The Great Commission
I want to talk about a topic that has been on my mind off and on for many years. It’s about calling. Do you have a calling? Something that you know, this is why I was born, this is the task God wants me to complete. A perfect fit of your gifts and background, experience and passions.
Does God give a calling to everyone? Is it a universal calling that applies to all believers or does God gives specific callings to each individual? Or is it both? I think it is both, a universal calling that applies for all believers but also a specific calling that was tailor-made for you. But today, I want to talk about what I believe the Bible says is the universal calling of all believers.
I want to start by sharing one brief video clip. I have to admit and many here can attest to the fact that unless I am watching sports and it is one of my favorite teams, I usually fall asleep 90% of the time when I watch TV or a movie. There is just so little I watch on TV that grabs and is able to keep my attention for very long.
My conclusion is that if God can speak through a donkey, He certainly can speak through the TV. I don’t recommend this as a regular practice of using TV as your primary vehicle for your spiritual nourishment. But certainly for me, God used this clip and I hope it will speak to you as well.
The clip is an episode from a competition about a bunch of cooks who are trying to win their own TV show as the next Food Network star. This is the second to last episode and the eventual winner is presenting her meal before the judges.
Roll film. Melissa D’Arabian, the next Food Network star. She was climbing up the corporate ladder and she was good, she was successful but she said her soul felt undernourished. And she shares a real poignant moment when she said, I’d rather fail in the right thing than to succeed in the wrong thing. And this mother of 4 with no formal culinary training is now a host of her own cooking show.
I think I could end the sermon with that one quote — do you agree that it is better to fail in the right thing than to succeed in the wrong thing?
As Christians, we might be struggling to hold onto our faith and we look around and so many people in the world around us seem so happy and successful. And it could make us wonder, why am I bothering to seek God, UNLESS it is your conviction that whether to succeed or fail as a Christian, I am going to hang in there because it is the only right, true pursuit in life. Is this your conviction?
And you may watch this clip and think, what about me? You look at your job and you are typing in front of your computer every day and your coworkers are driving you crazy and you wonder, God, is this what you have called me for?
I’d like to start by saying, I believe there is a distinction between vocation and calling. A vocation is your job. It’s how you make your living, your career.
I think our culture puts a lot of emphasis on our vocation. People ask, what do you do for a living? That’s a loaded question. Our vocation is tied to our sense of worth, our self-esteem because we care so much what others think of us. The more letters you have after your name, the more inclined others are to listen to you. 40 hours a week to put food on the table is simply not enough motivation for many out there in the workforce.
We need to make a name for ourselves in the world, to do something worthy of attention. If not, then, at the very least, we should be filthy rich. Our vocation in this country has become a means to attaining either fame or wealth. And if you are neither famous nor wealthy, like 99.99% of the world’s population, then there is a lot of room to be unhappy.
That’s vocation. A calling is something more than a vocation. It is something that transcends vocation. Secularly speaking, a calling is something you were born to do. I agree that there are some professions that are callings. Like DeShaun Jackson, he was born to catch the football in the NFL for the Philadelphia Eagles. For him, his vocation and calling are one in the same.
What about for a Christian? What is our calling? When Christians talk about calling, I think the term “calling” is a bit nebulous. The language of calling seems to be reserved for those who are “called” into the ministry to be pastors or maybe missionaries. Those are cases when vocation and calling come together in a Christian sense. What about the rest of us?
I think there is a lot of talk about calling among Christian groups on campus. Because when you are young, you are free, you have no obligations. You just have to study, play with friends, eat, stay out of trouble. That pretty much sums up my college life, except that for me, playing and eating were more important than studying. We are free and we say, God, I want to live for you. You are the most important thing in life. No other pursuit is worthy of investing my entire life.
But as we get older, what happens? We talk less and less about calling and talk more and more about vocation. You get married and have kids and you suddenly have responsibilities. You have to provide for your family. You have to put food on the table, a roof over their heads. Mortgage, bills, art and music lessons for the kids, soccer games and the list goes on and on.
