Famous Last Words

Matthew 28:18-20

January 31, 1991 | Ray Pritchard

It didn’t happen in Chicago, so it wasn’t a day like this. Cold, wet, snowy, slippery and watch your step. No, it didn’t happen here so it wasn’t on a day like this. In fact it was on a day about as different from this day as a day could be. It happened in Palestine. In Galilee. Two thousand years ago.

It was a sunny day and eleven men were walking up the road together. They left Jerusalem a day or two earlier. Eleven men now. One of them dead and gone. Buried, or perhaps not. They left Jerusalem by way of that windy, treacherous mountain road to Jericho. Past Jericho, across the Jordan River and north toward Galilee. This was after the death of Jesus Christ. And after his resurrection. It had been a week now since that fateful weekend. These eleven men were going back home. For they were Galileans. James and John and Peter and Bartholomew and Simon the Zealot and Matthew and the others, they were men from Galilee. From those little fishing towns that dotted the shore of the Sea of Galilee. From Nazareth and from Capernaum and Bethsaida and from the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and from places like Nain. They were fishermen and they were farmers and they were tax collectors and they were learned and unlettered men. They had been chosen by Jesus Christ to be his disciples.

Now he had risen from the dead. When he saw them in Jerusalem, he said, meet me on the mountain. Meaning, meet me on the mountain in Galilee. The mountain where Jesus had always met his disciples during those three years. Then Jesus had vanished so now they made the journey—60, 70, 80, 90 miles—walking through the hot Palestinian sand in late April. It was hot—not summertime hot yet—but hot enough to make a man sweat after a few minutes in the sun. There was not a cloud in the sky.

Meet Me At The Mountain

As they walked, they argued. I’m sure of that. They always argued when they were together—discussing what had happened, and who had stayed the longest and who had deserted the first. And crossing the Jordan River they came to Tiberias. They didn’t go into Tiberias. It was a Roman city. Jews wouldn’t go into a place like that. They rounded Tiberias and ended up on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee. We don’t know for sure what mountain Jesus meant when he said, “Meet me on the mountain.” It could be Mount Tabor which was in central Galilee. But I’m going to speculate that since this story comes to us from Matthew’s gospel, and since in Matthew’s gospel Jesus gave his greatest teaching—called the Sermon on the Mount—on one particular mountain, which tradition suggests rests on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, not far from the little fishing village of Capernaum, that when said, “Meet me on the mountain,” the disciples instinctively knew he was referring to that same mountain where he had given his greatest sermon.

The Magna Carta Of The Christian Faith

So around the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee they came, eleven men. Excited and wondering why Jesus would want to meet them on this mountain. To the mountain they came, and if you’ve ever been there, it’s not really a big place. It’s more like a hill. Like a little hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee. It’s a very beautiful place. Climbing up to the top of the hill. Looking around. And when they got there, Jesus was nowhere to be found.

And suddenly, just like that, there he was. They turned, and seeing him, they bowed down and worshipped him. When Jesus saw them, he said something to them. Something which would change the course of their lives forever. He said to them the words which have come down to us as the Magna Carta of the Christian church. For two thousand years the words that Jesus said to his disciples that day have been read and memorized and pondered and applied and obeyed and discussed by Christians of every group, sect, organization and denomination. Because what Jesus said to his disciples that day was perhaps the most important thing he ever said to them.

The story is told in Matthew 28:18-20. This is the story of the famous last words of Jesus Christ. If you’re familiar with your Bible you know that the words are called the Great Commission. And justly so. Because the words that Jesus spoke that day were a charter and a foundation and a blueprint for the movement that his followers were going to establish after he was gone. These words are important to us for three reasons.

Marching Orders

First, These words are important because, at least in Matthew’s gospel, they are the last words of Jesus. Last words are always important. When a loved one dies, one of our questions is, Did he or she have any last words? We all realize that the last words that people say represent that which is closest to their heart. So these words are important because they are the last words of Jesus Christ recorded in Matthew’s gospel.

Second, these words are important because they explain what the followers of Jesus Christ are to do in the long period between his first coming and his second coming. Jesus knew it would be a long time before he would come back. Just before he departed for heaven, he gave them these last words which are the marching orders of the Christian church. These verses describe what you and I are to be doing during that long period of waiting between the first coming and second coming.

