Rethinking the Great Commission

In response to Timothy Beougher’s article “Must Every Christian Evangelize?” I should have titled this post, “the difference between the elder’s calling to evangelize and laity’s mandate to witness,” but who has time to write that book. Instead I decided to stick to dealing with the major concern, the Great Apostles Commission and the theological importance that it has on the Church today. I am by no means arguing that laity are not called to be a witness, but the question that must be asked with dealing with such issues is this, how does one get anything about lay evangelism from Jesus Christ’s Commission to his Apostles? The apostles were officers, they were not laity. Matthew 28:18-20 reads,

“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.” 

The-CommissionOne of the more popular passages of the Scripture within Evangelicalism is what is commonly known as the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:18-20. At times this particular commission serves as the foundation for Evangelicalism and other cross-cultural mission work. More recently in the past century American evangelicalism has embraced the need to see that all Christians, of all generations must carry out this particular commission more so than others. Often times the Great Commission is used as the vision or mission statement in various Evangelical ministries. Some of these ministries may include private education, missionary organizations, and various para-church ministries. The unfortunate mishap of these organizations is that the majority of them misinterpret the Great Commission, limiting its original meaning and intent for the Church of Christ. Jesus’ command to teach disciples and baptize whole nations has been replaced by various educational, missionary, and para-church ministries. This gives the aim of this problematic passage paper – an examination of Matthew 28:16-20 and understanding its original meaning and significance for the officers of the Church.

Most commonly Evangelicals see that the Great Commission gives the case for lay evangelism within the Church. How this goes about being carried out within the Church is where Evangelicals lose the theology of the Commission. The most common misinterpretations of the Great Commission can be found in a number of various evangelical ministries that claim to help serve the Church, but in such cases stop and rob the Church of what it is called to do. Of all places, it is in Christian education as well – in private elementary and high schools, college and universities, to higher education like seminaries that commonly mistaken and misinterpret Matthew 28:18-20 using it as the goal of their institution.

Background Information
Offering an historical biography of the person and work of Jesus Christ, the Gospel According to Matthew covers a historical time period from 4 B.C – 33 A.D. As the prophets of old predicted, long awaited the coming Messiah who would come to save their people, Matthew serves Israel’s long awaited event. The promise of a redeemer from Adam (Genesis 3:15), the awaited Redeemer of Job (19:25), the day Abraham rejoiced to see (John 8:56), the reward Moses waited to see (Hebrews 11:24-26), the awaited resurrection of David (2:29-31), and “the prophets who prophesied about the grace” in Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:8), has now come in the flesh, to earth, to “not come to abolish them but to fulfill them (Matthew 5:17). This brings much light for the reason of Matthews gospel account, written by a Jew, to the Jews that may represent the questions of Israel pertaining whether or not Jesus was who he said he was, namely Israel’s long awaited Messiah.

The Church has traditionally connected the Gospel of Matthew to the authorship of Matthew, once named Levi (Mark 2:14), once tax collector in Palestine (Matthew 9:9), and better known as a discipline of Jesus Christ (Mark 2:15). Baker Illustrated Bible Handbook makes note of this accepted tradition of authorship by referring to “the early Christian leader Papias said that ‘Matthew composed the logia in the Hebrew language and everyone interpreted them as best they could’ (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3.39.16).” In reference to the type of translation Papias makes mention, “Hebrew language.” It is important to note that no Aramaic gospel of Matthew has been found, and most scholars agree that Matthew is not a greek translation of an Aramaic original. Furthermore both Drs. Wilkinson and Boa have made mention that, “some believe that Matthew wrote an abbreviated version of Jesus’ is saying in Aramaic before writing his gospel in Greek for a larger circle of readers.” Matthew’s gospel account is the only reference to refer to Matthew as a tax collector (Matthew 10:3). Some scholars have noted that a constant theme of money is woven in and throughout his gospel account. One example of this would be the only account of Jesus paying the temple tax can be found in the Gospel according to Matthew. For most scholars, the dating of the Gospels can be hard to track down, and a precise date of the writing of the account is not known. Scholars have argued for a vast difference in dating between 40 A.D. to 140 A.D, while others (post-millennial) argue for a more specific dating at 70 A.D. Dr. Michael J. Wilkins with explanation of this stance, “for a date later than the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, since Jesus alludes to this event in 24:1-28. Of course, such a conclusion is warranted only if one denies Jesus’s ability to predict the future. In light of Irenaeus’s assertion that Matthew composed his Gospel while Peter and Paul were still living it is traditionally dated to the late 50s or early 60s.” Some critics have taken the argument that Matthew relies heavily upon Mark’s earlier written account of Jesus Christ. If this is true, then Matthew would follow the dating of the Gospel According to Mark after 58 A.D. One can conclude from its authorship, Christ prophesying of future events, relationship with Mark’s Gospel, and its audience that the Gospel According to Matthew is written between 58 – 70 A.D. and “may have been written in Palestine or Syrian Antioch.”

