Commentary on Matthew 28:16-20
Each of the Gospels ends in a distinctive way.
Mark focuses on the empty tomb and the fear of the first witnesses; Luke on the appearances of the risen Jesus to the disciples, his ascension, and their preparation as witnesses; and John on a series of appearances of the resurrected Christ, especially to Peter. Matthew depicts the resurrected Jesus’ commissioning the disciples for mission. In what ways is this a fitting end — not only the right stopping point, but the goal — of Matthew’s Gospel? What does this ending tell us about that mission?
This episode draws together many of the most important themes and motifs of the Gospel, thereby suggesting that this ending is designed for this very story. As so often before in Matthew, the setting is an unnamed mountain (28:16, cf. 4:8, 5:1, 14:23, 15:29, 17:1), which Matthew associates especially with the revelation of divine presence and authority. Matthew also refers prominently here to “heaven and earth” (28:18), terminology that recalls the story of creation in Genesis 1, thereby linking this episode to a long tradition of stories about the fracturing of earth from heaven and the hope of their repair.
Jesus also provides the warrant for the disciples’ commission by affirming that he has been given “all authority in heaven and on earth.” Authority — its nature, source, and effects — is yet another persistent Matthean interest (7:29; 8:9; 9:6, 8; 10:1; 21:23, 24, 27). Matthew also returns in this scene to the christological identification of Jesus as “God with us” (28:20, cf. 1:23), thereby framing the entire Gospel with this claim.
Even as this ending emphasizes key themes and claims of the whole Gospel, it also marks a fresh beginning point, signaled in part by the return to Galilee (28:16), where Jesus’ own ministry began. While they are called to be people on the move in mission, the disciples must also be rooted in the story and the land where their own journeys began. They will conduct their mission between two worlds: with Jesus on the mountain — itself apparently a thin place between the human and divine realms — they stand at the edge of a new world and a new time.
The time of empire, of debt and slavery, of the reign of death, is passing away. It will continue to exercise sway only where the death and resurrection of God’s son is not proclaimed. But the truth about Rome’s empire has been unveiled for all the world to see. It has wielded its most powerful tool — death on a cross — against God’s son as he proclaimed and inaugurated God’s empire, but now even Rome’s control of the apparatus of death has been shown to be hollow. The empire of the heavens has not just begun, it has already won the crucial victory.
Living between two worlds is not easy, however, even for those closest to Jesus. Matthew introduces elements into the story that challenge the apparently triumphal character of this scene. There are not twelve disciples with Jesus, but eleven, a reminder not only of the absence of Judas but, implicitly, of the betrayals in which the eleven also participated. Matthew also notes that their initial response to the presence of the risen Jesus is a mixture of worship and doubt. Most English translations of 28:17 leave the impression that the disciples included some worshippers and some doubters (e.g., “doubting Thomas” in John 20:24-29), but the Greek may also be translated, perhaps more naturally, to suggest that the whole group of disciples both worship and doubt.
In either case, Matthew acknowledges that both responses are to be found in the community of disciples. The word translated “doubt” is found in the New Testament only here and in the account of Peter joining Jesus in his walk on the sea in 14:31, yet another story of divine presence and power, marked by both doubt and worship (13:31, 33). The Greek word distazo carries a sense of standing in two places at the same time or being of two minds. Jesus commissions not perfect disciples, but people who both worship and doubt as they stand at the edge of the world that is passing away and the one that is coming to them.
What does this new world look like? Apparently, the key differences include both the presence of the resurrected Jesus, promising to remain with the disciples to the end of the age, and a reconciled earth and heaven. Jesus’ claim to have been given “all authority” in both realms signals the culmination of a biblical drama first announced in the earliest chapters of Genesis, where we find accounts both of the creation of “heaven and earth” and the disruption of the unity of that creation through the story of the fall and subsequent human rebellion and violence.
Matthew takes very seriously this story of the ruin of the relationship between earth and heaven. The terms “heaven and earth” constitute a “merism,” a figure of speech in which an entity is identified by means of its constituent or defining parts. In Genesis 1, heaven and earth comprise a single entity — God’s whole creation. By Genesis 4, their unity has been fractured. The prayer we pray nearly every Sunday in most churches, which is largely based on Matthew 6:9-13, recognizes this divide and asks for its resolution (“thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”).
Matthew repeatedly tells stories that recount the ways Jesus, and sometimes his disciples, cross and blur the boundaries between heaven and earth. But it is only with Jesus’ defeat of death that the breach between heaven and earth is mended. Jesus sends the disciples into the world not only to announce the salvation of humans, but to bear witness to the end of a broken creation. Jesus’ words at the Great Commission are thus not merely the fitting end of Matthew’s story of Jesus, but a vision of the end of a broken world and the beginning of new creation.