The Great Commission’s Great Commandment (Psalm 81:1–16)

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In 1974 Ralph Winter initiated what has become a missions revolution in the global Christian church. Though it started in the West, this revolution has made a significant impact on the entire world, regardless of the hemisphere.

At a worldwide conference on evangelism in Wheaton, Illinois, Winter identified what he called “hidden peoples,” which he spoke of as pockets of peoples who had yet to be reached by the gospel. He was deeply burdened to mobilise people, particularly young adults, to do whatever was necessary to reach these with the gospel.

These groups were identified as “hidden” because they existed within larger geographic regions and were ethnically and culturally distinct from other groups of people within those regions. Though many lived in nations where the gospel had been preached and where disciples had been made and gathered into local churches, nevertheless these had not yet been evangelised. It was as though they were “hidden” from gospel access.

Winters expounded on the famous Great Commission passage of Matthew 28:18–20, in which he explained that the word translated “nations” was the Greek word ethnos and that this meant ethnic peoples. He argued, apparently very persuasively, that the Great Commission was not simply about planting a church in every politically recognised nation but that it called for making disciples and subsequently planting churches among every ethnic peoples on earth.

He highlighted that some 17,000 distinct peoples could be identified worldwide; 17,000 peoples who had yet to be reached with the gospel. He went on to challenge those present to renew their commitment to make disciples among these “hidden” peoples.

Over the years, this designation was replaced with the now-familiar term “unreached peoples.” And in this study we are focusing on our responsibility, as one local church among the world’s many biblical local churches, to reach the unreached peoples. We do this particularly on Unreached Peoples Sunday.

By God’s grace, the number of unreached peoples has been reduced from 17,000 to 7,000. That is significant. Over a forty-year period, some 10,000 “hidden” peoples are now very evidently a part of the Body of Christ. Ten thousand people groups have been added to the general assembly of the firstborn whose names are registered in the New Jerusalem. We are joined with them today in corporate worship of our great God who saves His people—His peoples—from their sins. We have much to celebrate.

But as encouraging as this is, we must also be sobered by the realisation that the current number of unreached people groups represents some two billion people. Obviously, there is much work to do. And therefore the subject matter for this particular study.

When we consider what it will take to reach the unreached we can name many things.

First, it will take money. Certainly, missions requires funds, and we must be committed to sacrificially contributing.

Second, it will require personnel. The task requires those who are willing to do cross-cultural evangelism and discipleship. As a local church, we are committed to this.

Third, it will take partnerships. The task of reaching “hidden” peoples requires more of a networking paradigm than perhaps we have historically experienced. We will need to work together with other churches and missionaries.

Fourth, it will require prayer. This almost goes without saying. And perhaps that is part of our problem. We don’t say enough about it; we don’t say enough in our prayers.

Fifth, it will take a little creativity. We will not reach these peoples in traditional ways. That is, we will not, for the most part, reach the unreached by informing the governments of their countries that we are coming there as missionaries to preach the Christian gospel. For the most part, the unreached are located in lands unfriendly to the gospel. We will need to be imaginative regarding how we will engage the unreached.

But fundamentally, we will need vision and deep and abiding sacrificial commitment. A study of the book of Acts, the first book of new covenant missiology, clearly reveals the dedication required to spread the gospel, to make disciples, and to plant local churches. This has been the case for the nearly two thousand years of church history ever since. But what drives this commitment? What will it take for us to follow in the footsteps of those who have reached the unreached?

The Great Commission is Not Enough

As a congregation, we are very familiar with the biblical emphasis on the Great Commission. This was the mandate given to us by our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. It is recorded in each of the Gospels as well as by Luke in Acts 1:8. Perhaps its most clearly succinct revelation is in Matthew 28:18–20. The Great Commission is to go and make disciples of all the nations; literally, the church is to disciple the nations. We do so by proclaiming the gospel, baptising those whom God saves by His gospel, and then grounding them in the gospel. They are to be gospel-formed for living to God’s glory in this world.

