How would you describe a Christian? What are the characteristics of a genuine follower of Jesus Christ? Do we really understand God’s purpose for us as a people? Are we committed to God’s agenda for our lives, or has the business of life caused us to become caught up with the rat race? Do we have a purpose that reflects something beyond ourselves and our families? C. S. Lewis once wrote: “The glory of God, and, as our only means to glorifying him, the salvation of human souls, is the real business of life.”[i]
One of the most powerful truths in Scripture, and a general principle of life, is simply that life produces life. There is something about life that reproduces. We are meant to reproduce. Now I realize that there are exceptions to this principle, but this is a principle that God instituted right from the very beginning of creation. Mankind was designed to reproduce.
God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground’.[ii]
After the great flood, which was a judgment on man’s failure to obey God’s directives and live life solely for themselves, we read how God reissues the same command to Noah and his family, as He did to Adam and Eve at the very beginning of human history. Notice how God didn’t change His agenda.
Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.’
The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands.[iii]
There are two truths that I see from these passages:
1. Humanity was to reproduce his own kind.
2. God gives us authority and dominion over the rest of creation, in order for us to succeed at what He has asked us to do.
With authority and privilege comes responsibility. When God issues a command, He gives us the power and the ability to carry it out. But the record of Scripture is as much a story of human failure than human obedience to God. It wasn’t long before human beings were rebelling against what God intended. A generation or two later we find Noah’s descendants building a tower toward heaven motivated by the wrong goal. “…So that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth (Genesis 11:4).” What we fail to see is that this incident at the Tower of Babel was in direct violation of God’s original command to mankind to not only increase in number but to fill the earth. What had God told mankind? Fill the earth. God’s response was to judge them by destroying their ability to communicate. With language barriers, their plan failed. God helped them get back on track. They abandoned their temple to the sky and began to scatter.
One of the key purposes of a disciple of Jesus is that we are to be fruitful and multiply or as Jesus stated it: ‘go and make disciples.’ We have been given a commission, an order from God Himself. Like the early disciples, who embraced this purpose, as we embrace this command and make it our business in life, we will enter upon the great adventure of following Christ. It wasn’t just for the twelve, or the seventy, but if you read the book of Acts, you will find ordinary believers embracing this great commission from God. In Matthew 28, we discover God’s agenda for our lives. This is God’s marching orders for each of us, for this church family. It is not just written for preachers or missionaries, but for every believer. The importance of these words cannot be underestimated as these words of Christ are repeated in a different fashion by all the gospels and the book of Acts.
Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘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, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’[iv]
There are three aspects of the great commission that I would like to point out.
THE FIRST ASPECT IN FULFILLING THE GREAT COMMISSION IS CHRIST’S AUTHORITY
When Jesus spoke to His disciples after His resurrection, He spoke from a position of absolute authority. His authority extends not only over all the earth, but also all the reaches of heaven. “Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me (Matthew 28:18).”
Two thoughts come to mind about this authority, one of which is a challenge, the other a comfort.
A. The challenge is that we, in a democratic society, have difficulty with the concept of authority.
We struggle with a Sovereign leader who is above question. Richard Foster writes: “Our unconscious push toward democratic egalitarianism inevitably tempers the authority of the leader.”[v] What he’s saying is that we don’t submit to leaders well because of our social structure. Our society struggles with authority. We struggle to believe that God is ultimately in control of even the most autocratic leader, but we are reminded from the book of Daniel that leaders like Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar were struck down by God, even though on a human level it seemed their power was unlimited. Nebuchadnezzar lost his mind until he acknowledged God’s Sovereignty and Belshazzar was killed by a new kingdom, the Medes and Persians. Our issue in life is that we struggle with trust and control. What the real tragedy for us as human beings is that we struggle with surrendering to God’s leadership and His purposes for our lives. We obey what we like but what we disagree with, we ignore, which is a subtle form of disobedience. Many then don’t understand why Christianity doesn’t seem to be working in their lives. God’s rule is meant to be absolute. His word beyond question. It’s our responsibility to obey Him, not to question and rebel against His words. You may be wondering, how have I been guilty of this? I’m convinced that for many, the great commission, the command to ‘make disciples’ has been basically ignored and neglected in our lives. We really don’t have much of a concern for the spiritual welfare of others, beyond the immediacy of our family members.
One of the primary reasons is that we struggle with this issue of Christ’s Lordship in our lives. Why? Because we struggle with a correct understanding of grace and discipleship. We have failed to realize that faith and obedience are tied together. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote regarding the call to be a follower of Christ, or how evangelism and discipleship are interrelated states:
The Call goes forth, and is at once followed by the response of obedience. The response of the disciples is an act of obedience, not a confession of faith in Jesus.[vi]
The tragedy today is that we have many who profess faith, but who live lives of disobedience, which is a life of self-deception. Even religious works or activities do not mean that we are disciples. Jesus himself said it in Matthew 7:21-23.
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?
Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!