A most striking feature of Matthew’s account is that a “60 percent of Matthew’s 1,071 verses contain the spoken word of Jesus.” Thus, Matthew lays out his account of Christ in a way that relates to his readers – discourses, miracles, parables, and questions. Something that his readers, the Jewish community would have been quite familiar with during its time, thus making Matthew the most Jewish gospel of the four. Dr. Wilkins points out, “many scholars have suggested that the prominent church in Antioch of Syria, whose members included both Jewish and Gentile Christians, was the intended audience of Matthew’s Gospel.” This thought comes from the influence that Matthew’s Gospel had on the early church father Ignatius, an early church bishop of Antioch. As one scholar has pointed out, “Matthew is very concerned to show that Jesus is the long-awaited Jewish Messiah who fulfills God’s promises made to Israel,” making one of the central themes of Matthews account the Kingship of Jesus Christ, the one whom Israel awaited.

Geographical & Historical Context
For most theologians, the assumption is that the author of the gospel wrote his account to meet the needs of those in their area. This is not the case for Matthew’s account. D.A. Carson comments on this issue making reference to Matthew’s geographical location saying, “there is a prima facie realism… that Matthew was working  in the centers of large Jewish populations… since the book betrays so many Jewish features,” tying together Matthew’s historical and geographical background with its audience to the Jewish people. Throughout Matthew’s account there are different types of prominent Jewish customs and traditions, without their explanation. Thus his readers of his account would have been familiar with that which they read during his writing. One cannot suggest that Matthew’s account was for only Jewish readers. D.A. Carson writes, “but it is not implausible to suggest that Matthew wrote his gospel with certain kinds of readers in mind, rather than their geographic location.” Carson goes on to add that “tensions between Jews and Christians must have been high when this book was written.” One reason for such a claim is that while Matthew’s gospel account assumes and includes much Jewish culture, it includes at times common Church order that was happening during his authorship.

The Great Commission in its early context can help shed light and give a reader much aid in properly interpreting its meaning. Robert Thomas has done this when it comes to studying the Great Commission passage. Dr. Thomas when beginning to take a look at the Great Commission comments, “A comparison of the early church’s handling of the Commission lays a historical foundation for proceeding through various periods to see the similarities and differences. A century-by-century survey of the ancient church reflects how the early fathers responded to Jesus’ parting commission.” It is evident from the 2nd and 3rd centuries that the ancient church father’s agreed, and took the Great Commission seriously within the New Covenant Church. Of the many historical church fathers that wrote on the topic, two of them are worth making mention, Ignatius and Tertullian. Ignatius writes on the Commission, “Wherefore also the Lord, when he sent forth the apostles to make disciples of all nations, commanded them to “baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,” not unto one [person] having three names, nor into three [persons] who became incarnate, but into three possessed of equal honor.”

While the focus of Ignatius writing here is placed upon being baptized in the name of the trinity, one can see by whom the administration of the baptism is done. Ignatius saw that it was the apostles that were commissioned to carry out the word and deed. Tertullian follows the thought of Ignatius when he writes regrading Jesus’ instructions to the apostles, “Accordingly, after one of these had been struck off, He commanded the eleven others on His departure to the Father, to “go and teach all nations, who were to be baptized into the Father, and into the Son, and into the Holy Ghost.” While both church fathers agree that the Commission was an historical event having meaning for the Church, they also agree with one another that this historical event was closely related with it being designated to specifically the apostles, and what they were to carry out, namely the preaching of the word, and sacraments.

Information on Textual Problems
One of the largest textual problems that lie in the Great Commission is who exactly the Commission extends to. While commentators Ignatius and Tertullian make mention who the recipients of the Great Commission are, how does the end of the text “and behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” fit within the interpretation that Christ’s Great Commission was the Apostles Commission? Here lies one of the largest separations between New Covenant believers interpretation of the Commission.  Is the (Great) Commission for the whole of the Church, or to the (Apostles) Officers of the Church? As one great Dutch theologian has commentated on this question,

“His (Jesus) authority is manifested in… the means of Grace which the church must administer, namely, the word and the sacraments, Matthew 28:19-20. In these matters no one else has the right to legislate.” Louis Berkhof saw that Christ’s Commission was the Apostles ordination. The keys of the Kingdom of God were passed from the authority of Jesus Christ to the Apostles, to carry out the duties of the New Testament Church, namely making disciples (preaching) and baptizing (sacraments). Louis Berkhof goes further in his explanation, “he gave to the church its constitution and officers, and with divine authority, so that they can speak and act in his name.” This one sees the first officers of the New Covenant being ordained as officers of the New Testament administration of the Church, given authority and power, and what duties they are to carry out.

