On this Easter Sunday evening we come to the last 5 verses of Matthew's Gospel where the eleven remaining disciples meet the risen Jesus on a mountain in Galilee, just as Jesus said they would, and are given what's become known as the Great Commission.
It was Martin Luther King who used to say 'Keep the faith'. And yes we are to keep the faith, just as Paul exhorts Christians to do at the start of 1 Corinthians 15 – to hold firmly to the truth of the gospel, to the good news of Jesus' death and resurrection. But we aren't just to keep the faith, we're also to share it! To share what is the very best news ever - of the crucified, risen and reigning Lord Jesus Christ, who "was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification [or justasifI'dneversinned or declared not guilty and right with God]" (Romans 4:25), so you and I and others can have peace with God through faith in Jesus instead of judgment in hell, and live for his glory. The love of Christ compels us to share it. Jesus Christ is risen and that makes all the difference in this world and in the next. A new age has begun. There is real hope. Death has been beaten. And people need to know it. It's not just their real hope - it's their only hope. And so many people, especially the under 25s, in the UK today don't know anything about it. Even our Prime Minister, David Cameron, however different his meaning might be to ours, has been saying that we should be more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people's lives!
Now some of you are thinking, and perhaps you're a bit like those among the disciples who doubted Jesus' resurrection (v17) as opposed to those who worshipped him, oh no not another sermon on evangelism and inviting people to Christianity Explored from Jonathan Redfearn! Well yes and no! No because it's the risen Jesus himself who commands us in our passage, not me or David Cameron, to go and make not just converts of not just Tyneside but disciples of all nations. And, of course, part of Christian discipleship is making disciples. So we need to be inviting people to Discipleship Explored as well as to Christianity Explored! But also to be aware of other opportunities here and overseas to go and make disciples of all nations. Jesus is risen! Today is the day of salvation, says Paul in 2 Corinthians 6. And no we don't go on our own or in our own strength. The Lord Jesus promises to be with us by his Spirit and we go under his authority, the authority of the risen Jesus, now enthroned as king of all. Look at v18-20:
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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (v18-20)
For hundreds of years in the Western world this commission of Jesus was basically ignored. Many thought these verses applied only to the 1st century apostles. But it was a Baptist, William Carey, who brought attention back to these verses and who said NO! Christ's command is still binding on Christians now. Why? Well otherwise the command to baptise would only be for the apostles; and the promise of the presence of Jesus would only be for them. And clearly that's nonsense because Jesus says his promise is "to the end of the age." Until he returns. Carey then challenged some ministers with these familiar words: "attempt great things for God; expect great things from God".
And so began a great period of missionary work that's made Christianity a truly world-wide faith. The numbers of Christians have gone from 120 at the start of the Day of Pentecost to one third of the world's population. The latest estimate of the total population of the world is 7.155 billion. So the number of people identifying themselves as Christians today is around 2.4 billion - significantly more than the number of any other faith.
Now as we look more closely at Jesus' commission let's first examine this amazing claim of Jesus (v18).
ALL AUTHORITY IN HEAVEN AND ON EARTH HAS BEEN GIVEN TO JESUS
Notice three things. A, it's not "some" but "all" authority. And it's not just all "power" but all "authority" - something that's been conferred and guarantees success. And Jesus' authority is conferred by God the Father almighty, the creator of all things.
B, this is all authority "in heaven". So Christ has supreme authority over all the forces of the eternal world, over "angels and archangels and all the company of heaven"; and over all the forces of Satan - including those forces that lead to false faiths and philosophies. They'd have you believe that all religions are really the same or at any rate in the end will all get you to the divine. And that Jesus is just one prophet among many. What nonsense!
It really is ludicrous to suppose that all religions lead to God, when Buddhism does not believe that there is any God at all, when Islam makes him so far removed, when Hinduism offers extinction after many incarnations and in the meantime sanctions idolatry on a colossal scale. How can all religions lead to God when they have such different beliefs about God and the afterlife? You see, The bones of Mohammed are in Medina. The bones of Buddha are in India. But in Jerusalem there is the empty tomb.
And Jesus having authority "in heaven" means nothing happens without his permission. He's in control when things are going well, but also when things aren't going well. So we're to trust him in all situations.
C, this is all authority in heaven "and on earth". Christ is king over all kings and ruler over all rulers.
Jesus is saying the whole world is subject to him. That's the reality - Christ is king over all. Do you believe that? That's what the early Christians believed after the resurrection and Ascension. The apostle Paul knew it to be true too (Phil 2:9-11):
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:9-11)
The early disciples realized that Jesus wasn't just the promised King of the Jews. He was also the ultimate Lord of the Universe. So they need fear neither their Jewish religious leaders nor their Roman rulers. That's the reality. It was then. It is today. "Do you believe it?" Because if you do, you can, and you must, take Jesus' Great Commission seriously. So secondly
2. JESUS' COMMANDMENTS v19-20
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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. (v19-20)
The basic command is to "make disciples of all nations". This isn't an ideal, or a hope, but a command to be obeyed. Not to obey is not to disobey me but the Lord Jesus himself. The whole Bible has been working up to this moment. Up to this point the focus has all been on Israel. That period's ended. Now Jesus commits the whole human race to his disciples. And they themselves are now to make disciples in his strength. Jesus wants them to go to "all nations", not just to the Jewish nation.
