Pictured: Femø Kirke; Femø, Lolland, Denmark
16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 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, 20 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
Never has Christianity had, nor will there ever be, a visionary like Jesus. Perhaps pastors and theologians like to think of themselves as visionaries, but the truth is even on our best day we pale in comparison to the Christ. When we return to the Scriptures we glean afresh the Savior’s heart and vision for the gospel’s advancement. Thus, it gives us energy and impassions us to unashamedly spread the gospel by commending Jesus as the only answer for life everlasting.
Reading Matthew 28:16-20 in context we see something very important that I think should fuel our understanding of the Great Commission. Jesus is speaking to the eleven disciples from Galilee (v.16). At first glance it may seem like verse 16 is merely setting the stage for verse 18, but I don’t think verse 16 should be treated so casually. Here’s why:
First, Jesus calls the eleven together (Matthias has not yet replaced Judas). These disciples spent the last three years with Jesus hearing his sermons, receiving his teaching, witnessing his miracles, and preparing to be the first missionaries. What were some of the things Jesus taught his disciples?
- To deny self and to follow Jesus with singular loyalty.
- To hate sin and love holiness.
- To love the lost and the nations and to have a passion for evangelism.
- To “adorn” Christ’s gospel with good deeds of love, justice, and mercy.
- To live by faith in Christ and the gospel.
- To rejoice that Christ gives new life.
- To love and serve one another for in this people will know they are Christ’s disciples.
- To hope in Christ for future glory and grace.
Now the disciples’ task is to make disciples of the other nations (v.19). In other words, Jesus is telling his disciples to replicate the teaching they received and teach it to others. This is how disciples (which means learners) are multiplied. But, as with the original disciples, this is not a quick endeavor. Making disciples takes years. This isn’t something that happens in a few short weeks. This is why it is critical to be patient with our missionaries today. If they are making disciples, then we cannot expect this work to be quick. So missions is primarily a disciple-making endeavor, and as such it requires patience and prayer. Jesus says, “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (v.20) That takes time.
Second, Jesus is speaking to them in Galilee which is situated in northern Israel and where he lived most of his life. Why is this significant? According to John 1:29-42, Jesus ministered in Jerusalem and Judea after his baptism. Upon hearing of John the Baptist’s arrest, Jesus then returns to Galilee to enter a new phase of ministry (Matthew 4:12). When Jesus returns to Galilee he settles in the small fishing village of Capernaum. This was to fulfill a prophecy that though God raised up the Assyrians to overtake the Northern Kingdom, a “Son of David” would restore the nation and deliver the people (Isaiah 9:1-7; cf. Matthew 4:13-16). The good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the redeemer and deliverer, would originate from the very place God had promised. This means that as we consider the purpose of the Great Commission, which is to make disciples, we should also consider the source which is Jesus himself – the Son of David. So, when Jesus says, “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (v.18) it means that only Jesus could command us to offer eternal life in his name.
But this has one further important implication, particularly for us today. We are the other nations. Typically, when we think of missions we think of going to other countries. What we rarely do is think of our country as the other nations where the gospel must continue to go forth and be cultivated. Let me offer a quick disclaimer: I am NOT saying that we should not send missionaries to other countries. Although the Great Commission is a specific call to Jesus’ eleven disciples, I also believe that this is a general call for all believers. However, if we are intent on reaching the nations and neglect our own, then we have a short-sighted view of what the commission involves. Likewise, at least in my community, I have the nations just outside my doorstep. Within a quarter mile of my home there are people of various nationalities. Is it possible for you to be a missionary in your community or is that title reserved only for those who travel overseas? I think a hometown missionary is just as vital to the advancement of the gospel as those who receive the call to move thousands of miles away. Unless you live in Galilee (which needs missionaries as well), you are part of the other nations.
This is why I think Jesus has such a remarkable and compelling understanding of the advancement of the gospel. It’s his world. He created it. Our calling as his disciples is to commend Jesus through the gospel and be willing to take the time to patiently disciple others. Soli Deo Gloria.