And in the process of living life, our sense of calling that once was so strong and tangible and concrete fades into a distant memory.
So what is the call of a Christian? I think there are a variety of answers but I want to start with the most basic call or the overarching call under which specific callings and giftings from God can be categorized. The specific callings or spiritual gifts is another message altogether and I do believe it is an important topic. But for today, I want to focus on the universal calling of all believers.
I think you know where I’m headed – What were Jesus’ final words to us? He did not say, discover your gifts and hone your skills, he didn’t say pray and wait for me to act, he didn’t say love your fellow Christians deeply. These are all important, but Jesus left us with one final charge and it is found in Matthew 28:18-20.
Matthew 28:18-20 – 18Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
I believe there are 3 components to this calling: 1) freedom to consider the call, 2) empowerment for the call, and 3) the promise of God’s presence as you obey the call.
The Great Commission begins with the phrase, “All authority in heaven (that makes sense, Jesus is from heaven, He is the Son of God) but it also adds the interesting phrase “AND on earth.” Did that phrase ever strike you? All authority in heaven and on earth. I think we tend to gloss over that verse, I know I did. Jesus, He is God incarnate, of course all authority in heaven and on earth is his. But on this final, most important declaration, why does Jesus phrase it this way — authority of heaven AND on earth?
Authority translates to power and rule. A ruler has authority over his subjects. To understand this concept of authority, we have to consider a few other passages.
In Gen 1:28, it reads – 28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; FILL the earth and SUBDUE it. RULE over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
In Genesis, Adam and Eve were under God’s authority and as those living under God’s authority, they were given authority over the rest of creation. Specifically, humanity was given power to fill, subdue, and rule over creation. With the Fall of Man, sin entered and humanity lost that authority, the right to rule over creation. Instead, Satan became the new ruler on earth.
As a result, it is not surprising that today, instead of humanity ruling over creation, we find people bound by creation, bound by things like money, career, comfort, bound by one another, bound by the past, bound by conflicts, bound by family obligations. This is Satan’s strategy — to keep us bound by creation and render us useless to God and His kingdom work.
For the rest of the Bible, God unfolds His plan of redemption to bring back His authority, not just in heaven but also on earth, where humanity dwells.
In addition, we see an interesting exchange between Satan and Jesus when Jesus was being tempted in the desert in Luke 4.
Satan tempts Jesus with all the power and splendor of all the kingdoms of the world and says to Jesus, you see these kingdoms, well, I own them, they have been given to me. If you want, I have authority to give them to you IF you worship me. See, Satan had authority over all the kingdoms of the world and was tempting Jesus to take the easy road of gaining worldly authority without the cross.
In Eph 2:1-3, Paul refers to Satan as the RULER of the kingdom of the air. So I think it is pretty clear that Satan has authority over all the kingdoms of this world but God through Christ re-establishes His authority on earth. How do we know this?
Paul explains that something truly monumental happened at the cross of Jesus Christ. Did you ever wonder what is actually occurring at the cross? We know it’s something big. Christ died for our sins. But there seems to be much more going on?
We read in Eph 4:8-9 Paul’s theological explanation of the Jesus’ ascension after resurrecting – 8 “When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.” 9What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions?
These verses give us a clue into what is happening in the spiritual dimension during Christ’s death. It mentions captives and giving of gifts. It is a reference to Psalm 68:18 but with a twist.
Psalm 68:18 reads – 18 When you ascended on high, you led captives in your train; you received gifts from men, even from the rebellious— that you, O LORD God, might dwell there.
The psalmist is speaking about a military victory and the victorious army is returning back to their home country and the defeated foes are prisoners of war chained up and forming a train of captives. And as captives, they are forced to give gifts, the spoils of war, to the victors.
In the same way, at the cross, Jesus descended to the lower, earthly regions. Some scholars say Jesus descended to Hades or hell, some say this is simply Jesus entering the ground or the grave. But the important thing to note is that while Jesus was buried for 3 days, He did battle with the forces of evil and He won the final victory. The war is over. The battle is won.