This is a rewarding, yet difficult, task. There are many challenges to this: culturally, economically, physically, politically and, of course—and ultimately—spiritually. And because of this, oftentimes we give up. In fact, it is a sad reality that, in our day, more people are retiring from the mission field than are enlisting for it. The dropout rate among first term missionaries is very high. So, what is the solution for our continuance in the Great Commission? I’m glad you asked! The answer is found in the great commandment.

Jesus was once asked to identify God’s greatest commandment to man. He answered, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” He added that the second was like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” He concluded, “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 33:37–39). In other words, these two commandments are the foundation of everything else in the Bible. If you don’t build your life on this foundation then the entire building of your life—including your involvement in the Great Commission—will come tumbling down.

I maintain that what sustains our commitment to the Great Commission is a great commitment to the great commandment. If we love God then we will love others. And such twofold love will drive us to rescue the perishing to the glory of God.

This is the theme that I wish to address in this study. We will do so by studying Psalm 81.

This psalm highlights the great commandment. It indicates that Israel’s failure here resulted in her failure out there. That is, Israel failed in her God-mandated Great Commission (to be a light to the nations, see Isaiah 42:6; 43:21; 46:13; 49:6) precisely because she failed to obey the great commandment. And her failure is a means for our instruction, motivation and encouragement in our Great Commission

The Setting

This is another psalm of Asaph, which means perhaps that it was one of the several psalms specifically written by or for the temple singers.

The occasion behind the preceding Asaphian psalms has been threats by surrounding nations. Foreign peoples were hell-bent on destroying God’s people, defiantly intent on overcoming God’s kingdom. Unwittingly, but not unresponsibly, they were pawns in the hands of the king of darkness who desires dominion over what is rightfully God’s.

Sadly God’s old covenant people failed in their stewardship and, as the evil one took advantage, God’s glory was somewhat eclipsed. This is the lament here.

Perhaps the Assyrians were marching towards the northern kingdom, or the Babylonians were approaching the southern kingdom. The writer, regardless, called the people of God to repentance. It is clear that the people of God were not what they used to be, and so they needed to repent and be restored. The glory of God was at stake. The psalmist was calling on them to obey the great commandment.

Only by a great commitment to the great commandment would they fulfil their great and glorious commission. And they did have a very great commission.

Exodus 19:4–6 succinctly defines God’s glorious purpose for His redemption of the nation of Israel. It declares her great commission and points to her great commandment.

“You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.

(Exodus 19:4–6)

The Great Commission of God’s old covenant people was what some missiologists have referred to as being “circumferel.” That is, Israel was to live to the glory of God in the “centre” of the world, and the surrounding nations on the “circumference” would be drawn to this great God (see Deuteronomy 4:1–8). By doing so, Israel would show forth God’s praises (Isaiah 43:21).

But alas, as this psalm reveals, she failed. And, again, she failed in her great commission because fundamentally she failed to obey the great commandment. Rather than exposing and disposing of the foreign gods of the surrounding nations, Israel embraced them. Rather than impacting the ungodly culture, Israel was captured—ideologically and practically—by the ungodly culture. This psalm highlights this, but also offers the invitation to repentance and to usefulness once again. It appeals for them to obey the great commandment (vv. 8–10) with the promise that they then will be successful in their Great Commission (vv. 13–16).

So let’s look, listen, learn and live the Great Commission’s great commandment.

Gathered for a Celebration

The psalm begins picturing a people gathered for a celebration.

Sing aloud to God our strength; make a joyful shout to the God of Jacob. Raise a song and strike the timbrel, the pleasant harp with the lute. Blow the trumpet at the time of the New Moon, at the full moon, on our solemn feast day. For this is a statute for Israel, a law of the God of Jacob. This He established in Joseph as a testimony.

(Psalm 81:1–5a)

It is clear that this is a festive psalm. It was to be sung in connection with some yearly celebration. The question is, which one, or which ones?

