Making Disciples of All Nations
But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated. And when they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful. And Jesus came up 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 the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (28:16–20)
If a Christian understands all the rest of the gospel of Matthew but fails to understand this closing passage, he has missed the point of the entire book. This passage is the climax and major focal point not only of this gospel but of the entire New Testament. It is not an exaggeration to say that, in its broadest sense, it is the focal point of all Scripture, Old Testament as well as New.
This central message of Scripture pertains to the central mission of the people of God, a mission that, tragically, many Christians do not understand or are unwilling to fulfill. It seems obvious that some Christians think little about their mission in this world, except in regard to their own personal needs. They attend services and meetings when it is convenient, take what they feel like taking, and have little concern for anything else. They are involved in the church only to the extent that it serves their own desires. It escapes both their understanding and their concern that the Lord has given His church a supreme mission and that He calls every believer to be an instrument in fulfilling that mission.
If the average evangelical congregation were surveyed concerning the primary purpose of the church, it is likely that many diverse answers would be given. Several purposes, however, would probably be prominent. A large number would rank fellowship first, the opportunity to associate and interact with fellow Christians who share similar beliefs and values. They highly value the fact that the church provides activities and programs for the whole family and is a place where relationships are nurtured and shared and where inspiration is provided through good preaching and beautiful music. A favorite verse for such church members is likely to be, “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
At a level perhaps a step higher, some Christians would consider sound biblical teaching to be the church’s principal function, expounding Scripture and strengthening believers in knowledge of and obedience to God’s revealed truth. That emphasis would include helping believers discover and minister their spiritual gifts in various forms of leadership and service. Like fellowship, that too is a basic function of the church, because God “gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ” (Eph. 4:11–13).
Adding a more elevated level, some members would consider praise of God to be the supreme purpose of the church. They emphasize the church as a praising community that exalts the Lord in adoration, homage, and reverence. Praise is clearly a central purpose of God’s people, just as it has always been and will always be a central activity of heaven, where both saints and angels will eternally sing praises to God. “Worthy art Thou, our Lord and our God,” sing the twenty-four elders lying prostrate before God’s throne, “to receive glory and honor and power; for Thou didst create all things, and because of Thy will they existed, and were created” (Rev. 4:10–11; cf. 5:8–14).
Paul declares that God has “predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace … to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ should be to the praise of His glory” (Eph. 1:5–6, 12; cf. v. 14). Later in that same epistle he exults, “To Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever” (3:21).
Jesus came into the world to manifest God’s glory, the “glory as of the only begotten from the Father” (John 1:14), as “the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature” (Heb. 1:3). Just as their Lord, Jesus Christ, came into the world with the supreme purpose of glorifying His Father, so those who belong to Christ have that same purpose. We are to praise, honor, and glorify our God in every dimension of life.
All of those emphases are thoroughly biblical and should characterize every body of believers. But neither separately nor together do they represent the central purpose and mission of the church in the world. The supreme purpose and motive of every individual believer and every body of believers is to glorify God.
The mission that flows out of our loving fellowship, our spiritual growth, and our praise is that of being God’s faithful and obedient instruments in His divine plan to redeem the world. That plan began in eternity past, before the foundation of the world. But it did not go into effect until Adam chose to sin, fell from fellowship with God, and was spiritually separated from Him. Since that fateful day in the Garden of Eden, fallen, natural man has been trying to hide from God, and God has been redeeming men back to Himself. From that first time of sin, it has always been God who, solely out of His own gracious love, has taken the initiative to restore men to righteousness. God has always taken the initiative for man’s salvation and restoration, from His first call to Adam, “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9), to His last call in Revelation: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost” (Rev. 22:17).
It was not until sinful mankind persisted in withdrawing further and further from God that He divided them into separate nations. When He needed a witnessing nation to the world, He called out Israel as His chosen people through Abraham. When Israel failed in that calling, God chose a remnant from among them to do what the nation would not. When the nation of Israel rejected her Messiah and King, Jesus Christ, God called out the church, His new chosen instrument to redeem the world.
God has been drawing, is now drawing, and, until the final judgment, will continue to draw sinful men back to Himself and to restore the world that sin has corrupted-all for the purpose of bringing glory to Himself. When sinners are saved, God is glorified, because their salvation cost Him the death of His own Son, the immeasurable price that His magnanimous grace was willing to pay.
The supreme way in which God chose to glorify Himself was through the redemption of sinful men, and it is through participation in that redemptive plan that believers themselves most glorify God. Through Christ, God was “reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them,” Paul declares, “and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:19). That is a work of such magnitude and graciousness that even the heavenly angels long to look into it (1 Pet. 1:12).
Nothing so much glorifies God as His gracious redemption of damned, hell-bound sinners. It was for that ultimate purpose that God called Abraham, that in him “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). It was never the Lord’s intention to isolate Israel as His sole focus of concern but rather to use that specially chosen and blessed nation to reach all other nations of the world for Himself. Israel was called to “proclaim good tidings of His salvation from day to day” and to “tell of His glory among the nations, His wonderful deeds among all the peoples” (1 Chron. 16:23–24; cf. Ps. 18:49). Like her Messiah, Israel was to be “a light to the nations so that [the Lord’s] salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa. 49:6; cf. 42:10–12; 66:19; Jonah 3:1–10).
It has never been God’s will for any person “to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). He “desires all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). God’s heart has always yearned to bring sinful, rebellious men back to Himself, to give them new, righteous, and eternal life through His Son, Jesus Christ. He so greatly “loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Paul rejoiced that God’s “grace which is spreading to more and more people may cause the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God” (2 Cor. 4:15). The apostle admonished the Corinthian believers and all Christians: “Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). Every time an unbeliever is saved by God’s grace, God is glorified, and another voice is added to the “Hallelujah Chorus,” as it were.
The great mission of the church is to so love, learn, and live as to call men and women to Jesus Christ. As sinners are forgiven and are transformed from death to life and from darkness to light, God is glorified through that gracious miracle. The glory of God is manifest in His loving provision to redeem lost men. He Himself paid the ultimate price to fulfill His glory.
Therefore the believer who desires to glorify God, who wants to honor God’s supreme will and purpose, must share God’s love for the lost world and share in His mission to redeem the lost to Himself. Christ came into the world that He loved and sought to win sinners to Himself for the Father’s glory. As Christ’s representatives, we are likewise sent into the world that He loves to bring the lost to Him and thereby bring glory and honor to God. Our mission is the same mission as that of the Father and of the Son.
In His great high priestly prayer, Christ prayed, “This is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent. I glorified Thee on the earth, having accomplished the work which Thou hast given Me to do” (John 17:3–4). In His incarnation, Jesus glorified the Father by accomplishing His mission of providing eternal life to those who trust in Him, by reconciling lost men to the God they had forsaken. Jesus’ supreme purpose on earth was “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10).
That is therefore also the supreme mission of Christ’s church. The work of the church is an extension of the work of her Lord. “As Thou didst send Me into the world,” Jesus said to His Father, “I also have sent them into the world” (John 17:18).
If God’s primary purpose for the saved were loving fellowship, He would take believers immediately to heaven, where spiritual fellowship is perfect, unhindered by sin, disharmony, or loneliness. If His primary purpose for the saved were the learning of His Word, He would also take believers immediately to heaven, where His Word is perfectly known and understood. And if God’s primary purpose for the saved were to give Him praise, He would, again, take believers immediately to heaven, where praise is perfect and unending.
There is only one reason the Lord allows His church to remain on earth: to seek and to save the lost, just as Christ’s only reason for coming to earth was to seek and to save the lost. “As the Father has sent Me,” He declared, “I also send you” (John 20:21). Therefore, a believer who is not committed to winning the lost for Jesus Christ should reexamine his relationship to the Lord and certainly his divine reason for existence.
Fellowship, teaching, and praise are not the mission of the church but are rather the preparation of the church to fulfill its mission of winning the lost. And just as in athletics, training should never be confused with or substituted for actually competing in the game, which is the reason for all the training.
How tragic that so much of Christ’s church is preoccupied with trivialities. Many Christians are fascinated with the process and have no thought for the goal. They are preoccupied with the spiritually insignificant and show little commitment to reaching the lost.
The resources God has provided most churches are, for the most part, barely tapped in their efforts to call men and women and boys and girls to Jesus Christ. The contemporary church is blessed with previously unheard of means of proclaiming the saving message of Christ to the world. But like the world at large, it is frequently crippled by indulgent, self-centered preoccupations. Instead of asking, for instance, how we might get by with a smaller house or car and use the saved money in the Lord’s work, we are inclined to dream about getting bigger and nicer ones.
