The Great Commission: Our Ultimate Purpose in Life (Matthew 28)

“What have you achieved? What have you achieved? You lost your chance, me old son. You contributed absolutely nothing to this life. A waste of time you being here at all. No place for you in Westminster Abbey. The best you can expect is a few daffodils in a jam jar, a rough-hewn stone bearing the legend ‘He came and he went’ and in between – nothing! Nobody will even notice you’re not here. After about a year afterwards somebody might say down the pub ‘Where’s old Hancock? I haven’t seen him around lately.’ ‘Oh, he’s dead y’know.’ ‘Oh, is he?’ A right raison d’etre that is. Nobody will ever know I existed. Nothing to leave behind. Nothing to pass on. Nobody to mourn me. That’s the bitterest blow of all.” That is how Tony Hancock ended his last TV monologue appearance in 1964. When he died four years later from an overdose few people realized it wasn’t an act or a script, but how he actually felt. 

And Tony Hancock is not alone. The University of Wales published a major survey of the views of 23,000 teenagers aged 13-15. Entitled, Urban Hope and Spiritual Health – the adolescent voicethe survey found that teenagers with no religious faith were found to be much more likely to feel bad about themselves and their relationships and had low self esteem. 25% had contemplated suicide and 50% did not have a purpose for their life. That is why life’s most important question is this: “What on earth am I here for?” 

On my website you will find a sermon series dedicated to answering that question based on Rick Warren’s international best seller “The Purpose Driven life”

You were planned for God’s pleasure (Ephesians 2)
You were formed for God’s family (Ephesians 2)
You were made for a mission (Ephesians 6)
Does God have a purpose for your life? (Philippians 3:1-14)
What are you really passionate about? (John 15:1-17)
Why are we wired so differently? (1 Corinthians 12)
What is my spiritual gift? (Romans 12)
What has love got to do with it? (1 Corinthians 13)
How can I serve with full devotion? (Luke 10)

Let me ask you the question implicit in Tony Hancock’s final sketch: If you knew you were about to die what would you say?  Something flippant or profound?  Your last opportunity to communicate to those you care about what really matters to you. In our reading from Matthew 28, we have the last words of Jesus. It took Thomas Aquinas 50 volumes to explain the Christian faith.  Karl Barth took 20 volumes to interpret the Bible. Jesus condensed everything into one sentence. Moments before His ascension Jesus gives his disciples their final instructions. It is a summary of all Jesus has taught them about being his disciples. Not merely a summary but also their mandate for becoming contagious Christians. The word ‘Mandate’ means a command from a higher authority. I want us to consider our mandate under four headings. 

1. The Basis of Our Mandate (Matthew 28:18)

“Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.Therefore go…”  There is no higher mandate, no greater authority in heaven or earth than the authority of Jesus Christ. The Holy One who will determine the destiny of every single person in the world has commanded us to go and speak and act in His name. What a high honour to be called his ambassadors. The basis of our mandate.

2. The Purpose of Our Mandate (Matthew 28:19-20)

Deep in every Christian there is an awareness that we are on this planet for purposes greater than having a career, paying the bills, loving our families, and fulfilling our roles as citizens. Even going to church and worshiping God – important as these are – sometimes leaves us feeling that something is missing. After all, we’ll worship God for eternity in heaven.  We don’t need to be here to do that. But there is one supreme role we can only fulfil while here on earth that will have eternal consequences. In the short time God has given us on earth we can make an impact that will outlast us here on earth indeed will last for eternity. 

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” 

The construction of this sentence shows Jesus was placing the emphasis on his strategy, to “make disciples”. This was their primary task – disciple making. Everything else was subordinate. Notice what is not mentioned. Building Cathedrals is not mentioned. Appointing Bishops is not mentioned. Founding theological colleges, missionary societies, or charitable institutions, is not mentioned. These things are useful, some may even be essential to a mission infrastructure, but only in so far as they contribute to this ultimate objective, this priority, this strategy. Making disciples who will replicate themselves.

If these institutions, these labels, these buildings, these activities do not enable us, do not equip us to be better, more effective followers of Jesus Christ, then they become a luxury, they become superfluous.  Everything we do should be shaped by our overriding mandate expressed in our mission statement. “To assist irreligious people to become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ.”  And that starts with ourselves. 

How does this mission statement fit with this mandate. Jesus said, 

Go and make disciples”  = followers of Jesus Christ
teaching them to obey”  = devoted followers of Jesus Christ
everything I have commanded you” = fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ.  

This is our mandate. “To assist irreligious people to become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ.” That is our priority. This is at the heart of our mission statement. That is why I had printed the little mission cards. To remind you what we are here for. To remind us what the church is here for. This should be central to everything we do as a Church. 

All our activities, all our energy, all our time, all our discussions, all our expenditure should be evaluated by this simple criterion. Does it assist us in fulfilling our mandate? We have no mandate to engage in anything that does not help us fulfil this final great commission of Jesus Christ – to assist people to become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. As Archbishop William Temple said in the 1945, “The church is the only society on earth that exists for the benefit of its non-members.”  If we forget this, if we neglect this, if we ignore this, we lose our mandate and we will most assuredly lose God’s blessing. In Acts 1:8, Jesus added, “You will be my witnesses”. That is all Jesus ever calls us to be. His witnesses. To tell others what Jesus Christ has done in history, to tell what Jesus Christ has done in our lives. 

We have considered the basis of our mandate and the purpose of our mandate.

3. The Extent of Our Mandate (Matthew 28:19-20)

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations… to the very end of the age.”  All nations – We have a world-wide mandate. All time – We have a timeless mandate but we have a strategic mandate – we start at home – in our own Jerusalem before we attempt to reach Judea or Samaria let alone the ends of the earth. Our mandate is to share the love of Jesus with those we live with, those we know. But how on earth could eleven disciples reach the whole world through such a strategy?

