It’s a scene that sticks in the mind of anyone who has seen the movie. A motley trio attempting to rescue Princess Buttercup who is about to be forced to marry the evil Prince Humperdinck. Wesley, the hero, just been barely resuscitated from a state of being almost dead, Inigo Montoyo, the Spaniard seeking to avenge his father’s murder, and Fezek, the giant aiding them are looking down across the moat toward the castle in which Wesley’s beloved Buttercup is being held prisoner. In this strange group huddle they come up with a plan of action. But we must leave them there for now.
After all, we have Jesus to deal with! Now we will be concentrating on vv. 16-20. Yet I chose to read all of chapter 28 because the way in which Matthew tells his story is brilliant. Now each of the four Gospels tells the same story differently. For instance, only Luke has an account of the ascension. Only Matthew has the account of the lie told by the soldiers. Only John does not have an account of the transfiguration. The differences help us understand the special emphases each of the evangelists had when they wrote their Gospels. And we will see how the way Matthew tells his story impacts us today.
What do you think is the main point of Matthew 28.16-20? What title would you use to describe the passage?
Now on Monday, quite out of the blue, Mark called me and asked me if I would be willing to preach. I accepted and asked him whether he had a specific text in mind. He told me he would like to continue with the theme of encouragement. This time from the New Testament. Now the Greek word for encouragement is ‘paraklesis' from the verb ‘parakaleo' which means “to encourage”. It is also from this verb that we get the word ‘parakletos' or Paraclete, one of the titles in John’s Gospel for the Holy Spirit. None of these words appear in our passage. Why then are we dealing with it now? Well, for a passage to deal with a certain subject—in this case encouragement—it does not have to have the word “encouragement” in it. After all, if a friend needs encouragement, you scarcely go up to him or her and say, “Here, let me encourage you.” No, you would most likely listen, offer advice, or give an encouraging hug. So if you want to be encouraged by scripture, go to a passage that encourages, and not just a passage that has the word!
And the final words of Matthew’s Gospel are all about encouragement. Now for encouragement to be truly effective there need to be some elements. Let us treat them one by one.
I don’t know how many of you have heard Another Brick in the Wall, Pt 2 by Pink Floyd. The song goes: “We don’t need no education/ We don’t need no thought control/ No dark sarcasm in the classroom/ Teachers leave us kids alone.” The movie The Wall is quite bizarre. While this song is being sung, we see a whole bunch of children, dressed up identically as students, marching like zombies into a sausage making machine that symbolizes the education system. Much of The Wall deals with the main character’s feeling of futility. For him, life has no purpose and so he goes through it like a zombie, trying his best to give it a kickstart but only becoming increasingly suicidal.
An opposite picture is painted in The Dead Poets’ Society. There Robin Williams is an English teacher at a snooty school. The students initially feel much like the kids in The Wall. However, Robin Williams proves to be innovative. He gives them something that the school administration would disapprove of. But it includes reading poetry! The students dislike the school administration more than they dislike poetry and the teacher knows it. His plan gives them purpose—that of pooh-poohing the establishment. This is what the kids in The Wall lacked.
But this is what Jesus gives his disciples. He tells them, “As you go, disciple all nations, by baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and by teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” What a purpose! The scope is so large that the whole world is included. Yet it is so individual. After all, each person is unique implying that disciples cannot be produced on a assembly line. It is so specific. Disciples are to obey everything that Jesus has commanded. In other words, discipleship centers around Jesus. And what a privilege to be able to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit! Could they get any higher name!? Jesus is such a genius! In order to encourage his disciples, he gives them a purpose beyond which there can be no other.
However, a purpose alone is not enough as seen in the novel Moby Dick by Herman Melville. The main character, Captain Ahab, has a very specific and motivating purpose—that of killing the enormous whale Moby Dick who had bitten off one of Ahab’s legs. However, Ahab fails and fails miserably because he fails to realize that, between Moby Dick and himself, he was by far the weaker of the two. Ahab just did not have the power to fulfill his purpose. And so he ends up on the back of Moby Dick trying to drive a harpoon into the whale and failing at that too.
Ah, but Jesus is great. He gives his disciples the most challenging purpose ever. And lest they say, “Great purpose! But you gotta be kiddin’!” he precedes it with the words, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Talk about power to match the purpose! Not just some authority but all. Not just in heaven but also on earth—exactly where the disciples would need it if they are to disciple all the nations. Moreover, Jesus does not say, “I have all authority” but “All authority has been given to me.” The use of the passive is typical in Jewish circles when God is the initiator but the speaker wants to avoid the use of God’s name. Jesus is saying, therefore, “God has given me all authority.” This indicates that Jesus has not stolen it but is the one to whom by God’s will all authority rightly belongs. So no one can strip him of this authority. What a backing the disciples have! Jesus is such a masterful encourager! How do you motivate and encourage a bunch of doubting disciples? Give them a charge to beat all others. And provide them with the assurance that there is power—enough and more—to fulfill the charge.
