A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on April 11, 2021.
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:16–20).
As Jesus directed his disciples, there was to be a post-resurrection rendezvous point, in the hills of Galilee. The specific location of their meeting is undisclosed and irrelevant, but their response to the resurrected Jesus is not: “when they saw him, they worshiped him.” As he stood before them, he was not merely a resuscitated corpse, to live and die again. He was not a miraculous reconstitution of his former self but the resurrected and glorified Lord of glory, “alive forevermore” (Rev. 1:18).
Curiously, Matthew adds, as it is translated in the ESV, “some doubted,” or it could be translated “some were hesitant.” As the verb is used elsewhere, it connotes not “intellectual doubt” but “practical uncertainty.”  It is a moment, we may presume, in which some are bewildered in Jesus’s glorified presence, familiar in the flesh yet unrecognizable in glory.
Indeed, the moment is stunning as is what Jesus discloses: “All authority in heaven and on earth” has been given to him. Echoing the prophecy of Daniel, Jesus reveals that he has received what was promised, namely “dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Deut. 7:14). He who came first to serve now will be served, having dominion and glory “in heaven and earth.” We can imagine what this means in heaven, as “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name” (Phil. 2:9), but what does it mean on earth? As God the Father has highly exalted God the Son “and bestowed on him the name that is above every name” (Phil. 2:9), he expresses this reality to his disciples with purpose. As he is King of kings and Lord of lords, that which is in rebellion shall be subdued, on earth as it is in heaven. But how? Is not the world in rebellion against God and even creation subjected to futility (Rom. 8:19)?
Will rebellion be subdued by the State, authority instituted by God (Rom. 13:1)? Is the Holy Roman Empire our hope? Shall we take up our weapons for the Lord to fight holy War for our King? Or, could it be that our Lord has chosen to exercise his authority differently than the world? Could it be that actually our fight is not “against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). No, the authority of the King of kings and Lord of lords will not be revealed though the powers or authorities of this present darkness but through his church and the advancement of his gospel, one soul at a time.
Therefore, Christ commissions his disciples in that moment, and his church through them with a Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” It is a charge to the first disciples to go and make more, armed with the means of grace in the authority of our Triune God.
Jesus’ charge begins with a directive: “Go.” While taken for granted in retrospect, it is confrontational in context. He who previously commanded his disciples, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles” (Matt. 10:5), now tells them, “Go [to]…all nations,” a seemingly antithetical mission for Jewish nationals. Yet, with Jesus’ resurrection God’s redemptive mystery is unveiled. As Paul explains, “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph. 3:6). And this “mystery,” Paul says, is revealed “through the church” (Eph. 3:9), reconciling Jew and Gentile alike “to God in one body through the cross” (Eph. 2:16). Therefore, the church’s commission is to carry the gospel to the “nations,” (ethne), or the various “peoples” throughout the world.
Consider the testimony of our assembly today. We are gathered as believing Christians to worship the Lord because the gospel advanced beyond the boundaries of ancient Israel. Consider how fortunate we are that the gospel was sent to us! But what if no one had been sent? How would we have known the Good News of salvation in Christ alone? The means of by which the gospel is advanced is by, what Paul calls, “the word of faith that we proclaim” (Rom. 10:8).
This is what Paul gets at when he asks, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?” (Romans 10:14–15a). People will not savingly believe on Jesus if they do not know he exists. People only hear the gospel when someone carries it and proclaims it. And when it is carried and proclaimed, it is a glorious fulfillment of what Christ commissioned, leading Paul to exclaim, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Rom. 10:15). Why? Because “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).
Therefore, going to the nations is imperative, which requires going and implies sending. As Jesus said before his ascension, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21). And his chosen vehicle for sending is his church, which means that within the church we have varying roles in this Great Commission. Some of us go as sent, as evangelists and missionaries. Some of us send those who go, as the Lord enables us. And all of us “pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest,” as Jesus put it, “to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matt. 9:38). Therefore, we are to be a praying, sending, going church, carrying the gospel to the nations. But our mission as a church is not just carrying the gospel but making disciples.
What then is a disciple and how is one made? In the tenth chapter of Matthew, Jesus gives an expansive description of what it means to be a disciple, emphasizing the active process of living with and learning from the Master. But then he makes this dramatic statement: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:39). Clearly, to be a disciple of Jesus is more than being a student of a great teacher. A true disciple confesses, as Peter did to Jesus, “You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:69).
Yet, unique to Christian discipleship, we who would serve our Master must be served by our Savior, He who offered himself up as our atoning sacrifice calls us to offer up ourselves as living sacrifices of praise (Rom. 12:1). Therefore, the spiritual transformation of becoming a disciple is comprehensive in nature (1 Cor. 6:20). “Being disciples, involves a whole formation of life,” Michael Horton explains, “with new choices, habits, and virtues that exhibit new character.” As Paul says, “behold, all things are become new” (2 Cor. 5:17 KJV).
