It is an honor to bring a word of charge and commendation to the graduates who sit before me this morning and to the parents and friends and family who have gathered here in this room. My words will not be long today. This is not a full sermon, but rather, a word of encouragement and exhortation from Matthew 28.
Matthew 28:16–20 is a passage with which most of us in the room are familiar, at least to some degree. You do not have to have grown up in church, for being a Westerner has probably brought you into contact with this passage sometime during your life. This passage is paradigmatic for Christians, paradigmatic for churches, and paradigmatic for this institution. We exist For the Church, and to exist For the Church means that we exist unto the same end as the church exists: for the gathering in of the nations for the glory of Christ through the proclamation of the gospel to all people. I want to read from Matthew chapter 28:16–20.
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshipped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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 all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Since my childhood I have had a certain interest in politics and enjoyed, even as a young boy, watching different political debates, following the evening news, reading newspapers, and observing political dynamics. One of the most interesting presidential elections of this generation has to be in my estimation the presidential election of 1992. Most of us in the room are old enough to remember it and recall what was taking place then. President George H. W. Bush was running for re-election after his first term with Dan Quayle as his vice president. Though President Bush had a dramatically successful Iraqi War and approval ratings soaring towards the 90s, economic recession and slumping national morale caused the nation to second guess whether or not he should have a second term. To complicate matters more, a bright, young charismatic governor from Arkansas named Bill Clinton was running against him as the Democratic nominee. Mr. Clinton chose another Southerner, Al Gore, a senator from Tennessee, as his running mate. Then to really spice things up, a Texas billionaire by the name of H. Ross Perot entered the race as an Independent candidate and proved to be the most plausible Independent candidate of the 20th century, other than Teddy Roosevelt.
All eyes were turned to the presidential debates, but attention also turned to the vice presidential debate when Senator Gore, Vice President Quayle, and H. Ross Perot’s running mate, Admiral [James] Stockdale, would take the stage. Everyone knew who Dan Quayle was—the seated vice president of the United States. Many people knew who Al Gore was—a United States Senator. But no one knew who Stockdale was. He took the platform, and introduced himself by saying, in an attempt at a joke, “Who am I and why am I here?” His joke proved ruinous for his debate and in some ways, ruinous for the campaign. Now, those words fell flat that day, but I suspect they are actually timely for us this morning, especially as our graduates contemplate who they are, why they are here, and unto what God has called them.
These are big picture questions about life, ministry, what is before us, and what should be before us. I say to you, who are you? If you are in Christ, you are indeed in Christ. You have been adopted into his family. You have been called out of the world to serve him and you have a double calling upon your life to serve as a pastor, a teacher, a minister, and an evangelist in his church. You identity, if authentically represented by your presence and sense of call today, that your identity is fixed in him. And it is not just an identity he has given you as a formal title, but it is an identity he has given you unto an end, and it is the end that called you to this institution, I trust. It is a sense of calling to do something for the gospel, a calling to give your life to serve the cause of Christ, a calling that intersects with the Great Commission. That is why we are here today. As each graduate will pass across this stage, there is joy in seeing them graduate. But there is also joy in seeing them go, because we are not in the business of accumulating people and to keep them here. We are in the business of graduating people and seeing them go to serve the cause of Christ wherever that call may lead. Jesus said as much in Matthew 28, where he gave this Great Commission that was repeated five times in the Gospels and Acts. This is a call to take the gospel beyond ourselves, beyond own localities, our own churches, our own regions, and to take it to the uttermost parts of the earth. In this generation, as none prior, we have the unique capability to do just that through travel, through the Internet, and through technological advancements. In a very real sense this generation can see the eradication of what is known as an “unreached people group.” Currently there are over 3,000 different people groups around the world who have no exposure to the gospel. But all of that is changing, can change, and it must change. I say to graduates sitting before me, be a part of that change.