That is why at the ascension, Jesus returns to heaven and as he ascends, there is a train of captives behind him. And these captives are not enemy soldiers, but Satan, sin, death, all of these have been bound up because of what Jesus accomplished on the cross.
They have been defeated. That is why Jesus can now say in Matthew 28, that all authority in heaven AND also on earth is His. And this authority on earth Jesus not only fully possesses but also He returns this authority back to His church.
What implications does it have for us? It means fundamentally, for the believer, our confession is that we are free. We’re free. Freedom – this is our new reality. The battle has been won by Christ, I am a new creation, I am no longer under the authority of the powers and principalities of this world. I am part of a new reality. This world cannot touch me. I am the Lord’s. He is my Master, I his servant.
We have a new king. We cannot live as we please. We are not our own authority to decide how we ought to live. We were once objects of wrath, Paul writes in Ephesians, enslaved by the authority of this world and sin and Satan. But now the chains are off and God through Christ is rightfully our new Master.
You may say, but I am free. This is what it means to be an adult — I am free to do whatever I want. That’s true. But if you are Christian and you have crossed over to the realm of God’s authority, this means we willfully and voluntarily grant God the authority over our lives, as it was in the Garden of Eden.
Of course, as a Christian, I am free to not give God the authority over my life, but at that point, it is my willful choice to disobey. To sin as a believer is to disobey. Why? Because we are no longer slaves to sin. A slave has no choice but to do what its master tells him or her to do. As a slave to sin, we were objects of wrath, like chaff blown here and there. We think this is freedom but actually we are enslaved, bound.
For the Christian, we are free, we are no longer slaves. And so when we fall into sin, it is because we have choosen to fall into it. You see the difference? Christian can never say I am a victim of sin and I fell accidentally into temptation. Rather, we should say, I choose to disobey.
More to the point, for the Christian whose under God’s authority, there is freedom. Within the boundary lines that He establishes over my life, I can truly thrive and live as God intended us to live.
And this brings us back to the Great Commission — before we can consider this calling, what is the prerequisite? We have to be free. This is my first point. All authority in heaven and on earth means that by the cross of Jesus we have been set free. And because we are free, we can consider this Great Commission and what it might mean concretely for my life.
And the question that I have been struggling with is, Am I free? Are we free? Are you so free that you can say to God, Lord, I am yours. Isn’t this what all disciples of Christ should say? I am free, use me to fulfill your mission on earth to make disciples of all nations. Lord, I have no other agendas. Is that our confession this morning?
We may have many reasons why we might have a hard time saying Yes to the Great Commission. If we were honest and examined the root of these excuses, perhaps we would see our chains. We say we are free in Christ, but because we have not granted God authority over our lives, perhaps we are still in bondage. Enslaved to worldly values, enslaved by our bitterness or shattered visions of yester year, or enslaved by worries about the future.
The Bible is clear that our freedom has a purpose – we have been freed, for what? To do good works that God has prepared in advance for us to do (Eph 2).
The gospel is not doctrine, it’s not about God blessing you and you getting what you want. The gospel first and foremost is about freedom. Not freedom to do whatever you want. But freedom from death to life. Freedom from living for things and ideals and illusions to real living where God is at the center. He’s the authority. Freedom as we grant God the authority over our lives through His Word. And we say, whatever God tells me to do, I’ll do.
Our response to the Great Commission could be an indication that we are not as free as we might think. We need to be free in order to consider the call.
Second, not only do we need to be free in order to consider the call, we need empowerment for the call. Don’t you feel this way? Just to live a Christian life from day to day and take care of our own spiritual lives is impossible, much less reaching the world with the gospel. We cannot do it on our own strength. We need God’s help.
And this empowerment is discussed in the latter half of Eph 4:8 — “When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.” We talked about Jesus doing battle with Satan at the cross and ascending with Satan, sin and death as captives in his train. So we are free, by the blood of Jesus shed for us on the cross, we are no longer bound by sin. But that’s not all. God imparts to us gifts.
