Revisiting the Great Commission of the Lord Christ
The closing words of the gospel of Matthew consist of the last words spoken by the resurrected Son of God. The farewell was not tearful. What Christ said was breathtaking. Our Lord gave them an extraordinary challenge mapping out what was to be the future of all these disciples. His commission was couched in terms of the highest theology. Here is the greatest New Testament statement of the doctrine of the Trinity. We have it taught plainly that there is one God, the one divine name, and that that name belongs equally to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, so that each of these different persons is divine; each one is God, and each one is equally God. The one name of God is ‘the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.’ That glory is conjoined to our words of evangelism.
The passage also is notable because of what it tells us of the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. He makes the claim that all authority and power has been given by God the Father to him in heaven and earth. We are told that he reigns supreme over the beings who are in heaven, and over the demons of hell, and ‘all people that on earth do dwell.’ He is the preserver and governor of all his creatures and all their actions. His sovereignty and control lie behind everything that occurs in human history.
The relevance of his Lordship to their evangelism is plain enough. As Peter later wrote to a church, ‘In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord’ (1 Pet. 3:15, 16). The most fundamental element in witnessing to Christ is that we are in a right relationship with the Son of God, that he is our Lord over everything in our lives, over every interest, every concern and every affection. We must make sure that we acknowledge that he reigns on the throne over our hearts. Witnessing is not a matter of gaining people’s attention by some striking ploy, dramatic words, a technique, or a method. There is something more fundamental than that. Are we right with God? Because if we are then nothing will prevent us speaking a word for him, and if we are not we will be incompetent and disinclined to bear witness. Our guilty silence will not be due to the absence of a dramatic hook on which to hang our words, or that we have failed to take a course in witnessing, or that we are not quick-witted enough, but that we are not right with God. The way to sort that out is to consider afresh the glory and greatness of the Christ who saved us and see where that relationship has gone wrong.
Wordsworth once gave a famous definition of poetry. He said that it was the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. Of course that definition can be disputed but there is no question that this is something essential to Christian witness. It is the spontaneous overflow of the dynamic place Christ has in our lives. The light shines because it is the light. The lips speak because there is something they love and can’t be silent about. There is gratitude for sins forgiven. There has to be deep experiential religion as the foundation of effective evangelism. Why were some men like Luther, Bunyan, Whitefield, Spurgeon, and Lloyd-Jones such examples of great commission preachers? It was not simply a matter of intellect, natural gifts and talents, personal industry, and self-denial. Of course all those graces were present in their lives, but they were effective because their deepest feelings concerning the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit overflowed. And what we should be crying for is not better techniques but that in our hearts we have set apart Christ as the Lord.
The Lord Christ then tells us what is the nature of Christian evangelism. The church’s commission is to go and teach every nation on earth everything that Jesus taught his disciples. What is fascinating is to see how this mighty theology concerning the Trinity, and the Lordship of Jesus Christ, is used in the Great Commission to motivate believing sinners to speak to people about their Saviour. It is a characteristic of the New Testament. Think of the church in Philippi, how divided it was through a dispute between two women who each knew their rights, and Paul brings to bear the most glorious doctrine of the incarnation of the Son of God on that division. Our Lord knew his rights, and yet he made himself of no reputation and was found in fashion as a man, taking the form of a servant, humbling himself to the death of the cross. Then the exhortation comes from the apostle to the whole church, ‘Let that mind be in you!’ The Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, made his long journey to earth to teach fishermen and peasant farmers about the kingdom of God, living thirty anonymous years in Nazareth. Where are you going, and what are you doing to let fellow sinners know of the grace of Jesus Christ? So, magnificent truths are used to motivate us to fulfil the Great Commission.
