Teach the Nations to Do the Impossible

Completing the Whole Commission


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. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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.

There’s a link between verse 20 of our text and the foundational passage in the book of Acts from which the title for the vision of “Fill These Cities, 25 x 25” was taken. And as most of you know, this is message number six in a series intended to throw the windows open so there is lots of light shining on the map of the next decade where the four strategies are plotted out — strategies for accelerating our mission to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples.

  1. We desire to take our corporate and personal experience of those beautiful DNA commitments deeper and deeper into our lives — that little green booklet we all received, and which I went home and devoured like a miser exulting in the gold on every page.

  2. We desire to build a third anchor campus on the I-35W corridor in Lakeville where we’ve been worshiping for over ten years. God bless you Bethlehem South. You have been very patient. This will make me very happy.

  3. We desire to plant twenty-five new churches across the cities and the nation by 2025 to join the fourteen that already exist in the Treasuring Christ Together Network.

  4. And fourth and most radical, we desire to engage, with our own real flesh-and-blood missionaries, 25 unengaged people groups — with no access to the best news in all the world — by 2025.

This is message number six in the opening of this vision, and the first of two on the global impact we will be praying toward over the next ten years.

All Authority in Heaven and Earth

Now there is a link between our text in verse 20a of Matthew 28 and the text in Acts from which the name of “Fill These Cities” was taken. And it is precisely this link that caused me to choose this text.

So let’s get the text in front of us and then make the connection. As we come to Matthew 28:16–20, Jesus has died for our sins and risen from the dead as the Lord of the universe. He aims now to give his disciples one last commission for what to do while he is gone, and then go back to his Father in heaven until he comes again with flaming fire in judgment and salvation (2 Thessalonians 1:7–9).

Judas is dead by his own hand. So eleven apostles are left — for now — and Jesus meets them on the appointed mountain in verse 16. When they see him (verse 17), they worship him, all of them, even though some had doubts about what in the world was happening. Verse 17: “And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted.” Into this conflicted worship, Jesus delivers what we call the Great Commission. And it is great indeed.

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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. . . . And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Ambassadors of the King

Don’t miss the wild and wonderful and radical structure of verses 18–20. Jesus is about to command them in verse 19 to go to all the nations of the world — not all the political states of the world, but all the ethnic and language groupings of the peoples. As Revelation 5:9 says, “every tribe and language and people and nation,” and there are thousands of them, hundreds unengaged — to go to all these everywhere in the world, and turn them into disciples — followers of Jesus, believers in Jesus, worshipers of Jesus, obeyers of Jesus.

And of course that is simply outrageous. It was then. And in our relativistic, multi-cultural, all-religions-are-equal age, it is perhaps even more so today. Go and tell all the religions of the world that Jesus is the only way to God. That only Jesus can forgive sins against the Creator. Only Jesus can provide righteousness before the Holy Judge. Only Jesus can give you eternal life. Go tell them that. This will get you killed in some places. And here it will get you ridiculed as arrogant and intolerant and dangerous.

So before Jesus tells them to go do this radical, politically incorrect, outrageous thing (called love) he tells them (verse 18) “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” I wouldn’t send you to all the nations, if I didn’t have all authority, all power, all rights over all the nations and every person in them. You are not idiots when you go and tell every person in every people group in the world: Repent and believe in Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins and the hope of eternal life. You are not idiots; you are ambassadors of the King of nations — all nations. “All authority . . . has been given to me.”

So go, and when a person comes to faith, and is baptized, make sure they know what this baptism means: that they have died with me through faith, their old self is now buried in the water of baptism, and they are raised to walk in newness of life. And neither you nor they brought that about. The Father planned, the Son accomplished on the cross, and the Holy Spirit is applying omnipotently in their lives. So baptize them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit (verse 19).

And when they gather into new churches around the world (verse 20) — and this is where I want to focus — teach them to observe everything I commanded you (verse 20a). We’ll come back to this (I haven’t forgotten that we haven’t seen the link yet with Acts).

A Precious Promise

But first, Jesus ends with one of the most precious promises in all the Bible. Together with the stunning assertion of verse 18, it is especially designed for missionaries, though not only. First, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” And then: “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” All authority is mine gives you your warrant for such an outrageous mission. I will be with you gives you your hope that you can do it.

