The Great Commission
Jesus commissions the Apostles to go, to make disciples, to baptise, to teach, and to go to all the nations of the earth.
Jesus commissions the Apostles to go, to make disciples, to baptise, to teach, and to go to all the nations of the earth.
Hello and welcome to Series 14 and Episode 7. his is ‘The Great Commission’ and we are turning today in our episode to Matthew 28: 16 - 20, which are the final verses of Matthew's Gospel. We will be looking at this wonderful statement of Jesus' commissioning of his disciples, the Eleven gathered together and, as I will explain to you, probably others with them at the time.
Introduction and Recap
We are getting very near the end of our studies and this amazing series of eight episodes, where we have been looking at the resurrection appearances of Jesus and I hope you have had the opportunity to listen to the earlier episodes and to get a feel of the bigger story that is taking place as Jesus is appearing in different places to different groups of people, different disciples, for different purposes over different particular periods of time. We have reached the end of the material in John's Gospel. We came to the end of John's Gospel in our last episode and we are going to do the same for Matthew's and Mark's Gospel, in today's episode. Then in the final episode, we will look at the resurrection appearances that are associated with the ascension of Jesus, that are recorded in Luke and at the beginning of the book of Acts. It really is an incredible story and it is thrilling for me to be able to go through the story of the resurrection and tell it fully and help us to understand the significance of all sorts of different events that have happened. It is a very dramatic story and interesting to try and feel your way into the thoughts and feelings of those who were encountering Christ in remarkable circumstances.
As you will remember, if you have looked at earlier episodes, the focus initially was on Easter Sunday. That was the day full of action as far as the followers of Jesus were concerned because there were a number of different appearances of Jesus to different people in different places at different times in the day. We looked at the amazing story of how Jesus met Mary Magdalene, one of the women disciples who followed Jesus from Galilee, and was there at the cross, and at the place where Jesus was buried, and appeared at the tomb at early dawn on Easter Sunday morning. It was Mary to whom Jesus revealed himself first of all. Then secondly to the other women in that group who had come to the grave and to the tomb. Through material in Luke's Gospel, we understand particularly that there was an appearance to Simon Peter, as well as an appearance to two disciples walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus on the Emmaus Road. We also see in the Gospels how on that evening, the two men came back from Emmaus. Once they had encountered Jesus on the Emmaus Road they came back to tell the Apostles and others what had happened. Then Jesus appeared to a group of disciples in the locked room, in Jerusalem where they were meeting at the time. All that took place on Easter Sunday.
Tremendously exciting events, sort of unnerving events for the participants trying to work out what was happening and what was going to happen next and what was the significance of all this and coming to terms with what it meant to encounter Jesus as resurrected from the dead. It was highly emotional and intense for them. They were overjoyed and very excited and thrilled but yet terribly uncertain about what the future held for them. Then John tells us that a week later Jesus appeared again in that same house, that same room, behind that same locked door in Jerusalem. This time the one person who had been absent the previous week, when Jesus had appeared in similar circumstances, was present and that was Thomas. We looked at the story of Thomas and how his doubt was turned to faith.
In the last episode, we followed the narrative of John who showed us that Jesus went from Jerusalem after a period of time, back to Galilee and appeared there. The disciples had already made a decision to go back to Galilee, a few days after the second appearance of Jesus which was a week after Easter Sunday. At some point after then, the disciples made their way back to Galilee. The feast of Passover has ended. They needed to see their families, to perhaps earn some money and take stock of the situation. They didn't live in Jerusalem. It wasn't clear what was going to happen next. John 21 describes Jesus back in Galilee, by the Sea of Galilee, where he encounters seven of the disciples while they were fishing.
Matthew concludes his story also in Galilee. Here is a second resurrection appearance in Galilee that is taking place. Matthew has already alerted us to the fact that the disciples will be back in Galilee. Jesus encourages them to go back to Galilee before he goes to Gethsemane, while he is in the upper room. He says, according to Matthew 26: 32,
32‘“But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”’Matthew 26:32, NIV
and then in Matthew 28: 10 in the resurrection appearance to the women,
‘Jesus said “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”’Matthew 28:10, NIV
Matthew also anticipates and teaches that Jesus encouraged them to go back to Galilee. It is therefore not surprising that this actually takes place and that the next appearance is in this region.
