Today we conclude our journey through the gospel according to Saint Matt. We have spent over two years in this study, and we have hopefully encountered Jesus for who He is. Sometimes He was surprising. Sometimes He was comforting. But, according to Matthew, He is always the Son of God and the lover of our souls. Matthew finishes with his account of some of the final words of Jesus -- the Great Commission. (Of course, the FINAL final words of His earthly ministry are recorded in Acts Chapter 1)..
Jesus begins his call to action by restating His authority: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (v18). This dominant theme of authority is woven time after time throughout the fabric of Matthew’s account. The angel testifies to it at his birth. As a boy, His authority is seen as He talks for three days with the elders at the temple. In countless synagogues throughout Galilee of the Gentiles He has authority to teach -- but not as the scribes and teachers of the law did. He has authority to heal the lame and give sight to the blind. He has authority to calm the tempest out on the open sea. He has authority to forgive sins. He has authority to overturn the tables at the temple. And He even has authority to raise the dead.
Why does this matter for Matthew’s early hearers? The same reason it matters to us. They were a small church, a tiny movement. If they had looked at their own stature in the world, they would have lost confidence and fallen apart in no time. But if they were reminded that their authority came directly from the Lord of all creation, the one who had all authority in heaven and on earth, the Lord Jesus Christ, then they could never lose heart -- no matter how small they seemed. The world might call them insignificant and powerless, but because their Master had authority, they knew otherwise. Today, we latecomers must also remember without a trace of doubt that we operate under the same authority that Christ gave to his earliest disciples.
“I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions, and to overcome all the power of the enemy. Nothing will harm you.” (Luke 10.19)
Four Calls to Action
Let’s take a closer look at this “Great Commission” -- Jesus’ call to action. Just what were His marching orders? What is our mission statement? Our purpose? Our unique value proposition? The “elevator speech” that clearly and concisely describes what those who believe in Jesus Christ are to do and be?
Throughout history, countless attempts have been made to summarize the basics of the Christian life -- from the Apostle’s Creed to the Rule of St. Benedict, and from Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion to Wesley’s Methods for holy living. We have more and more summaries of the basics of the Christian life coming out daily -- from the powerful “Purpose Driven Life” by Rick Warren to the thought provoking “Simple Church” concept by Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger. Some are truly wonderful. Some are not as succinct as we might like. But these all try to answer the question that anyone who comes to believe in Jesus should be asking from day one: “Now what?” At some point, we should all ask, “Now that I’ve chosen to give Jesus a shot, what happens next? I ‘ve said yes to God, so now, what’s the plan? I believe, now what do I do?”
While most of those summaries of the basics of the Christian life I mentioned are worth a read if you have the time, you don’t need to look any further than today’s text to find the very best outline of God’s call for you. These last words of Matthew’s Gospel are written for every believer throughout the ages, including you today.
So what does it say? There are four calls here -- four active, imperative verbs that Jesus speaks. Let’s take a look.
First, He says “go”. Not “sit,” not “stay.” Not “be still” or “sit back and relax,” but “go.” Whenever believers become complacent and overly restful, God shakes them out hard. It happened in Jerusalem not long after Pentecost. It has happened every time His church has become stagnant and set in its ways throughout history. And it will happen to you if you don’t get to your feet and go where He calls you. Contrary to the fat and useless American model for church growth, the purpose of the church is not to establish cozy country clubs and invite people in. The call is an outward one. Jesus doesn’t say “Tell people to come to you”, but “You... go to the people!” Bring food. Visit the prisoners. Go the seniors’ home. Get involved in your PTA, in your kids’ sports teams, in book clubs and youth theater programs. Be a light in your workplace. Visit your neighbors and become someone they can depend on. Be a familiar face in the community. But whatever you do, don’t sit still.
Of course, there are times to be still -- we all need spiritual retreats now and then to refresh our souls and minds. In fact, I believe that there’s a certain commandment telling us to take one day off every week for rest and refreshment. Just as a car needs fuel and a horse needs feed, we all need regular spiritual rest. I have no argument there. But some people are on permanent spiritual retreat! If you find yourself hanging out at the pumps all the time but never quite hitting the highway, may I remind you that Jesus said, “Go?” Get up! Stop loafing around when there’s work to be done! He’s filled your tank, now get it in gear!
