The Great Commission: God is gathering a family to Himself


By Mark Ellis

Worship with the Nations
Worship with the Nations

I remember some years ago the missions chairman in our church came up to me and asked if I would like to serve on the missions committee, and I said, “No, I’m not really into missions, it’s just not my thing.”

Now in hindsight I look back in wonderment at the way God changed my heart – a complete, 180-degree change. If you have the attitude I had a few years ago, I will try to provide an opening for a change of heart.

What happened in the days following the first Easter morning? According to the Gospels, after Jesus rose bodily from the dead, He appeared 11 times over a period of 40 days before he ascended into heaven.

It was on those later visits that he met with His disciples on a mountain in Galilee, along with as many as 500 others, and delivered what we call The Great Commission. While it is at the end of the Book of Matthew, in many ways it’s the climax of the book.

“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 (ethnos), 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.’”

Unlimited authority

The first thing to consider is the fact that Jesus has unlimited authority and unlimited power. As noted pastor and author John Piper has observed, He has authority over Satan and all demons. He has authority over the natural universe, all the stars and galaxies. At the microscopic level, He has authority over molecules, atoms, and genetic structures.

The DNA code is a language He created, a self-replicating, digital information system. The simplest one-celled creatures had to have that information system before they could replicate.

Jesus has authority over bacteria and viruses and parasites and over the next breath you take and the next beat of your heart.  He has authority over all nations and governments, all armies and weapons. His authority if infinite because Jesus is one with God and Jesus is God.

So if we answer His command to go and make disciples, we don’t go under our strength or by our authority. We couldn’t go out and reach all the nations through our own limited power – that would be foolhardy – a mission impossible with or without Tom Cruise.

Jesus didn’t send anybody to make disciples until the Holy Spirit came on the Day of Pentecost. He said, “You go to Jerusalem and you wait until you are filled with power from on high.” And on the Day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit came and baptized them with His power and authority.

These cowering, fearful people suddenly became bold witnesses for Jesus Christ. Peter, who had just finished denying he even knew Jesus, suddenly received the boldness to go out and witness before thousands of people in Jerusalem – and 3,000 believed his message.

To put it simply: On the 40th day Jesus went up, ascended to heaven; on the 50th day the Holy Spirit came down. Then the disciples went out and new believers came in.

The bigger story

Even though the Great Commission is given at the end of Matthew, it’s part of a bigger story that began in Genesis and ends in Revelation. From Genesis 12, when God told Abraham that all the families of the earth would be blessed through his offspring (the coming Messiah)…

… to Revelation 5, when you see in the throne room a whole family singing to Jesus:  “Worthy are you…for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed a people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God.”

From every tribe, from every language, from every people, from every nation, from the first invitation to the last invitation…

“God is reaching out in love to gather a family to Himself,” as Pastor Rick Warren has observed.

Let’s consider verse 19: “Go there and make disciples of all nations.” This is not given as a suggestion of Jesus, it is given as a command of Jesus. In fact, it’s His last command to us and that makes it very important.

He commands us to reach all people with His love, grace, and truth, to make disciples of them and build up the church.

We don’t have to go out with bullets or bombs to make converts. We go out with the Good News, with prayer covering from our brothers and sisters, and sacrificial love. In Luke 10:3, Jesus said, “Go, I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves.”

Who should go? Who should respond to this command? God wants every believer to be part of this. We don’t all go to the same place and we don’t all go in the same way.

The question isn’t if we get involved, it’s only how – what it looks like for you.

“Once you become a believer, the Great Commission becomes your mission,” Pastor Adrian Rogers noted.

The people He chose as disciples and the people He has chosen down through the ages to carry this out are often very average people. He started with a few fisherman who hadn’t gone to college, had no money and no prestige. They weren’t the most capable or brilliant or experienced.

But they were available. They said, “God, use me – in spite of my flaws and failings.” But our faults paired up with His adequacy is all we need.

The early believers had something that stones couldn’t stop and jails couldn’t hold. No matter what the persecutors threw at them then, and no matter what the persecutors throw at the church today in places like Iran and North Korea, the gates of hell will not prevail against God’s church.

Do I need to move overseas?

