The Great Commission at Westgate
Imagine a world at war, and a city under occupation by an evil regime. The people are plundered and imprisoned, hopeless and hurting. Imagine then that that city is liberated—the enemy is defeated. The battle is over. And the General, before moving on to the next city, leaves a team of soldiers on the ground with the specific charge to go throughout the city and announce to the prisoners that the battle was over and they were set free.
Imagine once again, that a year later the General receives word that many of the citizens were still imprisoned in the city. Not that there was still fighting; they had simply never been informed that the war was over. And so the General shows up to find out what in the world is going on, and the leading officers are thrilled to see him. They can’t wait to show him all that they’ve accomplished. They begin with a tour of their new liberation command facility. It took a while to raise the money, but it is equipped with all the bells and whistles of military strategy and surveillance. From here they can plan the liberation work and keep a careful eye on the enemy’s every move. Next they showed him the new school for post-wartime liberation. There were over a hundred soldiers enrolled, all learning the latest in strategy and postwar negotiations. They finished that tour just in time to catch the weekly freedom rally. All of the soldiers were gathered to learn about what happened in the war and celebrate the victory. They sang songs of liberation and freedom, and prayed for the liberation of the prisons.
But that wasn’t all; the soldiers had also invested in a number of important community needs. They had classes to help curb illiteracy, since so many schools had been closed during the war. They set up several local food pantries. They hosted support groups for grieving families.
The officers were so proud of all that they had done, that they were somewhat shocked to hear the General’s response: ‘You have failed your mission. You have neglected the main thing—you had one job, one central charge, your primary commission: go announce liberty to the captives—let them know that they can be free.’ They did a lot of good things, but they missed the main thing. They failed their orders.
The parallels between that little story and the church today should be pretty obvious. What would Jesus say if he showed up today and saw our buildings, toured our seminaries, attended our worship services, looked upon all our humanitarian efforts, but found that no one was actually announcing to those still enslaved in sin that the war had been won, their freedom secured, if they will but renounce their sin and put their trust in Jesus as Savior and King?
The church can give itself to many good things. In fact, gathering for worship, training leaders, and loving our neighbors are acts of obedience to God. We don’t want to diminish or marginalize those for a minute. And yet we cannot allow the many good things to marginalize the main thing—our mission to make disciples for Jesus.
This, surprisingly, is where the book of Matthew lands. I say surprisingly, because in a book that is so focused on Jesus’ identity as the long-awaited Messiah, the true king of heaven and earth, you might expect it to end on a solid note of triumphant victory. The king is here, he has rescued his people through his death and resurrection, he has been vindicated—let us rejoice!
But that’s not how it ends. It ends not with celebration, but with a commission. It ends by telling us that the story isn’t over; that we, as followers of Jesus, have work to do. This is Matthew’s main application in his entire Gospel—our participation in the mission Jesus gives his church—to go and make disciples of all nations.
What does that mean? What does that entail? How might we be faithful to that call personally, but also as a congregation here at Westgate? That’s what I want us to think about as we look at the conclusion of Matthew’s Gospel, what has been called the Great Commission.
The Great Commission
The past couple weeks we have seen how Jesus claimed his throne not by avoiding suffering death, but by going through it and triumphing over it. He proved his identity as Israel’s long-awaited King, God’s own Son, not by coming down from the cross, but by staying on it and giving his life as a ransom for the sins of many. The punishment we deserved for our rebellion against God, Jesus took on himself on the cross, in our place, that we might be forgiven if we trust and follow him. He won the battle. He defeated sin.
And then something really crazy happened. He conquered death by rising from the dead, just like he said he would. We’re so used to celebrating Easter and talking about the resurrection, that it feels like no big deal. But believe me—it was a big deal. It was earth-shattering. Category-breaking. The fact that Jesus rose from the dead—that he had power and authority over death itself—that changed everything. And you can see in our passage how when they finally see him after his resurrection, they have a hard time taking it all on board. Look at Matthew 28:16-17: “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.”
