The following post is the transcript of a sermon that I have preached in every church where I have served as pastor, and several other churches as well. The last time I preached it I mentioned that it seems like a whole generation has grown up in our churches which has never heard a single sermon on the Great Commission, and the leadership of that church seemed to be both shocked and in agreement. I offer this in the hope that we never let this be the final word. Rather, I would encourage preaching not only on Matthew 28:18-20 – the passage commonly called the Great Commission – but also in its alternative forms, in Luke 24:46-49 and Acts 1:8.
The style will be kind of rough in some area, since I preach primarily from an extended outline. Because my writing and speaking styles are different, and I have a strong memory, I was never able to write out a sermon effectively and preach in the same way, since the memory of what I wrote and the way that I wanted to express it in my speaking style always interfered with each other during the time of actual preaching. I was always able to preach most effectively when I was preaching extemporaneously from an extended outline. So, in an actual preaching situation, this wouldn’t have represented my actual words, but more the way I would express my meaning in my writing style.
The founder of the China Inland Mission, Hudson Taylor once said, “The sun never sets on the world. One half of it is always in the light of day. Likewise, God never intended part of his world ever to lay permanently out of reach of the light of his truth.”
The concern of the God of the Bible is for the entire world. This concern has been revealed above all in the person and mission of his Son Jesus Christ.This concern is motivated by a love that reaches each person no matter who he or she may be, and this is demonstrated shown by the death of Christ on the cross for the sins of the world, so that salvation may be available for all. Even more, it is shown in the resurrection and ascension of the Lord to be the ultimate authority in the universe. And again it is shown in the constant repetition of the assignment to his church, to reach the world with his message. This assignment was given during the forty days of his teaching ministry to the apostles after his resurrection and before his ascension. This assignment is based upon all that he has already done, and is backed by his universal authority and constant presence for their assistance. Thus through the apostles he gave to the church the command to reach all the people of this earth with his gospel. This command was repeated in the passage of scripture generally called the Great Commission, namely, to go and make disciples of all the world, from all the nations of this world.
This assignment is the great, unfinished task of the church of Jesus Christ. This task that always requires renewed attention and constant prayer; this task makes it necessary to learn the direction of the Lord to fulfill his command and to receive from him all that is necessary to fulfill the task. And this task is completely impossible to us if it were up to us alone. But, it is not to him as he works through us as we respond to his command with faith and obedience.
So this, then is the command: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
The risen Lord has commanded his followers to make disciples everywhere in the world. All the people of the world are to be targets for the gospel and prospects for becoming disciples. The mission field for the church of Jesus is everywhere, and everyone is a prospect for becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ.
The basis of this command is the complete and universal authority of Jesus Christ. The risen Lord has all authority in his hands to claim disciples from all the world, and upon this authority he has the right to give his church this command.
In verse 19 the risen Lord Jesus asserts his own universal authority: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” This startling statement is yet backed by the amazing fact of the crucifixion and resurrection. The nail prints were still visible in hands and feet of that person who made this statement, and who stood there, alive, to make this claim before those who were eyewitnesses of this resurrection. He was no ghost or apparition, but the Lord risen in the same body which had walked the roads of Galilee and Judea, who had touched and healed many, and who had taught them, corrected them, and loved them. Even more, it is his claim to have the authority of God himself over all the universe, as he had claimed and demonstrated himself to be the unique, eternal Son of God in all that he had said and done. Moreover, his claim to have all authority implies rightfulness to claim the individual submission of all on earth to himself. So, his call to make disciples comes from his own right to the faith, obedience and worship of each person, based upon his being the ultimate authority in the universe.
Therefore this is the assurance that everywhere the gospel of Jesus Christ is valid, that it is right to call others to become disciples of Jesus, even if they are adherents of other religions: it is the authority of Jesus Christ himself. The authority of Jesus himself is behind all evangelism, discipleship and missions. It means that everyone everywhere has to answer to Jesus Christ above all, because he has all authority in heaven and on earth. And that means that what we will say will be not from our own opinions when we speak his gospel but ultimately based in the word and authority of the Lord to who all must give account. So this, then, is the total and complete justification for the work of evangelism, discipleship and missions: the Lordship of Jesus Christ himself. So also his possession of all authority in heaven and on earth is the beginning, center and goal of missions, and is the reason for becoming a missional church and a missional believer in Christ.
Making disciples, then, requires going to the world with the message of the gospel. Making disciples requires those who are disciples to go to those who are not disciples. Making disciples then requires those who are disciples of Jesus Christ to share the gospel so that others might become disciples of Jesus Christ.
