Audio Introduction from John Piper
Long books seem daunting because we think we should start at the front and read to the back and not skip anything. I don’t expect most people to read this book that way. I hope some will. I did structure the book so that matters at the front may help the reader understand matters further on. And there is a kind of foundation, progression, and climax. But the chapters have enough independence that most of them can be read without the others. It will be obvious when one chapter depends on another.
Therefore, I invite you to step in anywhere. You don’t have to read the Introduction first. I hope that the way Jesus’ commands are interwoven will draw you further in, from one issue to another.
I have tried to keep the chapters relatively short so that in general they can be read at one sitting for those who only have limited time from day to day. This is why some of the chapters deal with the same command from different angles. I thought it better to handle the matter in several chapters rather than in one long one.
Since the focus is on the commands of Jesus in this book, much about his life and death is not here. If you want to see how I have tried to portray these more fully, you can look at two other (shorter!) books where I deal with Jesus and his death: Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ (Crossway Books, 2004) and Fifty Reasons Why Jesus Came to Die (Crossway Books, 2006). And, of course, there are important books by others that I will be referring to along the way.
Most of all I hope you will pray as you read. Even if you are not accustomed to praying, ask God to protect you from any mistakes I may have made and to confirm to you what is true. In the end, what matters is the effect that God produces in our lives through his written word by his Spirit. That’s what makes prayer so crucial. In prayer we ask God to transform us in that way.
Finally, may the living Jesus fulfill the purpose of his word as you read: “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11).
The aim of this book is God-glorifying obedience to Jesus. To that end I am seeking to obey Jesus’ last command: “Make disciples of all nations . . . teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). Jesus’ final command was to teach all his commandments.
Actually, the final command was more precise than that. He did not say, “Teach them all my commandments.” He said, “Teach them to observe all my commandments.” You can teach a parrot all of Jesus’ commandments. But you cannot teach a parrot to observe them. Parrots will not repent, and worship Jesus, and lay up treasures in heaven, and love their enemies, and go out like sheep in the midst of wolves to herald the kingdom of God.
Teaching people to parrot all that Jesus commanded is easy. Teaching them to observe all that Jesus commanded is impossible. Jesus used that word. When a rich man could not bring himself to let go of his riches and follow him, Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. . . . With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:25-27).
Therefore, the person who sets himself to obey Jesus’ final commission—for example, to teach a rich man to observe the command to “renounce all that he has” (Luke 14:33)—attempts the impossible. But Jesus said it was not impossible. “All things are possible with God.” So the greatest challenge in writing this book has been to discern God’s way of making impossible obedience possible.
Jesus said that this impossible goal happens through teaching. “Make disciples . . . teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” There is, of course, more to it than that—like the atoning death of Jesus (Mark 10:45) and the work of the Holy Spirit (John 14:26) and prayer (Matt. 6:13). But in the end Jesus focused on teaching. I take this to mean that God has chosen to do the impossible through the teaching of all that Jesus commanded. That’s what I pray this book will prove to be—a kind of teaching that God will use to bring about impossible obedience to Jesus. And all of that for the glory of God.
The reason I emphasize the glory of God is because Jesus did. He said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). The ultimate goal of Jesus’ commandments is not that we observe them by doing good works. The ultimate goal is that God be glorified. The obedience of good works is penultimate. But what is ultimate is that in our obedient lives God be displayed as the most beautiful reality in the world. That is Jesus’ ultimate goal1 and mine.
This helps me answer the question: What kind of teaching of Jesus’ commandments might God be willing to use to bring about such impossible obedience? If the aim of obedience is ultimately the glory of God, then it is probable that the teaching God will use is the kind that keeps his glory at the center. Therefore, my aim has been to keep the supremely valuable beauty of God in proper focus throughout the book.
How then do we keep the beauty of God in proper focus in relation to Jesus’ commandments? By treating the meaning and motivation of the commands in connection with the person and work of Jesus. The person and work of Jesus are the primary means by which God has glorified himself in the world. No revelation of God’s glory is greater. Jesus said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Therefore, his person is the manifestation of the glory of God. To see him as he really is means seeing the infinitely valuable beauty of God. Jesus also said, as he was praying, “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do” (John 17:4). Therefore, his work is a manifestation of the glory of God. When we see what he achieved and how he did it, we see the majesty and greatness of God.
Therefore, my aim has been to probe the meaning and the motivation of Jesus’ commands in connection with his person and work. What emerges again and again is that what he is commanding is a life that displays the worth of his person and the effect of his work. His intention is that we not disconnect what he commands from who he is and what he has done.
We should not be surprised, then, that Jesus’ final, climactic command is that we teach all nations to observe all that he commanded. This leads to his ultimate purpose. When obedience to his commands happens, what the world sees is the fruit of Jesus’ glorious work and the worth of his glorious person. In other words, they see the glory of God. This is why Jesus came and why his mission remains until he comes.