A counselor of my acquaintance has long had the practice of asking those who come to him for spiritual advice to show him their check stubs for the past year or so. His purpose is to help them recognize their true priorities, which invariably are reflected in the way they spend their money. Another helpful revealer of priorities is one’s calendar or appointment book, because where and for what we spend our time is also a reliable barometer of our true interests and concerns.
Christian fellowship, biblical preaching and teaching, and times of praise to God are good and godly, and in many ways carry their own rewards and blessings. But reaching the lost for Christ is much more difficult and demanding, and the results are often slow in coming and the rewards are sometimes long delayed. The gospel is frequently resented by those to whom we witness, and sometimes faithful witnessing is ridiculed even by fellow believers. Yet above all others, that ministry can only be accomplished while we are on earth. We will have no opportunity in heaven to call the lost to the Savior.
In his devotional book Quiet Talks with World Winners, S. D. Gordon recounted the story of a group of amateur climbers who planned to ascend Mont Blanc in the French Alps. On the evening before the climb, the guides stated the basic requirement for success. Because it was an exceedingly difficult climb, one could reach the top by taking only the necessary equipment for climbing, leaving all unnecessary accessories behind.
One athletic young man discounted the guides’ advice, thinking it could not possibly apply to him. He showed up for the climb with a blanket, a small case of wine, a camera, a set of notebooks, and a pocketful of snacks. Although warned again by the guides, the strong-willed young man nevertheless started out ahead of the rest to prove his superior skill and endurance.
But as the other climbers proceeded up the mountainside, they began to notice various articles left by the path. First, they noticed the young’s man’s food and wine, a short while later the notebooks and camera, and finally the blanket. The young man managed to reach the peak, but, just as the guides had predicted, he did so only after discarding all his unnecessary paraphernalia.
Applying that illustration to the church, Mr. Gordon comments that, unlike that young climber, who eventually paid the price for success, many Christians, when they discover they cannot reach the top with their loads, simply stop climbing and settle down on the mountainside.
In the final message of Christ reported by Matthew, Jesus gives five explicit or implicit elements that are necessary for His followers to fulfill their supreme mission on earth-to reach the mountain peak of their calling, as it were. These essential elements may be summarized as availability, worship, submission, obedience, and power.
But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated. (28:16)
The first three elements for effectively fulfilling the church’s mission are attitudes, the first of which is implied in the fact that the eleven disciples were where the Lord had told them to be.
As someone astutely observed many years ago, as far as a believer’s service to God is concerned, the greatest ability is availability. The most talented and gifted Christian is useless to God if he is not available to be used, just as God’s greatest blessings are not available to those who are not present to receive them.
Faithful discipleship does not begin with knowing where you will be serving the Lord or in what capacity. It does not start with having a clear call to a certain ministry, or occupation, or place of service. It always begins with simply being available to God, putting all reservations and preconceptions aside.
The eleven disciples had not received the blessing of seeing the resurrected Jesus in the garden because, unlike the faithful women, they were not there. Now, however, the eleven were where Jesus wanted them to be, and consequently they received His Great Commission and His great promise.
Both before and after the resurrection Jesus said He would meet His disciples in Galilee (see Matt. 26:32; 28:7, 10). He had called a great conclave of His followers for the purpose of commissioning them to reach the world in His name, and now they were gathered at the appointed place.
We are not told when or how the Lord specified the exact time and place in Galilee where they were to gather, but they were now at the particular mountain which Jesus had designated on some previous occasion.
The last recorded appearance of Jesus in Jerusalem was eight days after the resurrection, when Thomas saw the resurrected Lord for the first time (John 20:26). The journey from Jerusalem to Galilee would have taken about a week, and after they arrived there some of the disciples went fishing, during which time the Lord appeared to them again, providing a catch too heavy to haul into the boat. Then, after having breakfast with them, Jesus asked Peter three times about his love for Him and gave the commission to feed His sheep (John 21:1–17). That event would have occurred at least fifteen days after the resurrection and probably closer to twenty. Because Jesus ascended from the Mount of Olives in the presence of the disciples, they had to take another week to travel back to Jerusalem. And because Jesus’ postresurrection appearances covered a total of forty days (Acts 1:3), His giving of the Great Commission on the Galilean mountainside would have had to occur some time between twenty and thirty-five days after His resurrection.
We are not told who was present when Jesus gave the Great Commission, but it seems probable that it was the group of more than five hundred that Paul mentions in 1 Corinthian 15:6. That has been the view of many biblical scholars throughout church history.
The fact that Matthew specifically mentions only the eleven disciples does not limit the gathering to them. The angel’s message for the women to give to the disciples seems to imply that the women would also see Jesus in Galilee (see Matt. 28:7). There would have been no reason for Jesus to send the eleven to Galilee, only to have them return a few days later to the Mount of Olives for His ascension. It seems more reasonable that the Lord assembled a large group of believers and that He chose Galilee for the meeting place because most of His followers were from that region.
Because the Great Commission applies to all of His church, Jesus would surely have wanted to deliver it to the largest possible group of His faithful followers. Not only were most of Jesus’ followers from Galilee, but that region was secluded and was a safe distance from Jerusalem, where most of Jesus’ enemies were. And because the commission extends to all the world, Galilee, often referred to as Galilee of the Gentiles, also was appropriate for that reason.
Wherever the mountain was, it became a place of great sacredness, where more than five hundred of Jesus’ disciples came with their weaknesses, confusion, doubts, misgivings, and fears. They were not the most humanly capable people in the world, nor the most intelligent or powerful or influential. But they were where the Lord wanted them to be, and that obedience gave evidence of their willingness to be used in His service. Like Isaiah after his vision in the Temple, they said, in effect, “Here am I. Send me” (Isa. 6:8).
Because they were there, they met Christ. Because they were there, they were commissioned. Because they were there, they received the Lord’s promise of His continual presence and power as they ministered to the world in His name. It all started with being available.
And when they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful. And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, (28:17–18a)
The second element implied here for effective fulfillment of the church’s mission is the attitude of genuine worship. When God is not truly worshiped, He cannot be truly served, no matter how talented, gifted, or well-intentioned His servants may be.
The moment Jesus appeared and the disciples saw Him, they worshiped Him, prostrating themselves in humble adoration before their divine Lord and Savior. When they saw the risen Jesus on the hillside, their confusion disappeared and their shattered dreams were restored. Their sorrow turned into unbelievable joy and their disillusionment into unwavering hope.
The believers gathered there were not giving homage to a human dignitary or mere earthly ruler but were worshiping God’s own Son, the Lord of heaven and earth. Though no spoken words are recorded, in their hearts they must have been saying with Thomas after his last doubts were assuaged, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).
On but one previous occasion does Scripture say that the eleven disciples actually worshiped Jesus. After He walked to them on the water, they “worshiped Him, saying, ‘You are certainly God’s Son!’ ” (Matt. 14:33). Now their awe and their certainty of His divinity were immeasurably greater, because He was risen from the dead. It is probable that the worship of Christ on that day in Galilee has been equaled few other times in all of human history.
Yet, amazingly, some were still doubtful. That simple phrase inserted by Matthew is but one of countless small and indirect testimonies to the integrity of Scripture. In transparent honesty, the gospel writer sets forth the incident as it actually happened, with no attempt to make it more dramatic or convincing than it was. As he portrayed Jesus in His divine perfection, he also portrayed Jesus’ followers, including himself, in their human imperfection.
Those who attempt to write history to their own liking are inclined to magnify that which is favorable and omit that which is not. Had Matthew and the other gospel writers contrived Jesus’ resurrection, they would have had made every effort to exclude any fact or incident that would have tarnished their case. Nor would they have hesitated to falsify evidence and distort the truth. A person who lies about something of major importance has no scruples about telling lesser lies to support his primary deceit. Matthew’s simple honesty testifies both to his own honesty and to the integrity of God’s Word.
The identity of the doubters is not given. Because the eleven disciples are the only ones specifically mentioned in this passage, some interpreters insist that those who were doubtful were of that group. But as already noted, it is probable that hundreds of other believers were also present.
