What is a current prescription for outreach and church ministry in today’s context, and how does one apply Scriptural support for these strategies? These questions, among others, can be answered using the timeless truths of the Bible. Ministers of the gospel must also seek to provide a framework for applying them to the modern church, just as they applied to the first-century church. What is the beginning point for the foundation of ministry?
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority 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, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:16-20).
Jesus left the disciples with a series of imperative commands to take the gospel into the world, to teach the nations, and to build the church. Jesus also said the authority for these actions belonged to him. This paper will seek to build a theological case for outreach and church ministry built upon the commands of the Lord Jesus Christ, according to the Great Commission.
Has the church correctly understood the Great Commission and all its implications? Has evangelicalism sought to follow this in a manner that is consistent with Christ’s teaching? R. C. Sproul offers a pointed response:
We have to understand that when we speak of the Great Commission, it is not the great suggestion. It is not the grand idea. It is not an essay on manifest destiny. It is a mandate from the King of kings, who possesses all authority in heaven and on earth. We say that Jesus is the Lord of the church and that we believe in Him, and that means we must obey this mandate He has given us.
Most Christians that have spent time in the church have read or heard Matthew 28:16-20 quoted. Many can recite them from memory, but do they grasp the reality and importance of how Christ has laid out the pattern? Today, the church wants a method “that works,” and in most cases, this means numerical growth. Sproul speaking of the Billy Graham evangelistic crusades read that Graham wondered if those that decided for Christ were involved in discipleship programs or just left to their own? He says, “The Great Commission call us to do more than work to convert people. It calls us to teach them, to ground them, to help them grow in conformity to Christ. That is our mission.”
“And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18).
Who could make such a claim as Jesus makes? The church must readily accept and proclaim that their authority rests in the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is Christ and the truths he has taught, exemplified, lived, and proclaimed that is the only basis of authority. He not only spoke these truths, but he also proved them through miracles, and ultimately his death, burial, and resurrection.
He made outrageous claims that, if not true, would be as C.S. Lewis states, “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with a man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.”
Lewis’s words ring true today, as they did when he spoke them, but as Christ claimed to be divine, the Great Commission statement, of Matthew 28, provides more evidence of authority. Verse 17 states, “when they saw him they worshiped him.” Who else can receive worship but God?
Peter would not accept worship. “When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him. But Peter lifted him up, saying, “Stand up; I too am a man” (Acts 10:25-26).
Paul and Barnabas would not accept worship. (Acts 14:14-15).
Worship is only lawful to God (Exodus 20:5). God’s people recognize this truth, the Apostle John recognized this,
I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me, but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God. (Rev. 22:8-9).
The Lord Jesus Christ, being God in the flesh, commands worship, claims authority, and proves himself, Lord. It is within this authority that he commands the following imperatives to be carried out by the New Testament church as an outflow of their love for him, and in obedience to his commands.
Who else could make such claims as Christ made? The only possible answer is that Jesus Christ, being God in the flesh, given power from the Father, could make these claims. John MacArthur lays this out succinctly and powerfully,
During His earthly ministry, Jesus demonstrated His authority over disease and sickeness (Matt. 4:23; 9:35), over demons (4:24; 8:32; 12:22), over sin (9:6), and over death (Mark 5:41-42; John 11:43-44). Except for the forgiveness of sins, Jesus even exhibited the authority to delegate such powers to certain of His followers (Matt. 10:1; Luke 10:9, 17). He has authority to bring all men before the tribunal of God and to condemn them to eternal death or bring them to eternal life (John 5:27-29; 17:2). He had the authority to lay down His own life and to take it up again (John 10:18).
The evidence for authority is overwhelming throughout the Scriptures. Now let us turn our attention to the commands. How is this relevant to the church in a modern context?
Because of his authority, Christ now issues a series imperatives. The first is to go, but what does this mean? Reading ahead in the narrative, the command to go will be followed by the instruction to “all nations” for discipleship, baptizing, and teaching. In order to understand the concept of “going,” let us look ahead to the book of Acts and the Lord’s departing words. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Matthew Henry helps in understanding what it means to go:
It is not only a word of command, like that, Son, go work, but a word of encouragement, Go, and fear not, have I not sent you? Go, and make a business of this work. They must not take state, and issue out summons to the nations to attend upon them; but they must go, and bring the gospel to their doors, Go ye.
