This morning we look for the third time at the last four verses of the Gospel of Matthew, commonly called “The Great Commission,” and conclude our series of sermons on this first Gospel, a series that began in September of 2003.
I won’t repeat the comments on the text that I have made as we read it together the past two Lord’s Day mornings.
We have said many times as we made our way through the Gospel of Matthew that Matthew has a special interest in the nature of Christian discipleship. We have called the Gospel “The Gospel of Discipleship.” Time after time Matthew includes material that explains what it means to follow Jesus. There is a distinctive ethical emphasis in this Gospel. And that continues to the very end. “Teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you” reminds us again that a disciple of Jesus Christ is a person who observes Christ’s commandments.
The promise of the Lord’s presence with his disciples, with which the Gospel and the Great Commission conclude, forms a framework or an inclusio with the angel’s announcement in Matthew 1 that the baby Jesus would be called Emmanuel, “God with us,” and restates the promise of 18:20 that where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name, he would be there with them.
How the Lord is to be present with his disciples is not explained. There is, of course, the ministry of the Holy Spirit by which Christ is brought near to his people. As Walter Marshall, the English Puritan put it:
“Though Christ be in heaven and we on earth, yet He can join our souls and bodies to His at such a distance without any substantial change in either, by the same infinite Spirit dwelling in Him and in us.” [Cited in Whyte, The Spiritual Life, 54-55] And then, of course, there is the divine nature of Christ which, as divine, is omnipresent.
The “end of the age” is the phrase Matthew uses in several places to describe the parousia, the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, the end of this age of human history, and the summoning of all men to judgment. In 13:39, for example, at the end of his parable of the wheat and the tares, Jesus says that “the harvest is the end of the age and the harvesters are angels.”
Jesus says literally that he will be with his followers “all the days until the end of the age.” Some grammarians read the phrase to mean “the whole of every day” until the end of the age [E.g. Moule, Idiom Book of NT Greek, 34], making the statement even more emphatic.
It is also interesting to note that Jesus doesn’t say, “I will be with you” but “I am with you.” The presence that his disciples have enjoyed with the Lord and are enjoying at that moment will continue, though in a different form. It is the same Christ, the same presence, but now known by faith, not by sight.
In his book, Farewell to God, the late Charles Templeton, the erstwhile evangelist and colleague of Billy Graham and later Canadian journalist, makes his case against not only Christianity, but belief in a personal God of any kind. The book ends with Templeton’s description of his humanist faith.
Charles Templeton’s confession of faith begins this way:
- I believe that there is no supreme being with human attributes – no God in the biblical sense – but that all life is the result of timeless evolutionary forces, having reached its present transient state over millions of years.
- I believe that there is what may best be described as a Life Force, a First Cause…that is the genesis of all that is…
- I believe that the Life Force is not a “being.” It does not love nor can it be loved: it simply is.
- I believe that there is no Father in heaven who can be persuaded by our prayers…
Templeton goes on to talk about man’s potential for good and evil, the evil of selfishness, that caring is the greatest good, that, though predestined by our genetic inheritance we are free to make what we will of our lives, that we have the potential either to destroy the world or make it a better place, that the greatest motivating force in life is love, and that life is the superlative gift and is to be celebrated.
It is a confession of faith at war with itself. Having eliminated the very possibility of meaning in life, any justification for such things as right and wrong – at least as understood as universal norms of behavior – or any basis for such moral ideas as selfishness and love, he confesses his faith in these things nevertheless. He believes life is a gift even when he denies that there is a giver. It is the sort of confession of secular faith that Christians should read with sympathy and understanding. Templeton is, as Dr. Schaeffer used to make a point of saying, borrowing Christian capital even as he rejects the Christian faith. His confession amounts to what Thomas Carlyle once called “the great After Shrine of Christianity,” that is, many of the conclusions even though no longer supported by any of the belief system. A Christian reads Charles Templeton’s confession and cannot help but think: he doesn’t like the message of the Bible, but he is unwilling to face the implications of denying it. He wants life to be meaningful. He wants to believe in right and wrong. He confesses with his mind that human beings are nothing but pieces of cosmic scrap thrown up by accident on the shore of eternity, but he is a creature made in the image of the Living God and he cannot escape his moral nature, his longing for meaning, his craving for love. And so he restores with his right hand what he has taken away with his left. He cannot help himself. He cannot help wanting certain things to be true; it is his God-given nature. He can deny God, but he cannot deny the life only God can give, the human existence only an infinite, personal God can explain.