This is then the heart of the assignment that Jesus gave to his church, in verse 18: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations”. This means that it is the responsibility of his church to go to others with the gospel. For the apostles this would have meant first evangelizing Jerusalem and building a strong church there. And then would have meant ending out missionaries – such as Philip, Barnabas, Paul, Silas and Timothy to build strong, witnessing churches in other cities. These churches would then send forth more missionaries, until all have heard the message which Jesus gave them to share with the world, the good news of his death and resurrection, to make forgiveness and eternal life available through repentance and faith in him. (See Luke 24:46-49 for the parallel passage in which he give the actual message and his promise of the power of the Holy Spirit for witness.) Making disciples would mean for them to call others to the same faith in and commitment to Jesus Christ that they had come to, as the entry point into discipleship, just as they had done.
The mandate to go to others is thus the responsibility of the whole church and of every individual believer. This is contrary to the “come” strategy of churchianity. The “come” strategy attempts to attracts others to our group, and may put the emphasis on the pastor and the pulpit, our wonderful group of people, our entertaining and uplifting services, or our humanitarian works of mercy and kindness. All those may be good, but they are not the fulfillment of the command of Jesus. And Jesus definitely put the task of evangelization before every believer with this command. His command means that every believer is to be a missionary, or, in the current trendy, word, missional, in the sense of being ready to share the gospel of Jesus Christ and to make disciples for Jesus Christ, and to go into all the world that message until there is no where else to go with that message.
There’s a story of a Marine who asked this question of the drill instructor: “Sir, what are our chances of going overseas?”
This was the answer: “There are three kinds of Marines. The one who are overseas, the ones who have been overseas, and the ones who are going overseas. So I would say your chances are pretty darn good.”
So it’s the same thing with the church of Jesus Christ: there are no exceptions to his command to go into the world and make disciples. There are those who are going out to do it, those who are preparing, and those who are continuing to do it. It may be in another culture, or in another nation, or it may be with the people in one’s own city and neighborhood. But there is no believer who can claim to have Jesus as Lord of his or her life and make the claim at the same time that he or she is exempt from this command.
Making disciples, then, means leading people to a complete commitment to Christ as Lord. The full Biblical implications of his sovereignty means becoming responsible disciples for oneself and to understand what this means for making disciples in dealing with others.
This is how Jesus explained what he meant by making disciples: (v. 18b –19): “ . . . 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.” Making disciples is thus the process of evangelistic reproduction. Jesus’s meaning for the apostles would have been for them to reproduce the process they had been through with him.They had responded to him with repentance and faith in him, baptism, and then following his Word, as it can be found in the gospels. The goal of conversion, of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior would be defined as discipleship. This would begin with a public commitment of water baptism, and the disciple of Jesus would then continue as a responsible follower of Jesus.
Therefore the measure of evangelism is not decisions recorded but disciples that are made. Disciples tend to reproduce disciples. So, many of the failures in areas of expecting baptism as the outcome of a real conversion and teaching complete obedience to Jesus are a strong reason for why many churches see shallow conversions, and may record a number of professions but may not produce godly, consecrated believers with a life of witness, missionary vision and support. The command of Jesus means that his teaching and commands must be absolutely central in the life of the person whom the church can legitimately consider to have been saved with the salvation of Jesus Christ.
There was once an author who reported this on the evangelistic efforts in another denomination: “ We have too many nonresident members today . . . people who feel they have made the one-time decision, walked to the altar in answer to that appeal, and yet are not aware of what they were doing and what is expected of them.” I mention this not to say that my own denomination is any better, but that it describes the case of many in the churches who are sitting back, soaking in sermons, reveling in praise and worship, but living little for Jesus as the Lord of their lives as far as having demonstrated that they are seeking to learn and follow everything that he was commanded them.
Therefore Jesus’s directions for our mission challenges some present notions of evangelism. His assignment redirects our attention to first of all to going to others with the gospel and then training those who receive the gospel to be responsible disciples here. And since like produces like, this also implies the need for the person sharing the gospel to be a responsible disciple himself: for the person claiming and proclaiming salvation to have been baptized and a conscientious follower of Jesus Christ in his or her daily life. This means our seeing ourselves as Christ’s missionaries, whether we go outside the our own country and culture or not, since our own country and culture will always be included in the nations. It means that the vision and burden for the world of Jesus Christ, his standing assignment for his church, therefore must penetrate our lives.
But Jesus does not leave us just with a command, though; he gives a promise that makes it certain that it will be fulfilled. Those who go can take complete confidence in this: The risen Lord is also present with his people wherever they are making disciples. His promise is often used as a general kind of comfort, and it is definitely that. But in the original meaning, he promised his presence not so much as a general comfort but specifically in the context of the mission that he has given his church to reach the world. His promise of his presence thus finds its true fulfillment when his people are fulfilling their mission.
Jesus promises he will be with us, wherever we go, until our mission is done. He will be with us as we follow his will and as we share his concern for the world. His promise is therefore the basis of an indescribable confidence to go into the world with the gospel.
