“Our Part in the Story”
Matthew 28:16-20; Acts 1:6-8
Pentecost, May 20, 2018
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
Some years ago, I decided that Pentecost was too significant a moment in the ecclesiastical calendar, in what is called “The Christian Year,” not to devote a sermon to its celebration. I would never fail to preach a sermon during Advent about the incarnation or in Holy Week apropos Palm Sunday or the crucifixion and I would never fail to preach at Easter on the resurrection; but for years on Pentecost I had simply continued with whatever sermon series I was preaching at the time. But some dozen years ago or so I realized that this was a mistake – that Pentecost was far too important an event in world history and far too significant to the Christian faith to ignore – and ever since I have preached on Pentecost Sunday a sermon related to the significance of that wonderful and cataclysmic event. And so, this morning I am departing from my series of morning sermons on the Ten Commandments to consider the significance of the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, some ten days following the Lord’s ascension to heaven.
v.19 “all nations” Jesus had been sent to the lost sheep of the tribe of Israel and he had instructed his disciples, during the ministry, to limit themselves to work among the Jews (Matt. 10:5-6). But that restriction was now lifted, and the entire world lay before them to be reached. That world-wide mission and so a church of Jesus Christ drawn from every tongue, tribe, and nation was, as you know, anticipated many times in the Lord’s teaching before the end of the Gospel of Matthew. Remember that he said in Matt. 8:11, responding to the faith of a Roman centurion and the unbelief of the Jews, “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.”
The main verbs of the sentence are in is the imperative in v. 19: “Go” and “make disciples.” What follows is grammatically subordinate to those main verbs. “Baptizing” and “teaching” are participles, verbal adjectives that modify and are dependent upon the main verbs. What that tells us is that “baptizing” and “teaching” are how disciples are made.
v.7 After the resurrection of the Lord, and in the prospect of the descent of the Holy Spirit, the disciples were hopeful that the consummation of history was upon them. The Lord’s reply, however, ended the discussion. Events would clarify the rest. It was not only that they didn’t know when the end would come or couldn’t know it; they weren’t supposed to know it. The nature of their life in this world depended upon their not knowing.
Now I want this morning for you to notice the familiar, uncontroversial facts that Christ commissioned his people to take the gospel to the world and then equipped them to fulfill this calling by giving them his Holy Spirit at Pentecost. We might very well have expected that the assertion in Matthew 28:18 – that he possessed all authority in heaven and earth – would be followed by a statement that the Lord was now going to make disciples of all nations. But, instead, there follows after the therefore a command given to us: “go and make disciples of all nations…” Jesus would instead use his own disciples to make disciples of all the nations of the world.
Then in Acts 1, just before his ascension, once again the Lord told his disciples that they were to be his witnesses in the world, that is, it would fall to them to announce to the world the gospel of Christ and make more disciples of the Lord Jesus. But he also told them that they would first be given the Holy Spirit to empower their witness and make it effective. In other words, the so-called Great Commission of Matthew 28 defined our mission and Pentecost provided the power to fulfill it. Now, to be sure, the Great Commission in both its Matthew 28 and its Acts 1 form was addressed to the apostles. But we are given plenty of evidence in the New Testament that what was said to the apostles applies, necessary changes being made, to all Christians. The apostles were together a microcosm of the church – that is why there were twelve of them – and what was said specifically to them applies generally to all Christians. And so, it was from the beginning. Christians in general, not only Christian ministers, told others about who Jesus was and what he had done to save them from their sins. Ordinary believers in Jesus participated in the making of disciples from every tongue, tribe, and nation in the years immediately following Pentecost and have been doing so ever since. So, there is the history: after his resurrection the Lord Jesus commissioned his church to bear witness to his victory over sin and death to the world and then gave his Holy Spirit to empower their witness. From that time the number of the Lord’s disciples grew exponentially and in every direction from the Holy Land. The world has never been the same!
