The Lord's Day Morning
February 19, 2006
2006 Missions Conference
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Matthew 28. It's a good thing for every church to pause and reflect from time to time on the great commission, and ask ourselves whether we are actually obeying the great commission. When we do so, we may be a little surprised. We may be a little surprised about what's in the great commission. We need to purposely listen to the great commission afresh, because if we do, we may find some things in the great commission that we didn't realize were there. Indeed, I'm going to propose to you today that the great commission asks us to do something that we cannot do.
Normally, we think of the great commission as a great challenge, a daunting challenge, but ultimately a doable challenge. But I'm going to suggest that the great commission asks us to do something ultimately that we cannot do, and thus requires us to be both faithful and dependent on God to do the work of the salvation of every nation.
Now today as we look at the great commission, I want you to look especially at the basis of that commission, what are the encouragements that Jesus gives us to think that we can undertake this audacious task; and then, secondly, I want to look at the job of the great commission. I want to look fundamentally at what the goal of the great commission is, but then I want to look at how Jesus says we're to carry it out. Before we do so, let's look to God in prayer and ask His help and blessing. Let's pray.
Our heavenly Father, we thank You for Your word. It is a lamp to our feet and a light to our way. But we also know that we don't know You as we ought to know You, and we don't always understand Your word as we ought to understand it; and, Lord, we don't always want to obey it once we do understand it. So by Your Spirit, open our eyes to understand Your word, and by Your Spirit make our hearts long to respond in obedience to Your word. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.
“And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
This week we are going to give ourselves to focus on missions: world missions, church planting, campus ministry, evangelism, witness-bearing, gospel-telling, evangelistic work here and around the world. We’ll have missionaries and church planters; we’ll have campus ministers, folks who lead various evangelistic ministries; we’ll even have some folks who work in gospel-oriented ministry in our own area here to share with us about their labors for the gospel. It is very important in that context to us to pay close attention to what Jesus has asked us to do in the Great Commission, because all of the things that we're going to be doing this week relate to the great Commission. But if we do not understand that Great Commission, it is very likely that we will go about that great commission in the wrong way. And if we think that ultimately that Great Commission is something that we can do on our own, we will go about it in the wrong way. But if we understand that Jesus has called us to the most audacious project ever given to humanity, a project so great that only He can accomplish it, and yet, that He does expect us to participate in that project, it will reframe the way we look at missions. That's important for us this week.
Most of us have heard this passage at least a dozen times. Almost every missions conference we've probably ever been to has had some exposition of the great commission. And so I want to ask you to come with fresh eyes and ears to this passage and don't presuppose that you've already understood everything that it says, and let God's word speak to you powerfully as to what Jesus is promising and asking in this passage.
I. The basis of missions is Jesus’ claim, command and comfort.
And I want to start first with Jesus’ encouragements in this passage. I want to look at the basis of missions. And Jesus tells us here that the basis of missions is on His claim and His comfort. The basis of missions is found in His claim and in His comfort.
Jesus comes up to this mountain that He had told His disciples to go to beforehand, and He comes up to them and He announces to them, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” There's His claim.
And then after He's given the Great Commission, notice what He says: “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” There's His comfort. And that claim, that comfort, it's like a “grace sandwich” to the Great Commission. It begins with the claim that all authority has been given to Him; it ends with the assurance of promise to comfort, that He will always be with us. And that's important, because think of it, friends: how many people are meeting with Jesus on the mountain? Eleven. Eleven guys. And He tells them to go and make disciples of all nations! So they’re looking around at one another, and they’re saying ‘There are eleven of us, Jesus.’ ‘Right! Go and disciple the nations. Bring to Me men and women and boys and girls who love Me more than anybody else, who trust Me only, who are willing to live for Me and die for Me. Bring them from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.’
‘The eleven of us?’
Boy, did they need the basis of missions in the claim of Jesus and in the comfort of Jesus!
Let's look at the claim for a minute. He says, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” Jesus is alluding to that glorious figure, the Son of Man, who in Daniel 7:14 receives from the Ancient of Days the kingdom and the power. Jesus is saying ‘That's Me. I'm the One that Daniel saw God the Father give all authority to in heaven and on earth. It's all been given to Me. I'm in charge here.’
Now, the disciples need that, because there are eleven of them, and I don't know how many people were alive when they were alive…but there are eleven of them, and Jesus says ‘Now go and make disciples from all the nations.’ And my friends, though the odds are a little bit better today, there are more Christians alive than ever before, it's still pretty daunting, isn't it? How many Bible-believing, gospel-believing Christians are there in the United States? There would be several hundreds of thousands; several million, maybe. But there are – what? – four, five billion people on this planet that don't name the name of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Boy, you need some encouragement if Jesus has just called you to go to them to preach the gospel! And He says ‘Here's your encouragement: All authority has been given to Me.’
