In the fourth and final Lent Course session we looked at Matthew 28 which of course concludes with the well-known Great Commission in verses 16-20. Before we got on to those verses we observed various significant points from the earlier part of the chapter.
1. We noted again how Matthew often uses bracketing to emphasise a point. In chapter 1 we had seen how the two-fold giving of the name Jesus brackets the great title Immanuel and Jesus’ calling to “save his people from their sins”. Both the bracket and that which is bracketed are thus given prominence. So now in Chapter 28 we note that the final teaching section takes place on a mountain in parallel with the Sermon on the Mount. Likewise the final promise is that Jesus will be with his followers who are going out in mission – parallel to Immanuel in chapter 1. Such bracketing underlines the importance and reliability of the whole Gospel which lies within these brackets.
2. Chapter 28 tells the story of the resurrection of Jesus. We noted the glorious truth that Jesus’ resurrection is normally spoken of in the passive – the cold, dead, hopeless body of Jesus seemed to spell the end of all life, salvation and hope. He had laid aside his glory, allowed himself to be crucified and to descend in fearful finality to the cold tomb. Into this situation of despair God the Father came and raised Jesus to new life. And if the Father could bring new life to the cold dead body of Jesus, he can bring new life to us in our spiritual coldness. Glory! What grace!
3. This chapter stresses the word “afraid” (28.4, 5, 8 and 10). The combination of fear and joy in 28.8 is so real in many of us. The two opposite emotions can join together in our times of worship and generally in life. Likewise we saw how Jesus called into mission disciples amongst whom both worship and doubt held sway. These were no super-saints! Doubt coexisted with their worship of the resurrected Jesus. So rest assured – Jesus could even use people like us in mission!
4. The only witnesses of the Resurrection in Matthew’s account are two women. In 28.7 the angel commands them to “go and tell”, in which the word for “tell” has no great significance. But then in verse 10 Jesus himself repeats the command, but changes the word to one with richer significance. The root of this Greek word is the same as the root of the Greek word for Gospel. This verb would be better translated as “proclaim” or even “preach”. So the first preachers of the Resurrection were those two women – but we reassured the vicar of Broxbourne that it is still biblically allowable also for a man to preach!
5. The resurrection should not be separated from the cross as the central message of the good news of Jesus. It is interesting that in Acts 17 the non-Jewish Athenians thought that Paul was preaching two new Gods, ‘Jesus’ and ‘Resurrection’. It seems clear that the great emphasis of Paul’s preaching must have been the person and work of Jesus plus the resurrection. Evidently the Athenians had badly misunderstood what Paul was trying to say about the resurrection, but still this was the heart of his gospel message to them. And in the disillusionment of our contemporary societies the promise of a totally new life through the resurrection of Jesus is good news indeed!
So we came to the actual commission in the closing verses of the chapter:
1. “Therefore” – because Jesus has total authority as king of his kingdom not only in heaven,but also here among us on earth. We go with his authority. We note the example of this in U.N. debates. The representative of a great power like America, China or Russia may actually be less gifted in him-/herself than the representative of some small powerless nation. But he/she comes with the authority of their nation and so people will listen to them. We may not be specially gifted, but we go to the world with the authority of him who we represent – and he has all authority.
2. “Go”. In the Old Testament with the great exception of Jonah Israel is not sent out to preach to the Gentiles. They were called to live the life of God, keeping his commands in God-like holiness. This would so demonstrate the reality, holiness and loving goodness of God that the Gentiles would be attracted in to worship and follow the God of Israel, the creator of all the earth and of all people. But now the New Testament has a further call, namely to go to the unbelieving world and share the good news of Jesus and his salvation.
3. “Make disciples” – our goal is to help people to become those who will sit at the feet of Jesus for the rest of their lives and in humility go on learning from him. Our aim is more than just getting people converted. We believe that we all need to become those who will follow Jesus and learn from him. We need to grow in our Christian life and faith.
4. Baptism is the visible sign of God’s promises to us if we believe. It is not just the sign of our faith which may be unreliably up-and-down. But God’s promises are sure and give us assurance. Luther in his times of dark doubt pictured Satan lurking beneath his sofa and tempting him to doubt God’s grace. In his vivid way Luther would then open his Bible, show it to Satan under him there and call out “Baptisatus sum!”, I have been baptised. He did not believe that baptism in itself saves us, but he was reminding himself and the Devil that God had given him the outward sign and mark of his promises. And God never breaks his promise.
Baptism in the name of Father, Son and Spirit reminds us too to make sure that each person of the Trinity has his rightful place in our faith and proclamation. It is so easy for our faith to become unbalanced by an undue emphasis on one person of the Trinity to the relative neglect of another Person. In this way our whole faith will become unbalanced and we shall miss out on elements of the Gospel.
When my wife and I were engaged, she was in Singapore and I was far away in South Thailand and then in North Sumatera, Indonesia. In those days there was no email or other modern communication. Even letters took a couple of weeks. She tells me that in those days she often fingered her engagement ring. If one were cynical, one could point out that this ring was useless. If she had lost it somehow, that would not have changed my love for her. Or if I had fallen in love with some local beauty in Thailand or Indonesia, the fact that she had a ring from me would not have helped. In itself the ring had no power. But it was a tangible token of my promises and love, so it was deeply significant. So it is with baptism. We all need such visible signs of faith. And in our proclamation of the good news of Jesus we should include visible signs and outward forms which declare the reality of our message, will attract people to Christ and help them to remain strong in faith.
5. “All nations”. Jesus was calling his disciples not only to reach out to their own Jewish people, but also to all peoples. We too are called to bring the message of Jesus to Jew and non-Jew alike, to ethnic minorities now living in our country and in mission to all nations in every continent.
6. Mission is not only evangelistic, but also includes teaching people everything which God has commanded us. Thus it will include ecological and environmental elements of our faith, every part of Christian teaching which has come to us, including the command to “go and make disciples of all nations”. In fulfilling this Great Commission we must therefore teach people to go out in mission to all peoples everywhere. We have to confess that former generations of European mission workers were generally disobedient to this command and failed to teach African, Asian and Latin American churches their international responsibility in mission. We rejoice that in our day the Holy Spirit has begun to move in the church worldwide to inspire them also to get involved in worldwide mission – even coming to Britain to witness among our people. Is the coming of such Christians to help us in our mission here the harbinger of a new hope for Britain?