Understanding the Great Commission: A Study of Matthew 28:19-20 as Seen in the Lives of the Apostles
So here they were, on a hillside outside Jerusalem, near a town called Bethany, saying good-bye. Not that anyone was aware of it being good-bye. Things were happening so unexpectedly these days and weeks. Now the followers of Jesus were just flowing, rejoicing in every minute, seeing the power of God and the evidence of their faith; some were still grappling with understanding all that was happening.
Each disciple had a story to tell. Just 3 years back an everyday-looking man with a common name had walked past. But there was something in the Man that answered the hidden, inner longing of the spirit. And when the Man said “Come,” everything was abandoned immediately – work, money, family, friends, familiar surroundings. Nothing was important when placed next to the way this Man addressed the inner sense of desperate need.
For 3 years they had lived together, sleeping usually on any spot on the floor or ground, eating whatever happened to be on hand that day. Somehow, eating and sleeping was no longer relevant. It was the talking, the sharing, the teaching, the mentoring that consumed life now.
Some of them had gotten so close relationally; it was clear for all to see that they were definitely “best” friends. Others related inwardly, but were less demonstrative. Only one traveled with them, having all the outward appearances of a Disciple, yet having a heart full of self-determination.
Not that they understood everything about this Man or what He taught. Much was new; much was confusing; much required a complete change of thinking, a paradigm shift. He contradicted the greatest spiritual leaders among them. Sometimes He went against tradition; sometimes He supported it. But His teaching met their need; something about Him was satisfying to that deep thirst in their soul. Nothing in the other spiritual leaders had been satisfying like this!
The Disciples had said good-bye to their beloved Teacher before; it had been a traumatic parting. In the middle of the night, soldiers had appeared. Blood was shed; there were angry shouts and confusion. The atmosphere was so dramatically changed in just a few hours!
Then the Disciples discovered that night really wasn’t good-bye: it was just part of God’s plan, a plan they didn’t fully understand. And for several weeks more, they enjoyed the Lord in their midst, drinking of Him, learning of Him, rejoicing in Him.
And what did He say to those following Him in the weeks after His Resurrection? Those last conversations – what were they about? Some were very personal, like with the two men on the road, or with Peter at the fireside. Some were in small groups, like in Mary’s house. Some were to large groups, almost 500 on one occasion.
What was He saying?
He was helping them to see that His life, death, and resurrection were true, and the fulfillment of prophecy. He was encouraging them in Body Life, in caring for each other. He was telling them the next step: to wait for the Spirit. And He was giving them a mandate about their responsibility to the peoples of the world. He was commissioning them to fulfill the eternal plan of His father. From the beginning, it was the Father’s plan to bless the whole world through the Saviour. His Gospel, His Life, His Sacrifice wasn’t just for the information of those surrounding Him; it wasn’t just for those believing initially; it was for the whole world, for all peoples! It was for each one created in the image of God, but headed to Hell, without a Saviour. It was for all generations, for all ethnicities, for all locations, for all types of people.
Matthew 28:18-20, Mark 16:15, Luke 24:46-48, and Acts 1:8 all record the instructions of Jesus regarding this mandate. These passages show the heart of Jesus, the goal of Jesus: that all people everywhere should now be told of the Saviour. Let us examine the Matthew passage, which was the first recording of Jesus’ life, and then let us evaluate the lives of the Apostles, to see how they interpreted this instruction of Jesus.
Matthew 28:19: “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.” ALL power….unto HIM! Jesus has been given more power than governments, than nature, than individuals, than circumstances, than cash flow….ALL POWER is given to the Saviour. Did the apostles believe this? It is clear from the recordings in Acts and the epistles, that these early missionaries had no fear of governments, of treacherous circumstances, of natural calamities, of unruly peoples, of being bankrupt. All power had been given to the Saviour, and this Saviour had told them to spread the word about Him. The natural conclusion is that their actions were not influenced by worry or concern or fear in any way. Read 2 Corinthians 1:8-10 and 11:23-28 for Paul’s testimony of the afflictions he suffered, yet without fear.
Today, do our mission thrusts, our evangelistic ventures, our Gospel outreaches operate in the same way? Too often our approaches are moderated by fear of governments; they are determined by concern for health issues; they are governed by the positive feedback of the donating populace.
Jesus’ teaching is very simple: ALL power belongs to Him; therefore we are not to operate in fear. Ours is simply to obey His command to spread the News of His salvation. The details, the settings, the circumstances are essentially irrelevant. If He appoints, then we must obey. End of discussion. He has the power to rule and overrule any circumstance, any government, any populace, any natural setting.