When Jesus speaks these words in verse 18, he begins in a peculiar way. Before launching into the Great Commission in verse 19, in verse 18—as something of a prologue—he reminds his disciples, “All Authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Why a declaration of our King’s authority before he gives this Great Commission? What does this mean? What does it mean to us? What does it mean to you? Jesus is unmistakably declaring that he has authority over the cosmos, over his church, and over you today. Philippians 2 tells us that though Jesus came and died as a servant, on a cross, humbling himself to the ultimate point of humiliation, the Father has highly exalted him and given him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus Christ every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
To our graduates this morning, I want to remind you what these words say: that all authority has been given to Christ. In that phrase comes an expression of your own subjection to him. Ultimately, you do not report, you will not report, and you must to not report to any human group. Your ultimate responsibility is not to a personnel committee, a deacon board, or an elder board, though God uses those things in his tiering of structure and authority. Your ultimate accountability is to the Word of God and the Spirit of God, by which Christ mediates his rule and authority over his servants. You go forth to serve as one under charge. Your ministry is not your own, your message is not your own, and that which you seek to undertake is not something you craft on paper that looks to be the easiest or most likely successful ministry course. Rather, you have a pre-committed end to your life, the end to which Christ is calling you. For parents and family members listening to this, these may be upsetting words, but I remind us this morning that this is an upsetting gospel. The Great Commission is an upsetting task and the very enunciation of it should dislodge complacency in our hearts. I pray that you have a faithful ministry, I pray you have a bold ministry, I pray you have a courageous ministry, and I pray you have a fruitful ministry, but I will never pray that you have an easy one. May you have joy untold, yes. May you have blessings uncountable, yes. Do not pray for ease, but pray for fruitfulness in your gospel labor.
Jesus says, “All authority has been given unto me.” That phrase comes to us this morning calling for our submission, but also it comes to us this morning instilling us with confidence. The same Jesus who declared in Matthew 16, “I will build my church,” is the Jesus who here is commissioning servants to go and do it. I remind us this morning that God plus one still equals a majority. Jesus is saying, “As you go, fear not, for I rule and reign over this universe and I will use you, I will work through you,” as you are faithful to him. Men and women before me this morning, I remind you that you are men and women under commission. You are a part of a conscripted force. You are under charge. Do not take that lightly; do not turn from that easily.
Notice what Jesus says here. After this statement of authority, he then directly speaks to his disciples—and to us—about what they are to do. Recall the context here. Jesus has ministered with his disciples some three years. They have seen him, they have heard him, and they have learned from him. They saw him heal, restore sight to the blind, restore health to the lame, multiply food, walk on water, and raise the dead. Unto what end have they seen all this? Now Jesus is about to go. Their confidence, their hope, everything they have longed for, their expectations have been in him, and now he is going. He gives them this instruction as to what they are now to do in light of his departure: “You go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” I love these two verses because they are packed with action. They are packed with words of industry, words of movement. It is not as though this is a pile up of words with little meaning. Every word has meaning. Hear the words of action in here, “You go.” You go. I remind us this morning that our calling at Midwestern Seminary is not to train a generation of church theorists, church critics, hypothetical church servants, or ostensible Great Commission servants. There is something old fashioned and perennial and timeless about this word. “You go.” You do something, you depart. “You go therefore and you make disciples.” Now we understand, ultimately the Lord is the one who converts, but any reading of this Great Commission that does not see us going and doing something is a false reading. You go, you make disciples, you preach the gospel, you teach the gospel, you instruct in the gospel, and you make disciples.
What is a disciple? A disciple is a learner, a follower of Christ. You are here today as an ultimate expression of discipleship. You have come to an institution that is committed to the Bible as the Word of God. You have been taught in these things so that you may be a more equipped disciple. So that, in Paul’s words to Timothy, “You, having been taught, may be able to teach others faithfully also.” You are a disciple and your being here is a sign of the seriousness with which you take discipleship. Now he is saying, “you go,” and the mission you fulfill is not merely making generic gospel touches, but rather actual conversions. Let me say that again: actual conversions. We are not just spreading religious platitudes. We are not just complaining about a culture drifting further and further into decadence. We are not just preaching sermons, even if they be faithful. We are seeking converts to Christ.
Notice the scope of this call: “you go, you make, of all nations.” I alluded to this earlier; there still are more than 3,000 unreached people groups, many of which are an identifiable group of people with a particular language—a particular tongue—and the gospel is yet to get to them and they are yet to gain access to it. If you have watched the progress of the church throughout 2,000 years, you see it attaining to lesser or greater degrees of faithfulness, lesser or greater degrees of success in fulfilling the Great Commission. What started in the Mediterranean region spread further throughout Asia Minor and beyond until finally spreading to where it is today. I recently read an interesting article about this. The author stated that if you look at the history of the church in the past 2,000 years, it tends to be like a rain shower where it goes. It is like a rain shower that moves to a region, goes to a people group, wets it as a rain shower would, then it will move on to another region. So today you see places like North Africa which once were thoroughly Christianized, but now they are insufficiently Christian. Look in a region like Europe, which is going by the year into unbelief. Ten years from now there will be more Muslims living in England than Anglicans, the established church of England. The author said that Islam, on the contrary, becomes like a lake where it goes. It floods the place and tends to stay there. So it is with that particular geo-political context in mind that we hear the words of Christ saying “you go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”
Now the next word here I find to be deeply important, not merely because I am president of a Baptist institution, but because I am a Biblicist. He says “you baptize them.” This is an expression, a sign, of one’s conversion to Christ, we believe taking place after conversion by immersion. I say to graduates sitting before me this morning, this is not the most urgent thing in your Bible, but it is not far from it. Do not take baptism lightly. Take it seriously. We understand and believe it to be one of the two ordinances of the church remaining for us to practice. We see prescribed and described in the New Testament a mode and method of baptism that occurs by immersion after conversion. Hold to that. Own that. Do not be embarrassed by that. That is a biblical concept we believe in. Notice what he says here, “you baptize them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” This great Trinitarian formula which in itself is a confession of what we believe: we believe in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and we make disciples and we baptize them into that formula.
