What Makes the Great Commission "Great"?

Desiring God 2011 National Conference

Finish the Mission: For the Joy of All Peoples

I am very grateful for the privilege of being invited to this conference and specifically invited to address a topic that’s very close to my heart, this topic of church planting. I have prayed for our time together and I believe God is going to meet us together. I prayed as well that this will serve the goals of Desiring God, a ministry that is certainly close to the heart of the folks in Sovereign Grace, and we feel a certain indebtedness to Desiring God.

I’m grateful for each of you as well for attending the conference and for your interest in such a consequential topic as church planting. We’re going to begin in Matthew 28. Actually, we’re going to spend all of our time in Matthew 28. You can open up your Bibles there to a passage where I think church planting finds its origin — a passage often described to a term that was popularized by Hudson Taylor as “The Great Commission.” Matthew 28:16–20:

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.”

The Great Snatch

Now, let me start with a question. It’s actually a question that forms the title of this session: What makes the Great Commission great?

I was converted in college around 1979. Many people know the day and the hour of their conversion, but that’s not my story. I think that’s very cool, but it’s not the way it worked for me. God’s grace was ultimately irresistible, but I resisted to the point of exhaustion. I think fatigue played a primary role in my conversion actually.

But long before I knew anything about fellowship, anything about sacraments, long before I knew about the importance of preaching, I discovered as a brand new believer that there was this thing that we were supposed to obey as Christians. There was this thing called the Great Commission, and it was always pronounced that way in the circles that I ran in a slow reverential manner: “The Great Commission.”

Older believers would talk about it with a sense of wonder as if they were caught in a spell of longing and adventure. I didn’t know what this thing was, but I saw the effects on people. I saw how it would snatch graduates and send them to far away places and they would disappear for weeks at a time and you didn’t know where they were.

I began to notice that it only seemed to take the most zealous kids. I mean, if you were lukewarm and carnal, well, you had no worries because the Great Commission was going to leave you alone. But if you wanted to do damage to the kingdom of darkness, oh my, watch out! John would be involved in the campus group and taking classes and dating Cindy, and then all of a sudden — bam! — he’s gone. What happened? The Great Commission snatched him away and sent him to somewhere to the other side of the world.

You know what? To be honest, I wanted this experience. I wanted to have that experience. I wanted to be snatched up for the Great Commission and launched on some kind of grand adventure, and I would hear stories about it from history and hear people talking about biographies they’ve read and of amazing saints that gave up the comforts of home and the stability of their area and family and safety and all kinds of other things.

It was just inspiring. I began to think maybe that’s what made it great — its ability to inspire great sacrifices in great people. To be honest, I wasn’t really sure. I wasn’t sure what made it great, but it had to be something special because somehow it seemed to capture and catapult the best and the brightest. Then I began thinking about, well, maybe that’s what made it great, because it stirs great burdens in great people to do great things in great places.

I didn’t know. I just knew I wanted in. I didn’t want the Great Commission to pass me by. Keith Green Memorial Concert, I think it was 1982. At the very end of the concert, they gave a call to the fields. In that moment, I felt the Great Commission grabbed me and I answered that call by standing.

I answered that call by standing up, standing tall, standing to be counted, standing to go to the ends of the world, which came as a great shock to my new wife who was seated next to me and was looking up at me with that “what in the world are you doing” look on her face.

To be honest, I didn’t know what I was doing and it didn’t matter what I was doing because I just wanted this thing that grabs the most zealous believers and seems to transport them to other places. I didn’t want the gospel train to leave without me. I didn’t want to be passed by in this. I wanted to be part of the greatness of this commission.

So, here I am. Twenty-nine years later, my life certainly didn’t turn out the way I expected. You know, I’ve traveled a bit over the years, but I’ve never really made my life or made my home in a third-world country or lived the kind of nomadic adventures that people often associate with the Great Commission.

