His Last Words: Our First Work
by Michael Milton
Introduction to the Reading of the Scripture
I want to preach from Matthew 28.16-20. It is a very familiar passage and is all but taken for granted during Mission Conferences. Like John 3.16 and a few others, the passage is so popular that it is liable to being dismissed by those who have heard everything you can hear about it. So, I want to introduce it by reading from Revelation 2.4, "Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love." The passage is Christ’s condemnation of a good church, an orthodox church, a believing church, but a church who had left the first things. Now what are they? They are the things you loved at the first—when you first believed; when you first were on fire for Christ. You loved the power of the Gospel to change lives, you loved the amazing love of God in sending His only Son to live the life you could never live and dying a substitutionary death for sinners like you; and you loved obedience to the Great Commission. That which you had seen and heard, you wanted to share with an entire world that your joy may be full.
So, then, no matter how great our churches may be, we must never abandon our first love.
With that in mind, I call your attention to Matthew 28.16-20. The last words of our Savior before He ascending into heaven are our first words, our first things as the Body of Christ and as individual believers. Thus, I draw your attention to the inerrant and infallible Word of the living God:
But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated. And when they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful. And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." Matt. 28.16-20 (NASB).
Introduction to the Sermon
I heard an airline pilot say that his work is just the "same old-same old." I thought when he said that that I wouldn’t want it any other way! There are some things that are best left alone and taking off and landing without incident is one of them. Don’t get fancy, just get me there!
When we come to the Word of God is like that. There are some places in Scripture where it may seem like the "same old—sameold." But, our attitude should be "don’t get fancy, preacher, just get me there" with faithfulness to the timeless message of the Bible. We say with Charles Hodge of Princeton fame, "I glory in the fact that there is nothing new taught here!"
When we come to Matthew 28.16-20—The Great Commission of Jesus Christ—you have heard it, read it, and heard it again. The text is plain enough. While that is so, we serve a God who is always renewing, reviving, correcting, and establishing His Church through the presence and power of the Holy Sprit. I would not be surprised, then—yea ,I pray for it—that God would do something new in your life today with this familiar passage of His Word.
Well, what would God have for us tonight from Matthew 28.16-20?
Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing
When I was in business, as the manager of a chemical concern, my boss would come, occasionally, to visit the plant and to review my work. It was importantthat the plant was clean, it was important that the employees were happy, it was important that we were compliant with all the regulations governing us. But, all of that was not as important as this one thing: that we were profitable! Without that, we could be clean, happy and compliant...BUT OUT OF BUSINESS! It was imperative that as we were about our work, WE HAD TO KEEP THE MAIN THING - THE MAIN THING! And the Main Thing...was profit.
Now, it seems to me that today we as a Church are often concerned about a great deal of things: buying and selling properties, positioning ourselves in the community, creating ministries to serve our people...and all of this has its place: BUT THIS PASSAGE TEACHES US THAT WE MUST KEEP THE MAIN THING - THE MAIN THING. And what is main thing? It is the God Given Mission of the Church.
From this great passage at the conclusion of St. Matthew’s Gospel, lets consider several Truths about the Great Commission. From Christ’s last words, let us examine the truths that make up our first work as believers and as a church.
I. The Mission of the Church is grounded in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. (v 17)
"When they saw Him…"—V. 17
The resurrected and living Savior directs them here to a mountain where He will give them - and us - the principle mission of the Church. But, note, this mission was not given by a religious leaders prior to His death! Then, he told us HOW to live. We will be known as His disciples as we love one another. But, then, He tells us WHAT to do! That comes after His death and Resurrection!
Show me any religion which calls itself Christian which grounds its mission in the ethical system of Jesus of Nazareth and I will show you a flawed Church. Our Mission is grounded in the historical fact of the resurrection of Christ!
Listen to Paul:
"If Christ is not risen, then our preaching is vain and your faith is also vain." (1 Cor. 15.14)
Our reason for being is grounded in a risen Savior guiding and directing His people and so it continues today.
The division today in the Church is no different than in Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield’s day in the early parts of this century: the division between a natural religion and a supernatural religion.