Notice that Jesus says we “teach them to observe all that I have commanded you.” We have a predetermined message. It is the message of Christ. It is the message of the New Testament and Old delivered to us. We are to be preachers and teachers of the Word, not merely peddling modern opinions. We have a predetermined message: you be faithful to the Word. You be faithful to teach disciples that which Christ and the apostles have taught us. You be faithful to these things as people who have backbones of steel and knees that do not knock because we cannot help—if we look to our culture and the world before us, and if we have much realism in our hearts—to see storm clouds ahead for those who hold to biblical truth, biblical truth about human sexuality, biblical truth about life, biblical truth about the exclusivity of the gospel, which is an unpopular message that will become fiercely unpopular—I regret but predict—in the years ahead. That middle terrain between what is acceptable socially, and what is expected and demanded biblically, that middle terrain of ambiguity is already evaporating before our eyes and will all the more do so. If you have not settled in your heart that this is God’s Word, if you have not settled in your heart that these things you must teach and preach and prescribe, if you have not settled in your heart that you are a man or a woman under authority to these things, I fear for your ministry. I fear for you. But if you have settled in your heart that this is God’s Word and that it is true, and that you are a man or woman under authority, that what can someone do? They can do a lot, but ultimately they can do nothing to you of eternal consequence.
I love the reading of verse 19 and the first half of verse 20: “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 all that I have commanded you.” There is a personalization to this, meaning that people—men and women—are to go and make converts of men and women and boys and girls. Let me tell you that ultimately, humanly speaking, this is what will bring you the most joy and the most satisfaction in ministry: seeing not just the gospel work to a crowd, but seeing people who are saved. You see people whom you know and to whom you were able to speak the gospel embrace and believe it and you see Christ change their lives. I am not an old man, but I have been serving in ministry in one form or another for about 15 years. Throughout those years, the relationships that, in my memory, are the most precious, and those relationships that I impulsively want to keep up with—and those relationships and people who impulsively want to keep up with me—are not the biggest givers in my churches over the years. They are not even necessarily the most faithful attenders. But they are the people who have very clear conversion stories where they knew they once were lost but now are saved and I saw God work in their lives, they saw God work in their lives, and it forged a personal tie between us that stands the test of time.
I grew up in a church. No pastor is perfect. My pastor was not perfect, but he preached the gospel to me and I was saved under his ministry. His feet may be clay, but to me they will always be beautiful. For to hear someone else criticize the pastor under whom I came to Christ makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I say to you who are going to serve the gospel, you will see people love you, embrace you, support you, and stay with you throughout the course of your ministry as you are faithful to get the gospel to them.
Notice what Jesus says here at the end of verse 20, “And behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the earth.” This last phrase brings a promise for us to cling to. Jesus is not tossing you out today as we toss you out. He is not sending you forth alone as we, in a sense, are sending you forth alone today. Not entirely, for we are here for you, but as you go you will be distant from us. Jesus is saying to his church, and he is saying to those who are seeking to undertake his Great Commission, “I am with you always,” always throughout the duration of your ministry, but get this, always, even to the end of the age. I want Christ with me throughout my ministry, as do you. That encourages me. But the reminder that he is with me when I pass from this life to the next—throughout the end of the age—brings ultimate assurance. Graduating class of Spring 2013, why are you here? You are here because Christ has saved you and Christ has called you. You are here because the church affirmed that. You are here because you believe he is calling you to the next stage of gospel ministry. But why you are here is now why you must go. Christ has called you to go and he is sending you forth to advance his gospel as you personally undertake to fulfill his Great Commission. As you go, I say be faithful, be courageous, be winsome, be cheerful, and know that the one who has called you forth by his authority will be with you throughout the end of the age. Amen.topicsChurch & Ministry, Education, Leadership, Preaching