My April 15 sermon podcast had technical problems, so here it is in abridged blog format.
Easter is the most important time of year for a Christian, because at Easter we celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and we celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ because the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ changed everything. By his death, the sinless Jesus took upon himself the sin of the world and the punishment for that sin, so that we would not have to die. And by his resurrection, God vindicated his Son as the messiah—the Chosen One—and destroyed the power of sin and death. Easter is the most important time of year for a Christian.
But after Easter … is nothing special. This week is ordinary.
When I was thinking and praying about what to preach on, it made sense to me to continue with the narrative from the Gospel of Matthew that we’d been going through the couple weeks leading into Easter. Which takes us to the Great Commission—Matthew 28:16-20.
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore 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 that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
I remember hearing these verses for the first time as a kid; I remember being taught as if this commission was for me; I remember this being one of the first passages I ever had to memorize.
And that one sentence–“Go therefore …”–is the most easily appropriated: it’s a command. It’s the most easily applicable: Jesus says do this, so we should do this. And that’s true and right and good; but it is not all.
Let’s look at the verses that come before, starting with verses 16 and 17:
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.
“But some doubted.” The word for “doubted” here isn’t describing intellectual unbelief, as we often use it, but, as one commentary puts it, the doubt referred to here is “the hesitation natural to those confronted by a unique and ‘impossible’ occurrence.” Something crazy and unexpected happens—something that shouldn’t happen—maybe someone is completely and inexplicably healed of their illness, out of the blue you’re approached about a dream job that you didn’t even apply for; someone you thought you knew really well turns out to be not at all who you thought they were; doors open in your life that you thought were locked and bolted and padlocked; sometimes these things happen, and you think, “Is this for real?” That’s natural hesitation—that’s the kind of doubt that is talked about here.
See, when we read that they worshiped Jesus, it’s not a big deal for us—we’ve heard that terminology before, we use that terminology ourselves. But it’s so important to know that for a first century Jewish community, known for its strict monotheism—that was one of the reasons they were so distinct from the other religions of the day, which worshiped many gods—to say that these Jewish men worshiped another man would be mind-boggling. When Matthew says, “they worshiped him,” it’s a statement that this man Jesus is somehow the same as the one true God. And so there is the natural hesitation of those confronted by a unique and impossible occurrence: how can this man be God?
Maybe you know this hesitation. You believe in God or you trust in God but:
- You’re overwhelmed with the choices before you, unsure which is the right school to choose, what job to take, which career path you think God would have you walk—you hesitate.
- You’re faced with a potential relationship or a failing one or a good one, all of which look daunting because if it’s going to work, it’s going to require a lot of commitment and sacrifice and time and patience—you hesitate.
- You begin to grasp just how big God’s story really is, how vast his mission is—the very redemption of the world—and he intends to do it through finite, fragile vessels like me and you—you hesitate.
Or maybe you don’t yet believe in God or trust in him, and you doubt: this Christianity thing, this resurrection thing, this Jesus being God and dying for the sin of the world thing—these are impossible occurrences; I don’t understand how they can be. I don’t get it. You hesitate.
Let’s read what happens next, verse 18:
And Jesus came and said to them …
The NIV translation makes it a little clearer: “Then Jesus came to them …” The Greek word used here means, “to draw near, to move towards, to approach.” Jesus draws near to his disciples, even to the ones who are hesitant, even to the ones who doubt and are unsure. Jesus draws near.
That’s who he is. That’s what he does. If you’re hurting or lonely or confused or angry, he draws near. If you’re broken or lost or suffering or sick, he draws near. If you’re uncertain or afraid or anxious or hesitant, he draws near. Jesus draws near.
And to his disciples, he says, first of all:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
People were expecting a messiah, a savior; and they got the real deal. And he looked and spoke and acted very differently to what they were expecting. He came from backwater Nazareth—“Can anything good come from there?” He was an unknown for most of his life—“Is this not the carpenter’s son, whose father and mother we know, now claiming to be the Chosen One?” And when he did step onto the public stage, it was to teach and to heal and to forgive. They didn’t expect their Savior to talk about loving your enemies or turning the other cheek or praying for those who persecuted them. They didn’t expect him to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, a symbol of peace. They didn’t expect him to be betrayed and handed over to the authorities, to be crucified on a cross—Rome’s way of saying, “This is not your messiah, because look at what we have done to him.”
But they also didn’t expect him to be raised from the dead on the third day, to show himself to them and to be standing before them on this mountaintop (natural hesitation!). You see, Rome and the world said, “Death is the final sign. If he’s dead, he is not your messiah.” But God said, “Yes, he is my messiah. And to show you that he is, I will not only raise him from the dead but give to him all authority in heaven and on earth.”
Sometimes we need to be reminded that we serve a big God, because how we live our lives is directly related to our understanding of who God is.
If the Jesus whom we follow is not sovereign, then it’s all on us, it’s all up to us. In If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat, John Ortberg asks, “When we wake up in the morning, what happens if we live with a small God?
We live in a constant state of fear and anxiety because everything depends on us. Our mood will be governed by our circumstances. We will live in a universe that leaves us deeply vulnerable.
When we have a chance to share our faith, we shrink back—what if we are rejected or cannot find the right words? It all depends on us.
We cannot be generous because our financial security depends on us.
