At its heart, the Great Commission is a call and invitation by Jesus to participate in the life of the triune God through making disciples (Matthew 28:16-20). The reason many Christians intentionally give focus to and celebrate the Trinity on a designated Sunday is because the God we worship exists as One God in three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit. This doctrine of the Trinity was articulated by early worshiping and serving Christians, who, under the stress and in the face of questions and challenges, took pains to say with clarity just who God is and why he is important.
Christ’s Great Commission is still in force for us today. What is more, the way to fulfill this command of Jesus is to participate in the life of the Trinitarian God. Sometimes we need an outside perspective to understand our own situation and how we are to live into these important words of Jesus. Missionary and author Nik Ripken (which is not his real name because he ministers in countries that are not open to the gospel and missionary activity) writes that he once met with a group of Chinese house church leaders and was marveling to them about the explosion of new converts and believers to Christ – many estimates discern at least 100 million Christians now in China. What Nik Ripken heard from those leaders in response is not what he expected to hear. This is what they said concerning his estimates of the numbers of Christians in China: “Probably two-thirds of the people you mentioned regularly attend a house church. Most of those people have been baptized. Most of those people contribute financially to the work of a house church. But we do not consider church members to be true followers of Jesus until they have led other people to Christ and until they have helped plant more house churches; only then do they truly know God.”
I would suggest that one of the chief reasons the Chinese church has exploded in numbers is because they have taken up the mantle of Christ’s mission of making disciples to such a degree that leading others to Jesus and developing disciples into the life of the Trinity and forming churches is “normal.” One of the obstacles for us as Western believers is that we look at what the Chinese are doing not as normal but as “radical.” But what if what we consider as radical is really supposed to be the normal Christian life and experience of all believers in Jesus? Please understand I do not make this point in order to guilt us, but rather to let our Chinese brothers and sisters lead us into godly sorrow that results in new life and inspire us in this wonderful privilege of making disciples.
The Trinity is mentioned in the Great Commission because God himself is a missionary God. The content of our discipleship and teaching is to be in orienting believers into the life of God as Trinity. After Christ’s resurrection, the original disciples went to a specific mountain – maybe the mountain where Jesus began by teaching about righteousness with the Sermon on the Mount. This would give the disciples a connection with understanding Christ’s authority. They needed to grasp Christ’s authority because when they saw him some worshiped and some doubted. The text does not tell us why some doubted. I would suggest that based on the gospel accounts of the disciples having not figured-out that Jesus was bringing in a spiritual kingdom where people are transformed and follow Christ’s teachings, that they doubted what the real mission was all about and may have doubted their ability to engage in that mission even if they understood it. Therefore, Jesus made the clear call and invitation that what he wants done (since he has the authority) is for the church is to be about the business of making disciples.
The term “make disciples” is perhaps so overused to the point of losing its punch and meaning. Here are some other faithful ways of understanding this verb to make disciples: “spiritually form followers;” “develop interns in the faith;” “build committed believers in Jesus;” and “apprentice others in the ways of Jesus.” The idea that Jesus is conveying here is one of investing deeply into mentoring-type relationships that will result in faithful Christians who will, in turn, invest in others. The Apostle Paul would say later to his apprentice Timothy: “The things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2). In other words, we need to be mentored in the faith and to then turn around and mentor others in the faith.
We reflect the image of our triune God when we take up the mantle of being, as the Nicene Creed puts it, one holy catholic and apostolic church. That is, just as God is not three gods but one God, so the church is to be one; just as God is holy, we are to be holy in all we do; just as God gathers people from every nation, so the church is to gather all kinds of people for worship and discipleship; and, just as God is a missionary God who sends himself to reach the nations, so we are to be apostolic (which means those that are sent), not only gathered together but sent out to make disciples, to mentor others in the faith.
We all long to see this world a better place and to see our culture and society come into greater conformity with Christian morality. For that to happen, we can learn from our Chinese brothers and sisters that making disciples will need to be a normal every day attitude and action. It is my sincere desire that every one of us who has been mentored, apprenticed, and oriented in the faith in such a way that has impacted our lives will put that same ministry into others. We all need three levels of relationships: a spiritual mentor; someone who is a fellow friend on the journey to fellowship with; and, another for whom we are calling and inviting to participate with us in the life of the triune God.
The Father sent the Son to this earth. While he was here he poured his life into some disciples. Then, when he died, those disciples were filled with grief. But they later understood that he had to die so that others who hungered could live. “Take eat, this is my body given for you.” What the Trinity means for us is that our missionary God has reached us and is using us to reach others. Through the situations of our lives we learn the ways of Jesus. We learn compassion. We learn humility. We learn how be at peace. And we are made disciples, united to Christ and participating in the life of the Father, Son, and Spirit.