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Matthew 28:16-20 Biblical Commentary:
MATTHEW 28:16-20. THE GREAT COMMISSION
The various Gospels emphasize different aspects of this Great Commission:
• LUKE limits Jesus’ resurrection appearances to Jerusalem and emphasizes repentance and forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:46-48). In Acts 1:8, Luke recounts Jesus’ promise of power and the commandment to go “to the uttermost parts of the earth”.
• In the Gospel of JOHN, Jesus gives the disciples power to forgive or retain sins (John 20:23).
• From the beginning, MATTHEW has emphasized Jesus’ teaching. The Sermon on the Mount, early in Jesus’ ministry (Chapters 5-7) constitutes the largest body of Jesus’ teaching in the New Testament. Now Matthew portrays Jesus’ last act of ministry as teaching his disciples the basics of Christian ministry: Going, baptizing, making disciples, and teaching.
We will see in the book of ACTS that the church takes on an evangelical, missionary-oriented character that is very different from what we have seen of the disciples so far. The explanation for this change is that (1) they have seen the risen Christ and (2) are responding to Jesus’ Great Commission.
This text has had significant influence on the church. It stamps Jesus’ approval on baptism as a key element of discipleship and makes baptism normative for Christians. It gives a Trinitarian formula (“in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”) that the church has followed through the centuries. It also emphasizes the key role of baptism in Christian discipleship.
MATTHEW 28:16. BUT THE ELEVEN DISCIPLES WENT INTO GALILEE
16But the eleven disciples went into Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had sent them.
“But the eleven disciples went into Galilee” (v. 16a). “Eleven” reminds us of Judas’ treachery. The original number of apostles correlates with twelve sons of Judah and the twelve tribes of Israel. Where there were twelve apostles, now there are eleven. Luke will report the restoration of the original number with the elevation of Matthias to the apostolate (Acts 1:12-26), but Matthew reports the Great Commission falling on the eleven.
Bruner says, “The number ‘eleven’ limps…. The church that Jesus sends into the world is fallible, ‘elevenish,’ imperfect. Yet Jesus uses exactly such a church to do his perfect work…. Jesus takes this imperfect number and gives it a perfect vocation” (Bruner, 1090). That encourages us, because we, too, limp—but the Christ who began a good work with the eleven disciples is continuing it with us.
The disciples went to Galilee. Jesus was born in the shadow of Jerusalem, but Joseph and Mary took him to Galilee after their return from Egypt because of their fear of Archelaus, the son of Herod who ruled Judea after his father’s death (2:22-23). Jesus, therefore, grew up in a remote area, far from the Temple.
Galilee was known as Galilee of the Gentiles (4:15) because it was home to many Gentiles. So Jesus had his roots in a region far different than the more orthodox and less tolerant Judea (the capital province) and Jerusalem (the capital city). Most of Jesus’ ministry took place in Galilee, and he returns there after his resurrection to commission his disciples.
The disciples go “to the mountain where Jesus had sent them” (v. 16b). In this Gospel, important things happen on mountains: The Sermon on the Mount— the last temptation—the Transfiguration. We don’t know the name of this mountain, but its’ location is irrelevant. Its’ significance is more theological than geographical, signaling the importance of this commissioning.
Jesus told Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, “Go tell my brothers that they should go into Galilee, and there they will see me” (28:10). While women are not permitted to serve as witnesses in court, Jesus chose them to bear witness to his resurrection. While the usual custom is that men give orders and women obey, Jesus has these women order the men to go to Galilee.
The men must be tempted to doubt the women’s testimony. First, they are (only) women. Second, how difficult it must be to believe that a dead man has come to life again! The order is to go to Galilee, a long walk. Just as the women deserve commendation for carrying out their orders, so do the men. It is a leap of faith to set out on the journey to Galilee.
MATTHEW 28:17. BUT SOME DOUBTED
17When they saw him, they bowed down to him, but some doubted (Greek: distazo).
