What a wonderful way to conclude a gospel. The story of the God who came from heaven to earth wraps up with the assurance, "And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matt. 28:20). Though Jesus was about to ascend, Matthew wants us to hear that the nearness of Christ's incarnation continues. He who is Immanuel, God with us, promises to live up to His name. Jesus would soon return to heaven while His disciples went out into the world in gospel mission. But they were not going their separate ways. Jesus and His brothers could not be parted by the distance between the world and the heavenly realms. How can this be?
Jesus' missional instructions can well be translated, "baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (28:19). That gives an important insight into conversion and the sealing sign of baptism. Our lives get relocated when we are joined to Jesus by the Spirit through faith. We are launched into Jesus. So now our lives are "hidden with Christ in God" (Col. 3:3). Paul writes dynamically of this reality when he says the Father "has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son" (1:13). It's as if God sent a moving truck to take us out of a dank, evil, broken neighborhood of sin into the spacious streets of freedom in Christ. Peter describes it as God's "calling us out of darkness into his marvelous light" (1 Peter 2:9). Jesus Himself stated this change of life-address even more mystically: "In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you" (John 14:20). These verses give some texture to the phrase Paul uses so often: we are now in Christ.
Jesus is with us always because Jesus is where I live. Believers are forever joined to Him. Jesus returned to heaven and spiritually took us along. What a mystery: "Even when we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ . . . and raised us with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus" (Eph 2:5–6). Yes, this is a spiritual reality now, as my body quite obviously is still here on the ground. One day, of course, the union will be completed as we receive our resurrection bodies that we might always be in immediate communion with Jesus and one another.
Meanwhile, while we are on earth, Jesus stays with us through His Spirit whom He sends to us. Paul writes, "God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us" (Rom. 5:5). The Spirit is the personal presence of Jesus "housed" in us. By the Spirit, the Father and Son make a home in us (John 14:23). Christians, both individually and corporately as the church, are a dwelling in which the eternal exchange of love between the Triune persons gets lived out. The Holy Spirit in us keeps us joined to Jesus, who has taken His resurrection body into heaven. He ever lifts us up to see that our true life is located there, in Christ.
The biblical understanding of Jesus' being with us is very different from any idea that Jesus' presence just gives a helpful boost to the life I'm trying to make for myself. "I am with you always" does not mean I have a miniature Jesus tucked inside me for inspiration amid my ambitions or for comfort when things don't go my way. Rather, my little life is taken up into the greatness of Jesus. He is with us most profoundly because by the Spirit we are in Christ. My purpose in life, then, is directed by His mission for His people.
So, I am propelled out of my cozy home where I'd like to stay while Jesus comforts me. He sends me to the cranky neighbor to witness to him with the awareness that Jesus loves him as much as He loves me. "I am with you as you love him in Me."
Jesus goes with me from my relatively safe street to the sharp neighborhood filled with angry discards. "Pitch a tent there," He whispers, "as I took up a tent of flesh in a broken world." That might mean beginning a school, a sports camp, or a clinic in His name.
Right where I don't want to go, Jesus already is there. He even sends me to engage the people who will scoff at mention of His name. I'd like to avoid them, to keep away from controversy. But the Lord who continues to mix it up in the world He is reclaiming reminds me: "You are in Me, and I am sending My gospel into the world. So you can trust that I am with you as you go into those tricky conversations."
Jesus is with us always, first and most profoundly because His Spirit has taken us up into His life and, therefore, His mission.