Third, these words are important because they apply without exception to all Christians at all times, in all places, in every possible situation. Four times he uses “all” or some form of the word “all.” Notice verse 18, “All authority has been given to me.” Verse 19, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations.” Verse 20, “Teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you and surely I will be with you always.” That’s very clear, isn’t it? All authority, all nations, everything, always. The words of Jesus Christ have a permanent and enduring and universal validity for you and for me. That’s why they were given and that’s why they were recorded. We ought to pay special attention to what Jesus is saying here.

Now in these three verses I find three great things. First, I find a great claim. Second I find a great commission. Third, I find a great promise.

1. A Great Claim. 18

First, then, the great claim that Jesus makes in verse 18. “Then Jesus came to them and said, ’All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” All authority. It’s possible you may have a translation of the Bible which says, “all power”. Now that’s not a bad translation, but power is not as strong as that word needs to be in English. This is the Greek word exousia. It means delegated authority. It means the right to do something. It’s not just the ability to do something, it’s the right to do something. And our text is saying that Jesus has all authority. He has not only all power, he has all authority in heaven and on earth. It has been given to him.

Who gave it to him? God did. Why did God give it to him? God gave it to Jesus Christ on the basis of his victorious resurrection from the dead. By virtue of the fact that the Lord Jesus Christ rose from the dead on Easter Sunday morning, God gave to his Son all authority in heaven and on earth. What does that mean? It means that Jesus Christ has all the authority that God has. In heaven he has authority over the angels. In heaven he has authority over the cherubim and the seraphim and all the other angelic creatures. In heaven he has all the authority there is to have. And on earth he has all authority. He has authority over men and nations. He has authority over the things that men do and the empires that men build. He has all the authority and power that can be had on the earth. He even has all the authority under the earth. Over Satan and the devil. And over all the demons and over all the forces of darkness.

Didn’t Jesus Christ already have this authority before he was raised from the dead? Well, he had authority. There is no question about that. In fact, we know that there was that controversy in the gospels because Jesus said, “Your sins be forgiven you.” And we know that only God can forgive sins. So we know that even when Jesus was on the earth he had tremendous authority.

He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands

What, then, is this verse saying? What is Jesus claiming for himself? It is this. That by virtue of his victori-ous resurrection from the dead Jesus Christ now has unlimited authority. He now has universal authority. He now is sovereign over the entire universe. By virtue of rising from the dead his authority has no limits at all. Do you know what that means? It means as the song says, “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” He’s got kings and prime ministers in his hands. He’s got rulers of great countries in his hands. He’s got presidents in his hands and generals and mighty armies. He’s got President Bush in his hands and Saddam Hussein in his hands. President Gorbachev in his hands. He’s got mighty armies in his hands. All the weapons of mass destruction are in his hands.

My brothers and sisters, nothing can happen this week outside of the authority of Jesus Christ. We’re racing headlong toward war. The nation is so divided. We’re all praying, O God, let there be peace on earth. O, God, bring our men and women back home. It looks like things are out of control in the Persian Gulf. It seems as if events have taken their own course and circumstance. And it appears as if there is no higher hand involved. I don’t know what’s going to happen but I know who is in control of the whole situation. His name is Jesus Christ. And all authority in heaven and on earth is given to him. Not one shot can be fired outside of his authority. It cannot happen. Saddam Hussein cannot do one thing outside the authority of Jesus Christ. Why? Because all authority in heaven and on earth is given to Jesus Christ who is the King of King and Lord of Lords.

That’s something for you to think about in these uncertain, frightening days. It is precisely because Jesus Christ has that kind of authority that he is able to give the commission to the church to go to the ends of the earth. When we read this passage we tend to pass over verse 18 and just get to verse 19—the marching orders of the church. But verse 19 makes no sense without verse 18. It is because he is King of Kings and Lord of Lords that he can send his followers to all the nations with the gospel. It is because of who he is and what he has accomplished that we can take his gospel to every nation and know that we will be protected as we do so. It is because he has all authority that he can send us. Because he has all authority that we can dare to go. That my friend, is the great claim that Jesus makes here. The claim worth considering in these uncertain days. All authority has been given to him.

2. A Great Commission 19-20a

Verses 19-20a say, “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.” This is the Great Commission of our Lord Jesus Christ. I confess to you that as I ponder this, because these verses are so familiar to us, I am perplexed to know exactly what to say to you about these words that you have heard so many times before. But let me tell you what I see as I read these words of our Lord Jesus Christ. I see first of all what we are to do. Second, I see where we are to do it. Third, I see how we are to do it. Fourth, I see what result we are to expect when we do it.

