The best witness follows God’s lead.
“A little boy built a model ship, glued all the pieces together, and worked on it for hours. It was perfect. Every detail was correct, down to tiny sailors standing on the deck. He put it in a glass case. He wouldn't let his brother play with it in the bathtub. He was going to keep it perfect by keeping it safe.
“His parents bought a real boat so they could spend the weekends sailing out on the harbor. They loved it. At first. It was a lot of work to maintain. Boat owners will tell you that the day you bought your boat was the happiest day of your life, and the day you sold it was the second happiest. At first, they used it a lot. But then they used it less. It was expensive. After a few months, they went to spend a day sailing and found barnacles growing on the side, algae all over it, and a dead motor. A real boat is only kept in shape by being used.
“The two boats worked in opposite ways. The model was preserved by being kept safe. The real boat was preserved by being used.”
<James Miller, found at https://illustrationexchange.com/illustrations?category=631.>
CONTEXT: This is the last word in Matthew’s Gospel, the last thing Jesus says to His disciples, His final instructions before returning to heaven. They were gathered on a mountain top in Galilee, their home territory, for this final encounter. Incredible as it seems, Matthew honestly reports that some of the disciples WORSHIPED Jesus, but some still DOUBTED. Let’s begin there.
For those who DOUBTED, the words of Jesus had no immediate meaning. His promises of His authority and abiding presence were not for the doubters. They weren’t committed and at that time, had no part with Him. The promises were not for them.
Instead, Jesus’ promises were for those who had faith and WORSHIPED Him. They knew and believed that He commissioned them under the AUTHORITY that had been given to Him by God the Father. They knew and believed His promise to be with them ALWAYS was perfectly reliable. They would count on His abiding presence to inform and empower their obedience to His commands.
And so it is for all of us in this very moment. This passage is for everyone who worships Jesus as Lord of their life. It will sound like mere words in the ears of those who have not crossed the threshold of faith. Do you have a "model" faith or a "real" faith? Know which you are as we begin.
1. This passage has been misunderstood.
Matthew 28:19-20 is known as “The Great Commission” and is frequently cited as a call to evangelism. On this basis we have been sending missionaries to foreign lands for over 150 years.
Preachers love to cite the four verbs as imperatives to soul-winning. GO has been understood as being assertive in seeking out t unsaved, creating our own opportunities to tell others about Jesus.
MAKE DISCIPLES has been taken as a call to “soul winning,” a term that never appears in the Bible. The emphasis is lopsidedly on making converts.
The fact that the word BAPTIZING appears here has been taken to mean that baptism is somehow necessary for salvation. The evidence in Scripture points to baptism as a demonstration of salvation, not a means of obtaining it.
TEACHING is the most obvious of the four verbs and Jesus Himself explained the aim of our teaching ministry; “TO OBEY EVERYTHING I HAVE COMMANDED YOU.”
The usual use of this passage creates problems. If Jesus’ Great Commission makes every disciple responsible to assertively create opportunities to witness, then we all bear responsibility for every human contact we make throughout the day. This is a massive responsibility that none of us is capable of undertaking. It is not biblical, not Jesus’ intended understanding of the Commission, and produces a lot of guilt about the subject of evangelism.
2. How this passage should be understood.
At the risk of sounding like I am splitting hairs, a correct interpretation of the passage requires translating the word GO properly. We first need to observe the order of the words. In the Greek, the word GO has emphasis because it comes first. Here’s how a direct translation reads: “GOING THEREFORE DISCIPLE YE ALL THE NATIONS, BAPTIZING THEM IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER AND OF THE SON AND OF THE HOLY SPIRIT, TEACHING THEM TO OBSERVE ALL THINGS WHATEVER I GAVE COMMAND TO YOU; AND BEHOLD WITH YOU I AM ALL THE DAYS UNTIL THE COMPLETION OF THE AGE.”
Second, we must observe the nature of the word: GO is a verb and we are commanded to it, but it is assumed we are going already.
