Beatitudes: Blessing and Resurrection and Why Jesus Is Better Than the Law

When Moses went up into a mountain, he delivered the Law, summed up in the Ten Commandments.

In biblical symbolism, ten is a number of completion: it presents a finished form, in the case of the Law a rounded righteousness.

Jesus also climbed a mountain and delivered a torah–a “teaching” or “law”–but he began his differently. He began with eight blessings.

galilee hills photo
Photo by israeltourism

Those blessings are known as the Beatitudes (from the Latin meaning “supreme blessedness”) and we’re going to camp out in them for the next eight weeks or more. But before we do, I want us to step back and see them with a wide lens.

The Beatitudes are as significant to Jesus’s teaching on the kingdom as the Ten Commandments were to Moses’s teaching of the Sinai Law. But their form immediately shows us that what Jesus is bringing surpasses what Moses brought.

The end of the Law, as Paul tells us, was a curse and death. Jesus, from the outset, brings life.

THE MEANING OF BLESSING

I wrote about blessing (Hebrew barak) in an early post in this series, where we looked at Jesus as the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham to bless the nations:

A study through the Bible passages that use the word “barak” shows it to be the source of life, righteousness, prosperity, and salvation.

Fundamentally, to bless is to fill with the capacity and potential for life. To curse is the opposite — it is to wither, dry up, make barren.

Blessing is a kind of empowerment given through the spoken word of God. It is as significant to human origins as creation itself: immediately after creating mankind, God BLESSED them.

For this reason, we are empowered to be more in the world than animals or plants; for good or for ill, we create, we rule, we influence through our wills and actions. We are creatures of real significance because we are blessed …

Through Jesus, the blessing of Abraham — life, salvation, prosperity, healing, creative power, influence, righteousness — comes on all the children of faith.

That Jesus opens his sermon by giving not commandments but blessings marks a fundamental difference between the Sinai Covenant and the covenant Jesus brought: where one depended on human ability for its good fulfillment, the other begins with the direct empowerment of the Word and Spirit of God.

And while blessing in the Sinai Covenant had to be earned through obedience (see Deuteronomy 28-30),* blessing in Jesus is given at the outset, as a gift.

Obedience is still the goal, of course (why would you NOT live in a relationship of hearing-and-doing with a lord, savior, and teacher whose will is perfect goodness and whose teachings are the deepest possible wisdom?), but we arrive there from a new direction.

Blessing, empowerment, being filled with the capacity for life: that’s where it starts.

THE POWER OF EIGHT

The number, too, is significant. Bible numbers are often symbolic, with some more familiar than others: one and three for God, seven for divine perfection, forty for testing/purification, etc. Eight is the number of resurrection, new life, and eternity. It indicates a new creation after the finish of the old one. Eight is both an end and a beginning: it comes after seven, the last day of the week, but since the week starts over, the eight is also a one — a new start.

The Ten Commandments presented a finished Law, a completed, closed system. Jesus acknowledges this when he says that everything written in the Law must “be accomplished”: the Law is finite and can be finished.

The Eight Blessings of Jesus’s teaching, on the other hand, give life without end. They are blessings of resurrection to eternal life.

NOT A TO-DO LIST

starry sky photo

There’s a traditional approach to the Beatitudes that totally misses what these blessings ARE, that they are not tasks or a checklist for who’s in and who’s out but blessings on people that impart life to them.

That’s why the Beatitudes begin with “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” not because being spiritually impoverished is a virtue but because God’s gift has come on those with absolutely nothing to offer.

That’s our starting point: We have nothing. Our hands are empty. Our souls are a graveyard of dreams.

To us, Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven is yours.”

WE ARE BLESSED

John the Baptist could announce the kingdom of God by preaching “Repent, you brood of vipers” because when you are at open enmity with an existing monarch, the arrival of that monarch on your home turf is very bad news.

