The Nature of the Great Commission (Part 2)
Topic: Missions & Evangelism Passage: Matthew 28:18–28:20
Sermon from Matthew 28:18-20 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Delivered on Sunday, September 8, 2013
Missions Emphasis Month
Jesus' Authority: The WHY of the Great Commission
Our focus in preaching for September is global missions, and today’s message is the second of four we’re doing on the Great Commission given by Jesus in Matt 28:18-20. Last Sunday, we looked only at verse 18, which reveals the universal authority of Jesus Christ: “All authority,” Jesus says, “in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” As the eternal Son of God, Jesus entered history, broke the power of sin, destroyed the works of the devil, rose victorious over death, and God his Father has now installed him as heaven’s true and rightful King. Jesus has the supreme right and the infinite power to achieve all his purposes in heaven and on earth without fail. Nothing in heaven and nothing on earth can thwart his plan to change the world into what he wants it to be.
That’s the authority behind the Great Commission. We might say that Jesus’ authority is the Atlas upholding the Great Commission and the engine driving the Great Commission. As King over heaven and earth, he has the right to rule all nations and the power to bring all nations into submission to himself. And based on that authority he says to the disciples in verse 19, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”
I love this about Jesus. Before Jesus tells his disciples what to do, he reveals to them who he is—the crucified and risen Christ who has all authority in heaven and on earth. Before Jesus tells his disciples how to serve, he reveals to them how powerful he is to save—no sin was too great for him to bear and not even death could hold him in the grave. Before Jesus tells his disciples how far to go in their mission, he reveals to them how far his authority extends for the mission—no cosmic powers or earthly kingdoms or school boy or subatomic particle stands outside his heavenly jurisdiction.
That’s really encouraging if you’re a follower of Jesus. We owe our allegiance to Jesus simply because he’s the Creator and King of the universe. But as our Creator and King relates to us through his cross, it’s not the leadership of an exacting tyrant who could give a rip about your well-being. The way Jesus relates to everybody who trusts him is as we see here in verses 18-19: before commanding you to do anything for him, he reveals all that he is for you as the crucified and risen Savior—and therein lies the beauty of pursuing what he wants us to do. Why wouldn’t we want to serve this King, who knew us more deeply than we could ever know ourselves, who saw down to the very core of our hatred of him, and yet out of sheer love for the unlovely still came to die for our sins and rise victorious for our eternal happiness with God. Jesus’ authority to rule the universe is the same authority he used to die for a countless multitude of sinners like us among the nations and raise himself up to gather every last one of them to himself.
Jesus' Mission: The WHAT of the Great Commission
That’s why we look today at the what of the Great Commission. This kind of King—our Savior-King—has all authority in heaven and on earth; therefore let’s go and spread the news about him to the ends of the earth, so that those who’ve never heard might hear of Jesus’ worth, his authority, his excellence, his power, and his kindness toward rebels who embrace his cross as their only hope. So, I’m moving us now from the why of the Great Commission in verse 18 to the what of the Great Commission in verses 19-20a. Last week we looked at the authority behind the Great Commission—that’s the why—today we’re looking at the nature of the Great Commission—that’s the what. So let’s spend the rest of our time fleshing out the nature of the Great Commission.
1. The Task of the Great Commission belongs to the Church
First of all, the task [of the Great Commission] belongs to the church. The command of Jesus in verse 19 to go and make disciples of all nations was not limited to the apostles and their ministry. Jesus’ command is still binding on the church today. That may sound like an obvious point to some of you, but some will actually argue that Jesus’ charge was limited to the Eleven. That doesn’t mean these folks don’t care for the lost; it just means they don’t see any compelling reason from Matt 28 to tell Christians to go to the nations while so many remained lost at home. But I think the Bible leads us to a different answer. I agree that Jesus gave his command to the eleven disciples. That’s what it tells us in verse 16: “the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.” But the command is given to the eleven in their role as disciples. Jesus wants more people to become what these eleven men already are in their role as disciples. So the very nature of discipleship—making more people into what Jesus already made you to be—isn’t a responsibility that ceases with the Eleven, but carries on to every disciple beginning with the Eleven. Their obedience to making disciples becomes the model for our obedience in making disciples.
