The Great Commission

Sermon preached on Matthew 28:18-20 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 10/16/2022 in Novato, CA.

Sermon Manuscript

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.

Here we are. We are in our new church building. This has been a long time in the works. God has been very gracious to bless our church after more than fifty years in the making our very own church home. This is a significant new chapter in the life and history of our church. And there is a sense in which this is a bit of a fresh start for us too. Not only is this a new building for our church, but he has put us in a new community. We hope and pray for lots of visitors, that God would build up the church ministry as we seek to bear witness to the gospel of Christ.

So then, I’ve decided to take a break this week from our sermon series in Luke. I am actually reprising today the second sermon that I gave to our church back in 2007 after I arrived here to take up the pastorate. My first sermon then was a Christmas sermon, but then the next week I gave a sermon from this passage, the Great Commission. As I started out my ministry at the church, I wanted to make sure we all knew what it was that the church is called to do. As we have a sort of fresh start here in our new building, let us become recommitted to a biblical vision for church ministry, as given to us by Christ Jesus himself.

I will approach this passage then with three points as we consider Jesus’ great commission of the church. First, we’ll consider how this commission is a calling and a mission. Then, we’ll consider how this commission comes with ordained means. Third, we’ll consider the divine authority that comes with this commission.

Let us begin then by considering how this commission is a calling and a mission. It’s right there in verse 19. Jesus calls the eleven to go and make disciples. These two verbs are Jesus’ commands to the eleven apostles, and by extension, to all the church that would come from their ministry. Jesus tells them, and he tells us, that we must go, and that we must make disciples. That’s the mission and the calling I’m referring to.

So then, this mission and calling has these two commands, to “go” and to “make disciples”. Let’s think about each command for a moment, starting with the “go.” The church of Jesus Christ has been sent out into the world with a mission. We are to go to the nations. Now, this doesn’t mean that every person in the church is called to become a foreign missionary in some distant land. Rather, we should recognize that we have already been sent here to this distant land. Where we are it is pretty far from the place where Jesus first gave these words. We in this local congregation have been sent here. Here, in the North Bay, in Marin and Sonoma and Solano counties. Here, and now especially Petaluma, is where God has sent us. Let us then “go” into this community that God has placed us. As we do, we will see that this is a mission field right here. In our area, as we go to the people of this community, we will surely engage people that are different from us, who have different cultures, different values, different worldviews, and different ideology. Going to them will surely involve getting outside of our comfort zones. But Jesus has called us to “go” and these are the people he has sent us to. Let us be proactive in reaching out to them. Let us not just wait for them to come to us. Let us seek to find them. Remember, it was our Lord Jesus who came to us in order to save us. We didn’t at first come to Jesus, he first came to us! Like Christ, we are to be Christ to the world by going to them, calling them to a new life in Christ Jesus.

So that is Jesus’ command to “go”, but let us also consider his command here to “make disciples”. Notice this doesn’t say to just disciple, as in the act of discipling, but to make disciples. You could translate it as “enlist disciples”: He says, “Go, therefore and enlist disciples of all the nations”. So, this command is telling us to enlist; to enroll; to make new disciples. We need to be seeking to bring people into the church. We might not all play the same part in that effort to recruit new disciples, but we all as a church have a part to play in that.

And yet, clearly, this does not mean that we just bring people into the church. Our work is not just a recruitment effort. To make a disciple involves much more than just making a new member of the church. A disciple is a student. So, when someone becomes a disciple, they are making a commitment to learn and follow Christ as his teacher and Lord. A disciple seeks to understand the teacher’s teachings and to embody them. And so, becoming a disciple is much more than just signing up; it’s a lifelong choice to follow Jesus. So, we as a church don’t just sign them up to follow Jesus. We then disciple them on Jesus’ behalf. We train them and guide them and lead them in the ways of Christ and his teachings. What a privilege and responsibility we have to disciple others on behalf of Jesus.

Do you see that this call to go and make disciples of all the nations includes both evangelism and discipleship? As we recast a vision for church ministry, evangelism and discipleship need to front and center in that vision. We have this two-fold task which Jesus entrusted to the church in the Great Commission. We have been called to both evangelism and discipleship. We must seek new converts by proclaiming the gospel, but we must also be ministering to those new converts, discipling them unto spiritual maturity. In turn, these disciples, as they come into the church and grow as Christians, become the future leaders of the church, who also take up this great call and commission to go and make disciples of all the nations.