To be honest, for a while the question dogged me. Did I miss it? Did I cop out? Was the Great Commission not good enough for me? Was it not a good idea? Remember my original question? What makes the Great Commission truly great? Is it the sacrifices that it calls for? Is it the places that you’re called to go or the people that it claims?

Well, I want to pause the idea that the Great Commission is available to all believers and the Great Commission is available to most believers right where they live. But for the moment, let’s just take that and set that off to the side and not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s just return to Matthew 28, so I can offer you four points on what makes the Great Commission great.

1. The Great Commission Starts with the Finished Work of Christ

Here’s my first point. Our commission is great because it starts with the finished work of Christ. Matthew 28:18: “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.’” Because of the cross, because of the resurrection, all authority on heaven and on earth has been transferred to Christ from the Father.

Now, I just want us to stop for a second and ponder what’s being said. Ponder just for a second, I just want you to ponder what’s being said because too often we can just move through this too quickly. All authority — all authority over Satan, all authority over all governments of the world, authority over the economy, authority over the media, authority over those who are hostile to the things of God. All authority — all authority even over the choices of men and women, all authority, authority even over the doubts of some of them that are standing there hearing about the Great Commission.

It’s interesting. We’ve rightly been taught to consider the power of the cross through what it cost God. I love that Puritan — I think it was Venning — who said, “Sin was so bad that it took the blood of God to take it away.” But our commission invites us to ponder the power of the cross through what it’s secured for Christ. All authority on heaven and earth has been given to me.

What God does is God invites us to look out over our community and actually look beyond our community through the United States, to the UK, to Asia and India and Africa with a new confidence because the contract has been signed, the rights have been reserved. All authority for the gospel to be put into circulation has been secured. On that basis, we go out. On that basis, we go forth. This authority is what forms the foundation for all evangelism and all missions.

But here’s amazing. That authority also comes guaranteeing results as we go. Christ has secured the rights to accomplish the will of the Father, to accomplish the will of the Father in the earth, and that just seems too good to be true. We hear “results guaranteed” all the time. That claim seems to be made about so many different things. When we hear of it, we think of, I don’t know, slick salesman or trendy diets or just something that conjures to the mind, thin promises that are made.

But this is not like that whatsoever. Our commission is great because it guarantees results from proclaiming the gospel. I’m thinking in particular about a passage in Acts 18. There’s this totally cool section where Paul is being battered by attacks in Corinth and he’s fearful to go forward into the city and proclaim the word and Christ speaks to him, and this is what Christ says, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking . . . for I have many in this city who are my people” (Acts 18:9–10).

Now, you know what’s so interesting about that passage? Here’s the kicker: There are no Christians there yet. There are no Christians there yet. In other words, it refers to those who have yet to be converted. But God saw them, he chose them, the Son died for them, and his authority secured them and ultimately the mission would reap them, and so Paul could go forward with confidence.

So, the commission is great, first, because it guarantees fruit. The foundation that I’m describing on Christ’s authority guarantees fruit. We know that the king’s edict or a poor economy or even a closed country will not shut down the gospel. It won’t stall the gospel. That’s the first point. Our commission is great because it starts with the finished work of Christ.

2. The Great Commission Includes the Church

Secondly, our commission is great because it includes the church.

It includes the church. Now, I realize that I can almost bring to mind the question, “To what is that supposed to mean? I’m looking here, I’m reading the passage. Verse 16 says the eleven disciples went to Galilee and that’s where Jesus addressed them. So, I only see eleven here.”

Well, originally it was given to the eleven, but it was given to the eleven with different roles in view. Often in the Old Testament, God would address leaders in their role, king or prophet or leader, but also in their role as representing people. The Great Commission is given to the apostles, but it’s also given to them as they represent the church.

You say, “Well, how can you say that?” Well, let me answer that question. I say that because the scope of the commission evidently moves well beyond the eleven to the church, and here’s what I mean.

The Church Is at the Center of Missions

Actually, think about it along these three lines.

