Often followers of Christ respond to "The Great Commission"
in Matthew 28:16-20 with something that goes like this, "I'm
not an evangelist," or, "I'm not a missionary."
Those words may be true enough, but often they are motivated by
something deeper. We hear a command such as "make disciples,"
and we think, "Oh, boy, another thing I have to do that I'm
not doing. I don't do it well, and besides all that, I don't have
the time and I'm too afraid of people." Such words often
indicate that we are guilt-oriented, not love-oriented. Because
we have a guilt-oriented filter, we don't really hear what Jesus
says accurately. We don't take the time to really understand who
he is and what he asks of us. It all comes to us as yet another
in a series of impossible demands.
In the same passage in which Jesus says "make disciples of all the nations," he also says "I am with you." Only in the context of Jesus' being with us do any of his commands make sense. Then they come to us not as impossible demands. We're able to see him as loving us and giving us commands out of love. When we see him in this way, a desire for obedience wells up within us. Then we can see his commands for what they are.
In Matthew 28:16, 20, Jesus commands his disciples to make, baptize and teach disciples. The command comes to us as well. Are all called to make disciples? Are all called to baptize? Are all called to teach? In a sense, yes. We are called to do these things by being part of the disciple-making, baptizing and teaching community of God - and by asking Jesus to use us as he pleases. Thus we participate in the strange conquest of Jesus - a conquest of love.
(16) But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated. (17) And when they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful. (18) And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. (19) Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, (20) teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age."
Worship and doubt
Eleven disciples proceed to Galilee. The ideal number is 12. There were 12 sons of Jacob and 12 tribes of Israel. Jesus didn't choose 11 disciples; he chose 12, thus showing that the people of God are now defined by their adherence to Jesus and that God is going to work through those who follow Jesus. Now, as Jesus prepares to launch his effort to claim the world for God, after the departure of Judas, he has only 11 followers, not 12. Jesus is not deterred.
As we move forward into life and ministry, things may not look ideal. We may not have the ideal number of people. Some people may back out. The appearance of things may deter us, but from Jesus' perspective, it may be just right. We can still move forward, though all the ducks aren't lining up perfectly.
The disciples proceed to a mountain in Galilee that Jesus had designated. Nowhere until this point in Matthew is it recorded that Jesus directed them to a specific mountain, but evidently at some point he did. He told the disciples, before he was crucified, that after he was raised, he would go before them to Galilee (26:32). After he was resurrected, Jesus told the women who saw him to instruct the disciples to meet him in Galilee (28:7, 10). If it was the same mountain where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount (5:1) or another mountain where significant events took place (15:29, 17:1), it would have been familiar to them. Whatever the specific locale, it is significant that Jesus called them to Galilee, and that he called them to a mountain.
Jesus wants to meet with them not in Jerusalem, the center of the Jewish world, but in Galilee, on the outskirts. This is "Galilee of the Gentiles" (4:15). Matthew is showing that Jesus, both in coming from Galilee (3:13) and commissioning the disciples in Galilee, is reaching out to the entire world. Galilee is where the kingdom proclamation began, so Jesus calls the disciples back to Galilee, and he sends them out with the gospel of the kingdom.
Mountains in the scriptures are often places of revelation, most notably Mount Sinai, where Moses received the law of God and revealed it to the people. When Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, he ascended a mountain and opened his mouth, not a scroll, showing himself and his words to be the fulfillment of the law, which was given when Moses went up on a mountain (Exodus 19:3). At the end of his life, Moses went up on a mountain to survey the land that he had commissioned Israel to possess; then he departed (Deuteronomy 34:1-6). Similarly, Jesus goes up to a mountain, leaving Israel, represented by the 11 disciples, with a commission to possess not the land of Palestine but the entire world, although it was to be a different kind of conquest.
