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We begin this morning, with our 96th sermon on the Gospel of Matthew, our consideration of its final paragraph. I expect to spend, Lord willing, three Sundays on what is commonly known as “The Great Commission.” The Great Commission is peculiar to the Gospel of Matthew and, for that reason, is of special importance. It is this passage, in all of the Bible, that has provided the Christian church with its sense of mission in the world. It is this Commission that lies behind all the missionary work of the church, from the earliest days after Pentecost until now, that missionary work that has literally remade the world. The Gospel ends here, of course, but, as is perfectly obvious, the Great Commission makes it more of a beginning than an end. [France, 411]

Text Comment

Luke, John, and Paul record other appearances of the risen Christ to his disciples, only one of those recorded by John takes place in Galilee. We know from Luke, especially from the opening verses of Acts, that there was more interaction between the Lord and his disciples during the 40 days than is reported in any of the four Gospels. The Lord appeared to his disciples in Jerusalem, at least on Easter Sunday and Sunday a week later; he appeared to them in Galilee; and they knew to return to Jerusalem where they were when they witnessed his ascension to heaven. But there may have been considerably more time the Lord spent together with his disciples as he prepared them for what was to come and the ministry he had summoned them to perform. Matthew has been, of all the Gospel writers, most interested in the Lord’s ministry in Galilee. Apart from the Passion week itself, Matthew omitted in his narrative the Lord’s ministry in Judea during the three years and concentrated on Galilee. So it is perhaps not surprising that he confines himself to the Lord’s resurrection appearance(s) to his disciples in Galilee.

You will notice the reference to the eleven disciples. Judas, of course, is missing as Matthew has previously explained. We are not told to which mountain Jesus had directed his disciples. Remember in Matthew 5:1 the Lord taught his disciples on an unidentified mountain.

Worship is the natural response to the knowledge of Christ as the risen Savior and the Master of Death.

As you can imagine there has been a great deal of discussion of the meaning of “but some doubted.” It may very well be that Matthew is describing not the response of the eleven, who have already seen and conversed with the risen Jesus at least twice before this, but of others among the Lord’s disciples, folk who, like Thomas, took longer to accept the reality of the Lord’s resurrection. Paul tells us, remember, that the Lord appeared, almost certainly in Galilee, to more than 500 of his disciples at the same time. Was that this occasion? No one can say for sure. It is, in any case, another indication of how overwhelming, how confusing, unsettling, utterly unexpected was the resurrection to the Lord’s disciples and how hard it was to come to terms with it. Remember that first morning: some did not immediately recognize the Lord. Remember that first night: some thought they were seeing a ghost. “Fear and trembling, anxiety, uncertainty and doubt struggle with joy and worship.” [France, 413]

The word used for “doubt” here is also used in 14:31 – the only other use of the word in the NT – and there too it does not describe settled unbelief but a state of uncertainty and hesitation. [France, 412] So the text does not mean that some of the disciples ultimately refused to believe but that it took longer for them to process the utterly remarkable thing that had happened. In that sense the statement in v. 17 is perfectly true to life. Some people find even obvious conclusions easier to come to than others.

The “Jesus came to them…” is an eyewitness touch. As he writes, Matthew can see in his mind’s eye once again the Lord walking toward the group.

As in other instances, the Lord’s speaking to his disciples put their hesitation to rest. This statement about his authority in heaven and on earth is based on Daniel 7:13-14, where it is said that the Son of Man “was given authority, glory, and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” Jesus, remember, had identified himself as this Son of Man, in remarks he made at his trial before the Sanhedrin by citing the same text from Daniel.

We will look more closely at the remainder of this text over the next several Lord’s Days and I will reserve my remarks on the text until then.

The resurrection of the Lord Jesus had established beyond doubt that he was the Son of God, the Messiah, the Savior of the world, and the King, all titles given to him in the Four Gospels. He had triumphed over all his enemies, even over death itself. So he took to himself the description of the Son of Man as we find it in Daniel 7 because it was perfectly obvious that he was the one described in that ancient prophecy. All authority in heaven and on earth was his. It had been given to him by the Father, a point John makes with special emphasis in his Gospel.

We might very well have expected that the assertion in v. 18, taken from Daniel 7, would be immediately followed by some statement of what the Lord himself was going to do. We might well expect him to exercise that authority directly. We might expect that he would say that he was now going to make disciples of all nations. But, instead, there follows after the therefore a command given to us: “go and make disciples of all nations…” Now, very clearly, the disciples are to go in the power of the Lord Jesus. He will be present to help them, as he himself says in the Gospel’s very last verse. Nevertheless, the emphasis on the role of the Lord’s disciples in the announcement to the world of the Lord Jesus’ authority and lordship is striking and obviously very important. The Lord Jesus will not establish his kingdom immediately, by his own bodily presence and direct agency. He will use instead his own disciples to make disciples in all the nations of the world.

