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Rethinking the Great Commission

How do disciples live out the Church's mission?
This sermon is part of the sermon series "Global Preaching Voices ". See series.


We believe in our community that the gospel is the account of God coming to dwell in the midst of his people, so we read the gospel lesson from the midst of the congregation. The gospel lesson this week comes from the Gospel of Matthew, the 28th chapter, and we'll be reading verses 16-20. This is the holy gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew. Glory to you, Lord Christ.

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."

This is the gospel of our Lord. Praise to you, Lord Christ.

I have chosen as our theme tonight "Rethinking the Great Commission."

Perhaps one of the most damning criticisms of evangelical Christians is that they talk more about the Bible than they actually read it, and when they do read it, they tend to read a Bible within the Bible—favorite proof texts on which we build our theologies. And this text, which traditionally has been called the Great Commission, is, in my view, one of those texts that has been selectively used and misused in the recent history of the church. So I want to give you a different way of approaching and reading this text than perhaps the one that you've been brought up with.

The location of the Great Commission

Let's begin by noticing that what's called the Great Commission is actually sandwiched between a great affirmation on the one hand and a great promise on the other.

The great affirmation contains those words of the risen Jesus as he goes ahead of his 11 disciples into Galilee. He says, "All authority in the universe has been given to me." It's a staggering claim. When you think that Matthew is writing his Gospel perhaps one generation after the crucifixion of Jesus, and here a man crucified as a state criminal by the Roman authorities claims to be the one to whom Caesar himself will bow the knee; that he is the Lord not just of the church, he is the Lord of history, he is the Lord of governments, he is the Lord of nations, he is the Lord of the universe; that is the statement, which is the affirmation that the early Christians made when they confessed at their baptism Jesus Christ is Lord. It's more than just a personal statement, it's more than just a political statement; it's a cosmic statement of supreme and universal Lordship. And the Great Commission flows out of that great affirmation. It is because Jesus Christ, this crucified Jew is the Lord of the nations, that his followers, his disciples have a mission to the nations. Notice that word "therefore" links the great affirmation with the Great Commission.

There is only one verb in the Great Commission, and that is the verb "make disciples." That is the imperative. So all our English translations mislead us because they begin with the command "go." In Greek, it's a present participle, which strictly speaking should be translated, "Therefore, as you're going, make disciples of all nations." So the emphasis is not on the going, it is on the making of disciples. Eleven disciples to whom Jesus is speaking here were all Jews who had left their jobs, everything that they owned, to attach themselves to this man, to become apprentice to him. That's what a disciple means, an apprentice or a student. Now, says Jesus, just as you have apprenticed yourself to me and learned from me during these past three years, now you invite the non-Jews, the Gentiles to also do the same.

Becoming disciples

Now, there are some American mission agencies that have used this expression, "all nations," which in Greek is ta ethne, to build a whole methodology of mission. They say the English word "ethnic" or "ethnicity" comes from ta ethne. So Jesus here is giving a methodology of reaching all the ethnic or ethno linguistic groups to plant churches within each and every ethnic group. Now, I think that's sociologically naïve because what we call ethnic or ethnicity are social constructions, political constructions. They vary from age to age. They are fluid categories of identity, not fixed forever. But theologically it's very doubtful that Jesus is here giving some particular methodology of mission to the Jewish people. Ta ethne simply referred to the world, the world beyond the Jewish world, the Gentiles. So Jesus is saying the whole world is your mission field, invite all peoples of all cultures and all geographical areas to become now my students, to learn from me.

Now, how are they to do it? Well, he goes on to say by baptizing and by teaching. Baptizing them into the name of the triune God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In the ancient world, to be baptized into the name of somebody meant to come under the allegiance of that person, to surrender ownership to that person. You became in a sense that person's property. To be baptized into the name of the triune God means that now your supreme loyalty is no longer to your biological family, culture, ethnic group, or your nation's state, it is to the triune God. You belong to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. That is where discipleship begins.

Baptism is also a corporate event, not an individual event. You are baptized into the community of all those who profess the name of the Triune God. So it is in the context of community that people learn what discipleship means. Discipleship is not something we can learn in solitude, we cannot learn it individualistically. It is in community, the community of the baptized, that we learn what it is to be an apprentice to Jesus, and to grow into the mission and the purposes of Jesus.