What are these gifts? When we talk about gifts, we normally think of the gift of tongues, or the gift of teaching, or evangelism. This is an important topic because I believe God does give each believer one or more of these spiritual gifts in order that the collection of these gifts would be used to build up God’s church.
But these are all manifestations of THE GIFT, the gift of the Holy Spirit. I’d like to turn your attention to the early chapters of Acts where Luke records the events after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
Acts 1:3-5 3After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. 4On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5For John baptized with[a] water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
Acts 1:7-8 reads, 7He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Some have a misconception that Jesus died, resurrected on Easter Sunday and then, bam, he ascended to heaven. Actually, after Jesus resurrected, he remained on earth for 40 days to convince people that He in fact rose from the dead. And during that 40 day period, Jesus asks his disciples to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the gift that God had promised.
40 days pass, Jesus ascends 10 days later. Then, on the 50th day after that first Easter Sunday, the Holy Spirit was poured out in power to his disciples huddled behind closed doors in the Upper Room in Jerusalem, an event known as the Pentecost. And this is where we get the denomination, Pentecostalism. And Pentecostalism, interestingly, was birthed at the turn of the 20th century in Azusa, CA, which is not far from here, about a 100 years ago.
Jesus tells these spiritually impotent and confused group of disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they RECEIVE POWER when what? When the Holy Spirit comes on you. And what happens as a result of the empowering by the Holy Spirit? You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. This is Luke’s version of the Great Commission recorded in Matthew 28.
And we read in the very next chapter of Acts that the Holy Spirit was poured out on those disciples in Jerusalem. Through this coming upon of the Holy Spirit in power, the church was birthed and world-wide missions began in earnest.
Matthew’s version of the Great Commission is quoted more often, but from a theological and historical point of view, Luke’s version in Acts is, in my opinion, much more important because it reinforces the fact that without God’s power, the Great Commission, the church, missions, none of this would have happened.
What about to live the Christian life? Can we live up to God’s standards on our own strength? Well, that depends on what standard you focus on. If you focus on how you feel, then some may conclude, yeah I am living out my faith, I go to church, I tithe, I say hi every Saturday morning to my neighbors. If this is your standard then with or without God’s power, it doesn’t really matter. When Christian life is manageable, then the topic of God’s empowerment is irrelevant. That is why so many Christians live out their faith with zero desperation for God’s empowerment. They set the standard so low that with God or without God’s power, they cannot tell the difference.
That is why I believe Jesus did not leave his church with a vague, intangible task because he wanted to minimize the possibility of deceiving ourselves that Christian life can be lived out on our own strength. For this reason, God gave his church a task far beyond what they were capable of accomplishing on their own.
God empowers his church for one reason. And that reason is to be his witness to the ends of the earth, to make disciples of all nations. And if this is our calling, then we cannot fool ourselves into thinking that by brute force and experience, and effort, and planning, we can fulfill this mission. The mission is just way out of our leagues.
And Jesus knew this. He knew that even with the best teachings from the best teacher who ever lived (Himself), the best discipleship program from the best discipler who ever lived, with all the miraculous healings and conversions under their belts, these disciples were still way under-qualified and under-prepared for the task at hand. And so God had to send his Holy Spirit to empower those first century Christians. And the world has never been the same.
I don’t know if you feel this way, but many times, I feel like I don’t need another bible study or a sermon. What I lack, a good insight or a good exhortation can supply. What I need in order to live out faith from day to day, and certainly, what I need to live out the Great Commission can only be given by God. I need power. I need the Holy Spirit and if you and I are ready to live for this call, I believe God will send us his Spirit because He knows that without His empowerment, we will fall flat on our faces.
First, we need to be free to consider the call. Second, once we accept this call, we need God’s empowerment for the call.
