If the Great Commission is truly to become our way of living, what is needed is a fresh look at this paragraph through eyes illumined by the Spirit who inspired these words and with hearts made submissive to the purpose intended by these words. To that end let us turn attention.
The Context of the Commission
Context is essential to meaningful understanding of words or events. The Great Commission is both word and event and therefore context is an important component in deriving its meaning and determining its application to life and ministry.
The Great Commission in Matthew’s account is set within a specific biblical context. The other two synoptic gospels, Mark and Luke, both end by reporting the Lord’s ascension. Matthew makes no mention of the ascension and instead, ends his account with the Lord’s final command to go and make disciples from all nations. Significantly, Matthew ends his narrative of the Lord’s life and ministry where it began, in Galilee of the Gentiles (Matthew 4:25). From those hills had come forth the promised Messiah announcing that the Kingdom of Heaven had come (Matthew 4:12-17) and sending his disciples forth to extend that offer to all Israel (Matthew 10:1-15). He patiently, lovingly, and authoritatively continued to offer His kingdom to Israel for most of his earthly ministry. However, His offer was rejected by the Israel’s leaders (Matthew 12:22-32). Their rejection was confirmed during the course of a week that began with the coronation of the Lord (Matthew 21:1-10), resulted in a challenge to His claim (Matthew 21:23-27), and ended with His crucifixion (Matthew 26-27). After His resurrection, Jesus sent the disciples to an designated mountain at an appointed time and promised to meet them there. Matthew takes his readers back to Galilee to witness Jesus sending His disciples forth again to a new group of people, Gentiles. In the first sending, they were to extend the offer to all Israel till Messiah came to Jerusalem. Now they were commissioned to go beyond Israel’s borders to all the nations until Messiah returned to Jerusalem at the end of the age. Just as all the Jews had been invited to the inauguration of Messiah’s kingdom at His coronation in Jerusalem, so now are all the Gentiles to be invited to enter that kingdom and witness its inauguration at the coronation of Messiah when He returns to Jerusalem. This time the coronation will actually happen and all the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of God’s Son. The biblical context in which Matthew sets the commission reveals its broader scope – to recruit and prepare disciples for Messiah’s future kingdom.
The Great Commission in Matthew’s Gospel is set within a broader theological Context. Matthew’s Great Commission is deeply rooted in broader theological soil than only recruiting disciples from all the nations for Messiah’s future kingdom. Those roots extend in at least four directions.
First, this commission is rooted and grounded in the authority of Christ. The first of four uses of “all” in the pericope has reference to Christ’s authority. The nature of the authority of Christ referenced here is not primarily tied to might or ability but rather to right. At His resurrection, He was declared to be the Son of God in power (Romans 1:4).[i] Prior to His incarnation, the Son was equal with the Father in authority and of the same nature or essence as the Father and Spirit (Philippians 2:5-11). At the incarnation, while remaning fully God, Christ humbled Himself and became a man. Though He retained all the essential qualities of full Deity, in some way not fully comprehended by us He did not exercise or display the authority that was rightly His. However, at His resurrection, Christ was restored by His Father to His former authority and upon the ascension, to His rightful place at the right hand of the Father. This is the authority to which Jesus refers in the Commission mandate. Furthermore, the source and scope of this authority are important. Three years earlier on another mountain, Satan had offered him limited authority over all the nations of the earth. Now, on this mountain, the risen Christ declares that His Father had given Him all authority in all realms of His Father’s creation. On the basis of this exalted authority, His disciples are to go to the very nations that Satan had offered him and recruit out of Satan’s kingdom followers of the true God and His Christ! What this means practically for each of us as we consider the magnitude of the task set forth in the Commission is that there are not countries or places that are off limits to us. The authority of Christ supersedes any political or legal authority on earth. Nor are there any people who are beyond the scope of this commission. Deeply rooted in the authority of the risen Christ, the Great Commission is our mandate to go anywhere and to speak to anyone in an effort to compel them to become loyal followers of Jesus Christ. Such efforts may be prohibited by earthly powers. Men and women who carry this message might pay for doing so with their lives. However, they have been given every right to do so in all places and to all peoples who are held captive in the dark kingdom of this world.
Second, the Great Commission is rooted in the priority and promise of Christ for the Gentiles. Earlier in Matthew, Jesus promised His disciples that He would build His church and would use them as His builders (Matthew 16:13-20). Through them the doctrinal foundation that would govern this new community would be established and articulated. They would also be the first and perhaps most effective recruiters for this new community. And they would do so by fulfilling the mandate set for in this Commission. They were to go to all nations and make disciples. Paul later clarifies that in addition to those who were “near,” Christ had come to draw those who were “far off” and from these two groups, make a third and new group – the Church (Ephesians 2:11-18). The eleven men before Him that day were to initiate those new disciples into community life by baptizing them. By this rite, true followers of Jesus would publicly and openly identify themselves as His loyal followers and would join themselves to His movement. Not only were they to win and initiate new converts to Christ, they were to help those converts mature into a life-long obedience to the teaching of Christ. Being a follower of Christ in the first century involved far more than merely knowing facts about His birth, death, and resurrection. It was much more than just meeting weekly with the rest of the believers. Being a true follower of Christ meant living in daily obedience to Christ no matter the personal cost. This was the task Christ set before His disciples and in so doing, set forth the way in which His promise to build the church would be fulfilled. The implications of this are stupendous. If modern believers are truly committed to the task set by Christ, the church today should be bursting with mature, committed, obedient believers who are willing to follow Christ and sacrifice for His cause no matter the cost. The fact that our churches are instead filled with mediocre, disobedient, uncommitted Christians is a sad testimony to how far we have fallen short of the great commission mandate in our day.
