Read Matthew 28:16-20
Our Lord Jesus Christ is the mediator of the covenant of grace and in this passage we read of the commission that he gives to his eleven men. These men he had trained, discipled and equipped to continue the work of the gospel, as shepherds under the chief Shepherd. This appointed meeting took place in Galilee, sometime between the resurrection and the ascension. It is worth noting that this appointed commissioning meeting is one that is collegial not individual, with collective responsibility for what Christ is about to tell them.
From this passage we want to focus on three things;
Firstly that our Lord Jesus Christ is the head of the church;
Secondly by looking at the commands that are at the heart of this commission.
And thirdly to conclude with some final encouragement.
Hopefully we will all receive pastoral encouragement from this passage in order that we may leave today with a renewed vision for this great task of gospel ministry.
Our Lord Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church
Christ had executed his earthly ministry as prophet, priest and king.
As prophet he had revealed the ‘whole will of God’ concerning salvation.
As our merciful and faithful high priest he had made propitiation for the sins of his people (Heb. 2:17). This included his perfect, active obedience of the law of God and he had taken the guilt, shame and punishment of law-breaking in his own body on the tree. Through his triumphant bodily resurrection from the dead, he was declared to be the ‘Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness (Rom. 1:4)’.
Christ executes the office of king ‘by subduing us to himself, in ruling and defending us, and in restraining his and our enemies’ but also by ‘powerfully ordering all things for his own glory’ (WLC, Q 45).
In verse 16 we read that the eleven disciples went to the mountain in Galilee that ‘Jesus had directed them’ to. The Lord Jesus as the head of the church, models the principle of doing ‘all things decently and in order’. He had already told them in advance before his crucifixion in Matthew 26: 32, 'But after I am raised up I will go before you to Galileee'.
Also in the midst of the emotional turmoil of the events surrounding his crucifixion, an angel of the Lord at the empty tomb, graciously reminded the two Mary’s to tell the disciples and he said: ‘Behold he is going before you to Galilee, there you will see him’ (Matt 28:7). The risen Christ then appeared to the women as they were running to tell the disciples and Christ said to them: ‘Do not be afraid: go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me’ (Matt 28:10).
This meeting in Galilee between Christ and his disciples was no ordinary meeting.
In verse 17, Matthew records that when the Eleven did see him ‘they worshipped him, but some doubted’. There are different views on this passage but it records the fact of the situation and it provides pastoral encouragement to us all. How often our own worship is tarnished by doubts and how we can all relate to the man in the gospel’s, the father of the boy who was being convulsed, who then cried; “I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).
Jesus did not rebuke them but he came to them and gave words of great comfort.
In verse 18 Christ declares: ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me’. This was not a new revelation because the Eleven had witnessed first hand that he had power over the ‘wind and waves’, the laws of gravity, sickness and demons, and now with his resurrection even death itself. In Matthew 11: 27 Christ had taught them that ‘all things have been handed over to me by my father’; he had proclaimed that he would ‘build his church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it’; and in the Garden of Gethsemane at his arrest he had explained that ‘more than twelve legions of angels could be sent at once by his Father (Matt 26:53)’.
Let us stop, pause and meditate on the extent, the magnitude and the majesty of the authority of our head of the church; none other than the Lord Jesus Christ! This is most likely related to the fulfillment of Daniel’s vision in Chapter Seven;
I saw in the night visions and behold with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the ancient of days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him (7:14).
The commission that Christ now gives to his disciples flows from the finished work of the exalted Christ and Psalm 110:1 especially comes to mind: The Lord says to my Lord: Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool’.
The New Covenant Commission (or Great Commission)
What are the instructions given in this great commission or ‘new covenant commission’? There are four main directions given by Christ to his men and these are ‘going’; ‘making disciples of all nations’; ‘baptising’; and ‘teaching’.
This is connected to the ‘making of disciples’ of all nations. They were not expected to stay on this mountain in Galilee for quiet devotion but they were commanded to go even to the ‘ends of the earth’. These instructions were not passive but they required an obedience that is outward-moving, dynamic and extending to all nations. This is no static commission; and truly it takes faith to obey Christ.
