Imagine giving a child a bucket and commanding them to empty the ocean. It’s a ridiculous request and way beyond the realms of possibility. But if the child is young enough they’ll get started with a joyful enthusiasm and give it a go. But that won’t last long. They’ll soon get tired and realise that the work is futile. And give up. Jesus gives a command to his disciples that sounds equally improbable. The sheer scale of what Jesus demands is breathtaking in its scope. Jesus is about to leave the earth and return to heaven. He is standing on a mountain with his disciples. There are only eleven of them left, and they are still psychologically reeling from watching their friend be arrested, crucified, and now be alive again. Some are doubting, most are confused, some are worshipping. Hardly the sort who can change the world. But Jesus looks at this unlikely bunch and says:
Go and make disciples of all nations. (Matthew 28 v 19)
The sheer enormity of the command is staggering. He isn’t asking them to simply go to their family, or village or even their country. He is talking about nations that they don’t even know exist. By any stretch of the imagination, this is not possible. But this is the plan. And it has always been the plan. Right from the beginning God’s intention was to bring his blessing to the whole world. All of it. Jesus understands that plan and so he issues the command.
That command continues to ring out to this day. Down through the centuries Jesus commands his followers to:
Go and make disciples of all nations.
When I hear that from the lips of Jesus, I feel just as weak and overwhelmed as the first eleven disciples standing on the mountain. I’m daunted as I look at the sheer numbers of people who have never heard about Jesus in our world. In fact, come to that, I’m daunted by the number of people who live on my street. The task feels too big. Some people are really good at doing that, we think, but not me. Added to that I have another problem. Often I don’t feel very excited about the task of making disciples. I know I’m supposed to be doing it but I find it is really hard to speak about Jesus to my friends. I feel constantly guilty that I should be doing more. And even if I manage to reach one or two, it is hardly reaching “the nations”. It can seem fairly futile and pointless. Like emptying the ocean with a bucket… I think lots of Christians find themselves in a similar situation and the guilt goes on increasing. We think we must have gone wrong somewhere. Is it really supposed to feel like such a burden?
Let’s go back a bit
The last command Jesus gave his disciples was to GO. But what was the first command Jesus gives them in Matthew’s Gospel?
Come follow me… and I will send you out to fish for people. (Matthew 4 v 19)
His final command was to GO. But his first command was to COME. This is essential for us to understand if we are ever going to be the joyful disciple-makers that Jesus is calling us to be. The relationship that exists between coming to Jesus and going out from Jesus is critical. The plan to reach the nations does not rest on our shoulders but on his. It isn’t me and my bucket. It is Jesus and his great power. And that changes everything.
Come and join me
So when Jesus calls his first disciples to come to him, he is calling them to come and join in this great mission. Jesus clearly thinks that being involved in this mission is a great, great privilege. That is why he doesn't bury disciple-making somewhere deep in the small print of following him. Rather he starts with that as the number one reason why his disciples should come and follow him in Matthew 4 v 19. It is so striking. I think if I was trying to persuade people to leave their livelihoods and their homes then I would think long and hard about what I was offering. I would want to make sure that they could see all the benefits that were in store for them. So we might expect Jesus to say, “Come follow me and I will… forgive your sin. Or I will… give you life. Or I will… take you to heaven”. But instead Jesus says,
Come follow me … and I will send you out to fish for people.
In the way that Jesus sees the world, disciple-making is not the downside of being a Christian; it is the great privilege. Perhaps we need to ask God to change our perspective on evangelism… So when Jesus issues the command to “go and make disciples” it is wrapped up with great statements about the nature of Jesus.
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. (Matthew 28 v 18)
Jesus is the rightful King. We do not need to feel as if we are trying to persuade people to join a club, or change their lifestyle a bit. We are calling people to leave one kingdom and be part of the Kingdom of Heaven. It could not be more significant.
Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matthew 28 v 20)
As we engage in making disciples, we know that Jesus is with us, equipping us and fishing through us. This really is a privilege.
Come to me
There is a relationship to be cultivated, there is a King to be followed, there is a rest to be found, before we ever run off to get on with obeying. Jesus is not raising an army of activists. He is calling an army of disciples who will delight to follow him. You see exactly the same thing in Matthew 11:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matthew 11 v 28-30)
Jesus is contrasting himself to the religious leaders of the day. They loaded people up with heavy burdens that they could not carry and then refused to lift a finger to help them. They told people to Go and do. The result was that people were left defeated and crushed. Jesus hated that attitude. So it would be extremely strange, and frankly wrong, to imagine that as Jesus left this earth his final command was designed to burden his disciples with a crushing weight that they had to carry. There must be more going on. The reason that we come to him is that his shoulders are broad enough to carry the burden. He is able to take responsibility. The task that is impossible for us is absolutely possible for him.