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A Study by Scott Sperling
Matthew 28:16-20 -
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. 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.”
The disciples followed Jesus’ instructions, as given to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (see 28:10): “Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go” (vs. 16). When they arrived, they did see Jesus, as he promised: “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted” (vs. 17). This is one of the eleven post-resurrection appearances documented in the Bible. Here is a summary of all of the appearances: to Mary Magdalene (John 20:14-18); to the women right after the resurrection (Mark 16:5-7; Matt 28:9); to Peter (Luke 24:34; 1 Cor. 15:5); to two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35); to the disciples in Jerusalem (Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19-23); to Thomas and the others eight days after the resurrection (John 20:26-29); seven disciples on the Sea of Galilee (John 21:1-23); in this passage, when Jesus gives the Great Commission on a mountain in Galilee (Matt 28:16-20); to five hundred believers (I Cor. 15:6); to James (I Cor. 15:7); to the disciples at the ascension (Luke 24:44-53; Acts 1:1-12). So we see, from the post-resurrection appearances that we know about, that Jesus appeared to various people, under varying circumstances. And we know that he appeared as a body, as “flesh and bones”, and not as a spirit or ghost (see Luke 24:39).
In this passage in Matthew, Jesus appears in Galilee. It is an appointment of sorts, set up with the women who saw Jesus directly after the resurrection. Jesus told them: “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me” (28:10). And they did see Jesus: “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted” (vs. 17). Significantly, “some doubted.” Why? It is apparent from the documented post-resurrection appearances that Jesus was not instantly recognized. For instance, the two who walked with Jesus to Emmaus did not immediately recognize that it was Jesus that they were walking with (see Luke 24:16). And then, the disciples in the boat on the Sea of Galilee did not immediately recognize that it was Jesus suggesting that they throw their net to the other side of the boat (see John 21:5ff). I believe that the reason for the lack of instant recognition was that Jesus still bore the scars of the beatings he received before his death, and of the resurrection itself. We know from Jesus’ encounter with “doubting” Thomas that Jesus still bore the scars from the nails of the resurrection in his hands, and from the spear in his side (see John 20:27). So, I believe, his appearance was altered by the abuse of the beatings and the crucifixion (Isaiah prophesies that “his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human” – see Isa. 52:14), so that he was not immediately recognized in his post-resurrection body. Whatever the case, as Jesus told Thomas: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). And unfortunately, even for the most stolid of believers, doubt visits from time to time. “Doubt is a universal experience of finite followers of Jesus. Every one of us has been a ‘doubting Thomas’ at some time, and the tension between worship and doubt is with us as much as with the disciples… Like the disciples we are on an upward pilgrimage of faith and discipleship throughout our time on earth, and like them we can overcome failure through radical surrender in the strength the Spirit supplies” [Osbourne].
At this appointed time in Galilee, Jesus had something important to say to the disciples. He began: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (vs. 18). In the previous verse, the disciples “worshiped” the risen Jesus; here Jesus boldly proclaims that he is worthy of that worship. “It was a despised Galilean, a wandering and homeless teacher, that gave this audacious command; but it was a teacher just raised from the dead, and endowed by God with universal authority” [Broadus, 592]. “He is making clear that the limitations that applied throughout the incarnation no longer apply to him. He has supreme authority throughout the universe” [Morris].
Jesus goes on, in this stated “authority”, to give disciples a commission: “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, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (vss. 19-20). This is what’s called “Great Commission.” It summarizes the primary duties of Jesus’ followers on earth. “How vast is the range of thought presented or suggested by this saying of our Lord: (1) Theology, the doctrine of the Trinity, and the mediatorial authority of Christ; (2) Discipleship, and the work of discipling others; (3) The great missionary idea, all the nations; (4) The ceremonial element of Christianity; (5) Christian ethics; (6) Christ’s perpetual spiritual presence with those who serve him; (7) Christ’s final coming” [Broadus, 596].