The next action He calls us to is this: “Make disciples of all nations,” or it is probably better to translate the word “ethne” as “all people.” Now for all of you good evangelical Christians out there, I want you to take careful note of what He did not say. He did not say, “Make converts” or “Get people to make decisions,” or “Make people recite four laws and say a prefab sinner’s prayer.” These things are only a very small element of the overall mission, which is to make disciples. Far too often, well-meaning Christians have excelled at the easy work of arguing the points of salvation, but have been completely negligent when it comes to the hard work of making disciples. Sharing God’s message of love and salvation takes just a few moments of lip-flapping. Anybody can do it. But making a disciple? That takes a lifetime of nurture and concern.
Don’t get me wrong -- I am very firm when it comes to believing that salvation through the atoning death of Jesus on the cross is the key to spiritual life. But that’s just what it is -- the key. The key gets the car started. The real work happens when the car gets rolling. That’s where renewal and restoration happens. Discipleship merely begins at salvation. It continues when the rubber meets the road and we become disciples. If you unlock a thousand prison cells with that one key, but never show a single prisoner how to leave their cell, what freedom have you really brought? If you start a thousand cars with that one key, but none of them goes anywhere, what good have you done? You certainly haven’t fulfilled the Master’s commission.
Sadly, we have made way too much out of the keys, and not nearly enough out of the open road of obedience. Could you imagine a great Formula One race that began and ended with the cars starting, but not going anywhere? How boring would that be? Talk about a giant waste of time! Or how about this -- could you imagine a racing movie where the action was always focused on the keys? I am thinking of a certain kind of fast and furious racing movie. These movies are pure adrenaline and very exciting. But they are only exciting because the cars go somewhere after somebody starts them. Nobody would watch a movie called “The Parked and the Idling...” but that’s pretty much what church tends to be all about. When all we do is jingle our salvation keys instead of making disciples, we have lost the race before we’ve even begun.
Disciples are exciting. Disciples are brave. Disciples make a difference in a hurting world by standing up to bullies, lifting up to downtrodden, and caring for those in need. Disciples are inspirational in their devotion to loving God and loving others, even in the face of desperate adversity. There’s a great story to tell to the nations -- and it isn’t only about how Jesus died on a cross for our sins. It is also about how he rose from the grave to give us a new life.
Start your engines? That’s fine. But how about getting in gear and going somewhere? Now we’re talking. Make disciples, Christian. Don’t just fling some keys around and think you’ve fulfilled His call to action. We are called to make disciples.
Now, what does that look like -- making disciples? Fortunately, Jesus lays it out for us very simply with the rest of His commission. There are two parts: baptizing and teaching to observe Christ.
Baptizing in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit
Baptizing -- that simply means leading others to new spiritual life. This represents salvation -- the “key” we were talking about just a few moments ago. And while I believe I made it clear that the key is not the car, the key is absolutely essential to its operation.
To a follower of Jesus, baptism is the deepest and most profound symbol of death and resurrection. It isn’t kid stuff. It is a supremely powerful act. When you choose to be baptized, you experience something truly amazing -- if you are paying attention. It is a once-in-a-lifetime event that separates old from new, death from life, born of the flesh to born of the Spirit of God. Because of its amazing significance, I personally believe that baptism is ideally only appropriate for those who are old enough to know what it means. When you go under the water, it is symbolic of death. Death to the old ways. Death to your old life of sin. And when you come up from the water, it is symbolic of the resurrection, and of being born all over again into a new life. Do you see the symbolism? You go down in the water just like Jesus went down into the ground. And then you come up out of the water just exactly the same way that Jesus rose from the dead on Easter Sunday. In baptism, we act out the heart of the gospel. We die to the world and live unto God.