Exactly what was doubted is also not specified. If the fact of Jesus’ resurrection was in question, then the doubters could not have included any of the eleven, because all of them had already witnessed the risen Christ, some on several occasions. It seems most likely that the doubt concerned whether or not the person who appeared to them was actually the physically risen Christ or some form of imposter. Out of that large group, only the eleven disciples and some of the women who had come to the tomb had seen the risen Christ. Perhaps some of those in the back of the crowd could not see Jesus clearly and, like Thomas, were reluctant to believe such an amazing truth without firm evidence.
As if to alleviate that doubt, Jesus graciously came up and spoke to them. Whatever the doubt was and whoever the doubters were, as the Lord came nearer and as His familiar voice sounded in their ears once again, all uncertainty was erased. Now those who had doubted fell down and joined the others in worship.
Nothing else now mattered. It made no difference where they lived, what their heritage was, what their economic or social position was, or what their nationality was. They were now in the presence of the living God.
The complete focus was on Christ. That is the essence of true worship-single-minded, unhindered, and unqualified concentration on Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Not simply to the Corinthians, but to every person to whom he spoke and in every place he ministered, Paul “determined to know nothing among [them] except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). In his own life the apostle was determined to “know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death” (Phil. 3:10). Paul’s life was so totally Christ-centered that he could say with perfect sincerity, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21).
“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. (28:18b)
The third element for effective fulfillment of the church’s mission is another attitude, the implied attitude of submission. The focus of Jesus’ declaration here is on His sovereign lordship, but in context it also clearly relates to the believer’s response to His rule.
Before the Lord states the Great Commission, He establishes His divine authority to command it. It is because of His sovereign power that His followers are to have the attitude of complete, humble submission to His will.
Exousia (authority) refers to the freedom and right to speak and act as one pleases. In relation to God, that freedom and right are absolute and unlimited. The all is both reinforced and delineated by the phrase in heaven and earth. The sovereign authority given to Jesus by His heavenly Father (see Matt. 11:27; John 3:35) is absolute and universal.
During His earthly ministry, Jesus demonstrated His authority over disease and sickness (Matt. 4:23; 9:35), over demons (4:24; 8:32; 12:22), over sin (9:6), and over death (Mark 5:41–42; John 11:43–44). Except for the forgiveness of sins, Jesus even exhibited the authority to delegate such powers to certain of His followers (Matt. 10:1; Luke 10:9, 17). He has authority to bring all men before the tribunal of God and to condemn them to eternal death or bring them to eternal life (John 5:27–29; 17:2). He had the authority to lay down His own life and to take it up again (John 10:18). He has the sovereign authority to rule both heaven and earth and to subjugate Satan and his demons to eternal torment in the lake of fire (Rev. 19:20; 20:10). Satan’s tempting Jesus by offering Him rulership over the world (Matt. 4:8–9) not only was wicked but foolish, because lordship of both heaven and earth was already Christ’s inheritance by divine fiat.
Even the prophet Daniel foresaw sovereign authority being given to Christ. In his night vision he beheld “One like a Son of Man … coming, and He came up to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him. And to Him was given dominion, glory and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and men of every language might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which will not pass away; and His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed” (Dan. 7:13–14; cf. Isa. 9:6–7).
Jesus Himself described His coming dominion. “The sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky,” He said, “and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory” (Matt. 24:30; cf. 26:64).
Jesus’ sovereign authority was given to Him by His Father, who “has given all judgment to the Son” (John 5:22), “made Him both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36), and has “highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2:9–11). Then, finally, in an act of adoring love and submission, “when all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, that God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).
Before giving the commission, Jesus first established His absolute, pervasive authority, because otherwise the command would have seemed hopelessly impossible for the disciples to fulfill, and they might have ignored it. Were it not for knowing they had the Lord’s sovereign demand as well as His resources to guide and empower them, those five hundred nondescript, powerless disciples would have been totally overwhelmed by the inconceivable task of making disciples for their Lord from among every nation on earth.
Submission to the absolute sovereignty of Jesus Christ is not a believer’s option but is his supreme obligation. It is not negotiable or adjustable to one’s own particular inclinations and plans. It is rather the attitude that says with absolute sincerity, “Whatever the Lord commands, I will do.”
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; (28:19–20a)
The fourth element for effective fulfillment of the church’s mission is obedience to the Lord’s command, made possible only when the attitudes of availability, worship, and submission characterize the believer’s life.
It was in light of His absolute, sovereign authority that Jesus commanded, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.” The transitional word is therefore. “Because I am sovereign Lord of the universe,” Jesus was saying, “I have both the authority to command you to be My witnesses and the power to enable you to obey that command.”
In light of the Old Testament teaching about Israel’s mission to be God’s light to the Gentiles and in light of Jesus’ earthly ministry, it should not be surprising that His commission was to make disciples of all the nations.
Mathēteuō (make disciples) is the main verb and the central command of verses 19–20, which form the closing sentence of Matthew’s gospel. The root meaning of the term refers to believing and learning. Jesus was not referring simply to believers or simply to learners, or He would have used other words. Mathēteuō carries a beautiful combination of meanings. In this context it relates to those who place their trust in Jesus Christ and follow Him in lives of continual learning and obedience. “If you abide in My word,” Jesus said, “then you are truly disciples of Mine” (John 8:31). It should be noted that some disciples were not true (see John 6:66).
A person who is not Christ’s true disciple does not belong to Him and is not saved. When a person genuinely confesses Christ as Lord and Savior, he is immediately saved, immediately made a disciple, and immediately filled with the Holy Spirit. Not to be Christ’s disciple is therefore not to be Christ’s at all.
Scripture knows nothing of receiving Christ as Savior but not as Lord, as if a person could take God piecemeal as it suits him. Every convert to Christ is a disciple of Christ, and no one who is not a disciple of Christ, no matter what his profession of faith might be, is a convert of Christ.
The very point of Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler was that this man-although highly moral, religious, generous, and admiring of Jesus—refused to give up everything for Christ and submit to Him as Lord. He sincerely wanted eternal life and had the wisdom to come to the source of that life. But he was unwilling to give up his own life and possessions and obey Jesus’ command to “come, follow Me” (Luke 18:18–23). He was willing to have Jesus as Savior but not as Lord, and Christ would not receive him on those terms. Because he refused to be Christ’s disciple when the cost was made clear (like those in John 6:66), he could have no part of Christ or of the eternal life that He gives.
Some popular theologies today teach that Jesus was referring to those who are already believers when He taught such things as, “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:27; cf. v. 33). Such forms of easy believism maintain that the only requirement for salvation is to “accept Jesus as Savior.” Then, at some later date, a saved person may or may not become a disciple by accepting Christ as Lord of his life. Taking up one’s cross and following Christ (Matt. 10:38) is looked on as a secondary, ideal level of relationship to Christ that is commendable but not mandatory.
The Great Commission is a command to bring unbelievers throughout the world to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, and the term the Lord uses in this commissioning is make disciples. The true convert is a disciple, a person who has accepted and submitted himself to Jesus Christ, whatever that may mean or demand. The truly converted person is filled with the Holy Spirit and given a new nature that yearns to obey and worship the Lord who has saved him. Even when he is disobedient, he knows he is living against the grain of his new nature, which is to honor and please the Lord. He loves righteousness and hates sin, including his own.
Jesus’ supreme command, therefore, is for those who are His disciples to become His instruments for making disciples of all nations. Jesus’ own earthly ministry was to make disciples for Himself, and that is the ministry of His people. Those who truly follow Jesus Christ become “fishers of men” (Matt. 4:19). Those who become His disciples are themselves to become disciple makers. The mission of the early church was to make disciples (see Acts 2:47; 14:21), and that is still Christ’s mission for His church.
Jesus’ command for His followers to make disciples was given only once, climactically, at the very end of His earthly ministry. Some might ask, “If it was so crucial, why did Jesus mention it only once?” The reason, no doubt, is that the motivation for reaching others for Christ is innate to the redeemed life. One might as well ask why God’s command for man to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28) was given only once. In each case, reproduction in kind is natural to life. The call to make disciples is stated only once because it is natural for the new creation to be reproductive. It would beg the issue to repeat what is so basic.
The specific requirements Jesus gives for making disciples involve three participles: going (rendered here as go), baptizing, and teaching.
The first requirement makes clear that the church is not to wait for the world to come to its doors but that it is to go to the world. The Greek participle is best translated “having gone,” suggesting that this requirement is not so much a command as an assumption.
