How do you conclude a Gospel?
? How do you close the story of Jesus’ abundant life, stirring death, and transformative resurrection? After so many acts of healing, the harrowing vision of Jesus’ execution, and a triumphant defeat of death, how do you write, “The End?”
Mark famously concludes with a cliffhanger, the air lingering with fear and confusion. Luke’s conclusion forms a bridge to the beginning of Acts, linking the two texts with Jesus’ ascension and serving as a narrative hinge between the two volumes. John notes the many stories he could have told but didn’t. Matthew’s Gospel closes with a commission.
In studying the Gospels, we must continually remind ourselves of their likely purposes. The Gospel writers were probably composing these theological narratives for the sake of insiders, people who already knew the story of Jesus. That is, when Matthew and Mark and Luke and John composed their narratives, they were thinking of their sisters and brothers in their own communities. And so there were no spoiler alert warnings necessary when Jesus starts to predict his passion. On Good Friday, no one wondered whether a miracle might save Jesus from execution. No one gasped when the tomb was discovered empty. Why then retell these stories in the ways they do? Why retell these stories to an audience that already knows them?
Perhaps because there were certain questions, controversies, anxieties, and joys that accompanied the lives of these faithful people. The Gospel writers directed their efforts at challenging and/or affirming the faith of their friends and neighbors.
In other words, each of these Gospel writers had an agenda. Though the precise contours of these agendas will be difficult to reconstruct, we can say with some confidence that Matthew’s Gospel dealt with a community facing internal division and strife, a community in need of direction in a complex world, but also a community in need of a sense of mission and call.
And in the closing verses of the Gospel, Jesus voices that mission and that call.
However, this is not a strictly triumphant conclusion. The mention of the “eleven disciples” in v. 16 is a lingering reminder of Judas’s calumny. Moreover, although some worship the risen Jesus, “some doubted” (v. 17). At least for these disciples, faith and certainty are not synonymous. Even at this critical moment, even at the feet of the risen Jesus, faithfulness is obedience to Jesus even in the midst of doubt. Even though some are unsure, they still come “to the mountain to which Jesus directed” (v. 16).
The grounds upon which Jesus builds the Great Commission appear in v. 18; Jesus claims, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” That is, the lingering result of the cross and resurrection is Jesus’ ultimate power and authority over all things. It is precisely because of Jesus’s authority that the disciples can be called on this mission. The confidence, the surety that Jesus reigns supreme is all we need in order to follow the path Jesus lays before us.
If this is the authority Jesus wields, then his bold claim is not as radical as it seems. The scope of the mission to which these disciples are called is broad, universal even. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (v.19). In an ancient world accustomed to the violent rise and fall of empires and to national disputes addressed on battlefields not by diplomats, the call to “all nations” is breathtakingly wide. It still is today. There is no room for enemies, no room for others, no room of outsiders in Jesus’s commission.
The commission is three-fold: make disciples, baptize, teach. That is, the disciples are instructed to go to the nations and find there followers of Jesus. The nations do not have to come to them; instead, God’s servants and so also God will draw near to all people. Baptism then is a marker of belonging as individuals and communities find a place among the followers of Jesus. But there is more to this baptism than initiation or inclusion or even repentance. After all, recall what John the Baptist says about the baptism Jesus would offer: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11). That is, baptism is a transformation of identity. The Holy Spirit now resides in a body cleansed by the purifying force of divine fire. Teaching follows baptism then as these disciples find a way to remain faithful in a world of tests and trials; their obedience is intrinsic to their faith, to their discipleship, to the promise contained in baptism.
These are towering demands, lofty calls certainly. They require followers of Jesus to experience a radical transformation to see neighbors where we previously saw the “other,” to seek God’s people wherever they might be. But these are not lonely tasks, for Jesus promises to walk with us, to accompany us in the difficult but transformative work of going and making and baptizing and teaching.
The initial rationale of Jesus’s overriding authority thus meets the depths of Jesus’ love for us. Jesus has all authority and with that authority he has chosen to meet us among the nations, among the many peoples of the world. Jesus has chosen to be with us to the very end of the age.
Surely, this commission was meant not just for those eleven individuals full of faith and doubt who gather around Jesus. After all, these eleven individuals who used to be a retinue of twelve, and the absence of the one is a reminder of our frailty and the vicious way that Sin and Death works their ways even among Jesus’ own followers.
In the end, we were meant by God to hear these words, to receive a commission Jesus himself shared with his friends so long ago. Much has changed certainly but much also remains the same. The call to “all nations” seems impossible, implausible, inadvisable. And so invite your congregation to imagine the contours of this call for them today. This is not just a memory of the historical Jesus; it is a regnant claim over our lives. Jesus wields authority and because of that authority we can make disciples wherever we might go, for Jesus will always meet us there.
And if Jesus will meet us there, then our call to the world is a call to listen as much as it is to speak. The making of disciples, baptism, and teaching are not monological; they are relational acts that bring together all the nations under God’s grace.