Today too many Christian organizations and leaders are jumping onto the Humanitarian Aid bandwagon, believing that they must have this activity in order to win the approval of governments, or gain the contributions of donors, or establish the goodwill of populations. Jesus made it clear that in this world we will have trouble, and we will have trouble specifically because of Him. If we unashamedly share the message of salvation, then we will be opposed. This is an absolute given. A war is raging, and the Evil One controls many peoples and governments. How dare we act in such an ignorant manner as to suppose that people everywhere will welcome our message of salvation and that we will have no resistance? Our Lord Himself has warned us. We must expect it. But He has also assured us that in the midst of the trouble, He retains all power. So we need not act in fear; we need not calculate how to gain power through programs of aid. We need only to obey, and yield the building of the Kingdom to Him.
Matthew 28:19: “So, while you are going about your lives, make disciples all over the earth, baptizing them in the Name of the true God, and teaching them to obey what I’ve taught you” (my paraphrase). This verse is more descriptive than the other passages in Mark, Luke, and Acts as to exactly what we are to do. He says that as a lifestyle, as the focus, the central concern, the main issue of our activities, we are to make followers of Jesus. “As you are going…,” He said. “Do to others what I have done with you…call them and teach them.”
Jesus emphasizes the baptism, because baptism is the public emblem of belief. Baptism shows to all that they have answered the call to the Saviour. It says to all, “I rest in His death, burial, and resurrection for my salvation; I identify with this God in His salvation plan.” And that baptism is done in the name of the one true God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There can be no doubt as the identity of the God whom is being trusted.
Matthew 28:20a: “And as they come out of the water, teach them…over and over again, as a matter of course explain this, explain that…not according to your own ideas and methods, but as I have taught you. Help them to obey Me” (my paraphrase). Matthew’s recording of Jesus’ last instructions tells us clearly that following on the heels of baptism is heavy teaching of the commands of Jesus. This is not teaching for teaching’s sake, but teaching for obedience. It is not teaching our ideas of Jesus, our amplifications of Jesus, our imaginations of His doctrine. It is not teaching the doctrines of the church institution. It is not teaching a course that has been popularized. No, it is teaching directly the commands of Jesus with a view to the changing of a life through obedience.
And did the Disciple Missionaries do this? Repeatedly in Acts we see Peter, and Paul, and Steven, and Phillip engaged with the people, as a matter of course, telling of Jesus as Saviour, and also teaching of Jesus as Lord. The eleven disciples could draw upon their 3 years with Jesus in person; the Apostle Paul could draw upon his personal time with Jesus in the Arabian Peninsula. In both cases, all the disciples taught to the people was Jesus, Jesus, Jesus….as the fulfillment of the Old Testament, as the promised Messiah, as the Saviour of the world, as the satisfying of the judgment of God. And as their own understanding grew, as they remembered the teaching of Jesus, and saw it in the light of the Old Testament Scriptures, the Spirit of God caused them to write the completion of the equation – the new covenant, the New Testament, the new life of God in us.
Today many struggle with the mandate of Jesus. The question is raised: Why did Jesus not refer to easing the ache of mankind in His mandate? Did He forget the poor? Was He heartless regarding the suffering of so many in the world? Did He doubt that a solution could be gained? How could Jesus be so limited in His understanding of the need of mankind that He mandates only that the Gospel be spread?
Jesus had indeed referred to helping down-trodden people, to assisting the helpless, to aiding those burdened with life’s issues. But His instructions to help were never in the context of doing it to the masses, as a sort of broad social program. His mercy is always shown within the context of personal love, personal relationship, personal testimony.
Until our Lord returns, there will always be misery in the world, and as the human race grows, that misery will grow. Within the context of that misery, we are to touch lives with our own Jesus-love, face-to-face, cup-to-cup, arm-to-shoulder, look-to-look. This is the way that Jesus showed mercy. His own “relief work” was done on a personal basis, covered with personal love, teaching, and spiritual encouragement. He was well aware, as we often are not, that the things of this earth pass quickly, but the things of the spirit last for all eternity. Life is in the spirit, and if that spirit is alive with the Life of Jesus, then the circumstances of the body, however difficult, are borne with Hope and Love, with Joy and Peace. This Life defies description; it knows no bounds; it transcends circumstances, however dire those circumstances may be. It is bound up in the person of Jesus, in the salvation He offers, in the freedom from guilt that only He can give (John 20:30-31).
