Are some commands in the Great Commission more important than others?
A forgotten, but surprisingly prescient, approach to questions regarding the necessity and future of Baptist denominational identity can be gleaned from the words of John A. Broadus (1827-1895) when he addressed the American Baptist Publication Society’s 1881 meeting in Indianapolis.
Broadus, one of the founding professors and later president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s first seminary, titled his sermon “The Duty of Baptists to Teach their Distinctive Views.” This is the second article examining Broadus’s sermon. The first was “Healthy Denominationalism or Denominational Ultraism?”
In a day of denominational introspection, the Great Commission from Matthew 28:16-20 has served as a starting block for discussion and ministry cooperation. But, are all elements of the commands within the Commission created equal?
John Broadus begins his 1881 sermon on Baptist distinctives with a text taken from Matthew 28:20, “Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” Referencing Jesus’ Great Commission, Broadus identifies that the commands of Christ, given to the disciples, consisted of both “the internal and the external elements of Christian piety.”
The internal elements, Broadus explains, are more crucial to the Christian faith as they relate to individuals and their relationship to their Creator. However, Broadus clarifies that any primacy given to the internal elements does not mean that the external elements have little value or lack importance. Broadus reasons that if Christ and his Apostles gave commands relating to external elements such as the “constitution and government” of churches, then it “cannot be healthy if they are disregarded.”
In this article, I want to explore further Broadus’ observation of the existence of internal and external elements within the Great Commission and then show how they should be ordered in the local church for the purpose of ensuring that the Great Commission is carried forth from generation to generation.
First, both internal and external elements are intrinsic in the prerequisite command of Matthew 28:19. Jesus exhorts the disciples to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” This mandate speaks of the ultimately internal act of regeneration by the Holy Spirit, which produces a fruit-bearing disciple. As Broadus states, the internal aspect of these commands does take priority. Two examples from the words of our Lord and Paul:
(1) When one of the criminals crucified alongside Jesus asked in faith, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” Jesus replied, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk. 23:42-43). In this exchange, Jesus’ affirmation came in response to the outward expression of the internal work in the heart of the criminal. Due to the nature of the circumstances, discussion of Jesus’ commands with external elements such as baptism or the Lord’s Supper were not of primary concern in comparison to the criminal’s life after death. This is not to say such commands have no importance, but rather that their observance is of secondary importance to the commands that address the internal question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Lk. 10:25).
(2) When Paul writes his magisterial chapter on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, he reminds the believers that what he delivered to them “first” was the Gospel, namely that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). Paul clearly wrote to them about many other vital items of an external nature for the local church, but the first instructions he relayed to the Corinthians were of an internal and first order nature.
The priority of the internal teachings of Christianity appear in Paul’s letter to the Galatians as well. His expressed concern for believers who were deserting the faith did not revolve around their quibbling over the external teachings related to local church order. Rather, Paul intervenes as a result of the believers entertaining a “different Gospel,” that is a different teaching of an internal nature than the one Jesus provided (Gal. 1). For those altering the internal message, Paul renders them “accursed.” He does not employ this term, however, when speaking of divisions within the church at Corinth over external matters related to church leaders and baptism (1 Cor. 1:10-17). In fact, there he says clearly, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the Gospel.”
The commands of the New Testament with internal elements that speak of the reconciliation of lost and rebellious men and women to a holy and wise God through only faith expressed in the work of God’s Son bearing the punishment on behalf of humanity are clearly the first commands that the churches should carry forth in obedience to the “all things” of Matthew 28:20.
Second, in Matthew 28:19, Jesus instructs the disciples to baptize the new disciples in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Here, the command to baptize marks an external component in the Great Commission. Since this command does not directly convey the power to make one “wise for salvation” (Rom. 1:16; 2 Tim. 3:15), baptism functions in a secondary role to repentance and faith. However, obedience to this and other commands with external elements is vital for healthy Christian living, preserving the Gospel message for future generations, and therefore should not be discarded or disobeyed. This is further exemplified by the Apostle Peter and the deacon, Phillip.
(1) When Peter “lifted up his voice” and addressed the mocking and perplexed crowd who did not know how to make sense of the arrival of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2, he proclaimed “God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). In response to Peter’s wielding multiple Old Testament texts as a sharp, two-edged sword, the crowd was “cut to the heart” and asked, “What shall we do?” Peter responded first with the primary command with internal focus, “repent,” signaling the need for both confession of sin and faith expressed in belief.
Peter’s entrance here into his proclamation ministry follows the example of Jesus himself, who began his public ministry saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mk. 1:15). Peter continues, however, and quickly articulates the secondary command with external focus for the hearers to “be baptized” (Acts 2:38), thus practicing the entire Commission of Jesus, with both internal and externals in view.
As with Matthew 28:19-20, the order prescribed by Peter, first internal then external, shows the intended order of one before the other, but it does not negate the important function of both types of commands. To have eternal life, the soon-to-be disciple must repent and believe (internal). To function as an obedient disciple, professing his faith in the context of a local church community, the new disciple must then be baptized (external).
