Matt 28:11-20

Today we conclude our reading notes through Matthew’s Passion narrative, looking at the Great Commission.

Matt 28:11-15

11 While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. 12 When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, 13 telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.

This little scene is a sequel to the one in 27:62-66 where Pilate posts a guard detail outside Jesus’ tomb in response to the chief priests’ concerns. Again, it’s like the early part of the passion narrative, where it alternated between scenes of Jesus’ enemies conspiring against him, and the preparations of Jesus himself. Here, the storyline alternates between two groups of “guardians” of Jesus’ body – the Roman guards, and the women; it also alternates between their two testimonies about what happened to Jesus and his body.

The fact that Matthew (writing probably in the 70s or 80s AD) says that this story has “widely circulated among the Jews to this very day” is interesting. It points to the fact that the main argument against Christians in the latter part of the first century wasn’t a denial of the empty tomb – but an accusation that they had moved the body. In some way, this story is an explanation for that claim. (For more evidence: how could a bunch of disciples – particularly if we’re talking about women as the first witnesses – overpower a Roman guard to steal the body! And, of course, why would many of them go to their deaths proclaiming something which they knew to be a lie?)

Matt 28:16-18

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. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” 

Jesus is again up on a mountain, echoing other significant episodes in Matthew’s Gospel (e.g. 5:117:1). The worship of Jesus by his disciples, like the worship by the women we read of yesterday, implies a very high Christology – that Jesus is recognised as ‘God with us’ (cf. 1:23, 28:20).

That “some doubted” is the only qualification to the otherwise very confident and joyful picture of the disciples in ch28, and contrasts with the doubts and uncertainties that are given greater prominence in the other three gospels (in particular, the Thomas story in John). T

The “all authority” language probably refers to the Son of Man in Daniel’s vision:

Dan 7:13-14 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”

Matthew seems to view the resurrection as a fulfilment of the Daniel 7 vision, in which the Son of Man comes to God to receive dominion over the nations. Although Jesus has been portrayed throughout Matthew as already the Son of the Father, there is still a sense in which Jesus receives the full authority that is rightfully his only after he has suffered, died, and risen (cf. Lk 24:26Rom 1:3).

Notice that he’s given all authority in heaven and on earth. It’s an even greater authority than the devil offered him back in chapter 4…

Matt 4:8-9 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

…but by waiting and doing it the right way, he gained far more.

Matt 28:19-20

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.”

The authority given to Jesus (verse 18) leads directly to the Great Commission (verses 19-20). It’s only when all authority has been given to him that he can send out his messengers into all the world. It’s now time for the harvest among the Gentiles, as well as Israel. The command to “go” contrasts with the earlier “do not go” –

Matt 10:5 “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans…”

For grammar nerds: You might have heard some people (let’s call them “mission speakers”) say that the Greek of verse 19 is literally, “as you go, make disciples” or, “going, make disciples.” That is, the assumption is that of course you’d be going! And the main command is therefore make disciples. However, the way Greek normally works is that a participle (“going”) when linked with an imperative (“make disciples”) shares the same force as the imperative. Greeks generally didn’t like a series of imperatives joined together with “and”. So the usual translation, “go and make disciples” is best. It also means that the “going” isn’t assumed. The command is both to go and to make disciples.

Baptising is central to the Great Commission. Why? For a start, it’s a sign of a change of allegiance, identifying with Jesus over against former allegiances of family, city, empire, and pagan deities. It symbolises cleansing from sin. And it’s also symbolic of the Holy Spirit being given as someone becomes part of the people of God; don’t forget, it’s the Spirit’s power that enables us to be God’s people in a way Old Testament Israel never could.

This reference to being baptised into the name of Father, Son, and Spirit continues the identification of Jesus as fully divine and worthy of worship (see verses 9 and 17.)

We sometimes forget the next bit of the Great Commission: “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” We go. We make “converts.” And often we baptise them, too. But how much do we make disciples, which means teaching them what it means to be a follower of Jesus; to be the New Testament people of God?

This phrase suggests that the discipleship teaching within Matthew’s Gospel (especially e.g. Matt 18) is included in order to teach new disciples. That is, Matthew isn’t just a biography of Jesus, but also with aims to show what discipleship looks like. It gives us a clue as to how we might read this Gospel the second (and subsequent) times: not just as a story proclaiming who Jesus is and what he’s done, but also as a source of teaching on how to live life the way Jesus intends us to live it as his people.

The final promise of Jesus’ continuing presence echoes 1:23 (“God with us”), and extends “to the end of the age” – a signal that this is not merely a commission for the original generation of disciples, but for us, too.

To think about

In what way have you “gone” in service of the Great Commission? (You might not have left your home city, as I haven’t. But maybe you’ve left a career behind. Or wealth, in order to support those who have gone. What other things have you “gone” from in answer to the gospel call?)

In churches, how is a “conversion” mindset different from a “disciple-making” mindset? How might that change the way you think of evangelism?

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