The Great Commissions

Photo of stained glass window by Lyricmac.

We know that we are all called to evangelize and participate in the mission of the Church. But have we ever looked closely at the words of the Lord commanding us to do this? What can we learn from those words? Of what can we be reminded? How can we be inspired?

Let’s examine five Scriptural texts regarding our commission from the Lord. Each of them emphasizes some aspect of the mission of the Church that the others do not. We’ll look at texts from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and the Acts of the Apostles.

The Gospel According to Matthew

Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Mt 28:18-20)

Matthew the Evangelist

This text is usually singled out as “The Great Commission.” The first things to say about it are quite amazing. Jesus, the one who commands us to make disciples, is in possession of “all power in heaven and on earth.” And He, who sits at the right hand of the Father with full divine authority and power, is “with us always.” With firm conviction, we should carry these truths with us as we do the work of evangelization. They should give us confidence and trust. Though we are weak, God is strong, and He has commanded us to evangelize. Whatever our failings in this work, God is using it in some way to draw to Himself those whom He foreknows.

Next, we see that our work is about “making disciples.” We are not merely to help people to believe in God and do good deeds. We are leading people to the point of discipleship — that is, to be intimate followers of Jesus, dedicated students who follow Him wherever He goes. This requires that through daily prayer, regular reception of the sacraments, and obedience, they have a living relationship with the Living Lord Jesus.

Next, we see that we are leading people to the sacraments, particularly the Sacrament of Baptism. If a person whom we evangelize has not yet been baptized, we ought to help them prepare for and approach that Sacrament so that their sins may be forgiven and that they be conformed to the death of Jesus Christ. The Sacraments of Confirmation and first Eucharist (and/or the Sacrament of Penance) may also be appropriate when the person is already Baptized.

Lastly, we see that we are called to teach people to observe the Lord’s commands. A true disciple must do this. Indeed, as Christ says elsewhere, “Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me” (Jn 14:21). Therefore, the new Christian must be instructed in the Christian way of life, so that they can love Jesus and be His disciple. This instruction is intimately connected to the work of evangelization, because it should either come immediately after successful evangelization, or be employed in some form as we evangelize.

The Gospel According to Mark

[Jesus] said to them, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned. These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages. They will pick up serpents [with their hands], and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them. They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (Mk 16:15-18)

Mark the Evangelist

This account of Christ’s commission to His disciples gets straight to the point and commands us to proclaim the gospel. In a nutshell, the gospel is the truth that the Kingdom of God is now near in the Son of God, Jesus Christ. The Kingdom of God is peace with God and deliverance from all that oppresses us, up to and including death itself. What good news! In response to this “good news,” all people should repent of their sins and believe in Him (see Mk 1:14-15).

This account also emphasizes the universal scope of our mission. We are to go into “the whole world” to preach “to every creature.” This idea, in Mark 16 and elsewhere, is the New Testament origin of the name that the Church of Jesus Christ came to have. The one Church is “the Catholic Church” because “catholic” means “universal,” and our mission is to the whole world and (in a mystical sense) every creature.

Next, in this account we see that the proclamation of the gospel is the occasion of judgment. As disciples of Christ go out and proclaim the gospel, the response that people give to this proclamation will determine whether they will experience eternal life with God, or be condemned to eternal punishment with the devil and his fallen angels.

Of course, this is not a one-time event that occurs all at once in the moment that the gospel is proclaimed. The message of the gospel will in some way remain in the mind of the person who hears and rejects it. This message may at some later time bear good fruit as the gospel is preached to them again, or when they are somehow reminded of what they have heard. Or it may not, as they continue to reject the grace of God in their life. In the latter case, the words of Our Lord will have come true: “If anyone hears my words and does not observe them, I do not condemn him …. Whoever rejects me and does not accept my words has something to judge him: the word that I spoke, it will condemn him on the last day” (Jn 12:47-48). Likewise, the person who hears the gospel and accepts it does not achieve final salvation all at once. He or she has still to persevere until death in the new life of faith and repentance. The judgment that the proclamation of the gospel occasions is brought to completion for each person after death.

Finally, this account in the gospel of Mark includes a list of “signs” that will accompany those who believe in Christ. In the following passages and elsewhere, we see that these “signs” exist in order to confirm the word of the gospel by making its divine origin more believable to people. Among those who believe in Jesus Christ, there will be individuals who will drive demons out from those possessed or oppressed by them; there will be others who will speak miraculously in new languages, as at Pentecost; there will be others who will be protected from deadly dangers, such as poisonous serpents and poisonous drinks; and yet others who will heal the sick by laying their hands upon them and praying. These signs serve to demonstrate that the Lord is present among us and that His word is the truth.

There are a couple more things to say about these miraculous signs. First, they are not necessarily to be found among all Christians, but only some; the Holy Spirit distributes gifts to each as He sees fit (see 1 Cor 12:4-11). Second, they may be interpreted as metaphors for other similar — but non “miraculous” — signs of the Lord’s work. All of us can help people flee the influence of the devil by our prayer and encouragement. We can all study other cultures and languages and successfully bring the gospel to people of different regions. We all can be protected from harm by the Lord’s special guidance and providence. We can all care for the sick.

