November, 7, 2010

At His Word

As we get started this morning, I wanted to take just a minute and pull back the curtain a bit on how I approach our time together.Each summer I take some time and plan out what topics and passages I want to address with you over the course of the next year.I spend a good bit of time praying through this process in hopes that the plans I make will in fact be the things God intends for this body to explore together.I confess that He has been faithful in this process and have often been amazed (though unsurprised) at the number of times the sermon topic I planned months before and the Sunday school lesson material written as much as a year or two before have coincided to drive home a single theme on a given day.In this spirit, I am anxious to discover with you the plans God has in store for us over the next several months.In this light, as I prepared for and prayed through the different sermon series for this year a theme began to emerge.With the exception of a couple of big issue series (like the one on our possessions we just finished up last week) we are going to spend this year talking about a variety of Christian basics.What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus?What does it mean to live the life Christ calls us to live in our everyday lives?How do we interact with the world around us in Christian ways?What are the basic things we need to know and understand in order to be Christians?What are some of the reasons behind the fundamental doctrines of the faith?How do we become the people God created us to be?With all of that said, I am really excited about the substance of our conversations for the next few months.There’s a lot you won’t want to miss and a lot you will want to bring your friends and family who may not currently be so turned on to the faith to hear.

Speaking of those friends and family members who may not currently be so turned on to the faith, one of the most important duties we have as followers of Jesus is involving ourselves in the process of helping people who don’t currently follow Him understand why that might be something they want to consider.Actually, not only is this one of our most important duties, but it is also one at whose thought most believers quiver in fear.Anyone ever hear a call to evangelism and react first in guilt and then by devising a variety of reasons why you can’t do it to avoid having to deal with the fear of talking to someone about Christ?What were some of the excuses…I mean reasons you came up with?I know that I have worried about not being able to answer some of the questions of a skeptic.Maybe you worry about answering wrongly or even having no answer.I’ve also worried about saying something that would turn them off to the faith.Maybe you’ve worried about hurting a relationship because of evangelism.Perhaps you’ve feared that something may not come out right.Well, one of the reasons for all this fear and trembling may be that we really don’t have a good idea of what we believe or why we believe it.This is a case in which more learning really would make a difference in our attitude towards evangelism.I suspect there are many followers of Christ who have a general idea about the content of their confession, but not anything near the kind of specificity or depth that would give them the comfort level necessary to be out actively telling others about it.Now, the reality is that if we have had a genuine experience with Christ and have been brought from death to life, then we need nothing more than that story and the Spirit in order to proclaim the Gospel with great power to another person, but this still leaves us with a deficit of knowledge.Well, it just so happens that in a few months Lord willing, we are going to talk about something that will hopefully give you a great deal more knowledge and by that confidence in these matters.But, that doesn’t help us in the short term.No, more often than not, appeals to this variety of reasons why evangelism isn’t for us are simply smoke and mirrors to keep us from some of the deeper issues.And one of these deeper issues for many of us might be that we don’t really understand who Jesus is.We don’t understand who He is and because of this we don’t really understand what and why He has called us to do.

With all this in mind we are going to spend this and the next couple of weeks trying to come to a better understanding of these very things.In order to really do this we need a round understanding of the New Testament.So, open your Bibles to Matthew 1:1 and we should get to Revelation 21:22 by sometime on Thursday.Too long?Well, let’s see if we can find a bit shorter a passage that will still give us a good summary.In fact, we can find just such a passage in the Gospel of Matthew.When reading through the Gospels and Acts one of the themes that emerges is that of discipleship.With great consistency the earliest followers of Jesus were called disciples.Though we will talk more about this later the Greek behind our word disciple conveys the idea of a learner.Today, when churches want to create programs to train young followers of Christ they often call them discipleship programs.All that is to say discipleship—becoming disciples and making disciples—is a key part of the task that lies before those who would follow Christ.Well, of all the Gospels, Matthew more than the other three can be seen as a primer on discipleship.His Gospel is organized around five teaching discourses of Jesus presenting many of the basics of being a disciple of Christ.After all of this, at the end of Matthew’s Gospel we find a statement by Jesus tying all of this together.This is where Jesus basically says, “Now that you know all of this and now that I am in the position I am due, here’s what I want you to do.”Most of you know this statement as the Great Commission.It is often set before believers as the impetus of our evangelism, as a call to go out into the world and preach the Gospel.This is very much a legitimate use of this passage, but there is much more here.And it is this much more that we are going to explore together in this series.This week we are going to look at the why and the what of the Great Commission.Then, next week and the week after we are going to examine the hows and the assurance behind it.My hope is that you will come away from this time with a greater sense of clarity of the call of Christ on all those who would profess to be His followers.And just so you know, I’m treating this entire series like a single sermon so not only do you not want to miss any of it, but if when I get to the end of the first two and you feel like things aren’t complete, you will be right.Hang on, because the conclusion is coming.Pray with me as we go forward.

