Fulfilling the Great Commission (Part 1)

Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus had appointed them. And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted. And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.” (Matthew 28:16-20 KJV)

It is very easy to read Matthew’s Gospel and see that everything that happened was leading up to two critical moments in history: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But if we stop paying attention once Jesus emerges from the grave, then we will miss the latter half of his story.

Now that may sound confusing because the resurrection of Christ takes place at the very end of Matthew’s Gospel. The same is true in Mark, Luke, and John. So perhaps the best way for me to illustrate my point is to read from the first chapter of The Book of Acts.

You may have noticed that Luke wrote his account of the gospel to a mysterious figure by the name of Theophilus. Well, in the first chapter of Acts, we see that he also wrote Acts to the same man. He said, “The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, Until the day in which he was taken up, after that he through the Holy Ghost had given commandments unto the apostles whom he had chosen” (Ac 1:1-2).

According to Luke, his “former treatise” (meaning, his account of the gospel) chronicled only what Christ began to do and teach. In other words, Jesus continued to do and teach beyond what we read in the four Gospels. Luke even said that he stopped writing his Gospel once Jesus was resurrected and had spent forty days continuing to teach his chosen apostles.

So where is the rest of the story? Where can we read Jesus’s Story: Part 2?

That’s what we have in The Book of Acts. Acts is Luke’s attempt to continue writing the story of Christ. But that may confuse you as well because the first chapter of Acts describes his ascension into heaven. Verse 9 says, “He was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight” (Ac 1:9). And from that day forward, Hebrews tells us, “When he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb 1:3). To this day, Jesus sits at the right hand of God in heaven.

It’s beginning to sound like Volume 2 of Jesus’s Story is missing its most vital component: the protagonist, the main character. How can you tell the story of someone when he disappears only halfway through?

Sadly, for most of my life, I had the impression that Jesus finished his work, clapped the dust off his hands, and said, “Okay, guys, my work here is done. Eventually, I’ll be back, but I can’t tell you when. In the meantime, why don’t you get together once a week or so to sing a few songs about me. Maybe you can talk about me and what I’ve done. I’ll keep an eye an you. I may even step in to help once in awhile. I wish you the best of luck.”

The Bible, however, paints a much different picture.

Christ’s Spirit Is Coming

All the way back in the Old Testament, Joel offered a strange and unique prophecy. Through Joel, God said, “It shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh” (Joel 2:28). John the Baptist continued this theme through his ministry. He said, “I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost” (Lk 3:16).

Later, as Jesus prepared his disciples for his impending death and departure, he made very similar promises about the Spirit. In John chapter 14, he told them, “I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you. Yet a little while, and the world seeth me no more; but ye see me” (Jn 14:18-19). A moment later, he added, “These things have I spoken unto you, being yet present with you. But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you” (Jn 14:25-26).

In John 15, he said, “When the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me: And ye also shall bear witness” (Jn 15:26-27). Finally, in chapter 16, he said, “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come” (Jn 16:12-13).

According to Joel, God would pour out his Spirit on his people. According to John the Baptist, Jesus himself would baptize people with the Spirit. According to Jesus, the Spirit would essentially replace him. He would leave, but the disciples would not be left all alone because his Spirit would come. His Spirit would continue teaching them. The Spirit would bear witness of Christ and empower the disciples to also bear witness of Christ. The Spirit would even show them things to come, things they couldn’t previously understand.

As we come to the end of the Gospels, Jesus had already died. He had already been raised again. And he reissues this same promise concerning his Spirit. Only now, we can sense the eminency of the Spirit’s arrival. In Luke 24, he tells his disciples, “I send the promise of my Father upon you: but tarry ye [wait] in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued [or clothed] with power from on high” (Lk 24:49). It is coming, and it is coming very soon.

Again, in Acts chapter 1, Jesus says to them, “Wait for the promise of the Father…ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence” (Ac 1:4-5). Then, just moments before his ascension into heaven, he said, “Ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Ac 1:8).

