Commentary on Matthew 28:16-20
The eleven go to Galilee, “to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them” (Matthew 28:16).
Jewish scriptural tradition knows mountains to be places of revelation, places of encounter with God. The risen Jesus meets his disciples on this unnamed mountain, but as Robert H. Smith points out, the text is remarkably reserved in its lack of a physical description of Jesus. There is no portrayal of radiant glory or awesome power. The narrative focus is on the words of Jesus.1 The disciples apparently recognize Jesus and understand more clearly than before his identity as Son of God, as they worship him. Yet the author adds, “but some doubted” (Matthew 28:17).
Doubt is not the opposite of faith in Matthew, but an inevitable part of the life of faith and discipleship. When Peter walks on water, for example, he becomes frightened when he notices the strong wind and begins to sink. After saving him from drowning, Jesus says to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (14:31) Peter’s doubt does not prevent Jesus from saving him, nor does it preclude Peter from being recognized as leader among the disciples, even the “rock” upon which Jesus will build his church (15:18). So also the doubt of some disciples at the end of Matthew does not preclude them from being entrusted with the ongoing work of Jesus’ mission. All of the eleven receive the same commission.
Before the commission, indeed as grounding for the commission, Jesus states, “All authority (pasa exousia) in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (28:18). The giver of this authority, of course, is God. In raising Jesus from the dead, God has vindicated Jesus’ life and mission. God has demonstrated power and authority greater than that of any human ruler, stronger than the forces of evil and death. It is all-encompassing authority; “in heaven and on earth” is a way of saying “the whole universe.” That this authority is the grounding for the commission that follows is demonstrated by the word “therefore” (oun) in the following sentence: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations … ” (28:19).
During his earthly ministry, Jesus focused on “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24). Nevertheless, there are indications throughout Matthew that ultimately the good news is for all peoples and nations. From the gentile women named in the genealogy of Jesus (1:3, 5-6), to the visit of the magi from the East (2:1-12), to stories of Jesus healing gentiles (8:28-36; 15:21-28), it is clear that the good news cannot be limited by national boundaries. Now the one who has all authority in heaven and on earth sends out his disciples to make disciples of all the nations (panta ta ethne) of the earth.
The content of “making disciples” is given precision by two participles — baptizing (baptizontes) and teaching (didaskontes). Baptizing “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” incorporates into God’s people those who have heard and received the good news. Yet in order to make disciples, baptizing must be followed by teaching — specifically, teaching the baptized to obey all (panta) that Jesus has commanded.
In Jesus’ teaching, there is no dichotomy between faith and obedience. Faith in Jesus, trust and confidence in him, results naturally in obedience to him, just as good fruit is produced by a healthy tree (7:15-20). Those who come to Jesus, who is “gentle and humble in heart” and who gives rest to weary souls (11:28-30), are those who show mercy to others. They are those who understand that all the commandments are summed up in the two greatest: to love God with all your being and to love your neighbor as yourself (22:34-40). They are those who serve others, especially those in need, without calculation or expectation of reward (25:31-40).
Lest his disciples become overwhelmed by the enormity of their mission, Jesus closes with a promise: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:20). The one who even before his birth was called Emmanuel, which means “God with us” (1:23), now promises to be with his disciples all the days (pasas tes emeras) to come, even to the end of time.
The Gospel of Matthew was certainly written for a particular community of believers in a particular context with their particular problems, questions, and concerns. Yet the ending of Matthew’s Gospel could not be more universal in its scope. The one who has all authority in heaven and on earth sends out his disciples to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to obey all that he has commanded, remembering that he is with them all the days to come.
The challenge for the preacher will be to interpret this passage for his or her particular community in its particular context. For example, how do we interpret the command to make disciples of all nations? This is often read as a mandate for what is traditionally known as missionary work — that is, traveling to distant lands to proclaim the gospel. Yet Jesus’ command is not only for those called to full-time global mission work, and in the global village in which we now live, it is not necessary to travel far in order to find many nations and peoples.
Furthermore, for those of us whose churches have a history of sending missionaries to distant lands, we can no longer assume that the direction of disciple-making is from us to them. The church is growing rapidly in many parts of Africa and Asia, while in the West it is shrinking. Who has greater need for disciple-making?
Jesus envisions a global community of disciples from all nations. Do our congregations today reflect in microcosm Jesus’ vision? Do our congregations reflect the many peoples among whom we live? Or do we represent mostly one or a few particular ethnic groups? If the latter is the case, why is that? How have we failed to recognize Jesus in the “other,” in the stranger at our doorstep (25:35, 43)? It may very well be that we need these “others” to make disciples of us.
The mission that Jesus entrusted to his church is suffocated when we are closed off in ethnic enclaves or infected by nationalistic ideology. Now more than ever, Jesus’ vision of a faithful community of all nations needs to be lifted up.
- Robert H. Smith, Matthew (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989) 334-335.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of action, you sent your disciples into the world to preach, teach, and make disciples of all nations. Make us instruments of proclamation, so that all might know of the love you have for humanity. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Listen, God is calling ELW 513
Send me, Jesus ELW 549
Lord, you give the great commission ELW 579
We walk by faith ELW 635, H82 209
Go ye into all the world, Don Besig and Nancy Price