The word go carries the connotation of going on a journey, but we must understand the purpose behind the journey. The Gospel of Mark provides the answer, “And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15).
A biblical theology of gospel proclamation to the world must be rooted in the truth of Scripture. While it would be challenging to deal with every possible way of going, this paper will address two methods of evangelism explicitly found in the book of Acts that are biblical forms of gospelizing.
And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21 And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” 22 But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ. (Acts 9:20-22).
Pragmatism is alive and well in the modern church. Evangelicalism has fully embraced the concept that whatever works is justified. The Apostle Paul never considered pragmatism as a viable option. He does not use skits and various methods of enticement. The two primary methods Paul used were reasoning and preaching. His evangelistic methods, included going into the Jewish synagogue or a public location and reasoning with those that Jesus is the Christ. Whether the crowd is Jews or Gentiles, the methodology was typically the same. Paul used the power of the Scriptures to make converts. Paul was a presuppositional apologist.
What is presuppositional apologetics? Voddie Baucham describes the concept in his book Expository Apologetics like this,
In its simplest form, expository apologetics is about three things. First, it is about being biblical. We answer objections with the power of the Word. Second, its about being easy to remember. If we can’t remember this simplicity, we won’t use it in our everyday encounters. Third, it is about being conversational. We must be able to share truth in a manner that is natural, reasonable, and winsome.
Paul confounded the Jews with his knowledge of the Scriptures and pointed them to Christ through the proper application of God’s Word. The approach was similar but adapted to the audience. In the case of a Gentile audience, it differed slightly. (Acts 17:22-25).
Paul was skilled in the art of rhetoric and debate. He utilized his training in the Scriptures to confound the Jews, and he was equally adept with a Gentile audience applying the Scriptures to the situation. Observe how Paul transitions into the gospel with the Epicurean Stoics and Philosophers.
Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:29-31).
The art of reasoning and apologetics plays a critical role in the advancement of the gospel throughout the ancient world, as it does today. If a modern church in our modern context is to reach the lost for the glory of God, then being skilled in this art should be stressed and taught in the church.
“‘And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people” (Matt. 4:23).
“What would Jesus do?” We have all heard the slogan, and we have often contemplated the question, but the real question is not what would Jesus do, but what did Jesus do? Matthew 4:23 provides an answer to that question. “He went throughout all Galilee. He taught in their synagogues. He proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom. He healed every disease and affliction among the people.”
This paper has attempted to show Paul’s method of reasoning, and Paul usually began his missionary work in a new city by entering the synagogue and reasoning with the Jews. Jesus had access to the synagogues, and it appears he could teach in the synagogues. Looking at the next thing Jesus did was “proclaim the gospel of the kingdom” is the focus here.
Jesus was an open-air preacher. He preached on a hillside, he preached in the towns, and he preached to thousands from a boat, and if the goal is to be like Jesus, then open-air preaching must be considered a valid form of spreading the gospel of the kingdom.
No sort of defence is needed for preaching out of doors; but it would need very potent arguments to prove that a man had done his duty who has never preached beyond the walls of his meetinghouse. A defence is required rather for services within buildings for worship outside of them.
While Spurgeon’s quote is powerful, open-air preaching is never without controversy. The effectiveness, and the perceived offenses of the method of reaching a broader audience is consistently challenged. Spurgeon says one of the great benefits is how many will hear that would otherwise never enter a church building. He never tries to sugar-coat the offense caused by open-air preaching but stands firmly by the method as a legitimate means to reach the lost.
In their book, A Certain Sound, Ryan Denton, and Scott Smith argue, “Crowded markets and thoroughfares were always seen as excellent opportunities for proclaiming the gospel.”
As practicing open-air evangelists, Denton and Smith understand the value of taking to a street corner or the college campus just as Spurgeon did. Spurgeon spoke these hard words for those that never ventured out, “These people believe in a New Testament which says, ‘Go out into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in,’ and yet they dislike the literal obedience to the command.”