A disciple then is an entirely “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17), but how is one made? Are we, who are commissioned to go, the makers of disciples? Yes and no. God has chosen the church as the vehicle of his gospel and the advancement of it as the means of salvation. Disciples are not made apart from the gospel. However, as a disciple is one who has been brought from death to life, God gives new life not through us but the Holy Spirit.
In this sense, the Holy Spirit is the effectual mobilizer of the Great Commission (Stott, 331), through whom those who were dead in their sins and trespasses are brought to life to live for Christ. For this reason, Peter could translate Old Covenant language into New Covenant reality describing the church as a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession.” For what purpose we may ask? That we may “proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9). Such is the ministry of the Holy Spirit, who gives life, enabling us to proclaim the gospel to everyone, both near and far.
This is why the making of disciples naturally implies the establishment of a local church. Those who have been raised from death to life desire to assemble together in worship, for as Jesus said, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them” (Matt. 18:20). Making disciples then implies assembling disciples, which is precisely what we see throughout the New Testament.
But what are the marks of these disciples and their assemblies? Has Jesus given his church characteristics of recognition? In short, yes. Consider the example of the sealing ordinance of baptism.
Baptism is a uniquely Christian practice without pragmatic defense outside of its meaning. Yet, once received and understood it conveys a spiritual reality of set-apartness, or a holy seal. The public act of baptism, as implied in the Great Commission, visibly depicts our being joined to Christ and his church. Like circumcision in the Old Testament, baptism in the New Testament serves as God’s seal, his decisive claim upon us. Baptism is God’s sign and seal of his covenant of grace, depicting that his “promise is for you and for your children” as well as “all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:39).
Therefore, baptism does not serve as a personal act of commitment but a sealing ordinance, or sacrament, of those who are the Lord’s. As such it is an integral part of the church’s mission, not to be neglected or delegated outside the church. And it is an integral part of the disciple’s growth in grace, looking back to one’s baptism as God’s sign and seal upon you. Differing from the sacramental meal of the Lord’s Supper, which is enjoyed regularly, baptism is administered once. It is, as Michael Horton calls it, “the gift that keeps on giving,” as we daily die to self, live in newness of life, remembering our baptism, God’s seal upon us. As such, it is a seal given “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Every disciple then receives the seal of him who ordained, accomplished, and applied our redemption.
However, the seal received does not result in immediate knowledge of the Word of Christ. It must be gained by learning, and we learn by being taught. In fact, a disciple is a life-long learner, instructing the heart through the mind. As R.C. Sproul said, “Mindless Christianity is no Christianity at all.” Yet, today, Evangelical Christianity often represents itself as an overly-emotional, anti-intellectual, hyped-up gathering of the gullible, a description contrary to the New Testament example. Our example is the Lord Jesus, and our commission is clear, because teaching is the means through which the disciple matures and flourishes.
Such teaching is not the responsibility of parachurch organizations, although they can help, but it is the church that is to be the classroom for every disciple. It is in the church that we are to learn how to think like a Christian, not as the world thinks but as Christ commands. For example in Psalm 32, God says, “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.” And then he says, “Be not like a horse or a mule, which must be curbed with bit and bridle…” (Ps. 32:8-9). In other words, God promises to guide us but not like dumb animals by force. Horses and mules lack intelligence, but you don’t. That’s why God gives us understanding through his Word.
Sadly, many Christians behave like animals, refusing to use the gift of understanding that God has given them, to be taught and to learn. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote, “I can testify without the slightest hesitation that the people I have found most frequently in trouble in their spiritual experience have been those who have lacked understanding. You cannot divorce these things. You will go wrong in the realms of practical living and experience if you have not a true understanding.” Lloyd-Jones witnessed firsthand what happens when teaching is ignored or divorced from the Great Commission. A church that is not teaching is a dying church, and a disciple who is not learning is a starving disciple.
The Great Commission then is only understood in the context of the church, for it is the church who mobilizes missions, making disciples, administering the sacraments, teaching the Word, and enjoying Christ’s on-going presence in our very existence. Therefore, do not heed those who would lead you to see the lost as your adversary, and do not run from the Great Commission by retreating into your holy huddle. Through the church we are to live out the Great Commission. The world is before us, so let us be going, making, sealing, and teaching, as we are ultimately one body worshiping one Lord who is with us always, to the end of the age.
 Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).
 R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007), 1110.
 Michael Horton, The Gospel Commission: Recovering God’s Strategy for Making Disciples (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 114.
 Ibid., 173.
 R.C. Sproul, “Loving God with Our Minds,” Ligonier Ministries, accessed April 5, 2021, https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/loving-god-our-minds/.
 Quoted in John R.W. Stott, The Contemporary Christian: An Urgent Plea for Double Listening (Leicester, UK: Inter-Varsity Press, 1992), 116.