Upon seeing Jesus, they worshiped him, but "some" doubted that it was Jesus risen from the dead. A more literal translation of "some" would be "they." They worshiped, and they were doubtful. Here we see a strange mixture of worship and doubt. Or, maybe it's not so strange. It is possible to both worship and doubt. Not only is it possible, Jesus doesn't seem to have any problem with someone engaging in both at the same time. Some things are hard to believe, like a resurrection from the dead. But we can always respond to what God has already shown us, and worship him based on that. When he shows us something more, it may be difficult to believe, but we can still worship. We don't have to have it all figured out. And worship will lead us into faith, grasping and comprehending the new and great thing God wants to show us.
What does Jesus do in response to this strange combination of worship and doubt? Two things: He approaches them, and he speaks to them. He is not put off by their doubt. He finds nothing in them that makes it necessary for him to keep his distance, not even their doubt. Then he speaks to them; he speaks into their doubt. In our doubt, Jesus doesn't back away from us. On the contrary, he moves toward us. And he speaks to us; he speaks into our doubt. His approach and his words address our doubt.
Authority given to Jesus
What does Jesus say? He speaks about the authority the Father
has given him in heaven and on earth. This authority "has
been" given. At what point was this authority given to Jesus?
In that Jesus doesn't speak in this way until after his resurrection,
it would seem that something changed at that point. The apostles
Paul and Peter confirm this (Ephesians 1:20-22, 1 Peter 3:22),
and the prophet Daniel predicted it (Daniel 7:13-14). When Jesus
ascended to the Father, he was enthroned at the right hand of
the Father (Hebrews 1:3). After the ascension, the dominion of
Jesus became complete, "in heaven and on earth," a phrase
that expresses totality. Jesus' kingdom is not only a heavenly
kingdom but an earthly kingdom as well. He reigns not only in
heaven but on earth. The resurrection and ascension represent
a triumph that disarms someone else who had a certain authority:
the devil (Colossians 2:15, Hebrews 2:14). Satan offered Jesus
the kingdoms of the world (4:8), but Jesus gets much more.
So, all authority has been given to Jesus. Is this good news? It all depends on what Jesus does with that authority, doesn't it? Human authority has not always proven to be benevolent. Jesus may reign in heaven and on earth, but those of us who live on earth might like to know how Jesus reigns before deciding it's good news.
Verse 19 includes the word "therefore," which means
that this authority Jesus has been given relates to what follows.
What follows is the implication of Jesus' authority. What follows
is the reason he tells them about his authority.
What the disciples are supposed to do, now that Jesus has been given universal authority, is to make disciples. The word translated "make disciples" is the only finite verb in verses 19 and 20. It appears in the imperative mood. The three other verbs, translated "go," "baptizing" and "teaching" are participles - supporting verbs.
Jesus tells them to "go." A more literal translation would be "after having gone." After having gone, make disciples. After having gone from where? After having gone from this mountain. The same word that is translated "go" in verse 19 is translated "proceed" in verse 16. Just as the disciples proceeded to Galilee, they were to proceed from this mountain. Proceeding from this mountain, they were to make disciples.
What is happening on this mountain? They are interacting with Jesus, receiving his words. Interaction with Jesus inspires obedience to him. Being with Jesus energizes us to serve Jesus. It motivates us to do what Jesus says. Out of relationship, out of love for Jesus, we trust him and obey him; we make disciples.
What does it mean to "make disciples"? The disciples of Jesus were called disciples the minute they began following Jesus. Even Judas was called a disciple of Jesus, for there were 12 disciples. John the Baptist and the Pharisees had disciples (Matthew 9:14, Mark 2:18). Moses, though he was dead, had disciples (John 9:28). The verb translated "make disciples" is also used in Acts 14:21, where it is said that Paul and Barnabas in Derbe "preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples" and then departed for other cities. The narrative leaves the impression that it was a quick stay in Derbe, implying that disciples were made when people believed the preaching of Paul and Barnabas. Thus there is no extensive training period before one is called a "disciple." A disciple is simply a follower of Jesus, and one becomes a follower of Jesus when one begins following Jesus. This is not, therefore, a command to teach and to "disciple" one who has already chosen to follow Jesus; it is a command to make "converts," if you will. It's a command to evangelize.
