The Great Commission

Trinity Year B

Matthew 28: 16 20

Introduction

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

Some Notes On The Text

Verse 16

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go.

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. This is a key understanding we need to have if we are to appreciate how the first Jewish Christians saw themselves as assuming the primary role of passing on the essence of the Jewish culture and faith. They saw their fellow Jews who rejected Jesus as betraying Judaism and establishing their own path of separate development.

Verse 17

When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.

We need to recall that this is the first time (in this Gospel account) that the Apostles had seen Jesus since his resurrection. Quite naturally some experienced reservations about what they were seeing!

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. Since this was the first sighting after Jesus resurrection, it took time to adjust. Jesus is more than willing to understand. So, what is Jesus' response?

The response of Jesus is the same as at the Transfiguration when the Shekinah surrounded the three disciples. God spoke and they were afraid. Here they are stunned. So Jesus approaches them. This is consistent with his compassionate and caring attitude towards his closest friends.

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 that there is no distance. He speaks words not only of comfort but of supreme confidence in them! All the time Jesus is preparing them for when they will, in turn, face people who will also be doubting. He is assuring them, "I will be with you. I have come. I'm here to stay".

Verses 18 19

Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

He then commissions the disciples to go to all nations, and 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! Baptising them into the name shared equally by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Baptising means:

  • plunging them
  • into the centre 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 and respond with their whole hearts. But there is one more condition — (verse 20).

Verse 20

..and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."

The condition is teaching them "to obey everything I have commanded you", i.e. to be observant. There can be no doubt Jesus speaks as the New Moses. Jesus requires religious observance. The word for command is the same as in Matthew 5: 19 and 15: 3.

This idea of obeying everything Jesus taught is one of the least adhered to by many who call themselves Christian, even those who like to label themselves Bible Christians or full gospel Christians. We cannot avoid confronting this major demand of Jesus.

Notice Matthew ends with a beginning. He does not ascend or depart but comes and remains. What follows is being written in the actions of Jesus' followers.

Those who are discipled, must not only be baptised, but also taught what he taught. We focus on some key ideas about this notion.

  • The focus is to be on Jesus' commands, not on Old Testament Law as such: it is also on what he said because he said it.

Note here how Jesus sounds like God in the Old Testament:

  • belonging
  • sharing life, and
  • intimacy as each serves the other.
  • Nothing he has said will ever be outdated. Everything he has commanded must be passed on to the consummation of the world. Since the Scriptures do not contain everything that Jesus taught (John 21: 25) the Apostles and those whom they authorise are the channel by which this will occur.

What the future disciples are to teach is not just dogma as knowledge (important though that remains) but also content to obeyed.

  • The eyewitnesses are to become earwitnesses and so begin an ongoing chain which has come down to include us.

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

  • 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.

When he gave a new commandment, while in one sense it was as "old as the hills" never-the-less it was newly spoken by him.

Thus they were to teach what he has taught them because he has taught them: not abstract ideas but observance!

And he adds:

"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 — '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 honored and upheld the Holy Name of God who named himself to Moses as, 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 must be accessible to all humanity for their spiritual growth and wellbeing.

(Our website has this as one of its aims)

Our Lord says to us, in effect:

"You too are made in God's image and reflect the Triune God's own being. You are body and soul. 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 will be with you."

A Final Thought

So unreservedly did the Christians of the first few centuries trust in our Lord and his promise to be with them when they gave witness, that they we enabled to suffer horrific Martyrdom for the Lord. Here we have the example of St Peter Balsam (A.D. 311) to inspire us. Note how, in his agony, he follows our Lord's example and quotes from the Psalms:

(a) Psalm 27: 4 and

(b) Psalm 116: 13.

St Peter Balsam

Peter Balsam, a native of the territory of Eleutheropolis, in Palestine, was apprehended at Aulane, in the persecution of Maximinus. Being brought before Severus, governor of the province, the interrogatory began by asking him his name. 
Peter answered:-

"Balsam is the name of my family; but I received that of Peter in baptism."

Severus "Of what family, and of what country are you?"

Peter "I am a Christian."

Severus "What is your employ?"

