And Jesus came and said to [his disciples], “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 behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Churches and mission organizations (including the one in which I have spent my whole adult life) take these closing words of Matthew as a calling to share the good news of Jesus Christ with everyone, everywhere. We call it the Great Commission.
The Source of Authority
The more I reflect on it, the greater it is. Sometimes Christians get bad press for invading other cultures with our beliefs. Where do we get the right to do that? The answer is here: All authority in heaven and earth belongs to Jesus Christ, and by that authority he commanded us to go. So we go.
But that needs unpacking. “How did Jesus get that authority?” you might ask. Jesus is qualified. He is and was God from all eternity, creator of all that exists. He entered into that creation as a human. He lived a perfect life. He faced creation’s greatest danger, death itself, and overcame it. What else could you ask for in a set of qualifications?
Authority and Submission
As God he had all rights of rulership, and yet it says “authority … has been given to me.” I’m going to suggest there is something further here to be learned about authority and hierarchy. The three Persons of the Godhead, Father, Son (Jesus), and Holy Spirit, are equal in every way, yet they have different roles. Throughout the book of John, for example, Jesus speaks of submitting to the Father. The Father sends the Holy Spirit. The Father clearly holds authority that the Son and Spirit do not.
Sometimes we chafe at the idea that someone else is in charge: “I’m as good as he is!” You very well might be just as competent or even more so; and you’re certainly possess the same human worth. Hierarchy in human institutions is never perfect, but the fault is in our humanness, not in hierarchy itself. The Son and the Spirit can be in submission to the Father in a completely perfect hierarchical relationship.
I take it, then, that to have a boss or a leader over me is no reflection itself on my worth as a human being. It’s a reflection instead of the way things naturally are under God.
Yet I still wouldn’t blame a non-believer for being taken aback at Jesus’ authority claims. He may have the legal qualifications, but would I want one person running the show for everyone? Doesn’t authority usually mean lording it over everyone else? It’s another good question, and for the answer I’ll take you to a famous passage in Paul’s letters. In this section he applies what I was just talking about, the principle of hierarchy, in which to be a leader does not make one more important than another person. In this context, Eph. 5:25, 28-29, it is the husband to whom he speaks:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church,
Jesus himself had told these same disciples, just a few weeks earlier, that to lead is to serve (Matt.20:20-28, Luke 21:24-27).
Instruction For Everyone
So it is that Christians go, under the delegated authority and instruction of Jesus Christ, “baptizing” people in the name of the Three-Person God. The baptizing is not the point, of course; Jesus uses that as synecdoche for the whole process of coming into full relationship with Christ himself and with his people, the Church of which he is the head. We go with instructions to pass along his teachings to everyone: not only that they would learn them but that they would do them.
Which is exactly how each of us who is now a believer came to be one: we are, each of us, the latest link in a centuries-long chain of persons passing along Jesus’ teaching and instruction.
Good News For Everyone
And I will forever be grateful for everyone who has gone before me in obedience to the Great Commission. The message they carried was not only good instruction, it was also the best news of all time. Jesus Christ, the Lord of all reality, came as a man to earth and died for me. He rescued me from a helpless fallen state and gave me life. Learning that was an infinitely better thing than anything else that has ever happened to me.
We’re all in this together. Everyone, in every corner of the world, is in that same helpless fallen condition. The new life in Christ is good news for every person in every culture: Western, European, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, tribal, Buddhist — everyone without exception.
Great News Carried By Ordinary People
We know that this is controversial. We recognize that not everyone agrees. I literally tremble at the thought that I might be conveying an attitude that as a Christian I am superior to others. Heaven forbid, and God help me if I’m communicating that! No, I’m not better; I’ve just been given the opportunity to carry some great news that’s important for everyone.
Jesus Christ is better than any other person. I have no hesitancy saying that; in fact, I insist on it! But the rest of us are all in the same condition: we need a living relationship with Christ, and we need to follow him, in order to be rescued from death and experience God’s best.
And so we go: under authority, with that delegated authority, knowing that the good news we have learned and experienced is good for every person.
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