This blog is based on a sermon I gave at my church – disciple the nations!
Matthew’s Gospel is often portrayed as the most Jewish of the four Gospels. The general theory is that it was written for Jewish Christians scattered after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70. This may be true, but to view it as simply a Jewish gospel would be a mistake. All the way through Matthew’s Gospel the scope is much wider than just the Jews. In writing his gospel, Matthew has in view an incredible vision of how this story, in some backwater of the Roman empire, truly can revolutionise the whole world. The subject of this sermon / blog, possibly too ambitiously, is only the entire Gospel of Matthew!
Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus, seen as a very Jewish way to begin. There are though, four names in the genealogy that shouldn’t be there. I’ve heard them spoken on before, typically pointing out that they are four women, and often describing their colourful backstories. But there is an equally surprising thing. All four are foreigners. Matthew describes Pilate putting a plague on the cross which read “This is Jesus, King of the Jews”, but at the outset Matthew is highlighting foreigners in the genealogy of the King of the Jews.
In a few weeks we’ll be thinking again of the Christmas story. Matthew’s account is interesting. He is the only writer to attribute the name ‘Immanuel’ to Jesus. He even gives a translation. Why would he give a translation if his audience was solely Jewish? “And they will call him Immanuel, which means God with us”. From the outset of his gospel, Matthew wants us to see Jesus as the ‘God with us’.
“Where is he to be born King of the Jews?” Who’s asking? Jewish subjects ready to welcome their new king? No, foreigners. Magi from the east who have come to worship. The only people Matthew has coming to worship the ‘God with us’ are foreigners.
Salt and Light
One thing that stands out in Matthew’s Gospel is how much of Jesus’ teaching is recorded. If you have one of those Bible apps that records Jesus’ words in red, you’ll see great swathes of the text in red. It seems Matthew is at pains to record everything Jesus taught. The first block of teaching is the Sermon on the Mount. After the Beatitudes Jesus calls his followers to be the salt of the earth, permeating and preserving. Also he calls them to be lights, not hidden under a bowl, but on a stand for all to see.
A few months ago, I went to Wembley for a concert. As darkness fell, during a slow song the mobile phones came out and people in the crowd waved the lights from their phones. We live in a country where there are enough Christians, if they are not hiding under a bowl, to give lots of light to the crowds around them. There are though, some countries where in a crowd the size of Wembley stadium, there might be one phone light shining in the crowd. Not enough to give any meaningful light.
As Jesus came down from the mountain, Matthew records two healings. The first is a leper. It is hard to imagine a group more outcast than lepers. Yet his first healing in Matthew’s Gospel is to reach out and touch the leper! The second miracle too is significant. It’s in response to a foreigner, a centurion asking Jesus to heal his servant. If the gospel was written to a primarily Jewish audience, it is strange that the first two healings are a total outsider and a foreigner.
Build my Eklesia
Matthew is the only gospel to use the word ‘eklesia’, translated church. It is hard not to read 2000 years of church history into this word. It may be better understood as community. “On this rock”, the rock of Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, “On this rock I will build my community, my eklesia, my people who are called by my name.”
Matthew writes about the ‘Kingdom of heaven’. Other gospel writers have the ‘Kingdom of God’. The Kingdom of heaven is near. That community, that eklesia, that stands in contrast to other kingdoms. That kingdom based on very different principles to the kingdoms of the world.
On a mountain – again!
After describing the passion, Matthew brings everything together in the last few verses of his gospel, often referred to as ‘The Great Commission’.
“Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:16-20
So Matthew’s Gospel finishes as it starts. The one who has all authority, with us till the end of the age. The Immanuel, God with us. The eleven disciples were incredibly ordinary people. Even with the risen Christ in front of them, some doubted. But it was to these eleven that Jesus gave the charge. It was to these eleven that the Immanuel entrusted the growth of the Kingdom of heaven.
