The Great Commission

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Alan and Ritva Brown are two of the world mission partners we support. For much of the last twenty years they’ve been living in a remote part of Papau New Guinea – on Umboi island – translating the Bible into the Kovai language. The island covers only 930 square kilometres and the Kovai people number only 5,000 or so. So why pack in being a teacher, as Alan did, to make that your life’s work? Much closer to home, tomorrow sees the official opening of the new Holy Trinity Gateshead (‘HTG’) building and next Sunday sees the launch of the church. Over a million pounds has been given among us to see that happen, and 70 of our church family have committed to be the launch team of that new church. But why do that when we could have all stayed here? And then right at home, we’re working towards these Christianity Explored Taster sessions because we want not just tens of people to be looking into the claims of Jesus at any one time, but hundreds. But, again, why do that instead of relax after the effort of providing Carols by Candlelight for many thousands?

The answer to those questions is in tonight’s Bible passage. So would you please turn back to Matthew 28. Matthew 27 records how the Lord Jesus died on the cross, and was buried in a guarded tomb. Chapter 28 then records how his tomb was found empty and he was seen alive again. Let me re-read from v16:

16 "Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshipped 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." (vv16-20)

And my three points are simply the three ‘alls’ in those verses: ‘all authority’ (which is about who Jesus is), ‘all nations’ (which is about what he’s given us to do) and then ‘always with you’ (which is about how he hasn’t left us to it, but is with us in it).

So firstly, ALL AUTHORITY (in v18)

Look again at v18:

18 "Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” (v18)

And the Lord Jesus is picking up there on an Old Testament (OT) prophesy about him. So keep a paw in Matthew and turn back to Daniel 7, which is a God-given vision of heaven’s throne room. Look at Daniel 7, v9:

9 "As I looked, "thrones were set in place,and the Ancient of Days [that is, God the Father] took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. 10 A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him. Thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. The court was seated, and the books were opened. 11 "Then I continued to watch because of the boastful words the horn was speaking. I kept looking until the beast was slain and its body destroyed and thrown into the blazing fire. 12 (The other beasts had been stripped of their authority, but were allowed to live for a period of time.) [The horn and the beasts stand for the human kingdoms of this world.] 13 "In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man [the main title Jesus used of himself], coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Daniel 7.9-14)

And when Jesus rose from the dead and ascended back into heaven, that vision began to be fulfilled. So, back in Matthew 28, on the brink of returning to that throne room we’ve just glimpsed, v18:

18 Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”

And on the one hand, he can say that because of his resurrection. Raising Jesus from the dead was God the Father’s way of saying, ‘This person you crucified really is my Son, and really is the rightful ruler of your life. And cant reject him, but you can’t ultimately get rid of him or avoid him.’

You may have heard the story of the battleship cruising off the Atlantic coast of America. The admiral in command was told, ‘Light ahead. Oncoming vessel.’ So he said, ‘Signal it: ‘Change your course ten degrees west.’’ So the message was flashed out, but a signal flashed back, ‘Change your course ten degrees east.’ Well, understandably, this didn’t play well with the admiral who signalled back, ‘Change your course ten degrees west. I am an admiral.’ That got the reply: ‘Change your course ten degrees east. I’m a seaman, third class.’ So to win the day the admiral flashed back, ‘Change your course ten degrees west. I am a battleship,’ and got the reply, ‘Change your course ten degrees east. I am a lighthouse!’

And the resurrection says that, as unavoidably as that lighthouse, Jesus ultimately stands in our way: it says that he is there; he is God; and that either we come into relationship with him as our rightful ruler – or we ultimately collide with him as our judge.

So, fly out to Umboi Island to see those 5,000 Kovai people. Jesus is their rightful ruler. Knock on any door in St James’ Village over by the new church building – Jesus is the rightful ruler of whoever answers. Look around your workplace tomorrow or the children and parents at the school gate – Jesus is their rightful ruler. So they should be living for him. And the question is: how do we feel about the fact that most of them are not? When the apostle Paul looked around Athens and saw all their idols, it says he was distressed in spirit. Which asks us: are we distressed for Jesus’ sake that he’s not acknowledged as King as he should be? Because the no.1 reason for trying to make disciples of all nations is the glory of Jesus and the Father who sent him. The no.1 reason isn’t because people need him – although that’s true. The no.1 reasons is because it’s an offence to the Lord Jesus that anyone should spend even a day in his world without consciously, gratefully living for him.