This is the first time in this Gospel that we find the disciples together since Jesus was arrested and the disciples deserted him (26:56). Only Mary Magdalene and the other Mary have seen the risen Christ. We can only guess at the disciples’ state of mind as they proceed toward the mountain, but we know what happens when they finally see Jesus—“they bowed down to him, but some doubted” (distazo).
Distazo has as its root dis, which means “twice” or “two ways.” Distazo can mean “hesitate.” The picture that comes to mind is Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken.” In that poem, a traveler comes to a fork in the road, and hesitates, knowing that his choice will make all the difference, but not knowing which fork would be the better choice. That is the experience of these eleven disciples when they see Jesus. They want to believe—and they do believe—but they are torn. Knowing that Jesus died, they hesitate to believe their eyes when see him alive again.
We should not be surprised at either reaction—worship (bowing down) or doubt/hesitation. It is certainly fitting that the disciples should worship Jesus. They know that he was executed and buried. They know that Good Friday appeared to be the end. But now they see Jesus alive again, confirming beyond doubt that he is the Messiah. They see with their own eyes that their teacher is Lord of life, exercising power even over death.
But we can also understand why some would doubt/hesitate. Nothing in their experience has prepared them for what they are seeing, except the resurrection of Lazarus, which is not reported in this Gospel (see John 11). Earlier, Jesus observed, “If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if one rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31). Now Jesus’ own disciples experience a tinge of doubt as they see Jesus who was raised from the dead.
We are tempted to criticize the disciples for doubting, but we should not imagine that we would have done better. Jesus does not rebuke the disciples. He understands their doubt, but speaks to their faith. He understands their frailty, but calls them to carry on his work. How wonderful! Jesus chose to do his work through the original less-than-perfect disciples, so we can be confident that he can do the same through us.
The disciples will grow into the role that Jesus gives them. While their conduct in the book of Acts is hardly flawless, they will press ahead in the face of great opposition. They will sow seeds that will take root—multiply—waft across oceans on winds of faith. Jesus’ choice of ordinary people to carry out an extraordinary mission is fully in keeping with God’s work throughout history. God chose the young lad, David, instead of one of his strapping brothers. God sent most of Gideon’s army home before sending the rest into battle. To God, our ability is less important than our availability. Our ability can even get in the way if it obscures God’s role in our achievement.
MATTHEW 28:18. ALL AUTHORITY IN HEAVEN AND ON EARTH
18Jesus came to them and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth.”
“Jesus came” (v. 18a). More commonly the supplicant approaches the authority rather than the other way around—the disciple comes to the teacher—the sick person comes to the healer. Jesus reverses the roles here, perhaps to overcome their doubt/hesitancy—perhaps to demonstrate his own approachability—perhaps to model the kind of “reaching out” behavior that he expects of the disciples to fulfill the Great Commission.
Earlier, Jesus claimed, “All things have been delivered to me by my Father” (11:27). Now he claims, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth” (v. 18b). The model for this statement is Daniel 7:14, “To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.”
At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, “the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” (But) Jesus said to him, “Get behind me, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and you shall serve him only'” (Matthew 4:8-10). Now, having cast his lot with the Father, Jesus receives from the Father what the devil promised (earthly kingdoms) and more (heaven and earth). We must keep in mind, too, that the devil’s proposal was really a temptation rather than an honest promise. The devil could not be trusted to honor his promise, even if Jesus did fall down and worship him.
Matthew speaks often of authority (7:29; 8:9; 9:6; 10:1; 21:23, 24, 27). God has given Jesus authority, and Jesus exercises authority now as well as in the final judgment. His authority spans heaven and earth. There is no time or place where it does not apply.
A thread that has run throughout this Gospel from beginning to end has been Jesus’ kingship:
• His genealogy established him as descended from King David (1:6), and the wise men came seeking “he who is born King of the Jews” (2:2).
• His entry into Jerusalem was foretold by Zechariah, “behold, your King comes to you, humble, and riding on a donkey” (21:5).
• Pilate asked, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (27:11).
• The soldiers mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” (27:29).
• The charge against him read, “THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS” (27:37).
