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, baptising 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.” Matthew 28.16-20.
And so to the final part of this four-day look at what is generally called “the Great Commission”. On previous days, I have not managed to move beyond those introductory words: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” but now, this morning, I am finally able to look at what follows from the fact of Jesus’ now-supreme Lordship: “Go … and make disciples of all nations …”
What are “disciples”? They are what the Eleven to whom Jesus spoke these words had already become. And that is very illuminating because a moment’s thought tells me something that I can’t say I’ve ever registered before; namely, that the relationship of these Eleven to Jesus was not marked particularly by them “getting saved”, or having their sins forgiven, or being healed, or having demons cast out, or being set free from addictions, or in any other way being recipients of God’s grace in Jesus; but by them hearing his call, being obedient to it, learning of him, accepting the authority of his teaching, believing the truth of it, and living in obedience to it. Clearly they were recipients of his grace, but that is almost allowed to go without saying; it is a “given”, but the emphasis in discipleship is elsewhere.
I’ll look more closely at where the emphasis in discipleship lies in a moment, but first I must just say that this pulls me up with something of a jolt. Despite the actual words of the Great Commission, I tend to interpret them in terms of inviting people to find Jesus as Saviour — to have their sins forgiven and their lives changed. I tell them what Jesus can do for them, what he offers them, how he can help them — and that is fine so long as I don’t stop there. The call is to “make disciples” not just to “make benefit-seekers”.
So where does the emphasis in discipleship lie? What was the essence of being a talmid — a disciple — in first-century Israel? I almost wrote that it was being a pupil to one’s teacher, but there was much more to being a rabbi’s talmid than being a mere pupil. A pupil wants to know what his teacher knows so as to be able to pass examinations and get qualifications etc, whereas a talmid wanted much more than that. He wanted to be like his rabbi in every respect … to become exactly the kind of person that his rabbi was. So talmidim — a rabbi’s disciples — would devote themselves passionately to their rabbi, hardly ever leaving his side, hanging on his every word, and watching everything he ever did. The rabbi/talmid relationship was incredibly close and intense. The rabbi protected and cared for his talmidim and the talmidim acted as servants to their rabbi, shopping for food, preparing meals, and doing anything that the rabbi asked of him. (There is an example of Jesus’ talmidim doing this in John 4.8 — “his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.”)
A rabbi’s particular interpretation of the Torah — the first five books of the Bible — was called his “yoke”. It was a way of life based on how the rabbi interpreted the Torah. And it was incumbent on a rabbi’s talmidim to take their rabbi’s yoke upon them and to learn of him — to adopt the rabbi’s way of life based on his view of the Torah. So it was that Jesus told the twelve: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11.29). As the rabbi lived and taught his understanding of the Torah, his talmidim would listen and watch and imitate so as to become just like their master. Then, eventually, they would become rabbis too, passing on their lifestyle (“yoke”) to their own talmidim. And that, with a twist, seems to be at the heart of what Jesus is calling for here.
The call to the first eleven who had “left everything” to follow Jesus (Matthew 19.27) was not to go and become rabbis in their own right, attracting talmidim to themselves, but to continue as talmidim themselves and make others — everyone in the whole wide world — talmidim of Jesus too! Men, women and children of every nation taking upon themselves Jesus’ easy yoke, learning of him and becoming like him, and then, in turn, calling others to join them. An impossible mission? The Eleven may have thought so, but the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost made it possible and fired the eleven to begin the task: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1.8). The presence of the Spirit in their lives and in mine is surely the fulfilment of that promise with which this morning’s reading ends: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
A footnote. Some people question why Jesus called his followers to make disciples of all “nations” rather than all people. I think the answer is probably that “nations” makes it clear that the mission now goes way beyond Israel. “All people” might have been interpreted as just all Jewish people; but “all nations” rules that out. The call is still to make disciples of individuals. “Nations” is shorthand for “the individuals that make up the nation” — in just the same way, nowadays, we talk about the evangelising of England or the conversion of China.