Billy Graham, perhaps the greatest preacher/revivalist of our generation, in a recent interview asked us to remember Jesus' final command to His disciples to go into the entire world and preach the Gospel has never been withdrawn, and we must take it very seriously. Then he claimed that present churches exists because centuries ago men and women took Jesus' command seriously and committed their lives to bringing the good news of God's love in Christ to our forefathers by embodying the great commission as found in Matthew 28:19-20.
Although I respect the evangelism of Graham, I feel the need to critique his general statement in light of my own interpretation of the Great Commission. Graham was vague in his referral to what group of persons centuries ago that took Jesus command seriously, but it seems that he is referring to the apostles which cannot be discounted. It has been quite recent in the 16th century that the interpretation of Matthew 28:19 separately has become a decisive text for the mission of the church. Only since the 19th century has the verse, especially in Protestantism, begun its victory march as "the great commission."
Before this recent awakening, so to speak, the ancient church understood this command of Jesus to the 11 to refer to the apostles of that day, thus only to the initial period of the church (Justin 1 Apol. 31.7; Aristides Apol. 2.8). In keeping with this conviction there was the legend that the apostles had divided the world among themselves in order to take the Gospel everywhere. Accordingly, the ancient church scarcely ever appealed to Matthew 28:19a for its own universal missionary task. Its missionary proclamation, which in the second and third centuries was largely a proclamation locally from house to house, could not be easily associated with 28:19a. Thus one seldom thought this final charge of Jesus was not just meant for the apostles of the initial period.
I am grateful that many Christians and churches can no longer read this text uncritically as the Magna Carta of their missionary proclamation without taking into consideration the misuse of the command of Christ to "make disciples." I am thinking in regards to our modern understanding of the relationship between missions, colonialism, and the export of Western civilization and of the more intensive contacts with non-Christian religions. However, these insights should not keep us from recognizing clearly what the text says.
I am sure that Graham being a Baptist interpretation of the Great Commission comes from his roots in Anabaptism that applied Jesus' commission directly to the present. They defended themselves on the two fronts with the traditional interpretation that the command of Christ applied only to the apostles at the beginning of Christianity. In contrast to the Catholics they rejected apostolic succession.
As a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I struggle with the parameters of the definition of evangelization as it relates to my theological understanding of loving one's neighbor spontaneously as a response to the grace filled waters of our baptism. Notwithstanding to varying theological positions, we cannot deny that the special position of Christ's command at the end of the Gospel it is clear that Jesus' mission command for the church has a fundamental significance. Matthew actually thinks, as do I, that the church is basically and fundamentally a missionary church, and he conceives of its mission concretely as a "going" to all nations in not being a fuel of domination and power but in making disciples.