Gathered to Remember

The mention of “the New Moon” and the “full moon” (v. 3) indicate perhaps two festivals: Tabernacles and Passover.’ The mention of “trumpets” may be evidence for the Feast of Tabernacles, since the Feast of Trumpets immediately preceded the Day of Atonement, which immediately preceded the Feast of Tabernacles (sometimes called the Feast of Booths).

Though we don’t know for sure which festival is being referenced, what is clear is that the psalm calls for the praise of God because of His mighty work of redemption.

The writer says that this divinely prescribed festive celebration is actually a “statute” (rule) that God gave to His people (v. 4). Think about that. We, God’s people, are so thick, and sometimes so spiritually obtuse, that we actually need to be commanded to remember and to rejoice in the Lord. But we do. And we need to obey.

Whatever particular festival this was, its purpose was for God’s people to come away from their regular daily routines to reflect on their God and to reverently—and loudly (vv. 2–3)!—rejoice in their Lord. This is so necessary, for as Nehemiah once highlighted, “the joy of the LORD is our strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).

If we will have strength for the Great Commission then we need the fuel of God-centred worship, which yields God-centred joy, which is expressed in God-centred engagement with the world, with the goal to God-centred evangelism, with the view to God-centred disciples gathered into God-centred local churches. That is a mouthful, but it is precisely what we as Christians are called to. But we need time for reflection to keep this truth before us.

Not Short-Changed

Though the new covenant believer is not under lawful regulation to observe these particular feast days (Colossians 2:16), nevertheless God has not impoverished us under the new covenant. Instead, He has given to us the Lord’s Day for this very purpose.

One day in seven—at the beginning of a new seven—we have the privilege to come apart from the routine of the regular to reflect on our great God with a view to rekindling and growing in our love for Him. And when we do so, the nations of the world become the beneficiaries as our practical commitment to the Great Commission is refuelled.

We need a structured time in which to remember, reflect and reorient our lives to that to which God has called us. Just as the Feast of Booths reminded the Israelites that they were sojourners, so we need the weekly reminder to live less fixed to our property. In the now famed words from Frozen, when it comes to investing our resources to reach the unreached, a proper observance of the Lord’s Day will help us to “let it go.”

We should take careful note that we are commanded to rejoice. This reveals that joy is an act of the will on the part of those who have been saved by the gospel. “Neither the Old Testament nor the New finds this a difficulty, since there are ‘always’ solid grounds for joy, and valid means of awakening and sharing it.”1

So, when our hearts begin to grow cold, or when they have grown cold, we must take ourselves in hand and stir up that fire again. We do that as we corporately gather to reflect on God’s worth and His works.

The Need for Divine Interruption

As the people celebrated, in obedience to the Lord’s rule, something happened, as noted in the latter half of v. 5. The language is a bit strange, but I believe we have here a picture of divine interruption.

As the writer, along with others, celebrated, something from outside of themselves occurred. They had an experience with God. The psalm writer says that, all of a sudden, the celebration was punctured by the hearing of a “language” (literally, “lip”). He was startled and a bit confused, for as he says, “I did not understand.” But it soon became clear to him. The Lord, in some way, was declaring an oracle.

Perhaps a prophet spoke; we do not know. But the psalmist recorded the divine message.

Remembering Divine Intervention

The first part of the message, as heard in vv. 6–7, was the divine reminder of God’s grace shown to Israel when He delivered them from the burdens of Egypt.

I removed his shoulder from the burden; His hands were freed from the baskets. You called in trouble, and I delivered you; I answered you in the secret place of thunder; I tested you at the waters of Meribah. Selah

(Psalm 81:6–7)

This oracle reminds the people of when Yahweh rescued them from their slavery under the cruel hands of the Egyptians.


There are several elements to this divine intervention. In v. 7 they are reminded of God’s compassionate response to their cries for deliverance.