Spurgeon recommended upon leaving college, the first thing a new minister should do upon entering a town is to begin an open-air campaign, and for new missionary interests, he says, “out-of-door services are a main agency.”
The methodologies for going, at the very minimum, must include reasoning or an apologetics ministry, and an open-air ministry for the propagation of the gospel message. Numbers of converts never measure success. If this was the case, then the Lord Jesus was a complete failure. Success is measured by faithfulness to the message. To go, therefore, is a command which requires feet on the pavement, with a bible in hand, and love in the heart. Reaching out to those that will never enter a church is every bit as relevant today as it was when Jesus did it.
When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, 22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. 23 And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. (Acts 14:21-23).
Jesus declared what must be done, the book of Acts illuminates the practical application. Disciple making involves preaching the gospel, strengthening souls, and encouraging them to continue in the faith.
Acts 14 provides a roadmap and a step-by-step guide on how to faithfully carry out the task. Church ministry and outreach coordinators should study Acts consistently and would be negligent if they did not.
In their excellent book, The Trellis and the Vine, Colin Marshall and Tony Payne have this to say about making disciples, “We did this because Christian ministry is really not very complicated. It is simply the making and nurturing of genuine followers of the Lord Jesus Christ through prayerful, Spirit-backed proclamation of the word of God. It’s disciple-making.”
The work of making disciples is less complicated than most want to make it, but it requires diligence and work. Marshall and Payne provide an important distinction, “All of these methodologies have good things going for them, but all of them are equally beside the point—because our goal is not to grow churches, but to make disciples.” The point is clear, and they further address the goals, “The fundamental goal is to make disciples who make other disciples, to the glory of God.”
The churches call to go, and to make disciples, all under the authority of Christ, must also baptize and teach. We will turn our attention to these elements of the Great Commission.
“baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19).
The commands of the Lord Jesus Christ follow a succinct order intended to convey a logical progression of faith. When the church proclaims the gospel, salvations occur. When a new convert comes to Christ, the first significant act of faith is baptism. In the first-century church, this gave testimony of service to a new king, the Lord Jesus Christ. It meant an abandonment of the old life and a recognition of the new life. Calvin provides clarity on the requirements of baptism, “Christ enjoins that those who have submitted to the gospel, and professed to be his disciples, shall be baptized; partly that their baptism may be a pledge of eternal life before God, and partly that it may be an outward sign of faith before men.”
Additionally, the critical distinction is not baptism alone, but baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The difference between truly knowing God and false worship hinges on the triune nature of God. Calvin makes this clear,
Thus we perceive that God cannot be truly known, unless our faith distinctly conceive of Three Persons in one essence; and that the fruit and efficacy of baptism proceed from God the Father adopting us through his Son, and, after having cleansed us from the pollutions of the flesh through the Spirit, creating us anew to righteousness.
Calvin also clarifies that while baptism is linked to faith and serves as a testimony of faith, it is not a requirement or a half-cause of salvation. Baptism serves as one of the two sacraments instituted by Christ for the New Testament church. A testimony of the work Christ has done in a sinner’s life. The act is one of importance to the New Testament believer that they have professed faith and allegiance to Christ.
“teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
The Christian life and ministry involve teaching and observation of the commandments Christ has given through his word. It is a lifetime of seeking the Lord’s will. The Christian world is replete with non-commitment “Christians” that go to church on Sunday and live like the devil the rest of the week. Christ has not left that option available.
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).
The example of the diligent study of God’s word is evident in this passage, and these believers knew the importance of the teaching of the apostles. The New Testament, not yet being complete, required hearing directly from these men. Today, we have a closed canon so that we can go directly to the source. The point is devotion to this study, seeking the Spirit to grow in grace.
R.C. Sproul provides a commentary on this passage,
There is no such thing as a Spirit-filled Christian who neglects the study of the Word of God. There is no such thing as a Spirit-filled church that does not give itself continually and steadfastly to the study of sacred Scripture. The first sign of a Spirit-filled church is one in which the Spirit-filled people do not flee from Scripture and seek a substitute for it but are driven to it to have their spiritual lives rooted and grounded in the Word of God.
