A Resolution for the Church

Of the making of commitments there seems to be no end. Having formed any number of New Year’s Resolutions, we find ourselves bombarded by new pressures from within and without—and after nearly a month, perhaps we have already decided to call it quits.

But what if we take a moment to step back from our personal goals, hopes, and dreams for 2021, and consider a biblical resolution fit for the church in our day? That resolution would echo the familiar Edwardsian formula: “Resolved, that we will make disciples.”

It is no mystery that the resolution put forward above is grounded in the “Great Commission” text of Matthew 28:18-20. These verses are particularly well suited to motivate us as the church in the difficult tasks of evangelism and discipleship in a hostile culture. Especially now that the very act of gathering together is maligned by those whom we desire to love with the love of Christ, what might we glean from the Great Commission to propel us forward in faith?

Each of the Gospel accounts weaves together a variety of literary genres in presenting the earthly ministry of Christ Jesus. Though Matthew’s Gospel favors didactic material, the narrative passages are detailed and extensive. Identifying the genre of Matthew 28:18-20 presents certain difficulties. Does the Evangelist present these verses as a simple narrative, the concluding action of Christ’s earthly ministry? Do these verses teach the proper constitution of Christian discipleship? As the popular “Great Commission” designation suggests, is this passage parenetic or hortatory, exhorting the disciples to action?

Having limited the passage to verses 18 through 20, it is best to understand it as an exhortation, what Herman Ridderbos designated as a “task imposed by Christ upon his disciples which stamped them as apostles.”[1] Elsewhere, he used similar language: “missionary commandment” and “mission.”[2] The use of such language is justified, for the discipleship mandate of the church’s apostolic leadership is the central concern of the passage. Christ’s authority in v. 18 is the basis for the mandate delivered in the first half of v. 19. The second half of v. 19 and the first half of 20 indicate the substance of the mandate. At the end of v. 20, Christ declares and promises the spiritual power that ensures the success of the mandate, fully resourcing those responsible for executing it in every age.

Not only is the mandate weighty in and of itself, but it is surrounded by literary elements that underscore its importance. Perhaps most significantly, the mandated activity of discipleship would attend the apostles’ going forth, even as Christ Himself accompanied them. The statement of Christ’s active presence is emphatic in the declaration in v. 20 “I Myself am surely with you.” On this point of emphasis, John Calvin commented,

The pronoun I must be viewed as emphatic; as if he had said that the apostles, if they wished zealously to perform their duty, must not consider what they are able to do, but must rely on the invincible power of those under whose banner they fight….He who, in respect of his body, is at a great distance from us, not only diffuses the efficacy of his Spirit through the whole world, but even actually dwells in us.[3]

The indwelling presence of Christ by His Spirit is not only the source of the church’s comfort, but also the only power by which the church may justify her confidence in carrying out the discipleship mandate in every age.

Note that Christ’s presence is continuous and enduring in the words “always, even to the end of the age.” We could render this element of Christ’s active presence as, “each and every day, even unto the consummation of this age.” Christ’s words are an ever-constant support to the church, even when individual believers cannot sense His comforting presence. As Thomas Brooks wrote to those suffering from despondency at the apparent desertion of God, “His quickening presence may be afar off, but His supporting presence is ever always nearby.”[4]

Though the assurance given in Matthew 28:20 should encourage us as individual believers, it is much more concerned with the church as a collective whole. R. T. France notes, “In context this assurance is focused not on the personal comfort of the individual disciple but on the successful completion of the mission entrusted to the community as a whole.”[5] The emphatic quality of Christ’s final words in Matthew’s Gospel goes far beyond a simple statement of fact. Christ presses the reality of His abiding presence with the church on earth into the souls of His hearers with emphatic and undeniable insistence. Christ personally guarantees the success of the church’s mission.

Our congregations seem to be facing uniquely global pressures to abandon, to minimize, or otherwise to dilute the discipleship mandate Christ has given to His church through its Apostolic leadership. Yet, Christ’s words ring out. They ring out with authority over us, as He alone reigns supreme as Head of the church. If He directs us to make disciples, then that is what we should do, no matter the obstacles or opposition we may face from circumstances beyond our control. This is as true in 2021 as it was in 1921, 1621, or 121. Christ’s words ring in our hearts with a beautiful tone of comfort and assurance. The selfsame Savior Who translated us out of darkness and into His marvelous light has guaranteed the success of our efforts, however opposed or stilted they may seem in our limited views.

As the church entering a new year shrouded in uncertainty, let us stand resolved to make disciples.


Zack Groff is Director of Advancement & Admissions at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Taylors, SC, and Ministerial Assistant at Antioch Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Woodruff, SC.


Related Links

"Rejoicing in the New Year" by Simonetta Carr

"Affliction Evangelism" by Aaron Denlinger

"Defending Door-to-Door and Open Air Evangelism" by Al Baker

"Who Does Gospel Ministry?" by Cameron Shaffer

A Workman Not Ashamed: Essays in Honor of Albert N. Martin, ed. by David Charles and Rob Ventura

Evangelism, ed. by Jeffrey Stivason


Notes

[1] Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom, ed. Raymond O. Zorn, trans. H. de Jongste (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 1962), 374.

[2] Ibid., 373.

[3] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. 17, Harmony of the Evangelists (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1974), 390, 391.

[4] Thomas Brooks, A Mute Christian Under the Rod (Choteau, MT: Old Paths Gospel Press, n.d.), 92.

[5] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 1119.