Something else to note is that Jesus gives the disciples a promise in verse 20 which is meant to encourage them throughout their mission—“behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Jesus cannot mean that he would remain only with the Eleven to the end of the age, because the Eleven did not live to the end of the age; they died within decades of hearing his command. Jesus’ promise in verse 20 is good “to the end of the age”—that means to the day Jesus Christ returns to earth. There’s a span of time between Jesus’ resurrection and Jesus’ return; and Jesus is promising to be with his church until the end of the age, not just the eleven disciples. So, if the promise to sustain the mission is good till the end of the age, then the command to do the mission is good till the end of the age as well. And we don’t have to look very hard in the Book of Acts or in the letters of Paul to see that making disciples is the work of the church.
So we who confess Jesus is Lord would do well to listen to Jesus’ words and conform our lives to them. If he has won our allegiance through the blood he spilled for us and the crown he wears for us, then how could we not hang on his every word? If you’re a Christian, these are your marching orders. When you confessed Jesus as your Savior, you signed up to give the rest of your life to this commission. You are the means by which Christ makes disciples of all nations. You are the means through which the world is to hear the gospel of the kingdom. You are God’s chosen instruments to penetrate darkness among the Alawi people in Syria, to translate the Bible among the Abaza people in Turkey, to overcome language barriers that churches may be planted among the Chak people in Myanmar. That may mean you stay in a particular place like Fort Worth to strengthen local ministries, but global missions will be so much a part of you that all your efforts in local ministries contribute to that great end of seeing multitudes from every nation worshiping Jesus as Lord, singing the songs we sing, crying the same tears of thanksgiving we cry, praying for his kingdom to come on earth—which leads us right-in to our next observation. So, the first thing we see is that the task belongs to the church.
2. The Task of the Great Commission Aims for All Peoples
The second is that the task [of the Great Commission] aims for all peoples. Jesus says in verse 19, “Go and make disciples of all nations;” and by that he doesn’t mean “make disciples of all nations in the sense of formal political unions with geographical boundaries—like the USA or Cote D’Ivoire or Germany or China. The Bible suggests that Jesus has something different in mind when he says “all nations,” namely, smaller people groups with various cultural and linguistic barriers to understanding the truth about Jesus. So, “all nations” has less to do with politics and geography and more to do with cultures and languages that often times span political and geographical boundaries.
That’s why we see God’s promises to save the world applied not merely to nations comparable to an Israel or an Assyria, but applied also to smaller people groups like tribes and clans and languages and peoples—such that even when we get to the very end of the Bible’s storyline that’s exactly who we see standing before the throne of God: “by your blood, you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9). That’s what Jesus has in mind when he says “make disciples of all nations.” He has in mind not just individuals within geographical areas; he has in mind people groups—tribes, languages, peoples, and nations.
And why wouldn’t he as the promised son of Abraham? Think back to how Matthew opens his account of Jesus: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Part of Matthew’s agenda is to help you see that by sending Jesus into the world, God’s has fulfilled his promise to Abraham to bless all the families of the earth: “In you Abraham shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Gen 12:3; 28:14). Matthew’s Gospel is a world-wide announcement that the long-awaited son of Abraham arrived in the person of Jesus; and by dying for sins and rising from the dead, Jesus has flung the door of salvation wide open for all the families of the earth. Anybody—without distinction—who comes and puts their faith in Jesus Christ, will find themselves eternally blessed with the forgiveness of sins and a righteousness before God that makes angels marvel. The Great Commission includes all peoples without distinction, because the atonement includes all peoples without distinction—whether that’s Cannanites and Hittites and Jebusites or Aghori and Dongxiang and Fulani and Swahili and Sri Lankan Moor.
