The Great Commission

By Webb Harris, Jr.

There are few studies more interesting and moving than that which scrutinizes the final marching orders of Jesus to his disciples (particularly, his apostles) before his ascension to the Father. In no other passages do we see the urgency of the proclamation of the gospel like we do in the “great commission” accounts. Perhaps a renewed emphasis on these portions of the gospel would help to awaken in us that fiery zest of evangelism that was borne in the bosoms of Peter and Paul in the early days of the faith.

We would do well to look carefully at the following passages as a preliminary: Matthew 28:16-20; Mark 16:14-20; Luke 24:45-53. There is a temptation to simply buzz our memories to recall the gist of each section, but take time to look a bit more closely at these selected verses. Insofar as what is shared, the accounts convey lessons of phenomenal importance. And in areas of difference, there are striking considerations of what the preaching of Jesus is really all about.

Two Important Notations

1. The instructions themselves are firmly rooted in the undeniable authority of Jesus Christ. (1) They were spoken by him; (2) There is a claim by Jesus to possession of “all authority in heaven and earth,” spoken as a preliminary in Matthew’s record; (3) He calls for the teaching of things that “I” have “commanded”; (4) He intends not only to commission, but to expedite, the preaching – “I will be with you,” “I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you,” “these signs will accompany . . . in My name.”

2. There is a world-wide thrust to the commission. Notice the scope in each account. (1) Matthew, “of all the nations”; (2) Mark, “all the world … .. every creature”; (3) Luke, “all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”

There are two points to be appreciated before we actually begin to look at the passages individually. Two threads are woven through all three accounts: The authority of Jesus upon which the message and its proclamation stand and the global scope of its presentation.

These facts are pointed out in order to impress the reader with two solemn truths. When we talk about the “great commission,” we are not discussing the brainchild of some evangelism committee; rather, we are dealing with divine commands. As well, these divine orders of preaching know no geographical boundaries. God is interested in the souls of citizens of every country.

What is the “mission” in the “commission”?

Luke 24

In Luke 24:47, Jesus looks at the task as a “proclamation” (NASB). There are some things that need to be “preached” everywhere. Here Jesus enumerates two closely related topics: “Repentance” and “forgiveness of sins.” With a basis of these two subjects, I would like to suggest that the gospel is essentially a message, a proclamation, of change. A call to repentance is, by its very nature, a call to change. The word of the cross on its most personal level is a call to a change of allegiance, of life-style, priorities and goals; indeed, to a complete change of direction. And through conversion, comes a change of standing before the Almighty – “forgiveness of sins.” A change of a man’s spiritual condition.

This is a part of the gospel’s power. Rather than a placating word of mollification, it is a proclamation of new ideals, different status and changed identity. When we try to salve the egos of our audience with soothing affirmations that they are O.K., we forsake the gospel message. People are not acceptable as they are! They are lost and in need of reconciliation with God. From the inside out, they are in need of change.

Mark 16

The commission of Mark 16 breaks down to three components: (1) preach, (2) effect belief, (3) baptize.

We preach because we have an important proclamation to make (see above). People need to change. Proclaim it. Their sins can be forgiven. Preach it. Preach it everywhere to everybody.

The statement, “he who has believed,” brings other considerations. There is no denying that the gospel is God’s power unto salvation. But remember that it has power only in the hearts of a certain class of people. These particular people can be found among Jews and Gentiles alike. Who are they? “Everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). Our preaching is by no means the measuring-stick of salvation. Preaching effects rebirth only for those who believe the message.

I have come to a dramatic realization of late. The aim of preaching is not to get people to understand what Jesus said. It is to get them to believe what he said. Likewise, it is not enough to bring people to an understanding of what the New Testament says about the identity of Jesus. Let us cause them to believe it. I have walked away from Bible studies in complete elation because my partner finally understands what I believe. Wonderful! The real question: Does he believe it?

There is an incredible emphasis on proof in New Testament preaching. Peter makes extensive arguments based on fulfilled prophecy in Jesus. He appeals to the resurrection of our Lord time and again. Paul speaks at length of the appearances of Jesus to his disciples after his death. Miracles are performed to attest to the spoken word. Why? Not only to inform, but to actually effect belief.

As we go forth to preach, we not only want to be understood, we want to be believed.

Wherein is the proof of the pudding? Point three. How do we know when people have passed from simple understanding to actual belief? From the evidence of obedience. Baptism is not a by-product of Christianity. It is an obedient response to a saving message. It is for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38). Therein, men put on Christ (Gal. 3:27). Therein, we enter Christ and his death (Rom. 6:3).

Matthew 28

By this point in our study, we have already dealt with most of the content of Matthew 28:18-20. There is one component, however, that we have yet to touch. Matthew presents the great commission as a call to “make disciples.”

With so much warning about the dangerous “discipling movement” extant, some are becoming fearful of dealing with this part of this commission. There is no evil, however, in the term “disciple.” A disciple is a learner; not in a general sense, but in a very specific context. A disciple, as a student, is attached to a particular teacher. One of Webster’s definitions of the English term is as follows: “a convinced adherent of a school or individual.” A disciple of Jesus is one who owns him as teacher, master and model. The commission of Matthew 28 entails the creation of such people.

Perhaps you’ve noted that Matthew speaks of Jesus’ audience on this occasion as the “eleven disciples.” Jesus calls upon disciples to make disciples. This brings us to one of the grand considerations of our topic. Am I a disciple? Am I a believer? If not, what stake do I have in this study?

Guardian of Truth XXXII: 9, pp. 259-260
May 5, 1988