But what's involved in "making disciples"? Well fundamentally it's helping someone to be a willing learner of Jesus. Jesus didn't die on the cross just so we could live comfortable, well-adjusted lives. His purpose is far deeper: He wants to make us like himself before he takes us to heaven. This is our greatest privilege, our immediate responsibility and our ultimate destiny. You see like the apostles, we're to call not for a superficial response but for total commitment to Christ, to the new community (symbolised in baptism) and to a life governed by all that Christ commands us to obey. So three things are involved in this discipling.
One, there has to be a "going". Christ's workers aren't just to sit waiting for learners to turn up. It is not like most primary schools where by law teachers are almost guaranteed pupils in their classes. Of course, God is sovereign and unless the Holy Spirit works to convict someone of their sin and need of a Saviour, they won't turn to Christ. But the Holy Spirit works through Jesus' followers and their initiatives. Some people think that the Holy Spirit will do all the work with no action being taken by them apart from prayer.
But that's contrary to the teaching of the Bible. Yes, you must pray and never give up praying, as Jesus taught in Luke 18. But then God usually uses people as his means in evangelism to answer those prayers. That's why you have to take initiatives and look for opportunities.
So you have to think about how you can help the Church to grow as people are discipled - not that it's your doing. God builds the church, you just assist him. But you're to take initiatives and think about creative ways of communicating the truth of the Gospel not only by your lips but also by your life. And this "going" means going to where the gospel hasn't been heard before. That can be physically going to another part the world. Perhaps some of you here tonight are being called to do just that.
It can also mean spiritually going into a pagan situation in this country but with a new intentional attitude to witness to Christ to refute and defeat those false beliefs that are keeping millions in bondage and spiritual darkness. You can do that in your workplace, your home or wherever. So you are to "go" not necessarily as a preacher but as a witness to what you personally know about Jesus Christ and as an ambassador of Christ. If you don't want to "go" to make the gospel known to others, you need to ask yourself some serious questions. Do you yourself really believe in Christ? Do you yourself really value the gospel? Are you doubting as some of the disciples were on the mountain and so need to stop doubting and believe as Jesus said to Thomas.
Two, you are to go "baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." People need to make a public profession of faith. Baptism is an outward ceremony required by Jesus for all who would commit themselves to him, when it's possible. At the same time it commits people to the visible Christian community or the church. That's so essential for their spiritual health. Of course, baptism isn't absolutely necessary for salvation. The dying thief on the cross who turned to and trusted Christ wasn't baptized, but Jesus said that he would be with him that same day in Paradise. And Simon Magus of Samaria shows that you can be baptized and still be spiritually nowhere. After being baptized he was still (Acts 8.23) "full of bitterness and captive to sin (NIV)". But baptism is a public profession and should be undertaken wherever it's possible.
And baptism is to be in "the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" - note, not in the "names" (plural) but "name" (singular), that is, in the name of the God who is one God in three Persons. There's to be a profession of faith in the Father who creates you; the Son who forgives your sin through his cross; and the Holy Spirit who gives you new life. So people have to acknowledge that they've sinned and need forgiveness and new life. Who needs to acknowledge that today and then ask Christ for his salvation and the Holy Spirit for new power? So, one, you go; two, you baptize; and ...
Three, you go "teaching them to observe all I have commanded you."
Observance or obedience is required of all who claim to be disciples of Jesus Christ. After doctrine there must come Godly Living as JPC puts it. Notice, you have to observe or obey "all" not "some" of the things Jesus has commanded. So you can't say, "I want to obey Jesus' teaching on money but I'm not so sure about what he says on marriage."
And because it's "all" you can't say that any of Jesus' teaching or commands are "time-conditioned" - that's to say, they were right for the 1st century, but not for the 21st century. And remember Jesus' words in John 14:26:
But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. (John 14:26)
The Holy Spirit will help you in this. He fulfilled that promise of Jesus for the apostles with their New Testament writings. That's why you need to study the Bible and pray that the Holy Spirit will make the Bible clear to you. In the Sermon on the Mount you have clear examples of Jesus' commandments and how he took the Old Testament moral law and expanded it, deepened it and applied it to show what was at the heart of those Old Testament commandments that are still so relevant. So making disciples, involves, "going", "baptizing" (i.e. securing positive commitments), and "teaching" all Jesus has commanded. But how on earth is all that possible? Well
Thirdly JESUS' PROMISE v20
" And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age." (v20)
That's a wonderful promise. Jesus promises to be with you always (literally "all the days" or "all of every day"). So he's with you every day and every night. And, he's the one with "all authority in heaven and on earth" who promises to be with you always and "to the end of the age" - until Jesus' second coming. Until then you have your marching orders as the Duke of Wellington once put it: "Go and make disciples of all nations" - but with Jesus Christ always with you to guide you, to forgive you and to strengthen you by his Spirit.
At JPC our belief is that God is calling us and wants us to grow to 5000 across a number of sites and a further 5000 in church plants over the next generation. As part of that vision under God we are aiming to grow to 2000 by 2018 over at least 2 sites. Is all this possible? So far we have another site that will be open fully in 2016 and one church plant! There's a long way to go! But the answer is yes. But we must acknowledge the actual reality, namely, that Jesus Christ is Lord of the universe and so of the whole earth and of Tyneside. Then we must obey his command to go, make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching new Christians to obey Christ in everything. But, supremely, we must trust his promise to be with us always and rely on his strength.