Jesus’ initial instruction to the disciples was for them to go only “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:6; cf. 15:24). God’s design was to offer salvation first to the Jews and then to use them as His missionaries to the rest of the world. The gospel is the “power of salvation to everyone who believes,” but “to the Jew first” (Rom. 1:16; cf. John 4:22). But when Israel as a nation rejected the Messiah-King who was sent to her in Jesus, the invitation for salvation went directly to the entire world.
Jesus compared Israel’s response to God’s call to a wedding feast given by a king for his son. When the favored guests refused to accept the king’s invitation and maligned and even killed some of the messengers, the king had his army destroy the ungrateful and wicked guests. He then sent his servants out to the streets and highways to invite to the feast anyone who would come (Matt. 22:1–10). The picture was of an apostate Israel who refused her Messiah and thereby forfeited the kingdom that He offered to them.
At the end of His earthly ministry, Christ had only a small remnant of believers, and it was to part of that remnant that He gave His commission to evangelize the world. The first sermon of the Spirit-filled church was preached by Peter and directed to Jews and Jewish proselytes who had come to worship in Jerusalem (Acts 2:22). But God later had to dramatically convince Peter that the gospel was also for Gentiles (10:1–48).
As he traveled throughout Syria, Asia Minor, and Greece, even the apostle Paul, “the apostle to the Gentiles,” normally began his ministry in a given city at the Jewish synagogue (see Acts 9:20; 13:5; 18:4). But his message was always for Gentiles as well as Jews. At his conversion on the Damascus Road, the Lord said to him,
Arise, and stand on your feet; for this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness, … delivering you from the Jewish people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you, to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to life and from the dominion of Satan to God, in order that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me. (Acts 26:16–18)
The second requirement for making disciples is that of baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. To baptize literally means to immerse in water, and certain forms of baptism had long been practiced by various Jewish groups as a symbol of spiritual cleansing. The baptism of John the Baptist symbolized repentance of sin and turning to God (Matt. 3:6). As instituted by Christ, however, baptism became an outward act of identification with Him through faith, a visible, public testimony that henceforth one belonged to Him.
The initial act of obedience to Christ after salvation is to submit to baptism as a testimony to union with Him in His death, burial, and resurrection. “Do you not know,” Paul asked the Roman believers, “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3–4).
Immersion is the most appropriate mode of baptism, not only because the Greek word behind it connotes immersion but even more importantly because that is the only mode that symbolizes burial and resurrection.
Although the act of baptism has absolutely no saving or sacramental benefit or power, it is commanded by Christ of His followers. The only exception might be physical inability, as in the case of the repentant thief on the cross, a prisoner who is forbidden the ordinance, or a similar circumstance beyond the believer’s control. The person who is unwilling to be baptized is at best a disobedient believer, and if he persists in his unwillingness there is reason to doubt the genuineness of his faith (see Matt. 10:32–33). If he is unwilling to comply with that simple act of obedience in the presence of fellow believers, he will hardly be willing to stand for Christ before the unbelieving world.
Baptism has no part in the work of salvation, but it is a God-ordained and God-commanded accompaniment of salvation. Jesus said, “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned” (Mark 16:16). Jesus made clear that it is disbelief, not failure to be baptized, that precludes salvation; but He could not possibly have made the divine association of salvation and baptism more obvious than He does in that statement.
The association was indisputably clear in Peter’s mind as he exhorted his unbelieving hearers at Pentecost: “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38). The association was just as close in Paul’s mind, as witnessed in his great manifesto of Christian unity: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4–6).
A person is saved by God’s grace alone working through his faith as a gift of God (Eph. 2:8). But by God’s own declaration, the act of baptism is His divinely designated sign of the believer’s identification with His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Baptism is a divinely commanded act of faith and obedience.
New converts need to be taught that they should be baptized as soon as possible, not to seal or confirm their salvation but to make public testimony to it in obedience to their newfound Lord. The call to Christ not only is the call to salvation but also the call to obedience, the first public act of which should be baptism in His name.
Throughout the book of Acts, baptism is shown in the closest possible association with conversion. The three thousand souls converted at Pentecost were immediately baptized (Acts 2:41). As soon as the Ethiopian believed in Christ, he stopped his chariot so that he could be baptized (8:38). As soon as Paul received back his sight after his conversion, he was baptized (9:18). When Cornelius and his household were saved, Peter “ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (10:48). As unbelievers in Corinth were being won to Jesus Christ, they were also being baptized (18:8). When Paul found some disciples of John in Ephesus who had only been baptized for repentance, he told them about Jesus, the one for whom John was merely preparing the way, and when they believed “they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (19:1–5).
In the context of the Great Commission, baptism is synonymous with salvation, which is synonymous with becoming a disciple. As already emphasized, discipleship is Christian life, not an optional, second level of it.
Baptism is to be made in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Jesus was not giving a ritual formula, although that beautiful phrase from the lips of our Lord has been commonly and appropriately used in baptismal services throughout the history of the church. In the name of is not a sacramental formula, as seen in the fact that the book of Acts reports no converts being baptized with those precise words. Those words are rather a rich and comprehensive statement of the wonderful union that believers have with the whole Godhead.
In His statement here about baptism, Jesus again clearly placed Himself on an equal level with God the Father and with the Holy Spirit. He also emphasizes the unity of the Trinity by declaring that baptism should be done in Their one name (singular), not in Their separate names. As it does in many parts of Scripture, the phrase the name here embodies the fullness of a person, encompassing all that he is, has, and represents. When he is baptized, the believer is identified with everything that God is, has, and represents.
The pronoun Jesus uses here (eis, in) can also be rendered “into” or “unto.” Those who teach baptismal regeneration-the belief that water baptism is essential for salvation-insist that it must here be translated “into.” But that is a completely arbitrary translation and, in any case, cannot stand up against the many other passages that prove baptism has no part in regeneration but is rather an outward act, subsequent to regeneration, that testifies to its having taken place.
Baptism does not place a believer into oneness with the Trinity but signifies that, by God’s grace working through his faith in Jesus Christ, the believer already has been made one with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The third requirement for making disciples of all nations is that of teaching them to observe all that I commanded you. The church’s mission is not simply to convert but to teach. The convert is called to a life of obedience to the Lord, and in order to obey Him it is obviously necessary to know what He requires. As already noted, a disciple is by definition a learner and follower. Therefore, studying, understanding, and obeying “the whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:27) is the lifelong task of every true disciple.
In Jesus’ parting discourse to the disciples in the upper room, He said,
If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him, and make Our abode with him. He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine, but the Father’s who sent Me. These things I have spoken to you, while abiding with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you. (John 14:23–26)
Jesus did not spend time teaching in order to entertain the crowds or to reveal interesting but inconsequential truths about God or to set forth ideal but optional standards that God requires. His first mission was to provide salvation for those who would come to Him in faith, that is, to make disciples. His second mission was to teach God’s truth to those disciples. That is the same twofold mission He gives the church.
No one is a true disciple apart from personal faith in Jesus Christ, and there is no true disciple apart from an obedient heart that desires to please the Lord in all things. The writer of Hebrews makes that attitude of obedience synonymous with saving faith, declaring that Christ “became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation” (Heb. 5:9). Thanking God for the salvation of believers in Rome, Paul said to them, “Though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed” (Rom. 6:17).
Every Christian is not gifted as a teacher, but every faithful Christian is committed to promoting the ministry of teaching God’s Word both to make and to edify disciples of Christ.
“and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (28:20b)
As crucial as are the first four elements for effective fulfillment of the church’s mission, they would be useless without the last, namely, the power that the Lord Jesus Christ offers through His continuing presence with those who belong to Him. Neither the attitudes of availability, worship, and submission, nor faithful obedience to God’s Word would be possible apart from Christ’s own power working in and through us.
Idou (lo) is an interjection frequently used in the New Testament to call attention to something of special importance. Egō eimi (I am) is an emphatic form that might be rendered, “I Myself am,” calling special attention to the fact of Christ’s own presence. Jesus was saying, in effect, “Now pay special attention to what I am about to say, because it is the most important of all. I Myself, your divine, resurrected, living, eternal Lord, am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
A helpful way to keep one’s spiritual life and work in the right perspective and to continually rely on the Lord’s power rather than one’s own is to pray in ways such as these: “Lord, You care more about this matter I am facing than I do, so do what You know is best. Lord, You love this person more than I do and only You can reach into his heart and save him, so help me to witness only as You lead and empower. Lord, You are more concerned about the truth and integrity of Your holy Word than I am, so please energize my heart and mind to be true to the text I am teaching.”
