Day 249: Matthew 28:18-20 – Part 1

I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth.  Go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples: baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.

[This is the first of four reflections on this scripture where Jesus gives his disciples their final instructions before he ascends into heaven.]

Jesus has died, and now he has been resurrected.  He predicted several times that he would rise from the dead and now it has happened.  His prophecy was correct.  Amen to that.  It must have been so very hard for the disciples.  The crucifixion was a terrible traumatic experience.  Sometimes in the “fog of war” it’s hard to separate the good guys from the bad, because people who push for social justice are usually not well received.   Very often the people who are the most hated in their own time turn out to be the biggest heroes from the perspective of history.  Like Abraham Lincoln, for instance.  Or Dr. King. Or Joan of Arc.  Or thousands of others who were misjudged by their contemporaries.

Jesus tells his disciples that he has been given “all authority” in both heaven and earth.  That’s a lot of power.  I don’t know what that means, but it’s certainly a statement of validates his ministry and his teachings.  It says, “All’s well that ends well.”  It’s also a big, fat, “I told you so.”  The very fact that he is speaking to them is a sign that there are mysteries that we still don’t understand.  It’s also proof that you can’t keep a good man down.  This time mankind was unable to silence God’s truth by killing the messenger.  The truth will out.

So, having been given all authority in both earth and heaven, what does Jesus do with it?  He gives it away, of course!  He doesn’t want them to sit around and reminisce about the good old days when Jesus was around.  He doesn’t want them to passively wait for him to come back one more time to rescue them.  He takes the authority he has been given and passes it on to his disciples by asking them to carry on his work.  This is often referred to as the “Great Commission.”

Does Jesus demand that his disciples “believe in him” so that they can “receive eternal life” and “be saved”?  No, has asks them to GO.  He wants them to DO.  And what is it he wants them to do?  This scripture says that Jesus wants them to go out and “make disciples.”  It’s interesting that the Greek word here is “mathéteuó” which is not a noun.  It’s a verb.  He is really asking them to “disciple” all of the people.  This, to me, is very different than “making disciples.”

I think we Christians have a lot of trouble with that phrase “make disciples”.  I’ve been to churches where they seem to interpret that as, “force them to be disciples, using any means necessary.”  These are the people who hound you about going to their church or making a confession of faith and threaten you with hell if you don’t comply.  They are the people who treat the church like a business and use high pressure sales tactics to get you to join up and commit your time and money toward the cause of reeling in more people.  They are the people who blithely dismiss anyone who is not in their own church as “lost”, all the while justifying their selfish, immoral, greedy, secularized lifestyles as acceptable because they are “saved.”  They are the people who believe the ends justify the means.  Their goal is numbers.  Butts in the seats, dollars in the church coffers, and notches “for Christ” on the collective belt of church leadership.

This is not something peculiar to our own day and age.  Conversion by coercion has been going on for a long time.  On Day 99 I discussed how Christianity spread throughout Europe and beyond largely as a result of conquest and domination. Examples are:

  • Romans used forced conversion after Christianity became the sole legal religion in the Roman Empire in 392.
  • Charlemagne forced the Germanic Saxons to become Roman Catholics in the late 700s.
  • In the 1300s Lithuanians were targeted and converted by the Roman Catholics.
  • Both Jews and Muslims were forced to become Roman Catholics during the Spanish Inquisition in the 1400s.
  • The Portuguese tortured and oppressed the Hindus in Goa, India to convert to Catholicism in the 16th and 17th centuries, destroying their temples and sacred books.  Resistance was punished with torture and imprisonment.
  • In the 1900s US Christians separated Native American children from their parents and forced them to adopt European-American culture and religion.

I don’t believe this kind of domination and coercion is what Jesus had in mind.  He never forced anybody to do anything.  He was smart enough to know that it never works.  You can never force people to do something they don’t want to do.  You can’t make them love God.  You can’t make them love each other.  You may be able to force them to say it, but you can’t make them to do it.  You can’t “make disciples.”

Conversely, what, does it look like to “disciple” people?  Jesus says that we act this out in two ways – baptizing and instructing them to do what Jesus said to do.  Those things will be the subject of the next couple of blog entries, so that’s it for today.  Check back tomorrow.

What does this scripture say to you?

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