The point is that Jesus’ command will not let us reason that we only have a responsibility to witness to the lost where we live. The focus of the Great Commission is not amassing individual conversions to Christ wherever you happen to be—though that’s included—but about amassing individual conversions to Christ among all people groups of the world. The work of the gospel through the church moves and moves and moves and moves until disciples are made among all 13,000 people groups scattered throughout the world. The task of global missions aims to reach all the unreached peoples of the world with the good news of Jesus Christ. The Great Commission will not let all of us settle in Fort Worth the rest of our days; it’s focus is to so thrill the church with Christ’s world-wide authority, that we can’t help but train and send more laborers into the harvest.
Clarifying the Task: Frontier Missions and Local Ministries
Now, that doesn’t mean the outreach many of you practice with your neighbors is unimportant. It also doesn’t mean that we should down-play any of the ministries you may have in the work place or in education or in care group or in teaching Sunday school or in the public square or in loving your neighbor. What it does mean is that all your various labors in those ministries should serve the onward march of the gospel to all nations. Paul didn’t interpret Jesus’ command to mean that every Christian had to pack their bags and move to the next people group. He left a Timothy in Ephesus and a Titus in Crete to ensure the work he began continued. And when he asked the church in Rome to support his mission to Spain “to preach the gospel where Christ has yet to be named,” he didn’t expect the church in Rome to close up shop and come with him. He simply expected that their own ministries would only promote and excel the evangelization and discipleship of peoples where the gospel was yet known.
In fact, Rom 15 is why we distinguish at Redeemer between local ministries and frontier missions. The focus of local ministry is the evangelization and discipleship of peoples where churches are present and the gospel is known. These are places where Paul-type missionaries can legitimately say, “I no longer have any room for work in these regions” (Rom 15:23). The focus of frontier missions is the evangelization and discipleship of peoples where churches are nonexistent and the gospel is yet known. And we want to equip people for both—so that our local ministries never become so inwardly focused that we lose sight of the nations, and so that our frontier missions efforts never lose sight of the importance of establishing local ministries that honor Christ among every people group. You have to pray about which one God has for you—you either go or you send and support. Those are your two options as a Christian.
3. The Task of the Great Commission Is Making Disciples of Jesus
So, the task belongs to the church; it aims for all peoples; and now thirdly, the task [of the Great Commission] is making disciples of Jesus. Our task is not merely solving world hunger; it’s not merely changing public policy; it’s not merely transforming the city; it’s not merely what some might call “redeeming” culture; it’s not merely what some call “social justice.” Our task as the church is to make disciples of Jesus among all peoples. This makes the church remarkably different than any government agency or the United Nations or Meals on Wheels or Habitat for Humanity. Christians may very well find their participation in these sorts of organizations a way to love their neighbor or be a faithful presence in the community, but these organizations cannot meet the ultimate need of the nations. Only Christ can meet the ultimate need of the nations, the forgiveness of their sins and a right relationship with God—and helping people see that is the primary business of the church. Renewed cities on this side of the kingdom have their benefits; restored bodies to physical health is a wonderful cause; but they mean absolutely nothing if people aren’t hearing about Jesus and submitting their lives to him as Lord.
Please don’t get me wrong: the Bible teaches that we should be courageous and creative in loving our neighbors, especially those neighbors in closest proximity to us—that’s also part of submitting to Jesus as Lord and reflecting his compassion for the poor and perishing. James 1:27 says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” But when we ask “What did Jesus send us into the world to do?” the Bible puts making disciples of Jesus front and center, so that with all our courageous and creative love for our neighbor, we are constantly lifting up the name of Jesus explicitly and making sure people know they must submit to his rule or perish.
So, if this is the case, what does making disciples of all nations include? Based on Jesus’ words, I would say making disciples includes introducing them to Jesus (or evangelism), identifying them with Jesus and his church (or baptism), and instructing them to obey Jesus in everything (or teaching).
