April 23, 2023. Sermon Title: The Great Commission

First Mennonite Church

April 23, 2023

The Great Commission

Text: Matthew 28: 16-20

16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Most times, when this passage is used for preaching or teaching, it’s for the purpose of establishing the foundation and encouraging evangelistic outreach. Countless books have been written about evangelism using the words of Jesus to his disciples here in Matthew 28. Matthew 28, verses 18 and 19 is generally called “The Great Commission.” Jesus’ words: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” are considered as the urgent call to spread the gospel everywhere.  

According to the book of Acts of the Apostles and early Christian historians, the Christian movement in the early days of Christianity expanded despite hardship, persecution, and the threat of death believers faced. Yet, what is very surprising during this early stage of the church’s growth, is that of all the materials written by early church leaders, there was “not a single treatise on evangelism.[1]” These leaders wrote “church orders,” which were manuals that provided practical guidance on how to live the Christian faith. Let us remember that in that world Christ’s teachings were radically different from either the Jewish religious practices as well as the pagan practices. Furthermore, worship services of those days did not have as their goal to attract new believers. In fact, the early church records show that after Nero’s severe persecution, churches only allowed catechumens and baptized members to enter their worship services. That was because Christians were afraid that someone might be spying on them to single out their leaders. The worship service in the early days of Christianity had the purpose of glorifying God and edifying the faithful, not evangelizing.

So, how did the church grow? The church grew because pagans saw a clear contrast between the lives of believers and non-believers. The heathen, as the non-believers were referred to, were bewildered at the patience, love, humility, sincerity, compassion, and ardent devotion of the believers towards their God. Justin, the Martyr wrote in 165 in defense of Christians to the emperor Antoninus Pius that Christians are growing in numbers because their lives embody “the fair (beautiful) commands of Christ,” which attracted even their enemies to their “good hope.”[2] The pagans wondered where and how did these people get such inner strength to bear patiently the judgment made about them, even when unjustly? They wondered, how was it possible for them to love and care for those who were torturing them. Their humble and simple way of expressing care and love drew and attracted even those who were forced to execute the believers.

Therefore, despite the fact that the early church did not emphasize the “Great Commission,” the church grew rapidly and powerfully despite great adversities, because of the way the lived out the teachings of Jesus.

But let us go back to our passage.

It is pretty strange what Jesus did after his resurrection, according to Matthew’s version. Instead of going to reassure his disciples upon coming back to life, he instructed them to go to Galilee where they will meet him. If you remember, the angel was the first to commission the women to tell the disciples that Jesus was going ahead of them to Galilee and there they should go and meet him. And, as the women were leaving the tomb that early Easter morning, Jesus met them too and gave them the very same commission. Jesus said to the women, “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me” (v.10).

Galilee was about 80-90 miles away from Jerusalem. We might wonder, why didn’t Jesus go show himself to his disciples after he came out of the tomb? As we can see, regardless of how excited the disciples must have been, walking 90 miles must have taken them no less than two days to get there. For the disciples, experiencing Easter—that is, seeing the resurrected Lord, demanded them to embark on a long journey. We remember that by the end of that Easter morning, the disciples had been informed that Jesus was no longer in the tomb, but that he has risen. Yet the proof that Jesus was indeed alive was suspended for some time, giving them the opportunity to process the news of his resurrection. Thus we can only imagine the topic of their conversations as they journeyed for two to three days. We can only wonder why some among the eleven could still be doubting after seeing Jesus.

Easter came to the disciples after a long journey to Galilee, where Jesus was waiting for them. So, why is Galilee and not Jerusalem the place for Jesus to reveal that all authority in heaven and earth has been given him? Jerusalem would have been the place to make the greatest splash, had Jesus wanted the world to know he was alive. The very powers that were responsible for Jesus’ death were in Jerusalem and he could have done a victory lap around the temple courts and the high priest’s palace. Jesus could have led all his followers to show the world that he was alive. Jesus could have rubbed in the very faces of his enemies their greatest defeat. But instead, Jesus went to Galilee, and from there he summoned his disheartened and still doubting disciples.

When the eleven arrived in Galilee, some worshiped, but some doubted. What was doubted about is not specified. But it was within that context of mixed reaction to the resurrected Lord that he restated his power and authority. I say, “Restated” because he had spoken of it while carrying out his ministry. It’s in the midst of that mixed reaction of worship and doubts that Jesus commanded his disciples to go and proclaim the gospel.

Those who were to receive the message of Jesus were also to be baptized in the name—notice the use of the singular, not “names,” but in the NAME in which the believer is to be baptized. It is in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Thus, our baptism is in obedience to Jesus’ command. For that reason, I invited you to consider baptism if you have already received Jesus as your Lord and Savior.

But Jesus also commanded that those who believe should be taught all of his words—“teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you,” Jesus said. And it is there where I think the early church grounded its practice. The early church proclaimed the good news of the gospel by learning and practicing the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Once again, according to the records of the early church, catechism—that is discipleship, played an extremely vital role in the formation of believers. In those days when most teaching/learning processes were through oral/aural means because Jesus’ teaching was mostly transmitted orally, memorization of Jesus’ words was the norm. Believers did not have access to the written words of Jesus. Thus they memorized them to the point, that according to historians, their lives were shaped by the word they had memorized. Even their reactions in response to violence, injustices, and abuse reflected the attitude of Jesus. It is said that they acquired the “patient habitus” of Christ.

My dear brothers and sisters, I give thanks to the Lord for each of you. We are all walking together on this journey of faith. We are all walking towards Galilee, so to speak. Many embarked on this journey many years ago, while some joined more recently. Jesus is waiting for us to arrive, so he can give each of us proof that he is indeed alive. Every time we gather, every time along your personal journey with him, the Lord gives us clearer glimpses of himself. Please do not get discouraged even if along the way you still have doubts. Jesus is not troubled by them. He still wants to reveal himself to you. He still wants to send you out to proclaim what you know of him.

Also, there are two things we need to have if we want to be effective evangelizers. The first is to be saturated with the words of Jesus. We need to learn what his commands are. We need to be taught his words. Secondly, as a result of being saturated with the words and teachings of Jesus, our lives will be shaped by them. The very way we live our lives will give testimony that in us there is something the world does not have. When the “fair (beautiful) commands of Christ” become embodied in us, others will be attracted and drawn to Christ.

May the word of Christ dwell abundantly in us. May the Holy Spirit of God empower us to carry out the Great Commission, both in deeds and in words. Amen!

Pastor Romero

[1] Alan Kreider. The Patient Ferment of the Early Church. Grand Rapids. Baker Publishing Group 2016, p. 10.

[2] Ibid. p.15.