Notice the tension in their reaction. When you meet the risen Lord, you can’t help but worship. And yet, some doubted. You think of Thomas in John’s Gospel (20:24-29). Another way to translate that is that “some hesitated”—the picture is that they had a hard time sorting it all out.
But Jesus did in fact rise, as we made the case last week. And as our crucified and risen King, he calls his disciples together before he returns to his Father in heaven, and gives his them a mission.
Notice how Matthew draws attention to the place where Jesus has gathered them—on a mountain. One author explains, “From Sinai to the Mount of Transfiguration to the Sermon on the Mount, mountains are places where the most important instruction or revelation is given. This scene is no different. Jesus has brought his disciples together one last time for something truly significant”—our marching orders as his church.
Second, notice how before he gives his orders, he grounds them in his own universal authority. Look at v. 18: “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.’”
Authority is a touchy subject today. Many of us bristle at the idea that someone actually has the right to tell us what we can or can’t do. And yet we all recognize it at a certain level. Your teacher has the authority to tell you when your paper is due. You can’t just walk up to them and say, “I decided this wasn’t due for another two weeks.” Good luck with that conversation. If a police officer pulls you over for speeding, you can’t hand him a ticket for making you late. Or tell him that ‘by decree of me’ the speed limit is now 60 when it was 35. The governing authorities of our state and our country have the right to collect taxes from us, and to enforce it when we don’t comply. Now their authority is limited; they can’t tell you what kind of car to drive, or where to go to college, or what job you should have. They have authority, but there it is limited in scope and jurisdiction. Nor can they collect taxes from the citizens of France living and working in France—it’s out of their jurisdiction.
Jesus has all authority over heaven and earth. There is no limit to his jurisdiction; there is nothing outside the scope of his rightful rule. He has the right to tell us how to live down to the detail. He is Creator, he is Savior, he is the King of heaven and earth.
That’s a sweeping claim. In fact, if the man Jesus is not also fully God, it’s a blasphemous claim. What mere human can claim authority over heaven and earth? But this is what Jesus has been claiming for himself all along. In Matthew 7, the crowds were amazed by him because “he was teaching them as one who had authority” (7:29)—the authority of God. In ch. 9 he is the one who has authority to forgive sins—just like God (9:6). He taught and healed with God’s authority in ch. 21 (vv. 23-24, 27). Every time he refers to himself as the “son of man,” he’s alluding back to Daniel 7, a visionary portrait of “one like a son of man” who endures suffering and is then presented before the Ancient of Days (God the Father). “And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (Dan. 7:13-14). All authority in heaven and on earth.
But notice what he does with his authority. He gives us our marching orders. Matthew 28:19-20: “Go therefore [in light of my universal authority] and make disciples of all nations [again—universal authority—all nations fall under his jurisdiction], 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.”
Our crucified and risen King exercises his universal authority by sending his church into the world to make disciples of all nations.
This is incredible. It’s terrifying and wonderful at the same time. Jesus exercises his authority by sending us into the world to make disciples. As he says in John 20:21—“As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”
So what are we to do? What are our objectives? There are four verbs in vv. 19-20 (four action words, for those of us who left grammar behind a long and happy time ago): go, make disciples, baptize, and teach. One of these is the main command, grammatically speaking: make disciples. The other three help us understand what that central command entails: going, baptizing, and teaching. Let’s look at the central command first.
1. Make Disciples
What does it mean to make a disciple? Very simply, it means helping someone become a follower of Jesus. The word “disciple” means learner, or apprentice. It’s someone who commits their way to following and becoming like their master.
