Billy Graham Center
World Congress on Evangelism, 1966
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The Great Commission, Part II
Text: Matthew 28:16-20
by John Stott
More than a week--we do not know just how much time--has passed since the first Easter Day. The disciples of Jesus have re- turned North to Galilee, and there on a mountain, by appointment, Jesus met them again. It was probably the occasion mentioned by Paul when Jesus appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time (1 Cor. 15:6).
When they saw Him (at first evidently some distance away) their reactions varied between extremes of adoration and of unbelief. Some "worshiped Him" (N. E. B. "they fell prostrate before Him"), but "some doubted.
Jesus then came up to them and spoke to them. First, He made an announcement (18). Next, He issued a command (19, 20a). Lastly, He gave them a promise (20b).
1. The Announcement He made (v. 18)
"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me," He said (R. S. V.).
It is of vital importance to notice that this affirmation preceded the great commission to go forth to the nations. Indeed, without this announcement of His authority, the great commission would have lacked any justification, let alone any impetus. Not until we are convinced of the full authority of Jesus Christ are we in a position to hear and to obey His commission to go.
(a) What was this authority that He claimed?
It was "all authority in heaven and on earth." Different prepositions are used, as if deliberately used to distinguish the two spheres, the earthly and the heavenly, over which His authority extended.
Take earth first. Since He has all authority on earth He has authority over us; this is doubtless a part of His meaning. His total authority extends over the lives of His servants. He is like a Commanding Officer who can dispose and deploy His forces as He chooses, and draft them wherever He likes. He has authority to say to anyone "'go', and he goes." Indeed, He has said it to the Church, but as a whole, the Church has dared to disobey its sovereign Lord.
Since He has all authority on earth, it extends beyond us whom He sends, however, to all the nations to whom He sends us. Satan becoming the "prince of this world" had usurped this authority. But now the authority has been given to Christ, and we long to see it acknowledged everywhere.
This fact asserts unequivocally that the religion of Jesus is not Palestinian or Jewish, Semitic or Asiatic, let alone westerns but a world religion, indeed the world religion, Intended to embrace all the nations then in existence and those that might yet be. It was to transcend all barriers of language and culture, nationality and color, race and rank.
But Christ declared that He had been given all authority in heaven as well. What does this mean? No doubt it means, in part, that the authority He claimed on earth was recognized in heaven, and that disciples won on earth accordingly would be acknowledged and accepted in heaven.
But it involves more than that. It signifies that Jesus Christ has supreme authority in those "heavenly places" (as Paul called them in his Ephesian letter) in which evil principalities and powers" still operate and wage war (cf. Eph. 6:12). Having raised Jesus Christ from the dead, God has "made Him sit at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come; and He has put all things under His feet..." (Eph. 1:20-22 R.S.V.)., The authority of Jesus Christ extends over all creatures, whether human or superhuman, over the Church, over the nations, over the-Devil and all his works.
(b) When was this authority given to Christ? He claimed it on that Galilean mountain as an accomplished fact (aorist edothe, "twas given"). Probably we would agree that it was given to Him by the Father in virtue of the Cross and in anticipation of the Ascension. Certainly this statement is confirmed by the rest of the New Testament. It was at the Cross that Hd "disarmed the principalities and powers, and made a public example of them,.triumphing over them in it" (Col. 2:15 R.S.V. M.). It was by His blood that He ransomed men for God from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation (Rev. 5:9). And it was at His Ascension that God "highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil. 2:9-11 R.S.V.).
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 Saviour 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 unto God" (Acts 26:18).
Only because all authority on earth belongs to Christ are we go to all nations. And only because all authority in heaven as well is His have we any hope of success. It must have seemed ridiculous to send that tiny nucleus of Palestinian peasants to twin the world for Christ. For Christ's Church today, so hopelessly outnumbered by hundreds of millions who neither know nor acknowledge Him, the task is equally gigantic. It is the unique, the universal authority of Jesus Christ which gives us-both the right and the confidence to seek to make disciples of all the nations. Before His authority on earth the nations must bow; before His authority in heaven no demon can stop them.
