“And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 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 ". (Matthew 28:18–19, NKJV)
As we get closer to our time in California, which will include taping some of my teachings and some street witnessing on Venice Beach (and maybe a few other beaches), I cannot help but reflect on the Great Commission and how it is typically understood by the church. First, it must be noted that this commission was given to an entirely Jewish audience. This means that Jewish evangelism was assumed by the receivers of the commission. This is usually not understood by the church today. Rarely does the church consider Jewish evangelism a given in their missions program - in that sense, they are ignoring the background of the Great Commission. Let me be clear that there are many churches who are Jewish-hearted and involved in Jewish evangelism - but overall, can we say that the church considers Jewish missions a starting point in their missions program? I think the answer would certainly be no.
Second, the Greek word for “nations” in our Scripture reference is ethnos, which does not mean countries at all, but rather people groups. As it is given here, the Great Commission implies that we need to reach not only distinct people groups in other countries, but also the ethnic groups living among us. What this means for the American church is that to fulfill the Great Commission, it needs to include, for example, Muslim outreach in the United States. Since Jewish evangelism was a given when Jesus laid the commission upon the disciples, we can only assume that Jewish evangelism must be a given for us also if the Great Commission is to be completely followed. Some fellowships of churches have caught on to this idea, among them the Southern Baptists, but too many have not.
Third, although the single word “go” in English carries the force of the command, the original language uses what is called a participial phrase, which includes words that modify the subject, to put it simply. A more literal translation of the Greek word is “as you go.” Of course, the going is assumed in this rendering and carries the force of the command also, but the point is that the disciples were to move around and encounter the people in the areas where God led them, and by so doing reach all the ethnic groups.
Fourth, and I know this may step on some toes, but the command is to “make disciples,” not necessarily to plant churches. Planting churches is a result of making disciples, but making disciples perfunctorily does not always lead to planting churches. This is a major error that the modern church makes, thinking that if you make the disciples, the church will follow, or that if you plant the church, the disciples will follow. If you try to plant the churches without the emphasis on making disciples, you get neither the disciples nor the churches. So, churches often end up fighting over individuals to draw to their church instead of focusing on preaching the Word to all within earshot and proclaiming the Gospel.
Fifth, while there are individuals called to give their full time to this effort, no person sitting in the pews is exempt from playing a part in the Great Commission. Part of that responsibility is supporting those who are called to give full time to the effort, but this is only part of a greater responsibility. Messianic congregations are notorious for not supporting Jewish missions or workers in Jewish missions, much less getting out of their own comfort so and interacting with unsaved people. Kudos to those exceptions I see out there that are doing their best in these areas (I can think of some individuals and some congregations). The evangelical church does have a heart for this sort of thing - but often its people are very uncomfortable with interacting with others who are very different than themselves. While that may work well for the smooth functioning of a local church, it works horribly for the big picture of the Great Commission.
In conclusion, many ideas about the Great Commission simply reduce it to church planting or overseas missions. While these are important parts of the greater picture, local ethnic ministries must be considered a part of the mix, and the evangelistic teaching and preaching of the Word apart from church planting must be considered a legitimate kingdom activity. These are my thoughts, as I prepare to go to California to do what seems to me to be very much kingdom work.