Nate Wilson - 10 June 2002

ILLUSTRATION – Toddler at the wheel

One of my most terrifying memories as a little boy in Alabama was when I was playing inside my parent's dar in the driveway of our house. You know how kids do, twisting all the knobs in fascination with the complex mysteries of the automobile. Well, somehow, I managed to knock the car into neutral, and the car started rolling. I still remember the sheer terror of careening out of control down the driveway, seeing the panicked looks on the faces of my little brother and my mom as she came screaming out of the side door, and me sitting helplessly in the car, not knowing what to do. I remember the sickening crunch as the car hit the wall of the house and brought an end to my little drive. That experience gave me recurring nightmares. But now when I get behind the wheel of a car, I enjoy the experience. I like to be able to skillfully maneuver the car and watch the scenery going by and feel like I'm really going somewhere. Now what makes the difference? Why was it a terrifying experience for me as a kid, but now, driving is enjoyable? It's because my Dad trained me in all the ins and outs of how to drive when I was fifteen, and I gained skill from experience at driving. Being thrown into a situation where you are responsible for something important, yet you have no training or skill, is a scary experience for anybody.

You know, many people think that’s kinda the way it was with the disciples when Jesus gave the Great Commission. It seems that when Jesus reached the end of His ministry, just before He ascended to heaven He said, “Oh yes, by the way, I want you to go into all the world and make disciples while you’re at it. Sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. Bye-bye!” It seems the Great Commission was so overwhelming and the disciples were so unprepared that the Great Commission was kinda ignored by everybody except Paul and maybe Peter… But was it really like that? Were the disciples as unprepared and ineffective with the Great Commission as a toddler driving a car? Let’s see what the Scriptures say:

Let’s look at the ministry of Jesus and see if Jesus did anything to prepare His disciples to make disciples of the nations. It’s true that Jesus’ ministry centered on the Jews, but His disciples watched Him do some pretty amazing cross-cultural outreaches to Gentiles.

Take for instance the time in Matt. 8 when He crossed the sea of Galilee to the Greek-speaking Decapolis area for no other reason than to heal a man who was demon-possessed. They couldn’t have been Jews because they were upset when they lost their pigs! So, early on in His ministry, Jesus took his disciples on this little excursion just to heal a Gentile!

Jesus was not only kind to Greeks; He also ministered to Samaritans. Samaritans were descendants of the Persian peoples that the Assyrian king moved in to Samaria after deporting the Jews (2 Kings 18). They were idol worshippers who accepted part, but not all, of the Jewish scriptures. These Samaritans were the ones who opposed Nehemiah when he tried to come back and rebuild the wall of Jerusalem. Their religious system was all mixed up. Samaritans and Jews had nothing to do with each other, yet Jesus reached out to Samaritans throughout His ministry - one of the ten lepers was a Samaritan, and the woman at the well was also a Samaritan. The disciples marveled when they saw Jesus reaching out to these Samaritans.

What about Canaanites? Yes, Jesus reached out to Canaanites, too! In Matthew 15, Jesus is not even in Israel; He’s up in Phoenicia with His disciples. Here He meets a local Canaanite woman, complements her for her faith, and heals her daughter. (By the way, He says some pretty mean things to her at first, but I believe the things He said about her being a dog and all were not intended to be taken at face value. These were phrases commonly said by Jews, and He was merely using them facetiously to test the faith of the woman and to test His disciples to see if they had yet gained a desire for cross-cultural ministry. His disciples failed the test, but Jesus commended the woman for passing her test!

Greeks, Samaritans, Canaanites… Surely not Romans, though! The Romans were the bad guys, right? They were the “evil oppressors.” No, Jesus reached out to them, too. In Matthew 8, He actually marvels at how much more faithful a Roman centurion is than all the Jewish believers He has met. He goes on to say that “many will come from east and west and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, but the sons of the kingdom will be cast into outer darkness.”

Was Jesus preparing His disciples for cross-cultural witness? You better believe He was! He was very systematic about it. He spoke many times throughout His ministry about other nations participating in the blessings of His kingdom. That’s what made Him so mad at the temple. In Mark 11, He steps into the court of the Gentiles and says, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations, but you have made it a robber’s den.”

