Brian T. Wingard
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age." Matthew 28:16-20 ESV
These words from the gospel of Matthew are so familiar that we know them by a title, "The Great Commission." It is said that familiarity breeds contempt. I would not suggest that Orthodox Presbyterians have contempt for this familiar portion of God's Word, but in our case perhaps familiarity breeds neglect. In considering a familiar passage of Scripture, we sometimes believe that we know it so well that there is nothing more that we can learn from it. We may allow our familiarity with it to let us also neglect some of its most important truths.
One important truth that is often neglected by evangelical Christians in their consideration of the Great Commission is that our Lord spoke these words not to individual believers, but to the church. Note that the men who traveled to Galilee at the direction of Jesus were "the eleven disciples." These were the apostles, the men chosen by Jesus to be the first and foundational office-bearers of the New Testament church. Note also that Jesus specifically mentions the sacrament of baptism. The sacraments were not placed in the hands of individual believers, but were given by Christ as ordinances of his church.
Nor are we to understand, as some mistakenly do, that these words make up only one part of the church's ministry! Here is the entire mandate that the church possesses from her King. Anything we do as a church that cannot find a legitimate place within the clear implication of these words is an illegitimate action. It behooves us, therefore, to give close consideration to these words of our Lord.
As a foreign missionary, I am sometimes asked, "By what right do you go to another land and culture and impose your religion upon people who may not want it?" Missionaries are not the only ones who hear such questions. The church is asked from every side, "By what right do you do the things that you do?" We may not like these questions, but we must be ready to defend the hope that is within us (1 Pet. 3:15). These words of Christ assure us that we do have an answer! Behind the task to which the church has been commissioned lies the prerogative of her Lord, expressed in these words: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me."
This answer should give us boldness as we pursue our task. The unbelieving world is attempting to place the church in a confining box. She is told that she will be tolerated only if she keeps to "her place." Sadly, we submit too meekly to this usurpation of our Lord's prerogative. But we can boldly reply to unbelief, "We do not look to you for our place in this world; we receive our mandate from the one who is King of kings and Lord of lords."
Yet, just as the prerogative of King Jesus gives us boldness to face the unbelieving world, so it also does set a limit on our activity as the church. Jesus declares that he, not we, has "all authority in heaven and on earth." This means that the church exercises her mandate with derived authority, not absolute authority. She must, in short, do and say only what her sovereign Lord has authorized her to do and say.
I once asked a colleague what his vision was for Uganda. He replied, "I have no vision for Uganda." I was shocked! Yet my colleague was right, because the only vision for Uganda is the vision of our Lord Jesus Christ.
It is not her own will that the church pursues, but the will of Christ! That will is found in the word of Christ. I do not mean that we must go out and buy a red-letter edition of the Gospels. The word of Christ is made up of the entirety of the Scriptures, not just those words that he spoke during his earthly life and ministry.
But what does it mean that Christ has all authority in heaven and on earth? What is authority? In the Bible, the word authority combines the concepts of might and right. Christ's prerogative over the mission of the church includes both his right to determine what that mission should be and his power to see that it is executed. Power without right is mere despotism, and right without power ends in failure. In Christ and his Word, however, we find the marriage of absolute right and absolute power to accomplish what his right maintains. We would do well, therefore, to examine the nature of Christ's will for his church as she exercises the commission he has given her.
The first thing that we notice is that the church is to be mobile. Jesus says, "Go therefore." This does not mean that we must put wheels on our buildings. Of course, the church does not consist of buildings, but of the people whom God has called out of the world. If you want to know how the church can be mobile, just look down at your feet! You can go into your places of work. You young people can go into your schools. You can go to your neighbors. And you can invite them to the place where the gospel is being proclaimed. The mobility of the church is not limited to the foreign missions enterprise, because the same mandate that our Lord gives us is to reach "all the nations," and from the divine point of view your country is one of the nations.
The next noteworthy matter is that the church's commission is to "make disciples." Jesus did not tell us merely to "make converts." To be a disciple is to be a dedicated follower of the Lord Jesus. It is to be one who learns from him throughout one's life. I used to tell my students in Kenya, where they speak Swahili, that they would always be mwanafunzi (students) because they were disciples of Christ. I am simply saying that disciples are not made in a moment.
There are many "short-term" mission groups that go to a foreign country, usually for about ten days, and they return to their own country, thinking they have fulfilled the Great Commission. They believe this because they have done some evangelistic visitation, or have seen some "decisions," or have provided some money for a building in which to worship. Whatever we might say about the benefit of these activities, however, they have not made disciples. You cannot make disciples in ten days. It takes long-term dedication and perseverance.
Notice, next, that our Savior speaks of "baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." As I said previously, this indicates that the Great Commission is to be exercised by the church. Butand this is especially pertinent to the work of foreign missionsthere is another matter that this brings before us. Note that the church's task is to establish the church. To make disciples is not to create individual, isolated believers; it is to incorporate them into the house and family of God. Baptism is the rite of initiation into God's covenant community, and God's covenant community is the church.
There are many good things that Christians may do in the world, and I do not wish to discourage any doing of good. However, if our activity does not contribute to the building and the building up of the church, then it has no legitimate place in the commission that our Lord here sets before us. Simply stated, we are taught here that the church gives birth to the church.
A last item to notice is found in the words "teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." This is simply to say, as Paul says concerning himself, that we are not to shrink from declaring "the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27). That is, Scripture in its entirety is to be the content of what we declare in the exercise of the Great Commission.
We see here, then, our Lord's pattern for his church's ministry. We are to go into the world. Starting at our own doorstep, we are to go with the long-term commitment of seeing people transformed into the image of Jesus Christ. We are to incorporate them into the covenant community. And we are to be diligent in setting before them the whole of Christ's will for them as they follow him.
This is indeed a tremendous task, and we might well be daunted by it. But Jesus encourages us with the hope that his commission will be accomplished. Our Savior's words conclude with a marvelous promise: "And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age." What a wonderful promise this is! It is full of a comfort of particular sweetness. The Lord of glory promises to be present with us as long as this world continues.
Yet, we must notice that this promise is made in a context. It is not a general promise given to secure and idle professors of faith. It is a promise designed to comfort those who need comfort. The promise of Christ's presence with us is a promise of his presence in our going, in our making disciples, in our baptizing, and in our teaching of the whole counsel of God.
And, if we are faithful to his commission, it is a promise that we sorely need. Scripture assures us that those who are faithful to the Lord's call will have difficulty aplenty. We are told, "In the world you will have tribulation" (John 16:33). We are also told, "All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (2 Tim. 3:12). What will be your solace when those times come? What will encourage you when outward appearances speak of frustration, despair, or failure? It is in times like those that we need the promise given here. The Lord who sends us will himself be with usin all those troubled times.
This promise, therefore, is the clarion call of victory, for it reminds us of the great truth that difficulties always tempt us to forget. The cause for which we struggle is the cause, not of ourselves, but of Christ. He is not an uninvolved observerhe is the one who sent us. Moreover, the one who sent us is the one who has "all authority in heaven and on earth." Can his purpose fail? Can his will be thwarted? We have a sure hope in carrying out his commission, because he promises, "I am with you always," and we say with Scripture, "He who promised is faithful" (Heb. 10:23).
The simple summary of it all is this: We are to do Christ's work in Christ's way to Christ's ends in reliance on Christ's promise. May our living Lord give us grace to be faithful to his Great Commission!
The author is an OP missionary, currently serving in Eritrea. The Bible quotations are from the ESV. Reprinted from New Horizons, November 2002.