The Gospel According to Luke

[Jesus] said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and in the prophets and psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. And he said to them, “Thus it is written that the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And [behold] I am sending the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Lk 24:45-49)

Luke the Evangelist

This commission of the Apostles emphasizes the role of the divine sources of the gospel. The gospel is centered on Jesus the Messiah. The Old Testament Scriptures, referred to here are “the law of Moses … the prophets and psalms,” are prophetic witnesses to Jesus. The Apostles (“witnesses of these things”) are eyewitnesses to Jesus. The New Testament Scriptures preserve this witness and the Church passes it on in her preaching from generation to generation so that we, too, can carry on this mission of the Apostles, in our own time.

This commission also shows the importance of repentance and the forgiveness of sins in the proclamation of the gospel. In case we are ever tempted to forget what our goal is, we are reminded: the gospel of Jesus is proclaimed so that people could have life through repentance and the forgiveness of their sins. Christianity is not a mere belief system or club. It is a way of life characterized by repentance and forgiveness. This, in turn, changes everything.

This commission also emphasizes the gift of the Holy Spirit, “the Promise of the Father,” that is to empower those who proclaim Jesus. There are a few important things to say about this. First, Jesus says that the apostles are to “stay in the city” until they receive the power of the Holy Spirit. This is what the Apostles, the Virgin Mary, and the other disciples did. In the days before Pentecost, they stayed in Jerusalem in the upper room where the last supper occurred, fasting and praying. This is important for us, as well. We receive the Holy Spirit in the sacraments, but it is through spiritual preparation that we receive Him in greater power, in spiritual gifts and fruits that enable us to proclaim the gospel to greater effect. Think of it as “retreat time,” alone with the Lord, praying and fasting. Jesus Himself did this when He spent 40 days in the wilderness, and again whenever He spent time alone in prayer. So did Saint Paul, likely, after his conversion, when he spent time “in Arabia” (Gal 1:17). We, for our part, are witnesses of Christ insofar as we have encountered Him in power, alive and communicated to us in the Holy Spirit from above.

The Gospel According to John

[Jesus] said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” (Jn 20:21-23)

John the Evangelist

This commission of the Apostles emphasizes first the gift of peace that is ours as disciples of Christ. The gift of peace is a gift of the gospel. It is a manifestation of the presence of the Kingdom of God, of Jesus Himself, within us. The gospel must transform us into men and women of peace. If we do not have this peace, or have lost it, then we must go to Jesus to obtain it. Indeed, He invites us: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28). Only when we have this peace, do we have a chance of being credible witnesses to Christ, the “Prince of Peace” (Is 9:5).

We also see in this text that our mission of evangelization is founded in God the Holy Trinity who recreates us in His Image. As Jesus was sent by the Father, so are we sent by Jesus, through the gift of the Holy Spirit Whom Jesus breathes upon us. This brings to mind the creation accounts of Genesis, in which God created man as a living being, in His image and likeness, by breathing the breath of life into his nostrils (Gn 2:7, see also 1 Cor 15:45). In other words, our mission of evangelization is founded upon our own recreation in Jesus Christ. We are made a “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15), so that others, too, might be brought into the same state, and ultimately, so that the whole world may be renewed (see Rv 21:1).

In this passage, we again see the importance of the forgiveness of sins; in this case, in the context of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. The Apostles and their successors are made a new creation in the Holy Spirit in such a way as to receive a special commission of forgiving sins in the name and person of Jesus. As evangelists, we ought to frequent this sacrament often, and lead others to this sacrament as well.

The Acts of the Apostles

[Jesus said,] you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

Luke the Author of the Acts of the Apostles

This last text repeats themes from the previous ones, but focuses on the special order of the dissemination of the gospel in the world: from Jerusalem to Judea, to Samaria, and to the rest of the earth. This order is not random or insignificant. The Kingdom of God proclaimed in the gospel is the promised restoration of the Kingdom of David, which, according to prophecy, would once again extend over the 12 tribes of Israel, and would reach even to the Gentile nations. It is highly significant, therefore, that the Apostles would begin their ministry in Jerusalem, continue it throughout the territory of the Jews, and then bring it to Samaria (the capital of the 10 Northern tribes of Israel), and ultimately to all the nations.

How does this relate to our work of evangelization today? This last stage — bringing the gospel to all nations — is the stage in which the Church still finds herself. This is our mission. Likewise, the Lord still has plans for His people Israel, and our work will contribute to its fulfillment (see Rom 11:11-36). It is good that we know these things so that we can more intentionally participate in them through our evangelization and prayer.

Author: Mr. Mark J Hornbacher, OP

Mark is the Vice President of Programs and Director of Theology at St. Paul Street Evangelization. He has a BA in Theology from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, MI, and a B.Phil and MA in Theology from Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. With Steve Dawson, he is the co-author of Ordinary Christians, Extraordinary Signs: Healing in Evangelization. He is a lay Dominican, and resides in Sterling Heights, MI with his wife Gayle, and their two sons.

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