Jesus commands us to go and make disciples throughout the whole world. Now you might be thinking, Does this mean I have to pack up and move to outer Mongolia?  Well, no, not necessarily…but what about starting in your own neighborhood?

How about starting with your own family? Jesus may call some of you to go to Asia or Africa, but he calls every one of us to make disciples with those closest to us. Jesus said His Gospel would begin in Jerusalem, then go into the hills of Judea and Samaria, then out to the rest of the world.

Start with your Jerusalem, wherever that is. If you have kids at home, start with them. That’s your mission field. When our boys, Sam and Nate, were at home, we had Saturday morning devotionals together.

We tried to pray with them before they went to school, before meals, and before they went to sleep at night, so prayer became part of the natural rhythm of life.

When they were young, we went through their children’s Bible together. As they got a little older, about 12 or 13, I went through Proverbs with them.

Before they left for college, we read through The Purpose Driven Life together. We would always share prayer requests and pray for each other. It was fairly short and simple; it doesn’t have to be elaborate.

As someone said, “Short legs, short prayers. Longer legs, longer prayers.”

If you have already begun to make disciples in your Jerusalem, God may begin to expand your territory and give you a heart for the nations.

Christianity is a missionary faith. We go to every nation and every religion and call them to turn away from their sins, put their faith in Jesus Christ, and receive eternal life.

Where is God calling you? Is one of the nations calling your name? If you want to do some research on this, the God Reports website can show you ways to get plugged in to missions.

When will Jesus return?

It’s been a long time since Jesus left us and ascended into heaven. In almost every generation, there has been anticipation that He could be returning soon. Why hasn’t He come back in 2000 years? What is taking so long?

Let’s consider one possible reason, a verse in Matthew 24, when Jesus talks about the signs of the end of the age, he says, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”

Now we believe the Second Coming of Jesus could be imminent, it could happen at any time, but this idea is also in tension with the fact that Jesus said there are certain signs that would precede His return.

I think it’s fair to say Jesus has not returned in 2000 years because the Great Commission has not been fulfilled. So once that last people group is reached somewhere around the world, His return truly will be imminent, perhaps even instantaneously.

The exciting thing is it could happen in our lifetimes. You may be part of fulfilling the Great Commission.

But there is much to be done. There are still about 4,000 tribes that have not heard the name of Jesus Christ. How is it possible that after 2,000 years there are still 4,000 people groups that don’t know about Jesus?

Often these groups are located in “closed” or restricted countries. They are restricted politically or religiously, or they are geographically very remote. In these 4,000 unreached people groups there are 2.9 billion people. Seventy percent of the world’s population lives in religiously restricted countries.

Did you know there are 458,000 villages in India with no known Christian presence? Did you know that a majority of the people groups in China, Afghanistan, and Indonesia have no Bibles available in their primary languages? The largest such people group is the Jin in China, with 58 million people.

Finishing this task seems monumental at times, but we serve a big God. Here is a piece of good news from the missions front: The fastest growing Christian population in the world right now is in Iran, where the underground church is growing at almost 20% per year.

Undermining the American dream

John Piper says if give your heart to serve the Lord in missions, it is one of the most wonderfully dangerous things you can do to undermine your addiction to the American dream.

Instead of thinking, how can I get a bigger and bigger house and fill it with more and more stuff, then rent a storage unit because I run out of room for all my stuff, what if I got a smaller house and used some of the money I saved for missions?

Rick Warren says, “You were not made to live for yourself. You were made for a greater mission in life. Until you learn to give yourself away to the mission God created you for, only then will you learn what it really means to live.”

Jesus showed us the pattern for making disciples when he found Peter and his brother Andrew casting nets into the sea and He said, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”

In their process of discipleship, first came a relationship with Jesus, and they began to understand what it meant to put Him above their own selfish motives.

Paul expressed the goal of discipleship to the Colossians when he said he wanted to present every one of them complete (mature) in Christ. (Col.1:28) He wanted to bring them to the place where they were no longer dependent on themselves, their friends and family, or material things.

He wants you to have total dependence on Christ every day, to view Jesus as your life, your power, and your resource, so that you become independently dependent on Jesus.