And lastly, we receive the promise of God’s presence as we obey the call. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, 20and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
And I pause here to note that a lot can be said about the specifics of what it means for the church to live out this Great Commission. It is not enough for church to teach people correct doctrine. You have to teach people TO OBEY which is far more than learning. It assumes close proximity where rubbing of lives can happen and those abstracts ideas about God can be put into practice. Teaching them to obey. Obey what? Everything. Not one most important thing. Not what I like or what feels comfortable for me. Not what the calling of my church is. Everything I have commanded you. We are responsible to teach people to obey the whole counsel of God.
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, this is the calling. Then comes all the specifics of baptizing and teaching to obey and so forth. And this calling ends with the promise — And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
This is the part of the calling that excites me the most. You do all of this and the promise is – surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. You need freedom to consider the call. You need empowerment for the call. Therefore go – this is where the obedience begins. You have to actually leave certain things, close certain doors and avail yourself to having your life reoriented around this calling. And if you are ready to obey this calling, then comes the promise — God says, I will be with you always.
Did you ever wonder why God seems distant to some and he seems so personal and intimate to others? From this verse, there is an explanation — To the extent that a person is obeying, specifically in this case, the Great Commission, God can be near or far. God is with all people, but it’s a matter of degree.
Mother Teresa – she spent a decade or longer without feeling God’s presence but did she stay home and say, well, God, if you don’t speak to me clearly, I am going close down my ministry and wait for you. No, she still got up every morning, she prayed, she read scripture, she fellowshiped with her other sisters and she took care of the abandoned, the lepers, the beggars on the streets of Calcutta. Day after day, for years and years, she lived this way. And later she concludes, I thought God was far away, but He was building a deeper relationship with her, one that is not dependent on emotions or circumstances or ministry success. All the while, I think it is important to note that she never stopped obeying what she knew to be true.
To bring this point home regarding the importance of obedience, I want to read several excerpts from a book that Brother Ats gave to me based on P Daniel’s recommendations. It is called “Paths to Power” by A.W. Tozer.
A.W. Tozer, “Paths to Power” (p. 26-27) – “The weakness in our message today is our overemphasis on faith with a corresponding underemphasis on obedience. This has been carried so far that “believe” has been made to double for “obey” in the minds of millions of religious persons. The result is a host of mental Christians whose characters are malformed and whose lives are all out of proportion. Imagination has been mistaken for faith, and belief has been robbed of its moral content and made to be little more than an assent to gospel truth.”
I believe Tozer is so right when he says Christians have stressed correct belief and assumed that this is what Christian life is all about. And in so doing, we have created a group of believers who fail to obey and have lives all out of proportion. A visual that comes to mind as I read this is a Christian body with a disproportionately large head and a scrawny body. It’s grotesque. But this is what Tozer believes happens when you stress doctrine without obedience. It causes us to be malformed, our characters remain immature, and we hold onto the illusion that we are good, moral Christians.
Tozer goes on to say, “Non-obedience has paralyzed their moral legs and dissolved their backbones, and they slump down in a spongy heap of religious theory, believing everything ardently, but obeying nothing at all. Indeed, they are deeply shocked at the very mention of the word “obey.” To them it smacks of heresy and self-righteousness and is the result of failure to rightly divide the word of truth. Their doctrine of supine inaction is New Testament religion!”
P Daniel talked a few weeks ago that we wrongly think that because salvation is by grace that works are totally optional. The word obedience is seen as pressure, or even heresy imposed on us by the self-righteous. These “mental” Christians complain that obedience is legalism. God doesn’t care about our actions, he cares about our hearts, people argue. Tozer calls this kind of logic the doctrine of supine inaction. Lying on our backs and complaining, God, why aren’t you blessing me? He says this kind of wrong emphasis has caused us to become a spongy heap of religious theorists.
Tozer stresses that Christians are without excuse and he says, p. 29-30 – “The power of God is at our disposal, waiting for us to call it into action by meeting the conditions which are plainly laid down. God is ready to send down floods of blessing upon us as we begin to obey His plain instructions. We need no new doctrine, no new movement, no key, no imported evangelist or expensive course to show us the way. It is before us, as clear as a four-lane highway.”