How does somebody become a disciple of Jesus? You believe the gospel of Christ. The gospel is the message that God is God, and we are not. That he had a plan and a vision for his creation, which we messed up through our rebellion and sin. Because of that we are deserving of his holy wrath and condemnation. But in his love he sent his Son to live for us the life we were supposed to live but couldn’t, and to die for us the death we deserved on the cross, paying for our sin and exhausting his Father’s wrath against it. He then rose from the dead on the third day, and now sits at the right hand of God, reigning over the universe, and offers forgiveness and new life to all who believe in him. It’s not a message that tells us to try harder, or make it up to God; it’s a message that says Jesus has already done everything necessary to reconcile you to God; you need only take hold of him in faith. Trust in Jesus. That’s the gospel. And when you believe the gospel, you meet Jesus and become his disciple.
So how does somebody believe the gospel? Two things have to happen. First, they have to hear it—the gospel is a message that must be spoken, talked about, proclaimed. As much as we like the idea of just proclaiming Jesus by our actions (“use words if necessary”), it simply doesn’t work that way. As I’ve said before, you may be the most punctual employee, the kindest and hardest worker at your job, but nobody is going to say by watching your life—“Gee, Bob’s such a great guy. I’ll just bet that Jesus Christ died for my sins and rose again, and that if I trust him I can be forgiven and have eternal life!” It doesn’t work that way!
The gospel must be heard; therefore it must be proclaimed. To make disciples is necessarily to proclaim the gospel. That’s why evangelism and missions is so essential to the advance of God’s kingdom. As Paul says in Romans 10, “But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?” (Rom. 10:14-15).
So to become a disciple, the gospel must be heard and believed. But second, the Spirit of God must give new life and faith for that to happen. There’s a spiritual element at work that you and I aren’t in control of. Jesus says in John 6, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail” (6:63). We can’t save ourselves. And so the second thing we must do is pray. Pray for those we are speaking to. Pray for opportunities to love them and share with them. But most of all, pray that God would open their eyes to see him, that God would change their hearts.
Our essential mission—the main thing Jesus calls his church to do—is to make disciples. To help others turn away from their sin and become followers of Christ. We may be doing a lot of good things, but if we’re not doing the main thing, we’re failing the mission. We must be praying and we must be proclaiming.
But making disciples entails a few other things as well. The next verb I want to consider is “go.” “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . .” (Matt. 28:19-20). To fulfill our mission, we cannot stay put and wait for people to come to us. We must be going, actively engaging the world around us with the good news of Christ.
Now for the last century or so, there has been a tendency in the church to think about the Great Commission almost exclusively in terms of foreign missions—literally going to the ends of the earth, just as many people have done (many missionaries that we support as an important part of this church’s ministry). The Great Commission is not less than that. If our charge involves making disciples of all nations—all ethno-linguistic people groups—then that requires radical going.
But we should not conclude from that that the rest of us are merely supposed to sit the sideline. As long as we pray, and give some money, that we’re making our contribution to the Great Commission. Jesus’ marching orders apply to everyone in the church. You cannot outsource your contribution to the Great Commission.
Now ‘going’ does not necessarily mean going overseas or to a different culture (though it might mean that for you, and we pray that it means that for some of us, because there are still thousands of people groups today with zero gospel, no one proclaiming Jesus among that tribe and language. Nor does going necessarily mean going into vocational ministry (i.e. doing ministry as a job). Again, it might mean that for some of us. But going means going to the grocery store. Going to school. Going to work. Going across the street. Going for coffee. Wherever you are going, that is your mission field. Whoever you rub shoulders with, those are the people you need to be praying for and proclaiming to. To make disciples we must go.
But being a disciple is not just about getting out of hell, or where we end up when we die. A disciple should be connected and committed. That’s what the next verb is about, “baptize.”
“. . . baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (28:19-20).
Baptism is a special ceremony that marks our union with Christ in his death, his burial, and his resurrection, and our communion with God’s people, the church. It’s the picture of going down into the watery grave with Christ, of dying to self, dying to sin, dying to the world, and then rising up out of the water with Christ to new life. A new identity. A new king. A new family. We now belong to the God whose name is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (one of the earliest Trinitarian formulas, right on the lips of Jesus).