But, the spectacular inconsistencies notwithstanding, Templeton illustrates, in a negative way, the nature and the meaning of the stupendous promise with which the Gospel of Matthew comes to a close. To the unbeliever, to the one who does not know God, who has not encountered Jesus Christ as a living person, life is defined by the absence of God, however and to whatever extent the person realizes this. Christ left the world and God is now unrecognized and unknown. His love is not known, nor is his truth, nor the experience of his presence. That absence, that ignorance of God, that sense that life can be understood and lived without the experience of God’s presence, without reckoning with the present and living God, is the defining characteristic of a great deal of modern life and certainly of Western secular culture. Charles Templeton is simply an articulate defender of that culture in which the absence of God is its defining feature.
All along the way, however, since Christ’s ascension to heaven, there have been those who have lived in the reality and experience of God’s presence. And Charles Templeton’s denials to the contrary, that presence, that knowledge of Christ as a person, is the undeniable foundation of all their knowledge and all their living.
But there is something more here. Here, the promise of the Lord’s presence with his people is given in the context of a summons to serve him by taking the gospel to the world. The presence of the Lord is not simply given for the pleasure and assurance of his people. It is not “so much a cosy reassurance as a necessary equipment for mission.” [France, 416] I don’t mean to suggest that the Lord’s presence is not a promise of immeasurable encouragement to the individual believer in every possible respect. It most assuredly is. The Lord is with us; he will never leave us or forsake us. In weal and in woe, in life and in death we practice and we experience the presence of Christ. It is the supreme privilege of our faith, to know that he is with us to love us and to care for us. But, here, that promise is made to a very specific effect. It is given in the context of a mission upon which every Christian has been sent. The promise of the Lord’s presence here at the close of Matthew is the means by which we will be enabled to fulfill our Savior’s commission.
This is, in fact, what the promise of God’s presence with his people has often been. When, in Exodus 3:12, the Lord promised Moses that he would be with him, it was to assure Moses that he would be able to fulfill the calling that God had just given him, to bring Israel out of bondage in Egypt. It was a task seemingly impossible, certainly impossible for a mere man, but the living God would be with him to accomplish it. In a similar way, when God commissioned Joshua, Moses’ successor, to lead Israel into the Promised Land and to conquer the peoples that lived there, he assured him that he would be with Joshua, to give him victory wherever he went. “No one will be able to stand up against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.” And immediately, therefore, follows the commandment: “Be strong and courageous…”
And so it is here at the end of the Gospel of Matthew. Consider the situation the Lord’s disciples faced at that moment. They were Galileans, at least by and large. If, as seems likely, there were other people present at the time, they were Galileans as well. Galileans were regarded as second-class citizens by Judean Jews and as hillbillies by educated Romans. These were very ordinary men; there wasn’t a man of political or social stature among them. And the Lord Jesus had just told them that they were to leave their homeland, the comfortable security of their familiar way of life, and go out into a forbidding and hostile world to preach a message about an amateur Jewish rabbi who had died and risen again. Imagine entering a Greco-Roman city with a message like that! Who is going to listen? Who will take us seriously? They will laugh at us and ignore us. Surely they thought such thoughts and all the more when they actually left home and began the task of making disciples of all nations. But their confidence and courage and, eventually, their utterly unexpected and amazing success came from this fact: Christ, the Son of God, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, the Savior of the world, the King of Kings was with them. That made all the difference: for them and for their mission.
To be frank, there was perhaps no more unlikely thing that ever happened in all the world than that this message about Jesus of Nazareth should be embraced by Gentiles as the truth about God, man, and salvation. But it was! It was embraced immediately and by enormous numbers of people, including many who were hearing about all of this and any of this for the first time. They heard the message and they believed it. They hardly knew why themselves. Their lives were turned upside down in a moment. They were required to forsake their way of life, their Greco-Roman ethics, their personal and social loyalties, and they did. Why? Because Christ was with these men who took the good news to the world. Anyone could have withstood them, but no one can withstand him!
