Merry Christmas! This week we will celebrate the biggest holiday in America. People have shopped for presents, told stories about the babe in the manger, watched movies about the Grinch, and many are hearing again from Luke, chapter two, at church this morning. The story of Christ’s birth is miraculous. It is amazing. The whole world stopped and every part of creation was represented in Bethlehem (the Jews, the Gentile wise men, kings, shepherds, rich, poor, the animal kingdom, the angels, and the cosmos). Jesus was born, the savior of the whole world in a holistic way. I don’t know if we are impacted as we should be by the gravity of that holy night. All of Scripture was fulfilled in Christ’s incarnation. Often, especially on Christmas, our vision is too small and we get addicted to things that are lesser than the Gospel of our Lord. I want to look, this morning, at Christ’s work. What was He doing as He came to this earth? Why? What does this have to do with the way that we church?
Then Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
God’s timeless mission (v. 18)
As we begin to examine this passage and as we look forward to Christmas this week, we see a peculiar idea. Jesus, as He spoke to His disciples from the mountain, saw much anticipation, worship, and some doubt. When He spoke, He began His instruction by making this proclamation, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.”
Jesus’ claim was not merely that He had all authority, but that all authority had been given to Him. In this great commission, the statement regarding Christ’s authority is the preeminent statement in the passage, yet it is the most skipped or hastily read part of the passage because we become anxious to defend our work or our responsibility in the great commission. Such a tendency is the result of our unrighteousness while we are on this earth. So that we might abide in more in Christ’s righteousness, I want to devote some time to this statement that Jesus makes regarding His own authority. I want to understand what it means that this authority was given to Him.
There are a few opinions about what this statement means. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses would agree, though for different theological reasons. They would say that Jesus was born a man and became the Messiah. They would clarify that Jesus is not God the Father and, therefore, was given the authority that He had by God the Father only after He was obedient to the point of death. Both the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses will defend their arguments with several Scripture references and the writings of their perspective prophets. If you would like to see a comparison of the different prevalent worldviews of our day and why biblical Christianity is set apart, please check out the illuminate series under downloads and expository sermons or clicking here to read. A systematic look at the Scripture tell a different story concerning the authority of Christ and, consequently, about His mission. John 1:1-5, 14-15, records the eternality of Jesus Christ:
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was with God in the beginning.
All things were created through Him,
and apart from Him not one thing was created
that has been created.
Life was in Him,
and that life was the light of men.
That light shines in the darkness,
yet the darkness did not overcome it…
The Word became flesh
and took up residence among us.
We observed His glory,
the glory as the One and Only Son from the Father,
full of grace and truth.
(John testified concerning Him and exclaimed,
“This was the One of whom I said,
‘The One coming after me has surpassed me,
because He existed before me.’”)
What we learn concerning Christ’s authority is that the authority is both eternal and timeless. Jesus Christ is God according to the Bible. He was present in the beginning with God and as God. So, the Scriptures contradict the very basis for the faith of both the Mormon and the Jehovah’s Witness. They have believed in and teach a false version of who Christ is. If they do not believe in the true Jesus, how can their teachings be anything more than mere human religiosity like every other religion in the world? If Jesus is eternally God with the Father, how might we understand this statement in Matthew’s Gospel? What does it mean that all authority had been given to Jesus at this point in the story?
This isn’t the only instance in which Jesus is described in such a way. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul wrote that Christ became obedient, even to the point of death on a cross (2:8). We might look at this passage in order to better understand the idea that Matthew is getting at in his Gospel:
“Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus,
who, existing in the form of God,
did not consider equality with God
as something to be used for His own advantage.
Instead He emptied Himself
by assuming the form of a slave,
taking on the likeness of men.
And when He had come as a man
in His external form,
He humbled Himself by becoming obedient
to the point of death —
even to death on a cross.
For this reason God highly exalted Him
and gave Him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee will bow —
of those who are in heaven and on earth
and under the earth —
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:5-11).