When we need to give someone strong words of confrontation or challenge, we will be inclined to pull our punches … because if we don’t live in the security of a big God’s acceptance, we become slaves to what others think of us.
If we face the temptation to speak deceitful words to avoid pain, we will probably do it. We may try to get credit for something at work that does not belong to us because we don’t trust in a big God who sees in secret and will one day give reward.
If somebody gets mad at us or disapproves, we will get all twisted up in knots—we will not have the security of knowing that a giant God is watching out for us.
And the list goes on. So knowing, being reminded, that this Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and on earth should be, first of all, reassuring, and second of all, liberating. Because it isn’t all on us; it doesn’t depend on us.
And so it is in the context of knowing that Jesus is over all that he then says, “Go therefore 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 all that I have commanded you.” Go therefore. Because he knows that if you try to do it in your own strength, if you try to do it with a small God in mind, you will feel the weight and pressure and responsibility of it all depending on you, and you will fall flat on your face—maybe not immediately, but eventually—whether from exhaustion or ineptitude or loneliness or something else. God did not make us to be a part of his grand story on our own; he did not invite us to be a part of his family, only to give us a set of instructions that we’re supposed to go away and follow on our own.
It is on the basis of the truth that Jesus has been given all authority that we are free to participate joyfully in the mission that he wants to carry out in the world through us.
Let’s move on to the last verse of Matthew.
And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
Even before his birth, the angel told Joseph, “His name will be Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.” And here, at the end of the story, Jesus lives into his name: “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Jesus is sovereign and he is with you—these hold true in all times, in all places, and in all circumstances.
The Great Commission is the call to all those who will follow Jesus; not just some of us … all of us. It’s a big task! And what often happens is that we take that “Go therefore” and forget about the parts the come before and after. We try to do it in our own strength, because most of us—especially here in DC—are pretty competent and confident people. We specialize in doing things here: supporting causes, serving the poor, feeding the hungry, loving on kids. And that is good.
But Jesus didn’t just say, “Go therefore …” He begins by drawing near and saying, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” and he ends by saying, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” And in saying it that way, he makes the point that there is a mission that he’s calling us to, a daunting, challenging adventure-filled life, a responsibility that we are to discharge as his disciples.
But here’s the thing: it’s not up to us. It doesn’t come down to our smarts or our ability or our competence or our strength or our good fortune. It comes down to Jesus Christ; it comes down to what he accomplished on the cross, what he accomplished in being raised from the dead, and what he continues to accomplish by his Spirit that lives and dwells and is at work in and around and through us. It is on the basis of his authority and his presence with us that all things are made possible.
God does not just say, “Your marriage is in trouble; save it yourself.” He does not just say, “Your job is pretty demanding; work harder at it.” He does not just say, “This neighborhood needs redemption; change it yourselves.” He does not just say, “There is this wrong that needs righting; go do that for me.” He does not just say, “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.” That’s not all there is.
John Goldingay says, “We hate the idea that the coming of the kingdom of God depends on God. We want to be the people who build it, who further it, who encourage it. It’s the American way.”
But it’s not about doing things on our own, and then, only when we reach the end of our limits, turning to God and saying, “Okay, over to you now, big guy.” That is not what he desires; that is not what he intended. What he wanted, what he still wants, is for us to live life with him.
So he draws near. And he says, “All authority in heaven and on earth have been given to me. Therefore, go and do these things. And know that I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
When we think we are doing well, he is sovereign and he is with us. And when we are struggling, he is still sovereign and he is with us. When things are going how we hoped they would—whether on a personal level or a family level or a friendship level or a societal level—he is sovereign and he is with us. And when things are falling to pieces around us, when we can’t seem to explain anything that is happening in our lives, he is still sovereign and he is with us.
Sometimes, we need to be reminded that, as Eugene Peterson writes, “God is perfectly capable of working out his purposes in our lives even when we can’t lift a finger to help. Better yet, God is faithfully working out our salvation even when every time we lift a finger it seems to contribute to the wrong side.”
Here’s something I noticed recently: Jesus says, “Go and make disciples of all nations and baptize them and teach them.” And what does he promise in return? Does he say, “You will win many followers to me, great acclaim, recognition, financial reward, job security”? Does he say, “You will get a nice house, a nice car, a husband or wife, a trouble-free life”?
Nope. What does Jesus promise in return? Only—I guess you could say, “only”—“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me … and I am with you always.” That’s what Jesus promises.
Maybe you needed to be reminded of the first part of Jesus’ Great Commission, that we serve a big God and that the Jesus who sends us out has been given all authority. Maybe you wake up every morning with a small God in mind, and you resonate with that feeling that it all depends on you. Maybe Jesus is saying to you, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Stick with me.”
Maybe you needed to be particularly reminded of that second part of the Great Commission, that Christ has a mission in the world and that he calls us to be part of it. Maybe you’re trying to figure out what to do with your life—what school, what degree, what job—and maybe God is saying to you, “Where you are is where I have sent you; make disciples there, baptize them, teach them all that I have commanded, live the gospel life, and show them what it means to be in relationship with me.”
Maybe you needed to be particularly reminded of that final part of the Great Commission, that Jesus is with us always. Maybe you’ve been going through a particularly difficult time, or trying to do things in your own strength and feeling alone, maybe you don’t think that God is present with you, and the word you need to hear today is that when Jesus says, “Always,” that’s what he means.
Wherever you’re at, remember: He is risen. That changes everything.