Recapturing the Great Commission: Part One

Exciting Opportunities at West Lisbon

We have an exciting two months ahead of us at West Lisbon Church in the area of World Missions. This Sunday evening, February 12th at 6pm, Mark and Stephanie Dodrill will be with us at Family Mission Fellowship to share about Youth for Christ’s work in Barcelona, Spain and about their home assignment. It is also exciting because West Lisbon is sending a team to work with Mark and Stephanie in Spain this summer! By the way, there is still one spot available on the Destination: Spain team.

Then in March, the Missions Committee will host our annual Missions Conference on March 18–19th. Our guest speaker for the weekend is Dr. Greg Parsons. Greg is the current Director of Global Connections at Frontier Ventures. Frontier describes itself in this way:

We are a community of dreamers and doers who long to see Jesus worshipped in the earth’s darkest corners.

Pretty awesome. Greg is also engaged in the leadership of the Perspectives on the World Christian Movement. If this guy doesn’t fan the flame of world missions in your soul . . . you may want to check your pulse!!

In light of all of these exciting learning and serving experiences before us, I thought that I would spend the next two Messenger articles on the Great Commission of Matthew 28:16–20. In this month’s edition, we’ll examine the setting of Jesus’ commission. Next month, we’ll take a look at the words of Jesus’ commission.

Matthew 28:16–17 (ESV)

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.

The Setting of the Great Commission

“The Great Commission” as a title for Matthew 28:16–20 may have its origin in the first decade of the 1900s. It may have first appeared as a title for this text in the Scofield Reference Bible of 1909. Since then, it has enjoyed a place of prominence among the commissioning passages of the New Testament (e.g., Luke 24:44–49; Acts 1:8). Let’s take a look at the setting of the commission that precedes the words of the commission.

First, the people of the commission are described. The description of the group shocks the reader of Matthew’s commission passage. It is the “eleven.” The absence of one of the twelve recalls the evil and fall of Judas—one who had spent so much time with Jesus, betrayed him and was lost. We are soberly reminded by the word “eleven” that simply being present and in the crowd associated with Jesus does not correlate to genuine loyalty and discipleship. This does not mean—as some falsely presume—that the commission was ONLY for the eleven. Remember, Matthew wrote his Gospel with a Christian community in mind, who would receive and act upon his retelling of the life and work of Jesus Christ. The commission began with the eleven, but the text assumes that the church of all ages will take up this cause.

Second, the place of the commission is described. Jesus had told them that he himself would go ahead of them and meet them in Galilee after he was resurrected (Matthew 26:30–32; 28:10). After the Passover festival had finished, the disciples appeared to have returned home to Galilee to meet Jesus (see also John 20:26–21:14). As the time for his ascension drew near, it seems that they had returned to Jerusalem (Acts 1:1–11). Perhaps more significant, Matthew mentions that their meeting took place on “the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.” Mountaintop-experiences are an important theme in the Gospel of Matthew. Consider all that happened on mountains:

  • Temptation (4:8)
  • Teaching—Sermon on the Mount (5:1ff)
  • Prayer (14:23)
  • Healing (15:29)
  • Transfiguration (17:1, 9)
  • Triumphal Entry Prep (21:1)
  • Teaching—Olivet Discourse (24:3)

And now, Jesus calls his eleven disciples to the mountain for their commissioning.

Lastly, the faith of the commissioned is described. Notice that Matthew describes the presence of both worship AND doubt. It helps to explore this concept within Matthew’s gospel to find out what he means by this. For example, James seems to teach that there is a sense in which faith and doubt cannot coexist (e.g., 1:6–8). Jude, however, teaches us to be merciful to doubters (v. 22). Paul in Romans warns about doubts with regard to conscious and ethical decisions (14:23). So, context seems to be key. Clearly, doubt is a danger to the spiritual life if it persists, pervades, and is permanent; however, don’t we all struggle with some degree of doubt? I think this is where Matthew’s “theology” of doubt is helpful to us. Imagine the relationship of faith and doubt in Matthew’s gospel like a cup, where the empty space represents “Doubt” and the filled space represents “Faith”:


clipart of an almost empty glass of water

Throughout the Gospel of Matthew is what Grant Osborne calls the motif of “little faith.” Check out 6:30; 8:26; 14:31; 16:8. I tend to agree with Osborne that what is being described here in Matthew 28:17 by the concept of doubt in the midst of worship is simply another way of describing the theme of “little faith” that has been a regular description of Jesus’ disciples throughout the book. Put simply, their faith isn’t mature yet. They have faith, but it’s small. It is largely an immature faith at this point. The Holy Spirit and their witnessing will help to grow their faith, so that in time their faith may look something like this:

clipart of an almost empty glass of water

I’m not sure that doubt is ever totally eliminated from the spiritual life. James, Paul, and Jude exhort us about doubt for exactly this reason. However, I do think that faith and trust in God grows throughout the spiritual life. But come back with me to the setting of Jesus’ commissioning in Matthew 28:17. Is it really possible that the resurrected Jesus is about to entrust the expansion of his kingdom and the establishment of his church to eleven or so worshippers who are having doubts? Well, that’s certainly what the text says, isn’t it?

What does that mean for you? Have you been thinking that all of your doubts have to be gone before you effectively serve Jesus? Do you feel that you have to possess all of the answers before you can be sent to make disciples? Jesus certainly didn’t expect this of his original eleven. Why do you think he expects it of you? Fellow Christian, don’t allow your “little faith” to cause you to do “little disciple-making.” As we see in the book of Acts, the experience of the Holy Spirit’s ministry as we witness and make disciples increases our faith. Part of the excitement and fun of making disciples is becoming learners of Jesus together. I hope you’ll put your little faith to work in the Great Commission. Go on; step out of the boat and into the Great Commission! Next time, we’ll see that Jesus tells us everything our little faith needs to thrive in Christ’s commission.