But perhaps the idea is wider than the Exodus—as great as that was. As you recount the history of Israel, you realise that the Lord on several occasions came to their rescue as they cried out for help (manna, water, deliverance from Amalekites, etc.). The point is that God was gracious to them. He was compassionate towards them. He redeemed them on many occasions.


But further, the Lord also established them as His nation. This is referred to in v. 7 when it speaks of “the secret place of thunder.” That, of course, is a reference to Sinai, the place where God made covenant with them and sealed it with a meal (Exodus 19:1–8; 24:1–8).

The purpose of this oracle was to remind the people of the Lord’s goodness to them with the goal of fidelity to Him. As we have often been reminded, it is the goodness of the Lord that brings us to repentance (Romans 2:4).

Divine Visitations in Corporate Worship

Notice that this reminder of God’s grace came in the context of corporate, festal worship. It is often like this. We, in fact, need this.

If we will love and subsequently serve the Lord in His Commission then we need these visitations of divine oracles. I don’t mean that we need extrabiblical revelation. Rather we need the gospel to become alive to us by the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

We must love the gospel; we must be increasingly gospel-formed. To the degree that we truly appreciate the gospel, this world will have less pull on us and we will be willing to extend our reach to the otherwise unreached.

When the oracle of the gospel comes home to our hearts then we are stirred to love God and therefore to obey God. This should be our expectation as we gather for corporate, “festive” worship. In other words, the Lord’s Day is one of God’s major means to drive us back to the first commandment. The overflow of this will be a deeper, more compassionate love for our neighbours—near and far. A deeper commitment to the Great Commission will be a principled and practical fruit of this.

Remembering God’s Expectation

In vv. 8–10 we see the need to remember God’s expectation, which is the great commandment.

Hear, O My people, and I will admonish you! O Israel, if you will listen to Me! There shall be no foreign god among you; nor shall you worship any foreign god. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt; open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.

(Psalm 81:8–10)

This stanza drives home what I have already alluded to: the great commandment as the expectation for those whom God redeems. Leupold summarises: “The admonition states God’s one demand upon His people—you shall have no foreign god.”2 It’s that simple, and that profound.

These words carry the flavour of Deuteronomy, especially the Shema of Deuteronomy 6. Verse 8 reminds us of this when it cries out, “Hear, O My people, and I will admonish you! O Israel if you will listen to Me!”

Have you ever considered that the greatest commandment to us is also one of the greatest declarations of love for us?

To love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength is to rescue us from the love of “foreign” or false gods. Obedience to this command delivers us from a life of futility. It is for this reason that we can see that the greatest commandment to us is also one of the greatest proofs of God’s love for us.

Of course, the reason given for loving God is that He was the one who “brought them out of the land of Egypt.” “The obligation created by this phenomenal deliverance is of an enduring character and calls for nothing less than total and wholehearted commitment unto God. That … is the one lesson that Israel’s history thundered unceasingly into the nation’s ears.”3

Their redemption was all the reason they needed to love God. How could they not love Him? How can you and I not love Him?

Further, the Lord seeks to motivate them to love Him by the promise, by the encouragement that He planned to do far more than merely delivering them from an alien land; He planned to “fill” their mouths (lives) with blessing upon blessing.

A proper grasp of this would help them to avoid worship of false gods. In turn, they would help to deliver others from false gods.

In many ways, this is the goal of the Great Commission: to rescue others from worshipping foreign gods to the glory of the one true God. But if Christians fall prey to false gods then we will simply be the blind leading the blind. And we will both fall into the ditch. Perhaps that is our greatest challenge.

Yet if we grow in our love for God, we will not find false gods appealing; in fact, they will be revolting to us. Neither will we be intimidated by them. Just consider the multitudes of Christians in recent times who have stood firm in their faith despite being martyred by the likes of the Islamic State.

