Lately I’ve been reading a fine new book by Rodney Stark called The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion. The opening paragraph gives the flavor of the whole:
“He was a teacher and miracle worker who spent nearly all of his brief ministry in the tiny and obscure province of Galilee, often preaching to outdoor gatherings. A few listeners took up his invitation to follow him, and a dozen or so became his devoted followers, but when he was executed by the Romans his followers probably numbered no more than several hundred. How was it possible for this obscure Jewish sect to become the largest religion in the world?”
The rest of his book attempts to answer that question. Stark writes as a historian, not as a theologian or an evangelist. His question invites serious contemplation. How do you get from a dozen devoted followers (minus the one who betrayed him) to the world’s largest religion?
It doesn’t seem very likely.
A while back I was invited to speak to a banquet for Christians who wanted to learn how to share their faith with others. They asked me to share a few words that might be an encouragement to the new folks who had signed up for the program.
I don’t know much about the details except that the program involves coming for training for a certain number of weeks and then going out into the community to meet people, mostly (though not entirely) those who have visited the church before.
What should I say to help calm the nerves of those about to embark on this training? As I thought about it, my mind was drawn to the final verses of Matthew 28 where Jesus gives his disciples what we traditionally call the Great Commission. But as I read that passage, I noticed something unusual in the preceding verses.
Some of the disciples doubted that Jesus had risen from the dead. It didn’t seem like a good way to begin a worldwide movement, but you’ve got to start somewhere.
A Shocking Reality
“Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted” (vv. 16-17).
We rarely talk about these verses but we should.
They set the scene for the Great Commission.
Having risen from the dead, Jesus now meets his disciples at “the mountain” in Galilee. What follows is almost comical if you think about it. These eleven men are the closest friends Jesus has on earth. They followed him through thick and thin. Now Jesus is about to leave them.
“What’s your plan to reach the world?”
"I’ve got eleven men.”
“No, there are more, but these are the key men.”
“I thought you had twelve.”
"I did, but one of them betrayed me.”
And so it goes. Eleven men to reach the world. It doesn’t sound very hopeful on the face of it. But it gets worse. “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” That’s verse 17. You don’t hear many sermons on that verse. Not too encouraging to lose one of your top men to betrayal, but it’s worse when some of those left begin to doubt you. Hard to build a great movement on doubting men.
But that’s what Jesus has as he comes to the end of his sojourn on the earth. “Some doubted.” That’s the stark reality. We are now some days, perhaps several weeks, maybe even a month after the Resurrection, and some of his best men still doubt him.
They aren’t sure it’s really him.
If you’re the leader, what do you do about that? Probably we would plan a crash course in apologetics. “Men, I’ve got an advance copy of a book called Evidence That Demands a Verdict. Of course, it won’t be written for another 2000 years, but I’ve managed to get a copy and have it translated into Aramaic. Read this and it will prove I rose from the dead.” Or maybe he would say, “Many centuries from now a man named C. S. Lewis will live in England and write a book called Mere Christianity. Don’t worry about the details. Just read this Aramaic version and see if it doesn’t help you.” I know the whole notion is absurd, but it illustrates our typical approach. We use apologetics to help people get rid of their doubts. But that’s not what happens here.
Jesus seemingly ignores the whole issue. “Some doubted.” Fine, let’s go with what we have. It’s almost as if Jesus is saying, “Don’t worry about anything. Don’t even worry about your doubts. Go and make disciples, and in your going, your doubts will disappear.” I think that’s exactly what happened. Nothing dispels doubt like speaking up for Jesus. Get in the arena and your doubts will begin to disappear.
A Bracing Declaration
”Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (v. 18).
We live in a world that worships money and power. Wealth has its privileges. How would the first disciples fare as they spread out from Jerusalem? Those who went south would soon encounter the mighty pyramids of ancient Egypt. They would see the Sphinx rising from the hot sands. In Alexandria they would encounter the greatest library of the ancient world. How would Jesus’ men fare against the learned sages of Alexandria?
Those who went north would come to Antioch, another seat of learning. Eventually a man named Paul would arrive in Athens, the cultural seat of the ancient world. There in the land of Socrates and Aristotle, surrounded by altars, marble statuary, and underneath the shadow of the mighty Acropolis, he would proclaim the Good News of Jesus and call men to repentance. Eventually the early Christians would come to Rome, with its magnificent Colosseum and the vast, staggering grandeur of the Roman Empire. Who would dare to preach Christ there? In time some would take the gospel east to India and on to China, lands filled with teeming masses of people living unaware that Jesus had come to the earth.