2. The Command He issued: "Go ye therefore" (v. 19).
We notice this imperative, "go ye," immediately followed the indicative statement "All authority has been given to me;" the announcement of Christ's universal authority was an essential preliminary to the Great Commission.
We "go'' because we are ourselves under authority. We go to "all the nations" because they are under authority also. The commission is no longer to seek "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matt. 10:6), but to make disciples of "all the Gentiles" (that is what the word "nations" means). So, in the providence of God, end the most Jewish, the most particularistic of the four Gospels. The Gospel of Matthew begins with the coming of Gentile strangers to worship the infant Christ; it concludes with the sending out of the Church to win the Gentile world.
As we go, we have precise instructions to fulfill. Christ used three verbs: "make disciples," "baptize," and "teach." Some scholars interpret this as a single command to "go and make disciples;" "baptizing them" and "teaching them" they consider the explanation of how disciples are made. I prefer to take the three verbs separately as descritipns of three distinct parts or stages of the one Great Commission of Christ to "go."
(a) We are to make disciples. The New English Bible rightly renders this "make all nations my disciples." The addition of the possessive "my" brings out the sense. One cannot "make disciples" in the abstract, for there can be no disciples without a teacher who disciples they are. So to "make disciples of all nations" means to win disciples for Jesus Christ out of all the nations on earth.
How we are to do this is made plain in the other versions of the Great Commission. We are to do it by preaching the Gospel. For. in preaching the Gospel we preach Christ so that men are con- verted to Him and become His disciples. We can never get away from, or grow out of, this elementary truth that evangelism is preaching Jesus Christ and making disciples of Jesus Christ. The central objective of all Christian evangelism is to secure the allegiance of men and women not to a church nor to a system of thought or behavior, but to the person of Jesus Christ. Discipleship of Jesus Christ comes first; the church membership, the theology, the ethical conduct follow.
In summoning people to discipleship, we shall do well not to forget the solemn conditions of this discipleship laid down by Christ the Master. Unless we "hate" our family, take up our cross, and renounce all that we have (putting Him, that is, before our relatives, our ambitions, and our possessions), we cannot be His disciples, He said.
(b) We are to baptize.
Converts who have become disciples of Jesus are to be bapt- tized "into the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." The theological implication of this is far-reaching. It means that discipleship to Jesus Christ in- volves ipso facto relationship to the Father and to the Holy Spirit as well-,it means, too, that although the Father ' the Son and the Spirit are distinct persons, they possess but One Name into which disciples are baptized.
Christian baptism is not just in the Name, but into the Name of the Trinity; it signifies union with God, th God who has revealed Himself by this threefold 'Name,' as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Further, whatever the precise significance of baptism may be (and doubtless our particular convictions on this matter are to some extent divergent), we would all agree that baptism is, essentially a public act. People may become disciples of Jesus secretly, but they must be baptized publicly. At the very least, baptism is the public confession and public ac- knowledgment of those who claim to be Christ's disciples, and thus admits them into the visible church.
So in advancing from discipleship to baptism, Jesus moves from the private to the public, from the personal to the corporate, from conversion to church membership.
c ) We are to teach.
The purpose of Christ in the Great Commission is not fully met, however, when people are discipled and baptized; they must also be taught. A lifetime of 1-earning and obeying follows conversion, until disciples are conformed to the image of their Lord.
Moreover, the substance of the teachings to be given them is all the teaching of Jesus Christ, "all things whatsoever T have commanded you." Notice carefully what we are to teach converts. It is neither what the7 may want to hear, nor what we may want to say, but what Christ Himself has taught. This is what they are to "keep," that is, to believe and to obey.
