Recently I returned from a short term missions trip, 10 days. About half way through I began to be challenged. I have never been interested in missions, especially long term. That was work that others were called to, not me. But, God put the ‘Great Commission’ upon my heart. I began to meditate on it—whether I liked it or not—and when I returned home, I began to study it.
The Great Commission
Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “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.” (Matthew 28.16-20)
Matthew 28.18-20 contains the ‘Great Commission,’ possibly one of the most challenging commands given to men. There is great dispute over the true meaning of the passage. People ask questions such as, “Where exactly are we to go?” and “When?” and “How long?” and “How do I know if I am called?” These questions are viable questions and I believe that the Word is clear on the answers.
The very first word, ‘Go’ presents some of the biggest questions. The Greek is pretty clear on the meaning. It most certainly is a command to go, but there is an implication revealed by the tense of the word. It also means to continue in pursuing the journey on which you have already entered. Or, to be continually going. It could say, “Be continually pursuing, that which you have already been commissioned to do, to make disciples”…and so on and so forth. The idea is that all followers of Jesus Christ are commanded to be witnesses of Jesus Christ, from the day we submit our lives, until we go to be with Jesus in heaven. This is a command to the disciples that once Jesus ascends to heaven, they are to continue doing exactly that, and in obedience to this command, we are to do the same.
New Testament commands come in different form than Old Testament commands, but they are no less commands. In the Old Testament, we have books of law which provide rules for living. This also is a rule for living. I just want to point out that Jesus says he has “All authority in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28.18). That means,just like Old Testament commands, the command carries the full authority of the Father and is punished or rewarded according to the same standards.
Let’s take a look at the command itself. The command is addressed to the disciples, specifically to the eleven, who were called to be apostles. Since the apostles were charged with running and growing the early church, we can take this command to be addressed to the church, although there are individual applications as well.
First of all, we are to go to all nations. As the body of Christ, we are to reach all nations with the Gospel message. The command is all, meaning every single one. The command is not for every individual to go to every one though. It is for the church. Nonetheless, if we are a part of the church, then we are to be active in reaching every people group. One thing that is often left out when discussing this verse is that fact that “all” includes your local area. I am commanded by this verse, not just to be a part of national and international missions, but also to be reaching my local community.
Making disciples is possibly the clearest part. In fulfilling this command, we are to be a witness and give an account. What this means is that we give our testimony of what we have witnessed Christ do, in our lives and/or in the lives of others and we give an account of the cross, the basic gospel message. In fact, any testimony is in vain if we do not give the hearers the ability to receive Christ as we have. If we are faithful to this presentation, even if we never personally led a soul to Christ, we fulfill the command to make disciples. This is because the command is for the church and God will use others to further His kingdom in this way, even if He does not use us. Remember that God alone is responsible for the harvest. But, the command to do it is the same for everyone.
Baptism is where this command gets interesting. Baptism is not typically used as an initial profession of faith, at least not today. It is an ordinance that is adhered to by believers out of obedience. In many cases it will take some time for a new believer to become confident in their faith, although some may be ready for baptism upon accepting Christ. In any case, the command is to baptize, but again the command is to the body of Christ. I’ll give an example of how this is practical. On a recent trip that I was a part of, many people were led to Christ. This was a short term trip and no one was baptized while we were there. I am confident however, that these new believers will be baptized at some point because of the strength of the local church in that area. So, the command will be fulfilled. If the local church were not established or capable, it would be necessary to make sure that these new believers are baptized in some other way, all the while adhering to biblical practices.
This is by far the most challenging section. The idea of teaching them to obey everything that Jesus commanded is intense. That is a lifelong commitment for any single individual and arguably still cannot be accomplished. So what does it mean? It means that the church has the responsibility to teach all of the disciples of Christ about all that has been commanded. In many cases a missionary will commit themselves long term to a people group because if they leave, there will not be anyone left to teach them. It is the only way to accomplish the goal. In other cases, shorter term projects are possible, especially when there is a local church to come along side the missionary to complete the work.
Just a quick note here. God’s plan is to build the church and for the church to exist to the end. In general, God works through earthly resources to accomplish this and not directly through obvious supernatural means. This is why he uses men to draw others to Himself, instead of growing the church aside from our efforts. This in no way is to suggest that we have any control over God’s plan. The harvest is completely in His hands and will happen according to His sovereign grace alone.
In verse 17 of Matthew, chapter 28, it says that the disciples doubted. They doubted that they were actually seeing and talking to Jesus in the flesh. This is elaborated on greatly in Luke, chapter 24, where Jesus proves He is flesh and blood by eating fish. In the Mathew account, however, He combats the doubt by reminding them that He has been given all authority over heaven and earth—over all creation. They are reminded of His power over creation, so that they will not doubt and they will not fear this great work for which they are about to receive a commission for.
I think the greatest part of the ‘Great Commission’ is the final statement, “surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Remember that this command is to the church. Where it is true that Jesus resides with us through His Spirit until the end of our lives, this is assuring that He will not abandon His church. He is here, living and acting in the church to bring about the completion of His plan until the end of the age, which is the church era.
The final take away for this passage is pray. Jesus is our strength and He is with us through His Spirit. Are you a prayer warrior? Be a part of missions through prayer. Do you have a heart to support ministry financially? Be a part of missions financially…and through prayer. Test the water! Be a part of short term missions and continue to pray. And finally, no matter who you are or what you think you are called to, pray hard about long term missions. God will make clear to you what it is that He has designed for you, whether that is long term or short term or local or international missions.
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