Evangelism: Introducing People to Jesus
Before people can become Jesus’ disciples they must first be introduced to him. We often call this “evangelism.” Now, Jesus doesn’t mention evangelism explicitly in our text, but it’s safe to say he assumes it—especially since Jesus already made it clear elsewhere. Turn with me to Matt 16:16-18. During his earthly ministry, Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” And Simon Peter replies in verse 16, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Then Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” What is the rock Jesus is talking about? It’s not just Peter, the man; and it’s not even his mere confession. It’s the apostolic confession as a whole, which bears witness to Christ. Jesus promises to build his church on the apostles’ witness—not just any witness, but the apostles’ witness—to him being the Christ of God—a message that Jesus says in verse 21 must include his death and resurrection. And that’s precisely the confession Peter makes from the day of Pentecost forward; and the one Peter tells us to make in 1 Pet 2:9: “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
Then turn over to Matt 24:14: Jesus says, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” Notice “to all nations” and “then the end will come.” Very similar language used in Matt 28:19-20—make disciples of all nations…and I will be with you to the end of the age. Jesus is referring to one and the same thing. Making disciples of all nations includes, first and foremost, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom to all nations. He says something very similar in Luke 24:47, “that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in [Jesus’] name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” We don’t win the world with war and violence and threats; we win the world with the gospel of peace and sacrificial love to see other people hear it.
Part and parcel to making disciples is introducing people to Jesus by regularly bringing the gospel into their lives. Our life should be one big on-ramp to Jesus. I really love that right now we have seven brothers and sisters on the ground in East Asia, four on the ground in Turkey, two in Germany, one brother who ministers to the deaf in the Congo, two more on the ground in Utah and one on the way, two in Oklahoma, another couple aiming for Central Asia, one sister considering England, and I hope we can be part of helping more. But one area we still need growth on the home front is in regularly bring the gospel into the lives of others—or personal evangelism.
Whenever you evaluate your own discipleship, do you ever include in the mix of questions whether you’re making disciples, which can really only be initiated through efforts in evangelism? I think we’re often prone to limit our discipleship to disciplines such as Bible reading, Scripture memory, regular fellowship with the saints, and prayer; but often evangelism and disciple-making is something we overlook but is very much a part of who we are. In light of Jesus’ command, let me encourage you again not to reduce your Christian life to personal holiness that’s devoid of mission—according to Jesus, true holiness finds its expression in mission. So let’s find ways to build evangelism and discipleship into the rhythms of our lives. Let’s seek growth in this area by finding ways to make our lives more accessible to lost people. Just because we may be around lost people every day, doesn’t mean we’re making ourselves accessible to them. Engaging them takes humble initiative like when Jesus took the initiative in saving us. Make it a point to ask them questions about Jesus as you meet. Help them see why he’s more valuable than their money, why he’s more satisfying than sinful sex, why he’s a far better escape than drugs. Tell them how he’s forgiven you, how the cross has humbled you, how his resurrection life supplies you with all you need from day to day.
None of our evangelism efforts will look the same or even have to be as often as the next person’s, since all of us are at different places with marital status or children or education or vocational demands or whatever. But evangelism as part of making disciples should at least be on our spiritual-health radar. We should have the mindset of Paul who believed, because of the wealth of mercy he received in Christ, that he was “under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish” to preach the good news of Jesus (Rom 1:14-15).
Baptism: Identifying People with Jesus and His Church
Another thing discipleship includes is identifying people with Jesus and his church. That’s all Jesus means by “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Baptism is the ordinance Jesus gave to the church to celebrate when sinners identify themselves publicly as Jesus-followers. Baptism is no mere ritual, but the visual expression that you are now dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Rom 6:11). Baptism says to the watching world, that “I no longer belong to myself, but to the risen Christ who bought me. Everything about me belongs to his lordship. Grace controls my life, not sin.” Baptism also identifies you with Christ’s church, a whole army of saints that loves what Christ loves and hates what Christ hates. Baptism marks you off from the world with the rest of the church, and says the domain of darkness is not where you belong anymore; but you belong to the saints in light.
Baptism is part of making disciples because the church is part of God’s plan in training and keeping disciples walking in step with their new identity in Christ. We saw Jesus mention the church once already in Matt 16:18; he does it again in Matt 18:15-20; and in both places the point is clear that the way Jesus makes his heavenly authority visible on earth is through local churches filled with baptized believers submitting to his reign, walking in step with his commandments, growing everyday in our obedience to him. And learning to live like that together takes instruction—instructing people to obey Jesus in everything.