Do you realize how freeing that is? That means that no power on planet Earth can tell you that you can't go to the nations and preach the gospel. No power on planet Earth can tell you ‘You can't come here and talk about Jesus,’ because Jesus, who is in charge here, has said to His people ‘I grant you My authority to go anywhere and everywhere and tell people about Me, because I'm the only One under heaven by whom a person can be saved. I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by Me; therefore you have the authority to go anywhere and everywhere and tell people about Me. I don't care whether their rulers tell you you can't come there. I'm in charge here. I'm telling you, you can go there.’
Isn't it a glorious thing? He says to His disciples ‘I know I'm asking you to do something that's humanly impossible. Don't worry about it. I'm in charge here.’
You know, what comes next after the Great Commission? I know, in your Bibles Mark, Luke and John come after the Great Commission, but what comes next after the Great Commission chronologically in your Bibles is the Book of Acts. And for many, many years — for almost 2,000 years — Christians have called the Book of Acts The Acts of the Apostles, and I'm not going to quibble with that title, because it does certainly talk about what the various apostles did. But one Christian has said ‘You know, the Book of Acts really ought to be called The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus Christ and the Sovereign Holy Spirit, for the Glory of the Father, with Whom the Often Stumbling and Bumbling Apostles were Used as Divine Instruments for the Bringing in of Men and Women and Boys and Girls from all the Nations; because, really, the Book of Acts is about what Jesus continues to do, reigning and ruling from the right hand — what the Holy Spirit continues to do, even when the apostles aren't doing what they’re supposed to be doing.
You see, that's the way we need to understand the Great Commission. Yes, we are to be faithful, but ultimately Jesus is not coming to help us in our task of the Great Commission: He is inviting us to join Him in His great work of bringing the nations into the white hot enjoyment of the glory of His love and grace. And we need to remember that. We need to have that encouragement, because it's daunting when you think of the task that's before us: four or five billion human beings that aren't bowing the knee to Jesus Christ.
But secondly, look at His comfort. He says ‘Now remember, disciples, as I send you into the nations to make disciples, remember I am with you always.’
What have we been studying in Ephesians 3? This prayer of Paul that by the power of the Holy Spirit you would be strengthened in your inner man so that Christ would dwell in your hearts by faith. And here is the Apostle Paul, here is Jesus before the Apostle Paul had ever prayed that prayer, saying to His disciples ‘And by the way, as you are doing My bidding, I want to remind you of something. I am with you. Until the day I come on clouds with power and glory and myriads of angels to reign forever, I am with you. I'm not leaving you to do this on your own. I am with you.’ And so this command, this commission is sandwiched by grace: Jesus’ saying ‘The authority is Mine, and My presence is yours. Now take up this great task.’
It's so important for us, friends, to realize the audacity of this task. We’re to go to every nation. We’re to see men and women and boys and girls from all those tribes and tongues and peoples coming to Jesus Christ and becoming His disciples. That is something completely beyond our competence to do, and yet Jesus says ‘The authority is Mine, and My presence is yours. Go.’ That's the basis of missions. If we don't realize that it is the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that under girds this work, we’ll misconceive missions. We will think that we can do missions, and if we think we can do missions, the only way we can actually keep on thinking that we can do missions is to change what missions is, so that it looks like we're successful when we're not — and that changes the basis of missions.
But missions is calling us to make disciples of the nations. It is one thing to get somebody to sign a card or pray a prayer or join a church; it's another thing to make a disciple of Jesus Christ. Only the Holy Spirit can do the latter. Any old guy with some techniques can do the former. God doesn't call us to do the former, He calls us to do the latter. If we're going to do the latter, we have to be totally dependent on Him, and that's why Jesus says ‘I'm in charge here; I'm with you. You must depend on Me to do what I'm calling you to do.’ Now that's the basis of missions.
II. The job of mission is making worshiping disciples in the local church.
Now I want you to look at the job of missions, and I want to look at it in general, and then I want to look at how Jesus says that we are to do it.
What is the job of mission? Well, you see the command right there in verse 19: “Make disciples….” Now, this is what's impossible, my friends. You understand that you can't make disciples. You can share the gospel; you can do that, you can share the gospel, but you cannot make a person accept it. You can tell the truth of God's word, but you cannot make a person believe it. You can witness, you can do evangelism, but only the Holy Spirit can regenerate a human being. Only the Holy Spirit can give the new birth. That's what Nicodemus was so confused about: ‘How can it be? How can a person be born again? How can that be, Jesus?’ he said. And Jesus responds, “The Holy Spirit is like the wind.” He blows where He blows. He comes from where He comes from, and He goes to where He goes to, and you’re not in charge, Nicodemus. The Holy Spirit is sovereign in the new work.
