The Great Commission

Ascension Year A

Matthew 28: 16 20

Introduction

This reading, the conclusion of St. Matthew's Gospel, is more a beginning than an end! It is also the key to understanding the whole of the Gospel account presented by St Matthew. The Beginning of Chapter 28 is the Resurrection morning. Jesus appears to two women, and tells them to get the eleven Apostles to gather at Galilee i.e. to make an appointment with them. When they heard this they must have been relieved to get away from Jerusalem and go back "where they belong".

Some Notes On the Text

Verse 16

"Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them." The eleven obey and gather on the mountain in Galilee. This is not the Ascension. Actually, as we will see, rather the opposite.

They gather in a manner, which reminds us of how Jesus began his teaching; teaching the beatitudes on a hillside. For Matthew, here is the new Moses teaching New Israel. We learn from this that the universal mission to the whole world goes forth from this un-named hillside in Galilee; not from Jerusalem which rejected the Lord and his message. This is an important observation. There is nothing wrong in having an interest in the old Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified, or of visiting the places where he was born and moved around.  However, in the missionary outreach of the church, the Holy Spirit established great centres of Christian culture elsewhere.  Christians should not look to the old Jerusalem of the fulfilment of prophecy; rather to the "New Jerusalem coming out of heaven", (Revelation 21: 2).

Verse 17

"And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted."

Actually this is a sign of their honesty — "What is going on?" seems to be their frame of mind. The Greek word for "doubted" does not mean settled unbelief. These were committed followers — honest and hard working men. This was the first sighting after Jesus' resurrection. It took time to adjust. Jesus is more than willing to understand.

John Meier, in his commentary on St Matthew's Gospel (Matthew, J.P.Meier, Veritas Publications and Michael Glazier, 1980) tells us,

"We are not to ask why they doubted or how the doubt was overcome. Matthew is giving us a paradigm of what discipleship will always mean until the close of the age; believers caught between adoration and doubt."

Verse 18

So what is Jesus' response? It is the same as at the Transfiguration when the Shekinah surrounded the three disciples, and God spoke and they were afraid. Here they are stunned. So Jesus approaches them. A special word is used here as at the transfiguration. Note: Jesus is not departing. This whole section is a coming; an advance demonstration of his return. Jesus bridges the 'gap' so there is no distance. He speaks words not only of comfort but of supreme confidence in them! He is preparing them for when they will, in turn, face people who will also be doubting.

"And Jesus drew near and spoke to them saying, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me'."

He announces his total dominion as given by his Father. This means authority over everything or over every being. It is the only time in the whole Gospel that the term for "all authority" is used.

Verse 19

"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."

He commissions the eleven Apostles to go to all nations, make disciples of people anywhere who will listen and believe. No longer are they confined to Israel! Note "of all nations" means individuals not nations! They are sent forth baptising disciples into the name shared equally by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

"Disciples" means: people following Jesus by obeying his teaching, by accepting his fate of death and resurrection in their own life, and by proclaiming him to be who he is.

"Baptising" means:

  • washing them and plunging them:
  • into the name of the Trinity
  • into the bonds of family love which bind together not only Father, Son and Holy Spirit but also the members of the Church. i.e. God's Family.
  • Membership is open to all who choose to listen but there one more condition — (verse 20)

Verse 20

Our Lord continues his commissioning of his eleven Apostles by laying on them the most emphatic obligation of:

"teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…"

The disciples of Jesus will be observers of the smallest detail of his teaching which they will never learn unless they apply themselves with utmost "discipline."

There can be no doubt that Jesus speaks as the New Moses. The word for command is the same as in Matthew 5: 19 and 15: 3.

Matthew closes as he opened: "with you"! (See Matt 1: 23)

Notice Matthew's gospel ends with a beginning. Jesus does not ascend or depart but comes and remains. What follows is being written in the actions of Jesus' followers, and forms the history, culture and tradition of his faithful people.

So, those who are discipled, must not only be baptised, but taught; ie. they must have the teaching of Jesus passed on to them.

Five key ideas about this emerge:

(a) The focus is on Jesus' commands, not on Old Testament Law as such (though highly revered). It is also on what he said because he said it. Note here how Jesus sounds like God in the Old Testament.

(b) Nothing he has said will ever be outdated. Everything he has commanded must be passed on to the very end of the age.

What the disciples are to teach is not dogma merely as knowledge but dogma as content to obeyed and lived.

(c) The eye-witnesses are to become ear-witnesses and so begin an ongoing chain which includes us.

The teaching is an on-going obligation inherent in being a disciple: that is how Christianity is to spread or it will decay.

(d) So what does Jesus mean by "everything I have commanded you"?

Jesus went to great lengths to demonstrate that he was not finishing with God's way, or law, or teaching, or Torah or guidance, but bringing it to completion, restoring his ancient Word, renewing it.

(e) When he gave a new commandment it was as "old as the hills" (on which he spoke) but newly spoken by him.

Thus they were to teach what he has taught them because he has taught them: not abstract ideas but observance! This will not be welcomed by some moderns who call themselves Christian. If that is the case, let them read the Gospel accounts and respond as a humble disciple.

Verse 20 (b)

"And behold, I am with you to the close of the age."

By this he means to impart:

"You can be absolutely sure that I am with you to help and guide you on your way. As the Church moves ever further into time and space I will be with you. Before I was born the Angel called me Emmanuel, which means, God is with us. In me, God continues to keep his promise: and will do so until the end of time."

Conclusion

Jesus revealed the loving merciful character of God (for which he paid a price!)

He honoured and upheld the Holy Name of God who called himself "I am who am."

Jesus also revealed that he was one with "I am" whom he called Father, whose Name he held too sacred to pronounce, yet whose presence he insisted must be made accessible to all humanity. (Our website has this as one of its aims)

His parting intimation to the Apostles, to be passed on to all who would become his disciples in the future was: "You have been made to share in the very life and love of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Go forth and share this intimate revelation with all who will listen. You can be certain I am with you."

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