Do you see what was happening? Jesus had completed his work of atonement, but that’s not to say he had finished his work. He was physically leaving his disciples, but that’s not to say he was leaving his disciples. But rather than remain with them in the flesh, he sent his Spirit to dwell in them. His Spirit would continue teaching them. From within, his Spirit would empower them to do his work. In short, the story of Jesus continues through his disciples, through the church.

With that in mind, let’s focus on the passage I read in Matthew 28.

The Invitation To Come

This passage is what we often call the Great Commission, which is an appropriate name for it. Christ spent three years preparing his disciples to carry out this simple set of instructions. The primary function of God’s Spirit indwelling believers is to equip us to be Christ’s witnesses. Jesus said, “When the Comforter is come…he shall testify of me: And ye also shall bear witness” (Jn 15:26-27). He said, “After that the Holy Ghost is come upon you…ye shall be witnesses unto me” (Ac 1:8). While the Spirit does considerably more than prepare us to be evangelists, the Bible stresses this all-important facet of our discipleship.

Unfortunately, we often show little regard for the Great Commission. We tend to put our wants and needs ahead of this divine calling. We meet for worship because it comforts and encourages us. We fellowship with the church because we enjoy the camaraderie and support of likeminded people. Perhaps the more mature Christian knows it is our purpose to glorify God. Perhaps he or she knows that we are striving for greater and greater sanctification. But even then, we may fail to look beyond ourselves and the local church.

Frankly, the attitudes of Old Testament Israel continue to plague the church today. It was an incredible struggle for early Jewish Christians to accept the inclusion of Gentile believers. They had grown so accustomed to isolation and a feeling of superiority over the rest of the world that even faithful men like Peter struggled to overcome their natural tendencies to dismiss the Gentiles.

I fear that we have become so inwardly focused that we have neglected to see the fullness of God’s kingdom. We see little more than the current membership of our church while many of God’s people are wandering aimlessly around us, waiting for someone to give them good news, to point them in the right direction.

Worse yet perhaps, we may fail to see the fullness of the gospel message. We often stop short at Christ’s death and resurrection. But the message continues. Jesus and his apostles were diligent to amend the message of Christ crucified with a vital call to action which can summed up in a word: come.

At the end of our Bibles in The Book of Revelation, we read, “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let him that heareth say, ‘Come.’ And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely” (Rev 22:17). The Spirit says, “Come.” The Bride says, “Come.” And those who hear the Spirit and the Bride are also to say, “Come. Are you thirsty? Come. Take the water of life freely.”

Immediately following that verse in Revelation, John warns his readers to never add or take anything away from what the book says. If the message of Christ’s victory over sin and death concludes with an invitation to come (that is, come to Christ), then we should make no attempt in word or practice to remove that invitation.

In his first epistle, John wrote, “This is [God’s] commandment, That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ” (1Jn 3:23). Jesus himself preached, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (Jn 3:14-15). On another occasion, he spoke to the masses and said, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls” (Mt 11:28-29).

The work of Christ was not finished when he died on the cross. In some respects, his death was only the beginning. Since that time, he has been working to draw his people to himself. In John chapter 10, Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine. As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep. [What then?] And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd” (Jn 10:14-16).

“Sure,” you say, “but what does that have to do with us? Christ is gathering his sheep. That’s no surprise.” Right, but the question is, how is Christ gathering his sheep? If we think of the local church as a sheepfold, how do people typically find their way here? Does God suddenly speak to them from heaven and say, “Hey, you. Have you ever heard of Eureka Church? I want you to go there”?

Consider your own experience. How did you learn about Christ? Did the name spontaneously flash across your mind? While I believe that can certainly happen, chances are, someone told you about Christ. Am I right? Someone—maybe it was your parents, a friend, or someone else—but someone told you about Christ, his death, and his resurrection. Someone told you about salvation from sin. Someone invited you to come.