The idea is that Jesus Christ, who is one with God and who is God eternally, humbled Himself. Jesus, the one who had all authority became obedient so that He would be the propitiation for sin. Having finished the work of propitiation, Christ was restored to His place of glory, eternal authority. The result of this kenosis (emptying) is that every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Do you see this in the text, Christ’s work is not merely a work that delivers people from their sin. It is grander than we can possibly imagine. The mission is the eternal glory of God the Father through the exaltation of Jesus Christ, the Son. That is the mission, and it is greater than the deliverance of God’s people from their sin, though God’s deliverance of people from their sin in Christ is an essential and central part of this divine, eternal mission.
Let’s, together, take a glimpse at this mission through the ages. In Genesis 1 and 2, we read of how God created the world. He created humankind. The story is specific about the fact that He created humankind in His image, male and female together. He gave humankind two responsibilities. First, people were to multiply and fill the earth. Second, they were to rule over the creatures of the earth (Genesis 1:27-28). From our very inception, we have been created as God’s image, not our own. We, the picture of God in His own creation, are God’s own testimony in and to the whole of creation. God created us so that His glory would be represented and would dwell in His created universe (and whatever creation is beyond that). This isn’t too different from Stan Lee’s presence in the Marvel movies up until he passed away. What was the mission of Christ, the one through whom all things were created? The mission is the eternal glory of God the Father. We see that mission present in the creation of people! We also see it in the two responsibilities handed down from God to people. The command for us to multiply and fill the earth is not merely a command to have babies. It is a command to fill the creation of God with the image of God. The mission is the eternal glory of God the Father. The command for us to rule over the other creatures in God’s creation is a picture of God’s authority over His creation. The mission, dare I repeat myself, is the eternal glory of God the Father.
Since we were created in God’s image, we sought our own glory instead of God’s. We were created to be like God, so we naturally sought to be like God in this way. So, from before the foundation of the world, God planned our redemption through the Son. See, the only way that we were ever going to dwell in the glory of God is if God created us in His image and then brought us out of our self-righteousness, clothing us in His righteousness alone. Jeremiah 33:2 states that the Lord forms the earth in order to establish it. From before the foundation of the world, He had planned the emptying and exaltation of Jesus Christ, God the Son (also His abiding presence in the Holy Spirit, but we will mention that when we get to v. 20). God initiated this process of humbling humanity in Genesis 2:16 by giving one law that forbade the consumption of one tree’s fruit. People, seeking glory for self, saw that the fruit was desirable for making them wise, took the fruit and ate, breaking God’s law and entering into sin and shame (Gen. 2:6, 10). Sin was introduced for the sake of God’s eternal mission- the glory of the Father in and through His creation.
When we get to Genesis 6, the self-righteousness of people is painfully apparent. God refers to this self-righteousness as wickedness and evil intent (6:5). People did not want to dwell in God’s glory, so even without a law, God would humble humanity again, this time in a world-wide flood. When the flood subsided, God’s instruction to Noah was the instruction that He gave to Adam and Eve: multiply and fill the earth and rule over the creatures of the earth (8:17, 9:1-2). God also made a promise. Never again would He flood the earth because of human unrighteousness, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil (9:21-22). That was God’s purpose for the flood. In the flood, God taught that if people were left in their self-righteousness, they would always fall short of God’s glory. Adam and Eve fell short and God introduced sin to show them that they were unable to dwell in His glory. Even without a divine law, the people of the earth were unable to dwell in God’s glory. They needed a deliverer. Only God could bring people to dwell in His own glory by bringing people out of their pursuit of their own glory. So, in His promise to Noah, God declares His purpose of grace again. Works-based religion would never work because people fall short of God’s glory, and so God would never require it for eternal salvation. Do we see how God has always been working to accomplish His eternal mission? Through His story, He is establishing His own glory in and through His creation. This is bigger than merely practicing evangelism in our time.
This is the mission that God was working together at the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. People congregated together in pursuit of their own glory even though people from creation have had the responsibility to multiply and fill the earth with God’s image. So, God scattered the people as He worked together His own mission.
God calls Abraham, who will be a father of many nations, and through whom He will bless all nations. Abraham has a son named Isaac. God asks Abraham to sacrifice His son (Genesis 22:2). The sacrifice of Isaac would not be sufficient to accomplish God’s glory, so God provided a scapegoat (22:13). This scapegoat was another declaration of God’s purpose of grace and of the exaltation of Jesus Christ, the Son, to the glory of the Father. People could not be righteous and so dwell in God’s glory. People could never make the appropriate sacrifice as propitiation for their sins and so dwell in God’s glory. God was systematically revealing the depravity of people and declaring His all-sufficiency to deliver humanity into His glory by grace alone.