And it's so important for us to see that Jesus is calling us to do something beyond our competency: Make disciples!
‘Jesus, I can't make disciples!’
‘I know. Make disciples.’
‘Jesus, there's no way I can do that! I'm going to have to depend on You!’
‘Jesus, I'm going to have to be faithful, but the Holy Spirit is going to have to do the divine work of changing a human heart.’
‘Lord Jesus, I could get people to sign a card or pray a prayer, or answer some questions, but I can't change a human heart.’
‘Right. That's what I'm asking you to participate in. You can't do what I'm asking you to do, but you must depend on Me and then do what I tell you to do.’
You see, Jesus is telling us that we are to go and make disciples, and we can't make disciples, because disciples are not just people who have prayed prayers or signed cards or answered questions, or even joined their names to a membership roll in a local church. Disciples are people who believe what the Teacher believes, and they live what the Teacher has taught them to live. And I can't produce that in another human being. And you can't produce that in another human being. Only the Holy Spirit can produce that in another human being. A disciple is someone who trusts in Jesus, who believes what Jesus teaches, and who lives the way Jesus has called that person to live, and we cannot produce that. Only God the Holy Spirit can make our heart a suitable habitation for Jesus Christ. Only God the Holy Spirit can change a human heart.
So we are called to (a) see the nations discipled, knowing that we cannot produce the result that we're aiming for. We can be faithful in telling the truth and in living the truth and in going to all peoples and sharing the gospel, but we must depend upon God the Holy Spirit to make disciples. That's what we're shooting for. We don't want just people to raise some hands. We don't want some people just to come forward. We don't want people simply to sign cards. We want to see lives radically transformed. We want to see human beings that love the Lord Jesus Christ with all their heart and soul and mind and strength, and their neighbor as themselves. We want to see people that are ready to live for Christ and die for Christ. We want to see people who are consumed with delight in God, and we can't create that. Only God can do that. But God says that's what you’re aiming for in the great commission, but you’re going to have to depend on Me to get there.
Now, what are we supposed to do, then? If this is what we're aiming for, what are we supposed to do? Well, Jesus tells you specifically, doesn't He? Look at verses 19-20. You see two participles in these verses: baptizing, and teaching. What you probably don't know from your English translation is that there's another participle there, too. It's the word go in your English translation; it's actually going, baptizing, and teaching. There's Jesus’ instruction to us on how we're to go about participating in His plan to make disciples from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.
First, we're going. Now, friends, that is huge. It's huge for so many reasons we don't have time to say why it's so huge. It's huge first of all because Jesus conceives His family, His people, as coming from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. These aren't just going to be Jewish converts. These are going to be Gentiles from every conceivable part of the world that are going to be part of His family. This is huge! He's telling Jewish followers, eleven of them, that the nations are going to follow Me, and so you’re going to have to go to the nations, because My people isn't going to be made from one ethnic group or one national group: it's going to be trans-ethnic and trans-national.
And notice how incarnational it is, too. He doesn't say send a video. And it's amazing! You know, God could have had Jesus come into the world in 2000 instead of around 4 A.D. or 4 B.C. or whenever it is that He supposedly came, according to the reformed calendar or whatever. He could have had Him come in 2000, and He could have broadcast around the world, but He didn't. He sent Him to dwell in our flesh and blood, and then He sent out disciples in flesh and blood to dwell with the people with whom they were going to share the gospel. Why?
How did Jesus make disciples? By going, showing, and telling. Jesus came from heaven's high halls here with us. He didn't send us a letter or an e-mail or a video, or have us download an mp3 audio file. He came here and He got into our mess with us. And then He showed us what a disciple looked like. Do you remember how often He said to His disciples, “It is My food to do the will of Him who sent Me.” What was He teaching His disciples? He was teaching them first of all that He delights in doing His Father's will, and then what would He do? He would go out and do His Father's will. So, what did He do? He showed them how to be a disciple.
And then He told them how to be a disciple. So He came and He showed, and He told. That's how He made disciples: by showing them how a disciple lives and by teaching them how a disciple lives, and that's how we make disciples. Did you realize that your kindergarten teacher was teaching you the fundamentals of disciple-making when she asked you to participate in “Show and Tell”? That's how you make disciples. You show them what a disciple is, and then you tell them what a disciple is. Show and tell, show and tell….