But for everyone willing to receive it with open hands and open heart, the coming of this kingdom is the best possible news — truly a gospel (Old English for “good news”) of the highest order. This king has ascended his mountain to give a law, and he opens his mouth with blessing.

The Greek word makarios, blessing, denotes us as happy, blessed, to be envied. Jesus comes preaching “Happy are you”–or at least, “Happy you can be, if you will receive.” Our gospel is a gospel of happiness, the charter of a happy people who are to be envied, for their king has come, their king brings life, and their king loves them.

The only thing we need to qualify is empty hands.

(This is Part 21 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)

*This is not to suggest that there was no preceding blessing in the case of the children of Israel: the Law was given in the context of the Abrahamic blessing. Nevertheless, Paul tells us that the Law was weak through the flesh: it could not bring righteousness because human beings could not carry it out. Thus, what was intended to bless brought a curse. But even here God had a bigger plan: deliverance from the curse by the Son, who comes with blessing that is not attached to human ability but to his own accomplishment.

The Shadow Life of Moses and How We Know We Can Trust the Storyteller

When Moses declared some fourteen hundred years before Jesus walked the earth that God would “raise up a prophet like unto me,” it’s doubtful anyone thought he was talking about a specific person to come.

Moses, the deliverer of Israel and the one through whom God gave the law and instated the Sinai Covenant, was contrasting the way the nations sought their gods to the way God would speak to his people. Rather than practicing divination and sorcery, the children of Israel would have prophets, like Moses, through whom God spoke.

starry sky photo

That was partially fulfilled throughout their history, through all of the prophets whose words are recorded in the Scriptures and many others whose messages have not lived on. But at the same time, there never was a prophet quite like Moses — one who saw God face-to-face and heard him speak directly.

Never, that is, until Jesus.

So the book of Acts clearly proclaims that Moses’s words were about Jesus (Acts 3:22, Acts 7:37). The early church, ethnically Jewish and steeped in Jewish history, understood from Moses’s life and prophecy who Jesus truly was.

At the same time, Jesus pushed Moses’s prophecy to a whole new level.

It wasn’t just that this prophet-to-come would hear directly from God. This prophet — Jesus — would also be a deliverer. He would also instate a covenant. And like Moses, he would reveal God to the people in a whole new measure.

It wasn’t just Moses’s WORDS that pointed to Jesus. It was his entire LIFE.

SHADOWS OF MESSIAH

Matthew seems acutely aware of the Moses-Jesus parallels, and he more than any other gospel writer draws them out. Because of course, when an omnipotent, storytelling God is directing events, they will be fraught with significance.

Jesus’s life as laid out in Matthew mirrors the life of Moses in a way that’s almost eerie considering that no human being was consciously trying to create the parallel:

  • Jesus leaves the “king’s palace” of heaven to identity with God’s oppressed people on earth
  • He is born in a time of oppression
  • He narrowly escapes genocide by a pagan king
  • He flees to Egypt
  • In his baptism, he is drawn up out of the water into a new life of favor
  • He is driven from that favor into the wilderness for forty days

At this point Moses led the people of Israel to a mountain, Sinai, where he delivered the Ten Commandments. Jesus gathered disciples and then went into a mountain in Galilee, where he delivered the Eight Blessings (the Beatitudes).

Throughout his account, Matthew is consciously paralleling Jesus with Moses: showing him as the fulfillment not only of Moses’s law and Moses’s prophecy but of Moses’s whole life, which was a type and shadow of the Messiah to come.

A LIFE OF SECONDS

I think Moses lived his whole life knowing that he wasn’t God’s final prophet, and by extension, that the Law he delivered wasn’t God’s final word and plan for his people. That is foreshadowed over and over again.

Moses’s life was a life of “seconds,” where the second always has some kind of superiority to the first. For Moses, this often meant a kind of demotion–maybe this is partly why God honors Moses’s humility so deeply. He lived out a picture that always pointed to someone else.