Peter "What employ can I have more honourable, or what better thing can I do in the world, than to live a Christian?"

Severus "Do you know the imperial edicts?"

Peter "I know the laws of God, the sovereign of the universe.'

Severus "You shall quickly know that there is an edict of the most clement emperors, commanding all to sacrifice to the gods, or be put to death."

Peter "You will also know one day that there is a law of the eternal king, proclaiming that every one shall perish, who offers sacrifice to devils: which do you counsel me to obey, and which, do you think, should be my option; to die by your sword, or to be condemned to everlasting misery, by the sentence of the great king, the true God ?"

Severus "Seeing you ask my advice, it is then that you obey the edict, and sacrifice to the gods."

Peter "I can never be prevailed upon to sacrifice to gods of wood and stone, as those are which you adore."

Severus "I would have you know, that it is in my power to revenge these affronts by your death."

Peter "I had no intention to affront you. I only expressed what is written in the divine law."

Severus "Have compassion on yourself and sacrifice."

Peter "If I am truly compassionate to myself, I ought not to sacrifice."

Severus "My desire is to use lenity; I therefore still allow you time to consider with yourself, that you may save your life."

Peter "This delay will be to no purpose, for I shall not alter my mind; do now what you will be obliged to do soon, and complete the work, which the devil, your father, has begun; for I will never do what Jesus Christ forbids me."

Severus, on hearing these words, ordered him to be hoisted on the rack, and whilst he was suspended in the air, said to him scoffing: "What say you now, Peter; do you begin to know what the rack is? Are you yet willing to sacrifice?" Peter answered: "Tear me with iron hooks, and talk not of my sacrificing to your devils: I have already told you, that I will sacrifice to that God alone for whom I suffer." Hereupon the governor commanded his tortures to be redoubled. The martyr, far from fetching the least sigh, sang with alacrity those verses of the royal prophet: "One thing I have asked of the Lord: this will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life" — (a). "I will take the chalice of salvation, and will call upon the name of the Lord" — (b). The governor called forth fresh executioners to relieve the first, now fatigued. The spectators seeing the martyr's blood run down in streams, cried out to him: "Obey the emperors: sacrifice, and rescue yourself from these torments." Peter replied: " Do you call these torments? I, for my part, feel no pain: but this I know, that if I am not faithful to my God, I must expect real pains, such as cannot be conceived." The judge also said: "Sacrifice, Peter Balsam, or you will repent it".

Peter "Neither will I sacrifice, nor shall I repent it."

Severus "I am just ready to pronounce sentence."

Peter "It is what I most earnestly desire."

Severus then dictated the sentence in this manner: "It is our order, that Peter Balsam, for having refused to obey edict of the invincible emperors, and having contemned our commands, after obstinately defending the law of a man crucified, be himself nailed to a cross." Thus it was that this glorious martyr finished his triumph, at Aulane, on the 3rd of January, on which day he is honoured in the Roman Martyrology, and that of Bede.

In the example of the martyrs we see, that religion alone inspires true constancy and heroism, and affords solid comfort and joy amidst the most terrifying dangers, calamities, and torments. It spreads calm throughout a man's whole life consoles at all times. He that is united to God, rests in omnipotence, and in wisdom and goodness; he is reconciled with the world whether it frowns or flatters, and with himself. The interior peace which he enjoys, is the foundation of happiness, and the delights which innocence and virtue bring, abundantly compensate the loss of the base pleasures of vice. Death itself, so terrible to the worldly man, is the saint's crown, and completes his joy and his bliss.

(From Butler's "Lives of The Saints")

Note: 
The above term, "martyrology" is a traditional term meaning an official register of Christian martyrs. Some martyrologies e.g. the very early records at Rome were rather like calendars (such as A D 354) which listed the saints' names generally on their heavenly birthday, i.e. the day of their departure from this world. They were understood to be taken immediately before the Throne of God.

The Martyrology of St Bede (around A D 730) contained historical material of the lives of the saints named in it.

The Roman Martyrology remains in daily use and commemorates the lives and sacrifice of those who were unyielding in following their Saviour's command:

"Seek ye first the Kingdom of God"

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