And that means, my friends, that the first requirement for us in fulfilling the great commission to make disciples is — what? – to be disciples. We ourselves must be disciples if we are going to show and tell. And so Jesus calls on us to go and show and tell. Make disciples.
And then notice He says, “…Baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Now, there's a lot going on there, too. We can't spend all the time I'd like to spend on that, but let me just zero in on a couple of things.
First of all, being baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit reminds us, of course, of the deity of Christ. These disciples are going to be people who have embraced the fullness of the deity of Christ. They are willing to mention Him in the same breath with God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth; that we're accepting His deity and His lordship.
But secondly, notice that the very instruction of Jesus — you go, you show, you tell, you baptize — reminds us…where is the place that we're going to make these disciples? It's going to be the local church. Where does baptism happen? The local church. When infant children of believers receive the covenant sign of baptism, what happens? The congregation takes a vow, because discipleship happens in the community of faith. When these folks today made their public vow of membership, what did they vow? That they would support the work and the worship of the church to the best of their ability. It was a communal vow. It's an acknowledgement that we can't be disciples as Lone Rangers. We need one another, and so it's in this place, this locus, this situation, this community of the local church where we are discipled and become disciples. And Jesus is reminding the disciples of that. It takes a church to make a Christian.
Oh, I know that for many years we've been concerned about how churches haven't done the job they’re supposed to do in evangelism, and how churches haven't lived up to the gospel and haven't taught the Bible, and we're rightly critical of that. But God's plan is for Christians to be made in the local church, and that requires healthy, growing, local churches all over the world.
But one reason why in missions we are so concerned to see indigenous churches planted is because that's where disciples are made. We don't want to go tell somebody the gospel and then pack up and leave, and they have no place to be discipled, no ministries to bear to them the means of grace: the word, and prayer, and sacraments. We want to see churches planted so that disciples are grown.
Finally, notice what He says: “Teaching them…” what? “…to observe what I've commanded…to teach what I've commanded.” Notice how teaching is absolutely essential to the great commission.
So often we think now the Great Commission is fulfilled by telling two or three simple things, and then we’ll leave the other stuff to somebody else. Jesus says the Great Commission is fulfilled when we teach people ‘Everything that I said!’ Did you get that? “Teach them everything that I commanded.” That's how you make a disciple. That disciple uses the words of Christ, the words of Scripture, God's inspired revelation as food, as honey to the soul. He wants to eat every word of it. He wants to know every word of it, and as we carry out the task of the Great Commission, we're going to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Some people think the best way to do evangelism is to give the minimal amount of truth to the maximum amount of people. Others think, no, you give the maximum amount of truth to a tiny little group over here, that's how you do it. We say we give the maximal truth to the maximal amount of people. Tell the whole truth to everybody that we can waylay.
Jesus is calling on us to disciple the nations by going and baptizing and teaching, and discipleship is more than getting to know what the teacher knows. It's becoming who the teacher is. It's becoming like Him. That's our goal in the Great Commission. We want Christians, people who are like Christ, disciples, followers of Him, from every tribe, tongue, people and nation all around the world.
Think about when Jesus called the individual disciples what is often recorded as to how He did that in the Gospels. He would say to them, whatever they were doing, whether they were fishing or doing something else, He would say, “Come, follow Me.” Leave this behind, come and follow Me. You remember one of the saddest stories in the Gospels is when He meets that very intelligent, very spiritually-minded and educated rich young man, and He said to him, “Sell everything that you have, give it to the poor, and come and follow Me.” And the young man said ‘I can't do it.’ Was he a disciple? No, he was not. Because a disciple follows the Master.
And one of the most important things that Jesus ever said about discipleship was, “Take up your cross and follow Me.” Friends, that is what it is going to take to be faithful in fulfilling the great commission: being disciples, going, showing, and telling, in the context of the local church, teaching everything that Jesus has taught us, so that there are disciples who trust in Him alone, who believe everything that He says, who live the way that He says that they’re to live, and who themselves then want to go and show and tell others so that they will become disciples who trust in Him alone and who believe everything that He says, and live the way that He says they are to live.
That is the Great Commission. No wonder we need encouragement from Christ for this! We can't do this. But nothing is impossible for those who trust in God. Let's pray.
Lord God, it is the longing of our hearts to see every knee bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father. We want to see men and women and boys and girls know satisfaction like they've never known before, joy like they've never known before, peace like they've never known before, righteousness like they've never known before, purpose like they've never known before. And we know the only way they can ever do that is if they’re disciples of Jesus Christ. Lord God, make us to be disciples who show them what a disciple is like, and then disciples who are faithful to tell them the truth of the gospel. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.
Let's sing to God's praise the first stanza of Christ Shall Have Dominion.
Receive God's blessing.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.