In order to make disciples, first we must be disciples ourselves. I was 45 years old before a retired pastor, Ray Ortlund, took me under wing and began to intentionally disciple me. Ideally, everyone should have a Paul and a Timothy in their lives: someone older in the faith discipling you, then you turn around and help someone younger in the faith to grow.

Ask the Lord who you can invest in. Who can you give your life to in order to help them find Christ and grow in Him?

One person’s influence

Noted seminary professor Howard Hendricks told about a man named Walt who influenced his life when he was young. When little Howie Hendricks was out shooting marbles in the dirt, this man invited him to be in his Sunday School class.

Walt had gone to his church and asked if he could teach Sunday School. They told him they had an extra classroom, but he would have to find his own students. So he found little Howie — and he found 12 other boys. Hendricks says, “I can’t tell you one thing Walt said, but I can tell you this much: he loved me.”

“Of those 13 boys, three became pastors, six became full-time missionaries, and two became seminary professors.” What an impact one life can have!

I was blessed to have Pastor Ray Ortlund, disciple me, and he imparted the vision to disciple others. Ray and his wife, Anne, said there should be five ingredients in every disciple-making group:

  1. Worship 2. Bible study 3. Sharing 4. Prayer 5. Accountability

My wife Sally and I like to begin our small groups with foundational material that covers the assurance of salvation (how to be certain you’re a Christian), the attributes of God, how to know the Bible, how to pray, the Spirit-filled life, fellowship, how to witness, how to overcome temptation, and the blessings of obedience.

But its about more than just teaching. It’s more than just a program. It’s about life rubbing against life – it’s about sharing lives. The hope is that you begin to minister to each other by the power of the Spirit –that’s what brings richness into disciple-making.

In verse 19, Jesus tells us we are not only to be involved in making disciples, he says we are to be involved in “marking” disciples through baptism. Jesus began his public ministry by being baptized and he finished his public ministry by commanding all believers to be baptized.

In verse 20, Jesus tells His disciples to teach other disciples all that He commanded them. As Christians, we are not under the burden of keeping the laws of the Old Testament. But we do follow the commands of Jesus, as led by his Spirit, moment-by-moment.

Responding to the needs

When we go to the nations, we can quickly become overwhelmed by human need. Jesus responded to human needs by feeding the poor and healing the sick, and we should be involved with those things. Jesus – first and foremost — ministered to their souls. He ministered to the whole person, and we want to do the same.

Oswald Chambers issued this caution about missions:

“In missionary work the great danger is that God’s call will be replaced by the needs of the people, to the point that human sympathy for those needs will absolutely overwhelm the meaning of being sent by Jesus. The needs are so enormous, and the conditions so difficult, that every power of the mind falters and fails. We tend to forget that the one great reason underneath all missionary work is not primarily the elevation of the people, their education, nor their needs, but is first and foremost the command of Jesus Christ – ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.’”

So we want to keep first things first. Even as His compassion compels us to respond to human need, we can’t forget our primary call is to make disciples.

Verse 20 also contains a loving comfort: Jesus says, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Jesus promises that when we make disciples – whether we go locally or globally – his authority and his presence goes with us.

Think of the resources we have at our disposal! We have his unlimited power behind us, we have His Holy Spirit within us, we have Jesus walking beside us, no matter what life brings. Why should you hesitate about responding to His call?

A story from China

I had the privilege of interviewing Bob Bowman, the founder of Far East Broadcasting. God planted on his heart the vision to bring Christian radio broadcasts to China after World War II.

However, when he and his partner sailed over to Shanghai, they faced unexpected opposition from the Nationalist government led by Chang Kai-shek, who was preoccupied with growing conflict with the communists.  So when God closed the door in China, they unexpectedly had to shift their focus to the Philippines.

When they applied to the Philippine government to build radio transmitters for their Christian programs, their first application requested two 10,000 watt transmitters, but when the license was granted that restriction was crossed out and two words handwritten over it: ‘unlimited power!’

The maximum transmitter that can be put up in the U.S. is 50,000 watts, But ultimately they put up a transmitter with 250,000 watts that could reach all of China. They got their first transmitter built in 1949, two months before the communists took over and severe persecution against Chinese believers began.

