Wednesday, May 09, 2007

What's So Great about the Great Commission? (Mt 28:16-20)

As we continue our series of posts inspired by the 40 days Jesus spent with his disciples after his resurrection from the dead, we cannot forget the so-called Great Commission.

Throughout the New Testament, there is a definite connection made between the resurrection of Jesus and the mission of the apostles into the world. This connection is put pithily in John 20: "As the Father has sent me, so I send you."

The connection comes to narrative expression in the final scene of Matthew's gospel. Here are a few thoughts on this passage. The first introduces the context in which the commission is spoken. The next three analyze the content of the commission.

Context: Community (v. 16-17). The Great Commission is not just one among the many teachings of Jesus. As we shall see, it is a bracket-command which concerns all his other commands: the disciples are instructed to instruct others concerning all of Jesus' instructions (v. 20). But already in these introductory verses we see something else which makes the great commission stand out: it is uniquely given after his resurrection (and prior to his ascension). And so the community gathered around Jesus is no longer only a following community, but also a worshiping community. "When they saw him, they worshiped him." Interestingly, the story notes that "some doubted." (Perhaps the story of Thomas at the close of John's gospel is a gloss on this one-liner). This goes to show that even among the worshiping community there can be doubts. The two are not mutually exclusive. Jesus does not wait for the cessation of doubt before sending his disciples. Perhaps being caught up in mission is the best medicine for doubt.

I. Basis: Authority (v. 18). It is crucial that the Great Commission is not reduced to the command found in v. 19, but takes into account the basis of the commission in Jesus' authority. The divine authority which is proper to him as God's eternal son is now delegated to him in his divine-human unity after his resurrection from the dead. Note the perfect tense: "has been given." This grounds the great commission in a definitive past event with ongoing significance. Note also the universal scope: "all authority in heaven and on earth." Jesus has been given authority over all places.

II. Command: Mission (v. 19-20a). The first word "therefore" should be an additional clue that v. 19 should not be cited in isolation. On the basis of Jesus' authority over all, he now sends the disciples to all. This move from basis in Christ to command for us is signaled by the imperative present tense: "go and make." Note again the universal scope: "all nations." The disciples are sent to all peoples. The command to go is not left empty, but is filled with specific content to characterize the practice of disciple-making: the nations are to be gathered by baptism and edified by teaching.

III. Promise: Presence (v. 20b). Just as the Great Commission loses ground without its basis in Christ's authority, it loses power without its promise of Christ's presence. The Great Commission is not the end of Jesus' ministry and the beginning of our ministry. Rather, the Great Commission is the continuation of Jesus' ministry in a different form: by the power of his Spirit, his disciples make new disciples, not of themselves, but of Jesus. Thus Jesus remains present with them as they fulfill his commission to them. This presence is not only a present reality as they stand before him on the mountain, but is also a future tense promise. This promise assures ("surely") them that they are not alone as they execute his mission. Note once again the universal scope: "always, to the very end of the age." The disciples are promised a perpetual presence of Christ for all times.

So, within the context of the worshiping community of the risen Christ, the Great Commission has its basis in Jesus' perfect authority over all places, issues a present command of mission to all peoples, and offers a future promise of presence for all times.

Any thoughts?
What happens when the command of the great commission is severed from its basis and promise?
What do you think makes the great commission great?
Do you have any further observations concerning the Great Commission?


WTM said...

I love the picture!

David Drury said...

I love the "bracket-command" analogy. So fitting for the G.Commiss. I wonder what the broader list of "bracket-commands" are?

When you talk about them being a "worshipping community" I wonder what you mean? Aren't there a few cases of individuals and even all of the disciples worshipping Christ prior to the resurrection (as I recall, calming the storm was one). What is the distinction between a worshipping community & a following community?

I love the point about doubt not excluding worship... Rob Bell pointed this out so well in his Easter message (He forgot to point out about 3 key Resurrection things as well, but hey, what can you do, nobody is perfect, even the emergent rabbi!)