One mistake about the Bible that has often been made by Christians, unwittingly I’m sure, is to regard it as primarily a theological dictionary, a manual of doctrine, a repository of theological truth. It is that, of course. From the Bible we derive our understanding of the truth about God, man, sin, salvation, and the Christian life. No one should minimize the importance of the Bible as the revelation of biblical doctrine. Collecting all of its data on those various subjects, theologians have explained what the Bible teaches about this biblical theme and that. That is the sort of teaching that we find in a more exhaustive and sophisticated form in books of theology, but also in the Christian creeds and catechisms, such as our own Westminster Confession of Faith and Larger and Shorter Catechism. But the Bible is not first a manual of doctrine. It is not written like a manual of doctrine; it certainly doesn’t read like any systematic theology I have ever read. It is first and foremost a history, an account of what has happened from the beginning of the world and what will happen to its end. It relates the creation, then the fall of man into sin, then the election of Abraham and his descendants, through whom God promised to bless all the nations of the world and by which he prepared the world for the appearance of its Savior. Then we read of the personal history and atoning work of the Son of God, his death on the cross, his resurrection, his ascension to heaven, and the promise of his eventual return. And we read of the commission Jesus gave to his disciples to overspread the world with the knowledge of who he is and what he did and of the the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost empowering the church, and finally of the beginnings of the gospel’s course of conquest through the world.
The Bible is primarily the story of God’s mission to save the world and how God has done that and is doing that! It is an account of things that happened and a prediction of things that are yet to happen. When the story of this world is finally written from the vantage point of its consummation, it will be this story, the story of the salvation of sinners, the story of the growth of the kingdom of God that will be told: how the kingdom grew through thick and thin; how it was embattled and sometimes seemed even to be eclipsed or defeated, but then sprang to life again. Many imagine that the story of the world is really the story of human achievement, of scientific and technological advancement, of wars and revolutions, of politics, and of all the men and women and of their accomplishments that, at the time, seemed so significant but which, in fact, left the human race in precisely the same condition it had always been in before. No! “This world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” The story of the human race is and will forever be how eternal life sprang up in a world of sin and death, how God’s love and power redeemed a fallen humanity, and how that deliverance came to be known and embraced by untold multitudes of men and women, boys and girls, and how, alas, their one opportunity to obtain eternal life was squandered by multitudes of other human beings. Triumph and tragedy, all with respect to eternity!
In eternity to come this will be what people remember. No one is going to remember the invention of the cell phone. This is what the conversation in heaven will be about. How did salvation come to you? When and where did it happen that the light of the truth and the love of God was poured out into your heart? The angels don’t rejoice over human inventions, which do some good and some harm, usually in equal measures. They don’t rejoice over political developments. But they do rejoice over one sinner who repents. And there are sinners repenting by the hundreds and thousands every single day in this world! This is what they care about. They are ministering spirits sent to help those who are being saved, as we read in Hebrews. They are involved in the spread of salvation, in the making of disciples. They know as we know that when the last disciple has been made, this world and all of its vaunted accomplishment will cease to exist. This world continues to exist, as the Bible tells us, for the sake of salvation and will exist until the last of God’s chosen ones have been called to new life in Christ.
But far too often that story, the great story of human history, has receded into the background and has been replaced by a more individualistic perspective and a more philosophical or conceptual account of the Christian faith. But when the Bible is treated less as a history of God’s work in the world and more as theological manual, as a dictionary of the timeless truths of Christian doctrine rather than as the thrilling, racy, mysterious drama of salvation, it is precisely the Bible’s emphasis on the divine mission of the Savior in the world that tends to be lost or at least underappreciated.
Doctrines may be carefully delineated one after another – justification, sanctification, glorification – to do so is a strength of our Reformed tradition – but if we are not careful the larger sweep of salvation history recedes into the background if it does not disappear altogether. If you read, for example, some of the classic theological systems of Christian history you will notice that the story of salvation really did recede into the background as the theologian concentrated on defining his terms and organizing biblical doctrines into a system. Doctrine swallowed up the story of salvation, past, present, and future. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae is a case in point. Page after page, book after book of precise theological distinctions in the form of questions and answers, but almost nothing about the mission of the church in the world, about what God is doing in the world, and about how we Christians are to contribute to God’s mission in the world. What is missed is precisely what is actually going on in the world, what is happening all around us, and what part we have to play in all of that!
