At the heart of the Great Commission in Matthew is a command. There are four actions mentioned in the Commission (going, making disciples, baptizing and teaching) but only one of those is a command.
When I am teaching on this passage, I often ask people which of these words they think is the command and almost always I receive the response that it is the verb “to go.” This is because this passage has been preached so often as a call to service and particularly to service in another part of the world.
The problem though is that “to go” is the wrong answer. The command in the Great Commission is “make disciples.”
The other three verbs are participles which are related to the command but are not the primary focus of this passage. The church and we as individual members of the church are called to make disciples. The challenge for the church is to bring people from that point of first interest in the gospel to the point at which they are mature, passionate followers of Jesus Christ.
Each of the other three actions mentioned expands on that central focus of making disciples.
It is impossible to start people on this journey of becoming disciples unless we go.
An important initial step for a new believer and therefore an important step in becoming a disciple is the step of baptism.
Without solid teaching it is impossible for people to grow into mature, passionate followers.
In Acts 1:8 Jesus gives another perspective on this commission.
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. NIV
What is interesting in this verse is that there is no command. Unlike the Great Commission in Matthew Jesus does not tell his disciples what they should do. Rather he describes what they will do.
There is a natural progression in this verse that is important to note.
Something is going to happen and when that happens it will automatically lead to something else happening.
In the beginning section of the verse Jesus gives them advance warning that the events described in chapter two are going to take place. The Holy Spirit is going to come in tremendous power and He will fill their lives. When the Spirit takes up residence in them, their response will be to witness to those around them. This witness will eventually move out from their immediate surroundings in Jerusalem until it encompasses the entire world.
The Book of Acts is the account of this verse being fulfilled. The first seven chapters tell of their witness in Jerusalem. Chapters 8 – 12 tell of the expansion of that witness to Judea and Samaria. Then beginning in Chapter 13 with the ministry of Paul, the witness spreads to the whole of the Roman empire which for people in the first century was the whole world.
What is important to note is that the spread of the gospel that Luke gives us in Acts depends on the coming of the Holy Spirit. Without the presence of the Spirit in their lives they would never have become God’s instruments for expanding the church from its roots in Jerusalem to the point at which it encompassed the whole of the Roman empire.
The problem with programs
I mentioned last week the concern that I have with churches looking to programs as the key to evangelism in their church. Whether it is one of the programs that I mentioned in regard to my imaginary Upward Community Church last week or another program that I may not even of heard about, programs fail to produce results in the vast majority of cases.
The reason for this is that programs are introduced into churches with the hope that a new approach will get people excited enough to motivate them into action. The problem though is that they are the exact same people who didn’t get excited about the previous approach that the church used. That is why programs in and of themselves almost always fail.
Programs rely on external elements to create a framework for evangelism. The hope is that the church will eventually find the program with exactly the right elements to motivate people to share their faith. The truth is that there is no program that can provide that motivation because motivation is the result of an inward change rather than external elements.
The power of change
Jesus said that the early Christians would receive power not when they found the right program but when the Holy Spirit became a living reality in their lives. In Acts 2 we see that the Spirit did come. He did provide power. The little band of believers witnessed and people responded to Christ.
There is a lot that could be said about the role of the Spirit in what happened on the Day of Pentecost but I want to focus on one thing. The disciple’s witness that day flowed out of the transformation that the Spirit produced in their lives. There is a direct correlation between these two things. Outward witness came as a result of inward change.
The question that churches need to be asking is not which program should we use but what changes need to happen in our people in order to have effective evangelism taking place within our churches.
I know that it is important in my marriage to tell my wife that I love her. It is important that I let her know that she is important to me. It is important that I show her in whatever ways I can that I am glad that she is my wife.
If I went looking for a program to help me do this, it would defeat the whole purpose of what I was doing. The program tells me that I need to tell her I love her three times each day. I have a chart and each time I tell her, I run to the chart and put a check beside that day.
I need to do something nice for her once a day. I run to the chart and check that box off. Did something nice today. Now I can relax until tomorrow when I need to do something else nice.
My wife doesn’t want me to love her according to the program. She wants me to say I love her because she is so wonderful that I can’t help myself. She wants me to do nice things because she does so many nice things for me that I just have to do something in return. She wants me to be constantly looking for nice things because I just loving doing them for her.
People don’t witness according to the program. They need to witness because they are deeply in love with Jesus and they can’t help themselves. They need to witness because the Holy Spirit is at work in their lives and one of the changes that he is making is to produce an overwhelming desire to see others enjoy the relationship that they are enjoying.
Don’t look for the latest program that will be just another one in a long line of failures.
Look for the Holy Spirit to produce the kind of change that will result in people being witnesses in the communities, jobs and families.
That is the only thing that will produce lasting results.