And so, my first point today is that the church is called to both evangelism and discipleship. A biblical vision of church ministry must see this two-fold task to which Jesus calls the church. This is important, because so many churches today fall to one extreme or the other. Seeker-sensitive churches focus so much on evangelism, that the church can end up giving only “milk” to their members, giving them just baby-food, so to speak, instead of moving on to more “meat”. Seeker-sensitive churches often end up with a large group of new converts mixed with more mature Christians who are spiritually starving, stagnating in their growth, from lack of more in-depth teaching from the whole counsel of God. The other extreme is when you have churches that do no proactive evangelism and merely train the existing members. They focus their ministry on the spiritual growth of their members. They may have many members who are very wise spiritually. They may know the Bible backwards and forwards and may even live godly lives. And, yet, often their growth of membership is not from their going out to evangelize the world, but only from the bravest of seekers coming to them. Clearly, neither extreme is fully keeping Christ’s calling and mission that he’s given his church. In fact, I think the problem is that we try to separate these things too much into two different categories. Though they are in one sense two different things, the Great Commission doesn’t seem to make much distinction between the two. By saying, “go and make disciples”, it calls us to both at the same time. The Great Commission demands that the church do both, both outreach and nurture, both enlisting and discipling, both evangelism and edification. This is the call of the church. This must inform our vision of biblical church ministry. A healthy church, is one that is responding to this biblical to call to do both evangelism and discipleship.

To be frank, as a church, we’ve struggled in both categories in the last two years between COVID-19 and being tied up in the building project. But now is an opportunity to regroup on this calling and mission and recommit ourselves to discipleship and evangelism.

The next thing I would like you to notice in this passage is how Jesus wants us to go about fulfilling this call to go and make disciples. Look again at verse 19. After Jesus calls us to go and make disciples, he tells us a little bit about what that is to look like. In other words, Jesus doesn’t just tell us to go and make disciples, and then leave it up to us to figure out how we are to go about doing that. Instead, verse 19 says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you.”

Jesus here ordains specifically two ways in which we are to fulfill this call to go and make disciples. Jesus says that we are to be baptizing, and he says that we are to be teaching people to keep all of Jesus’ commandments. So, to fulfill the Great Commission, we are to be baptizing and teaching.

Baptism is that sacrament which we do to formally enlist new disciples. And as we baptize new converts, we don’t just pour water on them; we baptize them in the name of our Triune God. They are sacramentally declared as disciples by being baptized into the name of their new master – the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

With regards to teaching, that is what we do with disciples in every stage of their maturity as Christians. We teach them initially as we explain the gospel and call them to faith and repentance, and we continue to teach them once they become Christians, giving them greater and greater spiritual food as we teach them the whole Word of God. And our teaching is not to just remain on the academic level. Jesus says that we must teach them to observe all the things which he has commanded us. This is what discipleship is all about, to train disciples to know and live out Christ’s teachings. And Jesus is very clear about the scope of this training. Jesus says that we must teach them to observe all the things he has commanded; everything! This means that we must not disregard any of Jesus teachings, or add to them. It also means that the church’s teaching is only authoritative when it is calling its members to follow Jesus’ commandments. If the church ever tries to enforce something other than what Jesus commands in his word, then at that point it has lost its authority.

And so, Jesus tells us in the Great Commission that as we go and make disciples, our ministry must be one where we baptize and teach. So, stop for a moment and think about the significance of Jesus telling us to baptize and teach. Surely, these tasks of baptizing and teaching do not exhaustively spell out every detail of how the church is to be fulfilling the Great Commission. And yet these tasks of baptizing and teaching are representative of the means of grace which Christ has given his church. The Westminster Standards identifies three primary means of grace that we find in the Bible: the Word, the sacraments, and prayer. The means of grace are those things which Christ has given us to grow spiritually as Christians. And so, by Jesus telling us to go and make disciples by baptizing and teaching, he is pointing us to a ministry that makes use of the means of grace which he has given us. Many pastors and elders today refer to this sort of approach to ministry as an “ordinary means of grace ministry”. Pastor Ligon Duncan wrote about this saying, “When we say ordinary means of grace-based ministry, we mean a ministry that focuses on doing the things God says are central to the spiritual health and growth of his people.”

And so that is my second point. Our church ministry must be an ordinary means of grace ministry. We must evangelize and disciple, not according to merely our own wisdom, but according to God’s wisdom. A biblical vision of church ministry must see that Christ has given us specific instructions for how we are to accomplish the goals he has set before us. Christ has not just told us that we are to make disciples of all the nations, but he has also told us how we are to go about doing that: through the use of the means of grace which he has ordained for us: the Word, sacraments, and prayer. A healthy church does its ministry in the ways that Christ has instructed us.

The last thing I would like you to notice in this text for today is the divine authority that Jesus is giving the church in this Great Commission. The Great Commission begins in verse 18 with Jesus saying, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth.” He then says “therefore”; “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations”. Jesus declares his authority and then says that his authority is the reason why we are to go and make disciples. Jesus is fully authorized to issue this Great Commission to us because he holds all authority in heaven and earth.