But it is not only a medieval system like that of Aquinas of which this is true. It is true also of some of the most important Reformed systematic theologies. This is true to a certain extent in Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, it is even more the case in Francis Turretin’s late 17th century Institutes of Theology, one of the most influential of Reformed systematic theologies. Theological doctrines – sin, incarnation, atonement, election, and so on – are carefully defined in these great works; the various doctrines are organized and defended in a systematic way, objections are answered, and so on. All to the good, we need these books. But there is almost nothing of the history of God’s mission in the world. The trees appear in great clarity. It is the forest that is missing! It is revealing that in Bernhardus DeMoor’s massive 18th century history of theology, six huge Latin volumes of doctrinal definition, what God is doing in the world, the great story of the salvation of the world, Pentecost itself, receives virtually no attention. You will find virtually nothing in any of these great works, valuable as they certainly are, important as these details of biblical teaching no doubt are, about the big picture; nothing about the Great Commission or about Pentecost. Nothing is said of the obligation of Christians to bring salvation to the world or of their empowerment by the Holy Spirit to accomplish that mission, the Lord’s last and emphatic statement to his disciples. You parents, when the babysitter arrives and you’re ready to leave for your evening date, the most important things you say to her are the things you say just before walking out the door. If there’s an emergency, this is where we will be, this is how to reach us. The last things are the most important things. The last thing Jesus said to you and to me was, “My gospel is going to the entire world and you are going to take it.”
I remember a conversation I had in 1984 with a theology professor in Holland about Francis Gomarus, a representative Reformed theologian of the 17th century, of the generation of the Synod of Dordt. Gomarus’ works were important enough and thought valuable enough to be collected after his death and published in three large volumes. But, said this professor, you can search those three large volumes from stem to stern and you will find nothing about the Christian’s responsibility to love the lost, to seek to win them to faith in Christ, or to order their lives so as to bear witness to the unbelieving world. If you read only Gomarus you would never know that every Christian is to be an evangelist or missionary and that the church is to see its mission in the world as planting the flag of the kingdom of Jesus Christ in every nation on earth.
An example of this same failure that comes closer to home is our own Westminster Confession of Faith. It is one of the most influential of all Christian creeds and for perfectly understandable reasons. It is a clear and wonderfully helpful account of Christian doctrine, from the doctrine of Holy Scripture to the doctrine of the Last Judgment. But once again there is nothing in all of those chapters about the mission of the church to take the gospel to the world, there is nothing about the church’s task to win the world to faith in Christ, there is nothing about the Christian’s part in the winning of the world, and Pentecost is not so much as even mentioned in all of its chapters or in any of the questions and answers in its two catechisms. The very thing that Jesus emphasized just before he left the world, the assignment he gave to his people to fulfill before his return, the equipment with which he furnished them to execute that assignment, was somehow forgotten. How is that possible? It is perfectly obvious in the Bible that Pentecost is one of the principal turning points in world history because it inaugurated the spread of the Christian faith throughout the world, with all the profound changes in human life that was to cause. But it goes unremarked on in the Westminster Confession. Nor does it appear in the index of the three large volumes of Christian theology by Francis Turretin. I haven’t yet found it mentioned in any significant way in the volumes of Bernhardus DeMoor. All of these books have titles like that of Institutes, or Systematic Theology, or Dogmatics. I like better the British scholar Christopher Wright’s title for his theology of the Old Testament: The Mission of God. I like even better for a title for a summary of the Christian faith, F.F. Bruce’s title for his history of the first six centuries of the church after Pentecost: The Spreading Flame.
John Murray, long professor of theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia warned against the ever-present danger of abstraction in Christian theology, the reduction of the divine action in history to a more timeless, static, philosophical account of what Christianity is all about, its teachings or doctrines, and so the reduction of the Christian faith to ideas – however true and however wonderful those ideas – rather than to the mighty acts of God and his plan and purpose for the world. And on this Pentecost Sunday is worth our taking stock, worth our asking ourselves if we too have neglected the story of God’s salvation; if we might have neglected to understand ourselves as part of the mission of God to save the world. Have I thought to much about what Christ means to me and too little about what he must mean to the whole world? After all, it is obvious that the story the Bible tells is a story of the grace of God overtaking the world, overspreading the nations and peoples of this world; of Christ doing battle with the forces of evil and bringing them to heel. Is this not so?
We can come to care far too much about doctrinal precision and forget that in unending years to come some of our dearest brothers and sisters will not have shared our theological outlook in every part when they lived in this world. Everyone’s thinking will be put right in the end. What matters is that we find salvation while we can in this world, the only place where it will ever be found! Is this not the great story of the Bible?