First, think about the target of the mission that’s outlined here by Christ. He says “all nations” — panta ta ethne. It’s impossible, physically impossible for the eleven to circulate that broadly. So, there must have been something else in view right there. It’s the target of the mission that displays that the church is in view as well as the eleven.

Secondly, the duration of the mission to the end of the age. That’s the duration of the mission. It just isn’t in their lifetime. It’s to the end of the age, which means the “you” in verse 20, “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always” isn’t just the eleven. There’s someone else in view as well. So, the duration illustrates that as well.

But here’s the final point I want to make to just punctuate that, and it’s the how the Great Commission is applied in the New Testament. Because if we view Acts and the New Testament as a chronicle of how the disciples understood and applied the Great Commission, then we see that it wasn’t simply highly motivated individuals that were becoming a kind of grassroots revolution to make the gospel go forward.

There’s a lot of writing today that elevates the individual and marginalizes the church. But in the New Testament, the church is at the center of missions. The church emerges as the fruit of mission and a focus in mission and fuels mission as well. In fact, when God wants to begin the invasion of the Gentile world from Antioch, it begins in Acts 13:1 in the church at Antioch. And boom! Next thing you know, Paul, Saul, and Barnabas are being sent out.

Sadly in history, there’s often been this kind of divorce between the church and the Great Commission. I brought along a quote from George Peters who once said — he’s a missiologist — “The history of the church in missions is in the main the history of great personalities and of missionary societies. Only in exceptional cases has it been the church in missions” (A Biblical Theology of Missions, 214).

You know what? Much of contemporary missiology is built around the exceptional missionaries of history. Amazing, amazing men and women who have made these incredible sacrifices, upon whom we stand on their shoulders and we thank God for their vision and their passion for the lost and are grateful to God for what they’ve accomplished.

But when it comes to mobilizing church planting movements like some of the ones that are emerging today, I think some of these historical examples provide inspiration, they provide examples of godliness, they provide a passion for the gospel, but not necessarily models of the church’s role in mission.

The point that I’m trying to drive at here is that the commission is great because it has not just the eleven in view, but it has the church in view as well. The eleven got it, but the church finishes it. I want to talk for a second about how I believe that the church does finish it because I think that the New Testament example becomes the reality of the church doing it by planting churches. That’s where we deliver into the content of this track in the conference.

The Ingredients of the Great Commission

How does the church finish it? By planting churches. I say that because I think the origins of church planting are seen here in the shadows of Matthew 28. Just think for a second. Think about the ingredients of the commission itself. “Make disciples” — that’s the imperative. Make disciples, go, baptize, teach.

Now, “go and baptize” can be applied pretty randomly. But when we move to teaching, when we move to making disciples, all of a sudden, a context begins to emerge in Scripture. A context begins to take shape and take form. In fact, when we survey the New Testament for how that actually worked, we find that teaching was centered in elders in the local church and making disciples, and discipleship was in the church as well. Actually, we can rightly argue that baptism as an ordinance of the church assumes the local church as well.

Now, one of the reasons I’m making this point is because a lot of the Great Commission can be reduced down to just going and baptizing. We relate to the Great Commission like it’s a buffet and we’re walking through the line: “Oh, this all looks so delicious. But you know what? I think I’ll just have a little going and maybe sprinkle a little baptism on top of it. I’m not going to take teaching and discipleship. That just kind of doesn’t agree with my stomach. It exacts too much from me. It’s too inefficient. It sucks all my energy. It slows me down too much.”

I mean, part of my story as a new believer was that it became evident to me that when missions was about to be done, missions was something that happened outside of the church because there was this inexplicable exodus of zealous Christians out of the church when it came time to do mission. There was this assumption that I caught very early on as a new believer that the church worships, the church fellowships, the church cares. But missions — whoa — missions is something that is done away from the church, it’s done outside of the church, it’s done without the hindrance of the church.

