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.
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?