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 lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age."
I thought the best thing I could do in a brief meditation in preparation for baptism this morning would be to give a simple, straightforward exposition of the passage where Jesus commanded us to baptize.
Baptism Is Normative in the Church Community
Baptism is a requirement for church membership at Bethlehem. The reason for this is that the New Testament makes baptism a normative part of becoming a Christian. Jesus said, "Make disciples, baptizing them." Which should probably be paraphrased like this: "I intend for a normative part of becoming a disciple to be getting baptized." And this is just what the early church did. In Acts 2:41 it says that after Peter's first Pentecost sermon, "Those who received his word were baptized." And 25 years later, when Paul wrote to the church in Rome where he had never been before, he assumed that all the Christians were baptized. He said in Romans 6:1–3, "Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?" In other words, Paul assumes without any question or explanation that all the believers in Rome know what baptism is and have been baptized, and he appeals to the meaning of that baptism as the basis of his ethical instruction to all Christians. So Jesus made baptism a normative part of becoming a Christian in Matthew 28:19, and the apostles carried this out. That's why baptism is a requirement for church membership here at Bethlehem.
Jesus Has All Authority
So let's look at the context in which Jesus gave this requirement. Before telling us to do anything for him in v. 19, he tells us what he can do for us in v. 18. "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me." "Authority" means the right and power to do something. So Jesus means that he has absolute right and all power to do as he pleases in heaven and on earth. There is no authority in heaven which can call the will of Jesus into question, and there is no authority on earth that can call the will of Jesus into question. And no power on earth or in heaven can frustrate his will when he exerts all his power to achieve it. "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me."
Without this declaration of Jesus' authority, we could never venture confidently to make disciples. On what possible basis do we have any right to tell anybody they should change their whole way of thinking and acting and become a disciple of Jesus Christ? Only one thing could justify such outlandish proselytizing all over the world—that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and has been given an absolute authority over natural and supernatural forces so that every human and every angelic being will give an account to him. If Jesus has that kind of authority, then we Christians not only have the right but are bound by love to tell other people to change and become his disciples. And Jesus does have that kind of authority, or else he is a deceiver or this book (the Bible) so distorts his portrait that we don't know who he was. But to call Jesus a deceiver and to call this book a distortion are both unwarranted accusations. Therefore, this man has all authority in heaven and on earth; more than President Reagan, more than Mr. Andropov, more than the military-industrial complex, more than all the CEOs of all the corporations in the world put together. He is the absolute sovereign of the universe, and one way or the other every knee will bow to him.
And therefore—notice the word in verse 19—therefore, those who bend the knee of allegiance to his authority have from him the right and the power to go and make disciples everywhere. The command to go make disciples is not arbitrary. It is reasonable. Jesus did not say, "Do it because I told you, and that's it." He said, "Do it because all authority is mine." Nothing is more reasonable and more loving than to plead with the rebellious creatures of Jesus Christ that they turn and give their devotion to the King of kings who will have the last say in this world.
Over the Whole Earth
And notice also in v. 19: since Christ's authority extends over the whole earth, we must go to all the nations, all the ethnic groups on the globe. There is no culture and no religion beyond the authority of Jesus and therefore no culture and no religion beyond the Great Commission. The great challenge to biblical orthodoxy in the 80's is going to be universalism—the teaching that all men are saved whether they trust Christ or not, or at least that all religions are legitimate paths to salvation. Tolerance and pluralism will be the most praised virtues of our decade. But over all that stands a word of judgment in the mouth of Jesus Christ: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations." Not Americanism, not Western technology, not capitalism, but Jesus Christ is exalted over every culture and every religion. With his absolute authority he lays absolute claim on every person in every place. That's the foundation of all missions, domestic and frontier.
Discipleship and Death to Self
And observe also in verse 19 that our mission is to "make disciples" for Jesus. "Go and make disciples." The most important word I think Jesus ever said about becoming a disciple was Luke 14:27, "Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple." Bearing a cross does not mean primarily having hard times. It means going to Golgotha. It means dying with Christ—dying to the old attitudes of envy and strife and jealousy and anger and selfishness and pride; and turning to follow Jesus in newness of life. When we make disciples, we bid people to come and die to their old, destructive ways and to live for Jesus, who loved them and gave himself for them.
Baptized into the Death of Jesus
That brings us to the command to baptize in verse 19. The meaning of baptism develops out of this meaning of discipleship. If becoming a disciple of Jesus means dying to your old life and walking in newness of life with Christ as Jesus taught, then it's almost inevitable that the symbolic act of that conversion should come to signify a death and resurrection. And that's just what happened. Paul says in Romans 6:3, 4, "All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life." So Jesus commands baptism as a normative part of disciple-making because baptism signifies in an outward way what it means to become a disciple—death to self-reliance and a new life of faith following Jesus.
When it says in verse 19 that we are to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, I think the point is that every member of the Trinity is active in the conversion which baptism signifies. When a person becomes a disciple of Jesus, he relates in a new way to the entire Godhead. The Father becomes our heavenly Father, the Son our Lord, the Spirit our indwelling enabler. And in the act of baptism we submit ourselves to all three, and we pledge allegiance to all three.
Teaching and Observing All His Commands
Verse 20 shows that making disciples means more than getting conversions and baptisms. "Teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you . . . " Conversion and baptism are essential, but so is the on-going teaching of what Jesus taught. The new life of a disciple is a life of obedience to Jesus' commandments, or it is not a new life at all. It is worthless to acknowledge the lordship of Christ in baptism and then ignore his commandments. So all disciple-makers must be teachers, and disciples must be continual learners.
But teaching people to obey Christ is not easy. Obeying Christ in all he commanded is harder yet. It requires tremendous spiritual power. And Christ was so gracious to leave us with a word of comfort and power: "Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age" (v. 20). The reason that promise is packed with power is that the one who made it has all authority in heaven and on earth (v. 18). He is not powerful and far away. Nor is he present and weak. But he is with us, and he is all-powerful—forever. The great commission is sandwiched in powerful grace, and so are we.
As we baptize this morning, let's dedicate ourselves afresh to obeying Jesus and making disciples. But let's do it by remembering that we are sandwiched in grace: the promise of his absolute authority and power on the one side, and the promise of his constant presence on the other.