Grammar and Syntax
The giving of the (Great) Commission has been debated throughout Christendom  and gives much weight to how a Church practices its evangelism, or goes about its witness. Specially the debate lays to whom exactly was the commission directed to and who are its beneficiaries? Exegetically breaking down the text will help one see its original meaning and application to the question above.

Verses 16
 “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee” shows that during this commission only some of Jesus’ disciples were present. As Dr. Freeman has made mention concerning this, “the phrase ‘the eleven disciples’ is a reminder of the tragedy of Judas’ failure and subsequent suicide.” The fact that the disciples went on to Galilee shows two points of importance. One, that the disciples followed Jesus Christ’s command in Matthew 28:10, “Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.” This shows that the beginning and the end of Jesus Christ’s minstry was in Galilee, full of Gentiles.

The second item brings much weight to the greater context of the Commission. John Calvin writes about this stating, “Matthew, passing by those occurrences which we have taken out of the other three evangelists, mentions only in what the 11 disciples were completed to the apostolic office… Matthew has therefore selected what was of the greatest importance to us, namely, that when Christ appeared to the disciples, he likewise commissioned them to be apostles, to convey into every part of the world the message of eternal life. Jesus Christ’s intention to meet with his disciples, who would soon become apostolic officers of the New Covenant community, given a specific task that would be carried out with the coming of the Holy Ghost, that they might tell the world of the message of Jesus Christ. For this was the very reason that Jesus Christ summoned his brothers to Galilee. For if Jesus Christ’s Commission was given to the whole of the Church, then why not include Mary Magdalene and the other Mary who went to see the tomb in Matthew 28:1. No, instead Christ appeared to them, the eleven, so that he might summon His officers of the New Covenant, that they might meet him alone for His own purposes, namely that is to Commission them to their New Covenant duties of Apostleship. For “to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them,” this likely refers to the mountain in Galilee known to Mary.  John MacArthur has commented, “This seems the most likely location for the massive gathering of disciples Paul describes in 1 Corinthians. 15:6.”  Dr. MacArthur speculates that Matthew’s account is in accordance with Paul’s reference of the “500 brethren at once” that Christ appeared to. Matthew’s account gives no indication that this is fact. Matthew’s account to “now the eleven disciples,” no more, no less, these are who were summoned by Jesus Christ for Mary and Mary to send, and these are who Matthew accounts for being present at the mountain in Galilee.

Verse 17
Many, like Dr. MacAruthur read the following in Matthew 28:17, “and when they saw him they worshipped, but some doubted” as proof to the assumption that many more were gathered at the mountain in Galilee, because how and why would have the disciples “worshipped” by yet still “doubted.” Dr. Freeman list three possible interpretations of this text.

  1. One possibility is that Matthew describes the responses of two different groups within the circle of the eleven
  2. Two, that Matthew refers to a group other than the eleven disciples. Thus, the disciples worshipped Jesus while others, who were also present but not mentioned, doubted.
  3. The third interpretation takes the nominative in hoi de to have the same subject as the main verb. That is, those who worship and those who doubt are, in fact, the same individuals.

Interpretation three seems to be what Matthew is writing. Matthew’s intent is not to state whether some of the disciples had no faith at all, but to mention that some of the disciples still yet hesitated to approach Jesus, while yet some of them instantly went to worship Jesus Christ after seeing him. Here Matthew relays the message to his readers that when the disciples, and they alone came to Jesus Christ, they came in confusion, some in worship, some in doubt, but they came to be Commissioned. Calvin shows how  an individual might reconcile the same two feelings in one act, “then they worshipped, because the splendour of his divine glory was manifest. And perhaps it was the same reason that suddenly caused them to doubt, and afterwards led them to worship him; namely, that he had laid aside the form of a servant, and had nothing in his appearance but what was heavenly.” Here the disciples hung in the balance of what was about to take place, while worshiping Jesus Christ, and some in doubt, they awaited for what reason they were called upon by Jesus Christ. This very well could have been the reason some of them doubted, for what reason were they summoned to meet Jesus Christ in Galilee? Matthew uses the term “ἐδίστασαν” (doubted) not because it was another people group, but in conjunction (δὲ [but]) to “προσκυνέω” (worshipped). The same individuals that came to “ἰδόντες ” (they saw) came with the same doubt and worship. Some may then ask as to why Matthew then included a negative connotation such as this doubt within the disciples? One can agree with Dr. Freeman’s critique, “he… lets the reader know that a disciple still lives with a certain amount of tension. Disciples are those who know Jesus is the risen Lord and yet may still be confused.”

