(Written by Pastor Tim Redfield)
Matthew 28:16-20 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 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, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
These words of Jesus were spoken sometime during the 40 days after his resurrection and before his ascension. We can’t be more specific than that. We know that it was not on the actual day of ascension because he ascended from the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem. When Jesus spoke these words he was on a mountainside in Galilee. It is not really important for us to know when Jesus spoke these words. What is important is for us to listen to the instructions that Jesus gave to the disciples and to all Christians.
We refer to these words of Jesus as the Great Commission because this is his command to his believers to share the gospel message with all people. Even though Jesus wasn’t ascending into heaven when he spoke these words, he was going to be ascending in a few days. The disciples needed to know that it was their time to take the message of the cross and empty tomb to all nations. During Jesus’ ministry he had been the one who traveled throughout Israel proclaiming the good news. During that ministry he was training his followers so that they could take God’s Word into the world. Now it was time for them to speak in the name of the Triune God.
When they gathered to listen to Jesus, they still needed to grow spiritually before they were ready to be missionaries. Verse 17 said, “When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.” They had seen the death and resurrection. They had seen Jesus alive. They worshipped and praised him as true God. And yet, some of them had doubts. It is hard for us to imagine that there could be any doubts among people who had actually seen Jesus alive after his resurrection but Scripture tells us that they doubted. The devil is still very powerful and he can make people doubt forgiveness and eternal life even when the evidence is directly in front of them.
Jesus knew that the disciples needed to be strengthened. In these verses he gives them instructions in between words of comfort. He first comforts them by telling them that he is in control of all things. All authority has been given to him. This means that nothing is going to happen unless Jesus allows it to happen. Now this doesn’t mean that he is going to completely stop people from doing evil things in this world. But it does mean that he is going to direct everything for the good of his believers. And he is going to build up his believers through Word and Sacrament. He instructs the disciples, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).
An important part of the gospel proclamation to the world is the Sacrament of Baptism. Jesus instructs his believers to baptize all people in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Jesus tells of the importance of baptism and he shows that it is to be done in the name of the Triune God. Being baptized into the name of the Triune God reminds us of all the wonderful things that God has done for us. All three persons of the Trinity had their part in creating us, redeeming us, and sanctifying us. When we speak of creation, we emphasize the role of God the Father but we know that the Son was there as the Word that was spoken and the universe came into being. Also the Spirit was hovering over the waters at creation.
When it comes to our redemption it was God the Father who sent Jesus into the World to save us from our sins. The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts so that we trust in this redemption. The Holy Spirit sanctifies us. He sets us apart as God’s chosen people. He gives us faith in our hearts. He does this through the sacrament of Baptism. Baptism is the sacrament that adopts us into God’s family. Through the Word of God and the water of baptism our sins are washed away. We are given the gospel message in our hearts. We are buried with Christ in baptism and raised up to live a new life of faith. We are to baptize all nations, all people of all ages and races. This message is for all.
It is a wonderful thing that God has given us this sacrament of Baptism to work faith in the hearts of children and adults. This command to baptize was given to all Christians. Usually as a Christian congregation we call someone to administer the sacraments and proclaim the word of God to us. This person is the pastor. It is a wonderful joy that I get to be the person that God uses to administer the water of baptism and speak the Word of God as the Holy Spirit works in the heart of little infants as well as adults. It is an incredible blessing that I get to do this on behalf of the congregation. This does not mean that I am the only Christian in this congregation who can baptize. There are times when other Christians besides the pastor may baptize. Perhaps there is an emergency situation in which the pastor cannot be present. All Christians can baptize. It is just usually the case that a group of Christians will give that responsibility to their pastor.
Baptism is wonderful because it helps to remove doubts we might have about our forgiveness and eternal home. We can take comfort in the fact that we were baptized into God’s family. When the devil tries to get us to wonder if we are truly saved, we can look to the washing of rebirth and renewal that we had in our baptism. The devil will try to use all kinds of things to make us doubt our faith. He’ll point to the fact that we can’t understand how the Trinity works. He’ll remind us that we can’t remember the exact moment that we were baptized. He wants us to doubt that we have forgiveness. Fortunately we have been baptized. We have been made disciples of the Triune God. In order to help us with any doubts we may have, God teaches us through his Word.
After giving the command to baptize, Jesus also tells his disciples to teach. He said, “Teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). At first that must have seemed like a very intimidating task. Jesus had instructed them about many things over the last three years. He had opened up the scriptures and explained the entire Old Testament to them. John tells us in his gospel that we don’t even have everything that Jesus did recorded for us in the gospels. How were the disciples supposed to remember all those things? How were they supposed to teach everyone to obey those teachings if they couldn’t even remember them?
Jesus comforts them with the assurance that he will be with them in their ministry. He says, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Jesus would be with them. He would help them remember what he had taught them. He was going to send them the Holy Spirit to help them in their ministry. On the day of Pentecost they would be strengthened and they would be given the confidence to share this gospel message with all people. Jesus was not abandoning them when he returned to heaven. Rather he was still going to be with them as he dwelled in their hearts.
It can seem like a daunting task to teach people to obey everything that God has given us in his word. The Bible is a large book that covers many topics. It has poetry, historical accounts, prophecies, and many teachings for our walk of faith. Some passages are very clear and straight forward and other passages use figurative language. Sometimes as individual Christians we feel like we don’t even understand enough about our faith to be able to clearly communicate the message to others. How can we possibly teach others to obey everything about Scripture?
Yes it is our responsibility to share the teachings of Scripture but we can use all the resources that God gives us. Make use of the team that God has given you. Think about team sports for a moment. In sports such as football, hockey, baseball, and basketball, the entire team needs to work together if they are going to win the championship. Each player needs to carry out their responsibility. We should not try to teach others everything about God’s Word all by ourselves. We can use our teammates. In our congregation we have teachers, pastors, church council members, elders, and more. Also, each Christian parent has a responsibility in the spiritual care of their children. We have resources and books from our Synod that we can use. All these things are part of the team that we have.
Of course, we ourselves need to be taught from God’s Word so that we can teach others. When we are not being taught from God’s Word, it is so much easier for the devil to put sinful doubts in our hearts. When we don’t have a firm grasp on the teachings of God’s Word, the devil finds ways to try to rip faith right out of our heart. Spend time in God’s Word. Come to worship and Bible Study. Make time for daily devotions. Don’t let the devil make excuses for you. Be taught by God’s Word. Then you will be equipped to speak about your faith.
God brings us comfort so that we have the strength to keep learning and teaching. He is with us always. He is with us to remind us of the wonderful gospel that saved us from our sins. He reminds us of the cross and the resurrection. He gives us the motivation to serve him with our entire lives. His forgiveness strengthens us in our faith. The eternal life he won for us makes us realize how important it is for everyone to know the Savior. He is with us as we go and make disciples.