The Great Commission: Comparing and Contrasting the Gospel Accounts to Set a Missional Trajectory for the Church
To understand the mission of the Church it is helpful to study Jesus’ last words in all four Gospels which together give a complete picture of Jesus’ expectations and empowering of the Church for its most important task. Even though only the three synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke give an explicit account of Jesus’ commission to his disciples, John’s account is just as instructive for understanding the Great Commission. Acts also gives a continuation of Luke’s account in particular.
Matthew 28:18-20 is the first statement of the Great Commission, given in canonical order. In Matthew’s account, the disciples went up to the mountain in Galilee after Jesus’ resurrection, as instructed. They worshiped Him, “but some were doubtful” (vs. 17). Undoubtedly in response to their doubt, Jesus said, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (vs. 18). Jesus was indeed who he had told them he was. Because Jesus was the risen Messiah, the disciples were to “go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (vs. 19). Jesus is sharing His authority with the disciples which empowers them to make still more disciples who will learn “to observe all that [Jesus] commanded [them]” (vs. 20). The ultimate comfort and empowerment to overcome doubt is the fact that Jesus will always be with us (vs. 20).
Mark affirms this, though with different verbiage. Mark says, “And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them, and confirmed the word by the signs that followed” (vs. 20). We see Mark take the narrative further along in history as the disciples had a present experience of Jesus’ presence in the time that followed after he ascended (vs. 19). The ascension is key to understanding the disciples overcoming their fear and doubt. That was even further proof that the resurrected Lord has the authority which he claimed in Matthew’s account! Mark’s account emphasizes the experience of the Lord through signs of the authority given (vs. 17-18) and the response to “preaching to all creation”—baptism of those who would believe (vs. 15-16). The new life accepted and the old life put to death, which baptism symbolizes, was to be clearly demonstrated in supernatural ways by the disciples. Mark also emphasizes the disciples overcoming their fear, as they had retreated to the safety of someone’s home (vs. 14).
Luke gives some insight about the exact source of the authority given and the sudden empowerment of the disciples. He also explains how the Lord could work in the midst of the disciples after the Ascension. After his resurrection, Jesus “explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27). He also revealed Himself on the basis of His sincere fellowship with them—a sharing in His life (24:28-32). Luke takes this further in Acts on the basis of believers’ sincere fellowship with one another (Acts 2:41-47). It is on the basis of this fellowship that the Great Commission began to be carried out as those who came to believe as disciples (“learners”) “were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). While Luke makes it clear that the aim of Christian fellowship should be devotion to living out Scripture, he also explains the power behind that fellowship—the Holy Spirit. What Jesus promised in Luke 24:49, that they would be “clothed with power from on high,” was fulfilled as described in Acts 2:4, “and they were filled by with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.” This pattern of speaking in other languages as seen in Acts is always in the context of sharing the gospel with unreached people groups—clearly a fulfillment of the Great Commission. This is what Jesus meant in Acts 1:6-8, that they would be his witnesses in an increasingly larger geographical area—really in relation to the people groups themselves. Thus, we see the gospel being spread by the power of the Holy Spirit through translation of the Word of God, found in Scripture and experience of the risen Christ.
With this in mind, the Gospel of John is equally as instructive in understanding the Great Commission. Jesus was the original translation of God and His will. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1, 14). Jesus became a man—the Word of God in our midst. He lived a different life as the light in the midst of darkness to show us God’s glory (John 3:19). He showed us a way to have eternal life, really fellowship with our Creator (John 14:6). This ministry has continued by the power of the Holy Spirit, who has been given as our counselor and Helper to live according to God’s Word (John 14:15-17, 24). This is all to God’s glory (15:8) in which we will someday share (John 17:20-24).
Much like the consecutive Gospels went further back in time at the start of their accounts, each consecutive Gospel also carries the narrative farther along in the ministry of the Church as an extension of Christ himself. Jesus, as the Word of God who has always been preached (Rom. 1:20; 10:14-18), fulfilled all prophecy, to include Jeremiah 31:33, “ ‘But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,’ declares the LORD, ‘I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.’ “ Jesus now “dwells in our hearts through faith,” which is a true experience and source of our mission to see many “made alive together with Him” (Ephesians 3:17; 2:4-5). The hope we have of dwelling with Him in His eternal kingdom should be the source of our joy (John 15:11) and what drives us to be faithful to God’s Word by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Action Steps. A missional trajectory for a Great Commission Church will be characterized by:
The Great “Co-Mission” is carried out with God through submission, directed by Him, empowered by him, and accomplished by Him!
After reading and reflecting on these verses, I read Ryan King’s article, “The Great Commission: Fulfilled by the Churches and for the Churches.” His initial observation that “a primarily individualistic application of this command is more a product of our Western culture than from a natural reading of the text” resonates with readings we have done the last few weeks. The emphasis on personal conversion and experience came about prominently with the Reformation, in due response to the Catholic Church’s centralization of power. Even so, perhaps the reformers were slightly misguided in this emphasis which a pure reading of the Scripture—particularly the book of Acts—might illuminate. It is clear just in the Great Commission texts that it is all about a corporate, shared life in Christ as disciples grow then share with the world. I read a book a while back by Alan Snyder, Community of the King, in which he said something to the effect of “the gospel is not just more clearly perceived in the context of Christian community, it is the basis for that community.”
What follows, then, is that each church should have a clear focus on missions in which everyone plays a part. King describes two pitfalls in the Western approach to a focus on missions. One is the idea that the rest of the world is dependent on us, and us alone, to “go.” In this, we forget our foreign brothers and sisters doing the work of the gospel. A missionary friend from India who plants indigenous house churches said once that what they pray for most is revival in America! The second pitfall King describes is more on the opposite end of the spectrum: that perhaps more workers are not needed because of all who are already out in the missions fields. His conclusion in this section is right on. The Universal Church’s mission has not ended; therefore, we should see active participation and cooperation between churches in both local and global contexts.
I could not agree more with King’s last section, as my conclusion just based on the texts above shows. Healthy churches multiply and split. The problem I see in America is a prevailing attractional model for churches who think we need to be bigger and better (which may or may not include giving to missions efforts) in order to see more souls saved. This focus on numbers also often forgets the second half of the Great Commission of intentional teaching and learning. Hopefully, some of the suggestions I made here are helpful.
This is the blog of Tyler Shepard, the Associate Pastor for Centre Union Church in Yeagertown, PA.
I hope you are encouraged and challenged to walk more closely with Jesus Christ!