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The Holy Spirit and the Great Commission

What does the Great Commission say about the Holy Spirit? It seems that many people think the Holy Spirit is the most boring member of the Trinity. That’s why nobody pays any attention to Him. In fact, the Holy Spirit is so boring, even the Great Commission only gives Him a passing mention?

Today we are going to talk about the Great Commission and the Holy Spirit.

Matthew 28:18-20

And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

What a great passage. We see Jesus in all His authority giving us authority. We hear Him sending us to make disciples of all nations. We learn about baptism as a key step in our discipleship experience. And we also see the clearest statement of the Trinity in all the Bible. Oh, and we are to teach everyone everything that Jesus taught. Finally, Jesus declares that he will always be with us.

Is that the Great Commission you were expecting? I want to talk with you about the other Great Commission.

Luke 24:45-49

Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”

That's rather similar, isn't it? Jesus gives some highlights of the gospel, “the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead” and that we should proclaim “repentance and forgiveness of sins” “to all nations”. Jesus also gives us a starting point: “beginning from Jerusalem”. Here, too, Jesus speaks of the Trinity, but less overtly, saying He is “sending the promise of my Father upon you”. Interestingly, Jesus tells them not to go out into the nations right away, but to wait “until you are clothed with power from on high”.

Luke continues this thought in Acts 1:8

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.

Here he completes the Trinity, clarifying that this power comes through the Holy Spirit, again sending first to Jerusalem, then to Judea and Samaria, and then to the end of the earth.

Cool stuff. So we have a second Great Commission that adds some details. And some more details are added by John in John 20:21-23,

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

That is actually kind of alarming. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.” Did Jesus just give us the authority to forgive sins?! Previously in Luke 5:21-24, it was written,

And the scribes and the Pharisees began to reason, saying, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

But when Jesus perceived their thoughts, He answered and said to them, “Why are you reasoning in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise up and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins”—He said to the man who was paralyzed, “I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.”

Jesus declared that his own authority to forgive sins was given to Him by the Father, in John 5:19, “Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner.”

In the Great Commission, Jesus gives that same authority to us. Just as Jesus could forgive sins on the authority of the Father, so we can forgive sins on the authority of Jesus. But Jesus doesn't make His own decision about it: He knows the Father's heart, and He knows that the Father wants to forgive these sins, so Jesus forgives these sins. In the same way, we can declare a person's sins forgiven anytime, and only at the time, when we know the Father and Jesus want to forgive those sins. When does God offer forgiveness? Anytime we repent of our sins and seek to follow Him. So anytime we disciple somebody who says, “I choose to turn away from my sins and follow Jesus” we can confidently say, with the authority Jesus gave us, “Your sins are forgiven.”

We can forgive sins! But what about the second part, “if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld”?

Why would Jesus ever withhold forgiveness from anyone? Think about this: anytime you have the opportunity to go and share the gospel with someone and you choose not to, you have withheld forgiveness from that person. Anytime you choose not to love someone with the active love of Christ, you have withheld forgiveness from that person. If you withhold forgiveness, they will never be forgiven, not because they have rejected Jesus, but because you have rejected them, refusing to spend your time or overcome your fear. You choose to follow Satan rather than Jesus. You listen to Satan’s lies. You believe the fear he puts in you. I have heard it said that when you feel fear upon attempting evangelism, you are feeling Satan’s fear. He is terrified that you will go through with it. When you and I accept that fear as our own, people remain unforgiven. And they will continue to remain unforgiven until you barge through Satan and bring forgiveness to them. “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). Do we withhold forgiveness from people because we don't love them? Jesus said to love your neighbor as yourself. John 3:16-17,

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.

When we love like Jesus, who loves like Father God, then we love our neighbors and forgive them. We must forgive them. If we don't forgive them, who will? Will they ever be forgiven? If they are never forgiven, their names will not be written in the Lamb's Book of Life, and they will not enter the kingdom, not now on earth, and not in eternity with Jesus. We must not withhold forgiveness by refusing to share the gospel. I say this to myself as much as to you: we must not withhold forgiveness by refusing to share the gospel!

But you might say, “I'm not good with words.” Well practice and get good with words! You might say, “I'm afraid.” Well then be courageous and plow through your fear! You might say, “I'm not gifted like so-and-so.” Well what I have to say to you is that... You're wrong.

It’s a shame that we focus so exclusively on this Great Commission and only this Great Commission. There's another Great Commission that you need to learn, too.