Always literally means “all the days.” For the individual believer that means all the days of his life. But in its fullest meaning for the church at large it means even to the end of the age, that is, until the Lord returns bodily to judge the world and to rule His earthly kingdom. (See Matt. 13:37–50, where Christ uses the phrase “end of the age” three times to designate His second coming.)
Jesus will not visibly return to earth and display Himself before the whole world in His majestic glory and power until the end of the age. But until that time, throughout this present age, He will always be with those who belong to Him, leading them and empowering them to fulfill His Great Commission.
Some years ago, a missionary went to a primitive, pagan society. She became especially burdened for a young wife and eventually was used to win the woman to Christ. Almost as soon as she was saved the woman told the missionary with great sorrow, “I wish you could have come sooner, so my little boy could have been saved.” When the missionary asked why it was too late, the mother replied, “Because just a few weeks before you came to us, I offered him as a sacrifice to the gods of our tribe.”
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.”
I am sure you have noticed in your study of the New Testament that nearly all the resurrection appearances of Jesus end with Jesus telling those present to announce the good news. This was the case with Mary Magdalene: “Go … to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’ ” (John 20:17). This was the case with the women who were returning from the tomb. The angel had told them: “He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead’ ” (Matt. 28:6–7). When Jesus appeared to the women shortly after that he said, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me” (v. 10).
The New Testament indicates that there were at least ten appearances of the risen Lord, plus another some years later to the apostle Paul. In eight of these appearance accounts, Christ gives an explicit commission, and in five he commands his followers to go into all the world and preach the gospel.
Matthew does not end his Gospel with the resurrection itself. Even more striking, he does not include an account of Christ’s ascension. Instead, he ends the Gospel with the Lord’s Great Commission. Apparently it was evident to him, as it also should be to us, that the life and death of Christ should affect our speech and conduct. He reports:
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.”
These words are for all Jesus’ disciples, of course, not only for the apostles. They are for you if you have turned from your sin to trust Jesus Christ alone for your salvation and have become his disciple. If you have, then you are to work with other Christians to lead people to faith through the preaching and teaching of the gospel, bring them into the fellowship of the church through the sacrament of baptism, and, within that fellowship, continue to teach them all that Jesus has commanded. What is wonderful about all this is that Jesus promised he will be with us as we do it. We witness in a hostile environment, but as we do, we know that Jesus will be with us to bless our efforts.
When we study the Great Commission, we notice that the word all occurs four times, though this is obscured in some versions: (1) Jesus possesses all authority, (2) he sends us to all nations, (3) we are to teach people all he has commanded, and (4) as we do, we are to know that Jesus will be with us all the days, or always.
Jesus begins with his authority: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (v. 18). This is no weak authority, because the one who spoke it is no weak master. He is the risen Lord, and “all authority in heaven and on earth” has been given to him.
The fact that all authority in heaven has been given to Jesus could mean merely that the authority he exercised on earth would be recognized in heaven. If that is the case, it would be an affirmation of Jesus’ divinity. Authority such as that would be nothing other than Jehovah’s authority. Yet there is probably more to Christ’s statement than this. For one thing, when the Bible speaks about heavenly “powers” or “authorities,” it usually means spiritual or demonic powers. When it speaks of Christ’s victory through his death and resurrection, it usually also has those powers in mind.
We think of Ephesians 6:12, which says of the Christian’s warfare, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Or Ephesians 1:20–21, which tells us that God “raised [Jesus] from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.”
When we put Christ’s announcement in that context, we sense that he is not merely talking about an acknowledgment of his earthly authority in heaven. Rather, his authority is superior to and over all other authorities whether spiritual, demonic, or otherwise. His resurrection proves his authority over any power that can possibly be imagined. Consequently, we do not fear Satan or anyone else while we are engaged in Jesus’ service.
Second, Jesus announces that he has authority over everything on earth. He has authority over us, his people. How can it be otherwise? If we are truly his people, we have confessed to him that we are sinners, that he is the divine Savior, and that we have accepted his sacrifice on our behalf and have pledged ourselves to follow him as Lord. Such a confession is hypocrisy if it does not contain a recognition of his authority over us in every area. Jesus told his disciples, “You are my friends if you do what I command” (John 15:14). If we do not obey Jesus, we are not his friends. Worse than that, we are not even Christians. Clearly, Jesus’ authority extends to the work we are called to do, including what is demanded by the Great Commission. Because we are under Jesus’ authority we are to take his gospel to the world and “make disciples” of the nations (v. 19).
Again, the declaration of Christ’s authority on earth means that he has authority over those who are not yet believers. That is, his authority extends to the people to whom he sends us with the gospel. It follows, on the one hand, that Christianity is to be a world religion. No one is outside the sphere of his authority or is exempt from his call. On the other hand, this is also a statement of Jesus’ ability to bring fruit from our efforts, for it is through the exercise of his authority that men and women actually come to believe and follow him.
John Stott summarizes this well:
The fundamental basis of all Christian missionary enterprise is the universal authority of Jesus Christ, “in heaven and on earth.” If the authority of Jesus were circumscribed on earth, if he were but one of many religious teachers, one of many Jewish prophets, one of many divine incarnations, we would have no mandate to present him to the nations as the Lord and Savior of the world. If the authority of Jesus were limited in heaven, if he had not decisively overthrown the principalities and powers, we might still proclaim him to the nations, but we would never be able to “turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God” (Acts 26:18). Only because all authority on earth belongs to Christ dare we go to all nations. And only because all authority in heaven as well is his have we any hope of success.
The second great universal of this text is “all nations.” It refers, as I have just anticipated, to the universal authority of Jesus over all people and thus also to the worldwide character of Christianity.
It is a bit surprising that Matthew should end on this note. Each of the Gospels has its unique character, as commentators have frequently noted. John’s is the most universal; it presents Jesus as “the Savior of the world” (John 4:42). Luke’s is a Gentile or Greek book; it is usual to think of Luke presenting Jesus as the ideal man (as well as God incarnate). Mark seems to have written for a largely Roman audience; he stresses Jesus as a miracle worker, giving less attention to his discourses than the others. By general consent, Matthew is the preeminently Jewish Gospel. It is written to show Jesus as the son of David and the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah. No other Gospel is so limited to the immediate historical and ethnic climate into which Jesus was born and in which he ministered. Yet it is this Gospel that ends on the most universal note. In this commission we learn that the Jewish disciples who had followed Jesus through the days of his ministry and who were being commissioned formally to his service were not to limit their operations to Judaism, as we might expect, but were to go to all the people of the world with this gospel.
Whenever the church has done this it has prospered. When it has failed to do this it has stagnated and dried up. Why? Because discipleship demands evangelism; it is an aspect of our obedience as Christ’s followers, and Jesus blesses obedience. If we are following Jesus, we will go to others for whom he died. A disobedient church is one that does not evangelize, begins to dry up, or even dies.
What does it mean to evangelize? Jesus tells us how to do it. First, he tells us to “make disciples.” In the King James Version this is rendered “teach all nations,” but the word translated “teach” is not the same word as the “teach” that comes later. The later word (didasko) actually does mean “teach.” It is the word from which we get our word didactic. However, the first word is matheteuo, which literally means “to make one a disciple.” This is the way the New International Version renders the phrase: “make disciples of all nations,” that is, “make them disciples of Christ.” Preach the gospel to them so that through the power of the Scriptures and the work of the Holy Spirit they are converted from sin to Christ and thereafter follow him as their true Lord. In this commission, evangelism is the primary task.
On the other hand, without what follows, evangelism is at best one-sided and perhaps even unreal, for Jesus goes on to show that those who are his must lead converts to the point of baptism “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This does not mean that empty rites or ceremonies are to take the place of a vital relationship with Christ. Rather, first, at some point one’s commitment to Jesus as Savior and Lord must become public, for baptism is a public act (it is a declaration before the world that a person intends to follow Jesus); and, second, the person is uniting with the church, which is Christ’s visible body. This is both natural and necessary. If a person is truly converted, he or she will want to join with other similarly converted people.
All I Have Commanded
The third universal of the Great Commission is the command to teach those we have evangelized. Christ commanded us to teach them “to obey everything” (or all things), which means that for all Christians a lifetime of learning must follow conversion and membership in Christ’s church. This command is particularly important in our extremely superficial age.