Yet in many ways this commission is a paradoxical undertaking, because the world does not want the church’s gospel. There is no universal demand for it; there is no sympathy towards it; and in the heart of men there is no natural comprehension of it. And so the danger is that the professing church should become desperate in luring people to attend its meetings, men and women who don’t want to attend. Our places of worship are being infantilized to make them accessible to people who would rather be anywhere else. Our meeting places are being destroyed by believers in the Trinity and the deity of Christ who are marginalizing many truths that Jesus taught, truths he asks us to pass on to the world. Many professing churches are judging Jesus’ teaching to be unacceptable to the outsider – the reverence it inspires, the prayerful spirit, the silence, and the godly fear, which to Christ’s disciples makes his services so attractive. Almost all the churches I visit are warm, comfy, free, brief, and welcoming. The good news they have to share with the world is the most incredible and life-changing truths that could ever be heard. How much more accessible can you get? Yes, car parking in surrounding streets can be difficult, but apart from that, the real problem is that the message of the great commission can be swamped in this all-consuming desire to appeal to people who don’t want to come. Millions of disciples appreciate hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ without Sunday morning worship clutter, but they are having their delight spoiled by the church’s desperate attempt to appeal to people who’re not in the least interested in such things, or to keep a hand on children who don’t yet appreciate them. We are all gradually learning to be grown up and to enjoy serious things.
Then there is another essential, if the Great Commission is to become effective in many in our congregations. Peter joins to the sanctifying of Jesus as Lord the maintaining of a good conscience. It is also disappointing isn’t it, that there is not a word about technique or methods. But all the time heart matters dominate the thinking of one who heard the Great Commission from the lips of the Lord himself. Peter is telling us that we are to make sure that there is nothing in our relationship with Christ that is a barrier – some idol we are clinging to, or some unmortified sin. We are to make sure that there is nothing in our relationship with our neighbour that makes it impossible for us to bear witness to him. How difficult and delicate such problems can be, often having nothing to do with religion but with matters as trivial as pets and noise and parking. A tension exists and as a result you cannot share with them a word about God. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to speak to them about God?’ The answer is not to find some juniper tree and lie in an untidy heap underneath it but to get your conscience right with God, to have the sin dealt with, and then we have back again that old boldness.
‘But how can I personally share with others the things that Jesus said?’ What an important question. ‘Invite them to church,’ is one answer, but hearing the message of Jesus does not happen if public indifference to Christianity is resulting in a permanent dumbing down of our worship. The entire framework of our worship has to serve everything that Jesus said. The indifferent world must have explained to them all the things that Jesus said about such things as what is coming out of the heart of man, and the reality of the judgment of hell that awaits the unconverted, and the universal need of a birth from above. And what goes on before the preacher announces his text serves to clarify and endorse this explanation of Jesus’ teaching. In other words, the preparation in praise and prayer for the climactic proclamatory aspect of worship also has to speed home the message of the same God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as well as the deity of Christ. Should the church become a concert, a debating society, a series of endless trailer announcements for the ‘real’ meetings which are going to take place during the week, or when it has B-list celeb interviews, or the performance of witty personalities with jolly handovers between worship leaders and preachers then it becomes more difficult to carefully explain all that Jesus said, and apply the consequences of his serious words to all the congregation. We expect serious places to be serious, and so, just occasionally, a little dull. If that dimension of awe is extracted then a church has lost its point and the great commission cannot be effectively fulfilled. We don’t want the leaders of the church to extract the reverence and godly fear from hallowed places in the name of accessibility. We wish the church leadership would take very, very seriously the words of the Great Commission.
Then again the Great Commission will be more effective if we join it to Proverbs 15 and verse 28: ‘The heart of the righteous weighs its answers.’ It is a warning about blurting out religion. We are to study if we are to take our Commission seriously. We are to weigh our words. We are not all called to be academic theologians but we are all to weigh our answers. The Christian soldier girds himself with truth. He is able to wield the sword of the Spirit. He makes time in his life when he is alone with God. He ponders the Lord’s words, and assimilates them and imbibes the truth. God’s Word is his mediation day and night. He immerses his soul in the arguments of Scripture. That is why the people of God need to be taught. Sometimes today the evangelical church drives a great wedge between evangelism on the one hand and theology on the other. Surely God’s order is that we must study if we are to give an answer for the hope that is in us. We must know what we believe and why we believe it. We must be able to tell people the reason for our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and why we think they also should trust in him.
Most of all we are to cultivate a dependence on the Holy Spirit, intuitively to invoke his help, and at every moment of crisis seek for his energy and insight. There will come many occasions when we are facing situations we’ve not foreseen. We have no prepared answers. We lack any formulae and the answer then is to know what you believe and to learn to depend on the Spirit of the living God to give you words and tell you what to say. Without him we can never fulfil the requirements of the Great Commission. With him we can do more than conquer; we can gather new recruits who will speak for Jesus far better than we do ourselves.