Matthew 28:16-20 New International Version (NIV)
The Great Commission
16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 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, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Famous Last Words
It was the second of March in the year 1791. John Wesley, the founder of what later became known as Methodism was rapidly approaching his final breath. He was surrounded by his closest friends and companions, those who learned from him and those who would remain to spread the message of the gospel after he was gone.
It is at moments like these, our final moments, that what we say is most important. It’s our last chance, this side of eternity, to communicate our deepest thoughts and greatest wishes to those we leave behind. For John Wesley, he did not have to search his memory to find what he wanted to leave with his companions. No, Wesley lived a life in intimate relationship with God, and that is the truth he wished to communicate to those he left behind to carry on his work. Wesley’s last words were as simple as they were profound. “The best of all is, God is with us.” John Wesley’s life was a model of what it means to be a Christian. Like Peter, his life was filled with the ups and downs that fill the pages of everybody’s life.
Like Peter, John Wesley’s life was one that for a great many years was characterized by doubt. Was he a child of God? Was he saved? Did he do enough to satisfy God’s requirements? When it all came down to it, would he follow God if his life depended on it? For many years, Wesley’s answer was as uncertain as Peter’s. Then, in a moment of clarity, much like Peter, Wesley’s faith was solidified and made personal. Like Peter, he overcame the worst of what held himself back from being all that God created him to be. Like Peter, Wesley would go on to make disciples of all peoples, and today his message and the Methodist church he founded reach to the ends of the earth.
It is here that two distinct streams of thought converge in our text for today. The first stream is the last words of an important figure. The second stream being Jesus’ command to make disciples of all peoples. In our text for today, these streams join together in what many have called “The Great Commission.” Last week we celebrated Memorial Day here at church, the day we remember those who have lost their lives in defense of our nation. This week we talk about another Army of sorts. An Army with Marching Orders from none other than Jesus himself.
You see, our passage today represents Jesus’ last words to his disciples—at least in Matthew’s Gospel. These four little verses that comprise today’s passage could be said to be Jesus’ final marching orders for his troops—the church. Another way to look at this passage before us is as Jesus’ last will and testament—his final wishes to the loved ones he leaves behind to carry on his legacy—that’s us folks—the church—both locally and the larger Church made up of all believers everywhere—the Catholic and Apostolic or Universal church we talk about in our Creeds and Confessions of faith.
So, you might be asking, well Jesus? What is it you would have us be doing while you’re in heaven waiting to come again. Exactly what should we be doing while we wait for you? Many churches have answered this in many different ways. Some believed they had to convert people to become Christians by any means necessary—even using force if it came to it—that was the attitude that brought about many wars in Europe the whole way up until the sixteenth century. Some believe that Jesus’ whole command is just to get people to believe the right set of things. To be able to go down a list of doctrines and demands and check off that I’ve completed this or that task and that I believe this and not that. That’s been the strategy of so-called Evangelical and Fundamentalist churches. Still, others believe that it is the church’s sole mission to go out and bring about justice in the world in the realm of social, environmental, financial, and even political arenas. This is where many Methodist and similar Mainline churches spend a great deal of effort today. For instance, last week in our church we celebrated “Peace With Justice Sunday.” There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that–and much that is right!–but it is an emphasis many Mainline churches stress.
But which one of these emphases is correct and in keeping with Jesus’ last words to his disciples? As we look deeper into our text for today, I think you’ll see that each one of the above options captures something of Jesus’ Commission to his followers, but also, and most importantly, ignores another equally important part of the commission.
We can summarize today’s passage this way: Jesus is saying his final earthly farewell to his disciples. He’s spent three years with them teaching them and sharing his life with them. Now he tells them it’s their turn to do the same. It’s time for them to become ambassadors of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s their turn to teach, to heal, to immerse their lives in the lives of others all the while spreading the Good News of Jesus. That’s it in a nutshell. And if that’s all you take away from today, I will have done my job as a preacher of this passage. But if we look a little closer at this passage, we will learn even more about what it means to be a follower of Jesus and what this talk about making disciples is all about.
Our passage for today needs a little more context before we can fully make sense of it. I’ve said that this is the last words of Jesus found in Matthew. That’s true. But it’s also important to note that these words come after the events of Easter. Easter is the time when we celebrate the glorious truth that Jesus has literally risen from the realm of the dead. This proves that God has given his seal of approval on everything that Jesus said and did in his life. A truly innocent man suffered and was vindicated by God by returning from the dead. Now, all those who choose to follow him need not fear death but can have eternal life through belief in God through Christ.