In chapter 16 of Matthew the author records a scene in which Jesus asked His disciples who the world around them as well as the disciples themselves understood Him to be. A variety of answers were given, but it was Peter who gave the clearest and truest answer: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” This may have been the technically right answer and they may have understood that Jesus was the Messiah foretold by the prophets, but they did not understand what this meant as indicated by Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ ensuing prediction of His imminent death.As things progressed it became clear what this meant.It meant that Jesus was going to die.But, it also meant that Jesus was going to live again and when He did He was going to be given the highest seat of power, glory, and honor in the universe.Well, it really didn’t matter how much Jesus told His disciples that He was going to die and be resurrected.That kind of event was so far outside the bounds of their worldview that they didn’t get it until after the fact.Actually, somewhat ironically, the only group who really believed Jesus might do something like that—but only because it would fit with how great a thorn He had been in their side—were the Chief Priests and Pharisees who got Pilate to station an elite Roman guard unit at Jesus’ tomb just in case.Yet—hallelujah—Jesus’ words were true and He rose from the dead.After the resurrection Jesus spent forty days with His followers teaching and preparing them for the great task that lay ahead of them in starting the church.They needed a boost after having their world turned upside-down (again) by their Master.He made many appearances and tied up all the remaining loose ends before ascending back into heaven to take His rightful place at the right hand of the throne of God.During this period of preparation, Jesus had His disciples meet Him on a mountain in Galilee.Once they arrived He gathered the eleven of them still remaining together (Judas had killed himself in agony over his betrayal of his Lord) and shared with them His vision for what they would do after He was finally no longer with them in bodily form.He shared with them not only what, but why and how.With great authority and at the same time a father’s pride in His voice He said to them: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.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 everything I have commanded you.And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

This morning I just want to look at the first part of this statement with you: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations…”How many of you who are parents have given some kind of an instruction to your kids and they looked right back at you and asked, “Why?”Lisa and I haven’t quite gotten to that stage, but I know it’s going to be here sooner than we expect.How many of you have responded at least once with “because I said so”?Ever wonder why we respond like that?Because we’re exasperated, don’t want to deal with any more questions, and want whatever we have asked to be done without argument, duh.Well, yes, all of those things might be true, but the real reason behind such a response is that we are trying to establish our authority in the situation.We are stating we believe our level of authority is great enough that our word should be enough to go on.This is kind of what Jesus does here, only He does it at the beginning so we don’t ask any questions later.People can come up with all kinds of reasons (nearly all of them good) why we should be out spreading the message of the kingdom, but the only reason Jesus gives for us to do it here is that He is the locus of all authority in heaven and on earth.There is no higher authority to whom we can appeal if we don’t like what He’s told us to do.So the Great Commission begins by Jesus basically saying, “I’m in charge.”