(2) The order and connection between the two types of commands appears also in the encounter Philip has with the Ethiopian court official in Acts 8. After following the instructions of an angel of the Lord to travel “the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza,” Philip discovers the Ethiopian reading aloud Isaiah 53 and asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?” From the top of his chariot, the Ethiopian responds, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” and invites Philip to sit with him.
As they travel together, Philip proceeds to explain from the Scripture that Jesus is the sheep that “was led to the slaughter” in Isaiah 53, and the account in Acts relates that Philip, “beginning with this Scripture,” told the Ethiopian of the message with internal elements regarding eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. However, Philip appears also to have communicated some of the external elements as well, for when the Ethiopian’s chariot came near a body of water, he said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?”
How would the Ethiopian have known of his need for baptism after he confessed his faith in Jesus if Philip had not already taught him of this command? The baptism of the Ethiopian reinforces the notion that the commands with external emphases given in the New Testament, while not primary, are nonetheless important and should be incorporated properly into any presentation of the “good news about Jesus.”
Finally, throughout the New Testament, the local church functions as a repository not only to receive and transmit the Gospel message to the current generation but also to preserve that message for future generations. As a result, the commands with external elements given for the purposes of ordering and governing the church are vital for this task, even though they are of secondary importance to the Gospel message itself.
When Paul writes to Timothy to instruct him in “how one ought to behave in the household of God,” Paul describes the local church as the “pillar and buttress of truth” (1 Tim 3:15). The idea of the local church functioning as a pillar and a buttress creates a picture of an intentionally designed (i.e. ordered) structure that, through its strength, has been prepared both to uphold (i.e. present or proclaim) an object as well as protect (i.e. preserve) an object. Jesus’ promise in Matthew 16:18 that “the gates of hell will not prevail against” the church, reinforces the idea that the local church has been given as an indestructible fortress of strength held together by Jesus Christ himself (Col.1:17).
Thus, Jesus and his Apostles have given commands of an external nature that must be taught and implemented. The polity of church governance, baptism, the practice of the Lord’s Supper, and church discipline all are external New Testament mandates for the sustenance of healthy churches. But for what end? As Paul notes, the object given to the local church to uphold and protect is the “truth.” The “truth” is the message of eternal life—the substance of the commands of Christ with internal focus (1 Tim 2:4; 2 Tim 2:25). The New Testament teaches that this “truth” was, and is, to be handed over or delivered from one generation to the next through the local church. Three concluding examples:
(1) Luke speaks of this at the beginning of his Gospel when writing to assure Theophilus of the certainty of the things he had been taught. Luke states that he has written an “orderly account” of the things that “those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” had “delivered” to Luke and the other apostles (Lk. 1:1-4).
(2) Likewise, Paul instructs Timothy and the Ephesian Church to “guard the good deposit,” a reference to the entire message of the Gospel he had taught and given to them. In a broad sense, the purpose of all of Paul’s letters is to deliver the “truth” not only to his immediate recipients but also to all who will read his letters and implement the commands in local churches (Col. 4:16).
(3) Jude reinforces the notion that the “truth” is the object the local church exists to proclaim and protect. In Jude 3, he explains that “the faith,” or the Gospel message of eternal life, has been delivered to the saints. That is to say, the message of salvation through Jesus Christ has been handed down to Christians who live out the Christian life in local churches. Jude states that this delivering was done “once for all,” referencing the complete and final nature of the message rather than communicating that the message had no further need of transmission.
Therefore, the local church, the “pillar and buttress of truth” exists to “guard the good deposit” and “deliver” it to future generations. The New Testament commands that speak of preserving and proclaiming the “truth” are primary. However, the commands that speak clearly to the order, practice, and health of the local church, while secondary, should not receive treatment as unimportant. Instead, the local church has a duty to carry forth and teach “all” these in obedience to Matthew 28:20.
As the Great Commission rightfully continues to serve as a starting place for ministry and consensus point for cooperation, John Broadus’ conclusion that there are multiple commands within the Great Commission is helpful to recall. Even though all commands in Scripture are authoritative, I have attempted to explore here whether some of these commands are more important than others, and, if so, for what purpose?
Are some commands in the Great Commission more important than others? Yes. In agreement with Broadus, observing the commands with internal elements that speak of the reconciliation of the lost to their Creator Father is of primary importance. However, the ongoing restoration of that relationship through the observance of the remaining commands in the Great Commission is vital for church health both now and for the future of future churches. While second in importance, obedience to the commands with external elements is often the highest affirmation that the first command to “Follow Me” was indeed first observed.
Jason G. Duesing is vice president for strategic initiatives and assistant professor of historical theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. This article is adapted from his contribution to “Upon this Rock: The Baptist Understanding of the Church” (B&H Academic, 2010).