MATTHEW 12 of 12
Our last week surveying the gospel according to Matthew. And if it’s our last week in Matthew then it would probably be a good guess that we’re at the end of Matthew. You’re absolutely right. Matthew 28 is where we are today. If you’ve been around church any length of time, then this passage is probably familiar to you. It’s frequently called “The Great Commission.” It only shows up in Matthew’s gospel—it’s the end of Matthew’s gospel:
Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 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, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 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 28v16-20)
First, let’s just start with the most surface level observation. Jesus is back; Jesus is alive. That is startling because we saw him die. But there he stands. Or maybe, better, there he stood. We don’t physically see the resurrected Jesus right here right now in this room… unless he’s hiding backstage behind a curtain. But Matthew is saying that back then they actually physically saw and heard and touched Jesus. Jesus back; Jesus alive.
And Jesus telling them that now—now he is actively ruling as king. That (v18) all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him. Jesus says that all authority—all power, all rule, all command—has been given to him. That’s the language the ancient world gave to conquerers.That’s the language the modern world gives to Prime Ministers and Presidents. Jesus is saying that their suspicions were correct. He is the Christ. He’s the King. Not just king in Rome, not just king of the world, but king of everything.
But let’s get real… the way crazy people talk. If I’m on the Sixteenth Street Mall or Pearl Street, and someone tells me that they have all power in heaven and on earth—that they are king of everything—I might buy them a burger, I might give them a couple of bucks, I’ll almost certainly laugh later and hope they get help, but I’m not going to take them seriously.
I guess the difference is that Matthew and the disciples take the guy who came back from the dead a little seriously. That’s really all the Church is—the Church is the group of people throughout the centuries who take Jesus seriously. That Jesus is the king of the universe. We actually heard Jesus predict this earlier a few weeks ago in Matthew 16:
“Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (Matthew 16v28)
Jesus is saying that he is that Son of Man who is going to come in his kingdom. When Jesus talked about “the Son of Man” in chapter 16 and talks about “authority” here in chapter 28, he’s tapping into an ancient vision from the scroll of Daniel.
“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples 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 7v13-14)
The scroll of Daniel envisions a day when evil and suffering and atrocities would finally once-and-for-all be defeated. Right before the Son of Man appears in Daniel’s vision there’s been a terrifying parade of monsters. Beast after beast after beast arises out of the sea—each one more horrible and ugly and monstrous than the last. The warlord gets overthrown and gets replaced by a tyrant. The oppressive monarchy gets replaced by an oppressive republic. One monster will get destroyed only to be replaced by another monster. But then suddenly something new arrives. The seemingly endless march of evil through history finally comes to an end with the arrival of a powerful human-looking figure. Someone who looks like a human being—someone like a Son of Man.
For centuries the Jewish people had thought about and prayed about this vision. That history will not be an endless march of evil. At some point something new will arrive. It will be a kingdom, an empire, a government, a reality, that is not like anything else—it’s not monstrous, not beastly. No. The beasts will be defeated and a new kind of reality will arrive. Something human. Something humane.
Here, at the end of Matthew, Jesus is saying it has arrived. He has arrived:
“All authority has been given to me—to the Son of Man. The monsters are defeated and a new reality—a new creation—is dawning. I have defeated death and I am the king of everything.“
But I guess the most obvious question to ask at this point is… why can’t we see Jesus’s kingship? I mean, it’s all well and good to read from the ancient scroll of Daniel and to hear Matthew talking about what others saw 2,000 years ago. But why can’t we see the defeat of evil? Why does the world look the way it does, if Jesus has all authority?
Come November and come January, it’s going to be fairly obvious—we’re going to be pretty certain—who is receiving power and authority in the United States. We’ll be able to look anywhere and see who the next President is.
Back in the ancient world, you could be fairly certain who had authority—who was on the throne—who had conquered. Whether it was Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar or Caesar Augustus, a glance at statues in your city or the face on your coins, a glance at the armies on your street or the crucified rebels outside your village, and you were certain who ruled the world. You were certain who had all authority.
If Jesus has all authority—all power—why can’t we see his rule and reign more clearly? Why can’t we be certain of it? In fact—why can’t we see Jesus himself? Why does he always seem to be hiding backstage behind a curtain? He doesn’t seem to make his power or presence known like any other king or President in history.
…so what kind of king is Jesus?
How does he conquer? How does he rule? How does he spread his kingdom? We might answer those question with one word. How does he conquer and rule and spread his kingdom?
Every other king or President in history, eventually has to conquer with brutality. Killing those who disagree. Crucifying those who disobey. I mean, just look at our election. Most political ads are 30-second crucifixions. We’re so used to world where people conquer by brutality that it’s hard to imagine anything different.
But the Son of Man is indeed different. The Son of Man doesn’t conquer by brutality; the Son of Man conquers by baptism. Jesus is sending out his disciples not to kill those who disagree, but to teach. Not to force people into kingdom, but to love people into kingdom. Not to show anyone a cross and say, “This is what’s going to happen to you if you don’t obey.” Rather, show them a cross and say, “Our king—our God—has endured this because none of us obey. And God still loves us.”
Jesus tells his disciples that he’s the king of everything and to go conquer the nations—go make disciples—teaching them to obey everything I commanded you. I think chief among these things is the Sermon on the Mount:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5v43-48)
Jesus is a king who conquers gently; that’s why we frequently have trouble recognizing the kingdom. God’s conquering is a gentle conquering. Through nonviolence. Through non-coercion. Through loving his enemies. Through doing good to all—the righteous and the unrighteous. Maybe hardest of all for us… through patience.
