by Jessica Scott, #NPLOKC Church Planting Resident
“Then Jesus came near and said to them, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 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 everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’” (Matthew 28:18-20, HCSB)
At the culmination of Matthew’s gospel, the ever-familiar words of Jesus stand as a continual source of obligation, empowerment, and confidence for the Church. Just as the eleven must have burned with wonder as they received this commission from the risen Savior, so too, Jesus’ disciples today must identify themselves as recipients of this same call. Soon after completing the work of salvation through His death and resurrection, Jesus gathered His followers one last time to impart to them some of His final words on this earth.
At the close of Matthew, based on the absolute authority Jesus has, He commanded His disciples to take up His mission to establish His Kingdom by making disciples of all peoples. Forming faithful disciples was shown to consist of baptizing them into this new identity of children of God and teaching them to obey God. The command was sealed with the promise of Jesus’ constant presence, the only hope of accomplishing the task at hand. In short, Jesus established the continuation of His mission to make disciples of all peoples by passing the torch to His Church through His authority and with the promise of His presence.
Central Idea and Outline
The central idea of this passage is outlined in plain fashion. The first point is the total authority of Jesus, the grounds on which He gives His command (18). Against all the opposition He faced throughout His ministry as presented in Matthew, Jesus validated His authority time and again, finalizing it by raising from the dead. He did not come preaching as a religious teacher with only human power; He came declaring in the power of the Most High God. Upon that statement Jesus gives His primary command: go and make disciples (19a). Here is the only active verb commanded – make disciples – setting it as the center for the entire statement. Next, He pinpoints the scope of His call as being all nations (19b). As will be later discussed, “all nations” here speaks of all peoples without distinction. God has always had in mind to redeem people from every people group, and here this desire is clearly stated. Then, He sets forth baptism in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as the process of identification of disciples (19c). Disciples of Jesus are to take on their new identity in God as His children. Baptism is essential in establishing that relationship and allegiance. Furthermore, He asserts the primacy of teaching disciples to obey as they grow in maturity (20a). Making disciples does not stop at conversion, but it continues through a lifetime of being made more like Jesus. Jesus’ commands, so prevalent in this gospel, are key in leading others to follow Him. Finally, He seals His commission with the promise and assurance of His spiritual presence with them (20b). Jesus will remain with His followers, not in flesh but by the Holy Spirit Who was to come, to enable them to accomplish this task. In this concise form, the gospel of Matthew and the mission of God are encapsulated.
In order to rightly understand Jesus’ words as presented by Matthew, some contextual information will be helpful. Regarding the historical-cultural context, this gospel is attributed to Matthew who was a Jewish tax collector that became a disciple of Jesus. Many commentators claim that his audience was a Jewish-Christian community likely in Antioch of Syria, which is backed by the attention given to distinctively Jewish-Christian concerns. The work was written shortly after the life of Jesus, as early as AD 46 and no later than the 2nd Century.
Three broad sections comprise the book: an introduction (1:1-4:16), development (4:17-16:20), and the climax (16:21-28:20). Scattered throughout the work are several main themes which play a significant role in the context.
First, the Kingdom of God has prominence. This is clear from the message Jesus proclaimed – “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near!” (4:17) – as well as His extensive use of parables to describe God’s kingdom. Jesus, Who came as the unexpected King, ushered in this glorious reign.
Second, since the original audience likely came from a Jewish background, Jesus’ fulfillment of prophecy and all the Old Testament is greatly emphasized. His birth story and the events of the Passion are especially showered with remarks of His fulfillment.
Third, the universality of salvation is developed, beginning with the wise men from the East coming to be some of the first to worship Jesus (2:1-12) and ending with Jesus’ commission to make disciples of all nations (28:19). As Craig L. Blomberg states, Matthew reveals how “God's chosen people get first chance to respond to the gospel, but then Jesus and his disciples must expand their horizons to encompass all the earth.” Finally, ‘God with us’ is the theme that bookends the work with such wonderful hope for the completion of God’s work (1:23, 28:20).