Now, when we hear something like this, sometimes our inner child comes out and we are transported back to the playground where we might respond to something like this: “Well who died and left you boss?” Ever say that to a friend or perhaps a sibling when growing up? Let’s face reality for just a minute. We are broken and sinful people. The heart of our rebellious, sinful nature is a desire to make ourselves God. In this we want to be the final authority on our lives. Thus, when we hear something like Jesus’ statement of incredible authority here, we are tempted to react in huff and refuse to do whatever it is simply to demonstrate that we are the boss of ourselves. Yet Scripture is explicitly clear regarding the level of authority residing in the person of Jesus. When Daniel saw a vision of Christ as the one who would save all people from the reign of the four beasts, he recorded that Jesus “was given authority to rule, and glory, and a kingdom; so that those of every people, nation, and language should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and His kingdom is one that will not be destroyed.” Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus Himself proclaimed that “All things have been entrusted to Me by My Father.”In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he declared that God “demonstrated this power in the Messiah by raising Him from the dead and seating Him at His right hand in the heavens—far above every ruler and authority, power and dominion, and every title given, not only in this age but also in the one to come.”And again in Colossians Paul declared that “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation; because by Him everything was created, in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him.He is before all things, and by Him all things hold together.He is also the head of the body, the church; He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He might come to have first place in everything.”That is the Jesus we serve.That is the Jesus who commanded us to make disciples.When Jesus said, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth,” He meant it.There is no higher authority.There never has been.There never will be. Jesus possesses such an authority that when He says jump, we shouldn’t even bother to ask how high, we should just get ourselves in the air.To fail to fulfill any of His commands is to fail to fulfill a direct command of the God who created all things and defines reality.It is sinful disobedience.But, this sermon series is not about inducing more guilt on your part so let’s move on.

Have you ever thought about the importance of this incredible authority on Jesus’ part? I mean, we’ve established that Scripture clearly proclaims Him to have it, but why does this matter? Well, consider a couple of things with me. First, God the Father could have spoken from on high and declared that His followers must be out making disciples. That would have been just as binding as Jesus’ command, but in coming down from on high like that, it would be easier for us to dismiss it. Why? Because God’s never been down here with us. He’s never experienced the vicious, sometimes violent rejection that we receive when trying to be obedient to this command in the same physical ways we have. Jesus, on the other hand, understands perfectly. He’s been there. He’s been rejected. He’s had His family declare Him crazy. He’s been physically assaulted. He’s been killed. He’s borne it all and so He does not offer this as a command from on high, but as a call to join in what He’s already done. Jesus never asks us to do something He hasn’t already done Himself. And since He and the Father are the same person, His command is just as binding. Second, it is comforting to work under the direction of a leader with great authority. If we work under the auspices of middle management, then anything we are told to do might later be contradicted by a higher authority.No one wants to get stuck in the position of having to explain why they are doing something in a way other than the top boss wants it done because their immediate boss got it wrong.We do not receive the command to make disciples from some cosmic middle manager.It comes right down from the top boss.We don’t have to worry that at some point God is going to show back up and chew us out for telling people about the kingdom He wanted kept a secret.When God the Son speaks, God the Father is also speaking.This all means that not only do we serve a Lord who speaks as the final authority on everything, He is also intimately familiar with our situation and so His words are trustworthy.

Now, all of this is really important when it comes to the next part of the Great Commission that we are going to look at this morning.It gives us something to hold on to when we face the actual command here.We hear a lot about the fact that we are sent by Christ into the world, but we don’t often hear the base reason we should obey this command.Oh sure we hear things aimed at inducing us to obey through guilt or positive encouragements, but we are talking about the logic behind it, the reason behind it.The command of the Great Commission—to make disciples—is in force over the lives of His people because Jesus said it.We are sent at His authoritative word.We go because He said so.

So then, with the why of the Great Commission in place—we go because He said so—let’s shift gears and spend the rest of our time together this morning looking at the what.The Great Commission begins with a simple phrase: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.”That seems remarkably straightforward.Indeed it is in fact this straightforward, but there’s a good bit of depth here so let’s dig around in it for just a bit.For a long time people looked at this phrase in English and took the word “go” as the operative command for the Commission.This developed into a sense that in order to spread the message of the kingdom and tell people about the Gospel a follower of Christ had to go somewhere other than where she currently was.Now, where this led to a number of missionaries departing overseas to attempt to reach currently unreached people groups with the Gospel this wasn’t a bad thing.Newton’s principle of inertia applies to people as well as objects.In other words, unless we are properly compelled by some outside force we will remain at rest.But, some problems developed too.People stopped looking at their own neighborhoods as mission fields.Another problem is that God doesn’t actually call everyone to overseas missions so some people went who weren’t really called.Also, many who were not called and thus stayed home bore a burden of guilt they should never have had to bear.The other problem here is this: In the original language, “go” isn’t the operative command, “make disciples” is.A bit more literal a translation of this phrase might be: “Therefore, as you are going, make disciples of all nations.”As followers of Christ, we are sent into the world to make disciples—to reproduce ourselves.We are to do this as we are going.In other words, making disciples should happen all the time and everywhere.As we are going about our daily lives in the ways God calls us—be that at home or abroad—we are to be training up a new generation of disciples.In this light, the Great Commission is not simply a missionary call for believers to go somewhere and preach the kingdom.It is a holistic command for people who God is developing fully into the men and women they were created to be to lead others to take up the same journey in any place to which we happen to have gone.And why do we do this?That’s the importance of the “therefore.”We go because He said so.

