Commentary on Matthew 28:16-20
The arrest and crucifixion of Jesus was a deeply disorienting experience for his followers, ruthlessly dashing in a matter of hours the great hopes and dreams they all shared.
They had lost one they loved and admired to a brutal execution. To see Jesus alive after his death, which they naturally assumed had ended everything, must have been utterly astonishing. Nothing in their history or Jewish faith had prepared them for what was occurring. To say they struggled with cognitive dissonance would be an understatement.
Matthew 28.16-20 provides the narrative of the last recorded encounter of Jesus by the disciples and the final words of Jesus close the Gospel. Directed to return to Galilee where Jesus would meet up with them, the disciples followed yet again, not knowing what they would encounter. Galilee was where it all began and Galilee, it seems, would mark the new beginning. It is difficult to imagine what their journey was like, but it had to have been a memorable one. It was the ultimate road trip, filled with long conversations that focused upon making sense of the mind-bending events that had transpired, wondering aloud what would happen next. This moment with Jesus would be an important time for them. They had lost everything in the catastrophic events that preceded this, and they were on their way to discover what, if anything would be next.
We all struggle to comprehend the astonishing work of God in Christ. Having reunited with Jesus in Galilee, the disciples’ response is somewhat peculiar. Upon seeing Jesus they worship. This part we understand; it makes sense given the circumstances of Jesus’ resurrection and the preceding events. But they also doubt. Worship is not typically associated with doubt. In fact, many feel that even if they do doubt, they cannot admit it. The text here does not so much focus on doubt in the sense of unbelief as it does on the cognitive dissonance that arises from unusual, even unbelievable, circumstances. This is one case where their understanding of the world and the way that God had previously worked in it did not match with what they saw before them.
Jesus’ parting words are commonly referred to as the Great Commission. We typically hear it during mission days at church, mission conferences, or when missionaries come to town with their slide shows, presentations and the like. But it is more than that; the reference of the text is much broader. The text frames the basis for the communal identity and life together for the movement that will become the church. Four elements emerge that draw our attention.
There are four “alls” in this text: Jesus has all authority given to him, we are to make disciples of all nations, we are to teach that we should obey all that he commanded during his earthly life, and the promise that closes is that he will be with us always. These four “alls” capture much of what the paragraph intends to communicate and also the central message of the Gospel of Matthew.
All authority: The incarnation and Jesus’ life on earth were marked by his profound humanity. Apart from a glimpse of his glory during the Transfiguration, this is a Jesus we are not accustomed to. In this scene the authority that Jesus taught with and exercised in his healings and deliverances becomes positional. He has been given all authority in heaven and on earth, and the disciples’ teacher is now revealed as the Lord of all. The power of passages like Matthew 11:25-30 reside in the person of Jesus. Similarly, the commission that follows has little authority if Jesus were not the Son of God.
All nations: The purpose of God is to be reconciled with all humanity, which includes every nationality and race. Jesus’ ministry was primarily limited to the Jewish people throughout Matthew’s gospel, but here the boundaries are now expanded to include all humanity. Thus the commission has an international scope. Note, however, that the text does not say to take the gospel to the nations, although it is implied. Jesus here actually says that they are to make disciples of all nations. This is the primary verb of the section, and it is a command. Shallow evangelism is not Jesus’ intent; rather, Jesus has in mind a task that is more robust. The disciples are students or pupils–learners. In this case, they are, like the twelve disciples in the gospel narrative, to become devoted followers of Jesus and together live out his teachings within broader society. Further, they are to baptize in the name of the trinity. This baptism becomes the initiation ritual that symbolically marks the movement from death to life.
All that he commanded: Of all the gospels, Matthew’s is the most teaching oriented. Matthew structures his gospel in such a way that he includes five major sections of Jesus’ teachings. The third part of the command is to teach those who become disciples to do everything that Jesus commanded. This follows Jesus’ own instructions in 5.16 and 7.21-27, in which he underlines the necessity of doing what he teaches and not merely paying lip service. Our actions should reflect our beliefs. Statements of faith are important within communities, but Matthew reminds us that faith without appropriate behavior is empty.
Always with us: Matthew closes with what is perhaps one of the most comforting statements in Scripture. Jesus, as Lord of all, promises to be with us, the church, always, even until the final consummation of everything. This continuing, abiding presence of Jesus is a profound promise. The gospel opens with a similar affirmation in 1.23, in which Jesus is named Emmanuel or “God with us”. This ending reminds us of the person of Jesus in his earthly life–the one who shared space with people, lived, and was present with them, and showed us what God is like.
The text moves us from the disciples’ insecurity and lack of understanding to focus us on the exalted Lord, who as the leader of the movement defines reality. The commission is for all who are part of the people of God and incorporates the task of making disciples with teaching and baptizing as the movement expands around the world. The church is at its core to be living out the teachings of Jesus as a witness within their world. And perhaps most profoundly of all, Jesus promises that his presence will be with his people until the final culmination of the ages.