So, it’s not just the earthly Jesus we are dealing with. It’s the resurrected Christ who has repeatedly appeared to his disciples who is now speaking. The place of this meeting is also important. Verse 16 tells us that this meeting took place on a mountain. In the gospel stories, nearly all of Jesus’ most important teaching sessions happened on a mountain. His transfiguration, his Olivet discourse when he told the disciples what must happen in the future, and of course the Sermon on the Mount where we find the core of Jesus’ teachings. It’s no accident then that this final word from the Master comes again on a mountain.
When the disciples came to the mountain that Jesus had directed them to go to, he revealed himself afresh to them. The reaction of the disciples reveals a lot about what it means to follow Jesus today. You see, some of those present worshipped Jesus. They had already come to a full understanding of what difference it made that Jesus rose from the dead. But some of those present, likely some of the very disciples who had seen Jesus’ resurrected body several times, didn’t quite know what to make of it. In the Greek, the word for doubt here could also mean hesitate. These folks weren’t quite sure what to make of this new understanding of Jesus.
What we as modern Christians can take away from this is that faith and doubt can co-exist in one body without calling into question whether someone is truly a Christian or not. In contrast to what some of our Evangelical brothers and sisters would argue, being a Christian is not just a matter of being able to, in good conscience, check off a list of beliefs about Jesus. No, being a true Christian is following Jesus in faith, even when we’re not sure exactly what we believe about point X or Y of doctrine. One only has to look to the example of Thomas to see that not only does Jesus consider those who doubt to be his followers, but invites them in for a closer look—to taste and see that He is good. So, if you or a loved one finds themselves in a place of doubt or skepticism about a matter of faith today, let me assure you that it’s ok. You are in good company. My challenge to you is to continue following after Jesus, even if you can’t quite see the whole picture now. It worked for Jesus’ earliest followers and it will work for you if you keep your eyes fixed on Jesus and trust him to reveal himself to you.
Now as we move on to verse 13, we see Jesus arriving on the scene. But unlike earlier resurrection appearances where Jesus seems to appear from nowhere, here Jesus comes in a procession—much like a king would do when approaching his subjects. Even Jesus’ words to his followers have shifted from the familiar words of friendship to something that sounds like a royal decree.
Jesus states that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given” to him. The phrase heaven and earth is a literary device that ancient authors used that would show the extent of something. By using opposite expressions like land and see or earth and sky, or in this case, heaven and earth, the authors would make clear that they had “everything” in mind. Jesus’ authority extends to everywhere and everything. When Jesus was tempted in the desert by Satan, he was offered the earthly kingdom. But by being obedient to God, he not only received authority over these kingdoms but over the very heavens themselves.
On the basis of this divine authority, Jesus now gives his final instructions to his disciples. He says” Therefore, God, 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.” This folks, in summary, is what the mission of the church is—it’s just one sentence long—but it constitutes our marching orders. So it behooves us to take a minute or two to unpack this a bit more.
The first word we have is a “therefore.” Whenever you see a therefore in the Bible, a good question to ask is “what is it there for?” (cue groaning) Well, most of the time a “therefore” is going to tie things in a new sentence or paragraph to what came before it, and that is exactly its function here. Jesus’ command to go, make disciples, baptize, and teach is rooted in the authority over everything in heaven and earth that has been granted him by God the Father grounded in his resurrection from the dead. Jesus isn’t just a good man who died innocently. No, Jesus has been made King of the Universe and reigns over every power on heaven and earth. His commission then to us is to extend that reign here on earth by making followers of him.
Folks, it’s this point that causes the most difficulty for churches today. We all know what we’re really supposed to do. We’re supposed to share the good news of Jesus with other people—we just don’t know how or when it’s appropriate. Or we feel it’s not our job, it’s that of the pastor. Or we feel that we’re not good enough, or don’t know enough people, or don’t want to lost friends, or any number of other reasons. And this is where a fresh look at this passage will hopefully ease some of the anxiety about what it means to make disciples and re-energize us to reach the world for Jesus again.
Jesus begins his command by saying “Go!”—well at least that’s how my Bible translates it. For many years this has been the “go-to” passage used when sending Missionaries overseas. Go over there, somewhere, and spread the Good news of Jesus. But the word “go!” simplifies what the Greek text actually means. In fact, a better way to translate this phrase is “As you go….”
