, teach, and it continues with everyone.

Directly after Jesus rose into heaven we see exactly how the apostles interpreted the Great Commission, we know HOW they did it, they planted churches. They had networks of churches in each city and those churches planted more churches. Our churches are to be our mission base for the Great Commission, and everyone in a church is to believe, be baptized, and then taught so they can eventually go, baptize, and then teach. There is no set of people that are supposed to remain laity. There was no laity in the first 300 years of the church.

To emphasize this even more we know that Paul’s roles given by God were to “preach to the gentiles” and “reveal the administration of the mystery” (Eph 3:8-10) We know what the mystery is because he defines it in the same chapter (1-6). It is Jews and gentiles together in Christ (aka, the Church). So all of Paul’s letters were either preaching to gentiles or revealing the administration (Greek “household order”) of the church. Since we know all his letters were written to the church we can take it in this context. Paul’s entire focus was to help churches become established by revealing the household order and churches were to then continue the Great Commission by going to other parts of their cities or to neighboring towns and planting more churches, baptizing new believers, and teaching them so they could eventually do the same.

There were no para-church organizations, there were no mission organizations, there were no seminaries, there were only churches, and they were responsible for not only the mission work of revealing Christ to those around them, but also for baptizing and teaching EVERYONE so that they could continue to plant churches and reach others. Their greatest leaders did not sit behind a pulpit in one church, but were sent out, sometimes for years, time and time again to help other cities and towns. They then left to move on to a different place and continue the work. Timothy was found in one of these towns and trained up as well so that he could eventually do the same work as Paul and raise up other leaders.

In other words, I completely agree. The Great Commission IS for everyone, and our modern day view of church stunts our ability to do this effectively.

We often hear that ALL Christians should be following the great commission, and I often hear the question “Have you shared the Gospel lately?” However, it seems we have applied this unequally. If the great commission applies equally to all Christians, and all Christians should be actively doing what it says, then I have a question for you. How many people have you baptized? It seems that we expect teaching and preaching to include all Christians, but we have relegated the baptizing to a minister or pastor. Until recently, I had never thought about this. BTW – I’m not advocating everyone should be baptizing people. Just wondering about the idea that most people will more of one or the other – some do teaching, some preaching, some baptizing… Thoughts?

I really appreciate Elena’s comment above.

I’d add to it and just challenge all… especially those that want to believe in a Great Commission (a command to all believers, in all times, to evangelize all nations with “the gospel”)… to first try to recognize when your understanding of a particular scripture verse is derived from “what you were taught” by men/churches vs. what the verses most likely meant to the original recipient at the time.

I learned to do this by reading the verses myself, over and over, tuning in to the spirit of truth within, and learning true history as context.

For example, history would say that Jesus was a rabbi and that rabbis back then called some select young men (those 13-15 years old that showed an extreme aptitude for the Law in their Hebraic schooling) to leave their family home and job to be a disciple of said rabbi upon his command (election) “follow me.” It was a literal following: leave their family and go with the rabbi, on the road, to his home, wherever… Walking in the shoes of said rabbi, learning his teaching by emulating everything about his life (it was even said by one rabbi, down to how to take a crap… that level of commitment to detail, though that’s just a physical example of how they clung to his example) so that one day they could be a wise rabbi and take on the next generation of youth as disciples to propagate The Law.

Jesus didn’t pick the scholarly youth like the other rabbi’s did. He inverted the model. For the most part, he picked those that were passed over by other rabbis (we know this because they were already working in their family businesses), as if to say “the preferred positions in the kingdom are not reserved for the scholarly” but for anyone of soft heart. And this explains why the sons of Zebedee dropped their nets (left their dad and family job) and followed Him (and the dad rejoiced because his sons were actually picked by a rabbi to “follow him”!). Now isn’t that like Jesus, always chasing the lowly… yet, repulsive to most of the proud? This context further underscores his teachings throughout the gospel about master / servant and about dying like He would later die. Which they did, for the most part (John excepted).

So, in the so called Great Commission (these words “Great Commission” are not actually in the text), it was a great commission indeed, but of a different sort. It was the final words of a great rabbi, nay the greatest if you ask me, approving of his lowly followers… to affirm that they are indeed ready (ie the time is now) to be fully like him, a great rabbi, able to go and do what he did for them (note their doubt in v.17 of Matt 28 preceding his exhortation). And they proved their absorption of his teaching, the rest of their lives, by further inverting his model, not just discipling Jewish youth (but gentiles, women, older people, etc.), until their persecuted death.

Anyone touched by the story and truth of Jesus, will seek to copy his example in the life they live. And for most, will “make disciples” (of youth) in the form of their own kids (Deut 6 asked this of man as well… teach the law to your kids…). A subset will go further and feel the need to evangelize beyond their local life, but this was never the meaning behind Matt 28 to those it was written to, but certainly something Paul addressed (as mentioned by others above), in terms of “some are apostles, some are evangelists, etc.”

To think of our current teaching of the Great Commission, as more broadly applicable to all humans who hear about Jesus and admit to liking him (ie lifestyle evangelism, missionary church, etc.) became just foreign to me once I began to understand the historical context of Matt 28. To me, this more resembles the approach of the Pharisees (ie do this to be approved, someday… later) than Jesus (ie copy me to experience abundant/ everlasting life… NOW).

That’s all for now…

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