The Great Commission
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 is the only gospel writer who tells us of this particular appearance of Jesus to the Eleven. Jesus had more disciples than just the apostles, and he did appear to disciples who were not apostles, such as the two men on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-32, blog). But this appears to have been a private meeting with the apostles only. Jesus had told them to meet him at this specific place, on a mountain in Galilee. I suspect that this was a place that Jesus and his disciples had gone often during his ministry, a familiar place where he had taught them. He wanted them to come back to this specific place to teach them this vital lesson, this principal command to his new church which they were to lead.
Much of this final passage in Matthew is dedicated to establishing that Jesus is God, starting with the fact that they worshiped him. As he had done before, Jesus accepted their worship. No mere prophet or holy man would accept the worship of men. Even angels will not accept the worship of humans. Only God is worthy of our worship.
Since Matthew often condensed events for his gospel, and sometimes did not place events in chronological order, I think verse 17 must be a reference to Jesus’ first appearance to his disciples in Luke 24:36-49 (blog) and John 20:19-29, where the disciples at first thought Jesus was a ghost until he let them touch his wounds and he ate in front of them. Thomas comes to mind when I read the phrase some doubted, but except for John, all of them were slow to believe at first. John saw and believed at the empty tomb (John 20:8). Luke and John both indicate that the Eleven were convinced of Jesus’ resurrection at that first meeting, so I think that must be what Matthew is referring to in verse 17. There were no doubters left among the apostles by the time they met Jesus in Galilee.
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, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Matthew’s gospel is the only one that has a reliable account of the Great Commission. It also appears in Mark 16:15, but Mark 16:9-20 is not found in most reliable early manuscripts. It seems that the last part of Mark’s gospel was lost or destroyed somehow, and that the last eleven verses of Mark in our Bible were added later by taking material from the other gospels. So I didn’t comment on that passage in my post on Mark 16. But we need not fear that Jesus didn’t really give this Great Commission, because Matthew reliably records it here.
Jesus begins this new command by stating that all authority had been given to him, both in heaven and on earth, which means the entire universe. Only God has all authority in the entire universe. Therefore, Jesus is God, and his commands have the same authority as the Ten Commandments, or any other commands of God. Therefore, the apostles were to go and make disciples of all nations. Since Jesus has the same authority as God the Father, he has the authority to give this new command, and when we obey his commands, we do so with the authority of God behind us. We do the things we do in his name.
Jesus had ended the old covenant, and was establishing the new covenant. The old paradigm was over, and the time had come for a new paradigm. The command to go and make disciples of all nations was the complete opposite of what Judaism had been about. The old covenant was all about exclusion. All Gentiles, and even the ceremonially unclean among Jews were excluded from salvation. Throughout the Old Testament, Israel was to completely separate themselves from the surrounding nations, and for good reason. When Israel got too friendly with the pagan nations around them, they tended to become “infected” by the pagan religious practices of those peoples. But under the new covenant, in the kingdom of God, we’re the ones who are “infecting” them. We are not to try to separate ourselves from the sinners around us, as Jesus taught in the parable of the wheat and weeds (13:24-30, 36-43, blog). With the power of the risen Christ working in us, we are to go in his name to where the Gospel needs to be preached most.
And we’re not only supposed to go a preach salvation to the lost, we’re to go and make disciples. Becoming a disciple is more than becoming a believer. It’s leaving everything behind, taking up our crosses and following Jesus. How are we to make disciples? Well, first, we have to make that commitment ourselves. But the apostles had already done that. They had left everything to follow Jesus. He was their rabbi. In the culture of the time, once a disciple had studied under his rabbi for long enough and was ready, he became a rabbi himself and took on disciples of his own. He taught his disciples what he had learned during his time as a disciple. But Jesus wasn’t sending the apostles to become rabbis in their own right and have disciples of their own. They were to continue being disciples of Jesus, and instruct others in how to become disciples of Jesus also.
The way they were to do that, and the way we are to do it too, is first to baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. What does it mean to do something in someone else’s name? The example that comes to mind for me is when a donation is made in someone’s name to a charity. If a donation is made in my name, I get credit for the donation, though I didn’t make the donation. When we win others to Christ, we may be the ones who witness to them, love them and pray with them, but we don’t get the credit when they accept Christ. God gets the credit for everything we do in ministry, because we’re doing it in his name.
Verse 19 of this chapter is the only place in the Bible where the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are named together like this. The nature of the Trinity is discussed elsewhere in the New Testament, though the word trinity does not actually appear in the Bible. By putting it like this, Jesus is again placing himself on the same level as the Father. The Holy Spirit is the spirit of the resurrected Jesus, therefore the Holy Spirit is also equal with the Father. Jesus is God in the form of a man. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God working in us and among us. When we are baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we are acknowledging that God is our God, that Jesus is our Lord, and that the Holy Spirit is our counselor and guide. As the old hymn says, he is God in three persons, blessed Trinity.
Then we are to teach those who are converted to obey everything he has commanded. Again, we have to put the teachings of Jesus into practice ourselves before we can presume to teach others to do that. Being baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as part of accepting Jesus as our Savior is sufficient to save us, but becoming a disciple requires us to do everything he has commanded us, and if we are to go and make disciples, we have to teach others to obey the commands of Jesus in all things. This requires us to know the teachings of Jesus well enough to teach them to others. The Great Commission is not just about preaching salvation to the world, it’s about making disciples.
And surely, he is with us always, to the very end of the age. We are still in the same age as the apostles were when Jesus spoke these words. The age of Law and sacrifices for sin was over. The age of the Church of Jesus Christ, the kingdom of God, had begun. We are still living in the age of the church and the dispensation of the Holy Spirit. God sent the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13, blog), and it’s in the form of the Holy Spirit, the spirit of the resurrected Christ, that Jesus is with us always. He is Emmanuel, God with us. And when the age of the church ends, and Jesus returns in the body, we will rise to meet him in the air, to be with him forever.