And he has done precisely that. The ancient religions of mankind were, almost exclusively, local, even tribal in their character. Every city, every tribe, every people had its own god whose influence was exercised in that area alone. Judaism, with its monotheistic faith, had a larger view, but, as it existed in the first century, it was not really a missionary faith. Jesus speaks sarcastically of Pharisees traveling the world to make a convert, but, in fact, by and large various factors – their own ethnic identity, their own sense of social and political alienation from the Roman world and their regulations of ritual purity – caused the Jews to live apart from the rest of the population and to have little impact upon it. And, to be frank, so it has continued. Judaism has not been through its history and is not now a missionary faith. It is the rare Jew who will attempt to persuade you to become one yourself.

But not so Christianity. It had a universal vision from the outset. It is founded upon the fact that the Lord is the Creator of every human being and the King whose rebellious subjects human beings are. It was with a view to recovering this world and restoring it to happy submission to its Lord and Master that the gospel of salvation was first proclaimed immediately after the Fall. From that perspective it was entirely natural that the Living God, the Maker of heaven and earth, should say to Abraham, “all nations will be blessed through you.” And so it continued throughout the ancient Scriptures. The prophets foretold in countless predictions of the Messiah’s work and his eventual reign that the day would come when the knowledge of the Lord would cover the earth as the waters cover the sea, or, as in another beautiful image, all the kings of the earth would make their way to Jerusalem to worship Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The Lord’s Great Commission here at the end of the Gospel of Matthew is nothing more than the instrumental means by which that great vision is to be brought to pass. The nations would come to acknowledge Christ’s lordship and believe in his name through the witness of the Lord’s disciples. And so it has happened. From Jerusalem and Judea, from Samaria and Antioch, from Ephesus, Corinth, and Rome the gospel made its way north, west, and south carried in the hearts and on the lips of Christian missionaries: Paul himself to Spain, Irenaeus to Gaul, and, in due time, Patrick to Ireland. Others went eastward. There is considerable archaeological and literary evidence to support the ancient legend that the apostle Thomas was the founder of the Christian church in what is now India and we know the gospel was in China by the 8th century. In any case, as the centuries passed the flag of Christ was planted on every continent and churches were established that have produced disciples ever since. Christianity became the dominant religion of Europe, which, through this influence, became the dominant power in the world. But it has in the modern period become still more the universal religion that Jesus said it must become. Especially after the missionary endeavors of the last two centuries it has become possible to speak of a great world-wide Christendom. William Temple, the evangelical Anglican, in his sermon at his enthronement as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1942, referred to the spread and sway of Christianity in the modern world “as the great new fact of our time.” The dramatic progress of the Gospel in our own day, in areas of the world heretofore resistant – think of China or Nepal – has made that statement still more true. We hear frequently in the press of Islam’s burgeoning numbers, but Christianity remains far the larger religion and continues to outpace Islam in conversions almost two to one.

In 1900 75% of Christians were white and western. In 2000 75% of Christians were non-white and non-western. It is the largest religion in the world. It is not the only religion, to be sure, that claims a universal outlook. Both Buddhism and Islam also claim to represent the truth that all mankind must embrace. Each is also a missionary faith at its foundation. But Buddhism has spread in the east and almost nowhere else in the world. Islam, until recently, was and still is to a very great degree a religion of the heat belt, from Indonesia to Morocco. Its early spread was almost entirely by conquest and its spread to Europe in recent years has been almost exclusively by means of immigration.

Nevertheless, one might encounter a Muslim today or even a Buddhist anxious to persuade you to embrace his faith. But, in a way, quite different from and far exceeding in scope the universalism of either Buddhism or Islam, Christianity has been and remains today a religion of every tongue, tribe, and nation on the earth.

The earth belongs to the Lord and everyone in it. Christ is the Savior of the world. No wonder that he lays claim to its people and no wonder that it is his will to draw people from every part of the earth and from all the peoples that live upon it into his church and kingdom. And to that end, he has called his people to serve the interest of his spiritual conquest of mankind.

