I preached this sermon today on Trinity Sunday from Matthew 28:16-20. We know this passage as The Great Commission, but the final words of Jesus to his disciples are about the Kingdom of God. Even though this scripture has been used to validate the sending of Christian missionaries to other nations, Jesus’ instructions carry important messages about the Kingdom of God for all Christians.
The Kingdom of God In Today’s World
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.” — Matthew 28:16-20 NIV
Today we come to the last Sunday of the Christian Year before we enter Ordinary Time. This is Trinity Sunday, and this passage reflects both a Trinitarian awareness and the sending of the disciples by Jesus into the world.
This passage, called The Great Commission, is the final instruction Matthew records Jesus giving to his followers. And, the interesting thing about this is there is no ascension into heaven, no angels appearing to reassure the awestruck disciples, nothing but the final command of Jesus to the Eleven.
Matthew’s Gospel has been called The Kingdom of God Gospel because Matthew features the Kingdom so prominently in his record of the life and ministry of Jesus. Even though the words “Kingdom of God” do not appear in these verses, the Kingdom’s presence and impact is very evident. Last week we looked at “What Pentecost Means To Us Today.” Today I want us to think for a few moments together about “The Kingdom of God in Today’s World” — in other words, what the Kingdom of God means to us today.
The Kingdom of God is Predicated on Jesus’ Authority
As I mentioned earlier, this passage has been known as The Great Commission for a long time. William Carey, the cobbler and preacher, invoked this passage to plead his cause for the sending of missionaries to those in India and other nations who had not heard the Gospel. The entire modern mission movement, which began in the late 1700s, owes its genesis and success to this command of Jesus.
But too often we begin the reading of this passage with verse 19 — “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…” But, if we do so, we miss the reason for our going and the means by which we go. We’ll get to the going in a minute, but first we must back up to verse 18 to capture the profound context and the reason for our going. I have deleted the verse numbers so you can see how verse 18 flows logically into verses 19-20:
“Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…”
The reason we are to go is because Jesus has all authority in heaven and earth. This authority is his because God has vindicated Jesus and made him both Lord and Christ, according to Paul, by raising him from the dead. While we might argue that Jesus always possessed the authority of heaven and earth, Matthew is making both an historical and theological point by including this account at this place in his Gospel.
After his resurrection, the disciples are told to go to Galilee and wait for Jesus there. That’s all Matthew offers us. There are no other appearances of Jesus in locked rooms, or on the seashore. Matthew’s focus is on this one appearing (although Jesus does appear at other times in other places) and Matthew does not close his account with the ascension. Rather the entire focus of Matthew’s account is on this one encounter with the Eleven, and Jesus’ final instructions to them.
For Matthew, this is the culmination of the Gospel. This is the moment in which the Gospel is entrusted to Jesus’ followers. And, not only entrusted, but entrusted with explicit instruction on what to do (go), the purpose of their going (make disciples), the scope of their mission (of all nations), the practices involved (baptizing….teaching), and the assurance that they did not do this alone (I am with you…). This is Matthew’s version of the continuity of Jesus’ life and ministry, now entrusted to his disciples.
In addition, Jesus echoes the words of the Lord’s Prayer, in which Matthew records Jesus saying, “…Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven…” When Jesus says “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…” he is revealing that the prayer he taught his disciples to pray is being partially answered in his own life. The idea is that God’s will be done on earth as it is done in heaven, and Jesus was the example of that for the first time.
Make Disciples Of All Nations
But Jesus’ teaching was not for the disciples alone. They were to go and make disciples of all nations, which was a new notion to the Jews. Prior to Jesus the Jews had a vague notion that other nations were also to be part of God’s plan. The Temple in Jerusalem contained the Court of the Gentiles, the largest court of the Temple compound. The implication was that all the nations were afforded a place in the presence of God, even if access was limited to the Court of the Gentiles.
But, by the first century, the Court of the Gentiles in the Temple had been reduced by the presence of vendors selling sacrificial animals, and moneychangers exchanging Roman currency for Temple currency. The space allotted to the nations had been turned into a marketplace.
So, Jesus braids a whip from leather cords and drives the merchants and moneychangers from the Temple, with the words, “My Father’s house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it a den of thieves.” The international scope of God’s redemptive plan was very much on Jesus’ mind during his ministry and in this instruction to the disciples. The Book of Acts records one way in which “the nations” hear the Gospel on the day of Pentecost. But the disciples were to go themselves and make disciples of all nations. That would happen not only on Pentecost when representatives of all the nations were gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost, probably having stayed over after Passover. But it would also happen when the church in Jerusalem is persecuted and then the disciples are dispersed from Jerusalem into the known world.
Baptizing Them Into The Name
The result of the disciples going and making disciples was that there would be those who would follow Jesus. These new disciples, in the manner of the original Twelve called by Jesus (now Eleven after Judas’ death and before Matthias’ election and Paul’s call), were to be baptized. John the Baptist sets the scene for water baptism in the New Testament, and Jesus himself submits to John’s baptism as both sign and symbol of his submission to the Father’s plan, and to validate the call to repentance, or a change of heart and mind from the traditional thinking of first century Judaism, to the ministry of Jesus.
These new disciples, not called believers here but disciples, were to be baptized “into” the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This Trinitarian invocation meant that followers of Jesus recognized that the Father had sent the Son, and the Son had promised the Spirit, and the Spirit would empower and send the church into the world.