What we observe seems to be the opposite. Instead of striving to teach all Christ commanded, many are trying to eliminate as much of his teaching as possible, concentrating instead on things that are easily comprehended and unobjectionable. But a core such as this is distorted. It is usually grace without judgment, love without justice, salvation without obedience, and triumph without suffering. The motivation of some of these reductionists may be good: They want to win as many people to Christ as possible. But the method is the world’s, and the results will be the world’s results. Robust disciples are not made by watered-down teaching.
Today’s church needs to recapture the entire counsel of God. To many this seems the most foolish of pursuits. If we were to ask many so-called Christians what should be done in our day to win the world for Christ, it is likely they would talk about literature campaigns, the use of radio and television, the founding of seeker-sensitive churches, recruitment of workers, and how to raise funds. In other words, most of the discussion would center on methods rather than on content. By contrast, Jesus spoke about teaching his commandments. What should our teaching include? Clearly any short list of doctrines is inadequate. We must teach the entire Bible. Nevertheless, faithfulness to the Great Commission must involve at least the following:
- A high view of Scripture. In our day, liberal teachers are trying to undercut the church’s traditionally high view of the Bible, saying that it is only a human book, that it contains errors, that it is therefore at best only relatively trustworthy or authoritative, or that, while it may be true, it is not sufficient for dealing with today’s challenges. Such attitudes have produced a weak church. It is significant that with only a few exceptions even these liberal detractors of Scripture acknowledge that Jesus regarded the Bible (in his case, the Old Testament) as authoritative. Kirsopp Lake was no friend of historic Bible-believing Christianity, but he wrote, “The fundamentalist may be wrong; I think that he is. But it is we who have departed from the tradition, not he; and I am sorry for the fate of anyone who tries to argue with a fundamentalist on the basis of authority. The Bible and the corpus theologicum of the church are on the fundamentalist side.”
If we are to be faithful to all Christ’s teachings, we must teach his high view of the Bible as a fundamental part of our theology.
- The sovereignty of God, especially in salvation. The English Bible translator J. B. Phillips wrote a book entitled Your God Is Too Small. That title, which is also a statement, might well be spoken of many of today’s professing Christians who, in their ignorance of Scripture, inevitably scale God down to their own limited and fallible perspectives. We need to capture a new, elevated sense of who God is, particularly in regard to his grace in saving sinners. Sovereignty refers to rightful rule. To say that God is sovereign, therefore, as the Bible does, is to say that God rules in all matters and all places. Nothing is an accident. No one catches God off guard. Moreover, he does what seems best to him. Paul wrote, “God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” (Rom. 9:18).
- The depravity of man. Church people are willing to speak of sin in the sense that we are “less perfect than God” and need help to live a godly life. That is not offensive to anyone. But it is not the Bible’s teaching. The Bible teaches that men and women are in rebellion against God (Ps. 2:1–3). It says not that they are marred by sin but that they are dead in it (Eph. 2:1–3). It says they have been so debased by sin that even their thoughts are corrupted and that in all ways “the Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time” (Gen. 6:5). So great is this depravity that a person cannot even come to Christ unless God first renews his soul and so draws him. If we are going to be saved, it must be by the grace of God and by the grace of God alone.
- Salvation by grace alone. While it is true that by ourselves we cannot come to Christ and so live under God’s judgment, God has nevertheless acted in grace to save some who were perishing. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone. That is the full meaning of justification, the doctrine by which the church stands or falls, according to Martin Luther. Any teaching about salvation that is less than that teaching is not authentic Christianity.
- Work to do. Although God does the work of saving individuals, drawing them to Christ, he does not abandon them at that point. Rather, he directs and empowers them to do meaningful work for him. Most of Christ’s teachings about discipleship fall into this area, as does Ephesians 2:10, which says, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” It is necessary that we do these good works (as Christians in all ages have), for unless we do we have no assurance that we are really Christ’s followers. Like Jesus himself, Christians are to stand for justice and do all in their power to comfort the sick, rescue the outcast, defend the oppressed, and save the innocent. We are also to oppose those who perpetrate or condone injustice.
- The security of the believer in Christ. Jesus was strong in cautioning against presumption. He let no one think that he or she could presume to be a Christian while at the same time disobeying God’s commandments. He said, “My sheep listen to my voice … and … follow me” (John 10:27). If we are not listening to Christ and following him in faithful obedience, we are not his disciples. However, although he warned against presumption, Jesus also spoke the greatest words of assurance and confidence for those who do indeed follow him. He said that they will never be lost. Indeed, how could they be lost if he is responsible for their salvation? Jesus said, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28). No one? No one! And no thing either! For nothing either in heaven or on earth “will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39).
This does not mean that Christians will not encounter dangers. In fact, the verse implies them, for if Jesus promises that no one will be able to snatch us from his hands, he must have said so because he knows some will try. Christians will always face dangers—dangers from without, from enemies, and dangers from within. Paul lists some of them in Romans 8. Still, the promise is that those who have believed in Jesus will not be lost. The Christian may be deprived of mere things. He may lose his job, his friends, even his good reputation, but he will not be lost.
Today’s Christians need to articulate these great biblical doctrines afresh rather than just adopt the theology of our culture. We need to speak of the depravity of man, so much so that there is no hope for him apart from God’s grace. We need to speak of God’s electing love, showing that God enters the life of an individual by his Holy Spirit to quicken understanding and draw the rebellious will to himself. We must show that God is able to keep and does keep those whom he so draws. These truths and the supporting doctrines that go with them need to be proclaimed forthrightly. We need to say, “This is where we stand. We do not adopt the world’s theology. We do not accept the theology of the worldly church.” Unless we do this we cannot consider ourselves to be obedient disciples of Jesus Christ—or even his disciples at all. Without this commitment our churches will not prosper and our work will not be blessed.
“I Will Be with You Always”
The final universal of Matthew 28:18–20 is “al[l]-ways” or, as the Greek text literally says, “all the days, even to the consummation of the age.” This is a great, empowering promise, and it is wonderfully true.
In the first chapter of Matthew, Jesus was introduced as “Immanuel”—which, we are told, means “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). Here, in the last verse, that very same promise is repeated. John Stott adds:
This was not the first time Christ had promised them his risen presence. Earlier in this Gospel … he had undertaken to be in their midst when only two or three disciples were gathered in his name. Now, as he repeats the promise of his presence, he attached it rather to their witness than to their worship. It is not only when we meet in his name, but when we go in his name, that he promises to be with us. The emphatic “I,” who pledges his presence, is the one who has universal authority and who sends forth his people.
So ends the first and longest of the Gospels: Jesus will be with us as we go. We have been given a very great task, but we do not need to attempt it in our own strength. We have the Lord’s power at work within us as well as his promise to be with us to the very end as we obey the Great Commission.
The Resurrection: The Facts and Their Significance
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. (Matt. 28:19–20)
Sir Ernest Shackleton left London in 1914 intent on crossing Antarctica and passing over the South Pole. His expedition left a whaling station at South Georgia Island in December and did not touch land again for 497 days. A month after setting out, Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, was trapped by the Antarctic ice pack. Ten months later, the ice finally crushed the ship. Twenty-nine crew men, scientists and explorers, then attempted a journey across the ice pack (with sheet ice piled as much as fifty feet high) to the open sea. They endured howling gales in temperatures down to -50º Fahrenheit and lived on nothing but ship rations, penguins, and seals.
When the men finally reached the edge of the ice pack, they launched three twenty-foot lifeboats into the coldest, wildest ocean on earth. Waves drenched the men time after time. They rowed one hundred miles to a large, uninhabited rock jutting from the sea.
After setting up camp on the island, the men rebuilt their largest boat so it could sail. Shackleton and five others then set out for the whaling station over eight hundred miles away. Exposed to wind, water, ice, and huge waves for seventeen days, they navigated with nothing but a compass and a sextant.
Beset with storms, often drenched by icy water, they had to land on the side of the island that was opposite the whaling station, which was miles away. Three of the six men were too exhausted to continue, but Shackleton and two others set out to cross the island. Equipped with nothing but a compass and ninety feet of rope, they had no map and no knowledge of the land, which no man had ever crossed. They marched for thirty-six hours straight, crossed glaciers, and scaled 5,000-foot peaks, and traversed cliffs. They were trapped on a ridge and enveloped in mist. To avoid freezing to death, they sat down on a sloping sheet of ice and slid a mile before stopping. When they finally arrived at the whaling station, no one recognized them.
