The Great Commission – Near and Far in Word and Deed

Fourth in a Series on Central’s Core Values,
Delivered January 31, 1999 by Dr. Ronald W. Scates

Sermon Text:
Mark 16:14-18
14 Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for
their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him
after he had risen.
15 He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.
16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will
be condemned.
17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive
out demons; they will speak in new tongues;
18 they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it
will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will
get well.”

Since my mother’s side of the family comes from West Virginia, I’ve always had a hankering to preach what I call the “hillbilly” version of The Great Commission. You know, Mark’s version where it talks about taking up snakes and drinking poison. Now, we’re not a snake handling congregation even though one of our members does raise them big time and our Associate Pastor owns one, but we do take the Great Commission very seriously at Central Church – Christ’s commission to take the good news of salvation across the street, across the sea in both word and deed.

We take that very seriously – it’s number four on our list of core values as a congregation. And when we think of the Great Commission, we usually think of Matthew 28. You know how it goes – “go into all the world and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.” But today, I thought I would use instead the “hillbilly” version, Mark’s version, to maybe give you and me some new and fresh insights into just why Christ’s last command is our first priority here at Central Church. So keep your snakes locked up, but open your Bibles and keep them open during the sermon to Mark’s gospel, the 16th chapter, and this morning let’s look together at verses 14 through 18. This is the Word of God.

Later Jesus appeared to the eleven as they were eating. He rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen. He said to them, go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Who ever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe – in my name they will drive out demons, they will speak in new tongues, they will pick up snakes with their hands – and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all. They will place their hands on sick people and they will get well.”

Join me as we pray: And now Father, as my words are true to your Word, may they be taken to heart. But as my words should stray from your Word, may they be quickly forgotten. Amen.

Uninvited and unexpected, Jesus shows up and ruins a perfectly good dinner party in verse 14. Actually, it’s sort of a funeral wake. His own wake, being put on by the eleven surviving apostles. Now imagine if the deceased showed up at one of those wonderful luncheons that our deacons put on after a funeral. That would be more than a little bit disconcerting. Well it’s a little bit more than disconcerting in our text this morning as Jesus shows up – and he shows up not as gentle Jesus, meek and mild, but as rebuking Redeemer, salty and stinging.

And in a day and age where the church of Jesus Christ is infiltrated with a whole lot of “apostles of unbelief” who count it a service to God and to people to cultivate what we might call “honest doubt”; and when you and I as believers are tempted to coddle or to count as virtuous things like scepticism and theological uncertainty, we see here in the text before us just what Jesus thinks about unbelief – especially among those he knows and he loves.

He comes and he kind of knocks the apostles up the side of the head and rebukes them because of their hard heartedness and their lack of faith because they refused to accept the reality of his bodily resurrection. Jesus doesn’t coddle their unbelief, he addresses it head on. And he does that to you and me as well. And if we look at the apostles in this text, if we’re honest we’re liable to be thinking, “well you know what, these guys were not a whole lot different that we are.” Well, that’s right. And that’s why verse 15 goes on to plunge them and you and me into the unbelievable, wondrous grace of God. Look at your text. Despite who the apostles are, despite their unbelief, despite their hard-heartedness and their skepticism, nevertheless Christ comes to them – and he comes to you and to me with the greatest privilege that we can possibly have as a human being – that of being his ambassador.

He says, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.” And just what is it that keeps you and me from doing just that? Well if you’re like me, you might think “well, you know, the reason I don’t share my faith with people is because I don’t feel worthy.” Look at your text. Are the apostles worthy? No! And yet worthiness has never been a prerequisite for witnessing. Christ comes to them and says “Go.” Or you and I might think “Well, you know, I lack enough faith.” What about the apostles, do they lack faith? Yeah! And yet, Christ comes, and places the great commission in their hands anyway. Or maybe you and I shrink back because in the pre-Christian world of the apostles and in the post-Christian world in which you and I live today, it’s very dangerous to carry out the Great Commission. It really is.