• The people mocked him as he hung on the cross, saying, “he is the King of Israel” (27:42).
• But now his kingship comes to fruition, with his authority extending not only over the earth but also over the heavens. This authority clearly establishes Jesus’ right to command obedience from his disciples and his ability to empower them.
MATTHEW 28:19. GO, AND MAKE DISCIPLES OF ALL NATIONS
19“Go, and make disciples of all nations (Greek: ethne), baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,”
“Go, and make disciples” (v. 19a). In the Greek, “make disciples” is the only imperative verb. Going, baptizing, and teaching are participles—subordinate to “make disciples.” The mission is to “make disciples.” To accomplish that mission, the disciples must go, baptize, and teach, so there is an imperative quality to each of those—but the only imperative verb (and the primary mission) is “make disciples.”
A disciple is a learner—a student—a follower—a person committed to learning what a teacher has to teach. Typically, a young man aspiring to be a rabbi would ask a practicing rabbi to accept him as a disciple. A modern parallel would be an apprentice—or a student musician asking a master musician to be his/her teacher. The disciple is expected not only to learn what the rabbi teaches, but also to practice what the rabbi preaches. In other words, the idea is not simply learning, but also living. Hence“teaching them to observe all things that I commanded you” (v. 20) is a natural component of Jesus’ Great Commission.
It is interesting to see what Jesus includes and does not include in this commissioning. He doesn’t command the disciples to preach—to evangelize—to win the world. He charges them with the responsibility of replicating their own kind by creating new disciples—new people of faith.
They are to “make disciples of all ethne“ (v. 19a). This is another allusion to Daniel 7:14, which says, “all the peoples, nations, and languages should serve him”.
The word ethne is usually translated nations, but Greek-speaking Jews also use it to refer to Gentiles. Earlier, Jesus instructed the disciples, “Don’t go among the Gentiles, and don’t enter into any city of the Samaritans” (10:5). Now he removes the prohibition. The disciples worked first among Jews. Now they will expand their mission to include Gentiles.
Gentiles play a major role in this Gospel:
• Jesus’ genealogy includes Gentile women—Ruth and Rahab (1:5).
• The wise men were Gentiles “from the east” (2:1).
• God is able to raise up children of Abraham even from stones (3:9).
• Jesus withdraws to Galilee of the Gentiles (4:15).
• A Roman centurion expresses faith that exceeds anything that Jesus has found in Israel, prompting his comment, “many will come from the east and the west, and will sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven” (8:10-11).
• Jesus delivers two demoniacs in Gentile territory (8:28).
• The Gentiles of Nineveh will condemn this generation (12:41).
• Jesus rewards a Canaanite woman for her great faith (15:28).
• “This Good News of the Kingdom will be preached in the whole world for a testimony to all the nations” (24:14).
• The Son of Man will judge all the nations in accord with their response to human need (25:31-46).
• A Roman centurion proclaims, “Truly this was the Son of God.” (27:54).
The disciples hear the call to “make disciples of all ethne“ but fail to understand its’ implications. Only later will they fully appreciate its meaning. In the early chapters of Acts, they will accept Gentiles, but only Gentiles who have become Jewish proselytes. Only after much debate and a dramatic intervention by God (Acts 10) will they begin to admit Gentiles to the church. By the time of the writing of this Gospel, the issue has been long since resolved.
In some quarters today, Christians reject the call to “make disciples of all ethne,” preferring not to encroach on indigenous cultures and religions. We must admit that we have sometimes made mistakes in our attempts to spread the Gospel, but that does not relieve us of responsibility to find right ways to do it. God either has or has not chosen to redeem the world through Jesus Christ. If so, we have an urgent responsibility to proclaim the Gospel. If not, we have little to offer beyond a bit of moral instruction and clubby companionship. It if were not for the church’s response to the Great Commission, few people would have ever felt the redemptive power of Jesus Christ. His name would be only a minor footnote in history. It is now our responsibility to continue the work.
