By Robin G. Jordan
The Great Commission is the task that our Lord has committed to his Church. It is a task that He has committed not to one group in the Church—the bishops or the clergy. It is a task that He committed to the entire Church. Consequently, I believe that it is helpful to take a look at what the New Testament tells us about the Great Commission. We all need to know as much as possible about the task that our Lord has committed to us. We need this knowledge not for its own sake but so that we can apply it in carrying out the Great Commission.
If we examine the passages of the New Testament that refer to the Great Commission, we discover that the Great Commission consists of a number of elements. I am going to look at these passages one by one, drawing attention to these elements as I examine them and considering their implications. I am going to begin with Matthew 28:18-20. The translation of the Bible I am using is the New King James Version.
And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." Amen.
Jesus spoke these words to his eleven disciples after he had risen from dead. They had gone to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to go and tell the brethren they would see him. When the eleven disciples saw him, they worshiped him but some doubted. In this passage Jesus is speaking to all of them, those who worshiped him and those who doubted. Keep this in mind. Even today some of us fall at his feet and worship him. Some of us entertain doubts. Jesus’ words are addressed to us all. Note what Jesus says.
“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and earth.”
Jesus is not someone that we call “lord” as a term of respect. We call him “Lord” because he is Lord. Since he is Lord, it is not enough that we call him “Lord,” he must really be our Lord in our hearts. He must occupy that place there. If we turn to anyone as King, Lord, Master, or Teacher, it is him and no other. There is no uncertainty as to whom is Lord over our lives, who is Ruler of our consciences, who is Bishop and Shepherd of our souls. It is Jesus.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations….”
Jesus does not tell the disciples to stay where they are—to wait on the mountain in Galilee for others to come to them. He tells them to go from the mountain--to begin or be moving away from Galilee. Their ministry is not to be there. In the Greek the word is literally “going.” Note his use of word “therefore,” that is, “for this reason.” The reason to which he is referring is that he has been given all authority. He is not making a suggestion to them. He is speaking authoritatively to them, in the name of God. He is commanding them. They are bound by what he says. What is he commanding them to be on the move to do—what is the task which they are charged to undertake—“to make disciples of all the nations.”
The eleven apostles became his disciples. They followed him when he called them. He promised them that he would make them fishers of men. They would no longer be casting their nets in the waters of the Sea of Galilee for the fish that swam in its depths. They would be casting the nets of the Kingdom for their fellow men and women. They would be calling others to follow Jesus as he had called them. He was not commanding them to make disciples of Galileans. He was charging them to make disciples of all nations.
Jesus is not speaking of “nations” in the modern sense. He is speaking of “people groups”---all groups of people whatever affinity links them together—kinship, race, ethnicity, locality, social-economic class, caste, religion, language, dialect, a passion for the game of cricket, anything.
“…baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit….”
Jesus further charged them not just to make disciples of them, Jesus followers like themselves, but also to baptize them. They were to mark them as Jesus’ own with water. They were to baptize them in the name of the Holy Trinity, of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, of the three Persons of the Godhead.
…teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you….”
He went on to charge them to instruct these new disciples in all things that he commanded them. Whatever he had commanded them to do; they were to pass on these commands. This included the command that he was giving them on that mountain in Galilee. God gave Moses the Ten Commandments on a mountain. Jesus gave the Great Commission to the eleven apostles on a mountain. The Jewish readers of the Gospel of Matthew would not miss the point.
“…and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Jesus concludes the Great Commission with a promise and an assurance. He will be with the eleven apostles always. He gives this promise and this assurance to the apostles not as his closest followers during his earthly ministry, not as the bishops of his Church, but as the nucleus of his Church. The promise and the assurance that Jesus gives to the eleven apostles are the promise and the assurance that he gives to his whole Church throughout the world and for all time. Should his Church leave this planet and go with some future space travelers to a new planet, Jesus will go with his Church.
Note Jesus’ use of the word “lo.” For us, it has become an archaism. It is used to draw attention to what the person speaking is saying or going to say. It is used to introduce the mention of surprising fact. Jesus was sending the disciples away from him. They would not be staying with him on that mountain in Galilee. He would be leaving them. Indeed he would ascend into heaven before their eyes. Yet he is telling them that that he will be with them always!
Mark 16:14-20, the next cluster of New Testament verses relating to the Great Commission, has generated a series of controversies.
Later He appeared to the eleven as they sat at the table; and He rebuked their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they did not believe those who had seen Him after He had risen. And He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover."
So then, after the Lord had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs. Amen.(Mark 16:14-20 NKJV)
One controversy has centered on the passage, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved….” This passage has been interpreted in a number of ways. Baptists have historically insisted that believing and being baptized must follow in that order. A believer in baptism makes a public declaration of his acceptance of Jesus as his Saviour and his commitment to Jesus as his Lord. Baptists have generally insisted upon baptism by full immersion upon profession of faith albeit some Baptists permit baptism by partial immersion—the baptismal candidate kneeling in the water up to their waist and copious amounts of water being poured over them. Nineteenth century Bishop of Liverpool J. C. Ryle wrote that what matters is that a person believes and is baptized and not what order believing and being baptized occur. Church of England Evangelicals have generally taken his position.
The 1662 Book of Common Prayer establishes baptism by dipping—that is—immersion as the standard for the Church of England, a fact that is seldom recognized. Baptism by pouring—that is infusion is given as the alternative method when the baptismal candidate is too weak to undergo immersion. Baptismal minimalism has come to dominate the Church of England and her daughter churches; the practice of sprinkling, which is not authorized by the rubrics of the 1662 Prayer Book, has replaced immersion and infusion as the most common mode of baptism.