What I’m suggesting is this is where we have to embrace the full scope of Matthew 28. Because going without making disciples is an aborted commission. Baptizing without teaching is birth without growth. In other words, if my mission strategy is simply to locate, relocate to Latin America or Eritrea or Asia somewhere to simply preach the gospel, then I may only be going and baptizing but not having a vision for the full application of Matthew 28.

Now, let me just say quickly, I’m not disparaging the need for and reality of frontier mission that just goes in and there is no church, there are no Christians, and you’re just breaking new ground. But that’s the other track at the other part of the conference. This is the church planting track.

The point I’m trying to make is that for our commission to be great, it must embrace all of the ingredients of Matthew 28. That’s why I believe the study of missions in the New Testament is really the study of churches and church planting. It’s why Paul was sent from the church and received by churches. It’s why Paul’s labors resulted in churches and his letters were addressed to churches. It’s why the aim of missions should not be to separate from the church but to result in the church. How do we do this? We do it by planting churches.

But there’s a second thing I want to offer you of how we do this and that is by sending qualified gifted people. Think about it this way. The plan is entrusted to the church. The church then sends and supports those who are uniquely gifted to go. The mission given to the eleven doesn’t end with the passing of the eleven. It’s actually a heritage that falls to the church and should catalyze the church into the field. So, the church continues this mission seen in Matthew 28 by identifying and sending qualified gifted people, qualified gifted men to go make disciples, baptize, and teach.

In one sense, that’s the church planter. That’s the church planter: a gifted and qualified guy sent out to start churches, sent out to make disciples. But it’s also this other category of what I mentioned earlier: the pioneer, the apostolic type ministry that goes to places where Christ has not been named — men who are leading mission into new ground and new territory and new lands for the gospel.

I think about Paul in Romans 15: “Thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named” (Romans 15:20). It’s that person and it’s those church planter and that pioneer that come together and become this apostolic function that is represented in the Great Commission and continues on in this day. So, the church planter and the pioneer are a current expression of the apostolic function that was commissioned in the Great Commission and should be observed by the church today. Okay, let me move on to my third point.

3. The Great Commission Invites Participation

Our commission is great because all can participate. All can participate.

Now, let me just look with you at one New Testament example of how the Great Commission worked in one area and called upon everyone to participate. I’m thinking about Romans 15:19, which is the verse right before the one I just cited where Paul says: “So that from Jerusalem” — let me just recite this slower because I want you to really think about what’s being said here — “so that from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum” — listen to this statement — “I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ.”

The Ministry of Gospel of Christ Fulfilled

“I have fulfilled the gospel of Christ” — that’s a stunning statement. I have fulfilled the gospel of Christ. Now, Illyricum was a region above Macedonia kind of running parallel to Italy, and Paul’s saying, “That region, that area, that particular place? Yeah, Great Commission done, gospel achieved, I need to move on to new places.”

He has this sense of accomplishment that, from my vantage point, is almost utterly incomprehensible. I think we really need to understand what creates that sense of accomplishment for Paul because it was certainly not that Paul had preached the gospel to every lost soul in that region. That’s impossible. It’s not even that Paul had recruited and mobilized Great Commission workers into that area and it wasn’t either that Paul had mastered contemporary technology to get the gospel into every household.

Now, some of those are commendable ambitions. That’s not my point. My point is only in saying that was not part of what Paul had in view, it was not part of Paul’s strategy that resulted in this astounding statement that he has fulfilled the ministry of the gospel. This extraordinary statement can only be assigned to one reality and that is that Paul had started local churches.

In fact, if you jump into a map of the biblical geography, you’ll discover by that time, by the time of that statement: Thessalonica? Church there. Philippi? Church there. Corinth. Ephesus — along the entire arc of that region, there was local churches. You know what’s being said here? Here’s the point. Here’s what I want you to understand: Paul considered the ministry of the gospel of Christ fulfilled when a church had been solidly planted.