But of course we do also try to make disciples for the sake of the people around us. It’s not just for the glory of God, but for the good of our fellow-sinners – who are on a collision course with Jesus as judge. So think of the people who say, ‘I’m glad you’ve got a faith that helps you, but I’m not the religious type - it’s not for me’ (which is often a subtle way of telling us to back off from saying more about the gospel). We’ve got to say, as gently as we can, ‘Look, the resurrection means that Jesus is there, and that he is God, and that we’re all going to meet him as judge whatever type we are, whatever we believe.’ We’ve got to say as gently as we can, ‘This isn’t just true for me – because the resurrection really happened in history, and things that happen in history are true for everyone.’ Eg, Gordon Brown got made Prime Minster – that’s true for everyone, whether or not you want it to be true. And 2,000 years ago, Jesus got made ruler of this universe by his resurrection and ascension –and that, too, is true for everyone.

So on the one hand, Jesus can say this because of his resurrection. But it’s also because of his death, because from our point of view as sinners, the most wonderful part of his authority is his authority to forgive – his ability to forgive any sin of any person because he died to pay the price of our forgiveness on the cross. I spoke to someone after a service one day – sitting up there in the gallery. And he hinted at some of the ways he’d hurt people very badly, and he said, ‘It’s OK for other people here, but I’m beyond forgiveness.’ And if you’re thinking that tonight, then know from the lips of Jesus that it isn’t true. All authority to forgive all sin is his. But the other side of that is that there is no authority to forgive, no way of being put right with God, anywhere else. So, eg, there’s no forgiveness in Islam – it says that Allah is merciful to those who deserve it, which isn’t mercy at all – it’s merit. There’s no forgiveness in eastern religions – only the impossible task of working off your bad ‘karma’ in your next life. No so-called priest can forgive; the Virgin Mary and the mass can’t forgive. All authority to forgive belongs to Jesus alone.

So that’s the first thing in these verses: ‘all authority’. So can I call on us tonight to believe that afresh. Because only then will we do what comes after the ‘therefore’ in v19. Only then will we go to Umboi island and plant another church in 5 years’ time and work to keep evangelism a personal and church priority. So,

Second, ALL NATIONS (vv19-20a)

Look at v19:

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." (vv19-20)

And amid the detail of how we’re to do it, the main thing there is, ‘make disciples of all nations’. Because if Jesus is the rightful ruler of all people, we’re to work towards people from all nations turning to him and learning to live for him – which is what a disciple does. And notice that v19 isn’t just saying, ‘Work towards more people in your own nation living for Jesus.’ It’s saying people from all nations. And that’s what took Alan and Ritva Brown to Umboi Island. Someone said to me a while ago, ‘That doesn’t seem very strategic, since there are only 5,000 Kovai people – and no-one else speaks their language.’ But God doesn’t conform to our ideas of numerical strategy. Otherwise I guess we’d all head off to China to try to make disciples there because it’s the biggest population in the world. But it doesn’t say, ‘Go and make the maximum number of disciples, even if that means strategically overlooking a whole lot of nations and people groups.’ It says, ‘Go and make disciples of all nations.’

And to put this in context, and to raise our eyes higher than the preoccupations of Newcastle-Gateshead, the current estimates are:

that the world’s population is just over 6 billion – 6 thousand million;
that the number in the world who identify themselves as Christian in even the loosest way is 2 billion;
that the number in the world who’d identify themselves as evangelical Christians is under a third of that 2 billion – 648 million;
and that the number of unreached people groups like the Kovai is about 2,500.

So it encourages me that one member of our church is considering missionary work to a unreached people groups. But if the Lord does lead him in that direction, it’s worth the rest of us noticing that still leaves 2,499. Could that be you? Is your name perhaps written over one of those islands?

