If there is any verse of Scripture a good Southern Baptist knows, next to John 3:16 or the 23rd Psalm, it would be the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20. Having completed His earthly ministry and finished His atoning work on the cross, the resurrected Lord gathered His followers on a hillside in Galilee for final instructions prior to ascending to the Father. He said, "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things I have commanded unto you; and, lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age."
Although we are familiar with the Great Commission, it is sad that so few Christians feel any responsibility for fulfilling it. Oh, we know this reflects God's desire to evangelize a lost world and extend His kingdom to the ends of the earth, but we tend to just relegate it collectively to our mission programs. Most church members feel they have been obedient by supporting missionaries through the Cooperative Program and Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, sending someone else to do the work. But you are being appointed because you have taken personally the command of our Lord to disciple the nations. Some of you did not let the familiarity of this passage become a trite clichÃ©; God's Spirit convicted you that it was your responsibility to go. You responded in obedience, and that's why you are here, on your way to a foreign country to make disciples. So I want to remind you of the purpose, the power and the promise of the Great Commission.
Contrary to the perception of many people, as well as many sermons, including some of my own, Jesus does not command us to go in this passage. The mandate to go into all the world is a necessity if we are to be obedient to disciple the nations and be His witnesses to the ends of the earth. You have been called to go, and for you personally there is no other alternative but to be obedient to that call. That's why you are leaving a business in Texas, a pastorate in Mississippi, or family in North Carolina or Georgia. You are going to places like the Ukraine, Russia, India, and countries we cannot name publicly because God has told you to go. But in the Great Commission Jesus uses a participle that in effect says, as you are going, this is what you are to do. When He says to baptize and to teach, He once again uses a participle to explain what you do to make disciples.
There is only one transitive verb in this passage, and it clearly and explicitly reflects the purpose of the Great Commission. That is the command to make disciples. Disciples are students or learners, those that become true followers of Jesus Christ. For one to become a disciple, he is to be baptized. Administering water baptism does not provide salvation or make one a Christian. But Jesus made it clear that a disciple is one who openly and publicly identifies with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ who makes salvation possible to all who come to Him in repentance and faith.
You may not be aware that the International Mission Board does not report professions of faith in our work around the world. We have many volunteer teams going overseas who return reporting thousands of professions of faith. We would like to think that everyone who lifted their hand in response to a public invitation or prayed the sinners prayer was genuinely born again, but we can't really know whether or not there was understanding of that decision and a sincere repentant heart; we can only be faithful to proclaim the message and invite people to respond. But we can assume that when one crosses the line to step away from cultural religious traditions, the darkness and bondage of sin or futile works-based personal efforts to find salvation and publicly confesses that through the testimony of baptism, he is a follower of Jesus Christ; it is the first step to becoming a true disciple. Last year we rejoiced that our missionaries reported more than 600,000 new believers baptized around the world.
Also a part of the task of making disciples is teaching obedience to what Jesus commanded, how one is to live as one who identifies with the Christ life. As a new missionary I was perplexed by this responsibility, stated by Jesus as, "teaching them to observe all that I commanded you." Upon leading a new group to accept Christ and be baptized, I would wonder how in the world I could teach them everything that Jesus taught. They had no background whatsoever to understand the Christian life. What is the first priority? What should I teach them first? I tried to outline all the lessons for a new Christian, the things that Jesus taught, and realized it would take years. I finally realized what Jesus was saying was to teach them obedience. I gave them Bibles and instructed them to read them, believe what it said and do what it taught, and that took care of it.
But baptizing and teaching is how we fulfill the Great Commission. What is its purpose? The very nature of a transitive verb demands an object, and the object of the imperative verb "make disciples" is quite clear. It is all nations. But the word Jesus uses for "nations" isn't one that means the geopolitical countries portrayed on our maps. The expression in Greek is panta ta ethne, which literally means all the peoples. We often say the world is not a pancake; it's a waffle. If you had pancakes for breakfast and poured syrup on them, it probably flowed all over that smooth round surface; but not so with your waffle. Waffles have all those little squares separated by ridges, and if you want syrup all over your waffle, you have to be very deliberate to pour it in every little square. Well, the world is not a smooth homogeneous group of people who are all alike; even each country is a matrix of languages and cultures.
For example, missionaries have labored many years in Pakistan and poured the syrup of the gospel among the Punjabi people, but the Sindhi, Baluchi, and Pashtu are yet to be evangelized. We have had missionary work in Nigeria for 150 years; and there are more than a million Baptists there, mostly among the Hausa and Yoruba, but we have identified over two hundred people groups like the Fulani and Kanuri that have not become disciples of Christ. I just returned from a two-week trip to South America where missionaries have been working more than one hundred years. There are strong churches in almost every Latin American country. In one of our meetings, the regional leadership gave a report that indicated more than four hundred tribes and people groups, isolated in the Amazon jungles or remote valleys of the Andes, have yet to hear the gospel.
This is the purpose of the Great Commission. We have diluted it to make it apply to whatever we do in witness and ministry, but the purpose is to make disciples, followers of Jesus from among every tribe, people, tongue, and nation. And we can do that only by going to where they are. The mission and purpose of the International Mission Board is "that all peoples may know Him." I often ask myself in considering the abundant resources and manpower of Southern Baptists, "By what criteria should any people be denied access to the gospel when we have been so richly blessed?"
You have answered the call to go, but never forget the purpose for which you go is to make disciples. When I was on the field as a missionary in Indonesia, we would always give our report at our annual mission meeting. We would report on the number of baptisms, the number of new churches that had been planted in the previous year, how many mission points had been started and other activities. One year someone in the group asked, following my report, "How many disciples did you make this year?" I had to hesitate; though I had recorded the number baptized, how many had truly become followers of Christ, living in obedience to His teaching, emulating His lifestyle? I wasn't too confident of that answer. But it is the disciples that will multiply your witness, win others, start churches, and extend the kingdom of God far beyond what you could do. God is sending you to the peoples and nations to the ends of the earth to make disciples. That is His purpose.