Verse 18
As the resurrected Lord, Jesus calls his apostles to make disciples of all people groups through the preaching of the gospel of the kingdom. Jesus then comes to the disciples saying to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” With sovereign authority, lordship over all, Jesus Christ comes to his disciples by making the claim that his authority, is given from heaven. Some scholars have noted, “Their doubts were quickly dispelled, for Jesus spoke to them claiming all authority in heaven and on earth.” Matthew here uses “ἐξουσία” to show the official right and power that Jesus Christ has been given by his Father. Matthew has elsewhere used this term describing the person and work of Jesus Christ, including the forgiveness of sins in Matthew 9:16 and that all things have been given to Him by the Father in Matthew 11:27. The importance of the later authority brings light to the authority Matthew includes here give by Jesus Christ. The authority given by God that Matthew perviously has written of, now is the same authority that Jesus Christ comes with to commission the disciples. Jude makes mention of Jesus’ authority in the same specific apostolic that Matthews has when he writes in verse 25, “to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” It is in this authority Jesus Christ comes that gives the disciples such confidence in carrying out the coming Commission they are given. John Calvin writes on this matter,

“Never, certainly, would the Apostles have had sufficient confidence to undertake so arduous an office, if they had not known that their Protector sitteth in heaven, and that the highest authority is given to him; for without such a support it would have been impossible for them to make any progress.” The authority from God, given to Jesus Christ, is now coming before and to the disciples. Some scholars have noted that this claim to have been given authority is in fulfillment to Daniel. Jesus most certainly is the fulfillment of Daniel’s reference to the “Son of Man,” it is not clear if “all authority is given to me” is directly drawn from Daniel 7:14, “And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.” Dr. G.K. Beale comments on this theme in his Biblical Theology, “Jesus is the “last Adam figure,” and this is partially why he did not listen delete identifies himself with the Daniels “Son of Man” in issuing the universal commission to his followers in 28:18 he is the “son of Adam,” the equivalent to Daniel’s “Son of Man,” finally accomplishing what the first Adam should have and what Daniel predicts the messianic end-time Adam would do.” The main thrust of Matthew’s reference to Jesus Christ’s authority is that He, is who the disciples must fully rely upon for the Commission, and submit to in obedience fulfilling  the Commission.

Verse 19
Matthew moves on in his gospel account by using “οὖν” (therefore) to give his readers the understanding that the coming commission flows out of the previous reasoning, Jesus’ authority. Dr. MacArthur has pointed out that it is, “His (Jesus Christ) authority, the disciples were sent to make disciples of all nations.” Theologian R.D. Culver have argued that since “πορεύομαι” starts the verse, that one may translate it not as a command, but as a present participle “as you go.” Seeing that “as you go” is a present participle (going), leaves the only command in the entire commission being “make disciples.” The question that lies here, is to what length does this particular command “make disciples of all the nations” extend to? If further than only the Apostles, to exactly who? While some theologians are inclined to believe that this (Great) Commission is given to the whole of the Church, the importance of the passage lies here in the directive command give by Jesus Christ, by his authority, to a selective group of people, namely the Apostles. These men, were in a sense, moving forward from being discipled and now commanded to teach others, like Jesus Christ taught them. For Christ’s work was complete, and the present leader of His people was soon to leave. It is here that Christ authorizes by his God given authority the new officers of the New Covenant Community, the Apostles.

Matthew in verse 20 personalizes the command “make disciples” by adding personal pronouns “ὑμῖν” and “ὑμῶν.” Thus, the recent individuals (disciples) are the same individuals that have been commanded to meet in Galilee, have worship and doubted, and now been commissioned. Here Jesus Christ extends his God-given authority to those that have followed him for the past three years. G.K. Beale writes on this stating, “Even the divine accompaniment formula occurs in Matthew 28:20 to indicate how the disciples will be empowered to carry out the commission.” It is the authority by which God has given Christ, that now Christ is passing on to the officers of the Church, the Apostles. For there are no more prophets or kings in office to govern God’s people, but the Prophet and the King is ordaining his disciples to a new office of Apostles. John Calvin comments on this office and passage stating, “let us learn from this passage, that the apostleship is not an empty title, but a laborious his office, and that, consequently, nothing is more absurd or intolerable than that this honour should be claimed by hypocrites, who live like kings at their ease, and disdainfully throw away from themselves the office of teaching.

