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April 1978 · Vol. 7 No. 2 · pp. 33–35 

Hearing the Word

The Great Commission

Howard J. Loewen

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age (Matthew 28:18-20).

To hear God’s word in this text, we must understand that it is no mere appendage loosely attached to the end of the first gospel but is an integral part of its entire message.

Verses 18-20 are the concluding discourse of a whole series of discourses by Jesus in Matthew (chapters 5-7, 10, 13, 18, 24-25). A number of Matthew’s earlier themes converge in this conclusion.

Moreover, verses 18-20 are an integral part of the burial and resurrection account. Here the disciples, who had earlier fled his presence (26:1-45), are portrayed as the faithful ones who return to hear the final word of their risen Lord.

Finally verses 18-20, in their most immediate setting (vv. 16-17), must be understood in the light of the disciples’ return to Galilee, where Jesus began his ministry. Appropriately, they meet Jesus at the mountain, which for Matthew is a place of divine revelation (5:1; 15:29; 17:1-8). And here, in “Galilee of the Gentiles” (4:12-16), they receive their Lord’s commission to a universal mission, a commission which must continue to be given by the risen Lord himself.


The commission which Jesus as risen Lord gives to his disciples is best understood in Matthew in terms of a threefold division.

1. The Statement of Christ’s Authority (v. 18). The opening statement, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” echoes Daniel 7:13f., in which the power and glory of the exalted Son of Man is displayed. Two emphases should be noted: (a) the authority of Jesus has been given to him by the Father (Matt. {34} 11:27) and in his conclusion Matthew once again recognizes that unique authority (cf. 7:29; 9:8, 26; 21:23); (b) the authority originally given to Christ by the Father within his earthly calling is now his absolutely as the risen Lord: all authority in heaven and earth (v. 18), all the nations (v. 19), all the days (v. 20). This emphasis clearly reflects the exaltation christology of the New Testament (e.g., Eph. 1: 21f.; Phil. 2:9f.; Col. 1:15f.) and explicitly provides the basis for the commission that follows. The victorious and exalted wielder of absolute authority stands behind the commission, guaranteeing its success and thus reassuring his uncertain disciples (v. 17b).

2. The Command to Make Disciples (vv. 19-20a). The grammatical center of the commission and of the entire passage is the imperative “to disciple.” The two activities of “baptizing” and “teaching” are essential parts of the discipling process.

“Discipling” is a characteristic emphasis of Matthew (cf. 13:52; 27:57; 28:19). The meaning in Jewish thought is best illustrated from the rabbi-student relationship. The student observed and imitated the words and actions of the teacher and then passed on what the master taught. Thus Jesus’ disciples continue his ministry.

“Baptizing” was an essential part of the discipling task. Of special significance is being baptized “in the name” or, better, “into the name,” of the Father-Son-Holy Spirit. This is no mere liturgical formula but signifies incorporation into the fellowship of God. Baptism is an entrance into a community of believers which is accompanied by certain rights and obligations. Matthew’s focus on the church as a fellowship of obedience is explicitly discussed in 16:17-19 and 18:15-17. Both of these passages instruct us regarding binding and loosing and of authority and forgiveness—in short, in being a disciplined community. According to Matthew, the missionary task of the “disciple” cannot be divorced from the building of a “discipled” fellowship of believers. That, in fact, is the purpose of the church’s mission.

“Teaching” is also an integral part of the mission of the church. Throughout Matthew, Jesus is portrayed as an authoritative teacher. The task of the church is to pass on “all that I have commanded you.” All of Jesus’ words and deeds as recorded in Matthew come into the orb of that statement. This includes the content of the major teaching sections: the Sermon on the Mount (5-7), the mission of the twelve (10), the parables (13), on authority and forgiveness (18), and regarding the future (24-25). And it includes all the deeds of Jesus recorded in the narrative material between these discourses. And this is no mere teaching-as-information, for it is a teaching to observe the commandments. {35} Christian mission and community exist only where Jesus’ commands are observed.

3. The Promise of Christ’s Presence (v. 20b). We are reminded again that the task of discipling through baptizing and teaching cannot be divorced from the power and presence of the risen Lord. In the last statement of the commission we have an emphatic affirmation of the risen Christ’s immediate presence for the church in its mission. This overwhelming truth serves as a fitting conclusion of the commission of Jesus and to the entire gospel of Matthew, for the theme recurs throughout. At Christ’s birth, he is called “Emmanuel (which means, God with us)” (1:23). During Christ’s ministry he promised his disciples the truth of Emmanuel; “Where two or three are gathered in my name there am I in the midst of them” (18:20). And now, after Christ’s resurrection, the presence of God among his people is consciously applied to the risen Lord who is ever present to the discipling community. The gospel begins and ends with Emmanuel, a fact which cannot be viewed apart from the coming of the power-giving Spirit at Pentecost.

Finally, Jesus’ promise to be with the discipling community to the close of the age is consistent with Matthew’s characteristic understanding of the end times (13:39f., 49; 24:3; 28:20). Such a church becomes an integral part of the end time expectation because it brings a foretaste of the future into the present while it serves as chosen messenger in the interim which precedes the consummation of all things in Christ.


When interpreted in the light of its Matthean context, the Great Commission shows us that the universal mission of the church

  • is empowered by the risen and exalted Lord, whose continual presence in the church reassures the community of believers,
  • involves the baptism of disciples into a disciplined community engaged in the redemptive activities of authority and forgiveness,
  • entails instruction to observe all that Jesus taught in word and deed (such a ministry clearly minimizes such false polarities as proclamation or presence, evangelization or social concern, church growth or Christian nurture), and
  • is carried forward until the final consummation in a discipling and disciplined community which is itself a foretaste of the things to come.
Dr. Howard Loewen is Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Pacific College, Fresno.

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