Our Mission is SUPERNATURAL in its origin: the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
II. The Mission of the Church arose out of Worship and Must Always Be Centered in Worship. (16,17)
"Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him…"—V. 16,17
Note well here in verses 16 and 17 that "they worshipped him." The Mission of the Church was given in Worship and today it is still realized in Worship.
We are told in Hebrews not "to forsake the assembling of ourselves as some have done." Why? Because our very existence was born in Worship and is sustained in Worship and is, I say, also, advanced in Worship.
We may lead people to Christ anywhere...but we must direct them back to the breast of our Church: The public Worship of the People of God.
John Piper, the prominent Baptist pastor from Minneapolis, states it very well:
"The fuel for world wide missions is Worship."
Thus, must we make our services a reenactment of the Gospel. We must ground our services in the reality of Christ With Us - a supernatural event- not a humanly contrived performance.
Edmund Clowny of Westminster Seminary proclaimed that Worship, itself, is evangelistic in nature. The fact that men and women gather together because they believe the risen Savior is there, that they sing to Him and pray to Him and interpret His Message for our own day is a sign of our faith.
May your worship here at this church lift up the risen Jesus and may He draw people to Himself.
III. The Mission of the Church is advanced in the midst of doubters. (17).
"When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted."—V. 17
It is necessary that you see that while they worship, "...some doubted."
Some doubted even when they saw Him! How much more do they doubt Him now.
Not to worry, though. There have been and always will be a Church filled with Wheat and Tares: believers and doubters. This in itself will not stop the power of the Gospel. Many of those who doubt today are often in the pulpit. They cloak their doubt in their robes of authority. Others are in the pews.
But, doubters cannot stop the Mission of the Church. Be not dismayed.
IV. The Mission of the Church is Centered in the Ruling and Reigning Christ. (v. 18)
"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me."—V. 18
In verse 18, I call your attention to this great statement from the lips of the glorified Savior: "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth."
Who gave the authority? The Father is here implied for none other in the Godhead or in the Universe He created can give such absolute authority.
"He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist." (Col. 1.15-17).
"...For it pleased the Father than in Him all the fullness should well." (Col. 1.19).
Today, the Church is serving a Lord who is absolutely sovereign. Jesus of Nazareth, my friends, in His life and death and resurrection and here in His Royal Decree for the Plan of the Ages shows Himself to be THE ALMIGHTY GOD.
The Church, then, will be successful.
V. The Mission of the Church is Centrifugal in Nature. (19)
"Therefore go…"—V. 19
In verse 19 we see the outward or centrifugal nature of this Great Mandate , this Great Commission.
"Go therefore..." His authority leads Him to fulfill the promise of all the Old Testament Scriptures. "Go and make disciples."
Go and liberate the captives; heal the brokenhearted; release men and women and entire nations from the bondage of Satan and the consequences of Sin.
This Command is certainly corporate. The Church as a whole is to go. But, the Church is made up of people - of individuals. The record of Acts shows that this Mandate was taken personally by the disciples of Christ.
"Those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word." (Acts 8.4).
To be a Christian is to be a person committed to fulfilling the Great Commission in your own life as you
Make disciples, first, in your own home;
Then, in your community, as you come into contact with others; Then, through your participation with other believers, to make disciples to the nation.
I heard a Rabbi say once that the Old Testament knows nothing of a religion that is reaching out to make converts. He said that Judaism is not interested in reaching others to come into their faith. That is an absolute absurdity. Listen to Isaiah 49:
"It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth."—Is. 49.6
Christianity, as Paul showed in his defense before the Governor Felix in Acts 26 is not a sect but the fulfillment of the Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and thus the only legitimate heir to the faith of the patriarchs and it is too small a thing for the Church to be kept to a small number. It is centrifugal, spinning out from a mustard seed to a number no man can count. The Church is now and always reaching outward. This is the very nature of the Church as it is given to us by the Lord of the Church.