As translated above, GOING THEREFORE is not a command to get moving, but to do something as you are moving. As you live, put your real faith to work. To put it another way, Jesus said, “As you go, make disciples. Baptize them and teach them to be obedient.”
Now we can move to application of the rest of the commands.
The word DISCIPLE means to make new converts and to mature those who have accepted Jesus. Discipleship is a life-long process where followers of Jesus help each other to mature spiritually. I believe Jesus had Deuteronomy 6:6-7 on His mind as He gave this teaching.
THESE COMMANDMENTS THAT I GIVE YOU TODAY ARE TO BE UPON YOUR HEARTS. IMPRESS THEM ON YOUR CHILDREN. TALK ABOUT THEM WHEN YOU SIT AT HOME AND WHEN YOU WALK ALONG THE ROAD, WHEN YOU LIE DOWN AND WHEN YOU GET UP.
Even though the word GO is crucial for our understanding of this passage, in the Gk it is the word DISCIPLE that is the main verb. It can be said that GO, BAPTIZE, and TEACH are all explanations of discipleship. If you live for Jesus, the reason you draw breath today is so that you can disciple and be discipled. That’s the bottom line.
The word BAPTIZE is important to all Christians but not all of them will agree with the way I am about to define it. Baptism is an action that is both a proof of a real faith and a means of discipleship. It serves the purposes of witness and maturing a person’s faith.
Throughout the centuries, the Church has recognized this dual role of baptism and has historically used it as a means of maturing new believers. For example, in the first century church, candidates for baptism had to go through THREE YEARS of preparation before they were baptized.
Finally, the word TEACH takes in all forms of instruction in Scripture and spiritual disciplines. Because the main ingredients for maturing followers of Jesus are prayer and the Bible, it will always be necessary to be taught. Folks who figure they have no more to learn reveal they have a “model” faith, not a “real” one. A faith that works and is not just limited to display purposes is a growing faith. There is always more to learn.
What we teach and learn draws us closer to God. We grow by book learning and by life experience; we must not rely on one or the other but seek both. Teachers teach by setting an example to follow as well as by passing along information, illustrating it with personal experience. Teachers are lifelong learners. In this life, we are both teachers and learners. This is our greatest duty.
The best witness follows God’s lead.
We usually see witnessing as something we initiate, an opportunity we create by being assertive. Worse, what often motivates us to witness is a false sense of guilt when we aren’t assertive, leading us to approach people in ways that aren’t genuine. The result is often an awkward, unproductive encounter that may cause more harm than good.
This passage in Matthew’s Gospel indicates a better biblical way to approach witnessing. Witnessing encounters start with the knowledge that God is the Initiator. He will guide us to persons on occasions where He has already prepared their heart and ours. He will give you words to say.
The second step is ours. We need to listen to the Holy Spirit for the urging to speak and the words to speak. Awareness of a God-directed opportunity to witness will come to us quietly, a gentle urging that can be easy to ignore or overlook. What’s needed is active hearts, eyes and ears to sense the opportunities as He sets them in front of us.
The third step is also ours. We must speak up, say something. What’s needed here is obedience, not eloquence. These opportunities are time-sensitive immediate obedience is necessary.
The final step involves the witness, the other people, and God. We need to fully see and hear the others as we enter into conversation with them, so we can find points of connection to them as people and points to connect them with God. We need to be awake and aware of the Spirit’s guidance as the dialogue develops, and follow His lead. In these instances, our book learning (the Bible) and our experience (testimony) will be useful, so we need to be prepared to talk about both of them.
Be forewarned. These opportunities will not arise in moments convenient or comfortable for you. Your adult skills of flexibility, risk assessment, and sensitivity will be required. It will be tempting to “pass by on the other side” ala Luke 10, but you will not be obedient if you do so.
If you have never sensed God leading you in this way, then something is wrong at the center of the faith you’re claiming. Persons with a “model” faith will not sense God leading them in this way; they’ve schooled themselves on how to ignore it. Persons with a “real” faith will want to have this experience and will grow from it when they take a chance that Jesus’ promises of authority and abiding presence are true.