The better known a passage of Scripture is, the more likely it is that most Christians will fail to appreciate the larger context that informs it. We may all be familiar with Jesus’s teaching that “God so loved the world” (John 3:16), but we may not understand what it has to do with Nicodemus (John 3:1ff) or the snake being lifted up in the wilderness (John 3:14–15). Believers teach their children the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:3–17), but do those children know what those instructions have to do with God’s mighty deliverance of Israel (Ex. 20:2)?
Perhaps no passage in Scripture suffers from this kind of contextual excision as does the so-called Great Commission in Matthew 28. If you ask most Christians what the Great Commission says, they’ll begin with Jesus’s commandment that believers should go and make disciples, baptizing and teaching them. But look at what Jesus says immediately before and after the parts we typically trot out during “Missions Week” at church:
And Jesus came and said to them, “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 behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:18–20)
The context here is one of Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances to his disciples. At the risk of stating the obvious, everything Jesus says here depends on the fact he’s very much alive. A dead teacher cannot send his disciples, but these words coming from a living Lord. And so as he commissions them to disciple the nations, he tells them two important things.
First, the risen Christ declares that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him. Back in the book of Daniel, the prophet had seen a vision of the Son of Man coming before the Ancient of Days:
And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. (Dan. 7:14)
You can hardly imagine a more direct and striking claim for Jesus. He’s telling his disciples that what Daniel saw centuries ago has now come to pass. This is the reality that stands behind the familiar “therefore” at beginning of the charge; Jesus has all authority; therefore, the disciples should make new disciples as they go out into the world.
Second, Jesus completes his commission with the promise of his presence. He assures his disciples that as they go, he will be with them in every place and every time and every circumstance. Imagine how the disciples were feeling at this moment: Jesus had returned from the dead, but he would soon leave them again. The thought of going out into the world without their teacher and friend would have been devastating. How sweet Jesus’s promise would have been in their ears: he would not be with them physically, but they would not be alone! He would go with them always, until the work is completed and they’re physically reunited at the end of the age.
The authority and presence of Jesus has tremendous implications for the way that we think about going through our world and making disciples:
- The world we enter is a place where every person, location, and thing is under the authority of the risen Christ. We will never step on a speck of dust or speak to a human being over whom Jesus does not claim to have authority. As his disciples, our task is simply to call people to acknowledge the authority Jesus has been given by his Father.
- It is Jesus’s idea that we go. We live in a world where polite people don’t impose their private beliefs on others. So few things seem more offensive than the idea of a systematic effort to convince others to conform to our religious convictions. But there is nothing private about Christianity. When Jesus declares he has all authority, he is saying everyone everywhere is accountable to him. This is why we teach others to obey all that Jesus commanded! We aren’t acting on our own authority or spreading personal opinions; we are acting as appointed mouthpieces for the ruler of the universe.
- As we go, we have confidence that the mission will succeed. Jesus isn’t in heaven hoping we do a really good job so things might work out well in the end. No, Jesus has all authority in heaven and earth and therefore can and will ensure his salvation spreads over the entire world.
You can see how this well-known Great Commission must be carried out in light of its immediate textual context. Jesus doesn’t just tell us to go and make disciples; he reminds us first of his power and his presence. How anemic and feeble our witness will be if we don’t understand that our King has all authority in heaven and on earth. And how tentative and timid our discipling will be if we fail to go in confidence that he will always be with us.