The Namaqualand daisies are a multicoloured tapestry of desert blooms that defy the arid veld of the northern Cape after the spring rains. A honey-like scent diffuses the air for miles around. This striking display of beauty reminds me of what Christians should be like. Our spring rains have fallen! God’s kingdom has come to earth and it is our Father’s pleasure to give us the kingdom (Luke 12:32). We are his floral display, called to bloom and grow wherever on the planet He has planted us. As couriers of the best news the world has ever heard, we ought to be winsome bearers of a gospel that is both lovely and potent. Our lives and our lips (Heb 13:15-16) should diffuse a gospel fragrance, as we offer our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God (Rom 12:1). In a new era, where people of every nation and tribe are forcing their way into God’s kingdom (Luke 16:16), Jesus calls us to diffuse the fragrance of the gospel both to our neighbours and the nations.
Our text today is Matthew 28:16-20:
16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted.18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 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, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Setting the scene
Three years after Jesus’ stunning synagogue announcement that God’s kingdom had come (Luke 4:14-21), the King was dead. Shamed as a criminal, blasphemer and bogus-king (Matt 27:37; John 19:2; 3; 15), Jesus was abandoned by everyone, even his friends. He was also God-forsaken (Matt 27:46).
Yet Jesus’ last words on the cross were, “It is finished!” (John 19:30)
What was finished? How could the light of the world lay dead in a dark tomb? How could his mission end in such epic failure? Were they blinded by his miracles?
Jesus’ followers must have been plagued with doubts and questions as they cowered in dark places, afraid for their lives. Yet, early on Sunday, when the women arrived at the tomb, they found the huge entrance stone rolled aside and the body missing. Two men in shiny clothes asked them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, he is risen! Don’t you remember how he told you the Messiah must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and raised to life on the third day?” (Luke 24)
Jesus’ mission was accomplished! Andrew Patterson’s sings of how God rested on the Jewish Sabbath because his work was complete. Take a minute to meditate on the words of Patterson’s amazing song and thank Jesus for finishing his agonising work on the cross. His mission was to save the world by dying the death that every sinner deserves, and then rising to life. This is the true story of God’s unfailing love for the people He created. It is the only story that makes sense of our world and brings hope for now and eternity. It is literally a life-giving, life-saving story that Jesus tells his followers to announce to the world, as he stands on a mountain in Galilee. These are his last words to them as the risen Saviour. Directly afterwards, Jesus rises to heaven to take his place as King of the universe (Matt 28:18; Mark 16:19-20). Final words are important.
Honouring Jesus’ final words
The risen King’s final words are very clear instructions. Jesus appoints every Christian as a disciple, evangelist and discipler. In the original Greek, the imperative command is to “make disciples.” The secondary verbs “Go”, “Teach” and “Baptize” are the expressions of this primary command to make disciples.
Jesus’ Great Commission was not just for his faith-filled worshippers. I’m glad John mentions the doubters standing on the mountain with weak knees and glazed eyes, as I can see myself among them! (Matt 28:17) Not one of Christ’s followers is exempted from sharing the gospel, as this is how God has chosen to grow his kingdom. However, there is good news for the fearful– Your mission cannot fail, as its success does not depend on your own gifts or faith, but on two hard facts:
- Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt 28:18).
- Jesus himself will be with you, even until the end of the age (Matt 28:20).
It is the presence of Immanuel – God with us—that enables us to fulfill the Great Commission. Thank God we are not on our own! But His kingdom will advance with or without us too.
“The Great Commission” was a phrase first coined by Hudson Taylor, the first missionary to China, who said, “The Great Commission is not an option to be considered; it is a command to be obeyed.”
The problem arises in the manner in which Jesus’ final words are carried out. If we divorce the Great Commission from the Great Commandment of Jesus (Matt 22:37; 38; 39; 40), the gospel is no longer a sweet fragrance, but a pungent odour to those who hear it. There is nothing appealing about a pretentious, know-it-all evangelist. But there is something very winsome about a Christian who is personally moved by the gospel and whose witness is drenched in sincerity and grace.
Graciousness earns us the right to be heard (Col 4:6; 1 Peter 3:15) and reflects the nature of Christ and the gospel message. A fragrant gospeller does not assault with arguments or ridicule another person’s beliefs. Jesus knew his true enemy and never treated people as the enemy even if they were being used as Satan’s instruments. He did not ask his followers to defend His dignity. As Jesus taught in the synagogues, everyone praised him and was amazed at his gracious words (Luke 4:15; 22). The gospel may have offended many, but Jesus himself was not offensive.
If the person we are addressing does not see the love of Jesus in our eyes, our best arguments are futile. Without love, we will approach evangelism and discipleship as a great work we are doing for the Lord, like the self righteous Pharisees. Jesus described these zealots of his day as white-washed tombs (Matt 23:27). The odour of dead men’s bones is nothing like the fragrance of the gospel.
An unpretentious gospel
Helen Roseveare was a British doctor and missionary to Africa, specifically in the Congo for over 20 years. She passed away in 2016 at the age of 91. Helen trained nurses, ran a leprosy centre and a maternity hospital which still exists in the DRC. When civil war broke out, Helen was one of several missionaries held captive by rebel forces for over 5 months in 1964. She was beaten, terrorized, and brutally raped on more than one occasion.