The primary command of the Great Commission is to “go and make disciples of all nations”; this is done by “baptizing them” and “teaching them to obey” what Christ has commanded. Evangelization, the mere spreading of the Good News, is not enough (though it is the first step); “disciples” must be made: true followers of Christ and his teachings. “The task of the church is not just to evangelize but to disciple the world for Christ… Every single person who is won to Christ must be anchored in Christ and taught how to live for Christ in day-to-day decisions. Christianity is a practical, ethical religion, and we cannot separate the secular from the sacred. Until the secular areas of our lives have been ‘baptized’ with holiness, we are not truly disciples of Jesus” [Osbourne].
Jesus here is establishing a religion for all peoples of the world, for those of “all nations.” The church was established and foreseen by Jesus to be a world-wide church. “Christianity is essentially a missionary religion, analogous to the great conquering nations, the Romans, English, Russians. It must spread, by a law of its nature; it must be active at the extremities, or it becomes chilled at the heart; must be enlarging its circumference, or its very center tends to be defaced” [Broadus, 593]. “We must bear in mind that the picture of Jesus as a Jewish rabbi, with a little group of disciples around him, traveling in leisurely fashion in rural Galilee contrasts sharply with the missionary-minded church that we find in the early chapters of Acts. From the beginning the church exercised a missionary function and sought to make disciples out of those who listened to its proclamation. Why this sudden and dramatic change? Surely it is the fact of the resurrection of Jesus, coupled with the charge the risen Lord gave to his followers to make disciples of all nations” [Morris]. “The first disciples, Christians, became missionaries, messengers of salvation, as soon as the Church was founded at Pentecost. Upon that first feast of Pentecost, there were three thousand Christians; at the end of the first century, five hundred thousand; under the first Christian ruler, Constantine the Great, about ten millions; in the eighth century, some thirty millions; at the era of the Reformation, nearly one hundred millions; and now [in the late 1800s], well nigh two hundred millions” [Rieger, in Lange’s, 563]. And as of this writing, there are some two billion who consider themselves Christians. The Great Commission, as far as reaching the peoples of the world with the Gospel message, has largely been carried out.
At the time when Jesus gave the Great Commission, the establishment of a religion for all the peoples of the world was a radical thought. “The idea of one religion for all the world then seemed very strange. No existing religion could aim at it, since the existing religions were believed to be merely the products of national instincts and aspirations; each religion was part of the furniture of a nation, or at most of a race. Celsus, looking out on Christianity in the second century of our era, with the feelings of Gibbon or of Voltaire, said that a man must be out of his mind to think that Greeks and Barbarians, Romans and Scythians, bondmen and freemen, could ever have one religion. Nevertheless this was the purpose of our Lord” [Liddon, in Broadus, 594].
And why is Christianity the appropriate religion for people of all nations? Because it is the religion of the one true and only God. It is the way of salvation that the one true God has offered to all of mankind. The Great Commission is “that salvation by Christ, should be offered to all, and none excluded that did not by their own unbelief and impenitence exclude themselves. The salvation they were to preach, is a common salvation, whoever will, let him come and take the benefit of the act of indemnity” [Henry, 256].
In order to be true “disciples,” and followers of Christ, we are to be “baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” just as Jesus himself was baptized. Baptism “is a sign both of entrance into Messiah's covenant community and of pledged submission to his lordship” [Carson, 597]. Baptism is a rite that consecrates those who are baptized “into the sincere service of the sacred Trinity, and confirms them by this holy Sacrament, in the faith of the forgiveness of their sins, and in the hope of life eternal. This is the end, use, and efficacy of baptism” [Trapp, 282]. Baptism unites us with Christ, in his death and resurrection. As Paul teaches: “Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:3-4). “Baptism is a mere ceremonial and initial act of obedience to Christ, which should be followed by a lifelong obedience to all his commandments” [Broadus, 596].
