"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 themto observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age." (Matt 28:19-20)
Are we in danger of trying to squeeze too much out this one text in Matthew 28 that explicitly urges us to make disciples? Do we tend to use the Great Commission simply as a proof-text for evangelism and mission? Such an approach to Jesus’ mandate misses the force of the ‘therefore’, and therefore effectively ignores the basis for the command given in verse 18.
This commission is not incidental but resoundingly climactic. Along with the parallel commissions in Mark, Luke and John, Matthew’s record of Jesus’ final word conveys the central thrust of God’s plan for redeeming the world. By looking at the context, we see that Matthew 28 is the climax of the Matthew’s gospel and in one sense the whole Bible.
Firstly, Matthew 28 is a climax of a movement that intertwines key themes of the gospel of Matthew as a whole, themes of the identity of Jesus as the Christ, discipleship, righteousness, authority and teaching. It is an all-embracing, all-encompassing mission from the One with all
authority to make disciples of all
nations, teaching them to obey all
of Jesus’ teaching and with the promise of his presence for all
the days (always) until the end of the age.[1. The repetition of ‘all’ not only frames the structure of the commission but also imparts the absolute authority, scope and hopefulness of the commission.]
Secondly, this commission is also the climax to Jesus’ training of the Twelve. As well as baptizing them, they are to teach these new disciples to obey all that Jesus has taught them. That is, the eleven remaining are to reproduce the process in which they have engaged with Jesus, so that new disciples live under his lordship.
Thirdly, the commission to make disciples fulfills God’s eternal purpose for the world to call a people to live under the Lordship of his Son ("all authority… has been given to me", v. 18). This commission is pivotal in salvation history.
In other words, to understand this commission and what it means for us, we need to not only look forwards to see how it has been fulfilled from the book of Acts and beyond, but to look backwards through the OT to see where this commission fits in God’s plan for his world.
It is indisputable that Jesus through these disciples generated an incredibly powerful missionary movement not only across the ancient world but also throughout the world ever since, to this very day.
The eleven disciples themselves were overwhelmed with a mixture of worship and doubt in their hearts as they encountered the risen Christ on the mountain.
Why were these disciples ultimately persuaded that the world beyond Israel—the nations—should hear about the events surrounding Jesus and his teaching? For, being so persuaded, it cost them their lives. It was not just they had witnessed and participated in extraordinary events surrounding Jesus of Nazareth. What did they come to understand about the significance of these events meant in terms of what God was doing in the world?
Who gives the commission?
The one with "all authority"
gives the commission.
Jesus announces to the Eleven that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him (Matt 28:18). Through his death and resurrection the Father has installed him as the ruler of the kingdom that he has been announcing throughout his ministry.
In Matthew, Jesus has made the astonishing claim that "all things have been handed over to me by my Father" (Matt 11:27), a claim that he proves again and again, through his authority over sickness, demons and creation itself.[2. The passive verb assumes God as the active subject.] And a claim that climaxes in his victory and authority over sin and death, as a “ransom for many” (Matt 20:28). No other authority—whether human or divine—can save the world.
John the Baptist spoke of Jesus as "the one who is to come" (Matt 3:11; 11:3). And Jesus himself had a clear sense of being sent by God for a particular purpose (Matt 10:40; 15:24; 21:37).
Once the eleven understood his identity they understood his mission. He comes according to the Scriptures. He comes in fulfillment of theological expectations established in the Old Testament. God has a plan for the world that Jesus is fulfilling. The identity of Jesus gives rise to mission; or, as Peter Bolt put it, "Christology gave birth to mission".[3. P Bolt, ‘Following Jesus and Fishing for People: Evangelistic Mission in the Third Millennium’, Ripe for Harvest: Christian Mission in the NT and in our world.
(ed. R.J. Gibson. Explorations 12, Carlisle Cumbria: Paternoster, 2000), 15. Peter Bolt’s article has been helpful in preparing this post.]
Who was Jesus, according to the Scriptures? What does Matthew say?
The Christ, the Son of God
Jesus’ authority as Lord is revealed as he fulfills the Old Testament promises of a coming Messiah.
Matthew begins with Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God in the line of David (Matt 1:1). Psalm 2 lies behind Jesus’ designation as the Son of God at his baptism (Matt 3:17) and at the transfiguration (Matt 17:5). The Anointed One, the Son of God was God’s anointed king, ruling in Zion. The nations would rage against him and are warned to kiss the Son in submission or suffer divine wrath. His Lord and Father gives him the nations: "ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession" (Ps 2:8).
Finally, the baptism that Jesus inaugurates is in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Jesus here refers to God as his Father.