From someone who sacrificed her whole life to be a fragrance of the gospel, this is her warning about mission:
“If you think you have come to the mission field because you are a little better than others, or as the cream of your church, or because of your medical degree, or for the service you can render the African church, or even for the souls you may see saved, you will fail. Remember, the Lord has only one purpose ultimately for each one of us, to make us more like Jesus. He is interested in your relationship with Himself. Let Him take you and mould you as He will; all the rest will take its rightful place.”
You will be inspired and humbled by the story of this remarkable woman who carried the fragrance of the gospel into new frontiers with humility and love. Read this link or listen to this podcast on the Extraordinary Life of Helen Roseveare.
“When the rhythm of the music changes, the dance step must change also.”
While the truth of the ancient gospel story never changes, a fragrant gospeller prays for avenues to show the real face of Jesus in unique contexts. The gospel is not a generic formula, and we need the Spirit’s creativity to find points of contact which hit home.
The ministry of Paul demonstrates how skilful a Jewish Pharisee could be in dancing to the cultural rhythms of Greeks, Jews, Romans, slaves, prison warders and women.
Christine Dillon, a contemporary missionary in Asia, tells the story of the Bible in simple English, using oral narrative rather than reading. This is a creative way of sharing the gospel in Africa, which also has a tradition of storytelling. Click on the links to Christine’s websites here and here to see how it can be done.
Live it out!
Here are three practical ways we can match our dance step with the rhythm of today’s music:
- Don’t sound religious or use theological language with unbelievers who are Biblically illiterate or have bad memories of Church. Concepts like ‘sin’ and ‘atonement’ may be utterly foreign to those moulded by a ‘tolerance’ mindset. Rather enquire about the ripple effects of alienation and discord visible to them personally and socially. Ask them the penetrating question, “How is life working out for you?” This common experience of brokenness is often the connection, which points to the effects of sin and our desperate need for redemption. Use their own vocabulary and concrete analogies to explain how Jesus offers life.
- Steer the conversation to the heart as the source of outward behaviour, moving from the symptoms to the cause. Don’t be afraid to admit your own tendency to serve gods that cannot save you and show how this idolatry is the root of your sin (Rom 1:18). A fragrant gospel shines its beam on God’s solution to a fatal heart disorder. If we are guided by genuine love as we speak, the Holy Spirit will give us the right words and expose our own blind spots, which are also our points of contact with unbelievers. As CS Lewis said, “Evangelism is just one beggar showing another beggar where to find food.”
- Practise the art of questioning. We will find points of commonality if we ask probing questions and listen long enough to hear the source of hunger in an empty soul. That is exactly what Jesus did. Next week we will look at the probing questions Jesus asked Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman in John 3. He presented the same gospel, but Jesus customised the message for his hearers.
It takes prayer, effort and time to find common ground, as Paul did (1 Cor 9:19; 20; 21; 22; 23), while remaining true to the Bible. Fortunately we do not have to be perfect evangelists, as we are not the builders of the kingdom. God is the Master builder. His mustard seed kingdom WILL become a kingdom of cosmic greatness (Mark 4:30; 31; 32). We are just called to scatter the seed (the word) on the soil (the hearts) of those we meet (Mark 4:1-20). One of the best ways to get the word into the soil is simply to read one of the New Testament Gospels with a friend. Don’t underestimate the power of words spoken in love to an unbeliever. God’s word will not return to Him empty (Isa 55:11).
Preach, teach, serve
The King himself is our role model and showed us that the gospel transforms every frontier of life. Jesus announced the gospel of personal salvation. He also preached the Sermon on the Mount and decried injustice and oppression, using parables like the Good Samaritan. He healed the sick, cast out demons and spoke truth to power. The gospel cannot be reduced to personal salvation alone, as Saints are needed to radiate the Kingdom of God in every sphere.
We diffuse the fragrance of the gospel by loving what God loves and hating what he hates, whether at home, in our neighbourhood or on mission. We care for orphans and widows in their distress. We get to know the Bible for ourselves and teach it on to others (Matt 28:20). We nurture younger believers to live out their new identity over a lifetime (Matt 28:19). The focus of Jesus’ Great Commission is to MAKE DISCIPLES, and this should be the focus of every local church. It is a long term project. A social, political or self-help gospel is a flimsy band aid which hides the gaping wound of the human heart, but is impotent to save.
Bloom and grow
Christians cannot love God or obey Him perfectly. Only Jesus did that. The aroma of his sacrifice was pleasing to God as he traded our sin for his perfection (Eph 5:2). We cannot do a single thing to add to the work of Jesus. It is finished. But the gospel calls us to a life that pleases God in all we do (2 Cor 5:9). To bloom and grow wherever we are. When ordinary believers are infused with the gospel and live to please their King, they diffuse the fragrance of the gospel throughout the world (2 Cor 2:15). Don’t underestimate the appeal of common daisies blooming in the desert. We are those daisies.
Pray Hebrews 13:20-21:
Our Father, the God who brings us peace, thank you that you resurrected our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of your eternal covenant. We ask you to equip us with everything good that we may do your will, working in us that which is pleasing in your sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.
I am indebted to the following wonderful Gospel resources:
- Becky Pippert, “Talk about Jesus without Sounding Religious” http://subspla.sh/f4qxp57
- The Gospel of the Kingdom Jesus’ Revolutionary Message, by Dr David Seccombe.
- The Word One- to- One studies through the Gospel of John. https://www.theword121.com/