The Greatest Commission
Shaun LePage, October 23, 2005
A. Jordanian journalist, Fouad Hussein recently interviewed several al Qaeda leaders, including al Qaeda’s man in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The book is only available in Arabic, but it lays out a very straightforward strategy for world conquest. According to Hussein, al Qaeda has a seven phase plan for taking over the world. The first five phases include a series of terrorist attacks and wars—which we are already witnessing. Phase 6, Hussein reports, is that by 2022, the world will be conquered by the unstoppable armies of Islam. This is the phase Osama bin Laden has been talking about for years. In the final phase of this plan, all the world’s inhabitants will be forced to either convert to Islam, or submit (as second class citizens) to Islamic rule. This will supposedly be completed near the year 2025. “Islam”—by the way—is a word that means “peace.”
B. World conquest has been the goal of many groups throughout history. Most notably in the last century, Nazism and Communism held the goal of world conquest. Thankfully, both failed.
C. In fact, we know for sure that until the very end of time, there will be those who seek to gain control over the whole world. In Revelation 13, John was allowed to see into the future and he saw a beast coming up out of the sea. John wrote this about the beast in vs.7 & 8: “7It was also given to him to make war with the saints and to overcome them, and authority over every tribe and people and tongue and nation was given to him. 8All who dwell on the earth will worship him, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain.” We don’t know yet who this “beast” is, but we do know that this final attempt—like all other attempts for world conquest before it—will fail.
D. How do we know? Because there is only One who is worthy to rule the entire world. There is only One who has complete authority over heaven and earth. And He will not share His glory with anyone else. He, too, has a plan for world conquest. But His plan is motivated by love, not hate. His plan includes a message of peace, not a sword of violence. His plan will be advanced by humble servants, not arrogant terrorists.
E. It’s true that the Book of Revelation describes a day when God’s judgment will fall on those who reject Him, but He himself will carry out that judgment—not His disciples. As Creator and Lord of the universe, He alone is able to judge righteously. And that day will only come after He has provided numerous opportunities for the world to turn from its wickedness and rebellion and idolatry.
F. Today is a day of opportunity. In this present time, the people of the world are being presented with a God-given opportunity to avoid God’s judgment. That opportunity is in our hands. It is to be presented by you and me—Christ-followers.
G. There are some passages of Scripture that we return to more frequently than others.
1. At Christmas time, we return to the stories of Christ’s birth. Matthew 1 & 2, Luke 1 & 2 and John 1.
2. At Easter, we return to the passion of Christ. Each of the four gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—devote large sections of their eyewitness accounts of the life of Christ to the stories of His death and resurrection.
3. Perhaps you have a favorite passage that you return to more often than others because it has given you encouragement or it helps you stay focused on what is most important.
4. One passage that all Christians need to return to on a regular basis is found at the end of Matthew’s gospel. The Great Commission, found in Matthew 28:16-20, is one of the most studied, memorized and analyzed paragraphs in all the Bible. And rightly so.
5. As we look over our core values—the values that you and I share; the values that have brought us together at this time in our lives—it will become clear that the Great Commission is the soil in which most of our values are rooted. It is the basis for nearly all our activity as a church body. It is the answer to the question, “How shall we glorify God?” Our values of outreach and world missions are an expression of the Great Commission. In fact, the Great Commission is also closely tied to our values of community and the priesthood of believers as well as our desire to worship God and be relevant to our culture.
A. The Text
1. The Context. Before I read this familiar passage, let me invite you to visit the mountain where Jesus’ disciples met their risen Lord—after walking for about a week to place where Jesus had instructed them to go. Put yourself in that crowd of perhaps 500 people who knelt before the risen Jesus as He spoke some of His most challenging and memorable words. Imagine for a moment what it must have been like to hear these words for the first time.
2. Matthew 28:16-20: “16But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated. 17When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful. 18And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19”Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
3. If you’ve been a Christian for longer than a month, you’ve heard someone teach or preach this passage. If you’ve been a Christian longer than a decade, you’ve probably taught or preached this passage. I probably can’t add anything new to what you’ve heard, but let’s walk through it and remind ourselves of why this is so significant and then I’d like to challenge you with a few applications.
