Lecture 2: The Great Commission
Course: Essentials of World Missions
Lecture: The Great Commission
At this point, we want to turn ourselves to the most important New Testament passages related to missions. These refer to the passages which we call the Great Commission text. Let me clarify, first of all, what is meant by the expression, “The Great Commission,” because we often here “The Great Commission” as a reference to the text in Matthew 28:18-20. Actually, the term “The Great Commission” refers to a whole range of texts, which culminate all four Gospels and is the beginning of the book of Acts.
So we don’t actually speak of the Great Commission in the singular when we refer to a particular text, such as the text in Matthew. We use the word “Great Commission” (singular) to refer to the concept of a great commission which is revealed collectively in the force of all the passages, not just the Matthean passage. What we want to do is point out that there are actually four Great Commission passages found in the gospel accounts.
The first is found in Matthew 28:16-20, the second in Mark 16:15-16, the third is found in Luke 24:47-48 (and that accompanying text in Acts 1:4-9), and finally in that great and wonderful text in John 20:21. The Great Commission passages are then examined in great detail in the extended portion of the lectures. We do a very careful exegesis of each of the four Great Commissions and seek to make clear exposition of those passages.
I also make a number of points in general about the Great Commissions as a whole. I’ll just summarize that lecture by saying that we try to point out that the four Great Commissions that we find in the New Testament are not commissions that are given at one location and reported by each of the four Gospels. These all represent, actually, a wide variety of settings in different geographic locations, and different times during the last forty days of Christ’s presence on earth between His resurrection and His ascension. This makes them extremely important, because Christ is repeating Himself on several occasions that He is calling us to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth.
So, what we’ll do now is turn to each of these and make a few points to summarize the major observations about each of the four Great Commission passages.
The first is found in Matthew 28:18-20. First of all, there should be a strong notice made of the authority which Jesus brings to this text. Jesus does not call the church with a lack of authority. He says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples.” This is clearly a call for the church to go out with a sense of authority to bring salvation to all peoples.
One of the most fascinating things that we explore in the full lectures is the choice of the word “church” to describe the gathered people of God as a result of the obedience to the Great Commission. What we find is that the word “church” refers to a worldwide meeting, a public meeting, that God is gathering people together into this church of Jesus Christ, and that’s a very powerful image, that God is essentially issuing a call to come to a great banquet and He’s inviting the entire world to attend.
The other really big point in this passage which is important is the importance of the imperative in the passage. There’s actually only one imperative found in the entire Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20. Most people assume that the single imperative in this passage is the word “Go.” “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe everything that I have commanded you. And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
But in fact, the word “go” is not in the imperative. The single imperative in the entire passage is the phrase “make disciples.” So it becomes an extremely important point in this passage, because it summarizes the important role of discipleship. And that point is expanded with some depth in the larger lectures.
All People Groups
A third point that we make is not only does Jesus speak with authority and give us that authority, not only do we have this imperative, “make disciples,” which reinforces church-planting and discipleship and not just conversion, but also we have the emphasis on “all nations.” The phrase in Greek is panta ta ethne.
Jesus does not use a geographic term but a people term. We actually explore a whole range of Greek words. We have five major Greeks words that we examine that Jesus could have used if he intended a geographic understanding of the church’s growth around the world, but he does not say to us to go into all the countries of the world, but to go to all the nations of the world. That is to say that we must penetrate every ethnic group, every people group with the gospel.
The phrase in the Greek is panta ta ethne — “all nations.” You can hear the English word “ethnic” in the Greek word ethne, because this is the reference that we find with the Greek word ethne. It is a people/ethnic orientation, not a geographic location or political orientation.
So often when we think about missions it’s about going to places with the gospel, bringing the gospel to a place like India or China, but actually, it’s about the peoples of India; it’s about the peoples of China, and even though India is only one country, one geographic country, it’s actually filled with thousands of people groups, most of whom have not heard the gospel and do not have a witnessing church.
So even though the number of countries in the world is only around roughly two hundred, we have over 24,000 ethnic groups in the world, each of whom deserves and to whom we are called to bring the gospel and a church into those people groups.
And so this is the richness of Matthew’s gospel which we are just now summarizing in very, very quick fashion, but it is very, very important to recognize the full scope of this.
Importance of Gospel Proclamation to All Creation
Going to Mark’s Gospel we have another remarkable emphasis, because in Mark’s Gospel we have rather than the expression “make disciples” as being the imperative, in Mark’s gospel it is “proclaim the Gospel,” and rather than the focus being “make disciples of all nations,” it is the phrase “to all creation.” So, even though the words sound similar in English – in Matthew, “make disciples of all nations” and in Mark, “proclaim the gospel to all creation” – it’s actually a very, very different kind of language and focus.
Mark is pointing out the importance of Gospel proclamation, the importance of the preaching of the Word. He gives a great urgency to the preaching to all creation, and given the fact of the remarkable, explosive nature of world population, it’s important that we recognize the tremendous challenge that is upon us to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth and to every single person within the created order who deserves to hear the gospel.
Importance of the Church
Mark also emphasizes, as did Matthew, the importance of incorporation into the church. Matthew does not simply say, “Go and spread this good news and let people hear it,” and they remain disembodied believers. But no, he says, “Make disciples of all nations.” Bring the nations to the feet of Jesus. That is to say, bring before every nation the people of God in churches that live out and embody the fullness of redeemed society before the eyes of a watching world.