Lets compare two different evangelistic approaches. The one most Christians believe in and the one Jesus taught. Billy Graham is often rightly regarded as the most effective evangelist in our generation. Lets just suppose that Billy Graham could preach to 50,000 different people a day, five days a week and 10% respond. So 5,000 people trust in Christ each day. That is the same response Peter saw on the Day of Pentecost.  On that basis each week Billy preaches to an audience of 250,000 people, and 25,000 people become Christians – 50 churches of 500 members founded every week. Pretty good going. In one year, Billy would reach 12.5 million people, and see 1.25 million new believers. In one life time of say 50 years ministry, on those figures this greatest of evangelists would have reached 500,000 million people. What a ministry.

But this strategy fails to fulfil the mandate Jesus gave his disciples on three counts. First, the world’s population is about 8 billion and growing. Second, the world’s population is unevenly spread around the world and it would not be possible to get them into stadiums to hear an evangelist. Third, seeing people come to faith in Jesus Christ is not the same thing as making disciples. I praise God for Billy Graham’s ministry, He was totally committed to making disciples, and I have had the privilege of serving with his ministry in the past.  

But I simply wanted to use him as a model for a particular approach to evangelism which God has greatly blessed, and which goes some way to fulfil the Great Commission, but only some way. Lets start again with one typical believer, called Joe Christian, who is learning to be a disciple of Jesus. He doesn’t do anything significant in his local church. He doesn’t hold any office or title, he doesn’t read the lesson or teach Sunday School. What he does do however, largely unnoticed, is make friends with unbelievers. He takes an interest in their lives. He demonstrates authenticity, integrity, moral courage, compassion, empathy. The self giving love of Jesus overflows from his life and he is infectious.  And because they are open and listen, Joe takes the opportunity to tell them about what Jesus has and is doing in his life. When one of them trusts in Christ, Joe spends time with them to show them how to pray, how to read the bible, how to grow to know God better and how to tell others about what God has done for them also. Lets assume Joe gets to share his faith with one person just once a week – and lets assume that in 6 months he sees just one person trust in Christ.  After six months Billy Graham has seen over 500,000 trust Christ. Joe has led one person to Christ. Lets call him Fred. Not much of a comparison, but here’s the key. Instead of simply inviting Fred to church and perhaps to join his small group, Joe explains to Fred how he too can become a contagious Christian. So during the second six months of that first year, Joe and Fred make friends with unbelievers and aim to talk about Jesus to someone just once a week, and each have the joy of seeing one person become a Christian in the next six months. So at the end of that first year there would be… four disciples. By now Billy has founded 2,500 churches, while Joe has got one small group going. No comparison. But don’t be fooled by the numbers. Something very radical is happening in Joe’s small group. If those four disciples pass on what they know, which may not be much, but each sees one person trust in Christ in the next six months, and disciples them to reproduce themselves in the same way, at the end of year two there would be 16 disciples, year three, 64, year four, 256.

Using this strategy and response rate our small little band of disciples is doubling every six months. How long would it take to reach the whole world? Less than 15 years. Half of one generation. What is the difference between these two evangelistic strategies? The difference between adding and multiplying. Between adding names to an electoral roll and training disciples. If we were the only Christians in the whole world, using this strategy, taking Jesus mandate seriously, we alone could reach the whole world in under 15 years. Jesus knew what he was talking about.  He was commissioning a movement that was both radical and revolutionary, but using a strategy that is both simple and practical.

Becoming contagious in the lives of a few family and friends. Investing our lives in a few people who in turn will invest their lives in others. Everything we do as a church should be driven by this motive, judged by this strategy, shaped by this mandate – of turning irreligious people into fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. Let me give you just one example from the least expected place. While in Hungary a few years back I learnt about the situation in Albania.  For 50 years Albania was the poorest and most repressive Communist country in Easter Europe. With the death of Enver Hoxha, a democratic government was elected in 1992. In 1993 there were estimated to be just 1000 believers meeting in 19 churches. Today Campus Crusade alone has over 50 full time Albanian missionaries. Not only are they reaching university students and using the Jesus video extensively across the country, they have sent missionary teams to Turkey and Lebanon. Albanian missionaries. Less than 20 years ago the Albanian government hailed itself the world’s first atheistic country. Yet this young Church persecuted for 50 years is now sending missionaries to other countries.

Jesus sent us to all nations – we have a universal mandate, and for all time – we have a timeless mandate – starting in our Jerusalem – we have a strategic mandate. It cannot be suppressed. It has not been superseded. It will succeed. No other strategy comes close. No other strategy works.  The extent of our mandate, the greatest number, the shortest time.  The basis of our mandate. The purpose of our mandate. The extent of our mandate.

4. The Fulfilment of our Mandate (Matthew 28:20)

“And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Who will always be with us? The one who has all authority in heaven and on earth. It is not so much that he goes with us. It is rather that we go with him. Jesus is not like the general waving his troops off as they go into battle as he remains safe behind the lines. Luke makes this clear in his foreword to the Acts of the Apostles. He begins with this introduction,

“In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven…” (Acts 1:1-2).

He commands and we obey. He leads and we follow. The basis of our mandate. The purpose of our mandate. The extent of our mandate and the fulfilment of our mandate. I began with the famous last words of Tony Hancock. What would you like your last words to be? What would you like to hear Jesus say when you meet him? Shall I tell you what I long to hear him say? “Well done my good and faithful servant.” (Matthew 25:23)