1. “16But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated.”
a) Earlier in this chapter, Matthew describes the first Resurrection Sunday. Look at v.1: “1Now after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the grave.” Did you notice who was missing? The disciples! Think about this: Several times, Jesus told His disciples that He would rise from the dead. He even told them what day—the third day! But where were they on that day? Were they at the grave—standing there watching for the stone to roll away? No! They weren’t there. They were hiding out. They didn’t believe Him.
b) But Jesus—patiently and graciously—coaxed them out of hiding with two invitations. Look at Matthew 28:7-10—the first invitation comes from an angel sent by Jesus who said, “7‘Go quickly and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead; and behold, He is going ahead of you into Galilee, there you will see Him; behold, I have told you.’ 8And they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy and ran to report it to His disciples. 9And behold, Jesus met them and greeted them. And they came up and took hold of His feet and worshiped Him. 10Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and take word to My brethren to leave for Galilee, and there they will see Me.’”
c) So this is why, when we come to 28:16, we read that the “disciples proceeded to Galilee.” They were showing faith now—they had made the long journey from Jerusalem to Galilee in obedience to Jesus’ command. Jesus had designated a mountain and they met Him there.
d) Its debatable how all this went down, but I think the disciples did not obey this command at first. John indicates that they hid out in a locked room instead of going to Galilee. So Jesus appeared to them there, then they went to Galilee. Now they believed. Now they were willing to come out from behind locked doors and meet Jesus. They missed out on the Resurrection, but they weren’t going to miss out on the Great Commission.
e) Ever wonder what we miss out on because we don’t believe? We don’t believe, so we don’t show up—we don’t expect God to use us. We don’t expect God to give us Divine appointments. We don’t expect God to save people when we tell them the Gospel. We have no idea how much we miss out on because we don’t believe so we don’t show up. I wonder, when we get to heaven, will God show us a list of the times we didn’t show up when He was prepared to use us for eternally significant things.
2. “17When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful.”
a) Isn’t this interesting? First of all, notice that they worshiped Him. Jesus is God and He deserves our worship. Not only that, but He accepts worship. Here and a few other times in Scripture, Jesus accepted worship. In fact, earlier in the chapter, when Jesus appeared to the group of women, it says they worshiped Him. In the Book of Revelation, Jesus is worshiped several times. This supports the fact that Jesus claimed to be God. He said in Matthew 4:10: “YOU SHALL WORSHIP THE LORD YOUR GOD, AND SERVE HIM ONLY.’” One of the ways Jesus claimed to be God was through His acceptance of worship.
b) But some doubted. We’re not told why. It’s just floated out there in the text: “…some were doubtful.” We don’t know if this was some of the 11 apostles or some of the others who came with them. Perhaps it was such a large crowd they couldn’t see Jesus very well. Perhaps those who stood at the cross and watched Jesus die a cruel, brutal death could not get past that and could not imagine how a man who died such a death could now stand before them alive. Perhaps they were so overcome with joy at seeing Jesus again they just didn’t know whether they could trust that what they were seeing was really true. But do you know what? It doesn’t surprise God when we doubt. It pleases Him when we believe Him and trust Him, but there will be times when we doubt. Don’t let your doubts drag you down. Show up. Keep plugging away. Keep studying the Scriptures and praying the prayer of the man in Mark 9, Lord, “…help my unbelief.”
3. “18And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.”
a) Here’s the basis for the Great Commission. Christians are often intimidated by those who think “religion” (being interpreted means “Christianity”) has no place in the workplace. No place in the schools. No place in government. But the fact of the matter is, Jesus has “all authority.” As we look at the command in v.19 to “make disciples of all the nations” we need to draw strength from the fact that Jesus has “all authority.”
b) If the powers that be tell us we cannot evangelize in their country or give away Bibles in their country, “we must obey God rather than men.” Why? Because God is a higher authority. Jesus has been given “all authority…in heaven and on earth.”
c) So Jesus is saying, “Before I send you into all the nations, you must realize that I have authority over all the nations. In fact, there is no place in the universe where I do not have all authority. If you ever get your little putt-putt spaceships going fast enough to get you off earth and onto another rock, remember this: I have all authority in heaven also—wherever you go, I am in charge.”
d) One of my very favorite books is “God’s Smuggler,” the story of Brother Andrew, the man from Holland who smuggled Bibles into communist European countries in the 1950s and ’60s. Listen to one of his many stories about how Jesus Christ demonstrated His authority in heaven and earth and communist countries:
It took me four hours to get across the Rumanian border. When I pulled up to the checkpoint on the other side of the Danube, I said to myself, “Well, I’m in luck. Only half a dozen cars. This will go swiftly.” When forty minutes had passed and the first car was still being inspected, I thought, “Poor fellow, they must have something on him to take so long.” But when that car finally left and the next inspection took half an hour too, I began to worry. Literally everything that family was carrying had to be taken out and spread on the ground. Every car in the line was put through the same routine. The fourth inspection lasted for well over an hour. The guards took the driver inside and kept him there while they removed hub caps, took his engine apart, removed seats. “Dear Lord,” I said, as at last there was just one car ahead of me, “what am I going to do? Any serious inspection will show up those Rumanian Bibles right away. “Lord,” I went on, “I know that no amount of cleverness on my part can get me through this border search. Dare I ask for a miracle? Let me take some of the Bibles out and leave them in the open where they will be seen. Then, Lord, I can not possibly be depending on my own stratagems, can I? I will be depending utterly upon You.” While the last car was going through its chilling inspection, I managed to take several Bibles from their hiding places and pile them on the seat beside me. It was my turn. I put the little VW in low gear, inched up to the officer standing at the left side of the road, handed him my papers and started to get out. But his knee was against the door holding it closed. He looked at my photograph in the passport, scribbled something down, shoved the papers back under my nose, and abruptly waved me on. Surely thirty seconds had not passed. I started the engine and inched forward. Was I supposed to pull over, out of the way, where the car could be taken apart? Was I…surely I wasn’t…I coasted forward, my foot poised above the brake. Nothing happened. I looked out the rear mirror. The guard was waving the next car to a stop, indicating to the driver that he had to get out. On I drove a few more yards. The guard was having the driver behind me open the hood of his car. And then I was too far away to doubt that indeed I had made it through that incredible checkpoint in the space of thirty seconds. My heart was racing. Not with the excitement of the crossing, but with the excitement of having caught such a spectacular glimpse of God at work (God’s Smuggler, Brother Andrew, pgs. 152-3).
