TH E GREAT COMMISSION IN CONTEXT
The church world has given the title "Great Commission" to Jesus' command recorded by four biblical writers in Matthew 28:19-20, Mark 16:15, Luke 24:47, John 20:21 and Acts 1:8. The command is great because it is given at the pinnacle, the climax, of Jesus' ministry. The command is a commission because of the position of the One who gives it: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" (Matthew 28:18).
The Great Commission was first given to the apostles, but it is also directed to all Jesus' disciples in every generation. This is clearly understood from the concluding words of the commission as recorded in Matthew 28:20: "And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."
Examining the context of the Great Commission involves looking at the teaching immediately before and after the command was given and observing the circumstances surrounding the events when the command was given. One primary context is evident for all five presentations, and Matthew adds a secondary context that has significant implications. Let's take a look at them.
PRIMARY CONTEXT: JESUS IS ALIVE
Matthew 28: 1-15declares, JESUS IS RISEN: The two Marys arrived at the tomb and found the stone rolled away. The angel explained that Jesus had risen just as He had told them. They met Jesus on their way to tell the disciples and fell down at His feet to worship Him. The guards reported the incident to the chief priests and accepted a bribe to falsely testify that the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body.
Mark 16:1-14proclaims, JESUS HAS RISEN: The story is repeated. Mark adds that Jesus appeared to two disciples while walking in the country and to the eleven disciples as they were eating.
Luke 24:1-44states, JESUS IS NOT PRESENT: The angels inquired as to why the women were looking for the living among the dead, and Peter runs to the tomb to see for himself. The record of the living Christ appearing to the two men on the Emmaus road is enhanced. Jesus appears to all the disciples, shows them His hands and feet, and asserts that He is alive by eating a piece of fish.
John 20:1-20, 24-29 announces, THE TOMB IS EMPTY: John gives more details about the visits to the empty tomb. Mary sees Jesus outside the tomb, and Thomas no longer doubts when Jesus uncovers the scars on His body.
Acts 1:1-7reaffirms, JESUS IS ALIVE: Luke explains that Jesus physically appeared to His disciples over a period of 40 days following His resurrection from the dead. Luke also emphatically states, "He presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive" (Acts 1:3).
The context of the Great Commission, the stage upon which Jesus' command was given, is the fact that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and is alive today - the living Savior! The witness of the Early Church was focused on the validity of the Resurrection.
SECONDARY CONTEXT: JESUS IS GOD AND IS TO BE WORSHIPPED
Matthew notes the response of the eleven disciples when they arrived at the mountain in Galilee to which Jesus had told them to go, stating, "When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted" (Matthew 28:17). Eugene Peterson paraphrases this verse in THE MESSAGE this way: "The moment they saw him they worshiped him. Some, though, held back, not sure about worship, about risking themselves totally."
The disciples had come to recognize and believe that Jesus was the Son of God. Peter had declared, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:16) and Thomas had said to Jesus, "My Lord and my God!" (John 20:28). However, it was one thing to give mental assent to the truth that Jesus is God, but it was a totally different thing to worship Him as God.
The disciples were Jews. They had been taught, "You shall have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3). They believed in one God, Yahweh. They had never given worship to anyone or anything other than the Most High Yahweh. And on this occasion, when meeting Jesus on the mountain, some disciples could not bring themselves to worship Him as God.
Worshipping Jesus as God was a major hurdle for some of the Jewish disciples. It is also a big obstacle for Muslims today. Muslims may come to believe and understand that Jesus is the Son of God, but worshipping Him is a struggle. They believe, as the Jews did, in one God who is the only object of their worship. It is one thing to have faith, to believe that Jesus is God, yet it takes a work of the Holy Spirit to motivate new Muslim believers to act on their faith and give heartfelt worship to the Son of God.
A brother in Christ, a former Muslim, shared with me about his spiritual pilgrimage. Three times Jesus appeared to him. The first encounter with the living Christ followed a miraculous provision of food for him and his wife. The other two visits by Jesus were words of encouragement to believe in Him and follow Him. After the third appearance, my friend decided to put his faith in Jesus Christ.
Three months later, this believing brother was baptized in water. Later he attended a Bible college. He studied the Book of John in one of his classes, and during that in-depth study he came to believe that Jesus is the Son of God.
One of his teachers invited this new Christian brother to join him in prayer. They sat on the floor and prayed to Jesus using Islamic prayer postures. For the first time, this Muslim background believer truly worshipped Jesus as God. It had taken personal appearances of the living Savior, solid teaching of Scripture, and being released to express worship using Islamic cultural prayer postures. Three years had slipped by since Jesus first appeared to him, a similar time frame as that experienced by Jesus' disciples.
GREAT COMMISSION CONTEXT SUMMARIZED
The context of the Great Commission as observed in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John can be summarized in one statement: "Proving that Jesus is alive is the context of the Great Commission." Luke testifies to the result of Jesus' attempts by calling them "convincing proofs" (Acts 1:3).
The apostle Paul links the resurrection and divinity of Christ as a foundational unit in bringing both Jews and Gentiles to saving faith in Jesus: "Who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord" (Romans 1:4) and "If you declare with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Romans 10:9).
The believers' motivation and commitment to fulfill the Great Commission is determined by their recognition and worship of Jesus as God and their belief that He is alive today - the living Savior!
The disciples knew that Jesus had risen from the dead. What convinced them? The testimonies of the angels at the empty tomb and immediately following Jesus' ascension were powerful. The miraculous, repeated appearances of Jesus, the times when they saw Him, touched Him, ate with Him and heard Him speak, were undeniable. His teaching from fulfilled prophecy and His own previous statements were persuasive.
The supernatural manifestations also were a key component in convincing the disciples. However, the interlacing of many eyewitness accounts over a period of 40 days provided the weight of evidence needed to convince them. John 20:31 highlights this point: "Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God..."
What are the convincing proofs that believers can give today to verify that Jesus is the living Lord and Savior? The occasional personal appearances of Jesus to Muslims are amazing and persuade some. Others are greatly influenced by the teaching of Scripture with a display of the miraculous as promised in Mark 16:20: "And the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it." One's personal testimony of being born-again, transformed and brought into an intimate relationship with Jesus also sways many.
CONVINCED BELIEVERS: A WORK OF THE HOLY SPIRIT
Sometimes messengers will do all of the above and yet fail to see genuine repentance occur. Jesus experienced a similar response as indicated in the following Scriptures: "Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent" (Matthew 11:20) and "For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him" (Matthew 21:32).
Miracles and transformed lives did not bring the unyielding Jewish people to repentance in Jesus’ day. The same is true today. Individuals deeply embedded in other religions will remain resistant to the gospel message apart from the work of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus Christ's messengers must lean heavily on His teaching in regard to the ministry of the Holy Spirit in John 16. Jesus emphasizes two main aspects of the Holy Spirit's work: "He will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin” and ”he will guide you into all the truth" (John 16:8, 13). Total dependency on the Holy Spirit breeds hope and anticipation in the hearts of Great Commission Christians that their efforts in introducing Jesus to resistant individuals and people groups will be successful.
Some of Jesus' disciples were slow to believe that He was truly God and worthy to be worshipped. But following Jesus' ascension into heaven, they were all convinced: "Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy" (Luke 24:52). Today's unreached, resistant people groups will respond in a similar manner, according to Revelation 15:4: "All nations will come and worship before you."
JESUS IS ALIVE! HE IS LORD!