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Context of the Great Commission
Context is essential to understanding words or events. The Great Commission, being both words and an event, requires careful examination of the context in order to understand its meaning. Only with that greater understanding will we be able to apply properly the Great Commission to life and ministry.
The other two synoptic Gospels, Mark and Luke, both end with the Lord’s ascension. Matthew, on the other hand, makes no mention of the ascension. Instead, he ends with the Lord’s final command to go and make disciples from all nations.
Significantly, Matthew ends his narrative of the Lord’s life and ministry where it began, in Galilee of the Gentiles. From those hills the promised Messiah had come announcing that the Kingdom of Heaven had come. Shortly after, He sent the disciples forth to extend that offer to all Israel.
Jesus patiently, lovingly, and authoritatively continued to offer His kingdom to Israel for most of His earthly ministry. However, His offer was rejected by Israel’s leaders. Their rejection was confirmed during the course of a week that began with the coronation of the Lord (Matt. 21:1-10), continued with a challenge to His claim (Matt. 21:23-27), and ended with His crucifixion (Matt. 26-27).
After these events unfolded, the resurrected Lord met His disciples on a designated mountain. It is at this mountain that Matthew takes his readers back to Galilee to witness Jesus sending His disciples forth again to a new group of people – the Gentiles.
In the first sending, they were to extend the offer to all Israel until the Messiah came to Jerusalem – where He was rejected. Now, these men were recommissioned to go beyond Israel’s borders to all the nations until the Messiah returned to Jerusalem at the end of the age. Just as all the Jews had been invited to the potential inauguration of the Messiah’s kingdom at His coronation in Jerusalem, so now will all Gentiles be invited to enter that kingdom and witness its inauguration at the coronation of the Messiah when He returns. This time the coronation will happen and all the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of God’s Son.
This biblical context in which Matthew sets the commission reveals its broader scope – to recruit and prepare disciples for the Messiah’s future kingdom. “All nations” is the Father’s inheritance awaiting the Son.
A New Community
The disciples were the first and perhaps the most effective recruiters for this new community. They, and others after them, went to all nations and made disciples.
Paul later clarified that in addition to those who were “near,” Christ came to draw those who were “far off.” From these two groups Christ would form the Church. Men and women, Jews and Gentiles were initiated into this new community of disciples through baptism. By this rite, true followers of Jesus would publicly and openly identify themselves and would join His movement. They were also to help those converts obey to the teaching of Christ for the rest of their lives.
Being a follower of Christ in the first century involved far more than merely knowing facts about His birth, death, and resurrection. Christianity was more than meeting weekly with the rest of the believers. Being a true follower of Christ meant living in daily obedience to Christ no matter the personal cost. This committed community was the way in which Christ would fulfill His promise to build the Church.
The implications of this are stupendous. If modern believers have truly been committed to the task set by Christ, the Church today should be bursting with mature, committed, obedient believers who are willing to follow Christ and sacrifice for His cause no matter the cost. The fact that our churches instead contain mediocre, disobedient, and uncommitted Christians is a sad testimony to how far we have fallen short of the Great Commission in our day.
A New Life
The Great Commission is rooted in Christ’s authority over all things. Along with that, the Great Commission is energized by the gospel of Jesus Christ.
What gives the gospel its saving power is that it reveals a unique righteousness that is sourced in God and made available to unrighteous people from all nations. In order for people to see God and dwell with Him forever, they must be righteous. More than that, the Scripture makes clear that no one has within themselves the ability or propensity to attain this needed righteousness.
But this is the gospel – the active obedience of Christ during His life as well as the vicarious atonement accomplished by His death are the grounds by which God can impute His righteousness to those who believe on Christ. This is the heartbeat of the Great Commission.
Making Worshipful Disciples
Jesus told the woman at the well that His Father is looking for worshippers (John 4:23). At the end of the age, John speaks of an eternal Gospel which will call all men to fear, glorify, and worship God. That is the task of making disciples. As men and women turn to God are taught to obey Christ, they will fear, glorify, and worship God.
Essentially, gospel advancement increases and intensifies worship to God from His disciples around the world. The gospel does not merely save people from hell; it produces committed and obedient worshippers of God.
Modern approaches to the gospel miss this. Today, the gospel has been greatly reduced by some to a cosmic “get-out-of-hell” card. The gospel of easy-believism, which does not demand the submission of a sinner’s will to the Lordship of Christ and results in no lasting, genuine obedience, is an incomplete gospel at best and a false one at worst.
The gospel is not shallow; it is powerful – creating a new group of committed, worshipful believers who are willing to follow Christ and spread His name throughout the world.
Are we living in light of the Messiah’s return, faithfully obeying, passionately worshipping, and boldly recruiting until He comes?