e) Jesus has all authority. If the One with all authority sends us somewhere to talk to someone to do something, should we not go and speak and work with great confidence?
C. “19Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe all that I commanded you…”
1. This is such a simple plan, but it is genius. It’s a plan for world conquest and it has impacted the world like no other plan or movement in history. And by “world conquest” I do not mean that every person on earth will one day be won to the Lord. What I mean is that individuals from every tongue, tribe and nation will be won to the Lord. Christianity will sweep across the face of the earth.
a) The key command here is “make disciples.” “Go” is not an imperative. It is a participle—just like “baptizing and teaching.” “Going, baptizing and teaching” explain how we are to make disciples.
b) So, it is vital that we understand what it means to “make disciples.” What is a disciple? The Greek word is literally a “follower.” The idea is obedience of someone’s teaching. The basic practice of a disciple is obedience.
c) We need to be very clear about this: A disciple is a person who has trusted Christ for salvation and then chooses to follow Christ. I’m making a distinction between a Christian and a disciple. Getting saved does not make one a disciple. All disciples are Christians, but not all Christians are disciples.
d) Larry Moyer—founder of Evantell Ministries—makes this perfectly clear: “The Scriptures could not be clearer in declaring that salvation is a free gift. When Paul reminded the Ephesians of how they were saved, he said, ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast (Eph.2:8-9). Discipleship on the other hand, costs something and is available only to those willing to pay the price. In Luke 14:26-27, Christ admonished, ‘If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.’ He reemphasized, ‘So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple’ (v.33). We must not confuse salvation and discipleship” (Free and Clear, Larry Moyer, p.101).
e) A Christian is someone who has received the free gift of salvation. A disciple is a Christian who is paying the high cost of following Jesus.
f)So here’s the entire picture:
(i) Disciples should be “going” into the world, sharing the good news that God offers sinful people the free gift of salvation in Christ.
(ii) When people accept this truth and trust Christ for salvation, the job of disciples is to “baptize and teach” that new Christian.
(a) “Baptizing” is more than just dunking. It includes water baptism—the first act of obedience—but it also includes what is commonly called “assimilation”—leading someone into a life of obedience. Getting them grounded in the faith.
(b) “Teaching” is often misunderstood. I will never forget the first time I noticed this. I was a student in seminary and I’d read the Great Commission numerous times. But one day it hit me that the third step is not “teaching” but “teaching them to observe…” What does it mean to “observe”? Obey! That’s what a disciple does. The NIV translates this word as “obey.” So the job of those who disciple others is to teach them to obey the commands of Christ.
(c) And don’t miss that little word “all”. This is not sinless perfection—perfect obedience of every jot and tittle of the law. The idea is that you’re not purposefully ignoring Christ’s commands. You’re studying the Bible and asking for understanding and wisdom. Then—as best you know how—you’re obeying Christ. You’re following Him.
(d) Colossians 1:28 is Paul’s description of this process: “28We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ.” To “admonish” is to teach proper belief and behavior. It is to warn and—if necessary—rebuke a brother or sister in Christ (i.e., a fellow disciple) if he or she is not obeying Christ. Not controlling. Not overstepping proper bounds, but being involved in each others lives. Letting each other in so when we get off track, we can help each other get back on track.
(e) We’ll talk more about the “baptizing and teaching to observe” part of the Great Commission in a few weeks. Look how Jesus finished the Great Commission—with a promise.
(f) The main point I want to make here is that to be a Christian—from a human perspective—is to make a choice at one point in your life to trust Christ with your eternal destiny. To be a disciple is to make a daily choice to follow Christ. Remember what Jesus said in Luke 9? “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me.”
