What in the world prompts Jesus to say in Matthew 28:20, “…teach them to obey everything I have commanded you”?
Wouldn’t the Great Commission have made more sense if he had said:
- “…and tell them that when I was on the Cross, they were on my mind.”
- “…and teach them how to have a saving relationship with me.”
- “…and make sure they understand that there’s nothing they can do to earn my love; just believe.”
Some have suggested that Jesus gives us “impossible” commands, like those in the Sermon on the Mount, to force our recognition that we cannot save ourselves and must therefore rely on him. According to that logic, Jesus’ command here–that we teach others to obey these impossible commands–becomes the most painful and deceptive kind of teaching trick: Go burden people with what you yourselves could not fulfill, so that they can collapse in a heap before the Cross as well.
Given that verse 20 follows Jesus’ direction in verse 19 that we are to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, such an interpretation is clearly false. After all, why would we be baptizing people to whom we haven’t clearly articulated the salvation message, including the glorious truth that “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast”?
No, Jesus’ commands are not a pestle designed to pound us into dust finally made suitable for grace. And not one time in the Scripture does he call us to do anything on our own power; even our turning from darkness to light is completely reliant on him. We are his beloved, not camels whose backs he is strategically seeking to break through the addition of straw after straw.
So why, then, does he give us commands to obey?
Or as some are prone to ask, “Do we have to obey these commands in order to be saved?”
Again, the order of the elements of the Great Commission puts that question to rest: Go. Disciple. Baptize. Teach to Obey. If you’re baptizing people who aren’t saved, we need to talk.
But if you’re teaching people that God created them in order to save them, well, we need to talk also. God didn’t create us to save us. He created us in order to bear his image. As Paul says in Ephesians 2:10a, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works.” That’s a statement of purpose for our existence that regrettably gets overlooked–and, grievously, misunderstood and denigrated–in some evangelical theologies today. God does not save us from discipleship. He saves us for it.
The challenge is, what kind of disciples will we be? What kind of works will we do? A number of recent books on discipleship that I’ve read teach us to seek out some kind of special, unique, personal “calling.” Others teach us to treat discipleship as a pu-pu platter of spiritual activities, from which we sample a little bit of everything before we ultimately settle on a few favored ways of service.
But Jesus’ Great Commission does not call us to do either of these things. Were we to do them, we would end up either shaping discipleship in our own image or experiencing it as a pleasant hobby or mildly challenging reminder to not be quite so selfish with our seemingly significant talents. Such reminders quickly fade, as many of our personal histories can amply attest.
And such reminders fail to take sin seriously, fail to grapple with just how far we’d fallen before Jesus found us. Our problem wasn’t just that we weren’t believing in Jesus. Our problem, as Paul reminds us in Ephesians 2:1-3, was that we were:
dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind.
Believing in Jesus is indeed the all-important first step in God’s process of changing that–a new birth! But it is not his last step. He has grace to pour out on us every day. And since we will actually need to live and move and exist and eat and breathe and work and raise families and vote and get up in the morning and decide what to do with our time and fill up every waking hour of each day he gives to us until he returns for us or we die watching and waiting for him, we are going to need to figure out how to live. Jesus’ commands are a major part of his love for us. They are a burden and a yoke far lighter than the stupidity of conduct we otherwise wander into on our own.
And this is how we should read the verses that often puzzle Christians like John 15:10-11, where Jesus says things like:
If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.
While we are obsessed with identifying and cleaving to the minimum standard for salvation after death, Jesus is focused on saving us into the life of joy and purpose God planned for us since before the foundation of the world. Remaining in his commandments is the means of grace he gives us to enable to experience it all.
It ought to be ridiculous for any well-formed Christian to mistakenly assume that Jesus gave us commands to obey on our own power. Of course he didn’t, and when we treat his commands like that’s what he was thinking, we sin and need to repent for disparaging the character of the God of infinite love and care who would never deceive his children.
His commands aren’t things we do for him or without him or even synergistically with him, adding our efforts to his. Instead, he teaches us that it is no longer we who live but him, that every other power wilts before his name, that we die to the way of self and follow him as the Way–not just the way to heaven but the way to the next minute, the next hour, the next day.
And because we are prone to forget that about his commands and treat them as things we accomplish rather than things we yield for him to accomplish through us, he ends his Great Commission with this all-important reminder:
And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.