So Moses is called as God’s prophet, but it’s Aaron who speaks. Moses establishes the priesthood, but Aaron is high priest. Moses is given the law, but the first tablets are broken when the people apostasize and have to be replaced by a second set. Moses spends forty years in the wilderness as a refugee and a shepherd and then a second forty years in the wilderness as a deliverer, prophet, and shepherd of God’s people. Moses is called to lead the people into the land, but it’s Joshua (the Hebrew form of the name “Jesus”) who actually does so.

MOSES THE MESSIAH

In a very real sense, Moses was a Messiah. He was called and anointed by God to deliver his people. But he wasn’t THE Messiah, and all his life, he looked ahead–ahead to the end of the Law, ahead to the faithfulness of God that would reach further than the people’s failures to believe, ahead to the second Messiah, the real Messiah, the one Moses’s entire life was a picture of.

LIVING OUT THE STORY

open book photo

Types fascinate me, because these are not just literary conventions being added to a story by a human author. The Old Testament is FULL of types of Jesus, but these were real people–human beings living out real lives that seemed to them to be just as random and prone to the vagaries of “time and chance” as any other life. Everything mattered, though they couldn’t have known it then. Even the “wrong turns” of Moses’s life came together to foreshadow the coming of Jesus.

According to Paul, we’re no longer living in the Law’s types and shadows but of the reality to which they pointed. Speaking of the Law’s rituals and sacrifices, he wrote:

These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. (Colossians 2:17, NIV)

At the same time, we are still living in something of a shadowland:

Now our knowledge is partial and incomplete, and even the gift of prophecy reveals only part of the whole picture! But when the time of perfection comes, these partial things will become useless . . .

When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things. Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely. (1 Corinthians 13:9-10, 12, NLT)

We are still living out a story we don’t fully understand. We have one foot in the glorious reality of the kingdom of heaven and one foot in the murk of the world. Yet, if the Bible demonstrates anything, I think it demonstrates this: everything matters. God may not directly cause everything that happens in our lives, but there are no accidents.

Life is a story, a story with layers and themes, a story with a plot and characters, a story with a predetermined ending. And we are living it, not because we just happen to be here, but because our lives are an integral part of the whole. We mean something. It ALL means something.

TRUSTING THE STORYTELLER

Like Moses, we can be aware that our lives are fraught with significance and still not see it. We can be convinced that even our wrong turns mean something, yet never really come to understand what they mean.

For Moses, that awareness created humility and a deep trust in God, rather than arrogance or resentment. May our response be the same!

What we have now is partial and incomplete, yet it’s enough to tell us that what is still to come is truly wonderful. When we “know everything completely,” when we know God as fully as he knows us, the shadows will take form and the puzzling reflections will make sense.

Perhaps some future chronicler will remember our lives the way Matthew remembered Moses: as the contours and parallels of a reality so incredible it could hardly be conceived until it happened.

We can’t know what every twist of the plot means as we’re living it. All we can do is trust the Storyteller, who knows where all this is going and has proven that he knows how to direct the story well.

(This is Part 20 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)

Jesus Is Not “Just a Teacher.” But We Should Listen to Him.

Matthew 4:23-24 gives the shape of Jesus’s early ministry:

Jesus was going all over Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. Then the news about Him spread throughout Syria. So they brought to Him all those who were afflicted, those suffering from various diseases and intense pains, the demon-possessed, the epileptics, and the paralytics. And He healed them.

Jesus taught, preached, and healed, and these three things flowed into and out of one another and all together offered people the kingdom of God.

sunrise galilee photo
Photo by hoyasmeg

Today I think we are more comfortable with Jesus the preacher and Jesus the healer than we are with Jesus the teacher. That’s ironic on several levels: while the world wants to dismiss Jesus as just another teacher, the church doesn’t like him to be a teacher at all.

As a teacher he blurs the lines between “faith” and “works” to an uncomfortable degree; he makes demands on our lives; he insists we see and do things differently.