Jesus rules the world—Jesus has all authority—and he’s just more loving and more patient and far more gentle than anyone in the world wants him to be. I think that’s why God feels hidden a lot times. He doesn’t overwhelm this world or our lives with his presence, and just force us to live the narrow road of love. Jesus isn’t that kind of king. God isn’t that kind of god.
Jesus doesn’t become a monster while he’s conquering the nations. He isn’t showing up here and saying, “Now I’ve finally gotten all of cross business out of the way. I’m done with patience and suffering now. Go conquer by brutality.”
No—go conquer by baptism. Go teach them the way of love. Go make students of narrow road. The Church is the community of people throughout the centuries who say: “Plunge me into that. Baptize me into that.”
Baptism is an ancient physical picture of this. It’s a way of saying: “God has already always chosen me. God has chosen to become like me. And now, by his grace, I choose God. I choose to become like God. May my life be submerged in the life of Jesus—in his death and his defeat of death.”
God doesn’t force anyone to be like him. God doesn’t force anyone to walk the way of love. But it’s the best possible kind of life… to be gently conquered by love. I can’t always see his kingship—I’m not always certain that Jesus is king—sometimes I’m even skeptical about the whole thing—but I’m going to follow him.
Matthew is really honest (we could do with more of this in the Church) because Matthew says that even those who saw it for themselves—even the disciples—even the people living through this—even they were skeptical. They worshipped him… but some doubted (v17).
It’s countless moments like these that convince me that the biblical witness is a true witness. Matthew is ending his story—he’s finished his coffee and he’s about to roll up the scroll—and he’s talking about the most unbelievable event—the most world-changing event—with remarkable matter-of-factness.
There was Jesus. Back from the dead. And the disciples were with him. They recognized that he was God with us. They worshipped him. And some doubted.
Much of the time we think that the earliest Christians had this huge advantage over us… but they didn’t. We think that if we had been there, if we had seen it, if we had lived through it all, then we would have stronger faith. But Matthew says no—trust and faith and making the leap, it’s always hard. They had been there, they had seen it all, they had lived through it all—and they still struggled with it.
We aren’t told what they doubted—maybe they doubted their eyes, doubted their senses, doubted their experiences, doubted their sanity? “Some doubted.” It’s the smallest—almost throwaway—comment that Matthew makes, but I find it so encouraging. It encourages me that this guy called Matthew isn’t trying to whitewash history. He’s just trying to tell us what happened—what it was like.
And then I find it encouraging on the level of faith. Doubts don’t exclude us from the life of faith. Doubts don’t exclude us from the presence of Jesus or this king’s community.
If you never doubt, never question, never wonder, never wrestle—if you never doubt you probably don’t have faith. You might have some kind of certainty, something we substitute for faith a lot of times. We push away every hint of color and live in a binary world of only black and white. We push away all mystery and live in a sort of self-deceived kind of certainty. And once you’ve got certainty you can no longer have any doubts. But—here’s the rub—when you’ve got certainty you can no longer have faith.
God never calls us into the life of certainty, he calls us into the life of faith. Doubts are a normal part of the life of faith. Doubts don’t exclude us from the life of faith. Following Jesus is not about getting certainty about the things we want certainty about. About the very existence of God, about how God created the universe, about why God allows suffering, about why that thing happened (or why that thing is continuing to happen). About how prayer works. Or how the Bible works. Or how anything works.
We are never called to certainty about basically anything. We are called to faith. To trust. To make a leap. To see God revealed in a particular person—to see Jesus—even though sometimes it might just feel like we’re imagining him—and to say: “That guy. That God. I throwing it all in with him. Even though I don’t understand it all, even though I’ve still got doubts, I’m making the leap.”
And it’s not just an intellectual leap, as if God is only interested in mental gymnastics. To make a leap into a particular way of living. To throw ourselves into a particular kind of life. The life where we don’t just play mental gymnastics with ideas about God or Jesus or whatever. The life where actually begin learning to follow Jesus. To actually do it.
In verse 20, Jesus tells his disciples to teach others—all nations—to obey everything he taught them. And that begs the question: are we learning to obey what Jesus taught? Until we’re actually making the leap—until we’re actually learning the life of faith—it’s going to be very difficult to teach others.
We’re invited to do it. To actually do it.
We’re invited to assume—just for a moment—that the talky-teachy Jesus of Matthew doesn’t just like hearing himself talk and teach. We’re invited tor recognize—just for a moment—that Jesus is holding real and lasting life before me. And we’re invited to actually going do it—to follow him on this narrow road.”
This probably looks like begin carving out time in our lives to practice learning to pray. Maybe I set a timer on my phone, and just sit silently for five minutes, trying to be aware of God’s love for me. Maybe I just sit silently for two minutes. And then maybe I tell God whatever is on my mind—even though it might feel like talking to the ceiling—and then I finish with the Lord’s prayer.
“I don’t know what I’m doing—I have no certainty about this—but I’m going to make the leap.I’m going to pray.”
It looks like choosing to love—choosing to move towards forgiveness—even when it’s hard, even we don’t want to. Even with this person. That’s what we’re invited into. Not the theological olympics. Not intellectual gymnastics. Simple obedience.
It’s not about certainty. It’s about making the leap with our lives.
So may we give up the war for certainty and trust Jesus even with our doubts. May we ourselves become students of Jesus and may our lives teach others how to walk the narrow road. And by God’s grace—in God’s timing, with God’s patience—may we see our lives and our families and our neighborhoods gently conquered by the reign of love.