Now, ordinary Christians, as a rule, have had little doubt that the Great Commission is addressed to them. Certainly Christians in the evangelical church of the West and in those churches established elsewhere in the world by evangelical missionaries believe that they are under a sacred obligation to be evangelists and missionaries, to fulfill the Great Commission. They believe that when Jesus said, “Therefore, go and make disciples…” he was speaking to them and to every Christian. Roman Catholics, as a rule, are not brought up to believe that winning others to Christ and bringing others to believe the gospel is a first obligation of their life. There are exceptions of course, but few Catholics would dispute this. Aggressive evangelism and missionary outreach have been features of missionary organizations within Roman Catholicism in some periods of its history, but the individual member of the ordinary Roman Catholic parish has not been enlisted as an evangelist. Not so with Protestant evangelicals. They understand that they have been, in Dawson Trotman’s memorable phrase, “born to reproduce.” They believe it is a sacred duty to share the gospel with others and to do their best to persuade unbelievers to become followers of Christ. And share the gospel they do. A recent study indicated that almost every non-Christian American adult has, at one time or another, had some Christian try to persuade him or her to become a Christian.

So it was from the beginning. Celsus, the pagan critic of Christianity in the second century, unwittingly betrayed the method of the spread of the Gospel in his day, when he scorned the Christian gospel as a message spread by women gossiping Christ at the laundry. Every Christian was an evangelist. It was a private Christian, not a minister or a missionary, who was instrumental in Justin Martyr’s coming to faith in Christ in the mid-Second Century.

Sooner or later, however, this question does come up: does the Great Commission really apply to the private Christian? Does the Lord here lay upon every one of his followers the obligation to be a disciple-maker? After all, there is that in this text that would suggest that the Lord is talking to his apostles, or, at least, to those with a special calling and authority in the church. It is the eleven disciples who are identified as the Lord’s audience and no one else. They are commanded, among other things, to baptize people, which nowhere in the New Testament or early Christianity seems to have been the work of private Christians, the laity as we would call them today. There is reference to teaching in v. 20 in a way that suggests something more formal, more complete than the Christian layman is likely to do or be able to do.

Is the Great Commission for every Christian or is it marching orders first for the apostles and then for the Christian ministry? That is the question. If you have been an evangelical Christian for any length of time, you will have heard Christian ministers not only urge you on in the sharing of your faith with others, but require you virtually to evaluate your faithfulness or unfaithfulness to the Lord almost entirely in terms of how aggressively you seek to win others to Christ. In the sermons you older Christians have heard through your lives you have been reminded countless times of your duty to fulfill the Great Commission. And there is nothing new in that emphasis. It was the great preacher, John Chrysostom, in the fourth century, who said in a sermon, “…there is nothing chillier than a Christian who is not trying to save others.” [cited in Kelly, Golden Mouth, 85 from Act. Hom. 20.4]

But I remember distinctly early in my ministry noticing for the first time that, for all the emphasis placed on soul-winning and every-Christian evangelism in my upbringing, there is no place in the New Testament where a command to evangelize, to share the gospel, to seek to win converts and make disciples is explicitly and unmistakably addressed to every Christian. When Paul says, for example, in 2 Cor. 5:20, “We are Christ’s ambassadors…” he seems, in the context, very clearly to be referring to himself and his associates in his apostolic ministry. And when the Lord Jesus said “You shall be my witnesses…” in Acts 1:8, he was, once again, speaking to the eleven, the apostles. This may be why in Christian theology generally and in our Shorter Catechism specifically there is mention of the preaching of the Word as an instrument of salvation, but no mention of the witness of individual Christians.

To be sure, we are told in the New Testament always to be ready to give a reason for the hope that is within us, but answering an interested person’s questions is a very different thing than imposing our interest in their becoming Christians on friends, neighbors, fellow-workers, or strangers on an airplane. I said that a recent survey indicated that virtually every American adult has had the experience of a Christian sharing his faith with him or with her. The survey also revealed that for most this was an unpleasant experience. Christians, of course, know this and they are quite naturally deterred from bringing up a subject that so many do not want to talk about. They are happy to answer questions; they live for the day when someone comes to them and asks, “What must I do to be saved?” But is it their duty to seek and find the lost, to evangelize those around them, to press the claims of the Lord Christ upon even unwilling and uninterested minds? Some have argued, “No.” They have concluded that the text of the Great Commission itself furnishes a calling for the church’s ministers, but does not oblige the ordinary Christian, except in that general way in which he, along with all others, supports the work of the ministry, in the way that Paul’s churches supported his ministry financially and in other ways.

But, that seems to me a mistake and for the following reasons.