The Great Commission Strategy

In his commentary on Romans, Everett Harrison makes the following comment: “The statement ‘I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ’ is not intended to mean that he had preached in every community between the two points mentioned but that he had faithfully preached the message in the major communities along the way, leaving to his converts the more intensified evangelizing of surrounding districts.”

P.T. O’Brien says it a little differently. He says Paul had three things in view when he’s making that statement. He said:

  1. He had started strong local churches.
  2. The churches were in strategic centers.
  3. The churches would accept responsibility for their region.

The churches would accept responsibility for their region. Do you understand where I’m going? Do you understand what’s taking shape here? What’s the strategy for the completed gospel or Great Commission from Romans 15?

Here it is. It’s called men planting strategic churches — local churches mobilized to penetrate their region, local churches mobilize to evangelize their region. Where I started this was to say that our commission is great because we can all participate. It’s just a matter of whether our participation is going to be local or extra-local sending or being sent.

You know what? We need a Great Commission that inspires some to go and we need a Great Commission motivation that inspires some to go. We need a Great Commission motivation that inspires many to stay as well.

Please don’t make the mistake I made as a new believer, which is the only way to participate in the Great Commission is to have your passport stamped because most Christians participate in the Great Commission by supporting their local church, reaching non-Christians in their area and supporting those and praying for those who are called to lead us into new fields through church planting and pioneer mission.

Implications for Pastors

Now, maybe you’re here today as a pastor. I want to just talk to you for a second because I want to just tease out a couple of implications for what this means for you in leading your local church. I think one of the things that it means is it means for pastors that we’ve got to realize, we’ve got to wrestle with, we’ve got to wrap our brain around the reality that there’s a mission beyond caring for the church.

Most pastors are pastors because they’re pastors. Maybe that’s not the way I want to say this. In other words, most pastors are pastors because they have this instinct to care. They have this impulse to want to protect believers and see them situated, see them safe and secure. I think what the Great Commission does is it takes a hold of pastors and reminds us that there’s a goal beyond gathering and there’s a goal beyond care and that we must make sure that we have a vision of local church success that is informed by the Great Commission — that our definition of success includes church planting and local church evangelism that it isn’t just about caring for the people of God.

Because it’s so easy to think, it’s natural to think. I think the natural mind thinks that the best way to preserve the church is to guard the resources of the church and to protect God’s people from risk. There’s always good reasons to keep Paul in Antioch to make sure he’s not going out and doing the things that he’s called to do. In other words, to not release him and not plant churches and not do mission.

But for the mission, for the commission to be great and for your local church to have life and vibrancy, it’s got to exist for something outside of itself. Part of the reason why the church exists is the church exists to reproduce itself. This will always, always, always come at some kind of cost for you as a pastor.

I mean, I’ve experienced this on eleven different occasions. Our local church has planted eleven churches and each time it meant receiving a church planning team up on the stage, laying hands on people that we’ve built with for years, laying hands on some guy that’s been the object of trading and relationship and sending them out to another area.

Three years ago, I turned the church Covenant Fellowship Church, which is a Sovereign Grace Church. I turned it over to a 28-year-old guy for him to become senior pastor. A few months after that, the church announced that they were going to be planting another church.

Now, I could have made a strong case that we’re walking through this transition. It’s a significant transition. I had been senior pastor of that church for twenty years. It’s a notable transition. Maybe we just need to stabilize things in the midst of this transition. We’re in a recession, this is not a good time to sacrifice a large giving base. The guy that we were sending out had been on the pastoral team for about ten years. All of those are legitimate reasons to talk through as a pastoral team.

I’m not trying to make a case here that the way that we church plant is to pillage the local church of all of its resources so that a base church is absolutely stripped bare through church planting. The point that I’m trying to make is that church planting is like having kids. If you’re going to wait for the perfect time, you’ll never be a parent. It’s never going to feel like the perfect time. There’s always going to be sacrifices involved. That’s part of what God intends and that’s what happened. Our pastoral team wanted to make a difference statement in a season like this.