Churches that fail to take the Great Commission seriously wither and die. Disciples who fail to take it seriously tend to be sterile—produce no spiritual offspring. How can we persuade our children to pay the price of discipleship if there is no urgency attached to it? As a character in a P.D. James novel says,
“The official line was that all religions were equally important.
I must say that the result was to leave me with the conviction
that they were equally unimportant.”
“baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (v. 19b). This Gospel tells of Jesus baptism (3:13-17), but he has not commanded the disciples to be baptized—and there is no record of them being baptized. In this Great Commission, however, he commands them to baptize as if this is a standard rite with which they are familiar. Of course, by the time this Gospel was written, baptism had become an established practice within the church.
In the very early church, baptism was done in the name of Jesus (Acts 2:38; 8:16; 10:48; 19:5; Romans 6:3; Galatians 3:27). The threefold baptismal formula (“in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”) was adopted later, and it is that later tradition that is reflected by Matthew’s account of the Great Commission.
Being baptized in the name of indicates a new relationship, a rebirth, an adoption. Being baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit indicates that the new relationship involves all three faces of the Trinity.
MATTHEW 28:20. BEHOLD, I AM WITH YOU ALWAYS
20“teaching them to observe all things that I commanded you. Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
“teaching them to observe all things that I commanded you” (v. 20a). In this Gospel, Jesus had a significant teaching ministry (4:23; 5:2; 7:29; 9:35; 11:1; 13:34; 21:23; 26:55). Now he enlists his disciples to continue that ministry.
Our responsibility does not end with leading people to make an initial decision to follow Christ. We must continue the discipling process by teaching disciples what Jesus taught—and by teaching obedience to those teachings. While living on this earth, none of us will understand or obey perfectly, so the requirement for learning never comes to an end.
The commandment is to teach what Jesus commanded rather than our personal opinions. Given life’s complexity, it is inevitable that we will sometimes teach what amounts to personal opinion about particular matters. However, we should remember that the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees was corrupted by their equating the traditions of the elders (human teachings) with the law (God’s commandments). It is important, then, that we carefully distinguish between Jesus’ teachings, which are authoritative, and our opinions, which are not.
In this Gospel, Jesus began his ministry with teaching (in the Sermon on the Mount) and concludes his ministry by commissioning his disciples to teach all nations. The placement of these emphases on teaching is not accidental, but signals the importance of teaching in Matthew’s understanding of discipleship.
Teaching is a slow process that requires patience and personal involvement on the part of the teacher. We must be satisfied with small progress, and trust God to finish the work.
We must not miss the importance of the word obey. Our teaching must do more than convey information. We must also persuade the ethne (nations or Gentiles) to obey Jesus. Here the line blurs between teaching (where the emphasis is transmitting information) and preaching (where the emphasis leans more to persuasion).
Nor should we miss the importance of the phrase, “all things that I commanded you.” Jesus does not permit us to pick and choose what we will believe or obey.
Jesus’ Great Commission must have sounded like an impossible dream to the disciples. How could eleven very ordinary disciples take the Gospel to the whole world? How could they convey the love of Jesus to people whose languages they could not understand? How could they take the word to continents whose existence they could not even imagine? And yet, by the grace of God, it happened!
The task is still overwhelming! The world has grown ever more complex, dangerous, and hostile to Christ. Christians today are victims of massacres in numbers that make Rome’s Coliseum seem tame by comparison. More Christians died of persecution in the 20th century than in any other, and the 21st century is on track to set a new record. And yet the worship of Christ continues to grow in places where it has been persecuted for the best part of a century. We need not lose faith, because our work is Christ-powered—Holy Spirit-powered.
“Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (v. 20b). This Gospel opened with the words of the prophet, “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son. They shall call his name Immanuel; which is, being interpreted, God with us” (1:23). It closes with Jesus’ promise to be with us always. From beginning to end, therefore, the promise is that we will live under the umbrella of the presence of God/Jesus.
When Jesus promises to be with us “even to the end of the age,” he is promising to be with us now—and in the future—and into that time where the whole idea of time has become meaningless—into eternity.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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