The Ends of the Earth
These verses bring to mind the gospel going out to the ends of the earth. Where are the ends of the earth? Surely it’s relative. For me it’s always been the city of Urumchi. That mystical city at the end of the Silk Road, now in Western China. There are many nineteenth century descriptions of the awe and danger of the ancient silk route. A truly perilous journey, with the promise of the majestic stone walls rising from the desert. Sadly now, it is one of the ten most polluted cities in the world, which makes it lose some of its appeal.
For the citizens of Urumchi though, the ends of the earth could well be the dreamy spires of that ancient city of learning thousands of miles away, Oxford! And then if we go to a small town, with a famous palace a few miles north – then that really is the ends of the earth!
As you go …
The great commission is difficult to translate. The NIV says ‘Go’, but this is not an imperative in the Greek. The only imperative in the Greek is ‘disciple!’ A literal translation would be ‘having gone’, but probably the best translation is ‘As you go’. The great commission isn’t just for those who are sent cross-culturally. It’s for all followers of Jesus. ‘As you go’ in your ordinary life, ‘as you go’ in you daily business. As you go, disciple.
In practice, the great commission is often interpreted ‘as you go make decisions for Christ’, but the command is not to make decisions. It’s to disciple. Dallas Willard, in his book about discipleship called ‘The Great Omission’, gives this example about discipleship. He describes a neighbour buying a new car. This new car though coughs and splutters and the neighbour is ridiculed for buying a lemon. A while later he finds out that the neighbour had been supplementing some of the petrol with water. No wonder the car wouldn’t run properly. It wasn’t the manufacturer’s fault. It would be wrong to give that make of car a bad name. How often has the gospel been given a bad name because we have taught decisions and not discipleship. How often have people been turned away because the church has practised a watered down version of the gospel and has not pursued discipleship?
Another illustration is of a famous Oxford academic. He is asked if he remembers John Smith, one of his students. “Smith” he replies “is not one of my students. He may have attended some of my lectures, but he is not one of my students.” As you go, disciple …
Disciple the English
The next amazing thing about the Great Commission is the subject of the imperative ‘disciple’. The subject of the verb is ‘ethne’, peoples or nations. The command is to disciple nations. Not just individuals, but whole nations. The scope is incredible. We are called to disciple nations! As you go, disciple the English! As you go to work, disciple the English! As you go to school, disciple the English! As you go about your daily lives, disciple the English!
How? ‘Well by teaching everything I have commanded.’ We now see why Matthew focuses so much on Jesus’ teaching. This is how we disciple the English! Matthew’s vision is awe inspiring and breathtaking. ‘As you go’, small communities, small eklesia, building a kingdom. A kingdom founded on very different principles to the kingdoms on earth, the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s fantastically subversive! Small communities of believers being salt and light, discipling nations!
At the risk of sounding like John Lennon, imagine! Imagine a nation where people truly love their neighbours. Imagine a nation where people treat their own hate as if it was murder; their own lust as if it was adultery. Imagine a nation where people confronted by violence turned the other cheek, and no longer responded to violence with violence! Imagine a nation that doesn’t just love their neighbours, but loves their enemies! Imagine a country where people are not just striving for their own wealth, money and power, but are storing for themselves treasures in heaven! Imagine a nation where those who are hungry or thirsty or in need of clothes, or homeless, are treated as if they were the Lord himself! Imagine a country that welcomed refugees and strangers as if they were Immanuel! Imagine a place where those who are sick or in prison are cared for as if they were the King of kings! Imagine …. ! A truly breathtaking vision – but I suspect if Matthew were to visit us today, he would be somewhat disappointed.
‘As you go, disciple the English, by teaching them everything I have commanded’. I find it very encouraging. ‘Convert the nations!’ – I can’t do that. ‘As I go to school, do my utmost to be true to the teachings of Jesus. Try and make decisions based on principles of the kingdom of heaven – and try and encourage others to do the same.’ I can do that – and so play a small part in discipling the English! ‘As you go, disciple the English …!’
Here’s a great new song by Stuart Townend that encapsulates much of what I was trying to say in this sermon. It’s called ‘Streets of the City’ and is well worth a listen!