(g) So, the main command of the Great Commission—the primary task of the Church on earth as we seek to glorify God—is to invite people to trust Christ and grow up in Him—daily follow and obey Him. We can’t make Christians. But we’re commanded to make disciples.
D. “…and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
1. Notice how Jesus completed the Great Commission: He promised to be with us. But can we expect His presence and support if we don’t obey His commands? Of course, God is omnipresent (everywhere present) but isn’t this promise conditional? If you do this (the Great Commission) I will be with you in a special way to bless and strongly support your efforts to do as I ask. It’s a sweet and precious promise to those who are making disciples.
2. There’s also a deadline here. We won’t always be able to make disciples. There will be an end to the age and we will—at that time—be held accountable for how we used our time.
A. This commission—the greatest commission—by its nature categorizes us. Jesus has three kinds of people in mind in giving us this task: Doubters, Christians and Disciples. I challenge you this morning to evaluate your heart. Examine yourself and be honest with yourself—which category do you find yourself in this morning? For each of you, there is a challenge as we closely examine this greatest commission.
1. Are you a doubter—an unbeliever? Receive the free gift of salvation. It is quite possible that some of you have never really made a choice to receive this gift. Perhaps you’ve grown up in church and your parents’ faith has never truly become your faith. Perhaps you’ve got doubts and you think all those doubts have to be gone before you can put your trust in Christ for salvation. That’s not true. None of us—if we’re honest with ourselves—became Christians completely doubt-free. But the weight of the evidence about Christ is so strong. Just as in a court of law when the jury decides that a person is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Jesus is God, He has been given authority over heave and earth and you know that beyond a reasonable doubt. Your part in this world conquest of Christ is to join up this morning. Believing that Jesus is who He claims to be and believing that His death and resurrection make it possible for you to have eternal life, receive the free gift of salvation right now. Listen to these verses:
a) Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
b) Ephesians 2:8,9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
c) Be not confused: The invitation to be saved is to receive a free gift.
2. Are you a Christian? Live a life of obedience. Many of you could say, “Yes, I have already trusted Christ and received the free gift of salvation.” The challenge for you is to answer the call of a disciple. Take up your cross daily and follow after Christ! Are you obeying? Are you obeying “all” of His commands or are you purposefully ignoring and choosing not to obey some of them? Don’t’ be left out of what God is doing. Be not confused: The call to discipleship is to pay a price. To make a commitment to follow and obey Christ.
3. Are we making disciples? Reproduce yourself. Some of you could say, “Yes, I am obeying Christ and living the life He wants me to.” But let me ask you this: Are you obeying the Great Commission? Are you engaged in one way or another—either as one being discipled or as one disciping others? The command to “make disciples” demands that we be in relationship with someone. Either we are one who is receiving from someone older and wiser or we are giving to someone younger and dumber—no. I shouldn’t say it that way. I meant to say, someone younger and not as far down the road toward maturity. Be not confused: The call to make disciples is not just living a good and holy life or just doing evangelism—it is pouring yourself into someone else’s life. It is obeying the primary command of the Greatest Commission—“make disciples”. It might be nothing but fun—a great friendship, studying the Bible with good friends. It might be hard work—developing a relationship with someone God has put in your life. Admonishing them and working with them to overcome an addiction. A life-controlling sin. It might mean teaching someone how to be a better Mom or wife. A better Dad or husband. You might love every minute of it, but you might also experience disappointment and discouragement. You might beg God to let you off the hook and get that person out of your life. There is no condition—as in, make disciples if it’s enjoyable and fulfilling. No, we need to make disciples no matter what the cost. We need to look around and see who God has put in our lives and get busy—diligently pursuing them for the glory of Christ.
B. This is the plan of Christ for you—that you and I would participate in world conquest—not by military might but by obeying the Great Commission. This is simply the greatest way you can fulfill the Second Greatest Commandment—“love your neighbor as yourself.” You’re leading others to that which they most need.
1. The mistake has been made—in the history of Christianity—to work for world conquest in wrong—unbiblical—ways. The Crusades stand out as the most obvious mistake.
2. Read From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, p.22.
3. And I want to close by telling you the story of Raymond Lull. Read From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, pgs.54-55.
4. I don’t know what you need to do—what Christ might be saying to your heart right now about how you personally need to get involved in the great work He has given His church to do. But I challenge you to follow through in obedience to Christ this morning. Don’t just go to lunch and shrug it off and ignore His voice.
a) Receive the free gift of salvation right now—before you leave this building.
b) Take up your cross and follow Jesus even as you leave this building—don’t continue in a half-hearted relationship with Him. Talk to that man or that woman God has put in your life and whom you know is walking with the Lord. Ask him to spend some time with you. Ask her to help you grow in your walk with the Lord.
c) Make a phone call. Send an email. Get a hold of that person God has brought into your life for you to disciple. Work out a time when you can get together and open the Bible and help him or her get further down the road to maturity in Christ.