I assume that because that is the pattern throughout Scripture. When Philip first found Christ, he went to his brother and said, “Come and see” (Jn 1:46). When Jesus revealed his identity to a Samaritan woman, she quickly ran into town, telling everyone, “Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ?” (Jn 4:29). When an Ethiopian man was searching for meaning in the prophecies of Isaiah, it was Philip (a different Philip, not the apostle) who asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” (Ac 8:30). And the man responded, “How can I, except some man should guide me?” (Ac 8:31).

In Romans 10, Paul wrote, “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Ro 10:13-14). Of course, Paul was well aware that God must be working in a person for them to hear and believe the gospel. He also said, “They have not all obeyed the gospel” (Ro 10:16). Even so, he concluded, “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Ro 10:17).

I know it’s taking me awhile to get to our text in Matthew, but please be patient with me. I’m laying a foundation which I hope will prove beneficial to us.

We Are Ambassadors For Christ

For just a moment, will you turn with me to 2 Corinthians chapter 5? Second Corinthians chapter 5, starting with verse 17:

If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:17-20 KJV)

First, Paul describes the incredible transformation of God’s people in conversion. We are not merely different versions of the same creature; we are new creatures. Through the regenerating work of the Spirit, our former values, priorities, beliefs, and passions pass away. We may still wrestle with sin, but sin no longer enslaves us. The believer’s new life is a substantial change that becomes an ongoing, progressive reality, moving us ever closer to the image of Christ.

Second, Paul reminds us that our conversions are of God. God and God alone reconciles sinners to himself through Jesus Christ.

Third, God has given his new creations what Paul calls “the ministry of reconciliation.” In other words, believers are entrusted with the gospel of Jesus Christ and the message of salvation.

Fourth, we see what this message includes. In Christ, God reconciled sinners to himself. Rather than hold us accountable for our sin, he allowed his Son, Jesus, to suffer his wrath in our place.

Fifth, Paul tells us once more that God has given us the message or word of reconciliation. But he also expands that thought with a profound statement: “Now then we are ambassadors for Christ.” We speak and act on his behalf. He is the King, and we are his representatives here on earth. In fact, Paul says, “We are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us.” Another translation says, “We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

Paul’s statement coincides perfectly with what Jesus said about his church in Matthew 16. He told his disciples, “Upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:18-19). Jesus promised to give his authority to the church. In other words, they would act as his ambassadors. They would speak his words and do his work. God would make his appeal to other sinners through us.

It’s no surprise then that we would refer to the commandment given in Matthew 28 as the Great Commission. It certainly is great. But don’t let that name intimidate you. Proclaiming the name of Christ, calling sinners to repentance, inviting them to come, and speaking on behalf of God in this world are weighty responsibilities. But we do not work alone. Christ poured out his Spirit on us for this very reason. His Spirit now lives within us, empowering and equipping us to do this very thing.

Let’s return now to Matthew 28.

Evangelism Requires Obedience

Just days before this moment, Jesus prayed to God, saying, “As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world” (Jn 17:18). This passage is further confirmation that it is God’s will for us to go out into the world, seek the lost, and make disciples.

Verse 16 says, “Then the eleven disciples [remember, Judas Iscariot was no longer with them] went away into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus had appointed them” (Mt 28:16).

In Matthew’s account of the resurrection, Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James, discovered the empty tomb of Christ. An angel was there and told them, “Go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead; and, behold, he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him” (Mt 28:7). And as they were on their way to find the disciples, the resurrected Jesus appeared to them and said, “Be not afraid: go tell my brethren that they go into Galilee, and there shall they see me” (Mt 28:10).

You probably remember the disciples’ encounter with Jesus in Galilee. That is where Thomas touched the wounds in his hands. That is where Jesus told the fishermen among them to cast their nets on the right side of the boat. That is where Jesus asked Peter to reaffirm his love three times in a row. And that is where Jesus gives them the Great Commission. It was probably twenty days after his resurrection and about twenty days before his ascension into heaven.