But Christ in his grace always goes ahead of us and says, “My grace is sufficient for you.” In fact, verse 15 of our text is the cure for verse 14. When you and I are bold enough to share our faith with others, our faith actually deepens. When you and I share our faith with others, we begin to realize that our worthiness lies solely in Christ’s righteousness, not in ourselves. When you and I share our faith with others, this world that sometimes looks so frightening, we actually start falling in love with it, in terms of longing to see it come to Christ. And so Christ comes to the apostles – he comes to you and me and lays on us the Great Commission.

What exactly is going on here? What is this Great Commission anyway? If you look at the mainline church today, you are liable to think that Jesus left his people with the command to “go to church and be nice.” Jesus didn’t say “go to church.” He said “Go into all the world.” When you are a Christian, when you’ve met Jesus Christ at more than second hand, you begin to realize that this entire globe is your mission field. When you’ve come into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, that ought to begin to cultivate in you and me a world vision. In this world today of almost 6 billion people, do you realize that well over half of those folks have never even heard the name of Jesus, let alone the gospel. Does that bother you?

And Jesus didn’t say “go into all the word and be nice.” He said “go into all the world and preach the good news.” The good news that God has not left you and me to self destruct; that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the powers and principalities of evil death and darkness have been put to flight and the door to eternal life swung wide open for those who believe that Jesus is the way to eternal life. The gospel is inclusive of the entire world, because Jesus is exclusive in terms of being the way, the truth, and the life.

And then look at the target of our proclamation. It is not to be just to people. Jesus says “go into all the world and preach the good news to all of creation.” And here I think of George Whitfield’s wondrous phrase where he said “The commission that Christ has given you and me is to go and preach the gospel promiscuously.” When we go out there and do the great commission and broadcast the gospel near and far and all over the place, then even the creation (which Paul says in Romans is groaning for its own redemption) begins to benefit. When a person is brought into right relationship with God, it ought to transform the way that person begins to relate to the creation around them. They begin to realize that this is the creation owned by the Creator. When you and I have a personal relationship with Jesus, it ought to impact you and me to become better caretakers of the creation.

It’s a sad thing that Christians are not in the forefront of the Environmental Movement. And that’s only because they have yet to grasp the full immensity of the Great Commission. When you and I are in right relationship with God through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, then the animals, the trees, the birds, the air, the soil, rivers, they ought to benefit from that as well. The entire creation is impacted when you and I are faithful in carrying out the Great Commission. But as in any case with the unmerited grace of God, it always comes with both promise and warning. Look at verse 16 of your text. It’s no different from the Great Commission. In verse 16 we see this great promise to you and me, that if we hear the gospel and embrace it and then respond by being baptized, then our eternal life in Christ is sealed, slam dunked, guaranteed by Jesus himself.

Martin Luther was often times assailed by doubts and uncertainties, as we all are, but rather than coddling those, rather than cultivating those with a sense of, “oh well, after all, what can we know for sure anyway,” Luther would rebuke them. And he would say out loud to himself, “I HAVE BEEN BAPTIZED.” A reminder to himself that his salvation was sealed by Christ, guaranteed by Christ, promised by Christ. And my friend, Christ is a promise keeper. You can be sure of that. He will never fail you. He has never made a promise to anyone that he has not followed through on completely. Luther knew that, and your opportunity this morning is to know that, as Christ comes to you and me and lays this Great Commission upon us.

But there is a warning – also in verse 16 – a warning that says if you and I think we can take doubt, and unbelief, and skepticism, and cynicism lightly – if you think that God overlooks that kind of stuff and if somebody rejects the Gospel that God just kind of winks – well, you’ve got another thing coming. It says that if you and I are presented with the gospel and we turn our backs and walk away from it, then that is our own eternal condemnation. David H. C. Read, the now retired pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City one time addressed a rather sophisticated group of Presbyterian pastors. And he asked them, “How many of you have many non-Christian friends?” And proudly, every hand went up. And then he looked at that group of pastors and says, “Does that break your heart? Do you care enough about them to share Jesus with them?”