The disciples were to make disciples of "all the nations." The word translated "nations" could equally be translated "Gentiles," as it is in Matthew 4:15 ("Galilee of the Gentiles"). The phrase "all the nations" appears in Matthew 24:14 and would there seem to include Jews as well as Gentiles. But the new thing - and the surprising thing - in Jesus' words is the command to make disciples not only of Jews but of Gentiles. Jesus earlier commissioned his disciples to preach the kingdom only to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (10:5-7). John the Baptist, the Pharisees and rabbis made disciples of Jews. The word "all," then, means not only Jews but Gentiles as well. Here Jesus is again, expanding the world of his disciples.
The new thing really isn't a new thing. The extension of God's blessing to the Gentiles was part of God's purpose in blessing Abraham (Genesis 12:3, 18:18, 22:18). Israel was to extend God's blessing to the Gentiles (Deuteronomy 4:5-8, Exodus 12:48-49), but was so reluctant to do so that by the time of Christ, this purpose in Israel's call was completely lost.
Jesus doesn't tell them how to make disciples. He gives them no formula. That's because there's more than one way to make a disciple. The incidents of conversion in the book of Acts bear this out. Love for one another can be effective (John 13:34-35). So can good works (Matthew 5:16). So can preaching the gospel (Acts 14:21). It happens in different ways.
How do we apply this command of Jesus to make disciples of all the nations? First, just as he expanded the world of the disciples, he expands our world as well. God wants to extend his blessing to all people. Perhaps he will call us to involvement with people who are outside our comfort zone. Second, there is no formula for making disciples. There's no telling what God might use in another person's life to bring him or her to Christ. The smallest thing may make the difference. One can contribute to the making of disciples without specifically "leading them to Christ." Perhaps not everyone is supposed to lead people to Christ, per se. Jesus also tells his disciples to baptize people. If someone has never baptized another person, does that mean he's disobedient to Jesus? Of course not. Neither is someone necessarily disobedient if he has never led someone to Christ. It's important to be part of the community that is God's light to the world. As we participate in and contribute to the community and, perhaps for some of us, bring others into the community and lead those within the community to reach out to others, we respond to Jesus' call to make disciples.
The most important thing is to pray. It's important to ask the Father to use us and direct us in reaching people with the gospel. The answer to such prayers may not come obviously or immediately. After all, there's no formula. Many followers of Jesus hear his command to make disciples and feel guilty because they don't feel that they're doing a very good job of it. Many of them are quiet and fearful. It is prayer that effectively confronts the guilt. We pray to God, we seek his will, we ask to be used - and we trust that he has heard our prayers and will honor them. We watch for him to lead us.
Annie Trumbull Slosson wrote a wonderful little story in the 18th century called "Fishin' Jimmy." Jimmy wanted to be a fisher of men but never felt that he was. But unwittingly and without knowing it, he became one, because he had walked a long time with Jesus. He became a center of peace for people, a man who touched lives, who left behind the fragrance of Christ. He turned out to be a blessing wherever he went. The story makes it clear that his outward effect was because of his inner relationship with Christ and his prayers to be "a fisher of men."
Jesus tells the disciples to baptize and teach "them."
The word "them" appears in the masculine gender. The
word "nations" appears in the neuter gender. So it is
likely that Jesus is not telling them to baptize and teach the
nations, or the Gentiles, but disciples. They are to baptize and
teach the Gentiles after they have become disciples. Baptizing
and teaching is therefore not how one makes disciples but what
one does with disciples. After someone becomes a disciple, Jesus
tells them, baptize him and teach him.
Baptism means entry. Literally, the disciples are to baptize people "into" the name of the Father, Son and Spirit. Baptism is the act that Jesus gives to the disciples, and us, that symbolizes initiation as a follower of Jesus. It symbolizes leaving behind a former way of life and entry into a new way of life. It symbolizes an internal baptism that has already taken place (Romans 6:3-4, 1 Corinthians 12:13). It is the extension of a welcome by the community of God to people who have begun to follow Jesus. Earlier, circumcision symbolized entry into the kingdom; now it is baptism (Colossians 2:10-12).