Characteristics of kingdom people

"Teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you." So what is it that Jesus has commanded them? Well, to find out we've got to go back in our Bibles to Matthew 5, because that is where the teaching ministry of Jesus begins.

Matthew 5-8 is what we call the Sermon on the Mount. You can think of it as the political manifesto of the kingdom of God. Every political party just before a general election issues a manifesto: If you vote for us, this is the kind of society we will work to realize. Now, here in the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount, in the opening words of Matthew 5, Jesus gives us a description of the citizens of his kingdom. The kingdom is God's in-breaking rule, the new order that has dawned through the life and the ministry of Jesus. A new creation is dawning, a new humanity is forming. What does this new humanity look like? Well, in what we call the Beatitudes, Matthew 5:3-12, Jesus spells out the characteristics of those who belong to his kingdom. These, if you like, are the hallmarks of the people of the new order, the new humanity. So let's look at them for a while.

The first characteristic, he says, is that they are poor in spirit. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God." To be poor in spirit is to be broken, crushed, no longer in control of our lives, let alone in control of our environment. Jesus says that it is to such people that the kingdom of God belongs. The nobodies of this age. When you look at his own ministry, it was to people who were considered outcasts, rejected by the religious people—the moral people, people like the tax collectors—corrupt business people, Samaritans who were half-breeds, and prostitutes. These are the people with whom Jesus chose to have meals, demonstrating solidarity with them. They're the ones to whom the coming of the kingdom of God is good news, not to the powerful, not to the rich, not to the religious.

Secondly, disciples, he says, are those "who mourn, for they will be comforted." Disciples are not those who go with smiling faces who are happy all the time, but those who mourn. Who mourn over the state of the world, who long for a better world. They mourn over their own sin and their moral failures, and they also mourn because they live in a world that is desperately out of touch with God, broken, disfigured, alienated from the Creator, and they long for the renewal and the healing of the societies in which they live. Are you known as a church that mourns?

Thirdly, disciples are meek and they will inherit the earth. We often think of meekness as being timid or cowardly. It's not a very attractive quality. But remember that Jesus described himself on one occasion as meek, and the last thing you would say of Jesus is that he was cowardly and timid. Now, I suggest to you that meek people are those who don't assert themselves. They are not interested in being number one all the time. They are quite happy to stay in the shadows and let other people take all the glory. They don't want to be in the spotlight all the time, and that is how it was with Jesus.

Fourthly, his disciples are those who hunger and thirst for justice. Again, our English translations are misleading. We translate "righteousness," the Greek dikaiosune is often translated in the Greek of the Old Testament as "justice," depending on the context. Here I suggest the context suggests justice because later on he speaks of blessed are you when you are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. If righteousness was simply a matter of personal holiness, we are very unlikely to be persecuted for seeking it. But if it is social justice that Jesus is speaking of, then you can expect persecution. So note here again that for Jesus it is taken for granted that every true disciple is passionate about justice in their society, in their world. But people who hunger and thirst for justice can also be rather harsh people, rather aggressive, and even self-righteous, and perhaps why he goes on to speak of mercy.

Disciples are characterized not only by a passion for justice, but also by being merciful, because they seek not only the judgment on the oppressor, but the reconciliation of the oppressor to the oppressed. They look beyond vengeance, they want transformation in the lives of those who are the oppressors, those who perpetrate injustice, and they are willing to forgive and to offer people a new beginning, just as they themselves have been the recipients of mercy.

Fifthly, disciples are "pure in heart." Again, I don't think Jesus is here referring to personal holiness. None of us would ever be pure in heart until the final kingdom of God appears. But this is a Hebrew expression that speaks of the single mindedness of our hearts. Our hearts are fixed in one direction. We are not divided in our loyalties. Allegiance is to God and his kingdom before everything else. We are not tossed this way and that way, we are not distracted and deflected in our pursuits. Everything that we do from Monday to Sunday is actually focused on the coming of the kingdom of God. No split loyalties, no divided minds, no compartmentalization of faith and work or faith and scholarship or whatever. Disciples are pure in heart.