I while ago did a word study on ALL of the "ALLs" in the New Testament and that was a blast... this being the best one of the bunch. Thanks for pointing out how crucial that is. FYI, some other of the best ALL verses in just matthew, which has some great ones, are: Matt 3:15, 4:8, 10:30, 12:15, 17:11, 19:28, 22:37 & 40 (which is another bracket command), 24:14, 26:27 & 31 & 35 (here ALL have communion but then ALL fall away from him even though ALL deny they ever will! -- repeated 3 times).

And like you said there's the "double All" here too... All Authority, and then All Nations.

Okay, I'll stop pirating your blog now and just say thanks. Great thoughts on the great commission. Nice to get a theologian's take... since we so often get evangelists and missionaries speaking to this but so rarely get the big thinkers on it.

JohnLDrury said...

WTM - Thanks for the props on the pic. Try saying that mouthfull with a south side chicago accent!


RE: "bracket-command" was a new idea I haven't given much thought to. If I think of more such instances, or if you do, let's share them.

The logic of brackets just comes from how I think of the resurrection history in relation to the previous life history of Jesus. The period of the 40 days is a word-event which brackets the whole life of Jesus and illumines it, makes claims about it, perhaps conditions it in some sense, and expands its reach to us. Here I am just thinking through the same logic with regard to post-Easter commandments, which are not simply additional teachings but concern Christ's identity and the Church's mission. (Note: Luke says Jesus teaches the disciples during this period how the scripture predicted his death and resurrection).

RE: "worshipping community" - I am not familiar with any literal worship language ("proskune") prior to this, at least in Matthew. I'd be happy to be instructed on this point. The discpiples are "filled with awe" in the strom story you mention, but "awe" is ambivalent. Perhaps in retrospect such incidences can be seen as proto-worship, "prequels" to the 40 days so to speak (the Transfiguration is a good case of such a prequel). So, properly speaking, worship of Jesus commences at the revelation of Christ's glory in his resurrection. If there are any counter-instances (and I can't think of any unambiguous ones), I would likely treat them as exceptions that prove the rule.

As for the distinction between worshiping and following, I would not press this too far, especially with the command to teach others to obey in such close proximity (v. 20). Worshiping Jesus as Lord is in addition to following Jesus as teacher, certainly not in place of it. But the Church is not born until there is worship of Jesus. Worship is what sets apart the Christian Church from just any community which takes an interest in Jesus' teachings. I think the unity and distinction of worship and discipleship is an important conceptuality to keep on hand today, as the two are so often torn apart or conflated.

RE: "all" - I too love that little word, and as you can see it is crucial for my exegesis of this passage. Thanks for the list! You are free to pirate anytime! Rom 5, Rom 11, I Cor 15, and 2 Cor 5 are some "all" passages that I find worthy of study. "All" is an easy word to miss in English. The Greek stands out more: "pan", "panta" and "ta panta". I didn't go into, but I think it the universal scope (over all, to all, for all) of the commission that makes it so "great."

David Drury said...

FOr sure.. that small word may make this the greatest command.

The man born blind that Jesus healed "worshiped" him in John 9... (and that's "prosku'ne", although that's also John and not Matthew, as you say! :-)

In Matthew 14, the story I mentioned, Proskuneo is the word used... and those "in the ship" were the disciples... NOt sure what you mean about "Awe" there... it's the "kiss the hand/honor to you/bow prostrate" word for worship, right?

Matthew uses Proskuneo more than any other NT book but Revelation, however, including a reference to the Wise men worshipping (Proskuneo) Baby Jesus in Matt 2. The ruler who came to ask Jesus to heal his daugher in Matt 9 "worshipped" him (Proskuneo). And the leper in chapter 8, the cannanite woman worshipps him in 15.... etc, etc.

Maybe I'm off on my greek, I'm rusty, but it was my hunch that Jesus was worshipped prior to the resurection, and I think these verses from just Matthew show that. Now, those non-Jews bowing prostrate to him in this way to worship him could be perhaps dismissed as a heathen act--but those jews, including the disciples, doing this were really going against everything they were trained to believe and do, others would see that as a direct violation of the 10 commandments even. Am I off?