To have a full-orbed understanding of the Great Commission, it must include obedience to the commands. Obedience is not a self-manufactured condition. Obedience must occur through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The unregenerate will not desire to obey Christ. The false professor of Christianity may have signs of morality, but often give themselves away in the heart of the matter. While on a surface level, they might appear obedient, a more in-depth look will usually reveal the truth.
“And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20).
Without this essential concluding statement from the Lord Jesus Christ, it all falls to human effort. Jesus has bookended the Great Commission with two crucial statements. He has the authority to send his disciples into the world, and he is with us. It is with this confidence that the New Testament believer can go into the battlefield assured of the victory.
MacArthur concludes with this statement in his commentary,
As crucial as are the first four elements for effective fulfillment of the church’s mission, they would be useless without the last, namely, the power that the Lord Jesus Christ offers through His continuing presence with those who belong to Him. Neither the attitudes of availability, worship, and submission, nor faithful obedience to God’s Word would be possible apart from Christ’s own power working in and through us.
What great mercy the Lord provides his followers. The New Testament church cannot fail in its mission if it obeys. The failure comes when the church is rebellious to the call. The call to outreach in church ministry is foundational to the church’s success. In a similar manner to personal holiness, evangelism, missions, and any other activity require the Holy Spirit, but it also requires obedience
A biblically informed theology of outreach and church ministry includes the truth of the scriptures and the testimony of the church. The New Testament provides a roadmap to guide and inform, abandoning pragmatism and glorifying God. Christians desiring obedience to the Great Commission have the promises of Jesus that he will ensure the success of the church mission.
Following the guidelines laid out by Christ in the Great Commission is not only biblical, but it is also practical. It puts feet to the street, and the book of Acts provides consistent counsel to the effort of taking the gospel message to the nations. In this, the modern-day Christian can have great confidence their efforts are never in vain.
Baucham, Voddie. Expository Apologetics: Answering Objections with the Power of the Word. Wheaton: Crossway, 2015.
Calvin, John., and Pringle, William. Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, vol. 3 Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010.
Denton, Ryan., and Smith, Scott. A Certain Sound: A Primer on Open Air Preaching. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2019.
Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994.
Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity, The C.S. Lewis Signature Classics. Harper Collins Publishing, 2017.
MacArthur, John F. Matthew 24-28, MacArthur New Testament Commentary Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1989.
Marshall, Colin., and Payne, Tony. The Trellis and the Vine: The Ministry Mind-shift that Changes Everything. Matthias Media, 2009.
Sproul, R.C. Acts: An Expositional Commentary. Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2019.
Sproul, R.C. Matthew: An Expositional Commentary. Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2019.
Spurgeon, C.H. Lectures to my Students. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, Reprinted 2011.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016.
Wikipedia. 2020. Wikipedia: What Would Jesus Do. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Last modified January 31, 2020, at 01:05 (UTC). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_would_Jesus_do%3F.
 All Scripture citation in this work are taken from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016) unless otherwise noted.
 Ibid., 765.
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, The C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (Harper Collins Publishing, 2017). 50, 51.
 John F. MacArthur, Matthew 24-28, MacArthur New Testament commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1989), 338, 339.
 Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 1775.
 Voddie Baucham, Expository Apologetics: Answering Objections with the Power of the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 20.
 C.H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, Reprinted 2011), 303, 304
 Ryan Denton and Scott Smith, A Certain Sound: a Primer on Open Air Preaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2019), 14.
 C.H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, Reprinted 2011), 303
 Ibid., 314
 Ibid., 151.
 Colin Marshall and Tony Payne, The Trellis and the Vine: The Ministry Mind-shift that Changes Everything (Matthias Media, 2009), 152.
 John Calvin and William Pringle, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, vol. 3 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 385.
 John Calvin and William Pringle, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, vol. 3 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 387.
 R.C. Sproul, Acts: An Expositional Commentary (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2019). 48.
 John F. MacArthur, Matthew 24-28, MacArthur New Testament commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1989), 346.