In 1884, the devout Victorian novelist Ada Ellen Bayly, who wrote under the pseudonym of Edna Lyall, published her novel We Two. Lyall’s novels were especially popular with England’s devout Prime Minister, William Gladstone. In it, she tells the story of Erica Raeburn – alas, spelled R-a-e-burn – the daughter of a prominent English atheist. Erica grows up in unbelief, her father’s daughter, but through the example and patient witness of some Christian friends and under the pressure of the sorrows of life, she realized that she could not satisfy her soul with denials and negations. “At last,” Edna Lyall writes,
“Erica’s hopelessness, her sheer desperation, drove her to cry to the Possibly Existent.” Standing at the open window of her room one summer’s evening, she suddenly found herself praying:
“O God, I have no reason to think that Thou art, except that there is such fearful need of Thee. I can see no single proof in all the world that Thou art here. But if Thou art, O Father, if Thou art, help me to know Thee! Show me what is true!”
A few days later Erica found herself at the British Museum, for her work, making some extracts from The Life of Livingstone. She came across an extract from the great missionary’s journal in which he spoke of his reliance on the Lord’s statement at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, “Surely I am with you always.”
“Exactly how it all came to her Erica never knew, nor could she ever put into words the story of the next few moments. When “God’s great sunrise” finds us out we have need of something higher than human speech; there ARE no words for it. At the utmost she could only say that it was like coming out of the twilight, that it seemed as if she were immersed in a great wave of all pervading light.
“All in a moment the Christ who had been to her merely a noble character of ancient history seemed to become to her the most real and living of all living realities. Even her own existence seemed to fade into a vague and misty shadow in comparison with the intensity of this new consciousness, this conviction of His being which surrounded her which she knew, indeed, to be “way, and truth, and life.” They shall hear My voice [Jesus had said].” In the silence of waiting, in the faithfulness of honest searching, Erica for the first time in her life heard it. Yes, she had been right, truth was self-revealing. A few minutes ago those words had been to her an unfulfilled, a vain promise. The speaker, broad-hearted and loving as he was, had doubtless been deluded. But now the voice spoke to her, called her by name, told her what she wanted.
“That which often appears sudden and unaccountable is, if we did but know it, a slow, beautiful evolution. It was now very nearly seven years since the autumn afternoon when the man “too nice to be a clergyman,” and “not a bit like a Christian,” had come to Erica’s home, had shown her that at least one of them practiced the universal brotherliness which almost all preached. It was nearly seven years since words of absolute conviction, words of love and power, had first sounded forth from Christian lips in her father’s lecture hall, and had awakened in her mind that miserably uncomfortable question “supposing Christianity should be true?”
“The subdued rustle of leaves, the hushed footsteps sounded as usual in the great library, but Erica was beyond the perception of either place or time. She took up her pen once more, verified the dates, rolled up her manuscript, and with one look at Livingstones’s journal, returned it to the clerk and left the library.
“It was like coming into a new world; even dingy Bloomsbury seemed beautiful. Her face was so bright, so like the face of a happy child, that more than one passer-by was startled by it, lifted for a moment from sordid cares into a purer atmosphere. She felt a longing to speak to some one who would understand her new happiness. She had reached Guilford Square, and looked doubtfully across to the Osmonds’ house. They would understand. But no she must tell her father first. And then, with a fearful pang, she realized what her new conviction meant. It meant bringing the sword into her father’s house; it meant grieving him with a life-long grief; it meant leaving the persecuted minority and going over to the triumphant majority; it meant unmitigated pain to all those she loved best.
“A new joy had come to her which her father could not share; a joy which he would call a delusion, which he spent a great part of his life in combating. To tell him that she was convinced of the truth of Christianity why, it would almost break his heart.” [We Too, chapter 19]
There is the story of the gospel’s advance in the world: the presence of Christ being made known to folk who had no idea of it previously. And, in this fictional case, as in so many cases in history, it was the conviction of Christ’s presence in the heart of a Christian that opened the heart of another to the reality of the Lord’s presence. David Livingstone, the missionary, went in obedience to the Lord’s commission to make disciples of the nations. He defied difficulties and dangers of every kind because he was conscious of Christ’s presence with him. And the presence that went with him found others, many others, wherever he went.
