I was not quite twenty-four years old, and my dad hovered near death. My dad was on a ventilator and had three abscesses in his lungs. He wasn't supposed to make it through the night. I was staying with him until he lost consciousness. All we had to communicate around the sound of the ventilator was a simple wax tablet with a plastic cover you write on, then lift the cover, and it would erase.
Over the up and down whine, we communicated in simple abbreviated statements. I could see from dad's eyes that he was barely still with me. We spent our last several minutes sharing our love as he expressed what was on his heart. I asked him, "Afraid of dying?"
His answer was clear. He wrote in all capital letters: "NO!" Then, he motioned for me to clear the screen and wrote, "just gettin' there." So, I said, you are not afraid of dying, just the process of getting there. He then nodded yes and pointed upward and gave a weak wink. Then, as his last words to me, he motioned me to erase, then wrote, "Take care of your mom!"
Last words, especially when everyone knows they are the last words, carry great significance. They echo in our hearts through the generations. I remember these words and facial expressions, now over four decades old, as if they were yesterday. They still inspire and inform me in my actions today.
Jesus' last words on the cross are significant to us. However, the words Jesus wants us most to remember are his last words before ascending back to the Father. These words should inform and inspire us as his disciples. They should be the words that are shape our mission and guide our work as disciples. Jesus intentionally chose these to be his last words, and he gave them with an emphasis on his authority to use them as his commands for us as his people:
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. Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age" (Matthew 28:17-20).
Matthew's account has one true verbal imperative — "make disciples of all nations" — followed by three imperatival participles (grammatically, these are three processes that Jesus commanded as necessary to carry out his command to make disciples):
- "Therefore go" — or literally, "get going";
- "[B]aptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit";
- "[T]eaching them to obey everything I have commanded you."
Jesus made clear that his last command was for his disciples to "make disciples"! They were to reach out to all nations of people as they made these disciples. They were to go to those other nations on mission to share God's love, grace, and mercy God gave them in Jesus. They were to baptize those who believed in him. They were to train those newly baptized believers to obey the teaching and example of Jesus.
Jesus gave one clear command. He emphasized three essential processes to obey the command. (Over the next four weeks, we will ask ourselves if we have taken Jesus' last command seriously and if we made the processes that he commanded, our mission of first importance.) In one form or another, each of the four gospels has a version of Jesus' message that seems to have been repeated several times in his last days:
- Matthew 28:17-20.
- Mark 16:15-16.
- Luke 24:45-49; Acts 1:1-8.
- John 20:19-23.
If we read these accounts of the Lord's Great Commission and the book of Acts that shows how they lived out their Master's command, we can't help but notice some differences between what they did and what we do. Jesus didn't command his disciples to have people to make decisions; he told them to make disciples. Jesus didn't ask them just to invite people to their gatherings; he told them to go to other people to make disciples. He didn't ask them to fellowship with people like them; he told us to reach out and make disciples of all nations.
Disciple-making is a lot harder than attracting folks to a great worship experience. A great worship experience, a quality biblical speaker, and a great set of programs for all ages — including, singles, families, children, and those in need of ministry — are fantastic. However, they are not the goal, nor were they Jesus' final command. I know of great churches who have all the things I listed who have not forgotten that those things complement what is primary: making disciples and training those disciples to make disciples.
Many churches, unfortunately, have tried to play copy-cat or imitate these transformational churches, but forgot Jesus' primary mission for them. If you read the story of Jesus' ministry, you will notice that Jesus NEVER had a goal of attracting a huge crowd. He had compassion on the masses. The Lord cared for the people in the crowds. He healed and ministered and served those who needed him in the masses. BUT, he didn't trust himself to them, nor did he trust the them. When he had a crowd, he taught them and challenged them to follow him in the way of discipleship, the way of the cross. He told them the truth about the will of God. Sometimes the crowds turned away from Jesus. As we see in the last week of the Lord's life, they also sometimes turned against him.
From all that we see in the book of Acts, Jesus' apostles, and those they led to Jesus and trained to be disciples, followed Jesus' final command and its three commanded processes diligently, passionately, and consistently. For them, their Lord's command was crucial to "What is CORE" about their Christian faith.
So, let's ask ourselves some fundamental questions:
Is making disciples what I see as CORE to what I see on the internet in Christian ministries and speakers and churches I find there?
For several influential groups, the answer is a resounding, "Yes!" Sadly, I fear, for many others, Jesus would answer for them and say, "No."
COVID-19 has reset all things public in our world over the last several months. Many believe this is a bad thing, especially for churches. There is no doubt that the loss of so many lives to COVID-19 is heartbreaking and awful — another example of the evil one breaking things in our world to harm God's precious creations. Despite these horrible consequences to the virus, we can bring something good out of this pause in public life, this unwanted reset of our public lives. We can recommit ourselves to Jesus' final command and the three processes he said were necessary to fulfill that command. We can make sure we associate with churches, groups, and ministries that take fulfilling Jesus' last words as their undying passion and their ongoing primary mission.
Last words should inspire and inform our passions, actions, and purposes. My dad's words have shaped my life, deepened my faith, and steered my passions. When I die, my prayer is that Jesus will tell me that my life has honored his final command with even more passion and purpose. How about you?
"What is CORE" for us must have "making disciples" as our primary purpose. If not, we have not honored the will of Jesus.