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The Improbable Math of the Gospel

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Three chapters in Matthew communicate the essence of our faith and show us how to reach out with the gospel.

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I have an unusual—and some would say annoying—ability with numbers. I can look at a long spreadsheet full of figures and quickly see an error, much to the chagrin of my colleagues as we review financial reports.

It’s important that I set out the fact that I’m good with math before I launch into a theological-slash-mathematical concept I’ve come up with to illustrate how God has called his church to change the world.

I call it Matthew Math.

Here’s how it goes: 25 + 28 = 5

Or more specifically: Matthew 25 + Matthew 28 = Matthew 5

You might be scratching your head because it doesn’t quite figure. But let me explain with some theology.

In very simple terms, God’s strategy for changing the world embraces two radical ideas: the Great Commandment and the Great Commission.

In the Great Commandment, Jesus brings two commands together as parts of a whole: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. … And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matt. 22:37–40).

With the phrase, “the second is like it,” Jesus clarifies that loving our neighbor as ourselves is the same as—inseparable from—loving God with all of our heart, soul and mind.

This radical idea of love of neighbor is mentioned many times in Scripture, but it’s most profoundly understood in Matthew 25. You know it well: “‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me’” (Matt. 25:35–36).

It is in verse 40 were we see Jesus’ shocking love for the human race: “‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” Jesus’ identification with “the least of these” was so profound that when we reach out to them and meet their needs, in some mysterious way, it is Jesus himself we are loving and embracing.

Jesus is saying that when we enter the pain of the human race as he did—when we engage in feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, ministering to the sick, welcoming the stranger—we are in fact showing God our love for him in the most personal way.

So if we want to be closer to Christ, we have to be closer to the poor. (Check out World Vision’s Matthew 25 Challenge, which can help your church live out Jesus’ call in practical ways.)

Now let’s look at the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18–20: “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.’”

These were essentially Jesus’ last words, his command to go and take his message of God’s love for all people to the nations. We are to proclaim the forgiveness of sins made possible by the cross and announce the good news that men and women could now be reconciled with God, their sins forgiven and fully paid for.

But you see, Matthew 25 makes Matthew 28 possible. The Great Commandment catalyzes the Great Commission.

When people feel the love of Christ through our deeds, it prepares them to hear the message of Christ through our words. When you walk with people in love, entering their pain and demonstrating the love of Christ incarnationally, you earn the right to speak to them about the good news of the gospel. Simply put, demonstrating the love of Christ draws people to the cross of Christ.

Matthew 28 without compassion lacks power. Matthew 25 without the good news saves only bodies, not souls.

Now you’re probably starting to see how this fits into my mathematical equation. Both Matthew 25 and Matthew 28 are pillars of our faith.

But what do they add up to? What is the result of loving our neighbors and sharing the good news of God’s love?

The answer can also be found in Matthew 5. Following the Beatitudes and just after Jesus’ words about being salt and light, he tells us, “You are the light of the world.” Look at verse 16: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

When our deeds align with our words, people see Christ in us—and give glory to God in heaven.

Matthew 25 + Matthew 28 = Matthew 5

This is our call as followers of Christ. If we want to be Great Commission Christians, we must become Great Commandment Christians first. That is how we make the love of Christ credible to a watching world.

And there you have it: Improbable math made profound by God’s truth.

Richard Stearns is the longest-serving president of World Vision U.S. and the author of The Hole in Our Gospel and Unfinished. Follow him at Twitter.com/RichStearns.

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