‘All nations’ – ie, every country, every people-group, and every language. So, do you speak a language? If so, that’s one of the gifts God has given you to make disciples. For a start, I guess we all speak English. Well, that opens the door to making disciples not just in England, but in numerous English-speaking and English-learning places. Eg, Frankie Lewis, who was a Parish Assistant here, is now in Taiwan teaching English so that she can share the gospel there. Could you do something like that? Or maybe you’re learning a language – eg, French, or Spanish. Well, that’s a significant part of you - that’s part of your gifting for making disciples. And it should make you at least think about working for the gospel in France or Spain, which are very spiritually needy – or about working in another French- or Spanish-speaking country. Or, are you an international student here – able to speak Mandarin or Swahili or Dutch or whatever language it is for you? Then that’s part of your gifting for going back to make disciples in that language context. One African brother very honestly told me that one of his aims in coming to Newcastle was to be better equipped to go back to influence his own country and church for Christ – but that the chance to stay here longer was very tempting because of some of the comforts and advantages. But he did go back – because he was clear about how v19 applied to him, because he saw the Lord’s big agenda rather than merely his little personal agendas.

‘All nations’: every country, every people-group, every language, and every religion. Which is where it gets offensive. My dear Mum, who’s not a Christian, asked me a while back, ‘You don’t evangelise Muslims, do you?’ The assumption being that if someone’s already got a religion – any religion – they’re OK. But they’re not. Because all authority to rule, to judge and to forgive belongs to Jesus alone – not to Allah or Krishna, or anyone else.

So, ‘Make disciples of all nations,’ says the risen Lord Jesus. How? Well, in the original, vv19-20 reads, ‘Going, make disciples of all nations, baptising... and teaching...’ Which is why I said, ‘Make disciples’ is the main thing here (the main verb), and then ‘going’, baptising’ and ‘teaching’ are the subsidiary detail of how.

So let’s think about ‘going’ – ‘Going, [literally] make disciples of all nations.’ So does obedience mean we should all move? No, but it does mean that Christians should ask themselves, at least from time to time, ‘Should I stay here for Jesus and the gospel, or should I move?’ And the launch-team we’ve just commissioned and prayed for have asked and answered that question. And can I say we should honour them for that decision, because it’s a big deal. It’s not like moving to the other side of the world, but it’s a costly decision. And I know that for a good number it’s been a hard one because it involves uprooting from church family here and also, for some, uprooting children from their peer group here. And we should thank God for their example. But coming back to each one of us: ‘Should I stay or should I move?’ Have you ever asked yourself that? Will you ask yourself that, periodically? Will you keep your life, as it were, on the palm of an open hand and not just assume, because you’re now married, or you’ve got children, or you’ve passed 40, or you’re retired, that God wants you to stay put? The result of that kind of asking is generally that some will move and others will send and support them. And one of the privileges for me of being part of this church is the careful missionary support and how it’s trained me to give financially, to pray for missionaries, to keep in touch with them and to look after them, and benefit from their wisdom, when they’re back here. And our brothers and sisters in the HTG launch-team are the latest we’re sending and supporting. Because, to go back to my question at the start about why we don’t just all stay here – the answer is this: experience shows that church planting increases disciple-making in a way that simply continuing to grow as one large church doesn’t.

So that’s ‘going’. But wherever we are, our agenda is to be the same, according to the rest of v19-20a: it’s to be ‘baptising’ and ‘teaching’

So, onto ‘baptising’. Look at v19 again:

"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... "(v19)