Jesus wants the disciples to baptize people into the name of the Father, the Son and the Spirit. It's one name, not three names, which shows the three to be both one and distinct within their oneness. To be baptized into the "name" of someone is to be submit to the leadership of that person. Those who are being baptized therefore express their desire to submit to the one true God: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Those who are doing the baptizing are doing so in the name of God, not themselves or anyone else. They are, in a sense, giving those who are being baptized to God. These people are followers of God and no one else. They are responsible to him. While the community should take a "hands-on" approach in helping new believers follow Jesus; they should take a "hands-off" approach in trying to get new believers, or anyone else, to follow them.
Evidently Jesus did not intend this to be followed as a baptismal formula, for nowhere in the book of Acts does anyone baptize someone using the words " ... in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit." As a matter of fact, once again, there doesn't seem to be much of a formula at all. When the Ethiopian eunuch, on his way back to his homeland, saw some water on the side of the road, he said, "Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?" (Acts 8:36). Philip and the eunuch went down to the water, and the man was baptized. It was a simple, quick, spontaneous act. There was neither fanfare nor public proclamation. The man's family and friends weren't called to celebrate. It can happen that way. It can happen another way.
The instruction, in Matthew 28, is to baptize, not be baptized. (In Acts 2:38, Peter tells converts to be baptized.) Jesus calls us to be a baptizing community - a community that not only makes disciples but one that opens its heart and welcomes people into the kingdom. A baptizing community is a hospitable community - one that welcomes outsiders. How do we become individuals within a community, and how does such a community develop? Again, it's prayer. Most people can put forth a hospitable front, but apart from seeking the Lord and having our lives transformed by him and asking him to make us into people who reach out beyond ourselves, it comes off as insincere.
The second thing Jesus tells his disciples to do with those
who have become followers is to teach them "to observe all
that I commanded you." Up to this point, the scriptures told
people to obey God (Deuteronomy 1:3, 4:1, 7:11, 12:11, 14). Now,
people are to obey Jesus. Once again, we see that Jesus fulfills
the law. The center of it all is Jesus. Jesus is commanding his
disciples to teach others to follow not the law, per se, but him.
Baptism is a one-time act that symbolizes entry into the kingdom; teaching is an ongoing endeavor that strengthens disciples once they have begun following Christ. The content is everything that Jesus commanded. This includes what he said in the gospels, and also what the apostles say in the rest of the New Testament. The apostles were inspired by the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of Christ (John 16:13, Romans 8:9). And if the Spirit of Christ inspired the Old Testament, we can consider that as coming from Jesus as well. So the command is to teach followers of Jesus the scriptures. And the focus of it all is very personal: it's on Christ (John 5:39).
So we teach disciples what Jesus taught, and we teach them to follow him. In teaching, we should seek to make others dependent on Christ, not ourselves. Such teaching contributes to the maturity both of individuals within the community and the community as a whole.
We are told what to teach, but we are not told how to teach. True to form, Jesus gives us no formula. He must want us to pray. There's more than one way to teach a disciple. That means we can use more than one way. Different people learn different ways. Some learn by interacting in a group setting, so that's what we do in the Young Adults Fellowship on Wednesday nights. Some learn by listening, so that's generally what we do Sunday mornings. Some learn by reading, so I write notes that you can take home with you. Some learn in all three ways. My hope that in presenting the truth of the scriptures to you in different forms, most of you will catch something.
The command is to teach. But just as we aren't all "baptizers," we are not all teachers. As noted, though, teaching can take different forms. You don't have to be a "teacher" to share truth with a friend. Also, everyone can contribute to the teaching community. Lots of things besides teaching need to take place for a teacher to teach.
