Jesus doesn’t merely command us to “go and make disciples.” He invites us to “come and make disciples.”
If you spend time with Matthew’s Great Commission, you will be richly rewarded. I find my mind constantly returning to Matthew 28:16–20 and discovering more nuance and depth each time. That is probably reflected in the number of Field Notes I have devoted to these verses.
Today, however, I would like to return to the command “go.” Without revisiting the entire argument of a previous Field Notes post, let me first remind you that “go,” despite being a participle, is in fact a command. While “make disciples” is the only imperative verb in verse 19, the participle “go” is a participle of attendant circumstance, which takes the imperitival force of the verb it is paired with. Jesus doesn’t tell us to make disciples of all nations as we are going about our normal lives. We must go to the nations to make disciples of them.
Go or Come? What’s the difference?
The verb “go,” whether in English or its equivalents in other languages, is easy enough to understand. It is one of the first commands any child will learn. To go is to move away from the speaker toward a distant place. Directionally, it is the opposite of the word “come.” To come is to move toward the speaker, to be united with the speaker in shared space.
One of the first lessons we learned when studying Chichewa, for example, was the difference between kupita (“to go”) and kubwera (“to come”). To reinforce this difference, we practiced walking away from or toward our tutor depending on which command was given.
Verbally, there is no doubt that Jesus commands the disciples to “go.” They must leave the mountain in Galilee where Jesus is speaking these words and depart to far off regions. Acts 1:8 helpfully gives geographical definition to the act of going: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” They must go away from where Jesus is speaking to the most distant places possible, the ends of the earth itself.
How the command changes directions
Conceptually, however, Jesus’ command to “go” is actually a command to “come.” The final words of Matthew reset our expectations and transform the meaning of Jesus’ command. The Great Commission begins with a statement of fact: “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth.” Next Jesus gives the command: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing…teaching…” Then he concludes with a promise: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
The promise should change the way that we receive the command. Jesus promises that wherever we go to make disciples, he will be there with us. The only expiration date given is “the end of the age,” when, of course, Jesus will be with us more directly in the new creation and our mission will have been completed.
But we should not think of Jesus as following us to the nations. The statement of fact at the beginning of the commission makes clear that Jesus already possesses all authority wherever we go. His authority encompasses all the earth and every nation. So, he is already there waiting for us when we show up.
Furthermore, the entire gospel of Mathew testifies that the task of a disciple is to follow Jesus where he is already going (see Matt 4:18–22; 8:18–22; 10:38). It makes little sense in the context of Matthew for the roles to suddenly be reversed and for Jesus to now be the one following us.
Therefore, when Jesus commands us to “go,” he is actually inviting us to “come”—to come to where he is and where he already possesses authority. As we come to the nations, we will find that Jesus is already there. He does not join us in our work. We are the ones joining him in his.
Since this is the case, we do not leave the safety and security of our homes in order to make disciples. Rather, we step into the safety and security of his loving and powerful presence. Nor do we set out like pioneers to accomplish a task no one else has ever done. Rather, we join the Master himself to be used by him in the work he is already doing. It is a work he will most certainly accomplish, just as he prophesied earlier in Matthew: “This good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed in all the world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matt 24:14).
Let us, then, “go and make disciples of all nations,” but let us realize that we are not really departing. We are arriving. We are coming to Jesus, to his work, to his presence, and to his joy.