1. What we are to do

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations.” Now, I am going to tell you something in the Greek. You’ve got to trust me about what I am going to say. This is an important point. In the original Greek, there is only one verb. That’s important because you could read this and it might seem as if there are two or three or maybe four verbs depending on what translation you use. You might read this and say, Well, “go” looks like a verb; “make disciples” looks like a verb; “baptizing” might be translated as a verb; and some people might even translate “teach” as a verb. It might look as if he’s telling you to do four things—go, make disciples, baptize, and teach.

But in the Greek there’s only one verb here. What we are to do is wrapped up in one verb in the Greek. It’s translated with two words in English: make disciples. The other three words are participles. What is translated as “go” is really “going.” Baptizing is a participle. Teaching is a participle. They’re all dependant on the action of the verb—make disciples. Jesus in his last message to his followers, in his famous last words, as he was about to bid farewell to them forever, said, “Gentlemen, after I am gone I want you to do one thing and one thing above everything else. I want you to go and make disciples.” Or you could say, go and disciple. “Go and disciple the nations.” It’s one word in Greek but two words in English. Go and make disciples.

What does this word disciple mean? It’s a word from the classroom. It means to be a learner. A disciple is someone who is a learner from someone else. A disciple is someone who is a pupil sitting at someone else’s feet. To be a disciple is to be a follower of someone else. And to make disciples is to go out and convert somebody who is just a bystander into an active follower. And my brothers and my sisters, this is what the church of Jesus Christ is to be about. We are to be about making disciples of other men and women, turning them into followers of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Greatest Peace March In History

When I read this command to “make disciples,” I think of a massive parade moving down the main street of history led by the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Jesus himself. He is followed by angels and seraphim and cherubim. And followed by the apostles and disciples and the first Christians. And the parade is moving along broad avenues of history. The parade started at his first coming and will climax when he returns to earth to set up his kingdom. Those who are in his parade are his disciples. They are following their leader as he moves down the main street of history. The viewing stands are clogged with hundreds of thousands of people who are watching this parade as it moves along.

Making disciples means that as you march along behind Jesus Christ and you see people up in the stands, you leave the parade, go up into the stands, grab them, bring them down the main street, and get them into the parade with you. That’s what it means to make disciples. Not only to follow Jesus Christ but also to go grab a friend and say, “Hey, come join the parade.”

We hear a lot these days about peace marches. There have been a number of them. We are all praying for peace in these troubled times. But the greatest peace march in history is the one that started two thousand years ago at the cross. It is led by the Prince of Peace. We are not only invited to join Jesus’ peace march, we are invited to invite our friends. No, we are encouraged. No, we are commanded, not only to join that great peace march but to go out and find our friends and our loved ones and bring them into the parade with us. That’s what it means to go and make disciples. Not only to follow Jesus in the parade but to go up into the grandstands and bring some people down and get them into the parade with you. That is to be the central task of the Christian church.

If We Don’t Go They Won’t Come

We make a big mistake as a church if we believe the world is to come to us. We make a big mistake if we think we can convert the world just by staying here and being good. It will never, never, never happen. We think if we just dress up and make the parade look nice enough people will come running out of the stands to join us. It’s not true. It’s so easy to think that because we’ve got a beautiful sanctuary and beautiful buildings and because we’ve got a large church and a large staff and a large budget that we can just show up and that’s enough. Just being here is not enough. We are called by Jesus Christ to go out from this place into the world and make disciples of all the nations. That is the central task of the Christian church. That is the great purpose for which this church is in existence today. And that is what we are to be doing. It is the standing orders of the gospel. We are to go and make disciples. We are to be a disciple-making church. We are to be disciple-making Christians. That is what we are to do.

2. Where we are to do it

Jesus said, “therefore go and make disciples of all nations,” Okay, Greek again, but the word is not as crucial this time. Of all nations is a good translation, but it suggests political boundaries. The Greek word translated “nations” is ethne. We get from it the English word ethnic, a word often used to describe the various people groups that dot the Chicago area.

When we read nations we think political boundaries. We think of Iraq or Kuwait or Thailand or Bolivia or Venezuela or Brazil. But that’s not what Jesus means when he talks about nations. He means the ethnic groups of the world. The people groups of the world. The language groups of the world. The racial groups of the world. He means that his church is to be a church going out to all people groups of the world and all language group and all racial groups of the world.