Anticipating what we will see later in the book, the briefest sketch of Jesus’ person and work should be given here, so that from the start the commands rest on their proper foundation. Jesus came into the world, sent by God, as the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. When Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was, Peter answered, “You are the Christ [that is, Messiah], the Son of the living God.” To this Jesus responded, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 16:16-17).
When Jesus was on trial for his life, the charge was blasphemy, and eventually treason against Caesar, because of his apparent claims to be the Messiah, the King of Israel, the Son of God. The Jewish high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:61-62).
Even though Jesus acknowledged that he was the Messiah, the Son of God, his favorite designation for himself was “Son of Man.” At one level this title carries the obvious meaning that Jesus was truly human. But because of its use by the prophet Daniel, it probably is a very exalted claim of universal authority.
Behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. (Dan. 7:13-14)
The reason Jesus favored the title Son of Man for himself was that the terms Messiah and Son of God were loaded with popular political pretensions. They would give the wrong impression about the nature of his messiahship. They could easily imply that he fit in with the conceptions of the day that the Messiah would conquer Rome and liberate Israel and set up his earthly kingdom. But Jesus had to navigate these political waters by presenting himself as truly the Messiah, even the divine Son of God with universal authority, but also reject the popular notion that the Messiah would not suffer but immediately rule.
The term Son of Man proved most useful in this regard because though it did carry exalted claims for those who had ears to hear, on the face of it he was not making explicit claims to political power. Under this favorite title (while not rejecting the others), Jesus was able to make his claims that the long-awaited messianic kingdom of God had come in his ministry.2
The Jewish people longed for the day when the Messiah would come and bring the kingdom of God. The kingdom would mean that the enemies of Israel are defeated, sins are wiped away, diseases are healed, the dead are raised, and righteousness, joy, and peace hold sway on the earth with the Messiah on the throne. Jesus arrived and said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). What he meant was that in his own ministry the liberating, saving reign of God had arrived. “If it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you . . . the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 11:20; 17:21).
But there was a mystery. Jesus called it “the secret of the kingdom of God” (Mark 4:11). The mystery was that the kingdom of God had come in history before its final, triumphant manifestation. Fulfillment was here, but consummation was not here.3 The kingdom would arrive in two stages. In the first stage the Messiah would come and suffer, and in the second stage the Messiah would come in glory (Luke 24:46; Mark 14:62).
Therefore, the primary work of Jesus on the earth during his first coming was to suffer and die for the forgiveness of sins. He said, “Even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). And at the Last Supper with his disciples, he took the cup and said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28).
Dying was not his only mission. But it was central. In shedding his blood he purchased the new-covenant promises. The new covenant was God’s promise that all who enter the coming kingdom will have their sins forgiven, will have the law written on their hearts, and will know God personally (Jer. 31:31-34). The blessings of this covenant are crucial in enabling us to obey Jesus’ commandments. Which makes Jesus’ death of supreme importance in bringing about the impossible obedience that he demands.
But there was more to his mission. When John the Baptist was perplexed about whether Jesus was really the Messiah, he sent word to him from prison: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Jesus answered, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matt. 11:3-6). In other words, “All my healing and preaching are a demonstration of my messiahship, but don’t take offense that I am not fulfilling the political expectation of earthly rule. I am the one who is to come, but my central mission (in this first coming) is suffering—to give my life as a ransom for many.”
When his mission was accomplished, after three days in the grave, Jesus rose from the dead. This was God’s plan. It was an act of supreme authority over death. “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father” (John 10:18). When he was raised, he appeared to his disciples on many occasions and gave them proof that he was physically alive (Luke 24:39-43). He opened the Scriptures to them so they could see more fully how he fulfilled God’s promises (Luke 24:32, 45). Then he commissioned them to be his witnesses, instructed them to wait for the promised Holy Spirit, and ascended into heaven (Luke 24:46-51).
On the basis of who he was and what he accomplished, Jesus made his demands. The demands cannot be separated from his person and work. The obedience he demands is the fruit of his redeeming work and the display of his personal glory. That is why he came— to create a people who glorify his gracious reign by bearing the fruit of his kingdom (Matt. 21:43).
When he said, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10), he was speaking about Zacchaeus who had just been so transformed that he gave half his possessions to the poor (Luke 19:8). In other words, the Son of Man came to save people from their suicidal love affair with possessions (and every other idol) and to lead them into a kind of impossible obedience that displays the infinite worth of Jesus. Therefore, my effort in this book has been to hold together the meaning and motivation of Jesus’ commands, the greatness of his work, and the glory of his person.
I will give more detail about methodology in the following “A Word to Biblical Scholars” (which I invite everyone to read!), but it seems good to include at this point some crucial guiding choices that I have made. My method is to reflect on the meaning and motivation of Jesus’ demands as they appear in the New Testament Gospels in the context of his person and work. I do not cite the rest of the New Testament for my understanding of Jesus in the Gospels. Citing the whole New Testament is a perfectly legitimate thing to do, and in my preaching I do not hesitate to bring Scriptures from anywhere to help make any text plain, provided I don’t change the meaning of either text. But in this book I have given my rendering of Jesus almost entirely through the lens of his own words as recorded in the Gospels. One of my subordinate aims in this approach is to encourage confidence in the unity of the New Testament, because the upshot of this portrayal is so compatible with what the other New Testament writers taught.