When God redeemed Israel from Egypt He did so by destroying their false gods (Numbers 33:6). When Jesus saved us, He did the same. He redeemed us from worshipping false and futile gods (lust, materialism, love of money, pride, substance abuse, etc.) to a new love and a new loyalty: to the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. We now desire that others experience a similar deliverance so that God receives all glory and honour. We desire that all will see that He alone satisfies, that He is enough.

The more we love Him the more we will see to it that others love Him as well.

However, if we allow those foreign gods back into our hearts then we will lose our ability to oppose the foreign gods among the peoples of the world. And, make no mistake, the unreached peoples are all worshipping foreign, false gods. What will we do about it? What can we do about it? We can forsake the false gods of our own culture and, fuelled by passionate and prioritised love for our God, do whatever is necessary to reach the unreached, casting down every philosophy and every theology that exalts itself above the Lord Jesus Christ, the one who has all power in heaven and on earth; the one who will see to it that all the nations will be discipled (2 Corinthians 10:3–5).

But what if we don’t? That is, what if we do not turn from false gods?

Regret for Our Godless Defection

Next, we see some regret for godless defection: “But My people would not heed My voice, and Israel would have none of Me. So I gave them over to their own stubborn heart, to walk in their own counsels” (vv. 11–12).

The psalmist recounts the sad reality of Israel’s apostasy. They would not “heed” the “voice” of God’s command to love Him. The result was calamity. God “gave them over to their own stubborn heart, to walk in their own counsels.” What a mess! She became captured by the surrounding culture of idol-worshippers rather than vice versa.

It was precisely because Israel disobeyed the great commandment that she experienced great calamity. And the same will be true of the new covenant church if we disobey this greatest of commandments.

Let me be plain: If we do not obey the greatest of commandments then we will fail in the greatest of commissions with the consequence of experiencing great calamity. The early church in Jerusalem is a good example of this.

They would not turn from their ethnocentricity and they consequently experienced great persecution. As has been observed by many, they did not obey Acts 1:8 and so the Lord gave them Acts 8:1!

But we need to observe that the issue—fundamentally—was theological rather than missiological. It is always this way. If we fail to love God then we will fail eventually to obey God. Yes, the great commandment drives the Great Commission.

Vacuous Worship

Now, keep in mind what was transpiring here: The people of God had been celebrating; they had been singing songs of praise. If it was the seventh year, then they had been listening to the reading of God’s law for several hours a day (Deuteronomy 31:9–13). One would think that they were worshipping. But that would be a mistake. This passage makes clear that the oracle of the Lord interrupted their celebration with a strong rebuke. Boice says it well: “What a strange anomaly: a happy, joyfully worshiping congregation and a neglected and offended God. Strange? Yes, but all too characteristic of religious people.”4

Israel was failing in her Great Commission because she was failing to obey the great commandment. And yet Israel was “worshipping.” At least, she was pretending to worship. And you? Us?

This reminds me of Amos 5:21–23:

I hate, I despise your feast days, And I do not savour your sacred assemblies. Though you offer Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them, Nor will I regard your fattened peace offerings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs, For I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments.

(Amos 5:21–23)

It is quite possible to simply go through the motions of worship while missing the point completely. We always face the Sardis seduction of having a name that we live while we are, in fact, dead (Revelation 3:1). As Kidner succinctly puts it, this reminds us “that God looks for listeners as well as singers, on whom the sober lessons of the wilderness will not be lost.”5

Let’s stop the pretence and love our God practically by rejecting foreign and false gods during the week. Then we will be able to truly celebrate on Sunday, with the result of a heartfelt commitment to the Great Commission.

Israel’s refusal to love God—and don’t lose sight that this was the fundamental problem: a lack of loving loyalty to the greatest of Bridegrooms—resulted not only in her own destruction but also in her failure to be a shining light to the nations. This should speak loudly to us. It should serve as a sobering warning to us. As we gather to worship, may we do so with a great commitment to the great commandment resulting in dedication to the Great Commission. The result will be the reaching of the unreached.

Repetitive History?