Jesus gave these words on a mountain in Galilee, placed immediately after the story of His resurrection. The passage at hand serves as the climax of the gospel, tying together all its themes with the call to disciples to carry on Jesus’ ministry and continue to reproduce themselves. The basic command is a call to global missions - spreading the Kingdom of God to all peoples and nurturing disciples to become a healthy, reproducing Church.
Now, understanding the background, book, and general flow of thought, the content can be soundly explored. On top of the mountain, in the presence of His disciples – some who responded in worship and some who hesitated in doubt – Jesus sounded His final command which would come to be known as the Great Commission.
“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” (18)
Jesus first lays the grounds on which He gives His command: the all-encompassing authority which He has received. His authority is another theme throughout the gospel, seen in passages like 4:1-11, 7:28-29, 8:23-27, 9:1-8, and 9:27-31. It was finally validated through the resurrection, as Ralph Winter articulates:
Christ had triumphed over evil at the cross. Because of that victory the Father had exalted and honored His Son as the head of all humankind. He now held dominion over angelic entities that inhabit unseen heavenly realms. He now had power to push history in any direction that suited Him. He had been given kingdom authority to bring forth the fullness of the Kingdom of God.
This proclamation reveals the divinity of Jesus because He can make this claim “only if he is fully God, inasmuch as the whole universe is embraced in the authority delegated to him”; however, His distinctiveness from the Father is retained, seeing that He has been given this authority. Therefore, what He commands is binding with firm expectations of obedience. Furthermore, there is confidence behind the coming command because it is founded on His power, which is imparted to His disciples, as will be seen in the final words of this commission.
“Go, therefore, and make disciples…” (19a)
Jesus then asserts His primary command – make disciples. All the other orders given are connected to this pivotal command. Though “go” gives the essence of action, this word speaks more about the context of the command. It holds the idea of ‘as you are going,’ meaning in all of life, wherever one may be. It is the idea of initiating the work immediately. There must be right perspective when interpreting this portion, for as Blomberg points out, there is a requirement for movement out of the familiar, “but Jesus' main focus remains on the task of all believers to duplicate themselves wherever they may be.” These “disciples” are not to be followers of these commissioned workers, but they are to become followers of Jesus through the grace and help of God working through His laborers. Just as Jesus had called, taught, and guided this group to be His disciples, they were to do the same with those to whom they were being sent.
“…of all nations….” (19b)
Next, the scope for this mission is clarified: all nations, leaving no distinction of or limitation to potential disciples. The Greek word used here is the term from which we get the English word ‘ethnic.’ Throughout Scripture, “the nations” often refers to Gentiles outside of the chosen community of God; this has led some to use this passage to argue that Jesus excluded the Jewish people from His offer of salvation. However, here the inclusiveness, articulated using “all,” supports the common meaning of this word, which would include both Jews and Gentiles.
Accurately expressed, He is speaking of people groups, which can be defined, regarding evangelization, as “the largest possible group within which the gospel can spread as a discipling, or church planting movement without encountering barriers of understanding or acceptance.” Therefore, Jesus was not rejecting the Jews in favor of the Gentiles; rather, He was proclaiming that salvation does not come through the Mosaic Law but through Jesus, and He has made this reconciliation available to all.
Ralph Winter eloquently expressed the universality of Christ’s mission when he recognized that the focus was not on winning as many individuals as possible into the Kingdom, “but rather to reach all the peoples of the world and thus to gather the ‘sons of God’ which are scattered (John 11:52), and to call all the ‘ransomed from every tongue and tribe and people and nation’ (Rev 5:9), until redeemed persons from ‘all the peoples praise him’ (Rom 15:11).” God’s purpose was always to fill this earth with His glory through His image-bearers. After the Fall, He began His plan of restoration with a particular group, but always had in mind the nations.
“…baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” (19c)
The first step mentioned in making disciples concerns the identification as followers through baptism in the name of the Triune God. This act is a mark of repentance from the old life, cleansing from all sin, joining the fellowship of God’s people, and surrendering to the lordship of Jesus. It is a physical sign of what Jesus did through His death, burial, and resurrection and a commitment to this Lord, life, and community which disciples are brought into as a result of Jesus’ work. Opposed to other on-going aspects of the Christian walk, this is a “once-for-all, decisive initiation into Christian community.”
