This morning’s passage is often called the “Great Commission”. All of the Gospels have a Commission although there is some variance of how it is worded. As a good teacher, Jesus would have repeated the Commission at various times and with different words to help make a comprehensive portrait of what He expects of us in our mission to the world. Today, we will study the one in Matthew which is the most comprehensive of them.
Exposition of the Text
The Great Commission passage begins with either verse 16 or 18, depending on how your translation divides the paragraphs. This depends on whether one sees a break in time between verse 17 and 18. Verse 16 begins with a resurrection appearance of Jesus in Galilee. We do know from Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 that Jesus made multiple appearances to people after the Resurrection to both large and small groups of people as well as to His half-brother James. Luke also informs of this when he tells us that Jesus spent forty days after the resurrection teaching His disciples, although He does not mention any in Galilee. Only John and Matthew record resurrection appearances in Galilee.
We do not know exactly why Matthew skips over the Jerusalem appearances other than the initial appearances to the women in which the eleven are instructed to go to Galilee to meet Jesus there. We do get a clue in verse 16 when they assemble at the mountain at Galilee which Jesus had appointed them to meet. This may well have been the mountain where the Sermon on the Mount was preached, although that is speculation. Mountains are important in Matthew, a point that Dr. Warren Gage points out. He notes that there are seven mountains in Matthew, a perfect number. He also notes that the Galilee Mountain serves as a mountain of blessing and Jerusalem the mountain of cursing. This would then be a reenactment of the blessing and curses ceremony recorded in Deuteronomy (Ebal and Gerazim). Matthew is rich in Old Testament imagery. This is why so many see Matthew as being written to Jewish-Christians.
Verse 17 is difficult to translate. Literally it says in the Greek: “And when they saw Him, they worshiped Him, but they doubted.” Did they all doubt, or just some? Many translators see there being two groups mentioned, those who believed and others who doubted. Another question is what was the manner of doubt. In the Jerusalem appearances in Luke and John, they did doubt that it was Jesus, and some doubted more than others. It isn’t every day one confronts resurrection in this manner. Assuming that his appearance was after the original appearances to the disciples in Jerusalem, after which they went to Galilee, it would seem odd that any of them would have doubted the fact that Jesus rose from the dead any longer. If they weren’t sure, would they have assembled at this mountain in obedience to Jesus’ command?
I think that the area of doubt was not a concern over whether Jesus had bodily risen. Instead, it seems that some or all of them doubted whether they should worship the risen Jesus. Jesus was indeed alive, but was He God? Only God was to be worshiped. If Jesus was anything less than God Himself, even an exalted angel like Michael, worship of Him would be absolutely forbidden. As Jews, they knew this. They doubted, yet they worshiped Him.
It is at this point that Jesus comes closer to them and says to them “all authority is given me in heaven and on earth”. This would seem to be to assure them that they were correct in worshiping Him. Jesus, indeed, is God. These words are also the rationale for the Great Commission as well, as Michael Horton notes. It is precisely because of who Jesus is that they are called to absolute obedience to His command to go.
The Great Commission has imperatives for all of its verbs which places all the verbs on equal footing when translated into English. Actually, there is only one imperative “Make Disciples”! The English begins verse 19 “…” For since “Go” comes first, and then “make disciples” “baptize”, and then “teach” it places emphasis on going as though this is the most important thing to do and that all of the other imperatives are supplemental. Actually “go” is not an imperative at all. It is a participle which provides necessary information. If one is going to make disciples of all nations, one would have to go out into the nations.
The core command, then, is “Make disciples of all nations”. The other two participles describe how disciples are to be made. They are to be made by baptizing them and then carefully teaching them everything Jesus had taught them Baptism is the entry point into the people of God, a sign and seal of saving faith in Jesus. In other words, this is evangelism or as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians, “plant”. The second part of the commission is to carefully instruct them in the faith. In other words, Christians are to be nurtured or as Paul puts it “water”. The two work together. Both are necessary. These are means for God to grow the Kingdom.