Where, then, is all the teaching of Jesus Christ to be found? The correct answer is not'4n His discourses in the Gospels," but "in the whole Bible." Properly understood, the teaching of Jesus Christ includes the Old Testament (for He set His ,seal upon its truth and its authority), the Gospels (in which His own words are recorded), and the rest of the New Testament (which contains the teaching of the Apostles through whom, we believe, He continued to speak, in order to complete His self-revelation).
Thus we have our Lord's own command to instruct converts with Biblical teaching, and it is important that from the very beginning they understand that the Bible's teaching is Christ's teaching. Converts have become disciples of Christ; they have been baptized into Christ; and they are to be taught what Christ commanded. They must learn to submit their minds to all, not just to some, of the teaching of Christ, if their conversion is to include their intellect. The disciples of Jesus may not pick and choose from His teaching, selecting what they like, rejecting what they dislike. They are not at liberty to disagree with Jesus, or to disobey Him, for Jesus is their Teacher and Lord, and they are under His authority and His instruction. "You call me Teacher and Lord, "He says to them, Hand you are right, for so I am" (Jn. 13:13 R.S.V.). This lays upon the evangelist the solemn responsibility of being a good disciple himself, for how can he teach converts all that Christ has commanded if he does not himself submit to this expectation?
Such is the risen Lord's concept of evangelism--a conception considerably more balanced and comprehensive than much of our modern practice of evangelism. Jesus sent forth His followers not merely to make disciples--discipling was only the first stage of the Great Commission. Two further stages were to follow, namely, baptizing and teaching. The evangelist who would be loyal to his commission, therefore, must have three major concerns: first, conversions to Christ; second, the church membership of converts; and third, their instructions in all the teaching of Christ.
While it is legitimate no doubt for sporadic evangelistic missions and crusades to concentrate on their first concern, it would be irresponsible to do so unless adequate provision is made also for admitting converts to church membership and for instructing them.
3. The Promise He uttered: "and lol I am with you alway even unto the end of the world."
Thus the promise in the first chapter of Matthew regarding "Emmanuel, God with us" (Matt. 1:23) is confirmed and further fulfilled in the last.
We should never isolate the Great Commission from its 3ontext. Here in the Matthean version it is preceded by the anrouncemert of Christ's authority and followed by the promise of Christ's presence. Without these we could not obey Christ's commission. How could we go forth to make disciples for Christ, to '.-,a-otize them and teach them, if we no assurance of His authority behind us and no assurance of His presence beside us?
This was not the first time Christ had promised them His risen presence. Earlier in this Gospel (18:20) 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 attaches 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 III," who pledges His presence, is the One who has universal authority and who sends forth His people. It remains questionable, therefore, whether a stay-at-home church--disobedient to the Great Commission, and indifferent to the need of the nations--is in any position to claim or inherit the fulness of Christ's promised presence.
But to those who go, who go into the world as Christ came into the world, who sacrifice their ease and comfort and independence, who hazard their lives in search of disciples--to them the presence of the living Christ is promised. In sending them out, He yet accompanies them. "Go," He says, and "Lol I am with you"--with you in the person of the Holy Spirit to restrain you and direct you, to encourage and empower you (cf. Acts 14:27). "I am with you all the days"--in days of safety and of peril, days of failure and of success, days of freedom to preach and days of restriction and persecution, days of peace and of conflict and war--"I am with you all the days unto the end of the world." The promise of Christ spans the whole Gospel age. While the Christ who is speaking has only just died and been raised from death, He even now looks ahead-to His return in glory. He who has just inaugurated the new age promises to be with His people from its beginning to its end, from its inauguration to its consummation, even .Ilto the close of the age" (R.S.V.).
Looking back over this best-known version of the Great Com- mission (its announcement, its command and its promise), we are struck by its comprehensive sweep as indicated by the fourfold repetition of the word "all."
(1) Christ claimed to have been given all authority in heaven and on earth.
(2) Therefore He sends us to make disciples of all the nations.
(3) He bids us transmit to these disciples all His teaching. Finally,
(4) He promises to be with us all the days, even "to the end of time" (N.E.B.).
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Last Revised: 4/5/06
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