ESV Matthew 28:16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
The words “The Great Commission” are not found in the Bible itself, and yet almost all English versions of the Bible contain these words as a heading for this, today’s text from Mt 28:16–20. It was first coined by Hudson Taylor a Methodist who became the first modern day missionary to China in 1853. There is certainly nothing wrong with this heading; it is an accurate description of what is described in this text by inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
As strange as it may sound, however, if we focus too narrowly or exclusively on this commission itself, as “great” as it is, we may lose sight of the fact that behind this commission is an even greater “co-mission,” the combined, cooperative, and perfectly coordinated mission of the three persons of the triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Church’s mission is rooted in God’s mission as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Church’s mission flows from God’s mission. The Church’s mission finds its source and power in God’s mission. The real key to the Church’s mission, therefore, is to understand and confess and rejoice that
THE FIRST AND GREATEST MISSIONARY IS GOD:
FATHER, SON, AND HOLY SPIRIT.
“Mission begins in the heart of God [the Father] and expresses his great love for the world. In other words, it is the Lord’s gracious initiative and ongoing activity to save a world incapable of saving itself” (ATSM 7, emphasis added). God is on a mission. From the day that Adam and Eve chose to separate themselves from God, wanting to become gods themselves, wanting to get out from under his authority. Wanting to be on their own. From that day that death entered the world and all will die because on that day all sinned, meaning you. From that day God has been on a mission to rescue you from the strength of sin and the power of death. When we speak of the mission of the church we speak of God’s mission.
This “heart for mission” has been with God from all eternity. Today’s Old Testament Reading is the story of the creation of the world, involving all three members of the Holy Trinity (Gen 1:1–2; cf. Jn 1:1–2). Notice verse 1 of Genesis: in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth, we confess. In verse 2 the Holy Spirit is present hovering over the waters, the Lord and giver of life we confess in the Nicene Creed. And in verse 3 God said: Let there be light. God spoke. A word came forth from God, the very same word that, according to the Apostle John, was born of the Virgin Mary and became flesh and blood. All three persons of the Trinity were there at the creation. And then all three of them said together, “Let US make man.” Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The very next chapter in Genesis, chapter 3, which contains the tragic account of mankind’s fall into sin, also contains the first promise of the Savior in Scripture (Gen 3:15), showing that God was active in mission from the very beginning. From that very first promise of a Savior, God is on a mission, the mission of saving you and all people around the world. In John 3:16 we read, “For God so loved the world that he gave his Only Begotten Son…” All on account of his love for you, God has been busy from the beginning, indeed, even before the creation.
According to Eph 1:3–14, God’s missionary plan began even “before the foundation of the world”—a mind-boggling but exceedingly comforting truth for us who believe.
Over and over again, the Bible portrays God the Father as a seeking God and as a sending God. The Father seeks lost sheep, a lost coin, even a lost son (Ezekiel 34; Luke 15). Because of God the Father’s seeking, searching love for the lost, he sent his Son into the world, “in order that the world might be saved through him” (Jn 3:17). Martin Luther beautifully and tenderly portrays this “father’s heart” of God in his hymn saying: Before the world’s foundation…he planned for my salvation. He turned to me a father’s heart; …and gave his dearest treasure, his beloved Son…” (“Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice” (LSB 556).)
And on this Father’s Day we remember the love of a father’s heart as we look to Our Father who art in Heaven. There we see the true heart of a Father and thank and praise our Heavenly Father for such great love for his children, love that is reflected, albeit imperfectly, in the love of our human fathers for their children.
The Father’s mission centers in the Son of the Father, Jesus Christ. God the Father did not seek to carry out his mission to save the world by the sheer force and power of his divine will. He told Adam and Eve that he would send his Son, the seed, meaning the descendent of Eve, born of a Virgin, who would crush the head of Satan who had tempted them to sin. His missionary plan depended on the willing cooperation of his beloved Son. And the ever obedient Son…as stated in Luther’s hymn: “God said to his beloved Son; it’s time to have compassion…and bring to all salvation… the Son obeyed His Father’s will, Was born of a virgin mother; And God’s good pleasure to fulfill, He came to be my brother” (LSB 556:6).
