The birth of a child is a wondrous occasion. It is usually accompanied with songs of celebration and tears of joy. How much more the birth of the one foretold to restore the world. It was Mary who carried Jesus in her womb, but history was pregnant with his coming years before her birth. As Jesus said to Abraham’s descendants, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). So, we should not be surprised that Jesus’s birth was accompanied with singing angels and prophetic proclamations of joy.
Listen to the exclamations of hope at the start of Luke’s gospel:
The angel says to Mary, “And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (1:32–33).
Mary sings, “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever” (1:54–55).
Simeon prays, “For my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (2:30–32).
So much hope and expectation swaddled in a manger. And yet many missed the meaning of this birth.
There is a fascinating scene in Luke 4 where Jesus, who had recently begun his ministry, returns to his hometown of Nazareth. It is the Sabbath day, and Jesus gathers at the synagogue with the devout members of the town. Jesus stands to read the Scripture and is handed the scroll of Isaiah. What will he read? Will he read a judgment against the people of Israel (like Isaiah 1:4, “Ah, sinful nation!”)? Will he read a judgment against the nations who oppress God’s people (such as Isaiah 13:9, “Behold the day of the Lord comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the land a desolation and to destroy its sinners from it.”)? Will he read a message of Israel’s importance (like Isaiah 55:3, “I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.”)?
Jesus unrolls the scroll to Isaiah 61:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18–19).
Jesus reads of the Lord’s Servant who comes to accomplish God’s mission. Then he sits down and says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (4:21).
Mic drop. Jesus claims that the great moment of reconciliation and restoration has arrived. And the people of his hometown, while surprised (“Is not this Joseph’s son?”), speak well of him. They marvel. They are intrigued.
But Jesus is not done. He focuses on the hidden issue in their hearts. He knows they are wondering what he will do for them in their “hometown.” Will he heal people in Nazareth like he did in other places? So, Jesus gives two examples from the Scriptures that seem out of place. Elijah provides a miraculous supply of oil and flour to the widow in Zarepheth, in the northern country of Sidon. Elisha heals the leper Naaman from Syria, a historic enemy of Israel. Suddenly the synagogue explodes in anger.
The people of Jesus’s hometown, who knew his father, who watched him grow up, who marveled at him moments earlier, try to throw him off a cliff! (vv. 28–29). How did we move so quickly from singing, to marveling, to murdering?
The people were offended by God’s mission. It did not look the way they wanted it to. They wanted God’s mission to be about them, about their blessing, about their restoration, about their empowerment. They wanted a mission to throw off the influence and oppression of outsiders in Rome, in Sidon, in Syria, not a mission to bless those people, to feed them, to heal them. They wanted the miraculous Jesus but not the world–blessing mission he came to fulfill.
The Nazareth mob failed to stop Jesus. It was not his time. But three years later another mob would see him nailed to a Roman cross. David’s royal son, Abraham’s foreseen joy, God’s revealing light snuffed out by imperial might. For a day, God’s mission appears to fail. The serpent appears victorious. Darkness overcomes the light. Singing gives way to tears.
However, pitch black nights do not nullify the sun but show the need for it. Jesus’ death is not the end of the story, it is a new beginning. For, from the cross, redemption ripples through history—future and past (Rom 3:23–26). On his shoulders, evil is born and beaten (Col 2:15). From his wounds, forgiveness flows over our failures (Eph 1:7). Through his blood, peace permeates all things (Col 1:20).
The power of God’s mission is seen most clearly not in the joy of a new birth but in the sorrow that overcomes death. “He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15). Neither the tree in the garden nor the tree at Golgotha can stop the mission of God. God’s mission is unstoppable.
The power of God’s mission is seen most clearly not in the joy of a new birth but in the sorrow of death overcome. “He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15). Neither the tree in the garden nor the tree at Golgotha can stop the mission of God. God’s mission is unstoppable.
The authority of a messenger is dependent on two things: the importance of the message and the authority of the sender. A presidential messenger can enter any building and interrupt any meeting to deliver a message. In the same way, a messenger bringing news of victory is a welcomed disruption in any context. Power lies in the message and the sender, not in the messenger.
The second morning after Jesus’s death on the cross, a group of women are transformed from mourners into messengers. According to Matthew, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary come to the tomb to prepare his body for burial. For thirty–six hours they had borne the weight of their teacher’s death. But instead of a bruised body they find a brilliant angel.
“He is not here, for he has risen … go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead …” (Matthew 28:6–7).
Could there be a better message? Jesus lives. Could there be a higher authority?
The women flee the tomb full of fear and joy, running to tell the disciples, but Jesus interrupts them on the way. They fall at his feet in worship.
“Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”
Go and tell. This is the commission of a messenger. This is the commission given to the women at the tomb. And this is the commission Jesus later gives his disciples in Galilee.
“And 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 behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age’” (Matthew 28:18–20).
There appear to be four commands in Jesus’s commission, but there is only one: make disciples. All the other verbs modify this one imperative. A disciple is a learner. A disciple is someone who has apprenticed themselves to a teacher. A disciple is someone whose life is shaped by the life of the one they follow. Just as Jesus called his disciples—“follow me”—and shaped them over the course of three years, so his disciples are to bring others to follow Jesus as well.
Jesus commissions his disciples to make disciples of all nations or peoples. The door of discipleship is not open to Jewish people alone, but to all tribes, people, and languages anywhere on the earth. Just as the first man and woman were to fill the earth with the garden’s goodness; just as Abraham was to be a blessing to all the families of the earth; just as the blessing on Israel was to result in the nations singing for joy; just as Isaiah’s Servant of Lord was to bring about righteousness and praise among the nations; so, Jesus’s disciples are to multiply their discipleship to all nations.
To do this, they must go to the nations. God’s mission has always been both centrifugal and centripetal. The people of God were to be a light on a hill. The sojourner and the stranger were to come in. Rulers of nations were to flood into Jerusalem. The light of the Lord was meant to draw in. But also, the garden was to spread over the earth. Abram was to leave his home to go to a new land. The exiles were to seek the good of the city in Babylon. The goodness of God was meant to spread.
With Jesus’s resurrection there is a significant re–centering of God’s people. The story begins global with our shared ancestors, then it is focuses on a people in Abraham, then on a nation with Israel, then on a city with David. In Christ’s death and resurrection, the focus is expanded to more than a city, more than a nation, more than a people, but to the whole world. Of course, this was always the case, but the arrival, death, and resurrection of the Messiah, the Christ, changes things. He is the center of God’s people. He is the center of the mission.
This is why baptizing is a part of the mission. In baptism people are identified with God’s redeemed community. They are given an identity higher than tongue, tribe, and nation. They are born again into the people of God.
But what does it mean to be a part of God’s people? How do God’s people live? What do they believe? We are commissioned to answer these questions. Just as an apprentice observes and learns from her master, so disciples of Jesus watch, learn and imitate their master. In this way, the teaching of Jesus is multiplied through the lives of each disciple into the next generation.
Finally, Jesus leaves his disciples with the promise of his presence. “I am with you.” The blessing of God was with Abraham as he left his home. In the same way, we are blessed today with Jesus’s presence as we live out his commission. We make disciples—going, baptizing, and teaching—in the confidence of his authority and power of his presence.
This “Great Commission” is not a new commission, it is a new moment in the mission of God that began in the garden. Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. Multiply your life spiritually. Go where God leads you, even to the ends of the earth, until people from all nations are born into God’s family.