How would the Christian message survive? It would survive all the assaults against it because all power in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus Christ. When the disciples entered Alexandria, they need have no fear because there was no power in Alexandria greater than the power of Jesus Christ. They could appreciate the glories of Athens but they need not be intimidated because there was no glory in Athens greater than the glory of Jesus Christ. And in Rome, the seat of imperial power could not compare to the power resident in the One who sits at the right hand of the Father Almighty.
All of that to say, we have nothing to fear as we go into the world because the power of Jesus far surpasses the power and authority of the rulers of this world.
Think of the rich and powerful people of this world:
Who are they compared to the Lord Jesus Christ? They are nothing at all!
Then comes the part we call the Great Commission:
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (vv. 19-20a).
For the moment, let’s pass over all the details and consider just one fact:
This is impossible.
Exactly how are 11 men to “disciple all nations,” especially when some of them still doubted?
It can’t be done.
We make a huge mistake if we read the Great Commission apart from its context. Jesus is not saying, “Okay, guys. It’s up to you,” because if that’s the meaning, then the whole Christian movement would have died within a few years.
Here is the real meaning: “You’re not equal to this, but I am.”
In case they missed it, Jesus added something else.
A Stunning Promise
“And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (v. 20b).
This is a blanket promise of the ongoing presence of the Son of God with his people, wherever they go, no matter how far they go, to the very end of the age.
“Don’t worry. I’ll be there with you.”
In context this is how we should read Matthew 28:16-20.
1. “I have all power.”
2. “I’m with you wherever you go.”
3. “Now go and make disciples.”
We tend to focus on # 3, the going part. But the going part is totally impossible without #1 and #2. The real message is something like this . . .
“Go, and I will go with you.”
“Go, and I will go ahead of you.”
"Go, and I will take care of you.”
In light of how things worked out, we should probably add this:
“Go, and you will probably die for my sake, but I will be with you to the very end, and when you die, I will not leave you, not even for a second. I will be with you forever no matter what.”
We have a lot of fears about evangelism, don’t we?
What if they ask me a question I can’t answer? (They will.)
What if they get angry with me? (Bound to happen sooner or later.)
What if I forget what I’m supposed to say? (Happens to all of us eventually.)
What if I knock on the door and it turns out to be my partner at the law firm? (Well, that’s awkward, but it could happen.)
What if someone says I’m narrow-minded and judgmental? (You’ve probably faced that already.)
What if I can’t overcome my fears? (That’s the whole point of this passage.)
It’s a big world out there and it can seem very scary. These days you might run into Muslims or Hindus or Sikhs, and you will certainly run into secular folks who don’t want any kind of religion, especially the kind that causes people to go out and share their faith with others.
You can avoid some of these embarrassing situations if you decide never to talk about your faith at all. But if you retreat into a stained-glass sanctuary where you are surrounded by Christians and only by Christians, you will never discover the true power and presence of Jesus.
You’ll never know if Jesus has the power to help you until you really need his help.
You’ll never know if Jesus is with you until you decide to go somewhere in his name.
Jesus says, “I’m more powerful than anything you can run into.”
Jesus says, “I’m going with you wherever you go. You’re not on your own.”
So I say to all who read my words what I said at the banquet to those volunteers who signed up to learn how to share their faith:
I’m excited for you.
Have a blast.
The good news for all of us comes from Jesus himself:
Not everyone will love you, but you cannot fail.
Not everyone will believe your message, but you cannot fail.
And that’s how the Christian movement started with 11 men, some of whom doubted, and has grown to over 2 billion people 2000 years later. When Rodney Stark came to the end of The Triumph of Christianity, he closed with this simple summary:
“More than 40 percent of the people on earth today are Christians and their number is growing more rapidly than that of any other major faith.”
Historians and sociologists will offer their own explanations, but we can be content to say that the words of Jesus have indeed come to pass.
Talk about a miracle.
And we get to be part of it.
“I have all power.”
"I will go with you.”
If this is true, we cannot fail.
When Jesus gets involved, amazing things happen.
“Go, and I will go with you.”
That’s the whole plan right there.
It still works after 2000 years.
Dr. Ray Pritchard, the founder of Keep Believing Ministries, pastored in Los Angeles, Dallas and Chicago. Married to Marlene for 38 years, he enjoys being a husband, a father and a grandfather, riding his bike, and playing with Dudley and Gary, beloved basset hounds.