Read the passage here.
Today is our final day in the gospel of Matthew. It has been quite a long journey – over a year in the book – though to be honest, we could have spent a lot more time looking much more in depth. However, I hope that we were able to grasp some of the important themes, motifs, and especially immerse ourselves in and become part of the story of Jesus.
We’re actually skipping a few verses – those dealing with the guards reporting to the chief priests that Jesus’ body is missing. And the chief priests instruct the guards to say that the disciples stole Jesus’ body. This is likely included in order to counter actual reports that were floating around at the time Matthew’s gospel was written and circulated. In other words, Matthew wants to affirm that such reports (that the disciples stole Jesus’ body) are false and that Jesus did in fact rise again.
Prior to that, we looked at Mary and Mary encountering the empty tomb and the challenge that they (and the disciples) faced when discovering that the very nature of the world had changed – the kingdom of God had dawned.
So our passage today deals with the aftermath of Jesus’ resurrection. It is commonly known as the Great Commission.
Probably the most interesting thing about this passage is how short it is. It’s surprising, I think, because we are resurrection people. The church is a resurrection body. We are who we are, as participants in God’s kingdom, because Jesus rose again. There’s more to say about that but what I simply mean is that I’m surprised that so few verses are given in Matthew’s gospel to the account of Jesus’ time with His disciples after His resurrection. (Though, as you probably know, Luke tells us a little more about it and John’s gospel adds a little more to that).
So in short, what I want to suggest is that so little time is spent on Jesus’ post-resurrection (pre-ascension) because the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection is contained in His ministry. In other words, if we’re looking for “what does the resurrection mean?” or “what does the resurrection life look like?” we should look at the ministry of Jesus throughout the gospel as told by Matthew – His teachings, His parables, His miracles all point to what we’re finally seeing now.
Without over-simplifying it, what I’m trying to say is that the meaning of the resurrection is found in Jesus’ message of the kingdom. Or, to put it slightly differently, Jesus’ resurrection signals that the kingdom of God that Jesus has been speaking about (and ministering to) through the entire gospel story has now arrived. So it’s within this context that I believe we should understand Jesus’ final words (in Matthew) to the disciples.
With that in mind I want to take a look at our verses today. We’re going to begin with verses 18 & 19 – these are the ones with which most are probably most familiar:
18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…Matthew 28:18-19
Jesus begins with the words, “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” This follows a theme that has been important throughout the gospel of Matthew – that of authority. The question of “where does authority lie?” or “where does authority come from?” especially regarding questions of the kingdom has been definitively answered in Jesus’ resurrection. As we discussed, in Jesus’ resurrection, we see that the structures and strictures of the world – the way we think the world works and is supposed to work – are now overcome. A new kingdom – the true kingdom – has come. And in Jesus’ resurrection, as the one in whom death has been overcome, we find the very foundation of truth and life. And who has the authority in this new kingdom? The very one who ushered it in and made it possible for all of us.
It’s on this basis that Jesus sends the disciples forth. “Therefore….” He says. In other words, what follows is based on what has happened – the affirmation of Jesus’ authority. Because Jesus has authority, Go and make disciples…
Now we’ve spent some time previously discussing verse 19. Specifically, we talked about how the phrase “…Go and make disciples,” may be misleading. We’re not going to discuss this in depth but the essence of the discussion has to do with the verb tense in Greek versus the verb tense in English. In English (what we’re reading), “go” is rendered as an imperative – that is, “you go.” We read it is a command or a direction (which, spoiler, it is). However, in the Greek, the verb “go” is a passive participle (an aorist passive participle, if you’re interested). And a participle can’t really be rendered as a command. Participles are verb forms that function as adjectives. So it’s argued by a few that the phrase might better be translated, “As you are going…” or something like that. The verb “go,” as a participle, properly modifies the assumed subject “You” and shouldn’t really be translated as an imperative.
Now I personally find that compelling – at least interesting. But it’s worth noting that every English translation renders the phrase “Go and make disciples” or something close to that. Further, this seems to be a fairly typical Matthean construction and we may need to be careful about over-analysing this.
But the reason I bring this up – and here, scholars seem to agree – is that the force of the imperative (where the command is actually located) is in “make disciples.” In other words, the emphasis is on the “make disciples,” and not on the “go.” This may not seem like a big deal (it may seem obvious to you) except that in the English, we tend to read (and place emphasis) from left to right.
Now I’m not saying that the call to missions and the call to evangelism (where the emphasis is often placed) isn’t present in Jesus’ words. What I’m simply saying is that the primary emphasis, the primary command is to make disciples.
If we continue on, we read Jesus telling his disciples:
“… baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”Matthew 28:19b-20
Now it’s interesting (though perhaps just to me) to note that again both “baptizing” and “teaching” are also participles (“baptizing them in the name…” and “teaching them to obey…” are participial phrases). This seems to suggest that they are not independent commands or even subordinate commands, but are part of the command to “make disciples.” They modify (grammatically speaking) or inform the making of disciples. In other words, Jesus isn’t instructing the disciples to do three things (make disciples, baptize, and teach), He’s instructing them to do one (make disciples).
