Reframing the Great Commission.
Like all important endeavors of life, a commitment to evangelism requires that we return to Scripture for instruction. But a Bible verse remains mere words on a page until it sinks deep into the reader’s heart.
Recently, Matthew 28:17, a verse I had read many times, sank deep into my heart. It reads, “When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted.” This one verse caused me to explore the Word, changing my perspective on the Great Commission.
To begin with, this scripture introduces the setting in which the soon-to-be ascended Christ issued His final charge to His disciples. The disciples were gathered at an appointed place above the Galilean countryside (v. 16). Galilee was the place of His public ministry, the likely reason He chose that location for His final meeting with them. When Jesus appeared to the disciples, they were deeply moved and spontaneously responded with heartfelt worship.
One would be justified in dismissing this as a mere natural reaction if this were the first time the disciples saw the resurrected Christ. But it wasn’t. The Gospels record no less than ten post-Resurrection appearances, beginning with Mary Magdalene at the tomb (Mark 16:9); then the Emmaus-bound travelers (Luke 24:13-34); Peter (v. 34); ten of the eleven disciples, Thomas being absent (vv. 36-43); and lastly, to the Eleven (John 20:26-31) — all preceding the Matthew 28:17 appearance.
However, more than just the Eleven could have been present, including some who were seeing the risen Christ for the first time. The Matthew 28:17 account matches this additional appearance Paul references in 1 Corinthians 15:6a: “After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once. . . .” This isn’t verified by the Gospel records, but it seems a plausible assumption, since many would have followed the Eleven as they left Jerusalem, and many from the regions of Galilee would have joined them, creating a large crowd. And this would account for the presence of doubters among them, because by then, the Eleven would surely have gotten past their doubts. Still, some believe the doubters were actually among the Eleven and that their doubting wasn’t in the sense of unbelief, but more a reflection of their inner struggle to reconcile the mind-boggling events with present reality.*
Either way, Matthew wants us to see the beautiful worship moment when Jesus appeared to them. Mary had responded in worship earlier (v. 9), as did Thomas (John 20:28), but this is the first time this kind of worship is mentioned in connection with the collective band of the Eleven. The Greek word Matthew uses underscores homage and prostration deserving of a king. So we derive from this that for the first time, the Eleven fell at Jesus’ feet and worshipped Him as the risen Lord of glory!
This is a good place to underscore that neither the word great nor commission appears in Matthew 28:19, 20. This designation results from our conviction about the One who issued the charge, based on Jesus’ claim in verse 18: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” Previously subjected to self-imposed limitations, Jesus now claimed unlimited authority. This affected the way the disciples saw Him. It wasn’t just that Jesus reappeared on their radar screen; it was that He manifested Himself to them in a way He never had before: more clearly, more fully, exalted. And there’s only one appropriate response to such revelation of majesty: genuine, heartfelt worship. As a standard definition, worship is our response to God’s revelation of Himself. That’s what happened here in an unusual way.
Seeing the Great Commission in relation to worship puts our worship and our witness in right order, and provides a new paradigm from which to see and live out Jesus’ final charge to His disciples.
Worship is about God and therefore should be the church’s highest priority. Given the importance of the Great Commission, it would be reasonable to presume that evangelism and missions should be top priorities. Indeed, these are critical. But worship must precede witness, for loving God (worship) is what gives motivation and energy to sharing Him with others (witness).
This prioritization is also true regarding other aspects of our Christian walk. For example, our best service flows out of a worshipping heart, as Jesus reminded Martha in Luke 10:42. The quality of our fellowship (the horizontal aspect of our faith) will rise no higher than the level of our capacity for worship (the vertical aspect). Becoming a worshipper is where becoming a deep disciple begins, which explains why God seeks worshippers, not workers (John 4:23).
No one captures this concept more beautifully than Dr. John Piper. In his bestselling book, Let the Nations Be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions, he writes:
Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man. When this age is over, and the countless millions of the redeemed fall on their faces before the throne of God, missions will be no more. It is a temporary necessity. But worship abides forever.
Piper further explains that worship should be both the motivation and goal of missions. A deep, inner passion to share Christ with others must be driven by our own discovery of Jesus as the center of our joy and object of our worship. A prime example is the Samaritan woman running back to her village to invite her friends and neighbors to come see the Man who just changed her life (John 4:28-30). The fact that the breakthrough in her encounter with Jesus happened during a discussion about true worship makes this all the more interesting. Her witness was fueled by her worship, and many were thereby made glad. As Piper puts it, the goal of missions is “the gladness of the peoples in the greatness of God,” highlighted by the following verses: “The Lord is king! Let the earth rejoice! Let the farthest coastlands be glad” (Psalm 97:1, NLT); “Let the people praise thee, O God; let all the people praise thee! O let the nations be glad and sing for joy” (67:3, 4, KJV).
So Piper concludes:
Passion for God in worship precedes the offer of God in preaching. You can’t commend what you don’t cherish. Missionaries will never call out, “Let the nations be glad!” if they cannot say from the heart, “I rejoice in the Lord . . . I will be glad and exult in you, I will sing praise to your name, O Most High” (Pss. 104:34; 9:2). Missions begins and ends in worship.
This principle provides a new paradigm from which to see and carry out the Great Commission. It’s like putting an old picture in a new frame. This worship paradigm gives world missions a frame of reference we can relate to. One day all of human history will narrow down to one thing: the ceaseless worship of the Lamb upon His throne. This is what we all long for. Meanwhile, worship is dress rehearsal, and evangelism and missions are simply signing people up to join the choir!
This approach makes the Great Commission less intimidating and more doable. It puts a handle on it so succeeding generations of the church can get ahold of it for themselves. This answers concerns raised by a 2018 Barna Research study. Half of US churchgoers (51 percent) said they do not know the term Great Commission. The report acknowledges that most in this category are from a younger generation less familiar with Scripture, and further acknowledges a correlation between Bible centeredness — regular engagement with Scripture — and familiarity with this and other terms, such as evangelism, missions, etc.
But the fact remains that few among the remaining 49 percent are engaged in missions in any significant way. So the Barna organization suggests the need to “translate” the Great Commission for the benefit of churchgoers in both categories.
Doing so begins with putting a new frame around it and finding your place in the picture. Take the road trip with the Eleven from Jerusalem to Galilee. Listen to their conversation, mixed with anxiety and amazement. Stand there with them as Jesus manifests Himself, and be lost in the beauty and wonder of who He is. Those who first did so were never the same, and neither will those who do so now. To see Jesus and share Him with others is missions in its purest form, and it changes everything.