Baptism is the first step of obedience which is expected of all who believe, evidenced by the message Jesus, John the Baptist, Peter, and many others preached. Interestingly, Matthew emphasizes the source of the baptism – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – using the singular form for “name,” which “suggests both unity and plurality in the Godhead.” Although not explicitly explained, it is clear that there is a triune partnership working to bring about salvation, and new disciples must be immersed into this powerful Name.
Therefore, the expectation is set for new disciples to respond in obedience through baptism and for continuing disciples to lead newly found followers by being the ones to baptize them. Baptized believers go on to baptize believers.
“…teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you.” (20a)
After being identified as disciples, redeemed people must now be led on the path of maturity, “a perennially incomplete, life-long task.” The commissioned disciples are expected to pass on all the commands of Jesus, which fill Matthew’s gospel like none of the other gospels, so they can grow in the process of becoming like Christ. Hence, teaching refers to the “continued exposition of the gospel in the church among those who have become disciples by listening to the apostolic teaching.” To observe, or to obey, can be translated “to attend to carefully, or to guard a prisoner.” They were “to train people to know and follow Jesus in the fullest way that He could be known,” making evangelism “primarily a matter of life-obedience rather than pressing for conformity of beliefs.”
This is the heart of discipleship: holistic obedience to all Jesus’ commands, encompassing the entirety of one’s life. “For this is what love for God is: to keep His commands.” (1 John 5:3) Loving God consists of submitting to His authority. Disciples should not, therefore, leave people at their conversion, but they should actively teach Christ’s commands to guide them in a fruitful, growing relationship with Jesus.
“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (20b)
Jesus leaves His disciples with His promise and assurance. He was not abandoning them but “was actually beckoning them to come nearer to Him than they ever had been” with the declaration that “He was on the planet to stay, wielding every ounce of His authority until the end of days. He Himself would be with them every single day until the end of the age.” His authority had been expressed and confirmed; now, He commanded His followers to take up His task with the guarantee that He would be with them. They were not the essential pieces to His mission, for it is He Who completes His work through His faithful ones, speaking and acting through His vessels to carry on the task long after they are out of the picture.
Leaving them physically, this promise pertains to His continued spiritual presence with them, to be upheld through the gift of His Holy Spirit Who would dwell within each disciple. His presence will remain until “the end of the age,” which means ‘until He returns’ or ‘forever.’ Therefore, since His presence remains to the end of time, this promise and command applies to all disciples for the rest of history. All disciples for all time are to live in fear of God because of His authority but also with the comfort of His Holy Spirit. The emphasis, however, is centered on Him not the disciples. Matthew here signifies the centrality of the Lord’s power the same way he noted it at the beginning of his book – through the concept of ‘Immanuel,’ God with us. From start to finish, it is God Who initiates, sustains, and accomplishes His mission through the use of His faithful, transformed children.
This commission has been summed up as follows: “a charge to proclaim the gospel which involves preaching the good news, witnessing from a personal experience and relationship with God, effectively loving one’s neighbor by the power of the Holy Spirit, and journeying through the process of discipleship and growth into becoming a church.” Since, as has been shown, this command applies to all disciples for all time, there are tremendous implications for the Church today. Foremost, every disciple has a role within God’s Kingdom work. Each one, great or small, is to live in faithful obedience so the glory of God may spread throughout all the world.
It has been wisely stated that “before mission is globalized there is a need to localize it”; discipleship starts where one is and continues wherever one is led. Disciples should simply begin to obey where they are – physically, spiritually, practically – rather than sit in the excuse of their limitations. God is more glorified in small acts if given in a genuine heart of obedience and submission rather than the most elaborate religious gesture.
Furthermore, discipleship must be centered on loving God with obedience, not on attaining knowledge. Jesus is in the business of transforming lives into His likeness, and this requires evident change in lifestyle. Put in the work which disciple-making requires. As Jesus said “follow Me,” say the same to disciples so they may learn to follow Jesus through the example of a faithful disciple.
Finally, and most importantly, on the basis of Jesus’ authority and presence, fear God, not the task. He will accomplish it, and He is with His children. Each disciple is filled with God’s almighty Holy Spirit. The task will never be too great when the Most High God is the One working it to completion.
Now, confidently go forth and make disciples.