I have total authority in this world, and I won’t leave you. I have total rights over all the peoples — everybody you ever will talk to — I have a right of ownership, and redemption to their souls. And no matter how they respond to you, or what they do to you, I will be with you. I, who loved you and gave myself for you — I, who chose you for myself and called you and sent you — I will always be with you. This promise holds till this mission is finished on the earth.

Sustained by the Promise

Twenty-six years ago, I marked the end of my first ten years of ministry here at Bethlehem by preaching on 2 Timothy 4:17. “The Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.” It was April 22, 1990. And it was true. True then, and true now. One of the reasons that I love Jesus Christ is because in all these years with you, he has kept his promise. “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” I hope you know the sweetness of that experience.

And if you sense God moving in your life toward the nations, this promise is meant to help you say yes. Wherever he calls, whatever you do, you will never be alone. Never. I will be with you always — not just to the end, but always and to the end.

Fill the World with Our Teaching

Now we are ready to focus on verse 20a and the link with the book of Acts. It says, “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Look with me at Acts 5:25. The apostles had been imprisoned for preaching Jesus (verse 18). An angel of the Lord released them. So we hear the report in verse 25, “Look! The men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people.” So they bring them in again. And here is the charge that the High Priest gives (verse 28): “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.”

Teach, teach, teach! “Don’t you men realize we don’t want you to fill this city with your teaching?” And here’s the result in verse 42: “And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus.”

Why? Because that is what Jesus told them to do: Go make disciples, baptizing and teaching. Teaching. Teaching. Fill the cities with your teaching.

So let’s spend the rest of our time focusing on the words of Jesus, “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” “Them?” Who is them? All nations. Make disciples of all nations . . . teaching them.” The Great Commission is not just, “Go and make converts from all nations,” but “Go and make disciples,” that is, those who “observe all that I commanded you.” And to that end, teach them “to observe all that I commanded you.” Teach them. Teach. Teach. Teach.

Teachers for the Global Church

You remember Paul said in Ephesians 4 that the risen Christ gave to his church “shepherds [pastors] and teachers . . . so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:11, 14). Churches and Christians without teaching remain children, and children are weak and vulnerable. So Jesus gives teachers to his church. That’s what he is doing here in Matthew 28:20 and doing in this room right now. He is calling and commissioning teachers for the nations.

Every day I go to my little prayer nook and use this book, Operation World, to pray for the nations of the world. You can almost open this book at random and find the same crying need for teaching and leadership development all over the world. Here’s a random sampling from opening the book this week:

  • Papua New Guinea: “Leadership training is a top priority.”
  • Moldova: “Leadership training and discipleship are still the greatest needs.”
  • Mongolia: “Developing Mongolian church leaders is a strategic need and the key to strengthening the Church.”
  • Mozambique: “Training church leadership is an urgent priority, probably the most strategic spiritual issue in the country.”

In other words, beside the unengaged peoples that need the gospel, there are thousands of poorly resourced peoples and churches that need teaching, teaching, teaching. And God is calling some of you to do this.

Let me draw out just two implications from this word “observe” in verse 20a: “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Jesus doesn’t merely say, “Teaching them all that I have commanded you.” He says, “Teaching them to observe (to keep, to do, to obey) all that I have commanded you.” In other words, don’t just go fill their heads with information about what the historical Jesus commanded. The devil has all that data in his head, and he hates it and disobeys it. Lifting people to the level of the devil is not your calling. Rather, Jesus says, teach them in such a way that they are utterly transformed and they obey.

Teach Them to Teach

I have two implications from the word observe.

Here is the first one. One of the commands of Jesus that is included in the “all that I have commanded you” is the command to teach people to observe all that I have commanded you. Did you get that? Verse 20 commands us to teach the nations to observe “all that I have commanded you.” That’s a command. And so it is one of the commands that the nations should obey. And when they obey it, they too are teaching the nations to observe all that Jesus commanded. In other words, those who are involved in fulfilling the Great Commission — at least this part of it — are commanded not just to teach, but to teach others to teach, to produce teachers.

