It’s safe to say that every Christian has heard of the Great Commission. It’s how the Gospel of Matthew ends (Matt. 28:18-20). The “greatness” of this commission can be measured by its all-inclusiveness. Notice how the Lord uses the word “all”:
- All authority – v. 18
- All the nations – v. 19
- All that I have commanded you – v. 20
- All the days – v. 20
All of Jesus’ disciples should go to all the nations, backed by all His authority, to teach all that He has commanded them, for all the days of this age. This is a staggering, universal commission. And over the course of church history it has operated in the hearts of thousands as the catalyst of missional activity. This has been especially true since 1792 when William Carey brought these verses to the foreground with his missionary manifesto entitled, An Enquiry Into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens.
However, surprisingly, the Gospels conclude with a different commission. This is meaningful.
A Purposeful Journey to Galilee
Jesus delivered the great commission on a mountain in Galilee during the forty day interval between His resurrection and His public ascension (which occurred near Jerusalem at the Mount of Olives). Many people probably assume that the great commission in Matthew happens right before the ascension. However, this isn’t the case. Matthew doesn’t mention the ascension.
Of the four Gospels, only Mark and Luke mention the ascension, which happens in Bethany, not in Galilee. Mark and Luke, however, do not mention anything that happened during this 40 day interval. Reading these two accounts, you get the impression that right after appearing in the upper room on the night of His resurrection, Jesus led the disciples outside and immediately ascended to heaven. But this isn’t the case either.
Matthew and Mark both record the Lord saying that after He is raised, He will go before them to Galilee. Even the angel at the tomb in these two Gospels reminds the disciples to go to Galilee. What’s the deal with Galilee? Interestingly enough, Matthew and Mark both first mention this Galilee expedition in connection with a Shepherd, scattered sheep, and the story of Peter’s denial of the Lord (Matt. 26:31-35; Mark 14:27-31).
You will all be stumbled because of Me this night, for it is written, “I will smite the Shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.” But after I have been raised, I will go before you into Galilee.
In Acts, Luke informs us of a 40 day interval during which the Lord sporadically manifested Himself to His disciples to train them to live according to His invisible presence (Acts. 1:3). It must be that during these 40 days, the disciples traveled to Galilee and then traveled back to Jerusalem for the ascension and then Pentecost. Thus it seems like the Lord had a specific goal in mind for this trip.
Bringing a Failure into Function
John 21 records in detail the Lord’s tender shepherding to bring a failure back into function. This is the vital conclusion to the Gospel of John and all the Gospels as a whole. It serves as the link to the Epistles by incorporating the apostles’ ministry into Christ’s heavenly ministry to build up the Body of Christ.
Sometime during this 40 day period in Galilee, Peter returned to his old profession of fishing. Just before the cross, Peter had a monumental, dispensational failure. He denied the Lord three times. Earlier, Jesus said “Whoever will deny Me before men, I also will deny him before My Father who is in the heavens” (Matt. 10:33). Peter was probably devastated and thought his usefulness to God was over. Thus, he went back to what he had left behind.
Peter’s bravado had vanished and his self-confidence had been shattered. Then the Lord appeared, restored his love, and commissioned him to shepherd His sheep. This is the concluding commission of the Gospels.
The commission to shepherd comes right in the midst of failure. This is because only failures can shepherd others. Only after we have wept bitterly for ourselves (Luke 22:62) can we weep tenderly for others. Only after we have repented with tears can we admonish with tears (Acts 20:31). Through Peter’s experience of failure and brokenness, he became useful. Thus the Lord could say, “I have made petition concerning you that your faith would not fail; and you, once you have turned again, establish your brothers” (Luke 22:32).
Comparing These Commissions
Although both commissions happen in Galilee, they are markedly different:
- The commission in Matthew is “great”. The commission in John is intimate.
- The commission in Matthew is authoritative. The commission in John is restorative.
- The commission in Matthew comes after worship. The commission in John comes after breakfast.
- The commission in Matthew is given through a command. The commission in John is given through a conversation.
- The commission in Matthew is based on the kingdom. The commission in John is based on love.
- The commission in Matthew is focused on nations. The commission in John is focused on individuals.
- The commission in Matthew is to disciple. The commission in John is to shepherd.
- The commission in Matthew stresses teaching. The commission in John stresses feeding.
In this light we should always keep John 21 before us when considering the great commission. The Lord’s commission to us is not just to be a teaching staff or guidance counselors to train individual disciples. We must feed and shepherd others for their organic salvation and growth in life so that the Body of Christ could be built up.
- Psalm 23: From Failure to Shepherding (lifeandbuilding.com)