How is a nation established? What makes it great? In Matthew 28:16–20 Jesus gives his disciples — and you — the instructions and formula for building a lasting kingdom.
Jesus fulfills the good news. The Great Commission is the conclusion of the Gospel. Notice the repeated geographic emphasis on Galilee. Here Jesus had begun his public ministry, Matthew 4:12. Here he had
preached the Sermon on the Mount and performed many miracles. Then in Matthew 16:21 he begins his journey towards Jerusalem to suffer, be betrayed, and die. He not only promises his disciples that following his suffering he will meet them in Galilee, that’s emphasized in the resurrection account. Now he is returning to Galilee, triumphant over even the power of Satan and death itself. The focus on the nations and the promise to be with his disciples brings to mind the covenant relationship established with Abraham. Matthew 1:1 references Abraham prominently. Now the promise to Abraham that all the nations will be blessed is being fulfilled.
Jesus ties together the whole Old Testament. As Jesus speaks to his disciples, he is drawing together all of the Old Testament. The promise to Abraham is fulfilled. But also, here is the Son of Man, no longer subject to pain, suffering and death, but triumphant over the grave. Jesus is claiming to be what Daniel 7 prophesied — all authority in heaven and earth has been given to him. This is not just that Jesus is eternally the omnipotent God, true though that is. Here is an additional authority given to him as the triumphant Redeemer. He has earned this as he died and rose for you and all his people. His presence gives the strength and confidence you need ot serve him. All the things symbolized in the ceremonial and sacrificial system pointed forward to and were fulfilled in him. He is the one of whom the prophets spoke. Not only does Jesus have all power, he empowers his church. “[T]his power [of the church] is spiritual. That does not mean it is invisible and completely internal, for though Christ is a spiritual king, he rules over both body and soul. His Word and sacrament are directed toward the whole person. The ministry of mercy must even alleviate primarily the physical needs of humans. But when the power of the church is called spiritual, that signifies that it has been given by the Holy Spirit of God (Acts 20:28) and can only be exercised in the name of Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit….” (Herman Ridderbos, Reformed Dogmatics, pages 414–415)
Jesus points you forward. Although it is built on what has happened, the Great Commission points you forward. It is addressed directly to the 11 disciples, but not to them as individuals, but rather as a group. It is for the apostles and for the church built on the foundation of the apostles. Here Jesus is telling the church what she is supposed to be doing from that day until when he returns as the end of the age.
Listen and go! Pay attention to your instructions. The response to the appearance of the risen Christ is to worship him. The doubt of some may have been questioning just what had happened. Could Jesus really be alive? The Gospel has already told us of the fear, mixed with joy of the women who came to the tomb. Matthew emphasizes the fact of Jesus speaking to the disciples. It’s not merely, “Jesus sad…,” but “he came, and speaking, said.” This is the Lord giving explicit instructions. It begins with the command to go. Jesus had called the disciples from their various occupations. Now, after three and a half years with him, now with him about to ascend, they are not simply to return home an take up commercial fishing in the Sea of Galilee or whatever. They are commissioned as his messengers. They are told to make disciples. The eleven have just been described with that term, but they are now becoming disciple makers. Of course, their task is not to make people follow them, but rather, followers of Jesus. They are told to baptize. Although there had been various ceremonial cleansings in the Old Teastament described as baptisms, and though John had baptized as a sign of repentance, this is baptism into (the preposition is significant) the name of the triune God. Abraham had been given circumcision as the sign and seal of the covenant in the Old Testament. Now, in the New, a different seal marks those who become part of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. And in this church there is to be ongoing teaching, teaching those who are in Christ to live that way. Abraham, the man of faith, was called to walk in obedience, Genesis 17:1; 18:18–19. As a believer in Christ, you need to be what you are.
Carry out the Great Commission. These instructions of Jesus were not just for the 11. Rather, they continue as long as the promised presence of the Lord — until the end of the age. These instructions are given to the church, and it is the church that is responsible for carrying out those tasks. While certainly individual believes are and should be involved, obeying the Great Commission is something we do together as a body (including the church on the local, regional, and national levels). Do look for opportunities to tell people about Jesus. But you are not failing as a Christian if you haven’t tried to witness to three people yesterday. Christian service is obeying Christ, glorifying him in all that you do, at work, in school, in your home.
Expect to accomplish great things. The task may seem overwhelming. You might wonder why the ascended Christ did not commission Gabriel and a host of angels to carry out this work. But he has given it to his church. We can expect, given the presence of the Lord, success. We should not be surprised that, as we look at church history, the church grew and spread, and is now indeed world-wide. What tools did Jesus give the church? What means serve to accomplish this great task? He equipped believers to serve him. In the early church believers were described by the world with, “See, how they love one another!” In a culture that considered unwanted children disposable, Christians rescued and adopted abandoned babies. Without being the movers and shakers of society, Christians used a big book, a little wine, a little bread, and some water. With what we have come to call the ordinary means of grace, Christ enabled his church to do extraordinary things. The kingdom that he proclaimed in his parables is still present, for he is still King. “In Matthew, discipling the nations includes the activity of both the apostles and, by implication, the postapostolic church as it builds on that apostolic foundation by faithfully ministering it.” “Worldwide gospel preaching, what constitutes the church (cf. Matt. 28:18–20), is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and,, as such, is itself a kingdom phenomenon. That preaching, Jesus wants the apostles to understand, is in the interest of the expansion of the kingdom. The church, in its life history, does not represent some kind of non-kingdom state of affairs; it is not in any sense a postponement or parenthesis so far as kingdom fulfillment is concerned.” (Richard B. Gaffin Jr., In the Fullness of Time: An Introduction to the Biblical Theology of Acts and Paul, pages 55, 89–90) That is the church in the world. It is our church. It is you and me. And it continues to serve the Lord until the next event in redemptive history arrives — the end of the age when the Lord returns.
Listen to Jesus’ final command recorded in Matthew’s Gospel. Listen, and carry out your marching orders, for he is with you!