Mark 16:15-18

And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will follow those who have believed: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; and in their hands they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

“Go into all the world.” We all get this part, “Go be a missionary, etc.” But we now know from context that Jesus says, “First go to Jerusalem, then all Judea and Samaria, then to the ends of the earth.” Why Jerusalem? Because the disciples were in Jerusalem. Where are you? I am in State College, Pennsylvania. Did you know that if you add up all the students that attend Penn State who go to church or a campus ministry event each week you end up with only about 5% of the total student population? We are living amidst an unreached people group. 95% of our students are not yet forgiven. How much of our community is unforgiven? And how many people go to church but clearly demonstrate with their lives that they don’t know Jesus? You have a huge mission field right where you are.

And what about “Judea and Samaria”? Jerusalem is in Judea. After you go to the place you already live, then spread out to the areas around it. If you live in State College, go to Centre County. Go to Pennsylvania. Go to the United States. Go into all the world. You have to start somewhere, so start where God put you. But you don’t have to stay there, nor even succeed there. We see in Acts 8:1, right after Stephen was martyred, that “At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” It seems the disciples had gotten too comfortable in their Jerusalem ministry. God decided to give them a push toward the rest of the mission, the rest of the world. Jerusalem was not all saved. You can go out to other places long before your home has embraced the gospel. Instead, start at home, and then go where God sends you.

“Preach the gospel to every creature.” From context we know we are reaching out to people, even to nations. But let's take this a step farther. Is it possible that part of the gospel is bringing the kingdom to creation itself? Could stewarding the environment be part of the Great Commission? And what about the nations? Is it possible that we, the unified Church, could influence governments, even whole nations at once, to draw them all to repentance, forgiveness, and the glory of the kingdom of heaven? Think of Nineveh when Jonah preached: the whole city turned to God all at once.

“He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” We already had the command, “baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”, but now we have baptism connected to salvation. Note that baptism does not save you: “He who does not believe will be condemned,” not “he who is not baptized.” However, it also says “He who believes and is baptized will be saved.” Baptism is a public proclamation that you believe in Jesus and submit to Him as the true King of your life.

Romans 10:9-10 says,

“If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.”

Belief is in your heart, silently, but confession is with your mouth, out loud. Salvation comes with confession, which is to say, declaration. The word “confess” does not always mean to “admit” sins, but also “to declare, to acknowledge.” That’s why we confess “Jesus is Lord.” This is a declaration of allegiance, a swearing of fealty, a promise of obedience. You are telling the world, “Jesus is in charge and I am not. I obey Jesus and nobody else. Not you, not my family, not my friends, not anyone else. I obey Jesus.” That’s what you do at baptism. You publicly declare your allegiance to Jesus Christ by the action of being submerged in water and rising again, and you confess with your mouth: I believe in Jesus.

Baptism is not optional. Baptism is a mandatory part of following Jesus. Part of being saved is being baptized. You can’t just put it off: that’s disobeying God. That is sin. So if you believe in Jesus and you have not been baptized—and infant “baptism” doesn’t count—go get baptized.

Now we get to the fun part:

“These signs will follow those who have believed: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; and in their hands they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

Where are these signs in your life? What about in your church?

Reading only on the Great Commission in Matthew, we usually overlook the signs-and-wonders power of the Holy Spirit. In fact, many denominations have gone so far as to invent a heretical doctrine called “cessationism” which teaches that the Holy Spirit does not do signs and wonders through Christians today except in extremely lucky cases. This is a (probably unintentional) false teaching.

Many just say, “We don't know why there aren't miracles today (except occasionally on the mission field). We just know that there aren't.” And they choose not even to look for them. But James 4:2 says, “You do not have because you do not ask.”

We love the Bible because it is God’s very word to us. But we can lift the Bible itself up too highly, leading to such an academic mindset that the miraculous work of the Spirit can only be suspect, as it isn't written down in the pages of the Bible as much as we would like.

But Jesus said, “Stay in Jerusalem until you are clothed with power from on high”. In other words, Jesus said, “Don't go out and spread the gospel until the Holy Spirit has come upon you and given you the ability to do miracles.” Jesus commanded them not to do evangelism without miracles.

And Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 2:4

“And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power.”

Also, when Jesus sent out the disciples on their first short-term missions trip early in His ministry, before they even had the Holy Spirit, He said, in Matthew 10:6-8,

“Go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And as you go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. Freely you received, freely give.”

In our favorite Great Commission, Jesus said “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.”

Clearly Jesus' idea of a disciple is someone who heals the sick, raises the dead, cleanses the lepers, casts out demons, and gives freely. To be a disciple is to be like Jesus. Jesus was a great teacher. Jesus was also a miracle worker. To be a disciple is to be a teaching miracle-worker. Jesus chose you to be a teaching miracle-worker.