Let’s move on and get to the “hillbilly” part of the Great Commission. Verses 17 and 18 are all about the snakes and poison. What’s going on here? Well, suffice it to say that any church that is picking up rattlesnakes and drinking strychnine, is breaking God’s heart. I can’t say it any more plainly, that is simply, bad, bad, bad theology. And like I’ve said on every one of these sermons on this series of the core values of Central, bad theology always hurts people. Bad theology always hurts people.

What then, are these two verses talking about? What is Jesus saying here to you and me? Well, I think what Christ is saying is “Hey, look , wherever the Great Commission is faithfully carried out, look what happens in its wake. Lives are transformed. The powers of evil and death are set to flight. People are changed and transformed. What he’s really doing is he’s painting a picture, he’s painting a portrait of what a person’s life looks like when they are transformed by the gospel that someone has shared with them through the Great Commission.

Here’s what happens, Christ says, the first thing is that demons begin to bail out of peoples’ lives. Folks the demonic is real – I’m not going to get into a sermon on that this morning, but when you become a Christian, any demons that have controlled you, you are now in control of them. Christ says, “I give you authority over powers and principalities of darkness.” You can start giving them the “heave-ho” out of your life. Secondly, Jesus says when people’s lives are transformed by the gospel, they begin to speak with new tongues. Well what does that mean? Well I’ll tell you, that for me, it meant that when I became a Christian, my speech got cleaned up a whole lot. And I began to talk about different things. I learned how to pray. For some of you it has meant that you have been given, in God’s providence, the gift of glossolalia, you are able to speak in unknown tongues. For others of you, it’s meant that you have been given the ability to learn a known tongue that you don’t presently know that has enabled you to go on the mission field and to share the gospel with people. New tongues.

Yeah, but what about the last part of verse 18 about the snakes and the poison? What’s going on there, Ron? Well, what I think Jesus is saying here to you and me is that when you and I come into a life changing encounter with Jesus Christ, then our life is not up for grabs. We are not at the whim of fate or chance or accident, but we come under the protective providence of Almighty God. He can prevent us from getting ill. He can protect us from being killed. Actually, I think the end of verse 18 is put there as an encouragement to missionaries – those called to carry out the Great Commission, which, hey, is all of us, right? Remember, you either are a missionary, or you need one.

And the end of verse 18 really is an encouragement to folks to “gut it up” and to risk going into impossible, deadly situations, knowing that their physical welfare and the success of the gospel is not dependent upon their ability to stay well or dodge bullets, but is totally dependent upon an almighty, omnipotent God who can preserve you and me under the most impossible and deadly of situations if He chooses to do so.

I remember when George Pattee and I were in Cambodia a year and a half ago. I thought about this verse all the time. Especially when they killed that cobra outside our bedroom one day. And when we would go into these villages out in the back woods when we were visiting the (deleted-group-name) people and they would set before us, well, I don’t know what it is that we ate, but I would think about “I can drink poison and it isn’t going to kill me.” And we came back healthy. He preserved us.

But it’s no guarantee. There are missionaries who get sick on the mission field. There are missionaries who die on the mission field. But what Christ is promising is this, “Do not be afraid – I can and will protect you whenever I deem necessary.”

Well, what does a commitment to the Great Commission really mean for us as a congregation? It’s one of our core values. So what? What does it really mean for us as we flesh it out here in the life of Central?

Well, I’ve plucked out six things that I think are important. The first is this. It means for us that here at Central we cultivate, or at least try to cultivate an evangelistic ethos that we hope will permeate the entire congregation. Where you begin to see yourself as nothing less than a minister of the gospel, a missionary called by Jesus Christ. You begin to see your home, your school, your office as your mission field. As long as I am the senior pastor of this congregation, we will not have an evangelism committee. “What’s wrong? Aren’t you committed to evangelism?” Yup – that’s exactly why I don’t want one. Any time a church gets an evangelism committee, everybody else goes “Oh, that’s their job.” It’s your job. That evangelism candle on the altar is a reminder to you and me every week of what our calling really is.