Jesus gives the promise of his presence in verse 20: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age”. This was meant not as his assurance of companionship – although that is a part of his promises, as he promised in John 14:21 and 23 — as much as the promise of his helping presence. In the fullness of the his own teaching about his mission this promise is to be understood in the light of the promise of the Holy Spirit that fulfilled in the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples gathered in prayer on the day of Pentecost. That day is to be understood not as the birthday of the church, as Augustine mentioned, but rather as the coming of the power of God through the Holy Spirit upon his church to empower them to be witnesses for Christ throughout all the world. The point was not the tongues, but the witness of power, as Jesus himself said in Acts 1:8. So the impossible challenge of the assignment which Jesus gave was to be fulfilled only with the assurance of the divine presence and power to do so. The promise of his helping presence was looking forward to the coming of the Holy Spirit, who can justifiably be called the Spirit of worldwide missions.
Therefore the impossible task is ultimately the work of the Lord who does the impossible, and this is the assurance that the task will be fulfilled.The Spirit of Jesus is here to transform us into the likeness of Christ The power of the Spirit of Christ has come to give us his strength to endure in faith and obedience beyond our own ability. The Holy Spirit is available to give us boldness to witness to him, and above all to guide us to pray in his name for the provision of all our other needs. And this is not at all to make us comfortable here in our own situation, but to give us power and ability to make the gospel of Jesus Christ known everywhere.
Here is testimony of David Livingstone gave at Cambridge University in England. He gave it as he held the students in awe with his gaunt body, with one arm that had been crushed by a lion: “Shall I tell you what sustained me amidst the toil, the hardship, and the loneliness of my exiled life? It was the promise, ‘Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.’” And that same assurance is available to his people when they go on his assignment to bring the gospel to the world and make disciples of all nations.
Jesus Christ therefore is in the midst of his people as they go out to fulfill his command to make disciples of all nations. His presence is the assurance that missions will not fail, because the because the Lord who is behind missions will not fail.
Our assignment is planet Earth Our mission is to make disciples everywhere. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the message with which disciples make disciples. That good news is that Jesus Christ died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins, and that he rose from the dead to be seated in heaven with all authority in heaven and earth. He has provided eternal life as a free gift, but once that free gift has been received, the person who received it cannot remain the same. Thus wherever anyone receives that gift of eternal life, he or she enters into that living relationship with Jesus Christ called discipleship, and that assignment of Jesus becomes part of his or her life.
So then, are you a disciple of Jesus Christ? This question is the same as asking whether you have received eternal life in by faith in Christ. Jesus did not consider that anyone could be saved who was not also his disciple. If you have not made that step of faith, to receive eternal life by putting your faith in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, that is the first and most necessary thing for you to do. We cannot assume that someone is a disciple and is going to heaven because he or she simply shows up at church and goes through the motions in the worship service. So I ask you again: are you certain that your faith is in Jesus Christ now and forever as your Lord and Savior, and that only because he has suffered and died for you that you received forgiveness for your sins and eternal life?
But then again, if you are a disciple of Jesus Christ, are you living as a disciple of Jesus Christ?
Water baptism is the declaration of discipleship before the entire world. If you have not been baptized, therefore consider it according to the Word of God. Here it is the explicit command of Christ, and not something that comes from a church tradition. So ultimately the primary issue in following through with water baptism is the authority of Jesus himself. And this is one issue that we do not need to wonder what would Jesus do, because we have his own example of what he did do, that he followed through with water baptism himself, at the beginning of his ministry and reception of his own power for ministry with the filling of the Holy Spirit.
Living as a disciple then means learning, believing and following the Word of Jesus Christ; what are you personally doing to learn and follow the Word of God in your life?
If you are a disciple of Christ, what are you doing to lead others to become disciples of Jesus? Do you know how to be an effective witness to Christ? have you been trained to witness in a scriptural manner? If you have been trained to witness, what are you doing to put it into practice in your daily life?
If you are a disciple of Jesus, do you stand with your brothers and sisters in Christ in the mission to reach the world with the gospel? For years we’ve talked about being missionary churches, becoming world Christians and becoming missional. But continuing as a disciple of Jesus Christ entails commitment to reach the world with the gospel, whatever the terms we use. It entails prayer in support of the worldwide mission of the church and giving toward the fulfillment of the worldwide mission of the church and also includes the willingness to go oneself, in whatever way the Lord might lead
Finally, is the church you attend truly a Great Commission Church? That isn’t just a cliché, and it isn’t something that we can assume is true without considering how much the assignment of Jesus Christ to your church determines what happens in your church. It means that the command of Jesus Christ is the primary direction of this church as a whole, and is the primary influence upon the way that every ministry is approached, and the way that every fellowship is directed. So, this question remains: is your church a Great Commission Church?