Earth is in a civil war – a spiritual war, really, though we must understand that spiritual means more than religious, or mystical or emotional. Spirit is un-bodied personal power, and earth is caught in a cosmic struggle between opposing powers. Human history is the story of the exercise of such power by a malevolent force the Bible identifies by various names: the devil, Satan, the prince of the power of the air, the evil one. It is the story of men and women who – driven by pride and greed – have aligned themselves with this dark power. But it is also the story of men and women who, influenced by the Spirit of God, have aligned themselves with heaven.
And what a strange story it is! We have Adolph Hitlers and we have Desmond Tutus. We have Josef Stalins and we have Mother Theresas. Good and evil battle in macro-warfare. And good and evil battle in micro-warfare. The battle between good and evil is not just fought inside national borders; it is fought inside individual souls. Think of it! There was a time when a real battle between good and evil went on inside Adolph Hitler, and a time when a similar war was fought inside Mother Theresa. Such battles go on inside you and me and, in the total scheme of things, I think it is the micro-warfare, waged in individual souls – in your soul and mine – that is most important. The macro-warfare in which cultures and nations are engaged is never won or lost in political contests or in the secret meetings of military leaders. It is won or lost in the pitched battles waged in individual souls. Had the war inside young Adolph Hitler – who knew his Bible better than many of us – gone differently, there would have been no battles fought on the beaches of Normandy or over the streets of London.
A decade or so ago, numerous denominational bodies chose to remove the gospel song “Onward, Christian Soldiers” from their hymnals, reasoning it was too militaristic and stood in opposition to the peace of Christ. I see their point, but I think they were wrong. It’s true that we don’t need to encourage people to fight and kill each other; the world is already too anxious to do that, and we certainly don’t want to spur them on. But that is not the whole story. The world is at war, and individual souls are at war. You will not understand the Bible until you understand that. We are living in occupied territory and, if you can accept it, even our personal lives have been occupied. That is why St. Paul wrote, “I know that in me – that is, in my flesh – dwells no good thing.” We need Christian soldiers – and need to be Christian soldiers – to battle against sin and hatred and injustice and pride, especially in ourselves.
But we don’t fight this war with the kind of weapons that kill and maim. St. Paul again: “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:3-5)
Christ – he is the key. I told you at the beginning of this series that we are a part of an ongoing story, and that it is vital for us to understand what kind of story it is. We have seen now, over the weeks and months, that it is a story of kings and kingdoms, the story of the king who saves his kingdom and marries his beautiful bride. It is Jesus’s story. He is the king, the church is his bride, and the world is his kingdom.
You might be thinking: If the world is his kingdom, he’s not doing a very good job of running it. But don’t forget that for the time being the world is under foreign occupation, not because the king failed in his duty but because his subjects rejected his rule and turned to other powers to provide for life and security.
A few weeks ago we talked ago about Herod the Great, who was king of Israel when Jesus was born. Let me remind you of the story of how he became king. Herod was appointed governor of Galilee when he was just 25 years old. Later, because of his military prowess in the Roman wars, he was rewarded with the title, King of the Jews. In 37 B.C. Herod went to Rome to receive his crown from the Roman Senate and the Emperor Octavian. His coronation took place in Rome.
Everyone knew this story, and it was not unique to Herod. The vassal kings of the nations around Israel had done the same thing. They went to the seat of power to receive a kingdom, and it was conferred on them. Now this is what we need to see: after Jesus’s resurrection, he did the same kind of thing. He went to the seat of power (to heaven) to be crowned king. His coronation happened there. In theological parlance his return to heaven and his coronation as king of the earth is called “The Ascension.”
Think again of Herod. After he was crowned king, he returned to Israel from Rome to take up his rule. And Jesus, too, will return from heaven to earth to take up his rule. He has promised to do so. But until then, though he is in heaven, he has already been crowned king of the earth. This is something that the New Testament writers never let us forget. It was what St. Peter was talking about on the Day of Pentecost, when he said: “For [King] David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said, ‘The Lord said to my Lord: Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.’ ‘Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ’” (Acts 2: 34-36).
It was this that St. Paul was thinking about when he wrote that God “seated him [Jesus] at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet…” (Ephesians 1:22).
The author of Hebrews had Jesus’s coronation in mind when he wrote that God said to Jesus, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.” Then there is this, from the first epistle of Peter: “Jesus Christ … has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him” (1 Peter 3:22).