VI. The Mission of the Church must be understood as Global church planting in localized areas. (v 19).
"…make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them…"—V. 18
The Mission of the Church is to go into all the world. But notice that Jesus says there must be baptism and teaching. This is the work of the local church. The Church is global...but always dependent on the local ordinances of the Church. It is for this reason that we don’t just go to have crusades, but to establish churches. We don’t just go to have national tent revivals, but we go to gather and grow the elect of Christ in local assemblies where they can receive the ordinance of the Church (baptism) as well as be fed and built up on the doctrines of Christ, which is what the teaching means.
The Great Commission is Church Planting throughout nations, people groups, communities, around the corner and around the world, with the aim of changing one life at a time. To baptize and to teach is a very personal thing. We need to be about the work of supporting church planting in our generation. Whether it is in Savannah, or Georgia, or North America, or through supporting the planting of churches in foreign fields.
The Great Commission can only be met in its fullest expression through the local church.
VII. The Mission of the Church is to Teach others to Obey. (v. 20)
"…teaching them to obey everything I commanded you."—V. 20
Now for anyone who supposes that Christianity is simply a set of philosophical ideas that can be embraced without obedience, you will have to deal with these words. Jesus is calling for a radical mission: we are to teach with a view to change the course of people’s lives and to "conform" them to the image of Jesus Christ.
So, we don’t just preach conversion, but we expose the commandments regarding doctrine and life.
Paul told the Ephesian elders,
"For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole counsel of God." Acts 20.27.
Again, the Mission is to teach disciples to obey. This is a long term event - not just giving them a Gospel presentation - THOUGH IT BEGINS THERE.
So, we order our churches around the life long, systematic teaching of the Gospel as it is contained in the Word of God.
VIII. The Mission of the Church will soon come to an end. (v. 20).
"And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."—V. 20
In verse 20, Jesus says He is with us to accomplish this mission "to the end of the age."
For the New Testament writers, the end of the age had commenced with the resurrection and ascension of Christ. Now, no one knows the day or the hour, but the last days have ensued—the eschatological clock has already started to move towards the last hour. Our Mission will one day come to an end.
Well it has been said, though, that we should
"live as if He were coming today and work as if He were not to return for another thousand years."
Let no one here who is a believer shrink from the Mission until that day. Likewise, for any here who are like the people in the days of Noah, outside the Ark, come on in. There is great room in this splendid ship. She appears to be built with human hands, but she is the work of the hands of God—the product of the Risen Lord who guides her to the Mount that is higher than the Judgment.
IX. The Mission of the Church is Undertaken with the Presence and Power of the Risen Lord. (v. 20).
"I am with you always…"
Finally, we have only to note this most comforting truth: "I am with you always." Since Jesus spoke those words, 11 of the 12 apostles fulfilled their Mission through martyrdom - but Jesus was there; our fathers and mothers in the faith were strong to see fulfill this Mission, while suffering many persecutions and hardships for the Gospel, but Jesus was there.
Today, the Mission is laid upon your shoulders. It is the work of this church in this generation. Jesus is there.
Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus and ends with the eternal Plan of God to reach His people through the work of His Bride: The Church.
Isaac Watts has captured the grandeur of this Great Plan in what has become the classic Hymn of the Great Commission:
"Jesus shall reign wherever the sun, does his successive journeys run; his kingdom stretch from shore to shore till moons shall was and wane no more."
The Mission of the Church WILL go on. The vital question for everyone here today is this: Will it go on with you or without you?
If you are not trusting in this resurrected, ascended and returning Savior, then you are standing OUTSIDE of the most glorious EVENT in the Universe. The Gospel of Christ in St. Matthew as in all of the Scriptures calls you to recognize your inability to stand before a holy God without a Savior. There is no other Savior but this One: God’s Son, Jesus Christ. He calls you to become His disciple - His follower.
For those of us who do follow Him, His last word is our first work.
Let us pray.
Michael A. Milton, Ph.D. is a graduate of the University of Wales, Lampeter, Mid America Nazarene University. He was the founder and director at Chaplain Ministry Institute, was an ordained Minister at Presbyterian Church in America and Interim Administrator at knox theological seminary. He is currently Chancellor/CEO of Reformed Theological seminary, where he holds the James M. Baird, Jr. Chair of Pastoral Theology.