Before looking at what the Commission requires of the Apostles to administrate in “making disciples,” one sees that this command is to extend to “all nations.” This is commonly where 20th century evangelicalism has gone to defend, prove, and use the Great Commission for the Church today. The text states “all nations” including Brazil, Spain, Mexico, South Africa, as if they existed when Jesus Christ’s command was given. Yet, this is what happens hermeneutically when the application is placed before the proper exegesis. The command “make disciples of all nations” does include Brazil, Spain, Mexico, South Africa, and many more, but here the Apostles understood that their message and process of “making disciples” was to go further than their nationally, the Jewish people. For Jesus has now established his Kingdom, and its message is to be offered to all. “Of all nations” entails the extent of the command, not the nationality of the command. Matthew Henry explains this by saying, “Not that they must go all together into every place, but by consent disperse themselves in such manner as might best diffuse the light of the gospel.” Henry goes further giving three theological points of the command given to “all nations”:  “First, That the covenant of peculiarity, made with the Jews, should now be cancelled and disannulled. This word broke down the middle wall of partition, which had so long excluded the Gentiles from a visible church-state; and whereas the apostles, when first sent out, were forbidden to go into the way of the Gentiles, now they were sent to all nations. Secondly, That salvation by Christ should be offered to all, and none excluded that did not by their unbelief and impenitence exclude themselves. The salvation they were to preach is a common salvation; whoever will, let him come, and take the benefit of the act of indemnity; for there is no difference of Jew or Greek in Christ Jesus. Thirdly, That Christianity should be twisted in with national constitutions, that the kingdoms of the world should become Christ’s kingdoms, and their kings the church’s nursing-fathers.”

Matthew Henry draws the significance of the Apostleship’s office and its relationship differences from that of the Old Covenant. Jesus Christ’s unlimited authority is addressing the length to which the Apostles are to go proclaiming the Gospel. As long as there is Jew and Gentile, they are to continue proclaiming the truth concerning Jesus Christ’s person and work. Under the Old Testament administration kings, prophets, and priest had limitations in their duties of the Old Covenant. Here Jesus Christ removes this Old Covenant distinction by commanding the new officers of the New Covenant that there are no distinctions, or limitations to who they are to make disciples. John Calvin writes on this distinction, “Here Christ… makes the Gentiles equal to the Jews, and admits both indiscriminately to a participation in the covenant.” The Commission for the Apostles is to “make disciples.” Jesus Christ includes two items that the Apostles are to carry out in their process of making disciples. One, to baptize and two, teaching. Of the first, baptism, three notes can be made from the text. To paraphrase Matthew Henry, they are: who administrates baptism, how baptism is administrated, and how baptism makes one a disciple. Jesus Christ commands this duty of administration to his officers of the Church. Reformer Robert Rollock stated, “for the Lord gives his apostles commission to preach the gospel, and to baptize.” The instructions/duties for Apostleship are to administrate both the baptizing and the teaching says Jesus Christ. Dr. Freeman notes here that, “Baptizing is referred to without any explanation, so Matthew must have presupposed his reader needed no explanation.” Matthew here uses three participles in the Greek to include the duties of this office: going, baptizing, and teaching. It is by dispersal of the Apostles, and their teaching the word, and practice of the sacraments that all nations will be made disciples. Robert Rollock preached a message dealing with the issue at hand, stating, “These words teach us that these two points of the calling of the ministry, teaching and baptizing, were not committed to divers and sundry persons, but both were committed to one and the self-same person. So that he who is ordained to preach is ordained to baptize; and he who cannot preach has no power nor liberty granted him of the Lord to baptize; and if he baptized, he does it without the Lords commandment, he has no award of him; and, therefore, is doing is but a profanation of that holy sacrament of baptism.”

Rev. Rollock saw the importance of those that Jesus Christ has given unto office for his holy bride. One can certainly understand and agree that not all of the Church can baptize, or all of the Church can preach and teach the Scriptures. Then how can one interpret that this (Great) Commission is extended to all of the Church to evangelize? By understanding that Christ Commissions his disciples to office bearers of the Church, specifically, to Apostles. When the Apostles administrate this baptism, they are to do so in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. John Calvin notes that this particular administration was only to be done by those to whom Christ’s command was given. He writes, “Now since this charge is expressly given to the apostles along with the preaching of the word, it follows that none can lawfully administer baptism but those who are also the ministers of doctrine. When private persons, and even women, are permitted to baptize, nothing can be more at variance with the ordinance of Christ, nor is it any thing else than a mere profanation.”

One of these duties of the Apostles Commission is to administrate (those that believe upon Jesus Christ) the sacrament of baptism for the sake of identification with Jesus Christ. Such an act associates one with Jesus Christ, making them a disciple of him. The verb here “βαπτίζω” (baptizing) serves as a present active participle, used as an imperative. Robert James Utley has commented on this stating, “This (baptizing) is balanced with “teach” (v.20)… They cannot and must not be separated! The two items that Jesus Christ includes to make disciples for his Apostles look very similar to the same two items the officers of the church carry out today – teaching the Word, and carrying out the sacraments.