But there is even more to the symbol of baptism than that. It takes place in water, which symbolizes the cleansing power of God -- it’s like a great big bath where you wash away your sins. Now, getting dunked under water in baptism doesn’t actually forgive your sins -- only God can do that. But baptism is a seal and a reminder, a symbolic act that expounds on a spiritual reality -- that through the atoning death of Jesus Christ on the cross, all of our sins have been completely forgiven. Until you understand this, you cannot understand what it means to be a disciple. Did you know you can follow all of Christ’s teachings and still not be a Christian? That’s because the cornerstone of Christianity is the cross and the resurrection. Being a Christian must begin with a new birth. It is more than following a set of teachings, it is based on your spiritual death and resurrection to new life. You can try to drive that car without the keys, but you won’t get very far. It all starts with salvation and the seal of baptism.
Now here’s a little disclaimer: can a person experience salvation without being baptized? Sure they can! What about the thief on the cross who was promised paradise with Jesus? Was he baptized before he died? Of course not. Baptism is simply an outward sign of something very powerful that has gone on inside of us. If you can do it, I highly recommend it.
Teaching them to observe all things that He has commanded you
But the call to action doesn’t end there. After baptism and salvation comes discipleship. Beyond belief comes obedience. It is not enough to nod at Jesus, and then live like hell. Jesus says, “Baptize them;” but then what? “Teach them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Ah! He wants more than your “Yay Gods,” He wants your life. He wants more than just a tip of the hat, attendance at church, and a few bucks in the offering plate -- He wants to lead you into truth, to the fruitful bounty of a Spirit-led life, and into the joy of right-living. He wants your life to shine like the stars on this cold, dark, lonely night. He wants you to abandon the wide road that leads to destruction and to join Him on the narrow path that leads to life. He is calling you from the small existence of shabby worldliness to a big life of jaw-dropping holiness. He wants to lead you out of the darkness of sin and selfishness and into the brilliant light of grace and selflessness. If you observe what he commands, you will discover a life brimming with everlasting, eternal significance. If you refuse to follow in His steps, you will ultimately stare destruction in the eye, and it will swallow you whole.
One important thing to note -- he did not say teach them to “know” or teach them to “recite” or teach them to “explain” the things He commanded. He said teach them to “observe.” There is a vast difference between knowing and doing. Beware lest ye mistake education for discipleship. The two are related, but they can be very different. Even a young child can obey God, even though they might not understand it all. And even a seminary professor, a master of Bible and doctrine, though they might understand all mysteries, might disobey the Lord at every turn. Which one is the disciple?
Finally before we conclude, we must take a look at this last clause, the very best part of this commission: “I am with you always.”
What profoundly comforting words -- “I am with you.” The same words spoken to Abraham. The same words spoken to Moses. The same words spoken to Joshua, Elijah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel … “I am with you.” These words are also spoken to you and to me.
And then there’s the real jewel in this crowning phrase -- one little word that God wants to bring comfort to you no matter where you are today: “always”. “I am with you always.” Not “sometimes.” Not “when you’ve been a good little girl or boy.” Not “later” or “way back in the past”, but “always.” Do you realize what this means? There is nothing that can separate you from God’s love. There is no den of lions, no persecution, no mommy-exhaustion, no failure, no repeated failure, no repeated repeated failure that can separate you from Him. You can try to shake Him all you want, but he is on you like glue. He says “always”, and he means “always” -- even to the very end of the age. What comfort that is! What joy that should bring you this morning, O Saturday night sinner! Whatever you screwed up yesterday is not enough to pull him away. Whatever self-perceived shortcoming or lack you may think you have, nothing can separate you from His love and His presence. Praise God! Praise God! Praise God!
How Have You Answered Jesus’ Call to Action?
These four calls to action -- and the great promise of His “always” presence -- apply to each and every disciple through the ages -- not just the first ones who get churches named after them like Peter, Paul and Mary. The call to action, the great commission, the mission -- these last word of Jesus are for anyone who chooses to believe in Him. They are for you.
How will you answer? With action or with idling? In park or in motion? With empty branches or with fruit? Will you put his gifts to work, or will you bury them in the potter’s ground? The choice is yours.