Surely, this is meant to encourage us and give us a biblical confidence and boldness. He is telling us that as we the church go forth making disciples, we go forth with his authority. Our mission has been divinely authorized and so we go to the world as people with the authority of Christ Jesus.

This is why Jesus finishes the Great Commission with the promise that he will be with us. He says, “And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” By Jesus encouraging us that he is with us, he is telling us that, by the Holy Spirit, he is right there along side of us wherever we go. That means that as we go to the world, we go with him and with his authority. It can be scary and intimidating to talk to people about Jesus. But, we can have a biblical boldness because Christ goes with us. It’s not our message or us selling ourselves. It’s Christ and his message that is calling people unto himself. We are his messengers – his authorized messengers!

And so, Christ’s authority is the reason why we have been authorized to go and make disciples. We do this in his name and on his behalf. He is our source of strength and success. And so, this is my third point. Our church’s ministry is not just being called to go and make disciples; we are being commissioned to do this — not just called, but commissioned! A commissioner is someone who is authorized to perform certain duties. They are endowed with certain power and authority to act. The church has been given this authority in the Great Commission. We have been commissioned to go to the ends of the earth with the gospel, proclaiming the sacred truth of salvation in Christ, and in enrolling disciples into the church. As a church, we have been entrusted with the very keys of the kingdom of God! We have been empowered to administer the very means of God’s grace to the people.

And because we have been commissioned, we realize that the success of our ministry lies not in ourselves but in Christ who is with us. And so, the reality that we are commissioned by Christ should drive us to pray. We should pray for success in ministry, praying that the Holy Spirit would changes hearts and lives through our ministry. A healthy church is one that prays because it recognizes that its success is reliant upon Christ.

I hope you have begun to see today by this passage a vision for the church and its ministry. As I conclude this sermon today, I’d like to summarize a few of these aspects of the church’s ministry, and begin to apply them to us here in the North Bay.

First, we’ve seen that the church is called to both evangelism and discipleship. Second, we’ve seen that the church must be engaged in ministry using the ordinary means of grace. Third, we’ve seen that the church’s success in ministry is reliant on Christ who has commissioned us, and so this should drive us to prayer to find our confidence in God. These are all important aspects of church ministry. As we restart our ministry together, I wanted to remind of the Bible’s vision for the church and its ministry.

And so here are some specific things you can look to happen in ministry coming up. Our adult Sunday school series that we’ve just begun is addressing and assessing the current woke culture and helping us to thinking biblically about it. This will help us as we engage the culture in our work of evangelism and also promote right thinking for ourselves as Christ’s disciples. Our new midweek ministry beginning this week on Wednesday will be starting a new series through Romans. As we are new here in town, coming with our reformed and presbyterian convictions, we thought this would be a great way to help introduce our new community in Petaluma to the doctrines of grace. And what a great book to go through to feed some meat to our discipleship. And in our Luke series we are quickly coming to the climax of the book, with the cross and the resurrection, which will give us some great opportunities to present the gospel in an effort to enlist new disciples. Then, I’ll be bringing a new sermon series on Genesis to discuss some of the beginnings and foundations of our faith.

Another thing we are planning to resume is our monthly Outreach Prayer Meeting. I know many have expressed to me your interest to see our church outreach to this new community in Petaluma. As we have seen today, this is not an option for the church, but it is Christ’s mandate for us. But because our success in this ministry is reliant on Christ who is with us, we need to begin in prayer. And so at this monthly meeting, I’d like to use that time to go to the Lord in prayer, committing our plans for outreach to him. I’d also like to use that time to talk specifically about our efforts as a church to reach out to this community, and provide opportunities for members to get involved. We’ll have that on the first Sundays of the month after the morning worship and a fellowship meal.

And so I hope that you all see the importance of what will be going on in the next few weeks and months. The last two years have seen so many things of ministry put on hold but now we have a great time to regroup and restart with much opportunity before us. We have a solid core group of members in this church, and it’s my desire to see each of us getting involved in the ministry of this church. I’m really excited for the things I believe God will be doing through our ministry.

In conclusion, remember how the Great Commission ends. It ends with Christ telling us that he will be with us until “the end of the age”. This sets the timeframe of the church’s ministry: from commission to consummation. We are in the last chapter of human history. Today we are in that final timeframe, busy in this ministry of the church. But as we minister here and now, may we constantly look forward to the consummation. That is our eternal hope, and may it give you joy and peace, even as we engage in ministry in a world and area that is hostile to the gospel.


Copyright © 2022 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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