Likewise Mark cannot even possibly contemplate belonging to Christ in a way that is untethered from membership in the visible church of our Lord Jesus Christ. Mark will not separate individual faith from one’s incorporation into the Body. This is where we find that explicit reference to baptism in Mark’s Gospel. “Whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved.”
Mark is not trying to create any added work to the simple act of faith in Christ which saves us, and we are of course aware of the blessed thief on the cross who without any other action but simply his pure faith in Jesus is saved. That’s the gospel. That’s the gospel that Paul preaches. That’s the gospel that Mark affirms. This is not Mark’s point. He is not talking about soteriology. Mark is talking about ecclesiology. He’s talking about the nature of faith as it’s expressed in the life of the church.
So Mark says, “Whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved.” That is to say, whoever believes is baptized, that is, brought into the full-orbed experience of the people of God, that we express our faith in community, we express our faith corporately, not just individually. So this is another great gift of Mark’s Gospel.
Mark also demonstrates in bold relief the great chasm between those who believe and those who do not believe, in terms that are quite remarkable.
The Content of the Gospel
Moving quickly to Luke’s Gospel, you find that Luke also follows through on this emphasis upon “all nations.” These are the exact words that we find that Matthew used, where he emphasizes that the gospel is for “all peoples on the earth.” What is unique about Luke’s Gospel is that he is the only one who gives us a specific reference to the actual content of the gospel message. Luke does not just simply say, “Go out and preach the gospel,” or “make disciples,” without telling us what the gospel is.
Luke specifically says, “Repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in His name to all nations.” So we have the emphasis on repentance and the forgiveness of sins, the work of Christ on the cross. This is the very, very powerful emphasis found in Luke’s Gospel.
Continuity between the Old and New Covenants
Luke also demonstrates secondly the continuity between the Old Testament revelation and the new covenant. Luke’s Gospel points out that the Great Commission emerges as a fulfillment of the Prophets. “This is what is written”—in other words, in the Law, in the Prophets, in the Writings, this is being fulfilled, that the gospel will be preached.
So you cannot think that the gospel is somehow or another disembodied from the Old Testament revelation or that modern-day missions in obedience to the Great Commission is untethered from the promises made to Abraham. Luke is the one that shows us Christ explaining to the two on the road to Emmaus how Moses and all the Prophets were giving witness to Himself.
So, these are a number of the emphases in Luke’s Gospel, and I explore, actually, several others in the expanded version of this particular course.
The fourth and final gospel account is found in the Gospel of John. Many people have wrongfully asserted that the Great Commission passages are features of the synoptic gospels—that is, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Several observe that John’s Gospel does not contain a “Great Commission.” Nothing could be further from the truth. This is a gross misrepresentation and an under-reading of the theology and how it unfolds in John’s Gospel.
John’s Gospel, like we find the in rest of John’s Gospel, so often uses different vocabulary and language, and, therefore, it’s easy to miss John’s “Great Commission,” but it’s found very clearly in John 20:21 in those words of our Lord: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”
Continuity between Christ and the Church
We explore in the extended lectures that this passage brings out the continuity between Christ and the church. Christ is the sent one, and now he is sending us out into the world. This is where you really have to appreciate the theology of John’s Gospel. Unlike the synoptics, where the number one way that Christ is referred to either by himself or by the Gospel writers about Christ is the expression “Son of Man.” This is not a feature that is dominant in John’s Gospel.
Instead, the singular most important way and the most numerous way that Christ refers to himself or is referred to by the Gospel writer in John’s Gospel, is as the “sent one.” Over forty times, in fact, forty-two times Jesus says of Himself, or it’s said of Him, that He is the “sent one.” You, of course, remember the passage in John 3:16, “that God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son.” Later in that same passage, Jesus said, “I was not sent into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world,” and so forth.
So all of these passages are very critical to how John understands the mission of Christ, as one that was sent into the world. So it is no mistake that the last occurrence of this, the forty-second occurrence, is the occurrence found in this passage, where Jesus says to his gathered disciples as he breathes on them, “As the Father has sent me, even so send I you.”
Sending Role of the Church
This is a tremendous, tremendous emphasis on the sending role of the church and the importance of being in continuity with Christ, who was sent and who now sends us out into the world. You recall that great text from Romans 10 where Paul says, “How then shall they call on the one they have not believed in? How can they believe in the one of whom they’ve not heard? How can they hear without someone preaching to them? How can they preach unless they are sent?” [Romans 10:14-15]
So the sending role of the church is critical to the Great Commission. If the church does not send out into the world, there can be no preachers who give witness to the good news of the gospel. If there are no preachers to give witness to the good news of the gospel, then there’s no one who can hear the good news of the gospel. If there’s no one who hears, then there’s no one who can believe in their heart, and if there’s no one who can believe in their heart, they cannot call upon Christ and be saved.
So Paul draws these wonderful golden links between the one who calls is the one who believes; the one who believes is the one who has heard; the one who has heard and the one who has been in the presence of a preacher or a witness to the gospel; and that person is only there through the instrumentality of a sending church. So, you may not have been called to be a missionary who has been sent cross-culturally to work among some peoples in a distant part of the world, but you are part of the sending church. Every Christian is either a sent Christian or should be a part of sending Christians; that is, be a part of the mobilization of Christians into the world.
So this is a tremendous help as we see this emphasis in John’s Gospel and the implications of that for the role in missions that we all have.