For thirty years, they broadcast into China without knowing the full impact.  In 1949, some estimate there were about one million Christians in China. Everyone wondered what happened to the church, which was severely persecuted during this “closed” period.

Amazingly, during that time, the church grew exponentially, to 40 or 50 million people by 1980, and it’s believed that 50 percent of those new believers had their first contact with the Jesus because of those radio broadcasts.

Unlimited power was written on their application! And we serve a God of unlimited power.

A story from Africa

I just learned about an American medical missionary to the Congo, Dr. William Leslie, who served there from 1906 to 1926. He lived on the opposite side of the Loange river from the jungle.

Once a year he would cross the river and spend one month trying to reach the Yansi people scattered throughout the jungle in small villages.

He traveled from village to village, and he would tell Bible stories, teach the Yansi children how to read and write, but after doing this for 20 years, he felt he was not making much of an impact. The Yansi people were really not responding.

He left in 1926 and returned to the U.S., and died a few years later, believing he had been a failure as a missionary. I just interviewed a man named Eric Ramsey, with Tom Cox World Ministries, who led a team into that same jungle area to those remote villages in the Congo a year ago.

When Ramsey and his team went in they were expecting to find people who might know the name of Jesus, but have little understanding of Him.

When Ramsey arrived – 87 years after Leslie, he discovered a hidden gem – a whole network of reproducing churches throughout this jungle area. Each village even had its own gospel choir. They wrote their own songs and would have sing-offs from village to village.

Each village had its own church, even though they only had one worn French Bible to share between all the villages and all the Yansi people.

That missionary died thinking he was a failure, but look at the fruit of one man’s life.

As Rick Warren has shared, “What if I discovered a cure for AIDS and I decided to keep it a secret and not share it with anybody. That would be almost criminal, wouldn’t it? If I allowed millions to die when I know how to save them?

“As a Christian you have something even more significant than that. You know how a person’s past can be forgiven, how they can gain purpose and hope for living, how they can find peace with God, and live forever.

“If I decide to keep that a secret and not share it with anybody, its almost criminal, isn’t it? If I allow them to go into a Christ-less eternity when I know how to save them?”

If you respond to this command of Jesus to make disciples of all nations, it will be the single most significant thing you can do with your life. This fruit will outlast everything else. It’s why the universe was created. God, in His great love, is gathering a family to Himself.

God, in His great love, is gathering a family to Himself.

Are you ready to respond to His call? Do you want to be a part of this?


The preceding was adapted from a sermon delivered April 27, 2014 at Church by the Sea in Laguna Beach, California




  1. Your article is commendable! However, you quote Rick Warren, who is responsible for sponsoring many “Chrislam” churches, saying that the Christian God is the same as the Muslim god, Allah, and thereby deceiving otherwise decent Christian people. The two “gods” are NOT the same. There is only One God, and it is not the Muslim “Allah,” who is NOT a god, but the “Prince of the Earth,” or Satan! And that “god” wants to kill all Christians, Jews, Bhudists, Hindus and “Infidels” (anyone who does not believe “Allah” is the one, true “god,” or anyone who believes nothing at all!). There is only ONE true, Triune God called Jehovah, and Jesus, Yahweh, is the son of Jehovah, and the Holy Spirit forms the third part of the trinity. Together they form the One, True, Holy and Only God of the entire universe. I believe Rick Warren goes at his peril to try to say Jehovah is the same as “Allah,” who is Satan incarnate. Except for this GLARING ERROR, your article was exceptionally good. 🙂

  2. The story of Dr. Willaim Leslie’s success as a missionary in Congo is reminiscent
    of my own parent’s experience with Dr. Leslie in Vanga, Congo from 1912 to 1916.
    My parents also were with the American Baptist Mission Board. When the E-coli
    epidemic first surfaced in Africa probably in the 1950s or 1960s, I believe the
    Baptist hospital in Vanga, about 15 miles from the site of the original outbreak of
    the disease, treated the first patients. An MAF pilot and former student of mine
    at MBI flew me from Kinchasa to Vanga. I am 90 now and am thankful to the Lord
    for allowing me to tell this story. With a little research, I could be more specific.

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