You see, not everyone is called to leave home and hearth to become a missionary overseas. And not everyone is called to be in pastoral ministry. But all people who follow Jesus are called to make disciples. Let me repeat that. All people are called to make disciples.…as you go. Well, what does that mean then?
Basically, it means that sharing our faith should be something that happens as we live our lives. It’s not something just for special occasions. You don’t need to go knock on doors and hand out tracts like the Jehovah’s Witnesses or stand on the street-corner yelling through a megaphone like a fire and brimstone preacher. No, you influence people for God’s Kingdom through your normal everyday interactions with people…as you go…as you live life with them. In your friendships, in your meetings with strangers, in the way you treat everyone and everything that crosses your path. Our mission team’s motto, often attributed to St. Francis is pretty apt here: Preach the Gospel Always—Use Words if Necessary.”
The goal then is to live our lives in such a way that we make disciples. What then is a disciple? Our study of Peter shows us that a disciple isn’t a perfect person. It’s not someone who does everything right or believes everything right. But a disciple is someone seeking after God through Jesus. It’s someone open to being taught about God, about ultimate reality. It’s someone who is walking the path homeward to being the person God created them to be all along.
So who can be a disciple? Jesus’ command leaves no room for ambiguity. Discipleship is for everyone. All nations and people groups. There are no exclusions. Not based on race, ethnicity, gender, or any other qualifying descriptor including their current beliefs. A person who responds to God’s invitation to taste and see that the Lord is good is already on the road to the discipleship. Woe betides anyone who comes between God and a person created in His image coming home to Him.
How Can I Help?
After someone starts on this journey, what is the church supposed to do to support them? Well, again, Jesus is pretty clear about what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to baptize and teach them. In other words, we’re to help immerse them in the life of God, much like we immerse someone who desires to be physically baptized.
We do this through singing good music about God. After all, no one leaves the church humming my sermon after I leave, but I bet more than one or two left here with a song in their heart. We do that through sound teaching as well. Be that in a Bible study, in a sermon, in Discovery Dunes, or in a work-group. We are to build each other up in the knowledge of God by studying Scripture, Prayer, and Worship together. In the coming weeks, we’ll be talking about these more as we reveal more of our Intentional Discipleship Pathway here at First.
But you might respond that “that’s easy for you to say, Jason, you’ve got degrees in this stuff. As for me, I can’t tell you the difference between Ephesians and Efferdent!” Well, that’s ok. We all start somewhere. You don’t need to be a Bible scholar to share what Jesus has done in your life. That’s what our testimonies should be about anyway. That’s why we always share God moments. It’s a chance to get you thinking about how God has been at work in your life. It’s a chance for you to get practice sharing that so that you can share with others outside our walls!
But you might respond: “I’m too scared Jason. This just isn’t for me, I’m scared how people will react.” It’s to this very objection that Jesus’ very last words converge with the words of John Wesley to his followers, one before he took the very reigns of the universe, and one before he went to be with the King…the profound truth of God’s presence.
As we go and make disciples, we are never alone. Jesus promised his followers that his presence would go before them and he would be with them, even to the end of the age—a clever way of saying until the end of time itself. Remember at Christmas that song we sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel?” Remember the meaning of Emmanuel—it means God with us.
God’s promise is that he is with us in our comings and our goings. He is with us in our worship, our prayer, our eating, our drinking, our ups, and downs. He is there to guide us as we go. He leads us to people we wouldn’t ordinarily meet. He gives us the power and boldness to share what God has done in our lives. He gives us the words to say, even when we find ourselves tongue-tied.
Folks, with John Wesley, I can say to you that “the best part is, God is with us.” Too often churches try to grow or keep afloat in their own power. These churches always end up in the same place. Tired, weary, with both volunteer fatigue and compassion fatigue. Maybe you’ve felt a little of that yourselves here at First. Now it’s time we literally let go and let God. No, we don’t just set back and let things happen, that’s not what I’m saying. But what I am inviting us to do is trust God with the increase. Like the parable says, some sow, some water, but it is God who gives the increase. Let us as a church focus on sowing and watering. Building relationships with others, sharing our lives and our witness with others. Making a quality experience for those that join us. Immersing people into the life and story of God revealed in Jesus and empowered by the Holy Spirit. But let the increase up to God. Focus on the farm work and leave the harvest up to the Lord of the Harvest.