Third, the Great Commission is rooted in the purpose of the Father for His Son. Psalm 2 is foundational to much of God’s revelation about His purpose and intent for Messiah. In this psalm, God announces His plan to install His king in Jerusalem. He promises this king the nations, even the ends of the earth, for an inheritance. And God exhorts the nations to “kiss” or worship the Son lest they suffer the crushing consequence of His wrath. This kingdom is the subject of many prophetic portions of the Old Testament. These prophecies are designed to both comfort and warn Israel at different stages of her history. However, by these prophecies, Israel is alerted to God’s intent to include in some fashion the Gentile nations. Matthew sets the Commission against this backdrop. Jesus appears in Galilee in order to fulfill a messianic promise given about Gentiles (Matthew 4:15-16) to indicate that Messiah’s ministry would offer light and life to both Jew and Gentile in a coming Kingdom promised by His Father.[ii] Matthew traces the development of the offer of this kingdom throughout the Lord’s ministry. Initially, the Lord appears and announces it in a region predominately populated by Gentiles. Later, He sends the 70 throughout Israel to invite them to the kingdom. Finally, He comes to Jerusalem attended to by many who are acclaiming Him as Messiah and who are prepared to crown Him king. Interestingly, his coronation march began in Galilee and He was accompanied by many disciples from that region who had come to Jerusalem for Passover (Matthew 20:17-21:10). Matthew may be stressing the more distant one was from Jerusalem, the more receptive to Messiah and His kingdom and the closer to Jerusalem, the more hostile the reception to Messiah and His kingdom. While this may be reading too much into Matthew’s structure, it does seem in accord with Paul’s observation that by means of the Gentiles, God would provoke His own people to jealousy that would eventually lead to their national salvation (Romans 11:11-15). Now, Jesus sends forth disciples to make disciples of the Gentiles until His Kingdom comes. In this way, on the day Messiah’s kingdom is inaugurated on earth, many Gentiles as well as Jews will enter in as citizens. Truly God will give to His Messiah the nations as an inheritance.
Fourth, the Great Commission is rooted in the essence and intent of the Gospel. Paul described the gospel of Jesus Christ as the power of God to save from sin anyone who would believe (Romans 1:16). The reason it has this saving power is that the Gospel reveals a unique righteousness sourced in God that is made available to unrighteous men. In order for a man to see God and dwell with Him forever, that man must be as righteous as God (Matthew 5:48). Furthermore, the Scripture makes clear that no man has within himself the ability or the propensity to this kind of righteousness (Titus 3:5). In other words, our problem as sinful rebels is not that we lack sufficient righteousness but that we don’t possess the right kind of righteousness. It isn’t that we just don’t have enough righteousness, we have the wrong sort of righteousness. It is not a problem of quantity but of quality. The active obedience of Christ during His life as well as His the vicarious atonement accomplished by His death became the grounds by which God imputes His righteousness to those who believe on Christ. This is the gospel. No one comes to God who has not embraced fully the truth about Christ and submitted to His lordship (Romans 1:5; 10:9). This is in essence, the heart of the Great Commission. Jesus told His disciples to go and make disciples. A disciple is a follower of Christ. Following Christ in the first century was costly. Only those who had become convinced of the truth of His identity and were prepared to submit to His authority would become disciples. Jesus told the woman at the well that His Father was looking for worshippers (John 4:23). At the end of the age, John speaks of an eternal Gospel (Rev 14:6-8) in which men are called to fear, glorify, and worship God. In essence that is the task of making disciples. As men and women turn to God and are converted, they are willing to be publicly identified as followers of Christ and as they are taught to obey Christ, they will fear, glorify, and worship God acceptably. The gospel is designed by God to produce qualified worshippers. The Great Commission seeks to find and form men and women from every nation into such worshippers. It is not the gospel’s intent merely to save people from hell. Rather it is the intent of the gospel to produce committed and obedient worshippers of the Father. This is what is missing in many modern approaches to the gospel. Today, the gospel has been reduced to a cosmic “get out of hell” card when it is in fact much more. The gospel of easy believism that does not demand the submission of a sinner’s will to the Lordship of Christ and that results in no lasting, permanent obedience is a false gospel. Jesus included the essence of the gospel in the Commission by instructing His disciples to recruit men and women who would turn to Him and follow Him as their Lord and Savior (. . . baptizing them). He also included the intent of the Gospel to produce obedient worshippers who would glorify God in the portion of the Commission that calls for instructing new disciples to obey all that Christ commands. In this way, the Great Commission is deeply rooted in the essence and intent of the gospel.
[i] There exists a good bit of debate regarding whether Paul was stating that the resurrection was a powerful demonstration of Jesus’ true identity as the Son of God or whether the resurrection was the occasion when God displayed to all that Jesus was His Son with all the full authority He enjoyed prior to the incarnation. Review of the standard commentary literature on Romans will provide more than adequate information and evaluation of each view.
[ii] For an interesting discussion of this point, see Craig Blomberg’s comments on this passage in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, edited by G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, MI., pp. 18-29.