Who is the One who enters the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of God. Discipleship is a life of obedience. But now some of you might be wondering, how does grace fit in? We know we are not saved by works but responding to the call of Christ is an act of grace. Living in obedience to Christ takes God’s grace. We can’t do it apart from Him. It is only as we follow Jesus that He empowers us to obey, and in obeying, good works flow from our lives. All other works, no matter how noble, are considered to be dead works.
2. Let me just mention this word of encouragement before we explore these comments further.
When we live in obedience and complete surrender to Christ, the pressure of having to produce and provide in our own human strength and through our own human ingenuity is gone.
Since Jesus Christ today has all authority, we may obey Him without fear. No matter where He leads us, no matter what circumstances we face, He is in control. …When we read the book of Acts, we see that the early church operated on the basis of the Lord’s sovereign authority. They ministered in His name. They depended on his power and guidance. They did not face a lost world on the basis of their own authority, but on the authority of Jesus Christ.[vii]
The results are incredible, the miracles are encouraging and captivating. When God asks us to do something, He will give us the power, and the ability to get it done, even if He comes with supernatural ability and power to do it. The early church made disciples, with the empowering work of the Holy Spirit. Miracles and the supernatural abounded.
THE SECOND ASPECT IN FULFILLING THE GREAT COMMISSION IS OUR ACTIVITY
We need to be engaged in making disciples. Here we read that there are certain qualifying activities in the process of making disciples. We are to take the initiative. We are to be going. Secondly, we are to be identifying with Christ’s death and resurrection. That’s what baptism is all about. Thirdly, we are to be teaching others, as well as practicing obedience to all that Jesus taught.
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, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.[viii]
There is only one command in this passage: make disciples, but there are three clarifying concepts that reveal how we go about making disciples. We go, baptizing and teaching. These are the means of making disciples. But what happens to us is that we are often overwhelmed by this life. We lose sight of what God’s calling is on our lives. We become more concerned about making a living, rather than creating the life God has called us to. There is a tremendous difference. When we see ourselves as just here to make a living, life’s circumstances begin to dictate and determine who we are and what we become. We struggle with worldliness, which means that this world becomes more and more important to us. When we think of worldliness, we often think of sinful behaviors, but let me point out that we can have a form of godliness but be worldly to the core. Worldliness is about affections and heart desire. Erwin Lutzer in his book, How in the World Can I be Holy? writes:
Worldliness is excluding God from our lives. How? By consciously or unconsciously, accepting the values of [our] man-centered society. Sometimes it involves committing overt sins for immediate gratification, but more often, for the Christians, it simply means living as though this world, our world, is all that matters.
…It is living with warped values. At it’s worse, it is assigning value to what God totally condemns, at its best it is rearranging the price tags to suit our fancy. It is rejecting God’s priorities for our own.[ix]
Worldliness is about making this life our focus. But why are we talking about worldliness in a message about fulfilling the great commission? The primary reason we so often fail at obeying God’s agenda for our lives is because we are on our own worldly agenda, rather than God’s will and agenda. 1 Corinthians gives us a small window into this problem.
1. Wrong associations lead not only to wrong values, but often to a neglect of God’s desire in our lives.
Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character.’ [we hang with those we generally enjoy, and they influence our behavior]
Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning; for there are some who are ignorant of God–I say this to your shame.[x]
Notice what is being neglected when we are distracted by hanging with the wrong crowd: ‘there are some who are ignorant of God – I say this to your shame.’ We are not sharing our faith through our life witness and words.
2. Later in the same chapter, Paul challenges the Corinthians that the work of the ministry is everybody’s responsibility and talks about its value. There are a lot of things that have no eternal significance. There are a lot of things that we do that are simply useless, empty, without real value.
But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.[xi]
Here Paul is saying that in light of the victory Christ gives us, we need to continue on in what? The work of the Lord. Who is to do it? We all are. This is written to each of us. The temptation is to become weary, to give up, to faint. We are to give ourselves fully to it. God’s work is never something that is empty and without meaning. When I read this passage I was reminded of Ecclesiastes where the writer says that everything under the sun is vanity. It’s all temporary. But not the work of the Lord. What we do will have eternal significance. Notice in the next chapter Paul talks about the commitment to ministry that was evident in some people’s lives.
You know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service of the Lord’s people. I urge you, brothers and sisters, to submit to such as these and to everyone who joins in the work, and labors at it.[xii]
The word ‘devoted’ is taken from the word that we get our word ‘addiction’ from. This is not just a service of convenience, something they were giving themselves to when it didn’t inconvenience them. They were devoted. They were fully engaged, giving themselves to it. What are you giving yourself to?
Adoniram and Ann Judson were America’s most unlikely missionaries. He had been a cynical actor who rejected the faith of his father. She had been the town belle, indulged by her parents. Hardly likely candidates for the rigors of the early nineteenth-century mission field. Before they met and were married, both Adoniram and Ann underwent powerful conversion experiences, passing, as she put it, ‘from death into life.’ Both had a passion to join the missionary enterprise that was firing the imaginations of youthful Christians on both sides of the Atlantic. So thirteen days after they wed, in 1812, they set sail for India.
