This is the Great Commission given by Jesus to the disciples:
“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)
But much earlier, He had given the disciples another commission [we’ll call it the lesser commission to distinguish it from the Great—Ed.], which differed significantly from the Great Commission in restricting their evangelism to Jews only and being in other ways also more specific:
These twelve Jesus sent out after instructing them: “Do not go in the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter any city of the Samaritans; but rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And as you go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. Freely you received, freely give. Do not acquire gold, or silver, or copper for your money belts, or a bag for your journey, or even two coats, or sandals, or a staff; for the worker is worthy of his support. And whatever city or village you enter, inquire who is worthy in it, and stay at his house until you leave that city. As you enter the house, give it your greeting. If the house is worthy, give it your blessing of peace. But if it is not worthy, take back your blessing of peace. Whoever does not receive you, nor heed your words, as you go out of that house or that city, shake the dust off your feet. Truly I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city. (Matthew 10:5-15)
Strong’s Concordance describes disciple thus:
Original Word: μαθητής, οῦ, ὁ
Usage: a learner, disciple, pupil.
HELPS Word-studies defines it similarly:
mathētḗs (from math-, the “mental effort needed to think something through”) – properly, a learner; a disciple, a follower of Christ who learns the doctrines of Scripture and the lifestyle they require; someone catechized with proper instruction from the Bible with its necessary follow-through (life-applications).
Precept Austin describes it as…
“…a person who learns from another by instruction, whether formal or informal. Discipleship includes the idea of one who intentionally learns by inquiry and observation and thus mathetes is more than a mere pupil. A mathetes describes an adherent of a teacher. As discussed below mathetes itself has no spiritual connotation, and it is used of superficial followers of Jesus as well as of genuine believers.”
How does all this relate to the Great Commission, evangelism, and the Woes of the Pharisees?
Don: In giving the lesser (more limited yet more detailed) commission, was Jesus trying to indicate that the disciples were not ready for the worldwide evangelism crusade of the Great Commission? That their introduction to the business of evangelism should be more limited to just the Jewish nation?
David: In the lesser commission, Jesus (reportedly) said:
It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher, and the slave like his master. (Matthew 10:25)
Yet in the “Woes” He berated the Pharisees for doing just this—for trying to make people become like them.
Don: The lesser commission came much earlier than the Great Commission, at a time when the disciples had only recently been recruited. One of them was a fisherman, one a tax collector, a couple of them had bad tempers (“sons of thunder”), one was a zealot…. All in all, they were a motley crew to whom it would perhaps have been irresponsible to give too much responsibility. On the other hand, it might be argued that what’s good for the Jews should be good for the Gentiles.
Not long after receiving the lesser commission, the disciples tried unsuccessfully to cast out a demon from a young man (Matthew 17:14-21). Perhaps it takes time to learn the business of discipling.
Jay: The disciples must have gone through stages. We tend to read Scripture in a fixed way, as though the natures of individual men and women are not subject to development and change over time. Could that explain why Jesus changed the commission (or appeared to)? The disciples needed specifically to learn to walk (heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons) before they could run (make disciples and baptize).
Anonymous: It may be clearer in the Arabic translation, which uses two words for disciple. One of them means “the pupils” (i.e., the 12 disciples) and “the sent” (the 70). Perhaps the 70 “sent” were empowered by the holy spirit to do certain tasks—cast out demons and so on—but not to teach. Perhaps their purpose was to lead people to believe in Jesus. Jesus knew in advance they would be persecuted and, in fleeing persecution, would become a global diaspora. The 12 pupils had a different purpose: To teach.
Are we “sent” or “pupils”? I think the latter. Some people today may have special powers, such as to cast out demons, heal the sick, and so on, but I don’t know any. When we teach the Gospel, we have to teach the Gospel, not our interpretation of it. We must neither add nor remove a word.
In Jordan, students are divided in middle school into two tracks: Those inclined to left-brain pursuits such as science and math and those inclined to right-brain subjects such as literature and arts. But the Gospel cannot be divided—it has to be taught with mathematical rigor.
Jay: There does seem to be a teacher–pupil relationship with respect to the Great Commission and a master–apprentice relationship with respect to the lesser commission. The apprentice is taught to cast out demons, etc. What is the pupil taught?
Anonymous: Were they not taught to tell everyone that their sins have been forgiven by Jesus who died for them? This is Good News—Gospel. My question to a disciple who came to preach that Gospel to me would be “How are my sins forgiven?” In asking, I assume the role of pupil and the disciple is in the role of teacher.
David: Is that question relevant? If our sins are forgiven no matter what, why do we need to know how? The Dao would gently turn the question away, I think. The Dao is unconcerned with evangelism, but I found two chapters in the Dao De Jing that relate to it. Chapter 58 suggests (to me) that the Great Commission is to be preferred over the lesser commission because too much detail risks perverting Truth and risks turning good into evil. Chapter 62 seems to say that the Dao/God is there for the asking (Ask and ye shall receive!) and the Dao/God forgives all sin. (I’ve bolded the relevant lines in the following James Legge* translation, which is equivalent to the KJV version of the Bible—old but sonorous):
Ch. 58: (Transformation according to circumstances)
The government that seems the most unwise,
Oft goodness to the people best supplies;
That which is meddling, touching everything,
Will work but ill, and disappointment bring.
Misery! – happiness is to be found by its side! Happiness! – misery lurks beneath it! Who knows what either will come to in the end?
Shall we then dispense with correction? The (method of) correction shall by a turn become distortion, and the good in it shall by a turn become evil. The delusion of the people (on this point) has indeed subsisted for a long time.
