The readings for today (2 Corinthians 13:11-14 and Matthew 28:16-20) have been chosen because they refer to the three persons of the Holy Trinity. The Bible never uses the term, ‘Trinity’; that was coined by theologians a few centuries after Christ to express the way the Bible reveals God as a tri-unity. The Bible is clear that there is only one God. However, passages like these in the New Testament include the Holy Spirit and the Son (the Lord Jesus Christ) in the same breath and on the same level as the Father (God). The words of Jesus in Matthew are especially striking: people are to be baptised in ‘the name of’ (not ‘the names of’) the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The three persons have only one name! So the term ‘Trinity’ was invented to describe the three-in-oneness of God. It doesn’t explain anything; the nature of God is not something that can be explained.
The passage in Matthew is often called ‘The Great Commission’. It is the last speech of Jesus to his disciples recorded in the gospel, and that gives it special significance. It is Jesus’ commission to his church; whatever we do, we must we do this. But what exactly is he asking us to do?
Before Jesus tells us what to do, he assures us of his right to command. He has been given all authority in all creation, and therefore his commands take precedence over everything else. We are able to refuse to obey; but we have no right to. He is the Boss!
Jesus then tells us to make disciples who will learn from him what to do and how to live with God on earth. Jesus deliberately sets no boundaries – we are to make disciples of all nations, not just of Jews or Britons or whatever. When Jesus said this to the first disciples there were no other Christians in the world; they were to make disciples of people who already had some other religion, whether Jewish or Zoroastrian or the Greek or Roman religions. Today we are not allowed to say that some people should be denied the opportunity to follow Christ. The command to make disciples of all nations still stands.
Baptism is the sign that we have become Jesus’ disciples. Baptism had been a sign for Jewish converts that they had become God’s people, and John the Baptist had used it as a sign that their sins were washed away, and that they were forgiven and accepted by God. All this is included in Christian baptism; but Jesus made more of it: baptism ‘in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’ is a sign that we identify with God and with his character and work in the world, and he identifies with us. (This is a big subject, which New Testament writers spend a lot of time unpacking.) The threefold name reminds us that becoming Jesus’ disciples brings us into relationship with the Father and with the Holy Spirit – the three are one.
The commission is to teach Christ’s disciples to do everything he has commanded us. We are passing on what has been passed on to us from one generation to another, beginning with Jesus and his original disciples. What things are those?
Matthew’s gospel contains a lot of teaching. There’s the sermon on the mount, for a start. It also contains instructions to his disciples on various occasions. Some of the instructions were for the moment, but others apply generally, as he trained them to do what he was doing – preaching the good news and healing every kind of disease and sickness. We are to learn to do the same, and we are to pass on what we have learnt to others also. Jesus doesn’t give us a syllabus or detailed instructions how to obey, for what he expects from us will fit our individual circumstances and abilities. But he does expect us to want to obey!
Jesus promises those who seek to fulfil his great commission that he will always be with them. We know from other parts of the Bible that he is with us by his Spirit, the Holy Spirit; that means he can be with every Christian wherever they are. It doesn’t mean that we will always be guaranteed a smooth ride; Matthew’s gospel makes it plain that we can expect persecution and difficult circumstances. But, however hard life may be, we can know that our Lord is with us, and is identifying with us in those circumstances. Let us take up our cross and follow him.
1) How would you like to limit Jesus’ instructions in this passage? Should every Christian obey them, or just some? Should all nations be reached, or just some? Should we pass on all Jesus’ instructions, or just some? Should Jesus be with us always, or just sometimes?
2) What difference does the church’s teaching about the Holy Trinity make to our lives?