Those who know this Life, which comes only from the person of Jesus, cannot help but reach to others in their pain and minister to them. It is a natural response of the Spirit within us! To say, “This person knows Jesus,” is to say, “This person helps ease the ache of those around him.” James, the half-brother of Jesus, clearly reminds us of this. To know Jesus is to be His arms, His voice, His legs, His pocketbook in easing the burdens of others (James 2:12-26). Just as a wind will move leaves, so a person who knows Jesus will willingly help others.
But to share those burdens is not the same as to share the Gospel. And this is where the confusion comes; the Evil One has tempted us to “adjust” the mandate of our Lord, so that it is more palatable and socially acceptable. Physical comfort and well-being is not synonymous with spiritual life. Nor does it lead to spiritual life. The teaching of Jesus and the Scriptures is clear: we are dead in our sins, utterly incapable of spiritual life, apart from the Saviour. No amount of physical benefit can ease the condition of the soul. No amount of education, or job training, or economic development, or feeding program, or any other sort of human service is able to give spiritual life. There is no other Saviour apart from the Living Lord Jesus!
In Jesus’ mandate, He mentions nothing about the earthy, human woes of mankind. He talks only of telling every person, everywhere, about Him. And in that telling, those whom the Father has chosen will embrace the message, be baptized, and follow in obedience to the way of Jesus. Let us not be confused. If we do Humanitarian Aid or other human development projects, we do well, but we do not fulfill the mandate of the Lord Jesus! We do not follow the steps of the first Missionaries, the disciples who heard for themselves, straight from the lips of the Saviour, what was His desire for succeeding generations of His followers.
Matthew 28:20b: “And, look, I am always with you, no matter where you go.” Jesus is reminding them of a previous talk. “Remember my talking with you about abiding? Unless you abide, remain, concentrate, focus in Me, you cannot do anything that I’ve taught you. So I am going with you all over the earth, to enable you to make disciples, to empower you to call others to the true God and to teach them to obey Me” (John 15).
What a great encouragement and stimulus! With the presence of Jesus, we have the companionship of God Himself! And in that companionship is Encouragement, Comfort, and Guidance.
After Jesus departed, the lives of the Disciples show a constancy of purpose, a deep sense of power, a firm hand, a clear eye. Clearly they demonstrated the reality of Jesus’ presence. Of course, they were not perfect. Peter showed his continued sensitivity to peer pressure; Paul became impatient with those who turned back from ministry. But most every Disciple-missionary died a traumatic death because of his loyalty Jesus, shown in his obedience of the last mandate. His obedience was not diluted with humanitarian aid projects. (Not even the record of the Jerusalem famine relief lines up with a humanitarian aid project. Theirs was a gift as one Christian to another, sent by the hands of their own leaders and Paul, and administered to fellow believers by the leaders of the Jerusalem church. It was not a public works, social improvement project for the purpose of softening hearts and governments so that perhaps some Gospel message could be preached.)
So what is the conclusion? Jesus’ mandate, what we call the “Great Commission,” is His last command to His followers and, by extension, to us. His command is to spread the news of Himself, encouraging others to believe on Him for salvation, baptizing the believers in the name of the one true God, and then teaching them the teachings of Jesus with a view towards their obedience of those commands. His mandate has no reference to relieving the plight of so many in the human race. His mandate is given and fulfilled by the authority and power which He alone possesses. His mandate is fulfilled in companionship between Jesus and the obedient follower. Any project of social improvement has very limited spiritual benefit; Jesus Himself gave testimony of this in John 6. (See our essay, “The Role of Humanitarian Aid in Building the Kingdom: A Study of John 6”.) Those who abide in Jesus will naturally care for the needs of other people; such is an outworking of the love of Jesus in them. But such care, in and of itself, does not constitute obedience to the Lord’s command.
As Jesus instructed, and as the Disciple-missionaries demonstrated, we must focus our lives upon spreading knowledge of the Gospel, upon baptizing those who embrace that Gospel, and upon teaching them the commands of Jesus, so that they also obey Him. Although we will naturally tend to the needs of those around us, let us not be distracted by these activities; they are no replacement for the Gospel witness, nor do they yield much spiritual fruit. Let us learn from the example of Jesus and the witness of the Apostles to focus our lifestyle upon being good witnesses of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus!
January 5, 2008