The Great Commission
Let us read the passage. It is well-known and very important. It is not just a great commission; it is a resurrection appearance.
‘16Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and 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, NIV
The disciples were in Galilee. Seven of them had had an appearance from Jesus by the Sea of Galilee already and they went to a mountain. It appears that Jesus had told them where to go at a particular time and they went to a mountain. Which mountain is this? It is not the Mount of Transfiguration if that is Mount Hermon, as I have indicated in earlier teaching because that is not in the district of Galilee. The most likely mountain mentioned here is the Mount of Beatitudes, the place where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount as recorded in Matthew 5 - 7, with a parallel passage in Luke 6. If we turn to Matthew 5: 1, we will see just a brief description.
‘Now when Jesus saw the crowds he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him and he began to teach them’.Matthew 5:1, NIV
That mountain side was very significant. This is the place where he also appointed the twelve Apostles. If we read Luke 6, we will see that and see it is the same location, and it is quite likely that Jesus calls his disciples to come back to this place. It was very near Capernaum and near the district that they had lived in for the three years that Jesus had been ministering in Galilee. It would have had a symbolic significance for them because there was a sense in which they were commissioned on that mountain once before. They were commissioned as Apostles and they were commissioned with the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount which was the formation of the discipleship communities, as we discussed in some detail when we looked at the Sermon on the Mount much earlier. They are back on a mountainside in probably the same place, and Jesus appeared to them on the mountainside.
Then it says very interestingly, ‘when they saw him they worshipped him but some doubted’. It seems odd to think that some of the eleven disciples, the Apostles, will be doubting Jesus given that they have had a number of experiences of him but there is an interesting detail here which may explain this. We can't be certain about this but there is a detail provided by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 that may be associated with this event. In the first section of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul outlines resurrection appearances as historical evidence for the faith. In verse 6, he mentions this,
‘After that he appeared to more than 500 of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.’ (As in death).1 Corinthians 15:6, NIV
That is an interesting account. 500 brothers and sisters - 500 disciples in the broader category, those who are following Jesus. Many scholars have suggested that that is also a part of this event here, it is actually the same event on the mountainside and not only were the Eleven there, which is the focus of Matthew's Gospel, because he is focused on the great commission to them, but there was a wider crowd there - brothers and sisters. It is only in Galilee that you get that number of people easily gathered - 500 who would declare themselves to be the followers of Jesus at this particular time. It might be that those who doubted were actually some of that wider group. We can't be certain but it is an interesting point and we do need to identify that that appearance before 500 people is one of the resurrection appearances. It could be a separate appearance but I think it is likely to be the same event as this one. Paul uses it for a different reason in his teaching. He uses it simply to explain to people, writing about 20 years after the event, that some of those who experienced Jesus in the resurrection are still alive and some have died, which isn't surprising if this is 20 years after the event that he is writing. He is almost inviting his readers if they have any doubts, to try and find one of those people and ask them about their experience of Jesus having been raised from the dead.
Then comes the great commission itself. ‘All authority in heaven has been given to me.’ That means in a sense that Jesus seated at the right hand of the Father, has been given authority by his heavenly Father for his ministry. The issue of Jesus having authority is a very strong theme of the Gospels. Matthew 7:29, ‘he taught as one who had authority’. Matthew 9: 6, ‘the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ says Jesus when he pronounces forgiveness on an individual. Jesus gave his Apostles, in Matthew 10: 1, authority over illness, sickness and evil powers. Jesus claimed to have the authority of his Father in Matthew 11: 27,
‘“All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son, and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”’Matthew 11:27, NIV
The Father has given tremendous authority to Jesus such that, of his words, ‘“Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will not pass away”’, says Jesus in Matthew 24: 35. This issue of Jesus' authority is a constant theme of the Gospels and particularly in Matthew. ‘All authority has been given to me,’ Christ is going to be the initiator at this point of the process of bringing the Church to birth, bringing into being the preaching of the Gospel, the discipling of the nations and the salvation of people all over the world. That authority has been given to him, and he uses that authority to tell the eleven disciples - there will be a twelfth added to them as is pointed out in Acts 1, when someone takes Judas Iscariot's place and his name is Matthias. But that hasn't happened yet, so the eleven disciples who are the original Apostles less Judas Iscariot, who has committed suicide, those eleven are commanded,
‘Therefore go.’ Here comes the point in the story where the focus is no longer going to be on the nation of Israel, which it has been predominantly up until this point. There had been some prophetic indicators that Gentiles are in mind but they are going to ‘go’. They are going to go from Galilee and from Jerusalem; they are going to be on the move spreading the message.