And as we do we are to be making disciples. Now, discipleship is a huge topic that we could not hope to cover in a single sermon, let alone in the time we have remaining together this morning. Instead, let a few comments suffice for now. First, notice that we are to be making disciples, not converts. Jesus did not tell us to go and make converts of all nations. Too often, missionary emphases today focus on getting people across the line of faith. Once we have done this—which is indicated by praying them through the “Sinner’s Prayer”—we pat ourselves on the back as having done a good job and go on about the rest of our business. There is a place for this in the advancement of the kingdom of God, but I tend to think it is not the primary place. Far too often people who are led across the line of faith and then left to flounder end up retreating back to the other side where life is a lot simpler. This accomplishes nothing. Instead of this convert-making, when we go because He said so, Jesus here calls us to disciple-making. This leads to my second comment on this. The word disciple translates the Greek word mathetes. This was a word used to describe a learner. It was applied to not simply the pupil of some teacher, but rather implied something much deeper. A mathetes was entirely dependent upon his master for everything related to the topic at hand. It was presumed that he was literally an infant with regards to the area of knowledge being conveyed and needed the master to teach him starting from square one. Furthermore, mathetoi shared a deeply personal relationship with their masters such that learning went beyond mere facts and figures to the sharing of life such that the mathetes’ greatest desire in life was to be like her master. Sometimes I have been accused of being just like my dad. It’s a badge I am able to wear with a great deal of pride. For a mathetes such an accusation would literally be the absolute highest compliment someone could offer. When we go because He said so, this is what we are to be doing: helping everyone we encounter (all nations) become mathetoi of Jesus.We are to be helping them develop a relationship with the Jesus who sends us.We are to be helping them take up the journey of following this Jesus and learning everything about the life He offers to His followers.We are to be helping them recognize that while they might know a thing or two about how to get by in this world, they don’t know anything about real life.But Jesus does.And they want to learn what He knows.Oh, and one more thing: we are to be on this journey ourselves.Our own journey of discipleship will not end until we are made perfect in His image in eternity.We can’t share what we ourselves don’t have.Once we do though, we go because He said so.

So then as we wrap up this morning we have touched on the why and the what and the where of the Great Commission. We go because He said so. In James 4 we are reminded of a powerful Proverb: “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” We serve a God who lays low those who would lift up themselves and He lifts up those who recognize who they really are. No one has possessed a clearer recognition of this than did Jesus. He was the most humble person this world has ever known and as a result God has lifted Him up to the seat of highest authority in the universe. It is with this authority that He has commanded His followers to reproduce themselves. The kingdom is advancing. God’s preference is to accomplish this through His followers. He doesn’t need us, but in His great love He wants to give us the opportunity to share in this incredible joy. The reality is that refusing to participate reveals that we don’t yet really get it and in the end will miss it. Thus, even if it is with the simplest story of how we used to be dead to life and now we are alive in Christ, we go because He said so. And as we are going we are to make disciples of all nations. We are not to make converts. We are not to make people more religious. We are not even necessarily to go somewhere specific. We are to call people through our words and our deeds to the life available to the mathetes of Jesus. There is no one to whom we don’t make this call. There is no one whose prospects on life will not be immediately improved 1,000-fold by embracing it. Thus, my friends, let us throw off the fear and trembling that is so often generated by the Great Commission. It is not so scary a thing. Not only is getting people across some ubiquitous line of faith not our biggest concern, but we go on the authority of One whose authority cannot be superseded by any other in this world. As we anticipate developing a deeper understanding of exactly how we are to be making disciples in the next couple of weeks let us leave here this morning confident that such a joyous task is chief among those that lie before us. We go because He said so.