Summary:Jesus loves sinners and gave His life so that we all might come to Him and be saved. After His resurrection and before His ascension back to heaven, Jesus gave His followers instructions for His plan to reach the world with the message of His saving grace. These instructions are found in all four Gospels and in chapter one of the Book of Acts. Although not all spoken at the same time, they give us a rich composite of the Lord’s Great Commission to His church to reach the ends of the earth with the Gospel.
John 20:21-22 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
• On the evening of His resurrection day Jesus appeared to His disciples and gave them two vitally important parts of His Great Commission: (1) their new birth by the Spirit, and (2) His sending of them into the world to share His Gospel.
• Remember that Jesus Himself was conceived by the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:18, 20). Years later He told His disciples that they too would have an experience of being indwelt by the Holy Spirit — “…the Spirit … dwells with you and will be in you” (John 14:17, NKJV). Before Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Holy Spirit was “with” His disciples. But immediately after His resurrection from the dead, Jesus imparted the Spirit literally into His faithful followers (“He shall be in you”). Bible scholars are in substantial agreement that this is the moment when those disciples were “born again” by the Holy Spirit, that is, they received the experience Jesus had spoken of in John 3:3, 6-7 — “You must be born again.”
• Recall Genesis 2:7, NASB — “Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” This was the creation of Adam, the first man. God fashioned a body, then breathed life into it, and Adam came alive. In a spiritual sense, this is exactly what Jesus did in John 20:22. He “breathed on them,” the Holy Spirit entered into them, and they were born again. The key point is this: Jesus chooses born-again believers to take His commission to share the Gospel in this world to save souls. It’s important to note that imparting to His disciples the new birth by the Spirit was the very first thing Jesus did after His resurrection to prepare them for Great Commission work.
• And the second thing, right along with that new birth, was Jesus “sending” them to do His work. Some Christians have a wrong outlook and are hoping for an imminent “rapture” out of the world. But Jesus said quite the opposite: “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world … As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world” (John 17:15, 18). We have kingdom work to do! There is a world that needs the message of Jesus Christ, and He is sending us into that world with the message of His grace and salvation from our sins.
• So in sum, John’s Gospel's contribution to the Great Commission is twofold: (1) Jesus uses born-again believers to do His calling, and (2) He sends us forth into this lost world with the message of salvation in Jesus Christ.
Acts 1:3-8 After his suffering …  on one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” …  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.”
• In his Book of Acts, Luke records several more vitally important aspects of the Great Commission: (1) the need for the baptism with the Holy Spirit; (2) heaven-sent power for ministry; (3) our call to “be witnesses” of Jesus; and (4) the global nature of His commission — “to the ends of the earth.”
• The scene is just before Jesus ascended back to heaven. Immediately after His resurrection, as we saw just above (John 20:21-22), Jesus had given them the new birth by the Holy Spirit. Now, some seven weeks later, Jesus has another impartation of the Holy Spirit for them — the baptism with the Holy Spirit. This is not their new birth; they were already born again seven weeks earlier, right after Passover. This was a separate, powerful anointing by the same Spirit that they needed before going forth to minister effectively.
• So Jesus told them, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised… in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Not “born” of the Spirit, but “baptized” with the Spirit. These are two distinct ministries of the Holy Spirit — (1) giving us the new birth, then (2) giving us the baptism, the filling, of the Spirit. It’s a startling fact when we see that even their intensive personal training by Jesus Himself for more than three years was not sufficient in Jesus’ eyes to send them forth for the Great Commission work. No, He knew that they needed the full anointing, the mighty baptism with the Spirit to empower them for the work. In fact, Jesus Himself had followed the same pattern (Acts 10:38) — “…how [at Christ's age 30] God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil…” First came the Holy Spirit anointing, then His entry into public, powerful ministry.
• That need for the fullness of the Spirit is still valid today. Its purpose is so that we “receive power… [to] be my [Christ’s] witnesses.” As the late T.L. Osborn wrote, that is the purpose of Pentecost. Before His baptism with the Spirit, the apostle Peter denied Jesus three times. After His Spirit baptism the same Peter (Acts 2) boldly preached a powerfully anointed sermon on the Day of Pentecost. The immediate result was 3,000 newly saved and baptized believers! What was the difference? Peter was now ministering in the power imparted to him by the baptism with the Spirit. We need that too!
• And the Commission of Jesus (vs. 8) is to take His Gospel “to the ends of the earth.” I write this today in the USA's Pacific Northwest after spending many years ministering in Alaska. Those to whom Jesus spoke this command in Acts 1 never traveled this far. It is obvious that the Lord has commissioned His born-again, Spirit-filled believers in all centuries and in every nation to reach the ends of the earth, which the early church was not logistically able to do. We today have the privilege of obeying Christ’s global commission wherever we are and wherever He sends us.
• So in sum, Acts 1 adds some more elements to our composite Great Commission: (1) born-again believers, Jesus insisted, also need the baptism with the Spirit to fulfill the call; (2) we need the ministry power — healings, miracles, signs, wonders, exorcisms, etc. — that is received in that Holy Ghost anointing; (3) we go forth to “be witnesses” of Jesus Christ; and (4) it is a global Commission, “to the ends of the earth.”