Perhaps, if people only had a law to guide them then they could follow God the Father into His glory! God continued to reveal the depth of humankind’s essential and total depravity. He called a nation for Himself out of the nations on the earth (which all belonged to Him, Exodus 19:5) and gave them a law to follow. If they could follow this law, they would be God’s own possession out of all the peoples (also v. 5). Then, God predicted that the Israelites would not be able to keep the law and that they should be reminded that the law stands as a testimony against them (Deuteronomy 31:21). Israel continued in this vicious cycle: sin because of the law, punishment, and then repentance throughout their existence as a nation. They were never able to keep God’s law-code. So, people could not be righteous and so dwell in God’s glory. People could never make the appropriate sacrifice to dwell in God’s glory. Neither were people able to, by their effort, follow God into His own glory. People must be delivered by God alone into His glory to dwell as His image bearers for His glory in and through His creation. Do we see how God has been working out His mission through history?
Two-thousand years ago (yes, that’s a rounded number), Jesus was born in the flesh. He emptied Himself and would become obedient to the point of death, being exalted to the glory of the Father. Whereas people were unable to be righteous, Christ was righteous by nature. Whereas people were unable to make the appropriate sacrifice, Christ was the appropriate sacrifice. Whereas people were unable to follow God’s directions, Christ became entirely obedient. He would teach that He is the fulfillment of the Law (Matthew 5:17). Jesus Christ, through whom all things were created, is the one through whom creation is established in the glory of God. This is Christ’s eternal mission. In His incarnation, He fulfills His mission eternally, once for all. We will forever see the glory of God the Father established in creation as a result of Jesus Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection.
Our participation (v. 19-20a)
Verses 19-20 are an outpouring of this truth. Christ has the type of authority we’ve taken so much time to describe, therefore we are commanded to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that Christ commanded. Our vision is often so small when we think about this great commission. We forget about Christ’s authority and His eternal and timeless work- the glory of God the Father through His own exaltation. We minimize the Great Commission by reducing it to mere evangelism. Making disciples of all nations isn’t only evangelism. We reduce discipleship to the teaching of moralistic principles. Teaching religiosity doesn’t even begin to capture Christ’s eternal work. So we observe the Great Commission in the context of Christ’s authority:
Make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…
The process of making disciples, then, begins by highlighting, just as Christ has done from the foundation of the earth, human depravity and God’s plan of grace for His glory. We invite people into a relationship with Christ because salvation is found in Him alone. He is the fulfillment. We baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit because salvation is the work of the Godhead. This is how God is filling His creation with His image for His glory alone.
…teaching them to observe everything that I have commanded you.
Remember, God has been showing us through all of history that we are unable to abide in His glory, and we are unable to obey His instructions. As Christ retrieves His people from the darkness and brings them to abide in the glory of God, this is evidenced by our growing obedience to the things of God in Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit. Obedience isn’t works-based righteousness because that doesn’t work. It is evidence of God’s saving grace. So, we become more disciplined in the things of God, and that serves the glory of the Father because He is working that out in His people. The Gospel of grace cannot be misconstrued to mean that obedience is not important. The Gospel of grace is the very thing that makes obedience possible and God alone receives glory.
God’s promise in Christ (v. 20b)
Christ follows His Great Commission with a promise. He is with us always, to the very end of the age. The Father is glorified. The Son is exalted. The Holy Spirit is with and in the people of God- enabling greater obedience until we are fully sanctified to the glory of the Father through the exaltation of the Son.
So tell me, why is our vision so small that we forget the eternal and timeless mission of Christ and, instead, devote all of our attention to trivial and worldly things? Why do we often complain about those things that are so small they can’t even be seen in the light of God’s glory by His grace, into which He is bringing us to dwell? Why do we so easily get addicted to lesser things? Let us participate in God’s mission with everything we do. Let us not be distracted by the small things. Let us not be led by our preferences, which cause us to seek self-glory. Let us ever-celebrate the incarnation of our Lord, in whom all things are fulfilled. He must increase, we must decrease.