And it might surprise you that, in a summary of the most important task we’re to get on with until Jesus comes again, baptism gets a mention. But that’s because, in the NT, baptism is almost a ‘code-word’ for conversion (ie, for the point of turning to Christ). Leaving aside the issue of children who grow up with Christian parents – the NT pattern of evangelising grown-ups outside the church is pretty clear: the early Christians shared the gospel with people and if God brought them to faith, they baptised them straight away. They didn’t make them go through a ten-week course, or save them up for a service three months down the tracks, or whatever. They baptised them pretty much at the point they were converted. So that baptism became a ‘code-word’ for conversion. So the risen Jesus is saying, ‘Go and make disciples, sharing the gospel with people and marking conversions by the public act of baptism.’ Now, I’ve only belonged to one church that’s tried to preserve that close link between conversion and baptism for grown-ups who profess faith. At that church, eg, if someone professed faith at an invitation service or at the end of a Christianity Explored course, we tried to baptise them the next Sunday or the Sunday after that – just giving time for someone to check they knew what they were doing and for family and friends to be invited. However, putting timing aside, why is baptism important – or, if someone’s been infant-baptised, why is a public profession of faith important? Well, on the side of the person being baptised, it’s a public turning point. It’s like the public turning-point of marriage in a human relationship – it says to the person being baptised that this is for real, that this is not just in their head, not just still ‘thinking about it’: not ‘Christianity Explored’ any longer, but ‘Christ married’ – radical, irreversible commitment to Jesus as Lord. And on the side of those who are already believers, the baptism helps them to recognise a new fellow-believer and to begin to treat him or her as such.

So ‘baptising’ is really a code-word for the process of evangelism – everything from door-knocking at one end of the process to a baptism service at the other. But turning to Jesus as Lord might be the end of the process of evangelism, but it’s only the beginning of the business of learning to live for him (just like marriage may be the end of the process of going out and engagement, but is only the beginning of the business of learning to married). Which is why Jesus says in v20, if you’ll look at it:

20 "..and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you."

So ‘teaching’ is the third part of how disciple-making happens. I said just now that church planting increases disciple-making in a way that simply continuing to grow as one large church doesn’t. But that doesn’t mean it would be right for HTG to say, ‘Right, we’ll make every meeting an evangelistic meeting, every service an invitation service. We’ll leave teaching and training to churches that don’t really mean business in seeking the lost.’ That would be wrong, because existing believers need teaching and training and encouraging in how to live for Jesus as Lord in every area of life – and new believers do too, from the moment they turn to Christ. And we’ll always feel some tension – both as individuals and churches – between those two responsibilities of evangelism and building up believers. And it’s tempting to want to relieve the tension by saying, ‘Let’s just major on one.’ But the Lord Jesus says it’s, ‘Both, and.’

So, the Person with all authority is telling us to make disciples of all nations. And I don’t know how that makes you feel, but it makes me feel overwhelmed and inadequate. Which brings us to my last brief heading:

Third, ALWAYS WITH YOU (v20b)

Look at the end of v20, where the risen Lord Jesus says to us:

“And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (v20b)

It’s like Moses back in the book of Exodus: you remember how the Lord gave him a slightly smaller but equally overwhelming task? The Lord said to him:

“... go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt. 11 But Moses said to God, "Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?" (Exodus 3.10-11)

And maybe that’s your question as you think about HTG – ‘Who are we to think that we can seriously reach Gateshead with the gospel?’ Or maybe that’s your question as you half wish you hadn’t said ‘Yes’ to leading Christianity Explored – ‘Who am I to say the right things and help these people?’ Well,

"Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?" said Moses.
12 And God said, "I will be with you.”

Ie, God said, ‘Moses, you’re asking the wrong question. Because it doesn’t matter who you are. What matters is who is with you.’ And although the Lord Jesus is no longer with us in the flesh, he is with us by his Spirit – with us to help, with us to work in us and through us, with us to work in others’ hearts, and in circumstances, over which he has all authority.

So, eg, five years ago, a senior staff planning team agreed that we should put church planting on our agenda. But we had no idea how or where to begin. Then three years ago, the Lord gave us the opportunity, through the Cedars Trust approaching us about the church site they’d secured. We reckoned we needed 1.3 million, and the Lord was with us to enable that giving. We reckoned we needed at least one overall leader and a launch-team of about 70, and the Lord has been with us in bringing that about. We reckoned it would be best, hearing about others’ experience, for services to start around the 200 mark, and the Lord has been with us in the preview services all being about that number.

The Lord has been with us – clearly and remarkably. We’ve seen this promise kept already. And as we set ourselves, here at JPC and over the river at HTG, to be faithful to the truth of v18 and to the task of v19, we’ll see it kept again – to the end of our lives or to the end of the age, whichever is the sooner.


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