Finally, he says they are "peacemakers." Not peace-lovers, which we all tend to be, but they are peacemakers. Disciples are those who go into situations of conflict, of violence, whether in families or in inner city neighborhoods. They go into those places that others don't want to go, and they build bridges between people, enabling people to listen to each other, to talk face-to-face. So Jesus expects that disciples should be in the forefront of all those peacemaking initiatives within cities, between nations, on the international scene as well as the local scene. He says they will be called the children of God because God is in the business of making peace between himself and his rebellious, alienated creation. So whenever we are agents of peacemaking, of reconciliation, we are imitating God, we are showing the family likeness.

Being salt and light

So notice we've only covered 11 verses of the first chapter of Jesus' teaching and already we are challenged—at least I am. Then Jesus uses two remarkable metaphors in Matthew 5:13-14—light and salt. These metaphors reveal the kind of impact disciples, who show forth this 8-fold character, will have in their societies and in the world into which he is sending them.

He says, "You are the salt." Salt in many poor societies is a disinfectant, an antiseptic. You rub it into meat to prevent the meat from going bad; it's the poor man's refrigerant. He says disciples demonstrating this 8-fold character ought to be rubbed into society like salt rubbed into meat, to arrest its moral and spiritual decay.

Positively he says, "You are the light of the world, let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works." Those works of justice, those works of showing mercy, those works of peacemaking and reconciliation. Then men and women will be attracted to the worship of the One you call your Father. So not only letting the world hear your preaching, but letting the world see your good works.

Distinctiveness of the disciple community

So then if we are eager to find out what Jesus has taught his disciples concerning discipleship, we read on. In Matthew 6-8, he talks about loving your enemies; not just your personal enemies but your ethnic and national enemies. So the whole idea of forming these ethno specific churches is not a contradiction of the Sermon on the Mount. We are called to cross barriers in engaging and loving people who are different to us. Not just associating with those who are like us.

He goes on to talk about sharing our possessions with the poor and the underprivileged. Seeking for others what we seek for ourselves. And he says, if you only like your friends and only do good things for your friends, how different are you from the pagans? Everybody does that. You show the difference by seeking the best for those who opposed you, who cursed you. That is the distinctiveness of the disciple community.

Then as we read on in Matthew, Jesus says things like: If your brother sins, don't gossip, don't talk about it with others. You go and talk with him face to face. Confront him. If he repents be quick to forgive him. If he doesn't, then bring it before the whole church.

Than as you finish Mathew, you go through Mark, Luke, and John, and you underline and highlight everything that Jesus says concerning discipleship.

Now if we are not eager to discover what Jesus teaches concerning discipleship and then to practice it, how on earth can we invite others to be disciples? That is the logic of this text. If Jesus defines discipleship as obeying everything that I have taught you. In other words not picking and choosing what we find convenient to obey. Not talking about priorities, Jesus never uses that language. It is very comprehensive: obey everything I have taught you. That is the definition of discipleship.

Jesus expects of the church, which is out there in the world, to proclaim the good news of the kingdom to the nations, to the world. He is also engaged in costly peacemaking initiatives between peoples. He is engaged in the pursuit of justice for the poor and the oppressed. He is engaged in sharing its resources with the needy, the underprivileged. He is seeking to love those who persecuted the church, to bless them and not to curse them. So this is a very holistic understanding of the church's engagement in the world.


So I scratch my head when I hear people using the Great Commission as going and preaching and planting churches. Where on earth do they get that? Not from this text. "Teaching them to obey everything that I have taught you to obey."

Then finally we come to the great promise: "For lo, I am with you always even unto the end of the age." Jesus promises his empowering Spirit, his presence, to us his church if we are willing to obey him. This is not a promise that we can take out of context and apply to any situation, that Jesus is with us wherever we are. It is a promise that we can claim, only if we are seeking to obey Jesus, to be his disciples, who invite others to be his disciples with us.

So notice what a comprehensive text this is. All authority has been given to me. Therefore, make disciples of all peoples. Teaching them to obey everything that I have taught. And I am with you always … "

What an amazing text to meditate on.

This message was originally given at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary during the 2013 W. Don McClure Lectures. Used with permission.

Vinoth Ramachandra lives in Sri Lanka and has an international ministry as Secretary for Dialogue & Social Engagement, International Fellowship of Evangelical Students.

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Sermon Outline:


I. The location of the Great Commission

II. Becoming disciples

III. Characteristics of kingdom people

IV. Being salt and light

V. Distinctiveness of the disciple community