They wanted everybody to understand that the Great Commission is great regardless of who the senior pastor is, and it’s worth the cost. I want to encourage pastors to be thinking that way. I want to encourage you to define success not simply by a growing church, but a church that is growing through conversion because there’s a big difference.

Protect the Practice of Evangelism

Actually, that’s a second point for the pastors here. We’ve got to protect the practice of evangelism in the local church and that practice of evangelism should influence how we staff, how we build, and how we define what it means to be called to ministry. We need to have 2 Timothy 4 “do the work of an evangelist” as part of the marks — one of the marks where God has graced man to be in pastoral ministry — because we see the evidence, the desire to do the work of an evangelist.

In so doing, we’re building into the future of the church this commitment to evangelism because the future of local churches depends not upon growth alone and not upon transfer growth, but upon evangelistic growth because I think too many churches enjoy growth through the movement of Christians just from one congregation to the next congregation.

I remember reading a book by a guy named William Chadwick who said, “The shifting of saints from one church to another is killing the church” (Stealing Sheep, 10). It’s killing the church. I think our hope for the future of the church is to include conversions in the way that we interpret success. Not simply that a church is growing, but a closer examination as pastors that asks the question: How are we growing? Now, if you’re sensing that the responsibility has settled on your shoulders and that’s good, in fact, that’s great. It’s called the Great Commission and it leads me to my last point.

4. The Great Commission Comes with a Promise

Our commission is great finally because it comes with the promise of God’s enduring presence.

Listen to this: “Teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Those final words of Matthew 28, we tend to isolate those and extract the verse from the context, and slap it on a hallmark card or just disassociate it from the context of the mission in which it is given.

Here’s the promise that’s coming forth to us in Matthew 28: God is with us in our going. He’s with us in our going. As you seek to plant churches, God is with you in your going. As you seek to go out into new lands and break open new ground or set up an outpost somewhere, God is with you in your going.

As you seek to walk across the street to your neighbor to invite them to church or to share the gospel with them, God is with you in your going. You know how often he is there as we go? “Always. I am with you always.” It’s interesting you study the entirety of the Gospel of Matthew and it’s really starts with the announcement of Emmanuel, God with us has come, and the end of Matthew just reminds us that he’s hanging around for the mission part of the program as well. He’s with us always, even to the end of the age, so we don’t go forth alone. We don’t sacrifice alone.

Emmanuel is with us, and maybe that’s why he could mobilize the disciples even though some doubted. Did you pick that up when we read this section, how they’re all there? The eleven are there, but some worshiped and some doubted. There’s the sense that maybe Christ knew that their doubts would be addressed in God’s way and in God’s time, but the doubts would also be addressed in their going.

Isn’t it interesting that God would commission somebody who has doubts and is struggling through unbelief or just unbelief about going or unbelief about God? Doubts would be resolved in their going. Maybe you’re here this afternoon. Maybe you’re here today with doubts. Your doubts will be resolved in your going.

Maybe you’re sitting here, wondering if your church can really make a difference. Your doubts will be resolved in your going. Maybe you’re wondering if your people are really up for some step of mission that you’re thinking about taking, you’ve been praying about this. Well, your doubts will be resolved in your going. Maybe that’s one of the benefits of having someone with you who has all authority in heaven and on earth.

I have to admit, I think that this passage of Scripture, Matthew 28, I think it’s made reading it and studying it, and understanding it in the context that I’ve just described, it’s made the Great Commission even greater for me.

In fact, greater than even when I stood up at the Keith Green Concert and gave my heart to the mission, because I realized that people could be vitally involved in a commission that is truly great, and it’s great because it came from one with great authority. It’s great because it’s been entrusted not just to a few individuals, but it’s been entrusted to the entire church. It’s great because we can all participate in it. It’s great because it comes with a great promise even to the end of the age. Ultimately, I think Matthew 28 finds its greatness because it brings great glory to our great God, and that’s why it’s a Great Commission.