This is what the great hymn of the early church is about: “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:6-11). Earth’s king is, for the time being, in heaven.
But what’s he doing there when the battle is here? Why not return immediately from heaven to end the war and bring justice and peace? There are various answers to that question but think of it this way: Had he done so, you and I would not have had the chance to join him and serve in his kingdom. St. Peter explained, “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
Though Jesus has been crowned king at the right hand of the throne of God, the spiritual powers of darkness are still ascendant on earth, where the church serves King Jesus as The Underground, the counterinsurgency, The Resistance. They early church understood their mission: they were deployed on earth to make preparations for the king’s return. In them the kingdom of heaven was already present on earth, but it would not be fully realized until King Jesus himself returned.
When the New Testament was being written, the Roman Empire stretched from Western Europe to Central Asia. It was comprised of many countries, territories and prefectures, and there were many kings and lords – but Caesar was the king of those kings and the lord of those Lords. He reigned supreme, and people had to make a yearly confession of the fact by affirming that Caesar was their Lord. But the early Christians decided that they could not do that. They acknowledged Caesar as lord of the Empire, but they confessed that Jesus alone was the Lord of all the earth. That cost some of those people their jobs, and some of them their lives.
They understood better than we do that they were living in two kingdoms at the same time. They lived in two kingdoms, but they served one king, and they were preparing the way for him to return.
Many of the Bible passages that deal with that return – often referred to as the Second Coming of Christ – are filled with kingdom terminology, with the language of conflict and war and victory. Consider this, which almost no one reads from a kingdom perspective, but everyone should: “…the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thessalonians 4:16). There is kingdom written all over that passage.
Or this: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him” (Matthew 25:31-32).
Or this: “[He] has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen. Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him…” (Revelation 1:6-7).
He came the first time to bear sin, the author of Hebrews tells us, but he will come the second time to bring salvation. His first coming was in secret. His second coming will be the ultimate campaign of shock and awe. He will end earth’s long war with a word. We must learn to see Jesus’s ascension to heaven and his return to earth as part of the larger kingdom story, and our lives here on occupied earth as part of the same story. Our role in the story is to prepare the way for the coming of the king. We may even, as St. Peter put it, speed the coming of the day of God. But how are we to do that? What are we to be doing as we await the coming of the king?
For that we go to one of the most familiar passages in the Bible. Before he was crucified or even arrested, Jesus gave orders to the leaders of The Resistance (whom we know as the apostles) to meet him on a certain mountain in Galilee. After the resurrection, they went there, probably with others of his followers (though of that we cannot be certain) to meet Jesus.
We pick up the story in Matthew 28, beginning with verse 16: “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 28:16-20).
Now that we have become attuned to kingdom language, can you hear it in the “Great Commission”? “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” That is kingdom talk – or, more specifically, that is the king talking. The order he is about to give is issued upon his authority as the Supreme Leader of God’s kingdom. Notice (verse 18): “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore…” It is because Jesus is the king, possessing all authority, that he orders his senior officers to go and make disciples.
The Great Commission launches the Great Campaign, in which the followers of King Jesus go about undermining the kingdoms of the world and preparing for the return of the legitimate king. They do not do so by armed rebellion or political activism, but by recruiting and training new members of The Resistance – that is, new citizens of the Kingdom of God.
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…” “Make disciples” is a single word in the original language, the meaning of which can be difficult for us to grasp. For one thing, in English the word “disciple” is not used outside of a religious context. We think of a disciple as someone who learns to perform certain religious duties like praying or evangelizing, or learns to react to others in religiously conditioned ways – say, with patience and goodwill. Whatever else a disciple is, we know he is religious.
But Jesus was not telling his band of leaders to “make religious people.” He was telling them to recruit and train people to be his followers – to make “Jesus people.” Interestingly, of the four times the word translated as “make disciples” is used in the New Testament, three of them come in a context related to the kingdom of God. That fourth time, in Matthew 27, does not contain kingdom language but – surprise – in the parallel passage in Luke the phrase “kingdom of God” is front and center. Making disciples is kingdom work. Jesus’s disciples live as operatives for the kingdom of God. You, if you are a disciple of Jesus, are a kingdom operative.
Jesus tells his leadership band how to go about making these disciples. There are two major components. First, they are to baptize recruits in “the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Some people think of baptism as a ritual prerequisite for getting into heaven, but it would be true (though still incomplete) to think of it as an identification marker of God’s kingdom operatives.
