Most readers of the scriptures are familiar with the “Great Commission” given by Jesus to his disciples after his resurrection. Many can recite it by heart: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you … “ (Matthew 28:19-20).
While those verses are consistently quoted as the Commission, in reality they represent the final form of a number of commissions or “job directives” Jesus gave to his disciples during his ministry which often get lost in the rush to examine, ponder and discuss the “Great” commission. This is not to say that we should not focus on the final Great Commission, but that it can also be profitable to look back at some of the earlier commissions given during Christ’s ministry to see what we can learn there. For example, look carefully at the ones recorded in the Book of Luke:
Luke 9:2: “… and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.”
Luke 10:9 “Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’”
Matthew also records one of these earlier commissions:
Matthew 10:7-8 “As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons…”
The difference is obvious. The earlier commissions specifically included healing the sick – with an emphasis placed on that task almost equal to the emphasis placed on preaching the Gospel.
That emphasis is undeniably missing in the final Great Commission which appears to focus entirely on the work of evangelism without any direct mention of the sick. But does this mean the needs of the sick are no longer to be a vital concern for the Christian? In answer to that, perhaps we should remember that the Great Commission itself ends with the words “… teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20, emphasis added), so from that perspective alone, the principles of the earlier commissions Jesus gave may still apply to us today as part of the “everything” Jesus had commanded.
Helping the sick was certainly part of the example Jesus set for us. He not only used physical sickness as a metaphor in his teaching (Mark 2:17) and as a sign of the divine nature of His work, but also He frequently healed and helped the sick purely as a matter of compassion, as we see throughout the Gospels. Godly concern for the sick also clearly precedes the Christian scriptures. Psalm 107:20 says, “He sent out his word and healed them,” showing David’s awareness of God’s compassion in this area – compassion which was expressed many times throughout the Old Testament, as well as in the work of the disciples who continued the New Testament ministry of Christ.
Now, this doesn’t mean that the situation has not changed at all regarding God’s commission to His Church. It seems clear that while God still can – and does – heal, He has not continued to do so in quite the same manner as He did when Jesus sent out disciples who routinely administered healings as an everyday part of their work (Matthew 10:1). But although we may not be empowered to heal today in the way the early disciples were, think about this in terms of the Great Commission: as individual Christians we may not be directly going into all the world, teaching and baptizing, either – yet we can support those who do these works, financially, in prayer and in other ways.
Even without the same command and power of healing given the early disciples, we can still – to the extent we are able, and with the same compassion - do the work of helping the sick mentioned in all the earlier forms of Jesus’ commission to his disciples. Although the evangelism of the Great Commission should indeed be a central focus point for us, we can still give our physical and prayerful support to those helping the sick, and many of us can also find opportunities to directly work to serve those who are victims of sickness and disability.
We can do this in various ways. While we may not have the power to heal, the Spirit of God does give the power of encouragement, support, and help. And we do have the opportunity to help - physically and spiritually - those who are ill just as much as we have the opportunity to be a witness to those who are well. One thing to keep in mind, however, is the great difference between acute and chronic illness. We can help those suffering the intense affliction of acute illness in a number of ways, difficult though that may be, but those suffering from chronic illnesses and disabilities often have different needs. In terms of practical help, we should remember that some who are dealing with long-term illnesses don’t just need short-term encouragement - they need practical encouragement to continue to lead meaningful lives, and help to find opportunities in which they themselves can help others.
Sometimes it is the sick and disabled who can best help those in the same position as themselves. Their experience and understanding of the problems can be far greater than ours. We can see this in the impact of the great variety of support groups for those suffering serious diseases and other medical conditions. But we can still help. Does someone you know need help to get to a support group? Help to find space to run one? This is just one example of the many possible ways we can help those suffering with long-term health and disability problems. It just takes a little thought to see how we can serve in each particular circumstance.
Although it may not be directly mentioned in the Great Commission, it should be remembered that helping the sick and disabled is nevertheless part of the scriptural background of that Commission. If we read Matthew 28: 19-20 to the end, perhaps we can see that serving the needs of the sick is also an important aspect of “everything” Jesus commanded. And that makes sense. Not only was helping the sick a constant part of Jesus’ own life, but also His words that “ … I was sick and you looked after me…” (Matthew 25:36) still apply as much today as they did when he spoke them as a profound lesson during his earthly ministry.