Therefore the sage is (like) a square which cuts no one (with its angles); (like) a corner which injures no one (with its sharpness). He is straightforward, but allows himself no license; he is bright, but does not dazzle.
Ch. 62 (Practising the Dao)
Dao has of all things the most honoured place.
No treasures give good men so rich a grace;
Bad men it guards, and doth their ill efface.
(Its) admirable words can purchase honour; (its) admirable deeds can raise their performer above others. Even men who are not good are not abandoned by it.
Therefore when the sovereign occupies his place as the Son of Heaven, and he has appointed his three ducal ministers, though (a prince) were to send in a round symbol-of-rank large enough to fill both the hands, and that as the precursor of the team of horses (in the court-yard), such an offering would not be equal to (a lesson of) this Dao, which one might present on his knees.
Why was it that the ancients prized this Dao so much? Was it not because it could be got by seeking for it, and the guilty could escape (from the stain of their guilt) by it? This is the reason why all under heaven consider it the most valuable thing.
Less is more!
Robin: When comforting Martha for the death of Lazarus,…
…Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to Him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to Him, “Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He who comes into the world.” (John 11:23-27)
In the garden of Gethsemane, He said:
“Now My soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour. Father, glorify Your name.” Then a voice came out of heaven: “I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.” So the crowd of people who stood by and heard it were saying that it had thundered; others were saying, “An angel has spoken to Him.” Jesus answered and said, “This voice has not come for My sake, but for your sakes. Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.” But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die. The crowd then answered Him, “We have heard out of the Law that the Christ is to remain forever; and how can You say, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up’? Who is this Son of Man?” So Jesus said to them, “For a little while longer the Light is among you. Walk while you have the Light, so that darkness will not overtake you; he who walks in the darkness does not know where he goes. While you have the Light, believe in the Light, so that you may become sons of Light.”
These things Jesus spoke, and He went away and hid Himself from them. (John 12:27-36)
It seems to me these passages are important in helping us understand the relationship between sin and love, and even the earthly process through which we are forgiven. It’s more than just “We’re forgiven; don’t worry about it.” You can’t see the love if you don’t see the sacrifice of Christ.
Jay: He told the disciples in the lesser commission that if people did not want to hear what they had to say (the Gospel) then they should just move on to seek more fertile ground. Was this a reflection of their inexperience at this point in their discipleship, or is it an immutable Truth? And how were they to avoid the Woes of the Pharisees in carrying out their commission? It was a heavy and complex responsibility to place on people just starting out their discipleship.
Kiran: The Jews knew the Scriptures and had specific ideas about the Messiah. Jesus wanted them to see Him as the Messiah not through their intellects but through their hearts. But He was more lenient with respect to the Gentiles.
Robin: Knowledge crammed into the cranium may be hard to internalize in the heart. The Gentiles were used to hearing that they were not good enough, not of the seed of Abraham. So their faith in Jesus had to be child-like faith, a matter of the heart.
Kiran: Jesus used different methods in His evangelism. For instance, on the road to Emmaus He based his evangelism on Scripture, as we do when we evangelize to other Christians. When evangelizing to pagans, like the woman who said she was not worthy to eat the breadcrumbs that fell from His table, He had no need to evangelize—she got it. He had to tell the Samaritan woman at the well that He was the Messiah. We tend to do Scripture-based evangelism, because we can’t do miracle-based evangelism.
David: Is the lesser commission mentioned in the other synoptic Gospels? I am somewhat suspicious of its authenticity, because (to me at least) it sounds un-Jesus-like in places.
Jay: Luke 9–10 tells much the same story.
Kiran: The forgiveness of sins, and therefore the sacrifice of Jesus, seems to have more appeal to Gentiles than to Jews. Perhaps the Gentiles felt more burdened by sin than the Jews who considered themselves relatively righteous.
Chris: The disciples had just been recruited when Jesus gave them the lesser commission. Being new to the job they probably needed to go through some sort of training to develop their discipling skills. What better way than to go to people who knew the Scriptures best—the Jews—to hone the skills they would eventually need for the Great Commission? Jesus did not want them to argue the Pharisees’ points—with which the disciples would already be familiar; He wanted them to know who His Father was.
It’s as if they were sent out to de-program the most programmed people. If they could do that, they would be ready to take on the world. Jesus did tell them, near the end of Matthew 10, that they would eventually be taking the message to the Gentiles. The lesser commission was just the beginning of a process, just Stage 1.
Jay: If the lesser commission is Evangelism Stage 1, and the Great Commission is Evangelism Stage n (assuming several stages between), so that this is a continuum, is it OK to stay in Stage 1, or does that risk becoming like a “Woe to the Pharisees”?
Kiran: In Luke 9, they are told to simply go heal the sick and tell them the kingdom of God is near. The Pharisees were saying that they alone had the keys to that kingdom and people had to qualify, through them, to get in. The disciples were to make the kingdom accessible for free, to Jews and Gentiles alike. Even today we tell people that if they keep the Sabbath, eat vegetarian, eschew coffee, and exercise daily then they increase their chances of getting closer to God and His kingdom. Are we at risk of the Woes of the Pharisees?
Jay: On the face of it, it seems the lesser commission is about works, good deeds, whereas the Great Commission is about teaching, about something cerebral—something more than good deeds. Good deeds are a wonderful commission and very much in line with the life and mission of Jesus. He ended His ministry, however, with the Great Commission, suggesting it had a special importance. What exactly does it mean to make a disciple? We still need to work on this.
Kiran: It would be an amazing church ministry to take care of people’s needs and tell them God is with them. That work is hard. It takes full-time work and a major financial commitment.
* James Legge was a Scottish 19th-century sinologist, missionary, and scholar.