Now just as purpose without power is not enough, power without purpose is also insufficient. In a world that does not understand them and their powers, Xavier’s School for Gifted Children provide the budding mutants of The X-Men with purpose. Without that purpose, they would be like Rogue who is unable to touch any other human because of the power she has. But at the school, Dr. Xavier teaches her and the other mutant students to direct and control their powers so that they benefit and not harm humans.
So also Jesus does not only give the assurance of power. He couples it with the command to teach all nations to obey him. The disciples are not to go around calling down fire from heaven because the power available to them is available for the purpose of bringing the world to obey Jesus.
We would think that this is enough. Purpose and power together provide proper protection against potential misuse of either. However, is that enough?
The title song of Friends seems to indicate there is a little more. Through life’s ups and downs the refrain is “I’ll be there for you.” Supposedly each of the six friends commits to the other five his or her support through the struggles of life.
The song Brothers In Arms by Dire Straits puts it in stronger terms, “Through these fields of destruction/ Baptisms of fire/ I’ve watched all your suffering/ As the battles raged higher/ And though they did hurt me so bad/ In the fear and alarm/ You did not desert me/ My brothers in arms.” The song is sung by a soldier mortally wounded in battle. His comrades carry him out to safety putting their lives at risk though they know he will soon die. Much starker imagery than the chirpy title song of Friends!
In our passage Jesus has given his disciples a brilliant purpose. He has assured them of enough power to fulfill the purpose. But now he tops all of this by promising his presence, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” That is why Matthew does not record the ascension. For Jesus is with his church. Not just for his church as a crutch or support as in the Friends song. But rather as a comrade and commander as in Brothers In Arms.
Now Jesus does not pull this idea from out of thin air. He does not think, “Hmm. It would be good if I promised them my presence.” No! Jesus is drawing from a very crucial strand of Old Testament theology—one that, unfortunately, too many Christians do not understand or do not emphasize. It is a strand of theology without which Old Testament prophecy cannot be understood.
This strand of theology starts in Genesis 3.8 where God walks in the garden in order to have a rendezvous with Adam and Eve. However, it says, “The man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God.” Then in Genesis 4.16 we are told, “Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.” In Exodus 33.15-16 Moses tells God, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us?” At the time of the exile Ezekiel ascribes the atrocities the Israelites faced at the hands of the Babylonians to his vision of the glory of God departing from the temple and from Jerusalem. And Ezekiel sees that the restoration of Israel will only be possible if God will return to live among his people. It is this strand of theology, so rich and so evocative, that Jesus draws upon. It is the biggest promise that Jesus could make because the sign that God had begun to reign on earth and had restored his people was that he was also dwelling with his people. But if this is true, if God is really with the church in the person of Jesus, what are Christians called to do?
And it is here that we come to the rest of chapter 28 and Matthew’s brilliant storytelling skills. Chapter 28 does not have only one commission—commonly known as the Great Commission. Rather, there are three commissions. In vv. 5-10 we have the first commission. It is first issued by the angel at the tomb, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’” Jesus repeats the command, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” The major elements are the same. The women are not to be afraid and they are to tell the disciples to go to Galilee where they would see Jesus. The difference is that the angel refers to the disciples as “his disciples” while Jesus calls them “my brothers”—they are to be brothers in arms, which is why in Matthew 11 Jesus calls his disciples to be yoked together with him. The command to the women is specific and there is an incentive for them when the angel says, “He has been raised.” And there is the assurance that they will see the risen Jesus. They proceed to fulfill the command. How, otherwise, would the eleven disciples have known to go to Galilee as they did?
Then there is a switch of scene. Now the priests issue a command to the soldiers, “You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.” The soldiers are also given incentives—money and the assurance that they will not be punished by the governor. And they too fulfilled their command. So Matthew tells us, “So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.”
Then we come to vv. 16-20. Here too is a command, “As you go, disciple all the nations.” Here too there are incentives—that all authority belongs to Jesus and that he will be with his disciples always. But what is missing? There is no account of the fulfillment of the command.
We can take this in two ways. First, we could understand that the command was not fulfilled. If that is how the reader reads this, the reader is expected to say, “What!? With so much backing, why did they not fulfill the command? What more could Jesus have offered?” This is not, however, how Matthew intends us to take it.
Second, we could understand that the command is being fulfilled. Quite evidently it is not completed. But we could understand that it is in process of being completed. This is how Matthew would have us understand the passage. “But how,” a reader may ask, “am I supposed to know that this is how Matthew wants us to read it?” Or getting back to The Princess Bride, what do Wesley, Inigo and Fezek do next? If you do not already know it, you’ve gotta see the movie!
Similarly, Matthew would reply, “Ah! For that you would have to assume my position. You would have to be a Christian. For only Christians can see the fact that Jesus is present with his church. In other words, you have to make Jesus’ story a vital part of your story. And his story is one that will give you purpose, power, and the promise of his presence. What more encouragement can you need?”