JohnLDrury said...


Nice work! I consider myself instructed.

Note: You originally refered to the calming the storm story, which is in Matt 8 and they have "awe." Matt 14 is the walking on water story, and you are right that they "worship/bow" him.

We probably both should avoid attributing too much to "proskune," as some exegetes could argue against both of us that this is not "worship" in the strict sense but could be interpretted as respectful bowing. Thankfully, I am more interested in a narrative point than a word-study point (and gladly I made my false claim in a comment and not in the main post). Nevertheless, you have made it clear that my word-study agument cannot be sustained in service of my bigger point. So I shall drop it.

Whatever we make of these pre-Easter stories (and I still think they make best sense when cast in the light of the resurrection, the perspective from which the gospels are written), I suspect we could agree that there is not a sustained worshiping community until after the resurrection. Anything prior is momentary, usually in response to particular signs. Only after the resurrection of Christ - the sign of signs - is a continuous communal worship of Jesus established. In raising Jesus from the dead, the Father has definitively revealed the divine identity of his Son, and so made worship of him not only appropriate but necessary. Note well that it is Easter that establishes the first day of the week as a new day of worship.

Although I have come to hold this view because I think it best coheres with the biblical narrative, I should lay my cards on the table regarding my contemporary agenda: I am leary of attempts to get behind the worshipping community of the risen Christ to a supposedly simple community of discipleship. Although they rightly remind us of Jesus' ethical instructions (which should not be neglected), I think such attempts erode the authority of those teachings and undermine the church's mission. The risen Christ is the best (and only) starting point for following Jesus today. If we start from Jesus' identity, his teachings will necessary be included. If we start from Jesus' teachings, his identity may be discarded. [I mean "start" here in a logical, not chronological, sense.]

Is my broader position becoming clearer? Is it a commendable view? What might worry you? Is this illuminating of or distracting from my original post on the Great Commission?

Kathy said...

Well, because you're a darn strategic intellectual, just as soon as your opponent begins winning an argument on a topic of investigation you declare the argument on the topic to be in fact irrelevant to the matter at hand--naming your debate partner's victory a phyrric one! [I hope you hear the playfulness in all this! I'm playing out of my league here so I'm reveling in even a small advance, even if my whole frail argument is based on a greek word that might actually mean "kissing a hand" and not "worship"] :-)

I must admit that while I lost the forest in the trees for a while, you're broader point is not only commendable but downright crucial. Yes... you can lose the identity of Christ wen you start with the ethical teachings... but when you start with the identity you get the teachings as a "rider." Excellent point and overall focus of this question.

I suppose part of why my bells went off about the worship issues is that I've always taken it as crucial that Jesus was worshipped (or treated as far more than "just" a rabbi) by his followers, even prior to the resurrection. I put that on par with the fact that Jesus Christ is directly "prayed to" in scripture by writers and we are taught to pray "in his name." In light of the Jewish context these are HUGE departures and make Christianity untenable for a 1st century Jew without awknoledging that he is God.

So, as you see, we were both heading for the same goal = clarity on the identity of Christ


David Drury said...

Since I was typing on my wife's computer that post came on as "kathy"... sorry.

At least it now looks like someone else is in on the debate over proskuneo.

as if

JohnLDrury said...

good to know we shared the goal ... I am quite happy to get up the mountain different ways, as long as we are we meet each other at the top. See you there!

Keith Drury said...

Boy--spending ten days in a car wandering around Turkey with you two is gonna' be "instructive" to me!

Keith Drury said...

The question that emerged to me in this discussion is when did the disciples begin to worship Jesus as God. I read a book on this but alas I forgot the name of it.

JohnLDrury said...


You may be referring to Larry Hurtado, who times the worship of Jesus as God after Easter. In this he is just representing a scholarly consensus (which doesn't make it right, but as you can tell I have been presupposing it in this discussion).