We baptize in water, which is how Jesus was baptized and how his followers baptized others. But it is important to understand that water baptism is meant to signify a larger spiritual reality. The word “baptize” simply means to immerse. To do that “in the name” (or “into the name,” as the Greek could be translated) of the triune God means to immerse recruits in God’s life and character – that is, in the reality of who God is. Jesus wanted his apostles to teach people how to live their lives in God’s presence, just as he had taught them. A baptized person eventually comes out of the water, but he or she never comes out of the God-bathed life. Jesus wanted these leaders to bring people (their work, their play, their family, their relationships, their leisure, their trouble – everything) into the environment of God’s life and presence. A fish lives its life surrounded by water. The person baptized into the name of God lives his or her life surrounded by God. There is nothing in a Jesus follower’s life of which he or she can say, “This doesn’t have anything to do with God.” Everything has to do with God.
This is very different from religion, as popularly conceived. The disciples – recruits, apprentices, whatever you want to call them – were to learn how to live in (and count on) God’s presence at work, at home, with others, when alone, in sickness, in health, and all the time. They were to be kingdom people at all times and in every place. Outside this reality, there is no discipleship to Jesus.
The second of the two major components in making disciples is to teach people to keep (or obey) everything Jesus commanded. Jesus expected his leaders, the foundation of his church, to do more than teach people his commands. That would be easy enough, but people need more than that to succeed as Jesus’s followers. They were to teach them to obey or keep (literally) “all [things] whatsoever I have commanded you.”
There is a world of difference between teaching people all the commands that Jesus gave and teaching them to keep all the commands that he gave. It is the difference between religion and reality, between frustration and joy and between suffocating in the pollution of the world and breathing in the life-giving presence of God. The purpose behind the Great Commission is not to teach people religion – Jesus had more in mind than a catechism class. It is even more than teaching biblical doctrine, as important as that is. It is teaching people to live as Jesus’s operatives while they wait for their king to return and establish the kingdom of God in its fullness.
The life Jesus had in mind for us is not the same thing as living the American Dream, nor is it the same thing as living as a church member in good standing. Obeying “all things whatsoever” Jesus commanded is radically counter-cultural. It’s subversive, even, which is why that great kingdom ambassador Paul, while recruiting and training people in Greece for the kingdom, was accused of turning “the world upside down” and of “defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus” (Acts 17:6).
Now let me ask you a simple question: Can you honestly say it is your intention to obey all the commands that King Jesus gave? Do you know what they are? Can you list even three of them that you are now intent on obeying? If not, there is something wrong. Disciples of Jesus are characterized here by two things: immersion in the reality of God (they live their lives with God) and obedience to Jesus’s commands. It’s hard to overstate this. We have made the Great Commission about evangelism (in the 20th century American interpretation of the word), about witnessing programs, about getting people into heaven, about theological education, but not about training people to live Jesus’s way in the kingdom of God.
But when people actually do the things Jesus taught them their lives get better: more peaceful but also more enjoyable and exciting. Their relationships become deeper and richer. Their sense of purpose comes into focus. They grow to hate their sins and love their lives.
Those people – the church of Jesus Christ – become a magnet to the disaffected men and women of the world, disillusioned by its promises and deceits and looking for something real. The Great Commission was never really about getting more people into heaven, though it will certainly do that. It was about getting heaven into more people, as they live as Jesus’s trainees in the kingdom of God.
Let me close with a reminder and a suggestion. The reminder is this: The way into the kingdom is through faith in King Jesus, who died on the cross so that you could be pardoned and granted citizenship in the kingdom of God. Entrance will not be granted to you because you’ve done certain good deeds or performed certain religious rituals. Getting in touch with your spiritual side will not qualify you for a kingdom green card. Citizenship will only be granted to you if you put your faith in the Lord Jesus – that is, if you cast your lot in with him.
The suggestion is this: If you have confidence in Jesus, it only makes sense to do what he’s told you to do. If you don’t know what those things are, I strongly recommend you find out. So here’s my suggestion: read the Book of Matthew with pencil and paper in hand. Every time you come to some command of Jesus, write it down. Ask God to help you understand what Jesus means, what he wants and how to act on it in the context of your life. And if you can find someone else who is serious about obeying Jesus’s commands, do it together. Start a small group of Jesus’s people, living the adventure of the kingdom together, serving together under the banner of the king.
 Dallas Willard’s term. See Divine Conspiracy, chapter 3.