‘Go and make disciples’. A disciple is one who is taught, one who is a follower. Discipleship is a major theme of Matthew's Gospel. We know that in order to make disciples, you first of all need to preach the gospel to them, and in Luke's account of Jesus commissioning the Apostles in his encounter with them in the locked room in Jerusalem, it says in Luke 24: 47,
‘“And repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations beginning in Jerusalem.”’Luke 24:47, NIV
This ‘making disciples’ starts with the preaching of the Gospel - the good news, the proclaiming of Christ: ‘Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them.’ Baptism is going to be an important hallmark of discipleship and then ‘teaching them to obey everything I've commanded.’ They are going to be formed into communities of learners. People who are going to learn about the faith.
To All Nations
They are going to go to all nations. There is a progression in the Gospels. First of all in Matthew 10, and in Luke 9, when the Twelve are sent out to preach, they are called, as indicated in Matthew's account, to go ‘to the lost sheep of Israel’. It is a Jewish mission, particularly around Galilee. That is the first stage of the mission that the Apostles are involved with - just around Galilee. Then in Luke 10 when the 72 are commissioned, the geographical location has changed, they have gone a bit further south and are entering into Samaria, in the central part of the country and into Judea in the southern part of the country, and they are reaching the whole nation and also the Samaritan community, who are not Jewish. Now we have reached a different point. The gospel is going to go to all nations from a Jewish foundation, from the geographical location in Israel, it is going to spread to East, West, North and South.
Baptism is interesting here. The word, ‘baptism’, implies to plunge, or to dip, to immerse, to cover somebody with water and, of course, baptism was familiar to them because that is what John the Baptist was doing in the River Jordan. The symbol of baptism had already become a part of the prophetic message of the Christian community. It is interesting that the implication of the New Testament is that baptism is by immersion. Baptism is for believers, those who have made a profession of faith. This starts in Acts 2: 38. Peter states,
‘“Repent and be baptised, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”’Acts 2:38, NIV
Notice here, repent and then be baptised. So the conscious belief and turning away from sin comes before the act of baptism which indicates that in the New Testament baptism is not designated, or designed for infants. There are other ways of welcoming them into the family of God and blessing them, as they seek to find their way. Baptism is for believers and baptism is preferably done by immersion, by plunging someone in water completely because this is a sign of the end of the old life, a complete washing and the beginning of a new life, as is made clear in the first few verses of Romans 6, which talk about the symbolism of baptism.
Father, Son and Holy Spirit
They will be baptising them ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’ God is revealed in the New Testament unambiguously, as three persons in one God. There is one God but he is expressed in three persons, who are united completely in their will, their intention, their collaboration and in their actions together as one God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. When Jesus was baptised, there was a voice from heaven - the voice of the Father speaking about his Son. Then there was the coming of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. So we have the Father's voice, the physical presence of Jesus, and the representation of the Holy Spirit in the same event; the threefold nature of God was symbolised. This is a symbol we see throughout the New Testament.
To the End of the Age
Jesus says, ‘I will with you to the end of the age’. Until he comes again - the end of the age - Jesus is going to be with them, not in the form of his resurrection - his physical presence - but in the form of the gift of the Holy Spirit which has already been promised and that is articulated very clearly in Luke 24: 44 - 49 and will become very clear in Acts 1. The Holy Spirit is going to come upon them all, and in that sense Jesus is going to be with them to the end of the age.
What kind of reflections have we got on this very clear and decisive commission that Jesus gives? The first thing to say is that we are still looking at resurrection appearances. This is a resurrection appearance of Jesus. This is the eighth out of ten recorded in the New Testament. Five took place on Easter Sunday. The sixth was to the disciples, including Thomas, a week later. The seventh was to seven disciples by the Sea of Galilee as recorded in John 21, which we saw in the last episode, and the eighth is here on the mountainside of Galilee where the Eleven are gathered, probably with a large crowd of other believers, who Paul describes as ‘brothers and sisters’. There are two more appearances still to be named and identified. We will talk about those in the next episode.