It’s in the parables, too. Remember the parable of the vineyard? (Matt. 21) The landowner plants a vineyard and puts vine-growers over it and leaves. The vinegrowers represent the Jews in the parable who kill the messengers and finally kill the landowner’s son. Then what does Jesus say? “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to another people!” He said the same thing at His hometown synagogue in Nazareth in Luke 4. Was Jesus preparing His disciples for Gentiles to come into the kingdom?

He communicated His expectations clearly to the disciples that He expected the Gospel to be preached in all the world. He stated it explicitly in Matthew 24 among the signs of the end of the age, and He stated it implicitly in the encounter with the strange woman who washed his feet, saying, “wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be spoken of” (Matt. 26). The disciples knew that the message of Jesus was going to go out into all the world!

So, you see, when Jesus gave the Great Commission, His disciples were prepared for it. And He didn’t give the Great Commission just once; He repeated it several times. How many different times do you think it’s recorded? I count five:

1. Matthew 28:18-20 (Mountain in Galilee)
And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

2. John 20:21-23 (Upper Room – 10 disciples)
So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.”

3. Mark 16:15-16 (Upper Room in Jerusalem – 11 disciples)
And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.”

4. Luke 24:46-49 (Upper Room in Jerusalem – 11 disciples)
and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”

5. Acts 1:6-8 (Mt. of Olives near Jerusalem)
So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”

Now, here’s another question: If Jesus gave the Great Commission five different times, why didn’t any of the apostles refer back to it? I mean, this was pretty significant, wasn’t it? Why didn’t they make it a major tenet of their faith? Well, let’s look at what the apostles did when they talked about the subject of preaching the Gospel to gentiles:

Turn in your Bibles to Acts 3:25. Here Peter is preaching his second sermon in the temple at Jerusalem. He says, “you are heirs of the prophets and of the covenant God made with your fathers. He said to Abraham, ‘Through your offspring all peoples on earth will be blessed. When God raised up His servant, He sent Him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways.” Where does Peter go? To the Covenant with Abraham in the Old Testament.

The Abrahamic Covenant is where God promised to bless Abraham and to make him and his descendants a blessing to the whole world. Interestingly enough, the Abrahamic covenant was given on five different occasions just like the Great Commission. And, just like in the repetitions of the Great Commission, there are different words indicating who would be blessed. Two of the repetitions of the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen 12:3 and 28:14) use the Hebrew phrase “all the families of the earth,” and this is the phrase Peter picks up on in Acts 3 - “all the families of the earth.”

What about Paul? He had his own form of a commission on the road to Damascus, but He also refers back to the Old Testament to explain his call to preach the Gospel to the nations. In Acts 13:47, he refers back to Isaiah 49. He says “the Lord commanded us, saying, I have set you for a light of the Gentiles that you should be for salvation unto the uttermost part of the earth.” In Galatians 3:8, Paul also refers back to the Abrahamic covenant, picking up on the three times that the word “nations” or “ethnic groups” (instead of “families”) is mentioned, “And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand unto Abraham, saying, 'In you shall all the nations be blessed.'” Paul, too, saw the Great Commission as a continuation of the Old Testament promises.

James, the brother of Jesus also uses the Old Testament at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 to justify preaching the Gospel to Gentiles. He quotes from the prophet Amos.

Now, tell me, where did the apostles get the idea to use these Old Testament passages to support preaching the Gospel to the nations? It wasn’t from the synagogues! Do you remember what we read in Luke’s account of the Great Commission? “Jesus opened their minds to understand the Scriptures… that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name unto all the nations”? Jesus not only prepared His disciples through His example of reaching out to Gentiles and through His commissioning, but also through His teaching of the Old Testament Scriptures! He is the one that put all those scripture references into their heads, so it’s only natural that the disciples referred back to those scriptures when they spoke of world evangelism!