Discipleship is not individualistic. It requires connection—to Jesus and to his body, a local church. It’s highly relational. And it requires commitment, again to Jesus ultimately, who has all authority on heaven and earth, but also to a local church and her leaders, whom Jesus places in authority for the guarding and shepherding of souls (cf. 1 Pet. 5:1-4; Heb. 13:17). The fact that Jesus wove baptism into his central command to make disciples reminds us of what he said back in ch. 16—that he didn’t come just to save individuals, but to build his church (16:18).
And baptism is a sign and seal of that connection and commitment. It’s a public declaration that I belong to Jesus, am a new creation, part of his family, and my life will never be the same. The Bible doesn’t really know an unbaptized Christian. It doesn’t save you. The thief on the cross trusted Jesus, never had a chance to be baptized; Jesus told him he would be with him in paradise. But it is a command for those who trust in Christ, and an important mark of our connection and commitment. So (by the way) if you are a believer in Jesus but haven’t been baptized, talk to me after the service, drop me an email, give me a call if you have questions or want to talk about it.
A disciple of Jesus should be both connected and committed. But a disciple should also be changed. And that brings us to the fourth verb—“teach.”
Verse 19 again: “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” (28:19-20).
A commitment to follow Jesus is a commitment to learn and obey. And that both requires and results in change, transformation. Author Francis Chan writes,
It’s impossible to be a disciple or follower of someone and not end up like that person. Jesus said, ‘A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher’ (Luke 6:40). That’s the whole point of being a disciple of Jesus: we imitate Him, carry on His ministry, and become like Him in the process.
And the only way to become like him is to spend time with him, learning what he has taught, and how to obey it. This means that to follow Jesus is to be a lover of Scripture. You cannot know Jesus today without knowing the Bible which reveals him to us. This entire book centers on him. He is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets—the Old Testament (cf. Matt. 5:17-20). He is the message of the Apostles—the New Testament. To sit at our Master’s feet is to sit with our Bibles open, in prayerful communion seeking God to change us by his Spirit. To follow our Master’s ways is to obey the Bible and put it into practice, surrendering our ways to his ways, serving his kingdom, persevering through suffering, depending on the Spirit, clinging to the cross.
And the more we do that, the more like him we become. We are changed. And that’s the ultimate goal of discipleship. It’s not really about what we get out of it (though there’s nothing better). The ultimate goal is that we would increasingly do what we were made to do—reflect the glory and beauty of our Creator and Savior. That we would become mature, building one another up “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).
Go. Teach. Baptize. Make disciples. This is a tall order. This is an intimidating calling. How is it even possible? How can this ever work? If Jesus in his authority is planning to advance his kingdom through the likes of me—I’m not sure that was a great idea. But notice how he secures his commission with his very own presence at the end of v. 20. “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” (Matt. 28:19-20).
The Gospel of Matthew opened with the nativity story, identifying Jesus as “Immanuel”—God with us. It closes on that very same note. Jesus is with us—always, to the very end of the age. He is with us for the long haul, until our mission is complete and he returns. He is with us by his Holy Spirit, as he instructs the disciples in Luke’s Gospel to wait to execute his orders until they are clothed with power from on high, the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
Jesus is with us to guide us, guard us, and give us the strength to do what he calls us to do. He has not left us as orphans, even though we sometimes feel that way, or act that way. The same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead is at work in us, to change us, and to use us for his mission. And if the Holy Spirit can raise Christ from the dead, can he not also give new life to those around us who are spiritually dead? Can he not open their eyes and turn their hearts to God? Do we believe it? Are we praying for it? Are we proclaiming?
Our essential mission—the main thing Jesus calls his church to do—is to make disciples. To help others turn away from their sin and become followers of Christ. We need to ask ourselves, personally and as a congregation—is this what drives us? Is this my modus operandi—how I roll, always seeking to help people meet Jesus? If it’s not, something’s wrong. Something’s out of whack.