David Drury said...

I believe that our theology of the pre-existent Son would lead us to AT LEAST say that Jesus "COULD" have been worshipped, completely legitimately, prior to the resurection. And if the above references to him being "worshipped" would in fact be translated as such, then there is no problem with that--indeed, Jesus never admonishes them against their action.

Likewise, his BIRTH seems to be cause enough for worship and praise as the Son of God (Luke 2 & Heb 1:6.)

Now... it may be that the disciples didn't openly worship Jesus prior to his resurrection (although I'm not yet convinced)... but even if that's the case, it's not as though the resurrection somehow changes Jesus into a legitimately worshipable (sorry, had to make up that word) entity.

If Jesus COULD have been worshipped prior to resurrection then it's just a matter of the resurrection providing the impetus for the disciples to "get it" and respond in worship. So the timing of the worship... the choice of the disciples may be post resurrection, but that timing is entirely their choice, not restricted in any way by the resurrection change in Jesus.

Am I off base? Just thinking this through for myself.

JohnLDrury said...


Thanks for clarifying. I agree that Jesus could have been worshipped, and in fact was (though unwittingly or "hiddenly") prior to his resurrection and even prior to his birth (cf. Jn 8 - "Abraham saw me"). The resurrection doesn't make Jesus divine. I don't want to go there (although some do). But the resurrection does reveal his divinity in a definitive way that affects our mode of relating to him: namely, bearing witness to his glory as the risen Lord of all.

David Drury said...

Oh, nice... reply... good to know.

I hadn't thought of the John 8 reference..

Brian B said...

What would you say of Coleman's book Master Plan of Evangelism where he basically sets forth "make disciples" as the key action verb of all the verbs? Would you hold that what Christ is really telling us to do primarily and initially is "make disciples"?

JohnLDrury said...


I would have to study Coleman more in order to give a detailed response, but I can say initially that it seems that the imperative verb "make disciples" governs the participles, "baptizing them" and "teaching them," so that these practices should be seen as putting flesh on or filling out the meaning of disciple-making, rather than as practices external to disciple-making.

However, I would note that the recurring verb in this whole passage is "go/went/came" (erkomai in Grk).

Keith Drury said...

John..yes that's the guy...I never remember the names of the authors of books I've read which makes me a poor scholar--most scholars I know remember the author's of even books they've not read!

I agree that Jesus could have been worshipped--after all He did not become God at the resurrection--He was God-and-man as a fetus.

But I stumble at his introductory statement to the great commission... What did Jesus mean by "All authority has been given me on heaven and earth?" When was this authority given?

JohnLDrury said...


It is precisely statements like those ("All authority has been given to me") of which there are many attached to the resurrection that leads me to try the balancing act exhibited in this discussion board of affirming the incarnation yet lifting up something big happening at the resurrection. I have not completely sorted this stuff out, so I am just trying right now. The extreme options I am trying to avoid are (a) on the one hand, the resurrection is just the Father's "I told you so" and the Son's "peek-a-boo" unveiling of what was always there, accomplishing nothing of real importance to the history of God-with-us, and (b) on the other hand, the resurrection as some kind of adoption of Jesus into divine sonship.

What are some ways of interpreting passages like these to avoid these two extremes?

Perhaps his post-resurrection authority is the return of the authority he had prior to his humbling incarnation.

Perhaps his post-resurrection authority is that not that which he receives from the father (which he already had) but rather that which he has taken from Satan by going to death.

Perhaps his post-resurrection authority is the giving of authority to his humanity which was previous limited to his divinity.

Perhaps his post-resurrection authority is final authority given to Jesus as God-man in his divine-human unity which had to be unfolded and tested in death but is now secure because it has overcome death.

Perhaps his post-resurrection is the delegation of the Father's authority to the Son for the time between the times until the Son returns that authority to the Father at the consummation of all things (along the lines of I Cor 15).

Perhaps all of the above.

Perhaps none of the above.

I am not yet sure.