CONNECTING WITH THE SEEKERS OF GOD

There’s a myth abroad that Jesus had no use for “religious people”; that if he were here, he probably wouldn’t darken the door of a church. Actually, the local “churches” of the day were the synagogues, and that’s where Jesus launched his ministry.

Why not, after all? If you were in a synagogue, to some degree you identified yourself as a seeker of God, as someone desirous of connection with God. Jesus went straight to those people to establish the connection they wanted.

(So did Paul, if you look. Paul went first to the Jewish synagogues and then to already God-fearing Gentiles. But I digress.)

Jesus came to people seeking God and taught them “with authority.” He spoke from his own experience, he spoke with deep understanding, he spoke with power. His teaching was life-changing.

The entire Bible presents God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–as one who is eager to teach. He is eager and even longing to share the wonders of the universe and of his own heart with the people he created.

Paul expressed his desire for the churches in Laodicea:

“I want their hearts to be encouraged and joined together in love, so that they may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery—Christ. All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Him.” (Colossians 2:2-3)

Everything about relationship with God is an invitation into knowledge: into the secrets of creation and into the kind of holistic knowledge that, lived out, constitutes righteousness.

Righteousness is more than a moral code: it is right-relatedness to everything.

THE HEART OF RIGHTEOUSNESS

There is a kind of “righteousness” that is rigid and legalistic, and if you’ve been around at all, you know it brings oppression, heaviness, and hardship. It doesn’t do nuance or compassion. Rather than setting people free, it breaks up families, causes unnecessary hurt and offense, shuts down personality, and traps people in unhealthy cycles and habits.

It lacks wisdom and is therefore not really righteousness at all: it’s a sham, a satanic substitute.

Jesus is the one who is “wiser than Solomon,” and Solomon’s heart for people, expressed in the opening chapters of Proverbs, lies behind Jesus’s teaching as well:

My son, don’t forget my teaching,
but let your heart keep my commands;
for they will bring you
many days, a full life, and well-being . . .

Happy is a man who finds wisdom
and who acquires understanding,
for she is more profitable than silver,
and her revenue is better than gold . . .

Long life is in her right hand;
in her left, riches and honor.
Her ways are pleasant,
and all her paths, peaceful.
She is a tree of life to those who embrace her,
and those who hold on to her are happy . . .

Maintain your competence and discretion.
My son, don’t lose sight of them.
They will be life for you,
and adornment for your neck.

Then you will go safely on your way;
your foot will not stumble.
When you lie down, you will not be afraid;
you will lie down, and your sleep will be pleasant.
(Proverbs 3:1-4, 13-24)

gold treasure photo

Dallas Willard, in his marvelous book The Divine Conspiracy, takes issue with the way we relate to Jesus as our teacher:

It is the failure to understand Jesus and his words as reality and vital information about life that explains why, today, we do not routinely teach those who profess allegiance to him how to do what he said was best. We lead them to profess allegiance to him, or we expect them to, and leave them there . . . True, you will find few scholars and or leaders in Christian circles who deny that we are supposed to do all things that Jesus said … Jesus’ instructions on this matter are, after all, starkly clear. We just don’t do what he said.

If we want to really know Jesus, and if we want to really live in the reality of the kingdom of God which he ushered in, we have to take him seriously as a teacher. We have to become seekers, learners, disciples. We need to hunger and thirst for righteousness and be consumed with the desire to know and to live out the truth.

The wisdom of God, given to us in Jesus’s teachings and the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit, is one of his greatest gifts to us.

LEARNING HOW TO LIVE

When we see “the gospel” as primarily a message of forgiveness so we can have a happy afterlife, we may miss the reality of the kingdom now. Access to Jesus’s teaching is one of the central benefits of the kingdom come: we can learn how to live, how to think, and how to relate to reality from the Son of God himself.

When Jesus’s teachings are lived out–with wisdom and not just in a rigid legalism that is far from the way he modeled his own teachings–they impact the world in astounding ways because they impact US in astounding ways.