Therefore, The Bible, from beginning to end, points to and centers in Jesus Christ. He is the promised Messiah sent by the Father to reconcile the world to himself by his life, death, and resurrection (cf. Peter’s sermon in Acts 2). As Peter preached in our second reading this morning, “This Jesus whom you crucified, God has made both Lord and Christ.”
“Jesus was ‘very God of very God’ (Nicene Creed) yet at the same time truly human. By his life, he perfectly satisfied all the demands of God’s law. By his suffering and death on the cross, Jesus atoned for the sin of the world, suffered the wrath of God for all people, crushed the head of the devil, and opened wide heaven’s gates. By his resurrection from the dead, Christ sealed the victory over sin, death, and the devil” (ATSM 14).
“Amidst the bewildering array of false ‘gospels’ being trumpeted in our world today, the church steadfastly confesses that there is salvation in no other name under heaven (Acts 4:12) and announces to everyone the sure and certain Good News that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life’ (John 3:16 NKJV)” (ATSM 15).
God’s mission is empowered by God the Holy Spirit. Just as the Father sent his Son and the Son humbly and lovingly accepted the will of the Father, so the Father and the Son sent the Holy Spirit as the third “missionary partner” in God’s great plan of salvation.
The Holy Spirit did not first “arrive on the scene” of God’s mission on Pentecost. He, too, was active in creation (Gen 1:2). From then on He spoke by the prophets (Acts 2:16–21, 25–28, 30–31, 34–35). He was made manifest at Jesus’ Baptism in the form of a dove.(Acts 10:38). He filled and empowered the Church on Pentecost (Acts 2:33). Empowered them to proclaim the gospel of the Son in all the world. Empowered them to communicate in the many languages spoken in the world. And by Holy Baptism they become God’s children and grow in discipleship by the faithful teaching of all things that he has commanded us.
And today He continues to enable God’s people to confess and profess that “Jesus is Lord” to the glory of God the Father (1 Cor 12:3; Phil 2:11). The ongoing work of the Holy Spirit is God’s missionary efforts. It is Christ continuing the work he began during his life-time in this world. The work of the Holy Spirit is carried out by the means of grace which he has entrusted to his church, the preaching, baptism, and Holy Communion. Through God’s Word and Sacraments, the Holy Spirit “calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith” (SC, Apostles’ Creed, explanation of the Third Article). The Holy Spirit is “the Lord and giver of life” (Nicene Creed). Without him, no one could believe in Christ, confess Christ, or bear witness to Christ. Because of the Spirit’s work and presence in our lives and in the Church, however, “we need not be overwhelmed or discouraged by the size of the task, the fierceness of the enemy, or the weakness of those who serve. The Spirit is with us—indeed, he dwells in us!—to empower us for our work in God’s mission (Acts 1:8; John 14:16)” (ATSM 18–19).
Because, in the end, God’s mission (finally) is also our mission. Only when we recognize the triune God as “the first and greatest missionary” can we understand properly the Church’s role in God’s mission and participate in that mission properly, joyfully, and confidently.
We share in God’s mission according to the various vocations in which he himself has placed us (Col 3:18–4:1). We are all part of God’s mission of salvation. It is not something that just some are called to do, but all believers are called to God’s mission. While only a few are sent out to be preachers, missionaries, teachers, others are called to musicians to proclaim the gospel in song, others medical workers, agricultural workers, language teachers. Each and every one of you is called to the mission. Some to pray for his missionaries and for those who need to hear the gospel, others to teach and raise up your own children to become fathers and mothers to raise up their children in the faith of Christ. Others to work as support staff, secretaries, trustees, bus drivers, carpenters, plumbers, and to be good stewards of what God has given you. All are part of the mission of God to spread the gospel of light and salvation to all people, both at home and abroad. For each of these he equips us with the appropriate and needed gifts (Rom 12:1–8; 1 Pet 4:10–11). This he calls vocation.
“The Lord has called the church into existence and he carries out his mission in and through the church despite its many imperfections. For this we humbly thank and praise him, continually claiming for ourselves the same Gospel that we proclaim to others. ‘But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light’ (1 Peter 2:9 RSV)” (ATSM 26).
Praise God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for his awesome, gracious, and ongoing missionary work, begun before the beginning of time and continuing in and through you as you carry out his Great Commission! Do not trust in yourselves but in him as you seek to share the Good News of the Father’s love in Jesus Christ with others by the power of the Holy Spirit! Amen.