Verse 20
The second item of “making disciples” includes “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”  The second present active participle that is place in conjunction with “baptizing.” Along with baptism, teaching is the way that Jesus Christ commands his Apostles to “make disciples.” Scottish pastor and theologian Iain Campbell writes, “Disciples are made by teaching and are nurtured by teaching.” The Apostles are not to use their own laws, or own inventions, but are to teach believers the commands of Jesus Christ, the same commands that Christ himself had taught his disciples while on earth. This one sees the duties of the office of Apostleship – teaching the Scripture, and practicing the sacraments. The same elements that later would be passed down from the Apostles to the office eldership. Jesus Christ though does not entirely resign from his office, but continues to teach those by his Word through the officers and teachers of his Church. At the end of the Commission, Christ gives the Apostles a promise, “I am with you always” along with assurance “to the end of the age.” “I am with you always,” is given with the conjunction “ἰδού” (behold) “to strengthen their faith, and engage their observation of it.” This emphatic introduction to Jesus Christ “I am with you always” promises the personal presence of him with his Apostles. Matthew Poole comments, “I am and I will be with you, and those who succeed you in the work of the ministry.” While Christ does not psychically remain with his Apostles, his spiritual presence is promised to them as they carry out the office of Apostleship during the progress of the New Testament Church. Many scholars have noted, “At the outset of the Gospel, Jesus was named ‘Immanuel’, God with us (1:23), and he promises in the course of the Gospel narrative that even where two people gather in his name he is there (18:20).” The very presence of God, placed in Christ, by the Holy Spirit is now promised to the Apostles as they carrying out this Commission.

As the Apostles follow Christ Commission, preaching the Word and practicing the sacraments, it is this promise that aids their process in “making disciples.” Many have argued that “to the end of the age” gives textual proof that this Commission is great in recipients. This cannot be the case, the promise is to those who are the officers of the Church, not laity. For how can a woman, let alone child preach and teach the Scriptures,  and carry out the administration of the sacraments for the congregation? While the promise is true for the whole of the Church, it does not state that all are called to the Commission. Calvin notes, “for the Lord promises his assistance not for a single age only, but even to the end of the world. It is as if he had said, that though the ministers of the gospel be weak and suffer the want of all things, he will be their guardian, so that they will rise victorious over all the opposition of the world.” Jesus Christ, establishing His Kingdom, sends out his officers of the New Testament Church in his comforting promise as they await for his bodily return to judge and gather those that are his. Promising “to the end of this age” gives the Apostles assurance that what Jesus Christ started with them over three years ago will not cease when he ascends to heaven. As the Apostles are sent out to preach and teach the Word and administrate the Church, they had Jesus Christ’s great promise till time is no more.

Meaning of the Text
Jesus Christ as King and head of his Church has appointed a government, in the hand of the church offices which remains distinct from the civil magistrate. To the officers of the Church the keys of the kingdom are handed (Matthew 16 & 18). Jesus Christ did not authorize the civil magistrate to use the keys of the kingdom, but has Commissioned his disciples unto the New Testament Office of Apostleship. Jesus Christ gave the keys to the visible, institutional Church to be administered by her officers under his authority. This (Great) Commission was the ordaining of the Apostles unto this office, so that they may preach and teach the Scriptures that Jesus Christ himself had expounded to them (Luke 24:44-47), and carry out the administration of the sacraments, Lord’s supper (Matthew 26:17-30) and baptism (Matthew 28:16-20). Jesus ordaining the disciples into the office of Apostleship, passing the keys and authority that had been given to Him from His father, sending out the Apostles on their commission, “to teach and baptize… to all the nations” meaning both to the Jew and Gentile takes place before His ascension. Later in the New Testament, it is this office of Apostles and commission of teaching and baptizing that had been given to them by Jesus Christ himself that is passed to the office of eldership (Acts 14:23, 20:28; Titus 1:5).  Jesus Christ commands the twelve apostles to go and reproduce that of which Jesus Christ had done with them. Thus the Apostles, officers,  are called to evangelize, and not the laity.

Application for the Church Today
The question that must be asked is this, how does one get anything about lay evangelism from Jesus Christ’s Commission to his Apostles? The apostles were officers, they were not laity. Something that seems evident, yet consistently forgotten when reading and interpreting the text. Robert Rollock while preaching on Matthew 28:18-20, interpreted that Christ’s Commission was directed and given to the Apostles, and the officers of the Church. As the keys of the Kingdom were passed from Jesus Christ to the Apostles, so the Apostles ordain elders to the preaching and practicing of the sacraments. Rev. Rollock spoke, “for the Lord says, I shall be with you unto the end of the world; but so it is, that the apostles are now dead, they are no more in the world. Therefore this promise is made unto the ministers of the church, to the successors of the apostles, who should remain in the church until Christ’s coming to judgment.” The Commission, is the passing of the keys of the Kingdom, with all his authority given by God, through Jesus Christ, and the coming enablement of the Holy Ghost. Jesus Christ established his church of the New Covenant on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets (Ephesians. 4:11). It is here in Jesus Christ’s commission that the apostles are appointed to be witnesses of Jesus Christ, testifying by the enablement of the Holy Spirit, of what they had seen and heard.