Stories That Seem to Defy Belief
The story of Shackleton’s journey might defy belief, if not for the evidence. Shackleton made it to the whaling station—on foot. In time, ships rescued all the remaining men who were just where Shackleton said they would be. The story seems incredible, but is undeniable due to the corroborating evidence found in journals and photographs. Finally, there were the men—bedraggled, emaciated, and alive.
The Easter narrative bears similarities to Shackleton’s. It describes life emerging from the shadow of death. In this case, twelve men survived and one of them lived although he had been dead. But if skeptics doubt Shackleton’s tale, imagine what they think of this: a man is crucified, dead, and buried, then raised to life. Yet, there is evidence. When visitors reached Jesus’ tomb, it was empty. Then people saw Jesus: a number of women, the disciples, and finally a group of five hundred saw him at once.
If the photos and the expedition’s artifacts corroborate Shackleton’s story, then the existence of the church corroborates Jesus’ story. During his ministry, Jesus had numerous admirers, but few disciples. The crowds loved him, but a far smaller band actually followed him (perhaps 120; see Acts 1:15).
But something happened: the Romans executed the leader of a small, lightly organized movement in the most public, shameful way. His followers cowered in fear before and during the execution. But afterward, instead of disintegrating, Jesus’ movement exploded across the world. With few allies and no resources except word of mouth and hand-copied manuscripts, the movement spread, in the first generation, through Israel and the eastern corner of the Mediterranean Sea. Within another generation, it had outposts throughout the Roman Empire. Then the church spread through the empire and beyond, even though Christians could be plundered, jailed, exiled, or even executed simply for believing. Something happened, so that when Jesus died, his movement did not perish, but grew: after Jesus died, he rose to life again.
I do not imply that the mere existence of a movement demonstrates its validity. That reasoning would corroborate all religious movements. We note that since Buddhism is an ethic, its status is no more tied to Buddha’s death than capitalism’s status is linked to Adam Smith’s. Christianity is linked to Jesus’ person, not just his teachings. The Romans and Jews had stopped other leader-centered movements by slaying the leaders, but that approach failed this time. Critics do not question the spread of Christianity; they do doubt Jesus’ resurrection, and given how central it is to our faith, we must be prepared to answer them.
How can we Christians defend our claim? Well, how might Shackleton’s story be defended? The original witnesses have died, so we have only their written records. There are photos, but they can be doctored. A thorough defense would locate the story in the times and find that it fit at every point. It was the end of the age of explorers. Bold men did hike to the South Pole, sailors could navigate open seas with a sextant and a compass, and so on.
Jesus’ story is corroborated in similar ways, although it begins much earlier. Indeed, it starts with the origin of the universe. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why did a Creator bring the world into existence? Is there reason to believe the Creator is intelligent? Personal? How else can we explain that we live in a complex, rational, orderly, and personal world? Does this Creator care about his creation? If so, then he might intervene personally to restore the creation which has fallen into disarray. The Bible claims, first, that God exists. Second, he created the human race and wants to restore it to himself. Indeed, he chose people and promised them he would send someone to reconcile mankind to himself.
Just as Shackleton’s story begins with the launch of the expedition, the Easter story begins with Christmas. At point after point, Matthew links the first scenes of the Gospel to the last:
- At his birth we learn that Jesus, according to a prophecy given eight hundred years earlier, is Immanuel, God with us (1:23). In his final scene, Jesus says, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (28:20).
- At his birth, Jesus is called king of the Jews (2:2). His miracles showed him to be Lord of nature, Lord of life and death. At the end, we hear that Jesus has “all authority in heaven and on earth” (28:18).
- At his birth, wise men come from Gentile lands to worship Jesus. Here, the disciples come and worship the risen Jesus (28:17), who sends them to the Gentiles (28:19).
- Jesus spent almost all of his life in Israel, working with his people (15:24; cf. 10:5–6). But he predicted a mission to the nations (10:18) and now commissions it (28:19).
The Resurrection Story within the Gospel Story
To understand the resurrection correctly, we should review the whole gospel story once more. Jesus burst upon our world with his miracles. People entered his presence blind and departed seeing, came mute and left shouting for joy, came hungry for truth and for food and left satisfied. Jesus showed compassion for people one by one and by the thousands.
Yet his work rankled many leaders. He healed on the Sabbath, which violated their customs. He would befriend anyone, even the worst sinners and outcasts. The crowds loved it, but the crowds as a whole never really understood him—nor do the masses readily understand him today. In time, Jesus pulled back to focus on his disciples, but they struggled too. Above all, when he spoke of his suffering, they would not hear it and could not comprehend it.
The last time Jesus entered Jerusalem, he visited the temple. He saw beautiful buildings, but dead religion. The priests had taken the house of God and made it a den of thieves, so he tossed out the merchants who made worship difficult. This confrontation helped turn the powers of Israel against him. As the temple authorities saw it, “Jesus blasphemously arrogates to himself the prerogative of God to forgive sins; derives his authority from … collusion with Satan; places himself above the law and tradition”; challenges Israel’s God-given authorities; and commands a following that might lead the people into deadly rebellion against Rome. They decided the nation would be safest if they killed him.
Judas betrayed Jesus into the leaders’ hands, but all the disciples failed him in smaller ways. Before his arrest, when Jesus asked them to pray, they all fell asleep. When the soldiers came, most of them melted away. Peter had promised, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” (26:35 ESV), but he denied Jesus three times that very night. General Patton once said, “Courage is fear holding on a minute longer.” The disciples did not hold on a minute longer.
The soldiers took Jesus to priests and elders who convicted him of blasphemy. The priests delivered him to Pilate, who condemned him for sedition, although he knew the charge was false. Jesus’ death was tragic, but it differed from other tragedies in that it was long-predicted, freely chosen, and full of purpose.
Perhaps the closest parallel is to young soldiers who risk their lives for their countries. When Nathan Hale entered New York City to spy on the British soldiers occupying it, he knew he was risking his life. He was twenty years old, widely loved, and immensely gifted, but when caught he did not beg for his life. He proclaimed (tradition says), “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
Jesus’ sacrifice was like this because he gave himself for others, for a cause larger than himself. But it was greater, because he did not merely risk death, he knew he would die. More important, he did not contribute to a cause, he completed it.
The words Jesus uttered from the cross demonstrate this. On the cross he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (27:46). This was more than a wail of anguish or pain. The cry was true. Jesus felt separated from God because he was forsaken; he was separated from the Father. During his hours on the cross, he bore the guilt and punishment that our sins deserve. The essence of that punishment—the essence of hell—is separation from God. He experienced that misery for us because he became a sin offering for us (2 Cor. 5:21). He suffered in our place, as surely as if he went to jail for a crime we committed.
Minutes before he died, Jesus said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). He finished his task: he suffered the punishment his people deserve. That was the task the Father gave him to do. For that reason, Jesus died in peace and in confidence. Before his last breath, he said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Then he “gave up his spirit” (Matt. 27:50). He released it; he chose to let his body die, then returned to his Father in heaven.
If the essence of hell is separation from God, Jesus “descended into hell” on the cross. He experienced separation from the Father while on the cross. Now the Apostles’ Creed declares that Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried and that he descended into hell. What the creed says is true, but the order of two phrases should be reversed to read, “He was crucified, descended into hell, was dead and buried, he rose again on the third day.” Jesus’ main descent into hell occurred on the cross. So then, Jesus’ death was no defeat. He died on the cross fully to pay for sin. He exhausted the penalty of sin. The proof comes on Easter Sunday when Jesus rose from the grave, full of life.
We are interested in more than the fact of the resurrection, however; we also seek its meaning. I once had a neighbor, a college professor and an atheist, who often discussed the Christian faith with me. In time, he concluded that it seemed probable that Jesus rose from the dead. “But,” he added, “that doesn’t mean I’m a Christian. There are many mysteries in this world. Strange things happen; this is one of them.” This reminds us that we cannot be content to affirm the fact of the resurrection; we must grasp its significance.
The Meaning of the Story
The resurrection sheds light on many of life’s issues. Is there meaning in the suffering and hardship of this life? Is there hope in hours of darkness? The resurrection says “Yes” to both questions.
The resurrection also informs end-of-life issues. We now have the technology to extend life so long that we preserve a shell of the person we love, not the real person. We keep the heart beating while the mind fades and the pain grows. Loving relatives agonize. The resurrection reminds us that there is more than this life. Since we all die, there is a time to let our loved ones go. We are free to do so, in part because we know that there is life, resurrection life, to come for those who know the risen Christ.