Romans 15:1–4 make it abundantly clear, as does 1 Corinthians 10, that old covenant history is to our advantage. But their history is not to give us solace that history must repeat itself. That is unbiblical thinking. Rather, their history motivates us that history will not repeat itself!

Thank God that, because of the gospel of Christ, history need not repeat itself. After all, consider that the second Man from heaven, the last Adam, did not repeat the history of the first Adam. This is part and parcel of the gospel.

Let us never lose sight of the fact that, under the new covenant, we are far more privileged, we are in a far better position—yea, we have a far better condition—than that of old covenant Israel. In fact, the entire argument of Hebrews is summed up in the phrase, “how much more.”

Because the law of God is written on our hearts we have every reason to live more faithfully than old covenant Israel. They had been politically and geographically redeemed. We have been spiritually redeemed. We are far more accountable than they were to live in such a way as to glorify god among the nations. History will not repeat itself. The gospel makes sure of this.

Clearly, local churches can fail and thus be removed from history (Revelation 2:5). But the church of Jesus Christ will prevail (Matthew 16:18). Yet do you not desire that your local church prevails in productivity to the glory of God? Of course you do.

So, let us love God with all of our heart. Let us then love our neighbour as ourselves. Let us obey the great commandment and march forward with zealous expectation in obedience to the Great Commission. Aim to reach the unreached!

Repent and Expect God’s Consummation

The psalmist concludes his song with God-centred confidence:

Oh, that My people would listen to Me, that Israel would walk in My ways! I would soon subdue their enemies, and turn My hand against their adversaries. The haters of the Lord would pretend submission to Him, but their fate would endure forever. He would have fed them also with the finest of wheat; and with honey from the rock I would have satisfied you.

(Psalm 81:13–16)

The psalm ends with a heartfelt lament, like that of Matthew 23:37. Maclaren captures it well, “It would have been no cause of astonishment if other nations had not listened; but that the tribes bound by so many kindnesses should have been deaf is a sad marvel.”6

Yahweh laments that His people have turned away and yet their prodigal God offers the promise that, if they return, He will bless them. God acknowledges with sorrow that they have embraced foreign gods; He acknowledges that they do not love Him with heart, soul, mind and strength. He laments that the nations are not in submission either to them nor to Him. But even in this lament there is a sign of promise, the suggestion that they can be confident that God could yet do great things among them and through them—for their good to God’s glory. “The glorious future is yet held before them as a real possibility.”7

As we have come to understand in recent studies, Israel was shelved. She was benched as God established His new covenant people. And this is where we need to be hopeful.

Because of the new covenant, we know that the future is bright. We know from passages such as Revelation 5:8–14 that the nations, all of the peoples—including the currently 7,000 unreached peoples—will be reached. We know that the Lord Jesus Christ will feed us with the provision that we need to accomplish the task. But He will do it the same way in which the old covenant failed: by His people’s great commitment to the great commandment. This is the fuel to accomplish the Great Commission.

Jesus is our Rock and He will supply our need. We have every biblical reason to be confident about the success of God’s mission. And this should further help us to love Him and therefore to serve Him.

Concluding Principle

Forgotten grace resulted in the worship of foreign gods consequently becoming like the very ones that were to be conquered.

We face the same temptation in our day. We are in danger of being captured by the very culture that we have been called to capture for Christ!

How will we avoid the same fate? By regular reflection (vv. 1–7) and by reverent listening (vv. 8–10).

Christian, church member, at one time you were unreached. But someone who loved God got the gospel to you. Now it is your turn. May we obey the Great Commission’s great commandment and reduce the number of unreached even more.

Show 7 footnotes

  1. Derek Kidner, Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary, 2 vols. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), 2:293.
  2. H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1969), 588.
  3. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 589.
  4. James Montgomery Boice, Psalms: An Expositional Commentary, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 2:668.
  5. Kidner, Psalms, 2:293.
  6. Boice, Psalms, 2:671.
  7. Willem A. VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 5:532.