I draw from this fact two simple conclusions. Number one is this. When Jesus said to his disciples, “Go and make disciples of all nations,” he was indicating that Christianity from the first was to be a world religion. Christianity was to be a world religion. That was a shocking thing for his disciples to contemplate. These were eleven Jewish men who had been raised in Orthodox Jewish homes. You know what he’s saying? “Men, I want you to give up your prejudice. I want you to give up your small vision. I want you to get over your ethnocentrism. I want you to get over your small ideas and I want you to cross over racial boundaries and I want you to cross over ethnic boundaries. I want you to cross over color boundaries. I want you to cross over reli-gious boundaries. I want you to cross over language boundaries. I want you to cross over geographic bounda-ries. I want you to take my gospel to the ends of the earth.”

That means a second thing. It means that Jesus Christ from the very beginning was meant by God to be the Saviour of the whole world. Not just of Americans. Not just of the Jews. Not just of the Gentiles. Jesus Christ is the Savior of the entire world. Do you know what else that means? That means that his church is to be representative of the vast variety of people in the world. In his church there are to be blacks and whites, rich and poor, young and old. People from the upper class and people from the lower class. His church is to contain people from all ethnic groups. That’s the real rainbow coalition.

3. How we are to do it

This comes from the three participles Jesus used. Number one is going. Number two is baptizing. Number three is teaching. We are to do those three things. That is how we make disciples. By going, and sharing the gospel. By baptizing—bringing them into the family of God and the Christian church. Number three by teaching them everything Jesus has taught us.

Now, let me give you three words for this. Going is invitation. Baptizing is initiation and teaching is indoctri-nation. I tried to get a better word than that but I couldn’t find one. You know what indoctrination is, don’t you? It’s taking your doctrine and putting it into somebody. You just take the doctrine and you put it inside them. You inculcate the doctrine into them. You teach it to them. You impart it to them. We are to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with the whole wide world. With everybody we can find. We are to bring them into the church. We are to baptize them and then we are to teach them everything Jesus has taught us.

The Biblical Basis For Christian Education

It’s a wonderful system. In the word teaching lies a germ, a seed, the beginning of the entire educational system of the church. In that word teaching is Sunday School. In that word teaching is Awana. In that word teaching is Boys Brigade and Pioneer Clubs. In that word teaching is small group ministry and Navigators 2:7 Bible studies. In that word teaching is Moody Press and Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College and Trinity College and Liberty Baptist University and all the theological seminaries and WMBI and all the Christian radio stations and TV stations. All the vast educational ministries of the local church and the church universal are in that little word “teaching.”

What does he mean? He means that we are to go. We are to make disciples of all the nations and then we are to teach them whatever they need to know in order to follow Jesus Christ effectively. Please understand some-thing. It is never the purpose of the Christian church merely to get more church members. God forbid that our purpose would to be merely to get more church members. It is never the purpose of the Christian church to produce merely intellectualized Christians. It is never the purpose of the Christian church to produce passive pew sitters and casual onlookers. It is the purpose of the Christian church that we should go out and share the gospel, and by sharing the gospel make disciples of Jesus Christ who are themselves able to make disciples of other people.

Let me explain. It is the will of Jesus Christ that we should take the message of Jesus Christ out from this place to the ends of the earth. We’re to go. We’re to share the gospel. We’re to baptize. We’re to teach. But what is it that we’re to teach? We’re to teach what Jesus taught. What did Jesus teach? Jesus taught, go and make disciples.

4. What the result is supposed to be

So that brings me to the fourth thing that I find in this Great Commission. We find out the result is supposed to be a spiritual multiplication. The result is to be a church full of spiritual multipliers. A church full of people who can reproduce themselves. As the great parade of God’s purpose moves down through history, and as we join in the march with Jesus Christ, we’re going up into the stands and we’re saying, Hey, brother, come on down and join us in the parade. When we get our friends with us in the parade, we’re to teach them and then we’re to send them back into the stands and we’re to say, Go get somebody else. They’re to bring them down and they’re to teach them and they’re to send their friends back up into the stands. And so it is that we win one and we teach one and baptize one and we bring them into the church and we equip them and send them back out. And he brings his friends in and he wins them and he teaches them and he sends them out and they win their friends and they come in and he teaches them and we send them out. So it’s an unending cycle of spiritual reproduction.

The real mark of the health of the church is not the size of the budget, the size of the staff, the beauty of the choir, the glory of the music, the wonder of the architecture, or any of the worldly measures we like to use. The real mark of the church in Jesus’ eyes is a church that is 100 percent dedicated to fulfilling the Great Commission. Getting in the parade and bringing others into the parade and sending them back up into the stands to get some other people and bring them back down and send some others back into the stands who will bring some others back down. That’s a good standard for evaluating all our ministries. Are they equipping people to do this? Are they somehow involved in the disciple-making process. If our ministries are not doing that, we ought to change them or adjust them to bring them back into line with what Jesus was talking about two thousand years ago.