Is not the God of the Old Testament a missionary God? The first words he spoke to Abraham were that he had been chosen because God intended that through Abraham all the nations of the world would be blessed. Did not the prophets preach at length about the nations coming at last to worship the living God? Is not Jesus Christ in the Gospels a missionary? True enough, he said that he had been sent only to the Jews. But he sought them and found many of them and before he left the world he placed his apostles, and through them his people forever, under orders to undertake a worldwide mission of gospel witness. And it was Jesus himself who promised to send in his place the Holy Spirit to convict the world of sin and judgment and salvation. Was not Pentecost a missionary event? Its great sign miracle was nothing else but people from many parts of the Mediterranean world hearing the good news in their own languages, a foretaste of things to come, though missionaries thereafter would have to apply themselves diligently to the learning of the languages of the people to whom they brought the gospel. No miraculous and sudden fluency for them! Was not the Holy Spirit in Acts a missionary Spirit? One sermon on Pentecost brought in 3,000 new disciples of the Lord. And from that moment forward came thousands upon thousands and millions upon millions more. Were not the churches of the New Testament letters missionary churches? Did not Paul write to the Thessalonian believers:
“For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere…” [1 Thess. 1:8]
Were not the churches of the Revelation missionary churches, both the fruit of the labors of men and women fulfilling Christ’s great commission, but involved themselves in doing the same? Does not the Lord speak to the Church in Philadelphia of the “open door” which he has set before it, in the language of the New Testament almost certainly a reference to missionary opportunity? There were people for them to make disciples.
True enough, there are other dimensions of the Christian life. The Bible is explicit about that. The Ten Commandments and the rest of biblical law set before us obligations to be met in our own hearts, in our marriages and families, in the church, as well as in the world. There are many ways to be faithful to the Lord and to serve him and not all of them have to do with making disciples of Jesus Christ, though personal godliness of every type contributes to the power of our witness to the salvation that is in Jesus Christ.
But we must never lose sight of the great epic of salvation that is the story of world history, the tale of spiritual weal and woe, of triumph and tragedy, of mysterious but thrilling progress and of unaccountable relapse, of eternal life and eternal death as God works to deliver the world he made from the sin and death in which it had pitched itself and to bring at last to heaven those vast multitudes whom he has chosen by his grace, redeemed by his Son, and has called or will call by his Spirit.
In keeping with my schedule of Bible reading I found myself the other day in Isaiah, in that section of oracles of judgment pronounced against one of Judah’s enemies after another. Chapter 19 begins, altogether typically, with an account of the judgment that will befall Egypt for its sins, its own sins and the sins it committed against God’s people.
“Behold the Lord is riding on a swift cloud and comes to Egypt; and the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence, and the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them. And I will stir up Egyptians against Egyptians, and they will fight, each against another and each against his neighbor…and I will give over the Egyptians into the hand of a hard master, and a fierce king will rule over them declares the Lord God of hosts.” [19:1-4]
And on it goes in the same vein. All of that happened, of course. Babylon put an end to upwards of three thousand years of Egyptian power and glory and the country has never recovered. Isaiah 19 is still a description of Egypt today as anyone knows who reads the newspaper.
But, if you continue to read in Isaiah 19, you come to this:
“In that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the Lord at its borders. It will be a sign and a witness to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt. When they cry to the Lord because of oppressors, he will send them a savior and defender, and deliver them. And the Lord will make himself known to the Egyptians, and the Egyptians will know the Lord in that day and worship with sacrifice and offering, and they will make vows to the Lord… And the Lord will strike Egypt, striking and healing, and they will return to the Lord and he will listen to their pleas for mercy and heal them.
“In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria [Assyria, remember, is present day Iraq – though perhaps here both Egypt and Assyria represent all the enemies of the people of God, not just those two nations], and Assyria will come into Egypt and Egypt into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians.
“In that day Israel will be third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance.’” [19:19-25]
Now that is wonderful! Divine love conquering rebellious hearts. Dying men given new and eternal life. The knowledge of the Lord covering the earth as the waters cover the sea! What can compare with that? That is the mission of God! That is what God is doing in the world, that is what Pentecost made possible, and that is the story in which you and I are privileged to have a part. Through all of our individual up and downs, amidst all the other issues of our lives, as we fulfill our other callings as the followers of Christ, we must never forget this. We are to be disciple-makers. We are to make disciples ourselves and we are to encourage, support, and pray for others who are likewise doing that greatest of all work. It is what life in this world is all about! Do what you can: come to prayer on Wednesday nights and pray for others doing this great work. Do what you can where you are. Find among the opportunities afforded to you the way to be at work making disciples. And never cease to pray:
Lord, lay some soul upon my heart and love that soul through me.
And may I nobly do my part to win that soul for thee.
And when I come to the beautiful city, and the saved all
Around me appear,
I want to hear somebody tell me: It was you who invited me here.