When people discuss great speeches, they often refer to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address delivered on November 19, 1863, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. This two-minute oration included only 272 words and was not a commencement but a eulogy to the men who had given their lives in one of the turning-point battles of the Civil War. The speech is memorable because of its brevity and because of its emotional power.
Lincoln praises “those who gave their lives that that nation might live” . . . , and he encourages “the living . . . to be dedicated here to the unfinished work . . . that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and . . . shall not perish from the earth.” In terms of brevity and power, however, another well-known speech may well be considered the greatest commencement speech of all time.
This particular commencement speech was delivered approximately 1,830 years prior to Lincoln’s address, on a mountaintop in Galilee. The speaker — Jesus Christ — is often referred to as the greatest teacher of all time, and His speech, naturally, includes His final directions to His closest students. His “Great Commission” to these 11 disciples includes only 61 words at the end of the Gospel of Matthew (NIV Study Bible: Matthew 28:18–20), yet His three primary statements have served as a general outline for every graduation speech since.
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (verse 18). As the Son of God, Jesus has access to all wisdom and all authority. His followers, of course, knew this, but Jesus was reminding them of His authority and exhorting them to pay attention.
Like any good commencement speaker, Christ was establishing His credibility. He wanted His apostles to know that this address was more than a simple farewell. These final directions were a timeless exhortation intended not only for His listeners but also for future Bible readers worldwide.
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (verses 19–20). This is Christ’s call to action. He didn’t want His followers to simply absorb the truth of His teachings. Instead, He wanted His followers to share the truth, to help make other disciples who would multiply the effect of His teachings.
All subsequent commencement speakers offer that same basic advice. Whether their words echo through an amphitheater in Greece, a tiny village in Africa, or a gymnasium in upstate New York, the call to action for all graduates is essentially the same: “Take your knowledge and share it with others.”
“And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (verse 20). This is a reminder from Jesus that He will not leave His disciples nor will He forsake them. Even though Jesus is about to ascend into heaven, and even though these disciples must descend from the mountaintop, both Jesus and His disciples will all still be together in Spirit (NIV Study Bible).
All commencement speakers — whether they are valedictorians, salutatorians, college presidents, faculty members, or invited dignitaries — offer a version of that same wisdom. The new graduates may feel timid and insecure, and they may feel they are solitary figures who are unprepared for the tasks ahead of them. Fortunately, that’s not the case. Graduating seniors should go boldly into their professions because they are ready and capable, and they move on as the next wave of educated individuals who will build upon the work of those who preceded them.
On that mountaintop in Galilee almost 2,000 years ago, Jesus knew His graduates were ready too. He knew that the three years they had spent together would bind them and strengthen them. He knew, too, that from that day forward, when His graduates, or any graduates for that matter, faced a difficult situation, they would probably ask themselves the same question that graduates everywhere ask today: “What would my teacher do?”