Teaching: Instructing People in Obeying Jesus
We introduce people to Jesus, identify people with Jesus, and now we instruct people in obeying Jesus. I get that from verse 20: “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Brothers and sisters, faithfulness to the Great Commission is not racking up decisions for Christ and then leaving new converts to deal with the syncretism of the next witch doctor in town on their own. Faithfulness to the Great Commission is not merely counting the raised hands on the field, but laying our lives down to see every person who confesses Jesus as Lord mature in their walk with him. Jesus’ words will not allow us simply to aim for decisions and pride ourselves on annual baptism numbers. Making disciples of Jesus includes teaching them to obey Jesus. Jesus didn’t die and rise again for one-time spiritual experiences, he died and rose again for people to have a Christ-comprehensiveness about everything they value, think, say, do, and feel. He reigns to establish a kingdom among all peoples, not merely lip service to the gospel.
Disciples of Jesus are a tangible reminder that through Christ’s death and resurrection God disarmed the rulers and authorities, he broke their power forever, and he’s bringing all things in subjection to Christ (1 Cor 15:24; Col 3:15; Heb 2:14). God receives glory among the nations when the churches he builds look more and more like his Son (Eph 1:3-14; 3:20-21; 4:11-16). And that only comes through instruction, through patient teaching, through the nurturing of converts into the obedience of faith.
That means winning individual converts among unreached people groups is never the end of our work. We must see them unto maturity. We must aim to see all of those converts firmly established in healthy, faithful, self-replicating congregations among every people group—making sure they have Bibles in their own language, a clear understanding of the gospel, sound doctrine throughout, regular care structures for each other, exemplary leadership to teach the next generation, servant-hearted outreach, vision for making disciples, sacrificial giving, and most of all, abiding joy in the Lord and the work he gives them to do. This takes personal investment, sacrificial love, patient instruction, and lots of time, but nothing that’s out of Jesus’ reach and ability. Our pragmatism and impatient lifestyles will constantly tempt us to short-cut the more labor intensive sides of discipleship—like patient teaching—but if Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth, then he knows what he’s doing, and his ways are much wiser than our own. We would do well to remember his instructions in Proverbs 21:5: “The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty.”
The Lord has revealed his plan for making disciples and he has given us sufficient examples in the apostles, who did not shortchange God’s people, whom God obtained with his own blood (Acts 20:28). They ensured each disciple and each church was well nurtured and firmly established before moving to new territory (e.g., Rom 15:19). Paul’s goal in Col 1:28 was to “present everyone mature in Christ,” and our aim should be nothing less in the Great Commission.
So, the task belongs to the church, the task aims for the nations, and the task revolves around making disciples of Jesus—introducing them to Jesus, identifying them with Jesus, and instructing them in obeying Jesus. That’s the nature of the Great Commission; that’s what we are to be about as a church.
I need to close, but let me do so by addressing those of you who may desire to leave the local ministries of a gospel-saturated context in order to make disciples among the unreached peoples of the world. If that’s you, please come see me after the service today or shoot me an email later this week. The elders would love to help you toward serving in that way. You might also let your care group know so that they can begin praying for the Lord’s guidance. I would urge you to pick up a copy of John Piper’s Let the Nations Be Glad, from the Book Nook, or even begin reading missionary biographies like those of David Brainerd or Adoniram Judson or John Paton. Make plans to come to the Hold-the-Ropes fellowship next week and visit the different booths that will be set up to inform you about our teams on the field and the people groups they’re working with. And then devote yourself to pray specifically about missions (alongside your spouse if you’re married), and see what the Lord will do.
More in The Great Commission
September 22, 2013The Completion of the Great Commission (Part 4)
September 15, 2013The Courage for the Great Commission (Part 3)
September 1, 2013The Authority Behind the Great Commission (Part 1)