The resurrection is also a creation-affirming event. It teaches us that God cares for his physical creation—for human bodies and the human environment—and so should we. We should love this world and serve its people, yet we must not love it too much, for the resurrection is the first taste of the life to come.
It Leads to a Great Commission
But the most important implication of the resurrection remains. The Gospel of Matthew ends with Jesus meeting his disciples and giving them a charge, which Christians call the Great Commission. The phrase is apt, for Jesus does commission his disciples to do something great: He charges and empowers them to disciple the nations.
On the first Easter morning, Jesus ordered his disciples to meet him on a particular mountain in Galilee (28:7). Minus Judas, the disciples obeyed: “the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go.” Jesus arrived first and awaited them. “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted” (28:16–17). The Greek term used here is not the ordinary term for doubt. It does not mean they were unsure whether they believed or not; rather, they believed but hesitated. The eleven disciples—probably with others who came with them—have some faith in Jesus. But not all are ready to worship him. They believe but have not digested all the implications of Jesus’ death and resurrection, which surprised them. Perhaps some of them are not yet sure who Jesus is, that he deserves worship and total obedience.
Their hesitation reminds us that the journey toward mature faith is difficult. Even believers hesitate at times. No one understands everything right away, not even the original disciples. We all must grow into maturity. Still, Jesus did commission them and he does commission us.
The Structure of the Commission
The commission has a sandwich structure. At the top and at the bottom, Jesus gives reasons for accepting the commission. To start the commission, Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (28:18). Jesus, as the Son of God, always had authority, but he exercised only a fraction of it during his ministry. He taught with authority and healed people with a word, but now the Father has bestowed full authority on him. He exercises it in a wider sphere: in heaven and on earth, over men and angels, over his disciples and over all mankind. His reign over the nations now begins (Dan. 7:27). Jesus came to serve, but he will now be served.
At the end of the commission he says, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). At the beginning of Matthew, we learn that Jesus is God with us to redeem his people (1:23). At the midpoint, we learn that he is God with us to purify his people (18:20). At the end, we learn that he is God with us to disciple the nations (28:20). We have his strength, his Spirit, his presence, and his comfort for our mission; we are not alone.
Jesus supplies two sweeping motives to fulfill a charge that is as large as the world itself. We have all the authorization we need for the task. We never need to hesitate, never need to apologize. Whenever we speak of Christ, we are within our rights. We also have all the power we need, for we have the very presence of God.
The Content of the Commission
The commission itself reads: “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” (28:19–20). The central command, the only imperative (and only finite verb), is “Make disciples.”
The essential commission is not “Tell people about Jesus.” It is not “Preach the gospel.” It is not “Grow your church.” It is not “Make converts.” Jesus’ commission assumes all these, but goes deeper, commanding that we make disciples. To make disciples is to lead new believers to maturity, so they understand and follow Jesus and eventually become leaders too. By making disciples, the church stays strong over the generations.
Jesus commands his followers to disciple “all nations.” Jesus came for Israel first, but also for the world, for every people and nation. At first, the disciples went to Israel, but soon they would appear before Gentiles and kings (10:5, 18). Matthew often says that the kingdom of Christ belongs to everyone who believes and bears fruit (21:43; cf. 2:1–12; 4:15–16; 8:5–13; 13:38; 24:14).
The early church had difficulty grasping this. Jesus said, “Make disciples of the nations” and “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8), but in the beginning the apostles hardly budged from Jerusalem. Indeed, they generally stayed close to the temple, in the center of Jerusalem. To be sure, they preached with power, healed many, and conducted themselves with great courage whenever the authorities threatened them. But the Lord had to raise up men like Stephen, Philip, and Paul to thrust the church out to the Gentiles (Acts 7–9). We are much the same—if not worse. We know about the Great Commission, but sometimes hesitate to share our faith even with close friends, let alone venturing more radical paths.
The Means of the Commission
The commission to “make disciples” is amplified by three participial phrases that tell us how to fulfill the task: by going, by baptizing, and by teaching. We make disciples first by going out into the world, not by simply waiting for the world to come to us. We are not pushy, but we have plans, individually and corporately, to reach the world for Christ. We take the initiative. We have a right and a duty to pray for the lost in our own circles and to look beyond that circle. This hardly means that everyone should be a missionary—although many should consider the option of a short mission trip. But collectively, every church should have a missional thrust, both locally and internationally. It may be true that indigenous people (rather than Americans or other Western people) should carry out the remaining pioneering work in most parts of the world, but Western churches should still be robust partners in training leaders and in translating of our theological literature into languages with few biblical and theological resources.
We make disciples, second, by “baptizing them in [literally ‘into’] the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (28:19). When we baptize into the name of Jesus, we confess Jesus is equal with the Father God. With that point, Matthew harvests his many hints that Jesus is more than a man, more than a prophet. Further, the sacrament of baptism asks that Jesus’ messengers disciple people by calling them to identify with Jesus in public, by the act of baptism.
We make disciples, third, by “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (28:20). The Greek expression that is translated “everything” is actually two terms. One means “all things” and the other means “as much as.” The effect is to intensify the command. We must teach potential disciples to obey every last thing Jesus says. Where can we find every last thing Jesus commanded? In the Gospel of Matthew (and the other Gospels)! In the Gospel’s pages we read Jesus’ commands and learn how to heed them.
Above all, we obey Jesus from the heart, with inward love. The Bible says “you shall not kill.” Jesus added that we shall not hate, despise, or mock either. Next, we obey all his commands, not just our favorites or the easy ones. The disciples teach and we strive to obey whatever Jesus says. Jesus would have us obey the commands that we tend to ignore or explain away, the commands we least want to obey. Which are these? Perhaps the call to love our neighbor as ourself, to serve others, to control our desires, our anger, our pride, or our love of money. In general, he wants us to attend to the parts of his teaching that we have neither memorized nor underlined.
If there is a command that we do not want to obey, it is probably also one we struggle to obey. That leads us back to Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus knows we will never fully obey his commands. That is why, great teacher as he is, Jesus did not come to enlighten us so we can save ourselves. He came, above all, to deliver us.
Still, he does give a great commission that we should try to fulfill. The sweep of the commission is evident in the fourfold use of the word “all”: Jesus has all authority. His followers make disciples of all nations, by teaching all that Jesus commands, fortified by the knowledge that he is with us, literally, all days. Since Jesus loves us, he closes not with a command but with comfort. When God gave Abraham, Moses, or the prophets a task to perform, he also assured them of his aid. Jesus does the same for us. The disciples hesitated at the Great Commission, but Jesus assured them of his power and presence, so they can go.
So Jesus commissions us to continue his work. People have a wide variety of concepts of that work and of Jesus; most of them have at least an element of truth. Which of these would you endorse?
- Jesus is a teacher, telling us about God and neighbor and what we owe to each one.
- He is a friend, present in time of need, or a counselor to comfort us in a dark hour.
- He is a role model. When we need guidance, we can ask, “What would Jesus do?”
- He is our refuge in emergencies—like a fireman or physician, on call for the crises of life.
- He is a policeman or a judge; his threats of punishment keep people in line.
- He is an insurance agent, offering coverage for the big fire.
If I had to choose a modern metaphor, I would compare Jesus to a private music teacher or an athletic coach. He has all the skill, all the experience, all the self-awareness; he is at the pinnacle of his craft and wants to pass on all of it. He wants you to become a master too.
Is that goal too lofty? If so, please remember who preserved the words of the Great Commission: Matthew, once a despised tax collector and never any stronger than the other disciples. He made as many mistakes as any of the apostles, but by the end he had mastered the message of Jesus well enough that he could pass it on to us.
Every believer can grow as Matthew did. The words and the presence of Jesus transformed Matthew from a man of little faith to an apostle. He grew by hearing the words, by living in the presence of Jesus, and we can do the same. In time, we can even do for others what he has done for us.
How? Perhaps we should return to Ernest Shackleton for a clue. His men survived their terrible adventure in part because of the enormous skill and endurance of the captain and crew, but the men also survived because they believed their leader loved them, understood them (when the ship was about to sink, he let them keep their banjo for he knew the diversion of music would be essential to their morale). He would refuse no sacrifice to deliver them, and he had the requisite skills for every task. Shackleton was an echo, a reflection of Jesus. He loves us, he knows us, he has the strength, the skill, the will, to deliver us. He has done so by dying and rising in our place. Now he charges us to grow into fullness of discipleship, to live out our lives in his presence, and to fulfill his Great Commission.