If you’re reading through Matthew with me, you know we’re about to dive into the Sermon on the Mount, which is widely considered the greatest and most influential moral teaching ever delivered. In it I hear the echoes of Solomon as Jesus calls us to listen:

My child, don’t forget my teaching,
but let your heart keep my commands;
for they will bring you many days, a full life, and well-being.

“Your righteousness,” Jesus told the crowds early in the sermon, “must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees.” If it doesn’t, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (see Matthew 5:20).

Jesus calls his followers to a higher righteousness, a higher way of relating, a way that lines up with the invisible kingdom and the rule of God. Rather than bringing judgment and death, this kind of righteousness brings freedom and life.

Surpassing indeed.

Today, fellow children of God, let’s believe Jesus when he says his ways lead to life. Let’s listen to him, not just as a Savior but as our Teacher–the one who can actually help us figure this human thing out. He knows what he is talking about. We just need to open our ears and listen.

(This is Part 19 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)

The Day When Jesus Heals Everyone

In September 2014 I had a sudden cardiac arrest in a Canadian Tire parking lot. No cause was ever found, but God provided immediate care and I lived through the experience with minimal damage, though I am told I was technically dead for twelve minutes.

The hospital where I recovered, Hotel-Dieu Grace Hospital in Windsor, is a merger of two older institutions: Hotel-Dieu, founded by Roman Catholics, and Grace Hospital, founded by the Salvation Army. Although it’s government run now, the signs of faith are still everywhere in this hospital and infuse the atmosphere.

On the wall in the lobby is a two-story mural of a tree, with the words “The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2).

tree of life photo
Photo by *Arielle*

Viewable from a broad window in one of the halls is a garden with another mural: this one a long piece of sculpture, three granite slabs with carved depictions of every healing Jesus performed in the gospels. On those stones, the blind see and the lame leap; paralytics dance and the withered are made whole.

This is how we as the world remember Jesus: as one who healed. Instinctively we know this was more than just a sign of his legitimacy: it was a revelation of his character, a signpost of his purpose and desire for the world.

Matthew 4 describes the very beginning of Jesus’s ministry:

Jesus was going all over Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. Then the news about Him spread throughout Syria. So they brought to Him all those who were afflicted, those suffering from various diseases and intense pains, the demon-possessed, the epileptics [or “lunatics” or “insane”; literally “moon-struck”], and the paralytics. And He healed them. (Matthew 4:23-34)

For me this passage simultaneously offers hope and raises questions.

It’s so significant to our whole conception of God that this is our first real glimpse of the incarnation in action: in human flesh, God heals everyone who comes to him.

HEALING PHYSICAL AND SPIRITUAL BROKENNESS

The story of humanity as the Bible tells it is the story of a beautiful vision marred and broken by a failure of trust and relationship. In the garden of Eden, a perfect world was destroyed by the willingness of Man to stab God in the back. That brokenness affected all of creation in ways we don’t fully understand, both physically and spiritually.

Our brokenness is summed up in the twins of sin and death. We miss the mark, and everything dies. That is the curse of our world.

In Matthew’s account, “all who were afflicted and suffering” came to Jesus. There are many kinds of affliction and suffering in the world that are not mentioned here, but the kinds that ARE mentioned function as bookends, framing all the brokenness of creation and human life. At the far physical end, those suffering from disease came to him. At the far spiritual end, the demon-possessed came.

All the rest of our pain lies between those bookends: a combination of physical and spiritual factors that make up the totality of our lives.

I’m struck by Matthew’s pointing out that those who were healed could not even come themselves. These were people so struck down by their afflictions that they had to be brought. He doesn’t say who brought them; just that news of what Jesus was doing spread, and the people were brought.

And he healed them.

THE HEALING OF “ALL”

One of the details that moves me most in this account is that Jesus healed everyone who came to him. This is stated elsewhere in the gospels as well: when people came, when they were brought, Jesus did not turn them away without giving them what they were looking for. He was a generous healer, a no-strings-attached physician. He did not require them to respond to his message first or to follow him afterward. If they had faith enough to come, he healed them.