In His name, you will cast out demons. You will speak in new tongues. You will pick up serpents with your hands and drink deadly poison and experience other physical danger, but you will not be hurt by it. You will lay your hands on the sick, and they will recover.

These, of course, are just examples of what the Holy Spirit can do through you. Some you may experience, others not, and many other things not written here besides.

The writer of Hebrews says in Hebrews 6:1-2

“Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.”

What is that elementary principle of Christ, “laying on of hands” (Hebrews 6:2)? It is right here in the Great Commission, “You will lay your hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

2 Timothy 1:7

“For God has not given us a spirit of fear [(Satan)], but of power [(Holy Spirit)] and of love [(Father)] and of a sound mind [(Jesus, the Word)].”

“Stay in the city until” when? “You are clothed with power from on high.”

“My speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but” what? “In demonstration of the Spirit and of power.”

All these things are for you. “Heal the sick, Raise the dead, Cleanse the lepers, Cast out demons” (Matthew 10:8). These are promises, and not just promises: they are realities. This is what the power of the Holy Spirit looks like. God the Holy Spirit is here to be poured out upon you.

Acts 2:17-21,

“‘And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God,
That I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh;
Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
Your young men shall see visions,
Your old men shall dream dreams.
And on My menservants and on My maidservants
I will pour out My Spirit in those days;
And they shall prophesy.
I will show wonders in heaven above
And signs in the earth beneath:
Blood and fire and vapor of smoke.
The sun shall be turned into darkness,
And the moon into blood,
Before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord.
And it shall come to pass
That whoever calls on the name of the Lord
Shall be saved’” (Acts 2:17-21).

When are these “last days”? Right now. The Apostle Peter said these things 2,000 years ago, quoting the prophet Joel. They were true then, and they are true today.

Jesus did not say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is thousands of years from now and you want to be ready when the time comes, or when you die, whichever comes first.” Jesus said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

What does “at hand” mean? Open your hand, and get ready to pick something up, but don’t pick it up yet. So, you’re not holding it yet, but you could be. That’s what it means for something to be, “at hand”. The kingdom of heaven is this close. All you have to do is reach out and take it. The Holy Spirit is here now waiting for you to ask, and He is promising to answer.

So, the kingdom of heaven is not now, it is at hand. You may have heard the phrase, “the already and the not yet”. We know that the kingdom is already here in part. The Holy Spirit has been and continues to be poured out on us, and we experience His work today. But we also know that the kingdom is not yet here in its fullness. Then we will see God face to face, when that which is perfect has come (1 Corinthians 13:10), which is to say, when Jesus comes back again. Then the kingdom will be here in full, not only in part. Our work alongside the Holy Spirit is not flawless. We make mistakes. We do not always hear Him clearly. We do not always obey Him righteously. We do not always bring forgiveness to the world lovingly. Sometimes we pray and we do not receive the result we hope for. But sometimes we do.

One objection some people say is, “Those things were only for the apostles in the early church.” In John 17:20, Jesus clearly extends all His words, giftings, calls, commandments, and commissions, to us when He says to the Father, “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word”. And in the Great Commission, Jesus says, “make disciples . . . teaching them to follow all that I commanded you.” So Jesus expects us to do the same things the apostles did. We believe through their word. Jesus prayed for you and me specifically. The word “apostle” literally means “one who is sent away”. Jesus said in the Great Commission “I am sending you”. If Jesus meant for the apostles to receive the power of the Holy Spirit, He meant it for me and you, too.

It's time for you to step out in faith. The Holy Spirit is here to be poured out upon you today. There is one Spirit, and He can and does do miracles through anyone and everyone He pleases, through everyone who is willing to follow Him. God is here, right now, to work through you. You are commanded in the Great Commission not only to speak words, but also to demonstrate the Spirit's power.

Imagine if someone were to come church and say, “Wow! That teacher told me all about Jesus! And then that person came and prophesied over me. Now I feel encouraged. And that other person served me. And that other person was merciful. That one was hospitable. That one was so wise. That one was inspirational. This is amazing. Jesus is amazing!”

All these things and more are done by the Holy Spirit every day through those who ask Him. You are loved. You are special. You are gifted. God has great plans for you. The Holy Spirit is going to move in your life in many incredible, miraculous ways, all unique and special to you. All you have to do is ask. If you have questions, please ask them. If you want to experience the things of the Spirit, come to church where we practice them together every day. If you want the Holy Spirit to start rocking your world right now, then hold out your hands and say “Come, Holy Spirit”, and He will come. Then go, and tell the world about Jesus.