Another reflection is that discipleship is a major theme of Matthew's Gospel. We have mentioned this before. The wording here is very explicit, ‘Make disciples, teaching them to obey everything I've commanded you.’ We have noticed that the structure of Matthew's Gospel has a lot of teaching in it and indeed has five major blocks of teaching: Matthew 5 to 7 is the Sermon on the Mount about the lifestyle of the Kingdom; in Matthew 10, we have a lot of teaching about the mission of the Kingdom; in Matthew 13, we have a number of parables that tell us about the growth of the Kingdom; in Matthew 18, we have teaching and parables about the community of the Kingdom; and in Matthew 24 and 25 we have extensive teaching about the future of the Kingdom and the return of Christ. There is a very high proportion of teaching material in Matthew's Gospel, that extends well beyond those five main blocks. Matthew is focused on discipleship and his accounts of the great commission emphasises discipleship.
We need to pause at this point. The Church is only healthy when the terms of the great commission are fulfilled: first of all we are preaching a Gospel of salvation; secondly we are defining entry into the Kingdom of God and the Church by baptism of believers; thirdly, when we are forming people into communities of those who are learning and being taught to obey the teaching of Jesus, particularly the teaching of the New Testament. This is what makes for healthy churches.
The Trinitarian nature of God - three persons in one God, is a constant theme of the New Testament and it is referred to on a number of occasions. I have mentioned already the example of Jesus' baptism where it is visually seen, and audibly heard. But God described as three persons in one God, appears from time to time in the New Testament in a number of different contexts. Here is one for example, 2 Corinthians 13: 14,
‘May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all’.2 Corinthians 13:14, NIV
That is interesting - three different persons: the Lord Jesus Christ; the love of God; and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. That is a Trinitarian statement. There are quite a few other ones that we could name.
Let us conclude our episode by putting this all in a wider context. A very decisive moment has been reached. The disciples are on the verge of launching the Church, the new movement of followers of Jesus. It is going to happen very shortly after this time when they are back in Jerusalem, and are praying together. They reach the Day of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit comes upon them in power. They are on the verge.
This all goes back to the beginning. If we go back to the beginning of the calling of God's people, we go back well before Jesus; we go back into the Old Testament; we go back before King David and the monarchy, of which Jesus is the inheritor as the Son of David; we go back before Moses who helped found the Jewish community in Israel and prepared them to enter into Israel; we go back to the very founding father of the Jewish people themselves Abraham and God's very first promise to Abraham, part of the Abrahamic covenant, as we come to know it, states in Genesis 12: 2 - 3, the following:
‘2I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you. I will make your name great and you'll be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you and whoever curses you I will curse. And all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.’Genesis 12:2-3, NIV
Abraham is being promised a name that is a family, a son. He was childless at the time. His son Isaac fulfilled that. He was promised not just a name but a nation, that from his family a whole nation would develop. That was the people of Israel. But finally and significantly for our purposes, out of this nation of Israel it says at the end ‘all peoples on earth will be blessed through you’. Now, all peoples on earth are blessed through Abraham's seed, his family, and the Jewish people, and the ultimate representative of the Jewish people which is Jesus Christ. Through Jesus, the message of salvation is going well beyond Israel to all the nations of the earth and so will be fulfilled, this promise, ‘all peoples on earth will be blessed through you. That includes you and it includes me. Here in this passage, Jesus is preparing the way. He is commissioning, unambiguously, the Apostles to go, to make disciples, to baptise, to teach, and to go to all the nations of the earth.
That is the story of the Church in the last 2000 years and that is why you and I are able today to consider these amazing words and to see how they actually have been fulfilled over the subsequent centuries. I hope I will welcome you back for our final episode next time.
The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.
- What is meant by discipleship?
- How are you ‘discipled’ and how do you play a role in discipling others?
- How do you show others how to live the way Jesus commanded you to do?
- Do a ‘health check’ on your expression of church, using the ‘Reflections’ section of the transcript.