• Now let’s see what additional insights Luke adds in his Gospel.
Luke 24:45-49 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
• The time is after Jesus’ resurrection and probably not long before He ascended back to heaven.
• Luke makes a number of Great Commission emphases: (1) repentance; (2) forgiveness of sins; (3) Jesus’ name; (4) a global commission — “to all nations”; (5) we are to be His witnesses to the world of these things; and (6) as Luke said in Acts 1, it would require Holy Spirit “power from on high.” Let me briefly comment on some of these.
• The need for forgiveness of sins is universal. Paul wrote, “All have sinned…” (Romans 3:23). Along with faith in Jesus Christ, the sinner must repent to God — “repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21, KJV). Be careful to see this as a positive message. That is, there is forgiveness to those who repent and turn to Jesus.
• This repentance unto forgiveness is to be preached “in His name.” The name of Jesus Christ is the name above all other names (Philippians 2:9). There is salvation in that name, physical healing in that name, deliverance from bondages in that name, and much, much more. At the heart of the Great Commission is preaching Jesus Christ. The early Church understood this, and so must we. For example, Philip went down to the city of Samaria “and preached Christ unto them” (Acts 8:5, KJV). The apostle Paul said, “We preach Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23). The Gospel we preach is the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified, buried, and resurrected from the dead for the sins of all mankind (1 Corinthians 15:1-4).
• As Luke also said in Acts 1, the Great Commission is global (“to all nations”). And to accomplish it, Jesus’ followers need the “power from on high” that comes in the baptism with the Holy Spirit.
• So in sum, Luke’s Gospel shows us a number of Great Commission insights: It is a Gospel of grace and forgiveness of sins to all who will repent. We are called to preach and magnify the name of our Savior, Jesus Christ, to all nations. We “are witnesses” of these things. And our witness is to be made effective by the “power from on high” that comes from being filled with, not just born of, the Holy Spirit.
Mark 16:15-20 He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God. Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.
• Some scholars debate whether this portion was in the earliest manuscripts. Since some well-respected translations, such as the King James Version, do include it, so shall I for our purposes today.
• Mark’s Great Commission record has a Gospel-with-power emphasis. As already seen in John 20, Mark also included the Lord’s sending — “Go… preach the gospel…” And Mark's account has a global emphasis — “into all the world.” But the special, distinguishing characteristic of Mark’s account is its emphasis on supernatural power confirming the preached Gospel.
• Jesus promised that supernatural signs would accompany believers as they preached His Gospel, things such as driving out demons, healing the sick, and speaking in tongues. And just as Jesus had promised, vs. 20 shows that as the disciples went forth and preached, “the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.” Our Gospel ministry is to be a word-and-power ministry, not word only.
• Mark also emphasizes water baptism, which we will look at in Matthew’s account below.
• So Mark’s contribution to the Great Commission record can be summarized as: (1) preach the Gospel in all the world; (2) baptize new believers; (3) expect the Lord to confirm His Gospel with supernatural signs.
Matthew 28:18-20 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
• Finally we look at Matthew’s record. When people refer to “the Great Commission,” usually more than any other book of the bible they are referring to this chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.
• Matthew adds some new and very important emphases to the Commission. First, he records Jesus revealing to His disciples that He (Jesus) has been given “all authority in heaven and on earth.” Then He says, “Therefore go…” So our sending to the harvest fields is with the limitless authority of Jesus Christ standing behind our calling.
• “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations” — again, a global call, to all nations. But we see a new emphasis here. Luke and Mark had emphasized preaching the Gospel. But Matthew’s emphasis is on making disciples in all nations. That involves “teaching them to obey” the teachings of the Lord (vs. 20).
• Combining these emphases, we can appreciate the time-honored, short definition of the Great Commission as: “Win the lost and train the saved.”
• Matthew, like Mark, also adds an important water baptismal emphasis — “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
• Jesus closes Matthew’s record of the Commission with these encouraging words: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” We don’t have to go this alone. As we take His Gospel to a lost world, Jesus will be with us always. How long? — “to the very end of the age.” That includes us today. All these aspects of the Great Commission that we have looked at are for us today at this latter time in the Church Age. Be encouraged. As my good friend George Kurian used to say, we are “Great Commissioners” in the Lord’s harvest field. Let’s go forth and win the lost and train the saved for Jesus Christ.
Let’s combine the four Gospels and Acts 1 to see, in closing, a composite picture of Christ’s plan to reach the world with His saving grace. Here it is:
• Jesus is calling and sending into the world born-again, Spirit-filled believers. Our message is Jesus Christ crucified and risen, and that faith in Him and repentance bring us forgiveness of sins and new birth into the family of God. Through the baptism with the Holy Spirit, Jesus gives us power not just to preach in His name and to teach the Word, but to see it confirmed powerfully through supernatural signs, healings, miracles, and more. We do this deputized by Him who has all authority in heaven and earth. And as we lead others to salvation in Jesus Christ, we exhort them to be baptized, to be taught in the Word of God, and to become obedient, maturing disciples of the Lord. And Jesus Christ is with us to the very end as we go forth to win the lost and train the saved!