Secondly, it means that we will continue to offer periodic teaching and equipping in the area of evangelism. The Busters class, right now are going through a 13-week experience on learning how to share their faith. In March, with the Navigators, we will be bringing an evangelism seminar here to Central Church.

Thirdly, it means that every month we continue to celebrate what we call “Friendship Sunday” when we encourage members and regular attenders of Central to invite an unchurched person to come to worship with you. We try not to do any stewardship stuff on that day, so you don’t have to be embarrassed, you can bring them. The next Friendship Sunday is Valentine’s Day. Would you dare to love an unbeliever enough to invite them to come to worship with you on February 14?

Well a fourth thing that a commitment to the Great Commission means to us here at Central is what we’re doing right now – we’re broadcasting this service live over radio station WITH. We’re broadcasting right now to who knows who, and who knows where.

Another thing that a commitment to the Great Commission means for us is that every time we have a service in this sanctuary we issue an invitation at the end. An intentional opportunity for folks to respond to the Holy Spirit who might be nudging them to come to Christ. That will happen after this service. If you would like to receive Jesus for the first time today or would like to recommit your life to Christ, there will be a couple of people standing up here at the bottom of the stairs who would love to talk with you and to pray with you.

And then finally, what it means for us as a congregation is that we are committed lock, stock and barrel to the mission enterprise – the worldwide mission enterprise of Jesus Christ. The church that forgets, or neglects, or marginalizes missions is a church that has forfeited its right to carry the titles of Catholic or Apostolic. And you can thank God for our Associate Pastor Jerry Cooper and a Missions Committee of creative, faithful, talented folks who continue to push us on the cutting edge of local and world missions. A missions program that now has an international reputation. A missions program where we support 75 missionaries around the world and we are increasing that number every year. Where a third of our budget goes to mission and we are on a track to increase that budget to 50% sometime in the new millennium.

It means that we will continue to offer to you all short term mission opportunities like the Romania trip that Jerry’s going to talk about in just a moment. And for the youth, there is a work camp coming up this summer. It means we celebrate Jody Hansell and her going to Zimbabwe this summer with Teen Missions. It means we celebrate the return just this week of Piet and Phyllis DeSmit who have gotten back from ministering in Russia. It means we take seriously our adopted unreached people group, that we have partnered with about a half a dozen other Presbyterian Churches in the U.S. to put evangelists on the field to win that unreached people group to Jesus Christ.

It means we take seriously our Beyond These Walls campaign, and you did. Because you gave almost a quarter of a million dollars over and above the campaign. Over and above our regular missions budget to plant schools, and to translate scriptures, and to put evangelists on the field, and to build houses with Habitat here in Baltimore. You did that because you take the Great Commission seriously. And we’re going to do that again in Phase II.

You and I, if you are a believer here this morning, we need to be thankful. We need to be thankful, because somebody, somewhere, was bold enough to “gut it up” and to take the risk of fulfilling the Great Commission and sharing the gospel with you and me. Who was that? What if they hadn’t? Where would we be this morning? What if they hadn’t? Where would we be for eternity?

I am personally so thankful for Edward Kimball. Not a household name. Just a run of the mill ordinary Sunday school teacher who one day felt led by God to go into a shoe store where one of his Sunday school students, a young man named Dwight worked as a clerk. To go in there and share with Dwight the gospel – and he led him to Christ. Well, Dwight L. Moody righteously rocked the world with his ministry and under his preaching a man named F. B. Meyer came to Christ.

And F. B. Meyer led a guy named J. Wilbur Chapman to the Lord. And under Chapman’s preaching a flamboyant baseball player for the Chicago White Sox came to know the Lord. His name was Billy Sunday. And Billy Sunday launched a ministry, and one night at one of his services a man named Mordecai Ham gave his life to Christ. And God made Mordecai Ham into an evangelist and at one of his services, a young man named William gave his life to the Lord. And Billy Graham would go on to bring countless millions of people into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. One of whom is your Pastor. And so thank God for Edward Kimball as he played out his one small but faithful part in the Great Commission.

What about you? What about me? Will we do likewise?