The Judsons found that the English governors of the subcontinent did not welcome these Western visitors with their Bibles and zeal. Threatened with deportation, they left India and finally ended up in Burma–a closed land, ruled by a tyrannical regime, horribly hot and disease-ridden. The Judsons found the place ‘dark, cheerless, and unpromising.’
Over time, Ann Judson suffered from smallpox and spinal meningitis, buried one child, and saw her husband imprisoned for two years. Yet she translated the Gospel of Matthew into Burmese and strove to improve the lot of Burmese women, who were considered little more than goods. She missed her family but could affirm that ‘I am happy in thinking that I gave up this source of pleasure [and] I am happy [to] labor for the promotion of the kingdom of heaven’. She, and a new baby, died soon after Adoniram’s release. When he died in 1850, he left behind 7,000 members of the Burmese Christian church he and Ann had begun.[xiii]
Some are called to cross an ocean, others to cross the street. We are all called to take the initiative of bringing the good news to others in the sphere of influence God has placed us in.
THE THIRD ASPECT IN FULFILLING THE GREAT COMMISSION IS THE ACCESS AND ABILITY OF CHRIST’S PRESENCE
We can only do what God commands in the power of His presence. Jesus is not only in our midst when we gather together, but He is with us when we scatter into the world as His witnesses. Often when we hear messages concerning the great commission, the neglected text is possibly the most important. “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:20b).” That’s what Jesus was promising when He told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they were empowered by the Spirit.
On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: ‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.
For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’[xiv]
The great commission can only be fulfilled in and through our lives as we are empowered by God, the Holy Spirit. It was the work of the Holy Spirit, directing, and working through the early church that impacted the culture of their day. We need to remember that it never seems like a good time to ‘make disciples.’ There will always be obstacles to overcome. Let’s remember that the early church was born in a time of an occupational force in the land. Roman soldiers occupied Palestine at the time of Jesus and the disciples. Navigator founder, Dawson Trotman relates while trying to challenge the Christians in the aftermath of W.W.II. as they were struggling with the challenges that were before them.
It dawned on me that when Christ sent out his men, they were in a situation so bad that there could never be a worse one: no printing presses, no automobiles, no radios or television, no telephones, no church buildings. He left them with nothing except a job to do. But with it he said, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore…[xv]
Our greatest need in fulfilling the great commission of making disciples is a work of the Holy Spirit in us and then through us. We need to be impacted by God in order to impact others for him. All the enemy of our souls wants to do is to gradually lead us away from our divine mandate. C. S. Lewis so powerfully warns us in “The Screwtape Letters”, a fictitious work written from the devil’s perspective, the impact of seemingly small decisions of everyday life in the battle between good and evil, and how often the evil is simply neglect.
It does not matter how small the sins are, provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one-the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.[xvi]
Lloyd Ogilvie once said regarding the great commission: “Without God we can’t; without us he won’t.”[xvii]
The great need in the church today is for a renewal of obedience to the Spirit and the Word of God. We need an awakening in our world. Our society is struggling like never before. We are seeing powerful challenges like we have not seen in decades. Despair is filling the land. There has never been a time where hope is more needed. We need to rise up, speak up and bring this wonderful gospel message of hope to those around us. When we regain a passion for that which God is concerned about, we will once again regain our voice and rediscover God’s purpose, will and agenda for our lives. We must be about the Father’s business, and his business and our business is to be ‘making disciples.’ Are we about our Father’s business?
[i] C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections, ‘Christianity and Culture’ (1940), Section I, 14 as quoted by Wayne Martindale & Jerry Root, ed. The Quotable Lewis, (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, Publishers, Inc., 1990), 521.
[ii] Genesis 1:28, The New International Version of the Bible, 2011.
[iii] Genesis 9:1-2.
[iv] Matthew 28:18-20.
[v] Richard Foster, Spiritual Classics, (San Francisco, Ca: Harper Collins, 2000) 91.
[vi] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship,
[vii] Warren Wiersbe, Meet Your King, (Wheaton, Il: Victor Books, 1980), 214.
[viii] Matthew 28:19-20a.
[ix] Erwin Lutzer, How In This World Can I Be Holy?, (Chicago, Il: Moody Press, 1974), 9, 21-22.
[x] 1 Corinthians 15:33-34.
[xi] 1 Corinthians 15:57-58.
[xii] 1 Corinthians 16:15-16.
[xiii] Elizabeth Cody Newenhuyse, ‘Missionary Pioneers’ Christian History, William Carey, Issue 36 Vol. XI, No. 4), 22.
[xiv] Acts 1:4-5.
[xv] Dawson Trotman, “The Need of the Hour,” Discipleship Journal (Jan/Feb 1982).
[xvi] C. S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters, as quoted in Os Guinness, and Louise Cowan, Invitation to the Classics, (Grand Rapids, Mi: Baker Books, 1998), 336.
[xvii] Lloyd John Ogilvie, chaplain, U.S. Senate; source: Leadership (Fall 2000), 100.