I can’t help but notice that Christ was very specific about his disciples going to a particular mountain in Galilee. He could have appeared to them anywhere. So why this mountain? Why make them walk for seven days before giving his final instructions? I believe the answer is obedience.

How can we be ambassadors for Christ if we have not personally submitted ourselves to Christ as our Lord and King? Our disobedience would disqualify us from the position. Jesus said, “If a man love me, he will keep my words” (Jn 14:23). We cannot be Christ’s representatives on earth unless our lives accurately reflect the King and his will.

When he gave the church the keys to the kingdom, we were not given the authority to do whatever we want. Our authority extends only as far as the Bible permits. We cannot create our own set of standards for loosing and binding. The standards we must uphold come from heaven. They are given to us through God’s Word. Christ is our King, and we are his ambassadors.

Now there’s a second aspect to obedience that is important in evangelism. Not only should we be obedient to Christ in general, but the Great Commission itself requires obedience. When Jesus said, “Go ye therefore,” he was issuing a command (Mt 28:19). He did not say, “Go if the mood strikes you. Go if you feel you’d be especially good at it.” No, he said, “Go.” Of course, there are caveats. But for now, just understand that Christ delivered the Great Commission as an imperative.

Evangelism Requires Faith

If nothing else, Jesus required his disciples to show faith and a willingness to follow him wherever he leads. “If you want to see me again, go to Galilee.” Evangelism requires both faith and willingness. We need faith because we don’t have the power to change hearts. We can proclaim the gospel with eloquence or defend the Christian faith like the very best of apologists, but we cannot turn hearts of stone into hearts of flesh. So as we obey Christ’s commandment to make disciples, we wholly rely on the will and power of God. We need faith to fulfill the Great Commission.

By the way, we should keep in mind that our evangelistic efforts will not always be successful. They may rarely seem successful, but that’s okay. Through Isaiah, God said, “For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater: So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it” (Isa 55:10-11).

God’s Word will always accomplish exactly what he intends for it to accomplish. He knows that not everyone can or will receive the message of Christ and salvation. In Matthew 10, Jesus told his apostles, “Whatsoever city or town ye shall enter, enquire who in it is worthy; and there abide till ye go thence. And when ye come into an house, salute it. And if the house be worthy, let your peace come upon it: but if it be not worthy, let your peace return to you. And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet” (Mt 10:11-14).

Some people will gladly hear what you have to say while others will not. And sometimes you’ll find that your efforts seem to produce no fruit at all, but they do. Paul once said, “I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase” (1Co 3:6). He went on to say, “He that planteth and he that watereth are one: and every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labour” (1Co 3:8).

Maybe you didn’t see the fruit you were expecting because you were on the front end of the process. You planted the seeds. Maybe it was only later that someone else watered and God eventually caused the seeds you planted to grow.

Regardless, I can think of little that is more comforting than to know that I’m not responsible for the conversion of sinners. I am responsible for preaching Christ to others, but their conversions are in God’s hand.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably wanted to use some of Moses’s excuses. He told God, “They will not believe me, nor hearken unto my voice…I am not eloquent…I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue” (Ex 4:1, 10). But God answered, “Who hath made man’s mouth? or who maketh the dumb, or deaf, or the seeing, or the blind? have not I the Lord? Now therefore go, and I will be with thy mouth, and teach thee what thou shalt say” (Ex 4:11-12).

Remember, God sent Moses even though Pharaoh and much of Israel would not listen to him. God has his purpose, and it’s not our place to question what he has commanded.

So the first step in evangelism is a combination of obedience, willingness, and faith. And there is absolutely no reason to fear the task of acting as Christ’s ambassadors. As the born-again people of God, the Spirit has equipped us for this very role.

I’ll stop right there for now. Lord willing, we can return to Matthew 28 in the morning. Pray for us. I hope to finish expounding on this passage and bring the subject of evangelism as well as discipling down to a practical level.

Preached at Eureka Primitive Baptist Church (Chula, GA) on March 11, 2017