Years ago I led a Bible study for a small number of college students. We met in the home of a woman, a friend of mine, who made her place warm and comfortable. She would often cook dinner for the people or bake some goodies for after the study. When she took a few weeks off, the study met in my house. It was a disaster. I think I scrounged up some Oreos, tossed them onto a plate and presented them to the group. I was lost. I was uncomfortable playing the host, and trying to play the host detracted from my teaching. The group floundered. I realized then just how dependent I was on Diane. She wasn't a "teacher" per se, but her contribution allowed for someone else to teach.
So it's important to be participate in - and contribute to - the disciple-making, baptizing, teaching community of God. You may not feel that you are doing any of these things per se, but then again, you may not be called to any of these things per se. The important things are to involve yourself and to pray.
Conquest of love
Because Jesus has been given universal authority, we should
make disciples, baptize and teach. What does Jesus want to do
with his authority? He wants to spread his love around the world!
He wants people to come into relationship with God, enter the
kingdom of God and be instructed in the truth that they may grow
in the freedom of their humanity. This, therefore, is authority
that can be trusted. This is authority to which we can freely
This is authority that Jesus shares with us. He gives us authority to make disciples, baptize and teach. Jesus, to put it crassly, is not a control freak. He delegates to us. He involves us in the thrilling enterprise of redeeming the world. Also, we need his authority to carry out what he has called us to do. Satan is in the world, opposing every move the people of God make toward making disciples. But Jesus is in authority both in heaven and on earth, so the enemy need not be feared.
On this mountain in Galilee, Jesus plans a most intriguing kind of conquest. If all authority had been given to him in heaven and on earth, what might a Jew of his day expected him to do with respect to the Gentiles? Conquer them! Defeat the Romans, and any other Gentiles that get in the way. Jesus, instead, launches a conquest of love.
'I am with you'
In all this, Jesus says, "lo, I am with you." In
connection with the mission to reach the world that Jesus just
launched, it means that he, and his authority, will be with us
as the seek to obey his words. He is with us, in the person of
the Holy Spirit, preparing, leading, empowering, overcoming. It
means that he is with us, relating to us, loving us, drawing us
to himself. It is only out of this relationship that we are motivated
to trust and obey his words. That means we can come to him freely,
apart from guilt and condemnation, with simple, pure-hearted prayers
such as, "Jesus, what do you want me to do?"
I heard someone share recently that years ago she had "phonephobia." She was afraid to call people on the phone. She signed up for a ministry only later to find out that one of the things she needed to do was call people on the phone regularly. She found herself staring at the phone. But when she was able to envision Jesus saying to her, "Will you pick up that phone for me?" she was able to do so. She'd do anything for Jesus.
Jesus tells the disciples that he is with them "always, even to the end of the age." Earlier, he had left them for a few days. He wants them to know that, though his temporary departure in the crucifixion was necessary for their sake, it will never happen again. Neither will he leave us. He will be with us all our days.
This was God's plan from the beginning - to dwell with humanity. He dwelled with Adam and Even in the Garden, communing with them. The Lord promised Abraham "to be God to you and to your descendants after you." He told the people of Israel, "Moreover, I will make my dwelling among you, and my soul will not reject you. I will also walk among you and be your God, and you shall be my people" (Leviticus 26:11-12). The Lord expresses the same sentiment throughout the history of revelation. Now at the end of Matthew, the words "I am with you" are not on the lips of God but on the lips of Jesus, which leads us to the conclusion, once again, that Jesus is God. God is with us, in Jesus. When Matthew introduced us to Jesus, he said that one of his names was Immanuel, which means "God with us" (Matthew 1:23). Now at the end, Jesus himself says, "I am with you."
When heaven and earth merge at the end of time, he will be there, too. Listen to John's description of the new Jerusalem: "And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, 'Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and he shall dwell among them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be among them" (Revelation 21:3).
It's important, at the end of the gospel of Matthew, at the end of our study of the life of Christ, to hear Jesus speaking to us. Listen and reflect as Jesus speaks to you: "Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age."
- SCG, 6-14-98
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