Here’s what that implies, and I think this is really important for world evangelization. New churches among the peoples of the world do not just need well-taught members; they need indigenous teachers that come from being well-taught. And that means they need people who, without depending on missionaries, can find the true meaning of biblical texts, and then show that meaning to others with compelling explanations and convicting applications. That’s what Bible teaching is.

Self-Replenishing Teachers

But here’s the most crucial implication. There is a way to study and teach the Bible that keeps people perpetually dependent on the teacher. And there is a way to study and teach the Bible that turns people into self-replenishing teachers who can find the meaning in the Bible without foreign dependence. Too much missionary teaching has kept students dependent. Not enough has turned them into self-replenishing teachers.

Exactly at this point I am especially thrilled about the partnership between Bethlehem College & Seminary and the “Fill These Cities 25 x 25” vision. One of the unusual commitments of this school is the commitment to a way of studying and teaching the Bible (indeed all books) that forces the student to be less dependent and more skilled in finding the author’s meaning for themselves. The method called arcing is at the heart of what we do, and the essence of it is to empower students to find the treasures of true meaning in texts for themselves. And then spend a lifetime thinking and teaching and preaching in a way that creates an ongoing legacy of self-replenishing learners and teachers.

This means that the college and seminary are methodologically in a position to fulfill this Great Commission to an unusual degree. Indeed, the trustees and faculty have already made their partnership in “Fill These Cities” explicit and official.

The fact that the Great Commission commands us to teach the commands of Christ to the nations in a way that creates self-replenishing teachers underlines the wisdom of God’s providence in raising up Bethlehem College & Seminary for such a time as this.

Teach the Impossible

I want to draw out one more implication of the word “observe” in verse 20a: “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

If Jesus had said, “Teach them all that I have commanded you,” that would’ve been hard. There are a lot of commandments that Jesus gave. I wrote a book about this one time and collected over five hundred imperatives or implied imperatives in the four Gospels. So distilling all of those and explaining all of those and teaching all of those would be hard.

But Jesus didn’t say that. He didn’t say, “teaching them all that I have commanded you.” He said something infinitely harder. He said, “teaching them to [not only know, but] observe all that I have commanded you.” It’s one thing to put commandments in people’s heads. It’s another thing to change their hearts so that they gladly obey. That’s impossible for a human being to do. Only God can do that.

At first glance, then, you might think Jesus called us to do something that will never succeed — especially when you think about the kinds of commands that he gave:

  • Take up your cross and follow me.
  • Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.
  • Rejoice and leap for joy in the worst persecution.
  • Fear the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
  • Worship God in spirit and truth.
  • Always pray and do not lose heart.
  • Don’t be anxious about anything.
  • Humble yourself and be the servant of everyone.
  • Don’t hold any grudges.
  • Strive to enter through the narrow gate.
  • Exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.
  • Love your neighbor as yourself.
  • Love your enemies.
  • Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, not on earth.
  • Don’t take oaths.
  • What God has joined together let no man separate.
  • Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.
  • Let your light shine before men that they may see your good deeds.
  • Make disciples of all nations.

You might think he gave us a task that can never succeed. Teach people, fallen and self-centered like us, to observe — obey — all those?

But then, on closer inspection, you realize: In that list of commandments, I left out the seven most foundational commandments that Jesus gave, all of which are designed to make the others possible.

  1. You must be born again.
  2. Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden.
  3. Believe in me, the fountain of living water.
  4. Repent of all self-reliance and sin.
  5. Love me, above all others, as supremely satisfying.
  6. Listen to me; my words are life.
  7. Abide in me like a branch in a life-giving Vine.

Every one of those commands says, in essence, I know you are helpless. I know you cannot keep, let alone teach others to keep, my commandments. Therefore, come to me. Trust me. Listen to me. Treasure me above all else. Abide in me like a branch in the Vine. I will produce your fruit.

God has been at work in some of you to prepare you for this message. He is stirring in your life to move you out of your present situation and position you globally and strategically for his cause. You have been well-taught. And you are now ready to teach. Or you have a burning desire to be taught so that you may become a self-replenishing teacher.

I want to close by simply encouraging you: You will never be alone. You will never have to do this on your own. Christ will be with you as your best friend. Christ will be in you with divine power. And Christ will be above you with all authority. Amen.