Another thing to carefully note in this commission is who they are to make disciples of. We miss a little in the translation “of all nations”. Actually, the Greek in the Jewish context is better translated “unto the Gentiles.” “Nations” is a neutral term for us. However, this is not the way that most Jews were quite prejudiced against Gentiles. The Gentiles were called by slurs like “dogs”. This call to evangelize Gentiles would have been scandalous to the disciples. This also may have been why the Commission begins with the fact that Jesus reminds them that He has all authority in heaven and earth. Therefore, His commands demand absolute obedience. Some of this reluctance can be seen in the persuasion God had to use to get Peter to preach to the Gentile Cornelius.
This commission to proclaim the gospel to Gentiles should by itself show us that Matthew was not written for Jewish-Christians. If one to look at the Gospel, one sees that circumcision which was the mark of the Old Covenant is replaced by baptism in the name of the Triune God. Luke mentions Jesus’ circumcision, but Matthew skips over it entirely. Luke has Jesus as an infant for dedication and as a boy of twelve. Matthew does not. Instead, Matthew has the visit of the Gentile Magi. At the end of chapter 4, the followers of Jesus came from both Jewish areas, mixed Jewish and Gentile areas like Galilee, and the Gentile cities of the Decapolis. So those who came and heard the Sermon on the Mount were a mixed group of Jews and Gentiles. We also have the story of the Syrophonecian woman, the healing of the Gentile Centurion’s servant, the trip to the Gentile area of the Gergesenes, the feeding of the 4,000 in Gentile territory, and most of all in the trip to Caesarea Philippi which acts as an exodus in reverse. (A fuller treatment of Matthew 16 can be found in my sermon “Upon this Rock” which is in this sermon archive.
So we see that Matthew is not written to ethnic Jews who had become Christians. Rather it is written for ex-Jews and ex-Gentiles who had been called by God to become His church. Gentiles did not have to become Jews to become Christians. They had to believe the gospel which is demonstrated in baptism and then submit to the yoke of discipleship which included learning what Jesus had instructed the disciples. A Jew has to become a Christian in exactly the same way. What one was is irrelevant. It is who what one now is and is becoming that is important.
The Gospel ends with the assurance that Jesus would be with them on this dangerous mission. He had already taught them that their following him was a death sentence as well as humiliation and rejection. But even when they would have their lives ended in this matter, it was not the end. The Lord had overcome death. So would they. He would be with them in their crossing of the wilderness of this age and would bear them safely through Jordan.
It seems that today’s church has cut the Great Commission to pieces. The evangelical church puts a lot of effort into winning the lost. It puts a lot of emphasis on leaving the four walls of the church, as though the Great Commission was all about evangelizing. Other mainline churches spend time teaching their people various doctrines of the faith without integrating the need for personal conversion. Others take selected portions of the teaching and work of Jesus as a call to some social gospel. However, the church commits a gross sin by separating the Great Commission into parts. As we have seen, obedience to Christ who is Lord of all heaven and earth is the mark of a true disciple of Jesus. Faith plus instruction equals obedience. We must understand that the church has one command and only one command. This is to make disciples of all nations. This is done by going to them, evangelizing them, baptizing them, AND instructing them carefully in the faith.
It is abysmal how little Evangelical Christians know about the faith. Polls indicate that non-Christians like Jews, Muslims, and Atheists know more about the Bible, the teachings of Jesus, and the New Testament on average than the Evangelical, considerably more. How can anyone share their faith when they don’t even know what the faith is. This shallow commitment to some existential conversion experience will lead to catastrophe for the church and will shipwreck the faith of many. Is God pleased with such a shallow faith if it is faith at all?
The church is called to follow Jesus, who is the Lord of heaven and earth. It is about time for the church to realize this. We as His servants are to do things His way, not ours. It is not for us to determine how the Great Commission is to be carried out. It is for the Church to obey. It is not for us to follow worldly-wise methods. Nor is it for us to target certain groups of people. There are no hyphenated Christians. The only acceptable worship is that which bends the knee before the Lord Jesus whom the Father has appointed the heir of all things. The church receives its relevance from God, not public opinion.
In other words, the church needs to repent.