The Great Commission, most well known by its appearance in Matt. 28:16-20, has its roots earlier in the narrative and continues to unfold in the book of Acts.
The unfolding of the Great Commission begins in Matthew 16. Up until this point, Jesus was teaching his disciples, speaking in parables, performing miracles and slowly revealing his messiahship. Jesus’ disciples were beginning to worship Him as the Son of God (Matt. 14:33). In Matthew 16, Peter explicitly confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matt. 16:16). For the first time in Matthew’s narrative, Jesus gives Peter the affirmation that he truly is the Christ and that God the father has revealed this important truth to him (Matt 16:17). Upon Peter’s confession, Jesus makes several key revelations that would prove to be directly linked to the Great Commission found in Matthew 28. Jesus says in Matt. 16:18-19:
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
From these words, Jesus reveals that he is the messiah, the one to bring restoration to his people and that he has intentions to give kingdom authority to the church. This passage is implying kingdom work will be completed through the church, with faith in Christ, with Peter playing a key role in God’s plan for restoration.
After his death and resurrection, Jesus delivers the Great Commission to his disciples. It was in the Great Commission that Jesus was simply describing how they are to fulfill the purpose of the church mentioned in Matthew 16, the bride which he died for (Eph. 5:25). Jesus begins by claiming that all authority has been given to him from God and he charges his disciples to make more disciples, bringing them into fellowship with the Triune God in baptism and teaching them exhaustive obedience (Matt. 19-20). In v.20, Jesus adds that he will be with them to the end of the age.
The Great Commission in Luke 24 adds much color to what making disciples of all nations must look like. Jesus explains that all of scripture was about him, pointing to the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus which they have witnessed and because this pivotal event has passed, there shall be preaching of the good news to all nations beginning in Jerusalem (Luke 24:44-48). Bringing light to what Jesus meant in Matt. 28:20, Jesus promises power from on high, the Holy Spirit, to enable them to fulfill their commission (Luke 24:49). This is echoed in Acts 1:8, ensuring the power of the Holy Spirit will enable the disciples to establish the church in Jerusalem and then to all nations from there, advancing the gospel, revealing the kingdom that is at hand.
The Command in Action
On the day of Pentecost, the promise of the Holy Spirit is fulfilled and immediately, Peter preaches the gospel of repentance and forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ and the Lord called to himself three thousand souls, effectively establishing the church in Jerusalem (Acts 2:1-41). This church was the first of its kind. They all held on to the confession that Jesus was Christ and were devoted to the apostles teachings and to each other through communion, prayer, worship and fellowship (Acts 2:42-47). Death would not over come it. However, as Jesus commanded in the Great Commission, believers were to make disciples of all nations, effectively building churches in every land and region. After Stephen’s stoning in Acts 7, believers spread the gospel throughout Judea (Acts 8:4) establishing more churches, being consistent with what was called for in the Great Commission. What was unclear up to this point was how God’s plan of restoration and redemption would impact anyone outside of the Jewish tradition.
In Acts 10, Peter was given a vision of God’s plan for the Gentiles and it was Peter who preached the gospel to them. The Holy Spirit fell on the Gentiles in a powerful way, effectively bringing Gentiles into the fellowship of believers. Now nothing would hold back the believers from spreading the gospel to all men, making disciples of all nations.
While Peter played a key role establishing churches in Judea, Paul was called by God to further spread the gospel to other Gentile cities, being sent out from Antioch into the Gentile world. More churches were formed in many more cities thanks to the focused missionary work of Paul. David Hesselgrave writes in his book, Planting Churches Cross Culturally: North America and Beyond:
And why was Paul so successful? There are many reasons, of course. But one important reason was that Paul considered the preaching of the gospel and the establishment of churches as his primary task. (24)
Paul was focused on the Great Commission. He was focused on confessing that Jesus was Christ and used the authority that confession brings to build and establish churches for the glory of God.