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Today’s scripture is one of the most monumental—and controversial—scriptures in the entire Bible. Or, rather, it would be, if we truly took seriously what Jesus is claiming.
Most modern Christians refer to this scripture by the name, “the Great Commission.” That is because when we read this scripture, we focus on what Christ commands us to do:
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 all I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19).
This command is important. It’s the reason I’m writing this post from Korea, for example. But focusing on the commission as the main point of this passage is a fairly modern misunderstanding. For the first 1,800 years of church history, no one referred to this scripture by that title.
And that’s preferable. Because as we’ve learned, scripture isn’t written as a revelation of ethics. Instead, it is written as a revelation of God’s character. When we read the scripture, then, we do well to focus first on who God is and what God does, before we ever turn our attention to us.
When we focus on God in Christ in this passage, we find what may truly be the most astonishing claim in scripture:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” Christ claims (Matthew 28:18).
Note Jesus’ use of the word, all. Jesus claims to have all authority in heaven and on earth. He doesn’t claim to have “more authority than many others” or “a lot of influence.” He doesn’t even say, “In the future I will have all authority.” He says that all authority presently rests in his hands.
This means that Jesus is as much in charge of North Korea as he is in charge of your church.
“How can that be?” we ask. “People starve to death in North Korea! Christians are persecuted! Homeless orphans freeze overnight! What kind of God would choose to allow these atrocities despite having the authority and power to fix them!”
This question shows us that we’re on the right track. Why? It’s a question that God’s people ask time and time again in scripture (Revelation 6:10, Habakkuk 1:2, Psalm 13:1), with his encouragement: “Lord, why do you let the unjust flourish? Why will you not return to judge the world and make it right?”
Note that none of these authors doubt that God is fully in charge. In fact, it is because they know that God has full authority that they are troubled by the choices he is making.
“Why do you abandon us?” they ask. “Why don’t you avenge us?”
For much of church history, this claim has been the focus of Matthew 28:16-20—not verse 18. This is why, historically, when Christians have been persecuted and imprisoned, many respond with cheer and goodwill rather than fear—they know that Christ has all authority. Instead of titling this passage “the Great Commission,” then, we might consider calling it “the Great Claim!”
Nonetheless, this is a heavy claim to bear. Many of us may be tempted to walk away and say, “I love God, I believe Jesus rose from the dead, and I believe the world was created by God’s hand—but this I can’t believe.”
But we can’t walk away from it. This claim is fundamental to the Christian faith. We can believe that God created the world, that Jesus is the son of God, that Jesus’ blood washed away our sins and that Jesus rose from the dead. However, if we do not believe that Jesus possesses all authority on heaven and earth, we cannot call ourselves Christian.
If we do not believe that Jesus possesses all authority, then we are worshipping a different God than the faithful church that came before us—and a different God from the God of the Bible.
Scripture and church history concur with us on this point. Jesus tells us that he “hold[s] the key to death and Hades” (Revelation 1:18). Peter tells us that God allows us to suffer for a little while—then lifts us up (1 Peter 5:10). Paul reminds us that God perfectly molded us (and the world around us) in the way that he wished, and that it is silly for us to complain otherwise (Romans 9:19-21). Early Christians “turned the world upside down” by professing a power greater than Caesar (Acts 17:6-7). During the Japanese occupation, many Korean Christians refused to bow to a portrait of the Japanese emperor because they knew God was the true sovereign.
But then how can he be a God that allows suffering? How did the early church understand this aspect of his character in a way that allowed them to rejoice in the midst of persecution?
The first thing we need to remember is that God does not ask for us to understand him.
“My thoughts are not your thoughts,” God says in Isaiah 55:8. “Neither are my ways your ways.”
Sometimes we think of God as a president; we think that he has a responsibility to follow our agendas of right and wrong. When we pray, we come to him like a lobbyist: Lord, I think we should get rid of communism, and here’s why; Lord, I think that all countries in the Middle East should become democracies and here’s why; Lord, I think that my candidate should be president and here’s why. This is perhaps because we have short memories: the reason why the world is in turmoil is because of our own corrupt sense of “right” and “wrong”.
God doesn’t desire for us to suffer, but it is something he allows to happen. Suffering is a byproduct of free will: With every breath, human beings are given the choice to bring healing to the world or extend suffering. We often choose the latter, and God allows us this. The most amazing thing, however, is that God manages to bend even our most heinous actions toward his purpose.
Individuals in scripture understand this. Furthermore, they know that God is fully capable of ending everything at any point in time. Their question is why God doesn’t just do this. As the saints shout out in Revelation 6:10, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on earth?”
In other words, given that God has ultimate authority, why doesn’t he choose to end suffering by ending the world and reigning in his promised judgement?
Any Christian family with a child who has fallen away from Christ can give you the answer: because there are still people to save.
Saying that Jesus loves his enemies is too tame a phrase. Jesus is the good shepherd who will leave behind ninety-nine sheep to search out one lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7); he is the woman who leaves no cushion unturned when searching for a lost coin (Luke 15:8-10); he is the father who ran and embraced the son who severely mistreated him (Luke 15:11-24); and he is the son of God who suffered death on behalf of his enemies. All authority on heaven and earth has been given to Jesus, and he uses this authority to reach out to his enemies.
And he uses us to do this.
“Now go,” he tells us, “unto all nations, and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.”
But Jesus doesn’t leave us to do this work alone. In verse 20, Jesus makes a promise to us that God has only made to the Abrahams, the Moseses, the Joshuas, and the Jeremiahs of Bible: “I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
When we take the gospel to God’s enemies, we will be humiliated, we will be attacked and we will suffer. But we will also have Christ with us—the very same Christ who was humiliated, attacked, and suffered on our behalf.
After all, if Christ had listened to the words of the saints and ended the world when they thought was right, none of the rest of us would have been saved.