And they took all this seriously: We read in Acts of how Paul preached the Gospel in all of Asia and made inroads into Europe. Peter and Phillip converted masses of Samaritans. There are communities of believers in India who trace their spiritual heritage to Thomas. Matthew and Mark are said to have gone to Ethiopia (which became the first Christian nation), Andrew went to Scythia and as far north as Russia. Bartholomew evangelized Arabia. John spent much time in Turkey and others took the Gospel to Syria and Persia. In their lifetime, the apostles made tremendous headway in preaching the Gospel in all the world! By the time they died, there was a church in every province of the Roman empire, and one sixth of the population of the world had heard the Gospel!

The Great Commission was not at all an afterthought, nor were the disciples ill-prepared for it. It was the driving force of their lives. But is it still that way today? The Great Commission was given to the Apostles, not to us, right? Only a very small percentage of Christians has the kind of gifting it takes to be a missionary, and besides, hasn’t the Great Commission been pretty much fulfilled? Is it for us today? Well, let’s look at it.

Although there are churches now existing in every political nation in the world, the Great Commission was not given merely in terms of political nations. It was given in terms of “all the families of the earth,” “all the peoples of the earth,” “all the ethnic groups of the earth.” If we look at the Mark account which frames the Great Commission in terms of preaching the Gospel to “every creature,” a third of the world’s population today has never heard the Gospel even once, which puts us at 66% fulfillment. It’s not as good as that if you look at it in terms of ethnic groups: The World Christian Encyclopedia estimates that there are 12,600 different ethnic groups in the world, which is what the word “nations” means in the Great Commissions recorded by Matthew and Luke. Currently 30% have not been evangelized, much less made disciples of. Now, I’m not God, so I can’t tell you for sure when the Great Commission will be fulfilled in God’s eyes, but I am a missiologist, and these statistics certainly indicate that there is a lot of work ahead of us. There is plenty for us to do yet to fulfill the Great Commission!

But is the Commission still for us? The Abrahamic Covenant was not given to the apostles, yet they recognized that it obligated them to spread the blessing of Jesus to the nations. Remember Paul’s statement in Acts 13? He quotes a passage from Isaiah which was obviously speaking of the Messiah and inferred that the thing commanded of the Messiah was also commanded of Him! The statements of God’s intention to bless the nations through His grace way pre-dates the apostles. It was what He was doing in the Old Testament, and it’s still what He is doing two thousand years after the apostles. It is still for us today!

In Matthew 28, Jesus commanded His disciples to make disciples of all the nations... and to teach them everything He had commanded. What was the last thing Jesus commanded? To go make disciples and teach them everything that Jesus commanded, Right? Which means that the disciples of the original apostles were also to be given the Great Commission to go make disciples of all the nations. Then those disciples in turn were to be given the Great Commission along with all of Jesus' commands. You see, the very wording of the Great Commission creates an expectation of every generation of disciples to fulfill the Great Commission and pass it on to our disciples! So, the Great Commission, by it's very wording still applies to every Christian today!

Even if we’re convinced that we are commanded to participate in spreading God’s glory to the ends of the earth and that there are great gaps still out there, it can still feel pretty overwhelming. You might feel like a kid being asked to drive a car – with no idea what to do! I’m not prepared for missionary service.

I believe that if you look back through what God has done in your life you may just be surprised. The disciples may not have realized it at the time when they watched Jesus interact with foreigners that Jesus was preparing them to spread the Gospel to the nations, but when the time came, they looked back and realized that Jesus has prepared them after all. Here are some ways God has prepared you:

Yes, God has prepared you in a unique way to advance His kingdom among the nations in some way! And you know what? He will see to it that the Great Commission gets fulfilled. He wouldn’t have given it if He didn’t expect it to get done. He gives glimpses of the fulfillment of the Great Commission at the end of time to the apostle John.

We can engage in this enterprise with full confidence that God will make it successful. We’ve already seen the end. We have the sure hope that there will be believers from every tribe and tongue and nation before the throne of God worshiping Him.

God has prepared us and commissioned us just as Jesus prepared and commissioned the disciples, So let us “go into all the world and make disciples of all nations!”

Psalm 67:1-2 God be merciful to us, and bless us; and cause Your face to shine upon us. That Your way may be known upon earth, Your salvation among all nations.

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