Jesus healing the sick photo
Photo by Internet Archive Book Images

In a world where it often feels like there isn’t enough of what we need to go around, I am profoundly moved by this. They didn’t have to earn healing; they didn’t have to qualify. They just had to come. Jesus’s power and will to heal were abundant.

JESUS OUR HEALER

Healing was part of Jesus’s mission from the beginning, and in the end his whole enterprise will be seen as one of healing–not just individuals but the cosmos, the whole world.

When John the Baptist questioned whether Jesus was the prophesied messiah, Jesus sent back his resume:

“Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind see, the lame walk, those with skin diseases are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor are told the good news.” (Matthew 11:4-5)

What Jesus did locally in Galilee, for a relative handful of people, is intended to eventually release the entire world from the curse of death:

For the creation eagerly waits with anticipation for God’s sons to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to futility—not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it—in the hope that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of corruption into the glorious freedom of God’s children. (Romans 8:19-21)

HEALING TODAY

Jesus still heals today. That’s not just a doctrinal stance on my part; it’s a fact. (If you’re interested in a scholarly treatment of the topic, check out Miracles by Craig S. Keener. It’s a two-volume, 1248-page discussion of the topic.) I have personally witnessed divine healing and know many people who have experienced it.

The heart and power of God to heal our brokenness–ALL forms of brokenness–remains.

At the same time, I know many people who have prayed for healing and not received it. The New Testament indicates that this was the case for the early church as well: while healings and miracles did continue into the apostolic era, we get glimpses in Paul’s letters especially that universal healing wasn’t expected, and some Christians (including probably Paul himself) suffered from illness and physical ailments that were not miraculously healed.

Some today place all the “blame” for this at the door of those who are sick or those who are praying: somebody doesn’t have enough faith. But given the testimony of the New Testament, I don’t think that’s a right view.

I don’t have all the answers as to why some are healed and some are not, but I believe in the heart of the God-Man seen in Matthew, and I know that his mission is to heal all our brokenness, completely and forever, in the end.

Everyone and everything dies, and that is the curse of our world. The consummation of Jesus’s mission is the resurrection, when those who are in Christ will be physically resurrected, never to die again. Healings now are like bursts of that future resurrection coming into the present: down payments in a sense, or foretastes, of the day the curse is entirely halted and creation is set fully free. In this cosmic and eternal sense, ALL who come to Jesus for healing will be healed, as they were in Galilee.

But this time corruption will never get the better of them again.

The mural in the lobby at Hotel-Dieu Grace Hospital looks forward to that day:

And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life … and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 22:1-2, KJV)

(This is Part 18 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)

Purpose, Identity, and Why We Don’t Start with the Great Commission

Matthew 4:18-22 tells the story of the day Jesus called his first disciples:

While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him.

And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

fishing sea of galilee photo

It’s clear from the other gospels, especially John, that there was more to the story than this. This wasn’t a first introduction: Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist, these young men had already seen Jesus work miracles, and they all lived in Capernaum, where Jesus now lived as well. Jesus took some time to establish his trustworthiness and character with these men before he called them. He spent some time building relationship and getting to know them.

But finally, the day came when it wasn’t enough for them just to hang around the edges. Jesus had brought the kingdom of God near, and it was time to start establishing that kingdom on earth in the hearts of other people. Disciples. People who would follow him, learn from him, and spread his teachings and his work.

STARTING AT THE END

When we talk about discipleship, we have a tendency to jump right to the end. Jesus declared he would make these fishermen fishers OF men, so we immediately recall his last words to them before he ascended to heaven and think of their “discipleship” as a matter of fulfilling those words:

All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 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 everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:18-20)

In my experience, the responsibility given in this verse is something evangelicals are pretty clear on: we are supposed to make disciples. I mean, we are evangelicals. This is what we do!

