Jesus’s “Great Commission” to his disciples is, perhaps, one of the more celebrated texts of Scripture out there. Found in Matthew 28, Mark 16, and Acts 1, these verses serve as the mission statement for modern believers. If you’re ever left wondering what your purpose on earth is, these verses are a good starting point. But what makes these “Great Commission” verses so powerful isn’t just the words themselves and the One who spoke them, but all the little details that come before them. Indeed, in the midst of the minutiae of Matthew 28 and Mark 16 we find vivid pictures of the Great Commission already at work, by the One who gave it himself.
For my own opinion, I prefer Mark’s Gospel (yes, despite the controversy).1 And even though Matthew 28:19–20 gets the majority of our attention, the events recorded in Mark 16 are nonetheless important for us to sit up and pay attention.2
In the aftermath of Golgotha.
The three days have passed and the promised resurrection of the Son of God is now fulfilled. I love that “he appeared first” to Mary Magdalene. She is, as we know, a dear disciple and follower of Christ because of the remarkable grace shown to her in liberating her from the sevenfold demonic possession she endured. (Mk 16:9; Lk 8:2) No doubt, her devotion had turned to despair after the events of the crucifixion, as she watched her Rescuer and Redeemer’s bloodied and bludgeoned body hang from Golgotha’s tree. For all she knew, Jesus was gone.
But so significant was her transformation and so thankful was she for Christ’s intrusion in her life that she was now honoring her Lord in his seeming death. (Mk 16:1–3) She and two others depart “that they might go and anoint him.” (Mk 16:1) But he was not there. He had risen. An angel tells them of Jesus’s resurrection and that he would soon meet them. (Mk 16:4–8) And meet them he does. “He appeared first to Mary Magdalene,” the Scripture says. (Mk 16:9) This appearance to an ex-demoniac is indicative of Jesus’s mission. He’s the Seeker and Savior of the Lost, the Lover of the Outcast, God’s anointed Redeemer. (Is 61:1–2)
But Jesus’s appearing inspires Mary’s assignment. After seeing her Lord risen and in the flesh, she immediately runs to tell the apostles. The best sort of news can’t be contained — it has to be shared. But what are the disciples doing? Mourning and weeping. (Mk 16:10) The Eleven are still grieving Jesus’s death when Mary rushes in and shouts, “He’s alive! I saw him!” The pangs of losing their Master are still felt when rumors swirl that his death wasn’t final. And what’s their reaction? “They would not believe.” (Mk 16:11) They’re skeptical of this development, and rightfully so. I think we’d react the same way under similar circumstances. A few weeks ago I spent time with family and friends to mourn the loss of my grandfather. My Poppy’s home going was one of the most sweet and solemn times in recent memory. But what would’ve happened if at the viewing some crazy woman barged in and shouted, “He’s not dead, he’s alive! I saw him this morning!” At best we’d call her insane and escort her out of the room. At worst one of my family members might tackle her.
And so it is here. This news, while tinged with hope, was outrageous and scandalous. Luke’s Gospel even says that the apostles deemed Mary’s story nothing but an “idle tale,” something not worth their time. (Mk 16:12; Lk 24:11) The death of Jesus had sucked the life, joy, and hope right out of them. What’s more, Mary’s crazy story is further corroborated by two other disciples, whom Jesus met while on the road to Emmaus. (Lk 24:13–31) But even their witness wasn’t enough to convince the apostles. “They did not believe them.” (Mk 16:13)
The apostles have now had two distinct instances of hearing the amazing news of Christ’s return from the dead. Yet they did not believe. They had forgotten that this was the plan all along. Jesus had been predicting this outcome for his entire ministry. (Mk 8:31; Mt 12:39–40; Jn 2:18–22) The Eleven were still stuck dreaming of a glorious revolution led by this Jesus of Nazareth. No doubt they were befuddled by his death after his promises of ushering in a New Kingdom. What appeared to be devastating was merely the preamble to man’s deliverance.
The apostles’ sadness is quickly foiled by the Savior’s presence. Their collective unbelief is refuted by the Messiah’s person. The dust is still settling in the aftermath of the crucifixion, and now it’s been stirred up again with rumors of a resurrection. The disciples are even sitting “at table” when all of a sudden, Jesus appears. What I would give to see the looks on their faces. After Peter almost chokes on dinner, Jesus corrects him and the others, rebuking “them for their unbelief and hardness of heart.” (Mk 16:14) “What are you guys doing? Why are you sulking?” I imagine him saying. “Don’t you remember all the times that I told you this was going to happen? This is all part of the plan.” The apostles had missed the point of why they and he were there. Thus, we get Christ’s reemphasis of their mission — their “Great Commission.”
Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever 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 cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover. (Mk 16:15–18)
This commission is really a charge for the apostles to continue Christ’s mission. As God’s sent Rescuer and Redeemer, Jesus’s own mission statement was to “preach the gospel to every creature” — to the poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed. (Lk 4:18–19) And here, as he utters his last errand to his closest followers, he nearly repeats that same mission, that same calling. In a very real way, these apostles were commissioned with continuing Christ’s mission. In his name, they would heal the sick, the blind, the crippled, and liberate the captives. In his name, they would preach the gospel and the dead would be given life. Jesus says these words and then departs, ascending into heaven. (Mk 16:19–20) But what’s the point in all this? Why recap this familiar scene? Well, because I think this scene has vast ramifications for every believer, not just missionaries.
Missionaries love using the “Great Commission passages” of Scripture to stress the missional aspect of the Christian’s calling. And rightfully so, as this is a very missions-centric passage. But the gist of this story isn’t just for missionaries, it’s for everyone! A missionary isn’t just someone who goes into a far-off country and preaches the gospel to yet unreached people groups. A missionary is anyone who shares the gospel with someone in need — that includes you and me who still live on American soil.
I think some have this notion that there’s something inherently more spiritual about packing up and going to some exotic nation to preach Christ crucified. And while I don’t mean to diminish the exemplary responsibility of this calling, don’t shirk the duty of the Great Commission merely because you’re not serving God on foreign ground. We’re all missionaries, to our families, to our friends, to our neighbors, to the strangers in the grocery store. God’s gospel is inherently missional, opening our eyes to the fellow sightless souls all around us, causing us to see the other burning lives that need to be “pulled out of the fire.” (Jude 1:23; Zec 3:2) That’s “preaching the gospel to every creature.”
But maybe you’re thinking, “Wait a minute, you just said preaching. I don’t preach and don’t plan to.” Sure, perhaps you don’t preach in the traditional sense of standing behind a lectern and expounding God’s Word. But you might be the only sermon some people ever hear. One pupil of St. Francis of Assisi once asked, “When are we going to preach?” St. Francis and his student had been walking the streets of the town when the question was posed, “When does the preaching start?” to which St. Francis replied, “We have been preaching; we were preaching while we were walking. We have been seen — looked at; our behavior has been remarked; and so we have delivered a morning sermon . . . it is of no use that we walk anywhere to preach, unless we preach as we walk.”3 You see, if you believe in Jesus as your Savior, your life is a living sermon — the way you talk and act, the things you do and say, all these things say something about the God you say you believe. In this way, we’re all preachers, we’re all missionaries. Some people may never pass through the doors of a church, they may never crack open the cover of a Bible — but perhaps more than any sermon, better than any hand-delivered tract, the neighborly ordinary love of Christians for those around them can lead the lost to Christ.
In fact, many of the best sermons are the ones without words — the ones that aren’t spoken from behind podiums, but lived and breathed in everyday life. Therefore, as I take account of my own life, I must ask myself, What message am I preaching by my life? One of grace or one of greed? One of selfishness or one of selflessness? Do others know me for my love for my conceit? How am I preaching the gospel to every creature? How am I showing Christ to my neighbor? What are you preaching with your life? Be known for love. That’s your Great Commission.
Throughout the centuries, debate and controversy have surrounded the close of Mark’s Gospel, for the apparent differences it contains from the rest of the book. Indeed, many of the Greek words and phrases employed are seemingly not very Markan. Most modern translations of Scripture will include an additional notation stating that the earliest manuscripts don’t contain verses 9–20 of Mark 16. For a good discussion of this and the question of the divine inspiration of these verses, read this piece by Dr. Dave Miller.
For what it’s worth, I’m not going to try and prove the historicity or authenticity of Mark 16:9–20 — that’s for another time and venue. I’m just going to presume upon it’s divine inspiration as part of the canonized Scripture.
J. R. Miller, Glimpses Through Life Windows, edited by Evalena Fryer (New York: Crowell & Co., 1893), 57.