Maybe it’s a motivation issue. We’re simply not compelled by the beauty or importance or urgency of the calling. Maybe it’s a values thing—there are other things we value more in life or even in church life, than the main charge we’ve been given. Maybe it’s fear that holds us back—fear of rejection, fear of humiliation, fear of other repercussions. We have a hard time believing that Jesus meant it when he said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven . . .” (Matt. 5:10-11). For some maybe it’s a submission issue—we don’t like someone else telling us how to live our lives. I like the Jesus who saves me, or gives me stuff, but the Jesus who calls me to deny myself, take up my cross and die—no thanks. Not what I signed up for. Friend, if that’s you, be warned—you’re not trusting in the real Jesus.
But I would guess that for most of us, we’re simply not sure what to do. We don’t know how to get started. We have a hard enough time reading the Bible personally, or with our spouse or our kids, that the idea of trying to do that with someone else seems overwhelming. What do we talk about? What do we read? What if they ask a question I don’t know the answer to? It’s so much easier just to invite them to church and let the preaching do all the preaching.
It’s always a good thing to invite someone to church. But the gospel is not going to grow in New England that way, friends. Fewer and fewer people here have any sort of value or category for church, and whatever association they have probably isn’t very nice. Never hurts to try. But if the gospel is going to grow in New England, it’s going to grow primarily through people like you, and you, and you, following our King’s orders, loving our neighbors, praying for them, building relationships, and taking the risk of inviting them to open God’s Word and explore the claims of Jesus.
We want to help you do that. My job, Pastor Bruce’s job, is not to do the work of ministry. According to Paul in Ephesians 4, it’s “to equip the saints for the work of ministry”—that’s all of you. When I came here three and a half years ago, that was one of the primary burdens on my heart—to work closely in training and coaching in personal discipleship, that that might be reproduced and multiplied as others do likewise. And to be honest, I haven’t had a lot of opportunity to do it. Lord willing, and by God’s grace, that’s going to change in 2015.
We’re going to provide some broader-based training on this specific topic—making disciples, spiritual multiplication. That’s the focus of our Life on Mission Conference this spring. We’re also going to give more focused prayer to this matter. The last Sunday of each month in 2015 we’ll be holding a prayer meeting, not to pray for our own needs or problems (those are important and we want to keep praying for them), but this prayer time will be focused explicitly on our mission as a church. Praying for the lost. Praying for opportunities. Praying for revival. Praying for God to come down and open eyes and heal hearts and make himself known in a life-changing way to the thousands of men and women in the MetroWest who live right next door to us, who if nothing happens, face an eternity apart from Christ. We want plead with God to show up and change that.
The other thing I’m really excited about, and praying about, and want you to pray about, is that beginning in early 2015 both Pastor Bruce and I will be providing intentional discipleship coaching in a small group context (groups of 3), with the explicit purpose of drilling deep in what it means to follow Christ and give our lives away. We want to begin doing with you what we are praying and asking you to do with others.
Not that discipleship only happens in this kind of small, life-on-life context. It happens in small groups. Discipleship is one of the core functions of our Home Group ministry. It happens in large groups—in every worship service we are learning more of what it means to follow Jesus. But it must happen at this focused, interpersonal level too. The kind of relational setting where you can wrestle honestly with questions or against sin, where we can not just learn info but share life.
If that sounds interesting to you, if God is laying on your heart that you need to grow in how to invest spiritually in others for the sake of the gospel, and you want help with that, and you’re willing to commit to that help—let’s talk. Be praying, and let’s talk.
Would that this kind of personal ministry not be the exception among us, but the norm. What might God do to raise a banner for his gospel at Westgate if together we obeyed the Great Commission and gave our lives away for Christ? Jesus is the king of heaven and earth, and exercises his universal authority by sending us into the world to make disciples of all nations. By his grace may we be faithful to that call.
1. Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, What is the Mission of the Church? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 45.
2. Francis Chan, Mark Beuving, Multiply (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2012), 16.