  1. The disciples are, everywhere in the Gospels, both the Lord’s servants in a special way and a microcosm of the church in the new era. That is why there were 12 of them and why so much of what was taught them concerned Christian discipleship in general. We cannot deny their special role, but note that even here, just up the page in v. 10, they are called the Lord’s “brothers,” a term that is often elsewhere used to describe all Christians. There is, therefore, much to suggest that in speaking to the 11 disciples Jesus intended to speak to the whole church, ministry and laity alike.
  2. As we said, the phrase “some doubted” in v. 17 seems to suggest that others were present when the Lord delivered the Great Commission. If that were the case, this charge was given not to the eleven alone but to a group of disciples in general, men who were or would become what we call ministers and men and women who would not.
  3. The Great Commission, in the nature of the case, could not be fulfilled by the eleven alone and was not, even in NT times. The NT bears its own witness to how many different people were involved in spreading the news of the lordship of Jesus Christ. A long list of the names of Christians contributing to the work, such as Paul furnishes in Romans 16, is evidence enough of how many men and women were putting their shoulders to the Great Commission wheel in those early years.
  4. If you remember, Jesus sent the 12 out on a preaching tour, as part of their training for the ministry. But he also sent out 72 others. We have no evidence that all of those men were or became what we would call ministers or evangelists.
  5. In Matthew 10:33 the Lord says, “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven.” He seems very clearly to anticipate the very situation Christians of all stripes have always faced: the opportunity to stand up and be counted for Christ, to declare his praises to others, and to identify oneself as his follower.
  6. Of course, there is other evidence in the Bible to the same point. For example, in Proverbs 11:30 we read that the righteous are to be a source of eternal life to others: “he who wins souls is wise.”

For these reasons and others that could be mentioned, it seems right to conclude that the Great Commission is addressed to the church as a whole: to its ministers in a special sense but to each and every Christian in a general sense. It lays us all under the obligation to contribute to the worldwide mission of the gospel of Christ, to make disciples for Jesus Christ.

In the historical context, of course, this must have made perfect sense to these men and perhaps to these women if some were present. The impossibly magnificent fact of the conquest of death and the prospect of eternal life was standing before them – Jesus Christ who had been so cruelly crucified was now speaking to them in that familiar voice of his plans to spread this new life to the four corners of the earth. Their hearts were full. Like the lepers in Elisha’s day who left the besieged and starving city of Jerusalem and found the camp of the Aramean army deserted and food and booty everywhere, these people in Galilee listening to Jesus must have thought and said: “this is a day of good news and we are keeping it to ourselves. Let’s go at once and tell others…” [2 Kings 7:9] Imagine them going home that night, “You won’t believe what I saw and heard today! I saw eternal life with my own eyes!” This is not a message to be kept to oneself. It would be selfishness practiced to its most dismal end to keep this news to oneself. Love and gratitude and joy conspire to constrain the heart to share it. The placing of this commission immediately after the resurrection of Jesus is of immense importance. It provides the motive for all that difficult and costly work that untold numbers of Christians have willingly done through the centuries. An immeasurably great thing has happened; I must tell others about it!

Let me close with an illustration of this point and principle I used in a sermon years ago, shortly after coming across it reading William Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill. It has stuck with me. It seems to me beautifully to express the nature of the obligation that Jesus laid upon us and the reason why we should love to fulfill it.

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the childhood of Winston Churchill. It is really quite a sad story. It is the story of a little boy craving the affection and interest of his parents but rarely getting it. They were too busy with their careers, their illicit sexual escapades, the endless round of parties, their jockeying for social and political status and influence to have time for the little boy to whom they had given birth. He would write them pathetic letters asking them to see him in a school play or to watch him perform in some contest, but usually to no avail.

Young Winston got his affection, his sense of worth, the attention he needed and craved as a child not from his parents but from his Nanny, a Mrs. Everest, who, from his earliest days, he called “Woom.” And then, like other boys of his class, as a young teen he was sent away to school, to Harrow. Public school boys in those days were ashamed of their nannies. A nanny was a kind of public artifact of their childhood and they now wanted to be regarded as men, not as boys. They would no sooner have invited their nannies to Harrow or to Eton than an American teenage boy would bring his teddy bear to his boarding school. Young Winston, however, not only invited Woom to come and see him at Harrow, he paraded his old nurse, immensely fat and all smiles, down High Street, and then unashamedly kissed her in full view of all his classmates. Lest anyone mistake the bravery or the significance of that kiss, one of those who witnessed it was Winston’s fellow student, Seely, who later became a cabinet colleague of Churchill’s and who won the DSO in France during the First World War. Seely called that kiss, “One of the bravest acts I have ever seen.” [The Last Lion, 156-157]

Churchill owed his old nurse too much, she had given him too much, to flinch as others did. He loved her too much not to do the difficult thing to demonstrate his love. And that is just exactly what the fulfillment of the Great Commission amounts to for us today: it is kissing the Lord in the High Street. It is publicly declaring the praises of the one who called us out of darkness into the light of everlasting day. Oh, yes; this is a message for us. A summons; marching orders. Orders we should embrace with gratitude, joy, and love.