The Great Commission is The Abrahamic Covenant Applied to Jesus’ Followers

Having taught a large number of missions classes in a wide variety of settings over many years, I have arrived at one firm conviction: members of the evangelical church are overwhelmingly unaware of the presence of missions in the Old Testament (OT). Often when teaching, I might ask the class members to quote a Bible verse on missions. Almost without exception, Matthew 28:19-20 is the go-to passage (with Acts 1:8 coming in a distant second).

However, when I follow up with, “Ok. Now how about an OT verse on missions?” I am generally met with blank stares. This suggests that most churches are not teaching missions as the thread that holds Scripture together. Rather, missions is almost a biblical after-thought appended to the gospel accounts after 39 OT books which are presumed to be basically silent on missions. The tragedy of this is seen when one realizes that ignorance of the trajectory of the OT effectively robs the Bible’s cohesive emphasis from Genesis to Revelation.

This false assumption unfortunately can lead to the idea that Jesus just “invented” missions right before his ascension. Such a conclusion is natural based on our inability to see the theme of mission woven through the fabric of the OT and into the NT. I sometimes surmise (with tongue in cheek) to a class that today we “…imagine Jesus, preparing to ascend to heaven in the accompaniment of angels, only to say, ‘Whoa. Hold on, guys! I almost forgot to commission my disciples to go to the nations. Whew. That was close. There, now, I’ve introduced missions into the Bible. Ok. Let’s go, angels.'”

Of course, such a hypothetical conversation is absurd on any number of levels, especially when a careful comparison is done between Genesis 12:1-3 and Matthew 28:18-20.

R. T. France, in “The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Matthew” (p.1114), is one of a legion of scholars who recognize in Matthew 28 “…the echo of the promise to Abraham in Gen. 12:3…”

More precise is Christopher Wright, who helpfully comments on the correlation of Matthew 28 and Genesis 12. Alert as always to articulate fresh nuances on familiar texts, Wright (“The Mission of God,” p. 213) highlights the correspondence between the Great Commission in Matthew 28 and the Abrahamic Commission in Genesis 12: “The words of Jesus to his disciples in Matthew 28:18-20, the so-called Great Commission, could be seen as a christological mutation of the original Abrahamic commission – ‘Go…and be a blessing…and all nations on earth will be blessed through you.'”

Where Wright sees three specific connections between the two passages, I will highlight his while adding two more to give a total of five reasons to believe that Jesus used Genesis 12:1-3 to commission his Jewish disciples who would have at least a passing acquaintance with Abraham’s commission.

1. “Go.” In both passages, the obedience, compliance, and responsiveness is assumed (both Abraham and the disciples). And this is the opening idea of both commissions.

2. “Be a blessing” (Genesis) and “make disciples” (Matthew). In both cases, a command is given and a task is assigned. That different verbs are used should not surprise the reader. In Genesis, the concern with blessing is paramount if one traces the flow of ideas through the first eleven chapters.

In Genesis 1-2, we find that God “blessed” (to enrich, enable, or empower) his creation on Days 5, 6, and 7. But we see in Genesis 3-11 that the creation was sabotaged and the world was brought under a curse due to the sinful pollution of Jesus’ universe.

After that disaster, what could be more logical than for God to reintroduce the restoration of blessing in Genesis 12? Abraham and his descendants (Paul fully develops this thought in Galatians 3) are to be the conduit for God to re-establish Jesus’ universe as a place of “blessing” (that is, a site where all things will be able to achieve their full potential in Christ).

However, when commissioning his disciples, Jesus doesn’t use “bless” but rather assigns the task of “making disciples.” This is an intriguing command. While the noun “disciple” occurs 268 times in Matthew-Acts (no occurrences in Romans through Revelation!), the verb “make disciples” only shows up four times in the NT (Matthew 13:52; 27:57; 2819, and Acts 14:21). Clearly it is natural that Jesus would use the term “make disciples” in his commission since that idea of “disciple making” (rather than the act of “being a blessing”) is the heart of his ministry.

Nevertheless, there is logical correlation between the two terms. Ultimately both ideas (blessing and making disciples) are focused on drawing people to Christ. Paul points out in Galatians 3 that ultimate blessing is found in Jesus and, of course, those whom Jesus’ followers bring into a “discipling” relationship are expected to be devoted followers of Christ.

3. “All.” The scope in both passages is all-inclusive. This highlights the biblical theme of the comprehensiveness of the work of missions. “All” things are to be under Jesus’ feet (I Cor. 15). “Every” knee is to bow before him (Phil. 2). Representatives from “every” nation, tribe, tongue and people assemble to worship the lamb (Rev. 5:9; 7:9).God created a large universe with large potential. He is passionate that every corner of his creation display his glory. As Abraham Kuyper declared: “There is not one square inch of the creation over which Jesus Christ does not cry out, ‘This is mine! This belongs to me!”

4. “Families of the earth” (Genesis) and “nations” (Matthew). Here two different (yet comparable) terms are used to indicate that the focus of the heart of God is essentially ethnic in nature.

“Families” (“mishpachah”) is the appropriate word for Genesis 12:3 since that is a favorite term of the compiler of the table of nations two chapters previous (in Genesis 10).

The term “nations” (Hebrew “goy”) is ubiquitous in both OT and NT (there it is “ethnos”). As opposed to the modern usage of “nations” as a geo-political entity, the Scriptures use it quite often of ethnic groups.

And, because of its prominence in the Greek translation (the Septuagint) of the OT in missiological texts like Isa. 42:6, “ethnos” is a natural term for Jesus to use in the Great Commission of Matthew 28.The primary target of the mission of God to bless and to make disciple is ethnic.

5. Finally, there is the promise in Genesis 12:3 of God’s blessing to those who bless Abraham in his missions efforts, and to curse those who disparage Abraham as he carries out his commission. No one wants to be sent on a challenging mission without adequate “backup.” So this is God’s assurance to Abraham his descendants that they will not be abandoned without divine assistance to carry out this challenging mission. The OT is replete with examples of God both calling his servants and guaranteeing his accompanying presence for those who comply.

Likewise, in Matthew 28, Jesus assures his disciples that “I am with you always…” In other words, divine presence is guaranteed to all who engage in God’s mission, whether they are going in obedience to the Abrahamic Commission or the Great Commission. This is a logical “bookend” to Matthew which began with the declaration in 1:23 that the Messiah’s name would be “Immanuel” (“God with us”).

As France states (“The International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Matthew,” p. 1119), “…The presence of Jesus himself among his people (cf. 18:20) ensures that it is not simply a relationship of formal obedience. In context this assurance is focused not on the personal comfort of the individual disciple but on the successful completion of the mission entrusted to the community as a whole.”
From beginning to end (and in the middle – see Matthew 18:20 where Jesus assures his followers that he is in their midst), Matthew’s Gospel is the Good News account of the “I am with you” Savior.

These five ideas provide the “glue” that binds Abraham’s Commission in Genesis 12:1-3 to the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20. We are assured that the entirety of Scripture is the story of God on mission. And as the people of God we are reminded that the Bible is the story of God’s people on mission.