We live in very dark times. While war, chaos and misery abound throughout the world, I refer especially to the West. Any observer with open eyes can see just how bad things are getting – both in the church and in the surrounding culture. The utter debacle of the US elections is just one such clear example.
And as believers, we know there have often been dark times in church history. There have been times when it seemed that the church would be no more. There have been times of great persecution. There have been times of great unbelief and apostasy. There have been times of rank heresy and unbelief.
Yet the church of Jesus Christ has always survived. It has always continued. No matter how dark the hour and how trying the times, God’s people – at least a remnant – have always stood strong. And this is not because Christians have been so terrific, faithful and steadfast.
While many believers certainly have been all this, the real reason why the church has continued for 2000 years is because Christ has been with us. This has been driven home to me once again today as I am now back in the gospels. Having just finished Matthew, the very last verse is simply amazing, but can so easily be glossed over.
Verses 16-20 of course contain the Great Commission:
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.”
Those very last words undergird not only the entire commission, but the entire gospel. They provide the wherewithal for weak and fallible disciples to do the work entrusted to them. And they give us hope that Christ is with us until he comes again, no matter how dark the times.
The idea that God is with his people is of course stated hundreds of times throughout Scripture. And in Matthew’s gospel we are introduced to this core truth at the very beginning. In Matthew 1:22-23 we read this: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’).”
So from the very beginning of the gospel accounts to the very end, the very real presence of God with his people is emphasised. That is why the church has continued now for two millennia. That is why despite everything arrayed against us – Satan, sin, self, etc. – the church continues to this day.
It is not because of our great faithfulness and commitment and perseverance but because of this simple yet profound reality: God is with us. So much can be said about this, one of the grandest promises of all. Let me simply draw upon two commentators here to help elaborate on this glorious truth.
The first comes from D. A. Carson’s For the Love of God, volume one, January 28:
The closing sentence of Matthew 28 is striking: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (28:20). Of course, this is a grand promise from the resurrected Christ to his people, on the verge of his ascension. But the context discloses that it is not some generalized assurance and nothing more. It is contextually linked to the Great Commission. What is the nature of this link? Or, to tease the question out, why is Jesus’ promise to be with his disciples to the very end of the age tacked on to his assertion of his own authority, and of his command to make disciples of all people everywhere?
We should recognize that these words are not cast as a raw condition, bordering on a threat. Jesus does not say, in effect, “If you disciple all nations, I shall be with you always, to the very end of the age”; still less, “If you do not disciple all nations, I shall not be with you always, to the very end of the age.” Yet some kind of link is presupposed. What is it?
The link is so general that I suspect we are meant to think that the presence of Jesus with us is the matrix in which we obey the Great Commission – that is, simultaneously the experience of those who obey the commission, and the framework out of which we obey it. We know and experience the presence of Jesus, in accordance with his promise, and we bear witness to this, even as we proclaim who he is and what he has done and what he commands. As objective as is the truth of the Gospel that we proclaim, we proclaim it not only because it is truth, but because we ourselves have experienced its saving and transforming power. We therefore not only herald its truth, we also bear personal witness to it, to Jesus himself. We are not merely dispassionate heralds to certain objective events, we are disciples committed to making other disciples.
It is not surprising that as we discharge this commission, the promised presence of Jesus is cherished all the more. Because we know him and his transforming presence in our own lives, we evangelize, baptize, instruct, disciple – and know him all the better, and experience all the more his transforming presence in our own lives. His promise to be with us to the end of the age is thus the matrix out of which we obey the Great Commission, simultaneously the ground and the goal, the basis and the reward. How could it be otherwise? We serve him because we love him and long to hear his blessed “Well done!” at the end of our course.
The second comes from Michael Wilkins’ commentary on Matthew:
Jesus concludes the commission with the crucial element of discipleship: the presence of the Master. Both those obeying the command and those responding are comforted by the awareness that the risen Jesus will continue to fashion all his disciples.
-Jesus is present as his disciples go throughout the nations with the gospel of the kingdom of God, inviting all to become his disciples.
-Jesus is present as new disciples are baptized and are taught to obey all that he has commanded.
-Jesus is present as maturing disciples go through all the stages of their lives.
-Jesus is present as the church sojourns through this age awaiting his return.
-Jesus is always present for his disciples to follow as their Master.
We worship and follow a risen Master, who is with us constantly. All he commanded in word and deed as necessary for our growth as his disciples is included in the Scriptures, but his real presence comforts our individual needs and sustains us through all of our days, whether in our weakness, sorrow, joy, power, or pain. To the “very end of the age” or until the completion of God’s plans for this age, Jesus promises to be the sustaining presence that assures us that history is not out of control, that the kingdom of God has indeed been inaugurated, that he is a very present help in times of trouble, and that the work he accomplished on the cross is continually available through his risen and ascended ministry.
This wonderful promise of Jesus’ continual presence invites us as readers into the story. This should not evoke fear or a guilty conscience; rather, it should spur all his disciples on to proclaim the good news of the presence of the kingdom of God in our lives. We are the ongoing chapter of this story, walking receptacles of the presence of the risen Jesus and living demonstrations of the power of the kingdom of God. May we be faithful and obedient disciples of Jesus as we walk in the closest intimacy with him and proclaim this good news that he is with us to the very end of the age.
Yes we are part of the story. It is our story because we are part of His story. And because he is with us, we can and will persevere. In these very dark days we find ourselves in, never forget the last words of Jesus to his disciples at the end of Matthew.
“And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”