Baptism in the name of the three persons of the Trinity—“of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”—affirms that all three persons of the Trinity were involved in our salvation. We receive the forgiveness of the Father, through the finished work of Jesus Christ who died for our sins. We are led to this knowledge and realization through the work of the Holy Spirit.
After baptism, disciples are to be taught to “obey everything” Jesus has commanded of his disciples. “Following Jesus will entail understanding and obeying his teaching” [Turner, 690]. “The baptized disciples of Christ may not walk as they like, but must study to observe all that Christ has commanded” [Dickson, 356]. “What the disciples teach is not mere dogma steeped in abstract theorizing but content to be obeyed” [Carson, 599].
The original apostles gave us writings—the Gospels, detailing the life of Christ and a summary of his teachings; and the Epistles, which expand, detail and clarify the teachings of Christ, and what it means to be a Christian. These writings are the foundational teachings of what disciples of Christ are to “obey.” And so, carrying out the Great Commission consists primarily in teaching the Word of God, as expressed in the New Testament.
Jesus ends his Great Commission with a word of encouragement: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (vs. 20). This statement emphasizes the personal relationship that all followers of Christ have with him. Christianity is not a religion that consists of merely a book with rules in it; it is a religion that has promised a personal relationship with the risen Lord. As Christians, we are not left alone to figure out the complex workings of the world; rather, Jesus is “with us always, to the very end of the age”, and moreover, the Holy Spirit dwells in us, to help us navigate the twists and turns we encounter as we live. Significantly, Jesus did not say “I will be with you” (suggesting a future time of meeting); he said, “I am with you,” promising an always-current presence. “When Christ saith, ‘I am with you,’ you may add what you will: to protect you, to direct you, to comfort you, to carry on the work of grace in you, and in the end to crown you with immortality and glory. All this and more is included in this precious promise” [Trapp, 282]. “He emphasizes the importance of his continuing presence and concludes his Gospel with the magnificent assurance to the followers of Jesus that that presence will never be withdrawn; he will be with them always, to the end of the world and to the end of time.” [Morris]. “He is with us daily to pardon and forgive,—with us daily to sanctify and strengthen,—with us daily to defend and keep,—with us daily to lead and to guide,—with us in sorrow, and with us in joy,—with us in sickness, and with us in health,—with us in life, and with us in death,—with us in time, and with us in eternity” [Ryle, 413].
Bibliography and Suggested Reading
Broadus, John. Commentary on Matthew. Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1886.
Carson, D. A. “Matthew” from The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. VIII, ed. by Frank Gaebelein. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984.
Clarke, Adam. The New Testament of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Vol. I. New York: G. Lane & C. B. Tippett, 1846. (Originally published in 1831).
Dickson, David. A Brief Exposition of the Evangel of Jesus Christ According to Matthew. Cornhill, U.K.: Ralph Smith, 1651.
Exell, Joseph S. and Henry Donald Spence-Jones, eds. The Pulpit Commentary. Vols. 33 & 34. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1884.
Henry, Matthew. An Exposition of All the Books of the Old and New Testament. Vol. IV. London: W. Baynes, 1806. (Originally published in 1710).
Lange, John Peter, ed. and Philip Schaff, trans. A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical. New York: Charles Scribner & Co., 1865.
Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1992.
Osbourne, Grant. Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament – Matthew. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.
Ryle, J. C. Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: Matthew. New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1857.
Spurgeon, Charles. The Gospel of the Kingdom: A Popular Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew. New York: The Baker and Taylor Co., 1893.
Thomas, David. The Genius of the Gospel: A Homiletical Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew. London: Dickinson & Higham, 1873.
Trapp, John. A Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. Vol. V (Matthew to Revelation). Edmonton, Canada: Still Waters Revival Books (www.PuritanDownloads.com). (Originally published c. 1660).
Turner, David L. Matthew. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008.
Wilkins, Michael J. “Matthew” from Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.
Many of these books (those in the public domain) can be downloaded free of charge from: