The well-known verses in Matthew 28:18–20 have become synonymous with the Great Commission. In them, the risen Lord calls his people to make disciples of all nations as an expression of his supreme authority in heaven and on earth. This mission entails baptizing disciples and teaching them to heed Christ’s commands. But Matthew 28 is hardly a missiological solo. Luke’s version, while often overlooked, highlights important aspects of the church’s mission.
In Luke 24, following his resurrection, Christ expounds the Law and the Prophets, explaining “in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Jesus interprets his violent suffering and victorious rising as following the script of God’s sovereign plan: “Everything written about me . . . must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44).
This scriptural fulfillment, according to Jesus, also requires “that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations.” Christ then identifies his disciples as “witnesses of these things,” directing them to wait until they’re “clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:44–49). Thus, Luke’s Great Commission prioritizes the Spirit’s power in preaching a gospel message that’s rooted in the entire biblical story. As we understand the unique contribution of Luke’s commission, we will be better equipped to reach the nations for Christ.
Old Testament Roots
In the Old Testament, the portrayal of the nations is largely negative. At Babel, God confuses their languages and disperses the peoples (Gen. 11:8–9). He plans to judge the idolatrous and immoral enemies of Israel (Lev. 18:24; 20:23) who rage against the Lord (Ps. 2:1–2). Yet God also commits to bless all nations through Abraham (Gen. 12:3; 18:18; 22:18). He promises all peoples will stream to Zion as his Word goes out in the last days (Isa. 2:2–4).
Throughout his writings, Luke traces the fulfillment of these promises. In Luke 2, Simeon recognizes Jesus will bring light to the Gentiles (Luke 2:32; quoting Isa. 49:6). Through Christ, “all flesh” will see God’s salvation (Luke 3:4–6; quoting Isa. 40:3–5). In Acts—the sequel to Luke’s Gospel—this hope is realized as Christ’s witnesses proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). At Pentecost, devout people “from every nation” gather in Jerusalem, an event reversing Babel’s confusion and anticipating the gospel’s global spread (Isa. 2:3; cf. Acts 6:7), when “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21; quoting Joel 2:32). In Acts, Luke shows how God keeps his promises by sending the message of salvation to Israel and all families of the earth (Acts 3:25; 13:26).
The Messiah’s death and resurrection and our gospel proclamation fulfill the Scriptures.
What Luke clearly demonstrates is that God’s concern for the nations doesn’t begin with the Great Commission. According to Jesus, the church’s mission “is written” in the Old Testament (Luke 24:46–47). The Messiah’s death and resurrection and our gospel proclamation fulfill the Scriptures.
Luke’s Great Commission also helps answer the age-old question: What is the mission of the church? In Luke 24:47, Jesus summarizes his disciples’ mission as proclaiming repentance for the forgiveness of sins in his name. He then identifies them as “witnesses” who speak truthfully about what they’ve seen and heard (cf. Acts 1:8; Isa. 44:8).
This focus on proclamation mirrors the Messiah’s own mission: “To proclaim good news to the poor . . . to proclaim liberty to the captives . . . to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18–19; quoting Isa. 61:1–2). The Greek word aphesis (translated “liberty”) means freeing from confinement, obligation, or punishment. Elsewhere in Luke, aphesis refers to “the forgiveness of sins” for those who repent and receive God’s salvation (Luke 1:77; 3:3; 24:47).
Christ’s teaching and the apostles’ example demonstrate that proclamation is central to the church’s mission.
The ultimate “liberty” Jesus comes to proclaim—and to achieve—is release from sin’s bondage and Satan’s power (cf. Acts 26:18). Through his atoning death, our Savior secures our freedom. As his witnesses, we proclaim “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” and “salvation” only in Christ’s name (Luke 24:47; Acts 4:12; cf. 13:26–39). While Christians today should obey all that Christ commands (Matt. 28:19) and be zealous for good works (Titus 2:14), Christ’s teaching and the apostles’ example demonstrate that proclamation is central to the church’s mission.
While Matthew’s Great Commission includes a clear command to make disciples, the only imperative in Luke 24:44–49 is “stay in the city.” At first glance, this seems like the opposite of “Go . . . make disciples.” Does Luke encourage a different, more passive approach?
Here again, Luke’s account looks back to the Old Testament and ahead to Acts. Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as “the promise of my Father,” recalling earlier prophecies that God would pour out his Spirit “from on high” in the last days (cf. Isa. 32:15; Joel 2:28–32). In Acts 1:4–8, Christ instructs his followers to “wait for the promise of the Father.” Not many days later, the risen Lord sends his Spirit at Pentecost, empowering his people to proclaim the good news.
Throughout Acts, Luke highlights the boldness of Christ’s witnesses in the face of opposition. Jewish leaders who arrest Peter and John are astonished by their boldness (Acts 4:13). Paul also teaches “with all boldness and without hindrance” while under arrest (28:31). And such Spirit-produced boldness isn’t restricted to apostles; it characterizes believers who, in the face of threats, pray “to speak the word of God with boldness” (4:31). Luke’s point isn’t that the apostles and early church were naturally courageous. Instead, he shows they were “filled with the Holy Spirit” (4:8).
We Need Luke’s Commission
In Matthew’s Gospel, Christ commands us to make disciples of all nations with the promise of his presence wherever we go. Luke’s account offers a fuller picture, demonstrating our need for the Spirit and tying our mission to the Old Testament hope for the nations.
According to Luke, if the church is to fulfill her calling, we must focus on preaching forgiveness in Christ, fueled by the Spirit’s power. And as we make disciples, teaching them to obey all Jesus’s commands, we must show how all the Scriptures point to Christ and remain beneficial for the church.