Baptism was identification with the missio Dei, the mission of God, that involved all three expressions of the Trinity. It was identification also with the community of faith, the followers of Jesus as Lord, who quickly established a koinoinia, or fellowship, that characterized their common belief and practice.
Their immersion into both water and the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was also a theological as well as a liturgical statement. And, remember these new disciples are from “all nations” so this is not merely John’s baptism for repentant Jews, but Jesus’ re-imagined baptism that builds on John’s but carries meaning of the Kingdom of God with it. Those being baptized had repented of their sins (primarily their wrong understanding of God and his purpose), identified with Jesus, and were empowered by the Spirit. The prime example of this unique joining of Spirit and water baptism is found in Acts 10 with the Holy Spirit and water baptism of Cornelius and his entourage.
Teaching Them to Obey Everything
But it wasn’t that the disciples were merely to get the volitional assent of these new disciples. They were also to teach them to “obey everything” Jesus commanded. This is where we in the 21st century both misunderstand what this means, and fail to carry out this part of The Great Commission.
Since the modern missions movement particularly, we have done a good job of getting decisions, and baptizing believers. But what we’re really supposed to be doing, if we are obedient to Christ, is making disciples like the original 12 who followed Jesus. That means that this next generation of disciples is to do what the first generation did — follow and obey Jesus. Jesus said in John’s Gospel, “You are my friends if you do what I command.” And here the command is to “obey everything” Jesus taught.
Matthew gives us a good idea of what those commands are in The Sermon on the Mount section in chapters 5 through 7. The things Jesus commanded were things like “turn the other cheek;” “go the second mile;” “do not repay evil with evil;” and, so on. In other words, the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount were the teachings of how life is lived in the Kingdom of God.
These new disciples were to live Kingdom values, just as the original disciples had been instructed to do. These Kingdom values were to illustrate life as God intended for it to be lived. Violence was no longer the operative force in the world — self-sacrificing love was to replace violence as a way of life.
Some evangelical theologians are concerned about the dumbing down of the Gospel to attract as many people as possible. While crossing cultural and social barriers to communicate the Gospel message effectively is praiseworthy, the reduction of the Gospel to the lowest common denominator that attracts people is not. One theologian observed that the Gospel is in danger of being reduced to the phrase, “Jesus was nice, so you be nice.” Obviously, that neither honors the Christ who holds all authority in heaven and in earth, nor does it meet the test of obedient discipleship that Jesus commanded and which is part of The Great Commission.
Of course, our North American consumeristic culture drives the strategy of churches which seek to appeal to as many as possible. Whether we admit it or not, we in evangelical expressions of Christianity have been more guilty than even mainline denominations, or even the Catholic Church, of changing everything we do to “reach more people.” But, is that the commission that Jesus gave us, or did he give us and the Eleven the commission to make obedient disciples.
A Story About Peacemaking
John Paul Lederach tells a story in his wonderful book on peacemaking, The Moral Imagination, that illustrates what I believe is a Kingdom approach. The story is about Tajikistan and its civil war that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the new-found independence of former Soviet satellite states.
Tajikistan borders Afghanistan, and also has a Muslim majority. Civil war was at full throttle when according to Lederach, a Tajik university professor, Dr. Abdul, was enlisted by the government to contact a Mullah who was also commander of an army of rebel fighters. Professor Abdul was asked to open a dialogue with the Mullah, which appeared to be both unlikely and dangerous.
Finally, a meeting was arranged, and Professor Abdul arrived at the Mullah’s camp. Because he had arrived later than expected, the Mullah insisted that it was time for prayers, and so they observed that essential practice of a Muslim man’s life together. Surprised at his participation in prayer, the Mullah asked how the professor, a communist, could pray. Professor Abdul said that his father had been a Communist during the Soviet era, but that he was not.
The Mullah then asked what the professor taught, which led to an extended conversation about philosophy and Sufism, a mystical form of Islam. The appointment which was scheduled to last 20-minutes, extended itself for two-and-a-half hours. After many such meetings, many cups of tea, and many stories shared together, a bond of trust began to form.
After many months of talking, eating, and sharing their stories with one another, Professor Abdul finally thought it was appropriate to ask the Mullah if he would consider laying down his arms and help end the civil war that was tearing apart Tajikistan. The suggestion that the Mullah meet with government representatives was offered.
The Mullah considered Professor Abdul’s suggestion thoughtfully. Then he said, “Can you guarantee my safety if I go?” Professor Abdul knew he could not guarantee the Mullah’s personal safety.
Professor Abdul moved beside the Mullah, locked arms with him and said, “No, I cannot guarantee your safety. But I can guarantee that I will go with you, and if they kill you, they will kill me also.”
When the Mullah arrived at the meeting with the government’s representatives, he said, “I come to this meeting out of respect for Professor Abdul.” With that the slow, but certain peace process began which ended the civil war in Tajikistan.
That is the kind of life we as followers of Jesus are to lead. The Great Commission to go, make disciples of all nations, and baptize and teach them to obey Christ must be done in the same way that Professor Abdul won over the Mullah — with self-sacrificial love. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
The Great Commission is a call to go, but to go in the same self-sacrificial love with which Christ was sent from the throne room of heaven to all of creation. We go, we make disciples, we baptize and teach with the same commitment to others — in this case “all nations” — that Jesus had to this world, as expressed by John —
“For God so loved the world that He sent His only Son…” Just as God sent Jesus, and Jesus sends the Church, then and now, to obey all things he commanded which includes giving our lives in Kingdom living for others.