Today in the UK in 2010 we have ‘all nations’ on our doorstep and irrespective of their apparent resistance to the gospel, we are lovingly to pray for a harvest among them so that our churches can represent the cities where we live.
B. Making Disciples
While it is true that the main imperatival force lies in ‘making disciples’ this task is interwoven into everything else that Christ requires of his apostles. The context of the passage means that these four key activities are inseparable; and this also reminds us of the central themes of Christian ministry.
What is a disciple? A disciple is a learner and a follower. Disciples of Christ joyfully take ‘his yoke upon them’, they are to ‘learn from Christ’, they ‘find rest for their souls’ (Matt. 11:28-30) and in their following him, their aim is to be like him (Matt 10:24).
Christ has given himself as a ‘ransom’ and he has purchased the church with his own blood, therefore those who engage in this honorable task of ‘making disciples’ need encouragement and but also a reminder of the gravity and soberness of this ongoing work.
Making disciples involves the application of truth for the whole of life and all of a disciples life.
The sacraments are at the heart of this commission. Our Lord had instituted the Lord’s Supper in Matthew 26 and now the second sacrament of the new covenant is to be seen as integral to the churches responsibility, namely baptism. While the Lord’s Supper particularly celebrates our ‘union and communion with Christ’, our baptism declares our ‘ingrafting into Christ’, our partaking in the benefits of the covenant of grace and our engagement to to be the Lord’s.
Note that the Triune God is an unbreakable thread in every stage of redemption, not least the ongoing ministry of Christ, through the church. It is the singular name and the three persons each have the definite article; the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Our God is unique and distinct from all other gods. One God, Three persons, of the same substance, equal in power and glory. Our leading of disciples to worship the Triune God publicly, in the mediation of Christ alone, is something vital to the making of disciples in the church of God.
D. Teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you
This teaching is not to be theoretical but it must lead to practical holiness; ‘Obeying all I have commanded you’.
Teaching ‘all I have commanded you’: Other phrases are used elsewhere in the NT to lay stress on the importance of not leaving out vital aspects of biblical teaching. In Acts Chapter Two the Jerusalem Church devoted themselves to ‘the apostles’ doctrine’ (Acts 2:42); Paul spoke of not shunning to declare ‘the whole counsel of God’ to the Ephesian Church elders (Acts 20: 27). This is why the Westminster Standards are so valuable to us and it does not pay us to neglect their clarity of expression. Also we can study the standards to examine ourselves that we are not missing out vital aspects of gospel doctrine. For example we may read the Standards afresh and realise that it has been a long time since the doctrine of adoption has come through in a sermon.
Calvin in writing his dedicatory epistle to his commentary on the book of Acts maintains this aspect of the Great Commission and he asserts that ‘purity of doctrine is the soul of the church ... discipline ... the sinews (Acts I: xxi).
3. Final Encouragement
The apostle Paul asks the rhetorical question: ‘Who is sufficient for these things? (2 Cor. 2:16)’. I certainly feel my great inadequacy as I write this article. We all go through different seasons in life and ministry, faithfully plodding on ‘in season and out of season’. However let us remind ourselves today of this mighty covenant promise or rather covenant certainty: ‘I am with you always, to the end of the age’. These words would no doubt have been ringing in the disciples’ ears that night, as they put their heads on the pillow to try to sleep. ‘I am with you always, even to the end of the age’.
No matter what circumstances you are in today in your church this covenant promise is heart-warming. If you need wisdom for a new building due to recent growth, Christ says ‘I am with you always’ and he will guide you. Perhaps you face a different situation and you are fed up with persistent pastoral problems, a lack of converts and on top of that constant financial pressure, be reminded Christ is with you always! In all of our feelings of weakness, inadequacy and insufficiency the apostle Paul also adds that ‘our sufficiency is from God (2 Cor. 3:5)’.
Finally, no matter what ministerial pressure or discouragement you face, our ‘slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Cor. 4:17)’. This promise is eternal ‘even to the end of the age’ and therefore it points us to the new heaven and the new earth.
As you finish reading this article today, I hope that you will mediate on this promise ‘I am with you always even to the end of the age’. Christ is our Immanuel in the church today, in our continuation of Christ’s ministry on earth, but also for all eternity, he will never leave us or forsake us.