3. The Great Promise 20b

In these verses there’s one other thing. That’s the great promise. Don’t overlook this. Jesus said, As you do it, as you go, as you work your way through history, through all the things you do , remember this, “Surely I will be with you always to the very end of the age.” I will be with you all the time till the end of time. As the King James says, “I am with you always.” Take a look at your hand. Hold your fingers up. Touch your fingers as you repeat the words of Jesus. I … Am … With … You … Always.

We need this reminder. We may face war in the the Persian Gulf. But Jesus said, “I am with you always.” Some of us face the loss of a job. Some of us face financial setbacks. Some of us face a marriage with appar-ently unsolvable problems. Some of us face sickness among our friends and family members. Some of us are scared to death about what tomorrow holds. But Jesus said, “I am with you always.” As you go, as you make disciples, as you follow Jesus Christ through history, we have this promise. “I am with you always even to the end of the age. I am with you for all time to the end of time no matter what situation you find yourself in.”

His Last Words: Our First Command

I make my conclusion and I am finished. If this is the Great Commission of Jesus Christ, then this ought to be our great commission as well. If this is what was uppermost on Jesus’ mind, then this is what ought to be uppermost on our minds. If this is what Jesus’ heart was beating for at the end of his ministry, then this is what our heart ought to be beating for. Here is the bottom line: We are called to be Great Commission Chris-tians and to build a Great Commission church. Disciples who make disciples. To be people in the parade who are bringing others to join the parade, who will bring others who will bring others.

If this is the Great Commission, then this ought to be our great commission. Everything else is of lesser importance compared to these ultimate words of Jesus Christ. Nothing is as important than that we become this kind of people and this kind of church.

If Jesus Were To Come Back Today

If Jesus were to come back today, what do you think he would say to you? “Go and make disciples.” “Jim, go and make disciples.” “Betty, go and make disciples.” “John, go and make disciples.” “Butch, go and make disciples.” “Kevin, go and make disciples.” This is what was on Jesus’ heart at the end of his ministry on the earth. This is what he would say if could speak to us today.

I want to ask you a question. If this is so important, what are you doing about it? What’s your great part in it? What is your great part in that which was most important to the heart of Jesus Christ? Now, please, don’t come up to me after the service and say, “Pastor Ray, I don’t want to be a missionary.” I didn’t say that. I am saying that what was most important to Jesus must become most important to us. And lesser things must be swept away in the light of this great purpose.

If Jesus were to come back today or if, God forbid, the world were to be plunged into war four or five days from now, what part would you have in fulfilling that which was closest to the heart of our Lord? What part will you have in it? That which was top priority for Jesus Christ must become top priority for us. We must become a disciple-making church and a disciple-making people. We must become Great Commission Christians whose hearts are sold out 100 per cent to being in the parade and bringing as many people with us as we possibly can.

His last words must become our first words.

Rediscovering Jesus’ Heart

Where should we begin? I have two things to suggest to you. First, we need to get back and rediscover the heart of Jesus Christ. One reason we’ve drifted away from what Jesus said is because we’re far away from knowing Jesus and where his heart really is. This is 1991, the Year of Our Lord at Calvary. I want to challenge each one of you to begin today to read through the four gospels this year. Not just academically. Not just for head knowledge. Not just so you can check off the boxes. But so, that when you are done you will come closer to understanding the heartbeat of our Lord.

Second, we need to become personally involved in disciple-making. Take out a 3 x 5 card and write down the names of three people that you would like to see come into the Kingdom of God during 1991. Then ask the Lord Jesus to give you opportunities to reach them sometime this year with the gospel. Let that be the beginning of your Great Commission prayer list.

What a difference it would make this year if we dedicated ourselves to knowing Jesus Christ better until we knew him so well that the things that broke his heart would break our hearts as well. What a difference it would make if the things that motivated him motivated us. If that happened, we would see the world as he saw it and our hearts would be moved to go into all the world and make disciples of all the nations. God grant that we should become—in this Year of Our Lord—Great Commission Christians who are fully dedicated to building a Great Commission church.

O Lord, we have heard these words so often that we hardly hear them at all. Forgive us for taking so lightly what you take so seriously. You have told us what is first on your heart. When you said, “Go and make disciples,” you were talking to us, not to someone else. Now may we do something about it, and not leave the task to others. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?