In what way might this apply, better yet change the way that the Church sees evangelism? By understanding that not all are called to the spiritual gift of evangelism. No doubt is the whole of Jesus Christ’s bride to be a witness, a city on a hill, both salt and light to the earth, but as the Apostle Paul has said in Ephesians 4:11, “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” It is the Evangelists here Paul speaks of that are called unto ministry, gifted, and commissioned unto office by the authority and power in heaven, Jesus Christ.  The Evangelists, in common with other ministries, is elder, one who functions like that of the pastor, who is distinctive to the role of an Evangelist. This gift and calling is not for everyone, but for those called upon by the authority of Jesus Christ, through the promise of God the Father, enabled through the Spirit to serve and promote his Church.

1 D Scott J. Duvall & Daniel J. Hays (2011-09-01). Baker Illustrated Bible Handbook (Text Only Edition), The (Kindle Locations 7970-7972). Baker Book Group. Kindle Edition.

2 Bruce Wilkinson, and Kenneth Boa, Talk Thru the Bible. (Nashville, Atlanta, London, & Vancouver: Thomas Nelson Publishers,  1983), p. 308.

3 Cf. For Matthew’s emphasis on money themes in his Gospel: Matthew 17: 24– 27; 18: 23– 25; 20: 1– 16; 26: 15; 27: 3– 5; 28: 11– 15.

4 Wilkinson, and Boa, Talk Thru the Bible, p. 308.

5 Michael J.Wilkins serves as Distinguished Professor of New Testament Language and Literature, as well as Dean of the Faculty at Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. He is author of Matthew (NIVAC); and Following the Master: Biblical Theology of Discipleship; “Matthew” (ZIBBC).

6 Cf. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1.1. 175 A.D.

7 Ed. Michael J. Wilkins, ESV Study Bible. (Wheaton Illinois: Crossway, 2009), p. 1815.

8 Wilkinson, and Boa, Talk Thru the Bible, p. 309.

9 Wilkinson, and Boa, Talk Thru the Bible, p. 310.

10 Ed. Michael J. Wilkins, ESV Study Bible, p. 1815.

11 Scott J. Duvall & Daniel J. Hays, Baker Illustrated Bible Handbook (Text Only Edition), The (Kindle Locations 7987-7988).

12 D.A. Carson, & Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), p. 81.

13 Example: The place of Mosaic Law in Jesus Christ’s teaching in the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

14 Carson & Douglas, An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 79.

15 Example: Matthew 16:18; 18:17-18. While there is no mention of church officers, order within the New Testament Community is seen among the people. The discipline case in Matthew 18 is seen in broad principles applicable even in the earliest stages of Christianity and their local autonomy as a new covenant community.

16 Professor of New Testament at the Masters Seminary.

17 Robert J. Thomas, “Historical Criticism and the Great Commission,” The Masters Seminary Journal. (Jo.11 No. 1. Spring 2000), p. 39.

18 Cf. for the Ancient Church historical views on the Great Commission: Ignatius, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Cyprian.

19 Philippians, (ANF, 1:116).

20 “The Prescription against Heretics,” (ANF, 3:252).

21 Hal Freeman, The Great Commission and the New Testament: An Exegesis of Matthew 28:16-20. SBTS Article: on May 28th, 2013, p. 14-23.

22 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), p. 582.

23 Berkhof, Systematic Theology. p. 582.

24 Hal Freedom, The Great Commission and the New Testament. p.15.

25 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 28:10.

26 Cf. Donald Hagner, Matthew 14-28, WBC, 33B. (Dallas: Word Books, 1995) p. 884.

27 John Calvin and William Pringle, vol. 3, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), p. 380-81.

28 The MacArthur Study Bible, ed. John MacArthur, Jr., electronic ed. (Nashville, TN: Word Pub., 1997), Mt 28:16.

29 Drs. Freeman shows that Dr. Hager has pointed out why this interpretation does render with Matthew’s intent. “That all of the other uses of hoi de in Matthew could be interpreted as inclusive, not partitive, and some of them demand the inclusive interpretation. Further, Matthew could have used tines tines auton to indicate clearly that he meant a subgroup from within the eleven.” Cf. Hal Freedom, The Great Commission and the New Testament. p.14.