A few words about the title What Jesus Demands from the World. I am aware that the word demands is jarring to many modern ears. It feels harsh, severe, strict, stark, austere, abrasive. The reason I choose that word is to confront some of the underlying causes for why it would feel offensive to portray Jesus as demanding. My conviction is that if we rightly understand Jesus’ demands, and if we are willing to find in him our supreme joy, his demands will not feel severe but sweet. They would land on us the way the Lady’s commands landed on the beasts in C. S. Lewis’s novel Perelandra: “The beasts would not think it hard if I told them to walk on their heads. It would become their delight to walk on their heads. I am His beast, and all His biddings are joys.”4
But it would be a cheap and superficial spin to give the impression that Jesus does not in fact often speak abrasively and sound severe. This is true not only toward his adversaries, the scribes and Pharisees—for example, in Matthew 23, where he calls them children of hell (v. 15), “blind fools” (v. 17), “blind guides” (vv. 16, 24), “hypocrites” (v. 27), “whitewashed tombs” (v. 27), and “brood of vipers” (v. 33). It is also true toward his disciples. For example, he says, “If you . . . who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children . . .” (Matt. 7:11); and to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Mark 8:33); and again to Peter, referring to John’s destiny, “What is that to you? You follow me!” (John 21:22).
And after a blunt and jarring teaching in John 6 (“Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life,” v. 54), John comments that when “many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?’ . . . After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him’” (vv. 60, 66). Such was the price of how he spoke. My aim is not to gloss over the tough implications of the word “demands” or to soften the “hard” sayings of Jesus; the aim is to be changed in our hearts and in our understanding to such a degree that the tough Jesus is as sweet to us as the tender Jesus.
That is my goal. You can feel the two come together in what Jesus says on either side of his final command to make disciples. On one side he says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18). And on the other side he says, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). The one says, “I make demands because I have the right. All authority in the universe is mine.” The other says, “I make demands because I will help you. I will be with you forever.”
I have tried to structure the chapters of the book to draw the reader from shorter chapters and gentler demands toward the more difficult (but no less precious) demands of Jesus.5 This is not merely stylistic or tactical. It is theologically fitting. Most of the first nineteen chapters do not demand any external action. They are essentially about what happens in the mind and heart. These come first because the kind of obedience Jesus demands moves from the inside (where the value of Jesus is savored) to the outside (where the value of Jesus is shown).
Of these chapters, the first seven are “You Must Be Born Again,” “Repent,” “Come to Me,” “Believe in Me,” “Love Me,” “Listen to Me,” and “Abide in Me.” When these demands are seen for what they really are, they turn the absolute authority of Jesus into a treasure chest of holy joy. When the most glorious person in the universe pays all my debts (Matt. 20:28), and then demands that I come to live with him and enter into his joy (Matt. 25:21), there can be no more desirable demand imaginable. To such a one I say, with Augustine, “Command what you wish, but give what you command.”6
The other word in the title that sounds provocative is “world”— What Jesus Demands from the World. Two objections arise. One is: Did he make demands on the whole world? The other is: Dare he make demands on the whole world?
One may ask, did Jesus give all these demands to the world, or did he give them only to his disciples? Is this an ethic for the world or just for the followers of Jesus? The answer is: The demands he gave only to his disciples are also meant for the world because he demands all people everywhere to become his disciples. That is the point of his final command: “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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). Jesus dares to lay claim to “all nations”—all ethnic groups on the planet.7 No exceptions. Jesus is not a tribal deity. All authority in the universe is his, and all creation owes its allegiance to him.
He does not send his people to make disciples with a sword. His kingdom does not come by force, but by truth and love and sacrifice and the power of God. “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting”
(John 18:36). Jesus’ followers do not kill to extend his kingdom. They die. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). “Some of you they will put to death” (Luke 21:16). Not only will they put the followers of Jesus to death, but they will do it in the name of their religion. “The hour is coming,” Jesus says, “when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God” (John 16:2).
Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth, but for now he restrains his power. He does not always use it to prevent his people’s pain, even though he could, and sometimes does. He is with us to the end of the age, but not always to rescue us from harm. He calls us to walk the same road he walked. “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household” (Matt. 10:25).
The universal authority of Jesus produces a mission of teaching, not a mission of terror. His aim is God-glorifying obedience to all that he commanded. The kind of obedience that glorifies God is free and joyful, not constrained and cowering. Even when the cost is supreme, the joy is triumphant, because the cause of Jesus cannot fail. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” (Matt. 5:11-12). It is a costly mission, but a joyful one.
My prayer for this book is that it will serve that global mission— to “make disciples of all nations . . . teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” I pray I am a faithful echo of Jesus when he said, “He who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him” (John 8:26).