Is the Great Commission Prescriptive or Descriptive?


Some come to the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:46-49; Acts 1:7-8), and see it merely as a description of the words of Jesus to his disciples and not as something prescriptive, meaning those of us who are followers of Christ now are not required to follow the commission, but that it was meant for those who heard it directly from the Lord himself.

A few things to consider:

First, this command is from Christ, and therefore you do not have the difficulties that normally come in narrative with sinful men acting and speaking – Jesus is perfect, and everything that he says is true.  So if someone follows what Jesus says to the letter, what are you going to say, “hey, stop being so much like Jesus.”  If someone is going to error, I think erroring to doing what Jesus said is the best error one could make (if one could call it an error).

Secondly, the repitition of the command is important – especially its repitition in the book of Acts.  Why?  Because, the Gospel was not preached to every tongue, tribe, and nation (the “remotest part of the earth”) by the end of the Apostolic age.  There was still work to be done, and so in this sense we see a continuation of the command in that it was not fulfilled.  Also, if we think that the “going” part of the command is descriptive, what about teaching people everything that Jesus taught and what about baptizing?  Is that merely descriptive as well?  No, it is not – it is prescriptive – it is a command.

Thirdly, we are the result of this Great Commission being followed.  We (most of us) are not Jews, and we (most of us) are not in Israel.  If followers had not followed the command of Christ, we would not have believed.  God uses his people as the means by which the message is proclaimed.

Fourthly, given in this command is “teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.”  What would this include?  Well, in the nearest context, it would include teaching this very command to those you are making disciples!  The Great Commission is inherently a command to ALL disciples.

Fifthly, the phrase, “and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20), makes it clear that the “you” who are being addressed are not just the eleven disciples, but rather this promise extends to all of Christ’s followers throughout time.

So, let us obey our Lord and Savior, not tomorrow, but today:

And Jesus came up 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 the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’” (Matthew 28:18-20)

(for more on the Great Commission go here: Go and Make Disciples)

3 Responses to Is the Great Commission Prescriptive or Descriptive?

  1. Lee says:

    Do you think that believers really view the Great Commission as being descriptive, or do they simply behave as if they do?

  2. Ben says:

    I think I’ve questioned the descriptive vs. prescriptive nature of the GC in the past, though I doubt Nathan’s post was specifically a response to me. It’s a pretty good response none the less :)

  3. nathanwells says:

    This was a topic that came up in my evangelism class, so I thought I would post on it.
    I have not heard anything specifically on the Great Commission – but I know there has been debate out there. And I also remembered a discussion about prescription/description with Ben a while back, but this wasn’t a response to that :)

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