30 Cf. for an in-depth exegetical explanation, L. Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992) 745.

31 Second interpretation problems: One, Dr. Hal Freeman makes note, “The problem with this interpretation is that Matthew has referred only to the eleven, and the context gives no indication that others are present. This interpretation is simply dictated by the conviction that the same group cannot worship and doubt at the same time.” Two, Dr. L. Morris says, “It can scarcely mean that the hesitaters were among the worshipers; Matthew is saying that there were those who worshiped and there were those who hesitated.” See The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992) p. 745.

32 Hal Freedom, “The Great Commission and the New Testament.” p.16.

33 John Calvin and William Pringle, vol. 3, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 381.

34 Cf. I. P. Ellis, “But Some Doubted,” New Testament Studies. Vol. 14 (1967-68). p. 575.

35 Hal Freedom, “The Great Commission and the New Testament.” p.16.

36 Louis A. Barbieri and Jr., “Matthew” In , in , vol. 2, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 93.

37 Cf. for the word power means “authority,” the right to use power in Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), Mt 28:16.

38 John Calvin and William Pringle, vol. 3, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), p. 382.

39 Cf. for a Biblical Theology of “Son of Man” between Matthew 28:18 & Daniel 7:14, G.K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), p. 390-91.

40  G.K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), p. 390.

41 The MacArthur Study Bible, ed. John MacArthur, Jr., electronic ed. (Nashville, TN: Word Pub., 1997), Mt 28:19.

42 Cf. R. D. Culver, “What is the Church’s Commission?” Bibliotheca Sacra. 125 (1968), p. 243-253.

43 G.K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology. p. 390.

44 John Calvin and William Pringle, vol. 3, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 383.

45 Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), Mt 28:16–20.

46 Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible. Mt 28:16–20.

47 John Calvin and William Pringle, vol. 3, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 384.

48 Cf. Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), Mt 28:16–20 for a detailed exposition of the three implications of Christ’s command to his Apostles has on the administration of baptism.

49 Robert Rollock, Select Works of Robert Rollock. (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2009), p. 660-61.

50 Freeman, “The Great Commission and the New Testament.” p.18.

51 Robert Rollock, Select Works of Robert Rollock. p. 661.

52 The formula is a strong affirmation of trinitarianism.

53 John Calvin and William Pringle, vol. 3, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 385.

54 Robert James Utley, vol. Volume 9, The First Christian Primer: Matthew, Study Guide Commentary Series (Marshall, TX: Bible Lessons International, 2000), 237.

55 Iain D. Campbell, Opening Up Matthew, Opening Up Commentary (Leominster: Day One Publications, 2008), p. 179.

56 One may argue against Jesus Christ passing the administration of the sacraments being that the Lord’s Supper is not explicitly made mention of in this Commission. Yet, this element of the sacraments had already been passed down during the Last Supper.

57 Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), Mt 28:16–20.

58 Robert James Utley notes on this promise of Christ being with his Apostles, “There is a real fluidity between the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the indwelling Son (cf. Rom. 8:9–10; II Cor. 3:17; Gal. 4:6; Phil. 1:19; Col. 1:27). In John 14:23 both the Father and the Son indwell believers. In reality all three persons of the divine essence participate in all redemptive events.”

59 Matthew Poole, Matthew Poole’s Commentary on the Holy Bible. Vol. 3. (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1975), p. 147.

60 Iain D. Campbell, Opening Up Matthew, Opening Up Commentary (Leominster: Day One Publications, 2008), p. 180.

61 John Calvin and William Pringle, vol. 3, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 391.

62 Example of the keys of the Kingdom being passed from Jesus Christ, to the Apostles, to the Elders of the Church. The Belgic Confession Article 30 states, “By this means everything will be done well and in good order in the church, when such persons are elected who are faithful and are chosen according to the rule that Paul gave to Timothy.” Citing 1 Timothy 3.

63 The historic Reformed view doesn’t know much about lay evangelism per se. Lay witness, yes, but there’s a biblical theological distinction between the gift of evangelism, and the call for all to be a witness unto Jesus Christ. Cf. The London Baptist Confession 28:1-2, The Westminster Confession of Faith 28:1, The Belgic Confession 30, and The Book of Church Order of the OPC Chapter VII.

64 Robert Rollock, Select Works of Robert Rollock. p. 675.

65 Cf. The Book of Church Order of the OPC on the four distinctive functions of the Evangelists in chapter VII, page 10.


One Comment on “Rethinking the Great Commission”

  1. Josh Köhler says:

    Thank you so much for this thorough exposition. This has been incredibly helpful in my journey of struggling with my own doubts of how we in the evangelical church interpret this commission.

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