Another controversy has centered on the signs that Mark 16:17-18 says will follow those who believe. Like Mark 16:16 this passage has been interpreted in several ways. It must be noted that where believers have been faithful in going into all the world and proclaiming the gospel to the whole creation, God has delivered the demonically-oppressed. Believers have spoken in languages that they did not learn at their mother’s knee. God has performed miracles and healed the sick. When believers have gone out and preached everywhere in obedience to Jesus’ command, God has, as with the apostles, worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs.
Luke wrote his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles to be read together. Passages that relate to the Great Commission are found in both Luke’s Gospel and Acts.
Then He said to them, "These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me." And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures. Then He said to them, "Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And you are witnesses of these things. Behold, I send the Promise of My Father upon you; but tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high."
And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. Now it came to pass, while He blessed them, that He was parted from them and carried up into heaven. And they worshiped Him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple praising and blessing God. Amen. (Luke 24:44-53)
Before Jesus departs from the apostles they learn from him that “it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem….” They are witnesses to these things. Jesus uses “behold” in this passage like he uses “lo” in Matthew 28:20. They are to take notice of what he is saying. He is going to send “the Promise of the Father” upon them—the Holy Spirit. They are to await the coming of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit will clothe them with “power from on high.” Jesus does not specifically mention the Holy Spirit but we learn from Acts that the Holy Spirit is to whom he is referring.
And being assembled together with them, He commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of the Father, "which," He said, "you have heard from Me; for John truly baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now." Therefore, when they had come together, they asked Him, saying, "Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" And He said to them, "It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." (Acts 1:4-8 NKJV)
In Luke 24:47 Jesus tells the apostles that repentance and remission of sins is to be preached in the Christ’s name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem; in Acts 1:8 he tells them that they are to be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth”—in all the known world and beyond. For the Jews Jerusalem where the Temple was located was the centre of the world. Devote Jews moved to Jerusalem in their old age to live and die in close proximity to the Temple. They went to the Temple everyday to worship God.
Jesus is telling the apostles that once they have been clothed with the power of the Holy Spirit, they are not to linger in Jerusalem. They are to be witnesses to him, not just in Jerusalem or even in the surrounding countryside of Judea but in the territory of the hated Samaritans and “to the end of the earth”—to the remotest corners of the world. This meant going into the lands of the unclean Gentiles. It meant sailing on the Great Green Sea of the Mediterranean, which the Jews dreaded. The sea symbolized to them chaos and destruction. We balk today at the prospect of leaving our comfort zones to witness to Jesus in our world. How must the apostles felt at the prospect of leaving the familiar surroundings of Jerusalem and Galilee?
The last passage at which I am going to look in this article is John 20:19-23.
Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, "Peace be with you." When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. So Jesus said to them again, "Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you." And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
Space does not permit me to do as thorough exposition of this cluster of verses as might like to do. In John 20:21 Jesus says, “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” Here again it must be stressed that the apostles represent whole Church. Jesus is not sending one class of his followers. He is sending all his followers—throughout the world and in every generation.
John 3:16-18 tells us why God sent Jesus.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
The Comfortable Words that follow the Absolution in the 1662 Communion Service are taken from these verses and from 1 John 2:1-2.
And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.
God sent Jesus to be the means of our salvation. Through God’s grace we are saved by faith in Jesus. At the same time Jesus is the propitiation for our sins. Jesus suffered death upon the cross for our redemption. He made upon the cross, in the words of the 1662 Prayer of Consecration, “(by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.”
In Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17:20 we learn why he sends his Church as he was sent. It is so that others will believe in him through our word as we have believed in him through the apostles’ word. We are the instruments through whom God spreads the good news of the salvation that he has wrought through his Son Jesus. We are the living books that God has written that others may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing they may have life in His name. Our lives as well as our words are our testimony to Jesus.
One question I sometimes hear is “Doesn’t it trouble you that these accounts of the giving of the Great Commission are different?” My response is “no.” The New Testament tells us that Jesus appeared to the apostles several times after he had risen from the dead. Jesus understood human nature. He recognized that our attentions wander. We may not be listening even when we should be. His followers might be too excited or too frightened at seeing him alive again to pay full attention to what he was saying. They would not be hanging on every word he said. The New Testament also tells us that some did not believe. Jesus recognized that some people might block what he was saying out of disbelief and hardness of heart.
Preachers and teachers learn that their congregations and classes may not hear them the first time they draw something to their attention. They may have to repeat what they are saying over and over again before their audience hears what they are saying. They may have to repeat it further before they grasp what they are saying. Even then they may not realize its full meaning or import until later after they have an opportunity to reflect upon what was said. Sometimes it may take sharing notes or recollections with others who were present. This is one of the reasons that small groups which meet during the week to discuss the sermon, the biblical truths and principles in the sermon, and the application of these truths and principles to the lives of individual small group participants and their common life together are so beneficial to the formation and growth of their participants as disciples.
During sermons, lectures, and even small groups discussions people’s attentions drift away and then return to the sermon, lecture, or subject of discussion. The astute preacher, teacher, and small group discussion leader will repeat an important point several times in hope that the members of the congregation, class, or small group will be tuned in at one of these times and hear what is said.
The differences in the accounts of what happened also make them more reliable. I learned this fact as a child protection investigator. If, when investigating an allegation of physical abuse, sexual abuse, or neglect or a child fatality, an investigator heard the identical story from all whom he or she interviewed, the likelihood that they had gotten together on a story and the story that they were telling was far from the truth was very high. Witnesses are apt not to agree on every detail. Some may remember one thing; others another. The investigator pieces together what happened from their different accounts.