We don’t need to search for an interpretive key to unlock the mystery of Christian life. He says we ought to obey God’s PLAIN instructions. Not complicated, not hidden, not something that only theology professors can figure out. But plain instructions.
Tozer wraps up his argument by talking about power in the context of the Great Commission. He says, p. 35 – “As long as they went forth and preached everywhere, the Lord worked with them, confirming the word with signs following. But when they retreated to monasteries or played at building pretty cathedrals, the help of God was withdrawn till a Luther or a Wesley arose to challenge hell again. Then invariably God poured out His power as before. In every denomination, missionary society, local church or individual Christian, this law operates. God works as long as His people live daringly: He ceases when they no longer need His aid.”
Tozer anchors all obedience to the larger call of going forth and preaching everywhere. Sounds very much like the Great Commission. And he notes that if you go forth and preach everywhere, the Lord will work with you, in others words, surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. Also he ends with a comment about power. When the church retreats and stops obeying this call, the help of God is withdrawn. But when someone like Luther or Wesley stood up to challenge hell, God’s power was poured out.
We need freedom to consider the call. We need empowerment for the call. And Tozer ends with a challenge to live daringly because if you don’t you won’t feel like you need God’s aid. In other words, if you don’t live daringly, you won’t ask for God’s power and because you don’t ask for God’s power, God’s presence will not be with you, intimately.
For the past 5 years after Jackie and I returned from missions, I have to confess. I am exactly like one of the mental Christians Tozer described. I have been thinking about the past and wondering what went wrong, how could I have done things differently, how did I get to LA, what does God want to do with my life in the future, and the questions went on and on.
These questions are debilitating and as I went down this road more and more, I found myself obeying less and less. And as obedience decreased, self-preservation increased. And the result is a spiritual life that has become a spongy heap of religious theory and unanswered questions. There has been no power in my life for a long time. And as Tozer hinted at the end, my spiritual life has been very safe, very manageable, not daring in the slightest.
Because I took no risks, because I played it safe, I really was fine without God’s power. I could manage to live the way I did on my own strength. But as I prepared for this message, God began to address my non-obedient, powerless life.
The questions are endless and we can waste our entire lives waiting for answers that may never come until we see God face to face. We can live out our Christian lives all in the sphere of the intellect. But our non-obedience comes at great cost. We will be powerless. But more importantly, God’s presence will remain a concept, more than a reality.
The Great Commission is the calling of all believers. Freedom to consider the call, empowerment for the call, and the promise of God’s presence as we obey the call.
The Great Commission forces us to ask ourselves, am I free to consider this kind of radical calling? This calling is so radical that without God’s power, it is impossible for me to live out this call. And freed from sin, empowered for the call by the Holy Spirit, more than power, I am most excited that God promises Himself, to be with me as I step out in obedience to His call.
The Food Network Star winner said I’d rather fail in the right thing than to succeed in the wrong thing. How about us? The point is not success or failure, but are we doing the right thing? And more than anything, even if we fail, if we are doing the right thing and obeying God’s calling for our lives, then we gain God. And if we gain God, we have everything we need.
PRAYER: I’d like to lead everyone through a moment of prayer. Are you free? Are you free to consider the Great Commission and how it might impinge on your life? If not, are you bound by creation, by things, by the past, by worries? Pray for freedom and give God authority over your life. Do you feel that Christian life is impossible? Are you overwhelmed by the task of making disciples of all nations? Then, you are in the right place. God says to ask for His Holy Spirit for empowerment. Lastly, are you content being a mental Christian? When is the last time you obeyed the call of God? If God has spoken to you, I’d like you to pray specifically about one of two things. Either pray about doing at least one hour of face-to-face ministry to someone every week. It can be your coworker, a friend, it can be your spouse, or your kids. But spending an intentional hour to share Christ with them, to help form Christ in them. And if you are unable to do the face to face ministry, please commit to pray for one person in this church that you know is doing that kind of discipleship or evangelism or some other kind of hands-on ministry. Prayer and obedience are both necessary ingredients for us together as a church to live out the Great Commission.