We grasp this fast and easy because it’s a task. We can all do tasks. You tell me wash the dishes, I can wash the dishes. But if you tell me “be a doctor,” that’s a whole different deal. That’s eight years of school and knowledge and skills I can’t even begin to conceive of. That’s a whole life’s work.

The reality is, although I fully support spreading the gospel, we are often guilty of putting the cart before the horse. Because the call of Jesus isn’t just to make disciples; it’s to BE one first.

RELATIONSHIP, CALL, AND IDENTITY

The Great Commission is not the first thing Jesus said to his disciples. He did not start by giving them a job. He started by calling them into an encounter and relationship with himself.

John 1:37-43 tells us more of the story. The first thing Jesus said to Peter was, “What are you looking for?” He followed that up with an invitation to know him: “Come and see.” He always called people to follow him, to come WITH him. To Matthew, seated at his table tax collecting, Jesus said, “Get up and come with me.”

Second, Jesus cast a vision for them. He told these men what he saw in them, what he would make them. He gave Simon a new name: “You are the rock.” He promised Nathanael that he would see angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man.

He didn’t tell Andrew, Peter, James, and John, “I will make you catch people.” He said, “I will make you fishers of men.”

It’s an important distinction. Jesus didn’t give them a task first. He gave them an identity.

For us, too, discipleship begins here: with an invitation to follow Jesus, to encounter him, to get to know him, to be with him in daily life. In the process of being with Jesus, we learn who WE are and what his vision for us is. We learn that he created us and called us for a purpose, and he shapes us in line with that purpose.

APPRENTICE CHILDREN OF GOD

After inviting the disciples into relationship with him and then casting a vision for who they would become, Jesus spent three years teaching them. He was their rabbi, an itinerant teacher.

following photo
Photo by DavidSpinks

Rabbi and disciple were not foreign roles in their culture any more than professor and student are today, but it was a far more holistic relationship: a disciple didn’t just show up for class three times a week, he ate, drank, slept, and breathed the rabbi’s teachings and the rabbi’s way of life. He followed him everywhere and learned not just what he SAID but what he DID and how he did it. He was an apprentice of the highest order.

This is often our missing piece in church life. You have to be a disciple of Jesus before you can make one.

The disciples were apprentices of Jesus, which means that they were apprentice rabbis. They intended from the start to learn to do what he did. But they were far more than that, because Jesus was not just a rabbi: he was a king and he was the Son of God.

When they wanted to learn to pray, Jesus taught his disciples to begin, “Our Father, who is in heaven.”

They were not just teachers in training. They were apprentice children of God.

(They were also apprentice kings, but more about that in a later post.)

Jesus taught his disciples how to live as God’s children. He taught them how to think, how to trust, how to act in alignment with God’s will and word. He taught them about the Father’s heart for them. He taught them about faith, love, and goodness. He taught them to live fully surrendered to the Father and in a relationship of mutual joy and pleasure with him.

“I WILL MAKE YOU”

From the start, Jesus made it clear to his disciples that he was giving them a purpose and an identity, and that they would find both in relationship with him. Their job wasn’t to make themselves, but to trust in his making of them. All of their work would flow out of that, just as all Jesus’s work flowed out of his ongoing, daily walk with the Father.

For us, the same promise applies. Jesus, our rabbi, the one who disciples us, has a vision for who we are meant to be and a plan to shape us for that vision. His primary purpose in our lives is to teach us how to live like children of God:

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right [power or authority] to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12-13, ESV)

We have been given the task of discipling the world, and within that task we have each been given smaller tasks–raising our children, doing our jobs, writing our words, scrubbing our toilets, so that everything in life is brought into joyful alignment with the Spirit of God. But our tasks are couched in our identities, in God’s love and vision for us, in our new life as children of God.

Yes, we must disciple the world. But first we must be disciples. We must spread the message. But first we must embrace it–and find, within it, our identity, our purpose, and our relationship with our Father.

(This is Part 17 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)