So it was for John Paton, the great 19th century missionary to the New Hebrides. His wife and infant son died shortly after his arrival at his mission station on the island of Tanna. He was forced to leave his station or perish four years later, able to take with him only his Bible and a few other possessions that he could carry with him.
“Trials and hairbreadth escapes only strengthened my faith and nerved me for more to follow; and they trod swiftly upon each other’s heels. Without that abiding consciousness of the presence and power of my Lord and Savior, nothing in the world could have preserved me from losing my reason and perishing miserably. His words, Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end became to me so real that it would not have startled me to behold Him, as Stephen did, gazing down upon the scene. It is the sober truth that I had my nearest and most intimate glimpses of the presence of my Lord in those dread moments when musket, club, or spear was being leveled at my life.” [This and much of the above in Frank Boreham, Treasury, 126]
Three months after arriving on Tanna with his wife and infant son, they died of a fever. He buried them with his own hands.
“Let those who have ever passed through similar darkness – darkness as of midnight – feel for me; as for all others, it would be more than vain to try to paint my sorrows. I was stunned: my reason seemed almost to give way…” [Autobiography, 79]
But he went on.
“I built a wall of coral round the grave, and covered the top with beautiful white coral, broken small as gravel; and that spot became my sacred and much-frequented shrine during all the years that, amidst difficulties, dangers, and deaths, I labored for the salvation of those…islanders. Whenever Tanna turns to the Lord and is won for Christ, men will find the memory of that spot still green. It was there that I claimed for God the land in which I had buried my dead with faith and hope.”
And whence came that faith and that hope? John Paton’s son, Frank, who served after his father on Tanna to great effect, who saw many islanders come to Christ, wrote that in his private conversation and public addresses his father was constantly quoting these words from Matthew 28: “Lo, I am with you always.” He explained that reality as the inspiration for his confidence in times of danger and steadfastness in the work in the face of many obstacles that would have defeated and did defeat men of lesser faith. So much was our text this morning the motto of Paton’s life that it is inscribed on the headstone of Paton’s grave in Australia.
“Lo, I am with you alway!
As with Moses and Joshua, as with the eleven and the others of that first generation to make disciples of all nations, as with David Livingstone, it was the conviction of Christ’s presence that made him a lion of a man and a prince of the gospel in Africa. And it was that same Christ, present with John Paton, who made believers out of so many of those Pacific Islanders whose history and life experience and culture made their acceptance of the Christian gospel, humanly speaking, an utterly unlikely thing.
Now it is for us this morning, brothers and sisters, as we conclude the Gospel of Matthew, to believe what our Savior has said; to take him at his Word, to trust that he will honor his promise: “Surely I am with you always – every hour of every day – to the very end of the age.” That promise is made to you and to me. And it is made to you and to me for the same purpose it was made to the disciples in Galilee, that favored company that heard these words uttered viva voce by Jesus himself. He is with us. We are accompanied through our days and our nights, and especially when we are engaged in the service of the Lord and his gospel, we are accompanied by his presence. He is before us, behind us, and beside us. “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him.”
“I have set the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.” [Psalm 16:8]
“Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” [Hebrews 13:5-6]
Is there a more amazing promise than this? That Christ is with us and that we carry his presence with us wherever we go. In a strange way, we have a power over the Lord Jesus. According to his promise, wherever we go, he must go as well! He is as really with us as he was with the disciples during the days of his ministry. But if that is true and we believe it true – as we must! – well, then, that is truth to live by. This is a promise meant to nerve, steel, inspire, and animate the mind and heart. It is a promise meant to set us to doing the Lord’s work in the world. It is meant to make us disciple-makers, – whether among our own children or our friends and neighbors – undaunted by the difficulties of that work, even by the apparent hopelessness of it at first glance.
And those who have done that work in the conviction of Christ’s presence have found him present indeed. And it has been his presence that made their ordinary and unremarkable words to unbelievers powerful and effective to transform their hearts and lives. It has been Christ’s presence that has made even the most unlikely converts as sure of the truth of the gospel of Christ as they are of their own existence. The Lord Christ can do that and here he promises to do that through us! The Lord’s promise should make all of us determined to be numbered among that honored and privileged company who are in the world making disciples for the Lord Jesus Christ.