The suffering servant
The suffering servant is the major figure in Isaiah 40-55. He is the one who will bring salvation to the people of Israel who are suffering under God’s judgment in exile. The Servant was prepared to suffer and die for the people and would be raised up in glory (Isa 53:10-12). But this is not just salvation for Israel but for the nations (Isa 42:1-4; 49:6). The Gentile kings will shut their mouths in astonishment because of what he achieves on their behalf (Isa 52:15).
Jesus is the suffering servant who gives his life as a ransom for many (Matt 20:28; cf. Isa 53:10,12). He is God’s chosen servant who will proclaim justice to the nations who will put their hope in him (Matt 12:15-21; cf. Isa 42:1-4).
The Son of Man
Jesus’ astonishing claim to have all authority in heaven and earth has unmistakable echoes of Daniel 7 about it. When “one like a son of man” comes into the presence of the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7, he is given “dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Dan 7:13-14). “This is who I am”, Jesus is telling his disciples. And for the past three years, the disciples have seen it for themselves. Jesus has walked among them as the powerful Son of Man, healing the sick, raising the dead, teaching with authority, forgiving sins, and saying things like this:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” (Matt 25:31-32)
And now, in the presence of the Son of Man on the hillside in Galilee, they are seeing the fulfillment of Daniel’s vision. Here is the Man before whom all peoples, from every nation and tongue, will bow. It is on this basis—the unique, supreme and worldwide authority of the risen Son of Man—that Jesus commissions his disciples to make disciples of all nations.
The great time of harvest in the nations begins with Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation to heaven, and this harvest is reaped by the glorified Son of Man through his chosen messengers (cf. Mark 13:26-27).
Jesus came as the climax to God’s plan of salvation to give his Son, the Christ, the nations as his inheritance. The Great Commission is the means by which this mind-blowing plan is fulfilled.
What is the commission for the Eleven?
The logic is inescapable. If Jesus is the One with this unique authority, the Eleven must go and make disciples of all nations. All the nations belong to him, so go and tell them that he is the only one to follow in order to enter his eternal kingdom.
Previously Jesus had explicitly told the twelve disciples not to go among the Gentiles but rather to the lost sheep of Israel (Matt 10:5-6). But now Jesus extends their commission to all the nations.
The mission is to all nations in fulfilment of God’s covenant with Abraham.
From the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, the nations have been on view. In Matthew’s genealogy Jesus is linked with Abraham’s descendants (Matt 1). The kings from the east in chapter 2 represent the Gentile nations who were meant to come into Jerusalem in the last days (e.g. Isa 2:1-4). Jesus is God’s servant fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy as the one with the Spirit who will proclaim justice to the nations so that they put their hope in him (Matt 12:18-21; cf. Isa 42:1-4). Jesus had begun his ministry in Capernaum, near Gentile territory, to fulfil Isaiah’s prophecy that those living in darkness in Galilee of the Gentiles would see a great light (Matt 4:12-16; cf. Isa 9:2). And now, significantly, this commission is given to the eleven disciples on a mountain in Galilee (Mt 28:16).
In Genesis 12:3 God promises: "I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed". The covenant is renewed in Gen 18:18 and 22:18 with language echoed in Matthew 28:19 ("all the nations"). The risen Lord is fulfilling the covenant by sending out his disciples to gather disciples from all the nations.
The promise of the Lord’s presence in v.20—"I am with you always, to the end of the age"—is also a clue to the Great Commission being a fulfilment of the covenant with Abraham. The promise of the divine presence—"I am with you"—is a feature of the Old Testament commissioning narratives (e.g., Gen 17:4-5; 28:15; Ex 4:11f). Matthew presents Jesus as "God with us" (Matt 1:23; cf. 18:20). In promising his eternal presence with the disciples Jesus places them and all future disciples in the line of God’s servants who have carried forward his plan to fulfil the promise to Abraham.[4. PT O’Brien, ‘The Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20: A Missionary Mandate or Not?’ RTR 35 (1976), 77.]
The promise was not realised through Israel but through Jesus as the Messiah. He is now the locus of blessing to the nations.
In obeying Jesus’ commission to summon the nations to follow Christ, the disciples are God’s agents in realising his covenant promise to Abraham and his seed. This is no small thing for which all disciples are called to lay down their lives.
Obeying the Great Commission today
The Great Commission is not merely a proof text for disciple-making. The first disciples were persuaded to give their lives for this mission because they worshipped the one who came with all authority according to the Scriptures. Through their Spirit-inspired witness we worship the same Christ. Can we do anything less than give our lives for this same mission, that the nations might be blessed through the Seed of Abraham, great David’s greater Son, who suffered as the faithful Servant to be raised as the Son of Man with all authority?