Of Baptism: We know that there is likely a relationship between the practice of baptism and Jewish ritual cleaning. How and when baptism became a defining mark of entrance into the Christian community is unclear. It seems likely that by Matthew’s time, the significance of baptism in the Christian community is assumed (that is, it doesn’t need to be explained to Matthew’s readers).
In Matthew’s gospel, the most prominent mention of baptism is with the character of John the Baptist. And we remember that John the Baptist’s ministry, his practice of baptism, was one of repentance, and that his ministry involved (at least in part) a criticism of the religious leaders. And John says to his listeners:
11 “I baptize you withwater for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you withthe Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”Matthew 3:11-12
So, I’m skipping some steps here and making some assumptions (and leaning on some of my biases), but I think we can draw a reasonable conclusion that, using the framework we’ve been emphasizing, baptism has to do with entering the new kingdom. Specifically, it seems to indicate a leaving behind the old things in order that we may embrace the new.
The second participial phrase here is:
“20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you…”Matthew 28:20
Again, I’m leaning pretty heavily into my own biases here, but it occurs to me that in Matthew’s gospel, an awful lot of Jesus’ actual teaching has to do with what the kingdom looks like, what being kingdom people looks like, and the difference (for example) between the true kingdom and the kingdoms of the world (especially, but not exclusively, that of the religious leaders)
And at this point, I’m forced to wonder what it is that most churches actually teach. Again (as is often the case), I’m speaking mostly of western churches. And I’m speaking with an extremely limited perspective – that is, I’m generalizing rather broadly. But what I have in mind is the notion that the western church, especially inasmuch as it is a product of the enlightenment (which is to say that it is heavily influenced by modernism) tends to be more concerned with communicating propositional truth rather than lived reality.
To put it another way, I am a big believer in sound doctrine, good theology, and especially responsible, faithful scriptural interpretation. However, I worry that there are an awful lot of Christians (yes, actual Christians) who are very good at these things but have no real, meaningful understanding of how to live as kingdom people. (And just as another affirmation, I want to say firmly that we do indeed need scripture in order to do this).
If it’s not obvious by now, my point is that Jesus was concerned here about creating disciples. He’s concerned with raising up a people who walked as he did. And he’s concerned that people strive for kingdom living.
J.I. Packer famously said that “Christianity is a mile wide and an inch deep.” And Eugene Peterson similarly said, “We [Christians} are far better at getting people saved than showing people how to live saved lives.”
Once again, there’s nothing wrong with an emphasis on evangelism and missions. If the gospel is indeed good news, it would be wrong not to share it with others. But if we the church aren’t showing people how to live, what it means to live a kingdom life, if we aren’t making disciples, we are not fulfilling the Great Commission.
Now at this point, I want to quickly think about the how of disciple-making. And for this, I want to note that a concept that seems closely related to discipleship in Matthew is “following.
Note the following examples:
- Mt. 4:18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 20 At once they left their nets and followed him.
- Mt. 8:18 When Jesus saw the crowd around him, he gave orders to cross to the other side of the lake. 19 Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.”…
- 21 Another disciple said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 22 But Jesus told him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”
- Mt. 10:37 “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.
To follow has the sense of walking with, walking alongside. Inasmuch as we’re concerned with discipleship, there very much seems to be a sense of following someone who is more advanced, more mature, wiser. But the important aspect, in my thinking, is that of journeying together. To follow is not merely to be told, it is to be shown. It isn’t merely to be directed, it’s to be accompanied.
Now, though we’ve looked at only a few verses, we’ve talked about a lot of topics and we’ve gone through them very quickly. I apologize for that, because we should spend a lot more time on each of them (I feel like I say that a lot). However, I want to close by noting a couple of things. When we look back at the first verses of this passage, we read:
16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.Matthew 28:16-17
I find it interesting that the text indicates that some of the disciples doubted. Now when we read the gospel of John we know that Thomas, at least, was one of those who doubted. And we read about how Jesus dealt with Thomas’ doubt. But Matthew pretty much leaves it at that – some of the disciples doubted (that is, not just Thomas).
But what we know, and what Matthew’s original readers also likely knew (because the Church was well under way at that point), was that these disciples did not remain in their doubt. It’s almost as if Matthew is pointing out that it’s a journey. Trust in Jesus, Kingdom life, is not an instantaneous, flipping of a switch. It’s about walking faithfully.
Thus we see that Jesus’ final words in Matthew’s gospel are:
20 … And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
We don’t walk alone; we don’t figure it out alone; but Jesus goes with us.
So, Jesus calls us into the new kingdom – He calls us into a new reality. He calls us to return to a world that is being renewed as God always meant it to be. But living into this new, restored world is something that we have to live into – something that we have to walk into. And we do this by the grace of God – it’s made possible because of the death and resurrection of Jesus. And we do this together.
The call to make disciples, I think, necessarily entails that we also become disciples. So as we continue to work all this out, we need to continue to ask ourselves, how are we encouraging each other, how are we supporting one another, how are we lifting one another up to the life Jesus calls us to?