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Why Foreign Missions? 6. Matthew 28.16-20 and Isaiah 66.18-23


Why Foreign Missions?  6. Matthew 28.16-20 and Isaiah 66.18-23

Is the mission of the disciples also the mission of the Church today?  Is this mission to both Jews and Gentiles?  Matthew’s Gospel concludes with the ‘Great Commission’ (Mt. 28.16-20): because all authority in heaven and earth has been given to the risen Jesus Christ, the disciples are to make disciples of all nations.  This conclusion in Matthew’s Gospel  alludes to the conclusion in Isaiah (66.18-23).  I will demonstrate this relationship by quoting a section from my article, ‘Narrative Dynamics in Isaiah’s and Matthew’s Mission Theology.’[1]  The importance of this allusion to Isaiah is that it shows that Matthew is stating that the time for restoring the nations—the dispersion of Israel and the other nations—has come.  If so, then the Great Commission is not only for the original disciples but for the Church as well.  We live in the time of gathering in the nations by making disciples.

Isaiah 66:18-23 (NRSV):  18 For I know their works and their thoughts, and I am coming to gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come and shall see my glory,  19 and I will set a sign among them. From them I will send survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Put, and Lud-- which draw the bow-- to Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands far away that have not heard of my fame or seen my glory; and they shall declare my glory among the nations.  20 They shall bring all your kindred from all the nations as an offering to the LORD, on horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and on mules, and on dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the LORD, just as the Israelites bring a grain offering in a clean vessel to the house of the LORD.  21 And I will also take some of them as priests and as Levites, says the LORD.  22 For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me, says the LORD; so shall your descendants and your name remain.  23 From new moon to new moon, and from sabbath to sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, says the LORD.

Matthew 28:16-20 (NRSV):  16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.  17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.  18 And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  19 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,  20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

Mt. 28.16-20 and Is. 66.18-22 are related texts.  Matthew is alluding to Isaiah, I believe, and this allusion is significant.  The following comments demonstrate the relationship between these two texts and then draw out the significant points of such a relationship.

The Relationships Between Mt. 28.16-20 and Is. 66.18-22

Both passages ‘entail a (1) bringing together of the ‘survivors’ or remaining disciples, and both passages involve a (2) commissioning of these survivors in (3) a mission to the nations.[2]  The commission is to announce (4) God’s name (or baptise in the triune name), which, as Isaiah clearly states, entails making God’s glory known over the whole earth.  Earlier in Is. 66, (5) God’s authority is declared over heaven and earth (Is. 66.1), just as Jesus says that all authority in heaven and earth has been given to him.  Also, (6) God says He will look to the one who ‘trembles at my word’ (Is. 66.2), just as Jesus tells his disciples to teach the nations all that he has commanded them.  (7) Similar to Jesus’ promise of His presence with His disciples until the end of the age, in Is. 66 God announces His coming presence with the restored remnant of His people:

As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.  You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice; your bodies shall flourish like the grass; and it shall be known that the hand of the LORD is with his servants, and his indignation is against his enemies (Is. 66.13-14).

This point is emphasised in Is. 66.20-22, where the restoration of God’s people from the nations to Jerusalem (v. 20) means that they will ‘remain before me’ (v. 22).  (8) Whereas Isaiah says that God will take some of those from the nations to be priests and Levites (Is. 66.21), Jesus speaks of making ‘disciples’ from the nations (there is no priestly group between the people and God among the Father’s children in Matthew).  Finally, it should be noted, that (9) both Isaiah and Matthew conclude with this commissioning to the nations.’

Conclusions

These nine points establish the relationship between Isaiah 66 and the Great Commission in Matthew’s Gospel.  This relationship allows us to draw several conclusions.

First, the ‘twelve’ disciples in Matthew’s Gospel represent the ‘survivors’ or remnant of Israel that returns from exile in Isaiah.  There are more disciples of Jesus than these ‘twelve’ (actually eleven, now that Judas is no longer among them).  Yet the ‘twelve’ disciples stand as a fulfillment of the initial restoration of God’s people from ‘exile’ in their sins. 

Second, the mission of the survivors/disciples to the nations means, for Isaiah and so also for Matthew, that they have the task of continuing to bring back the Jews from exile.  Matthew does not have a replacement theology, where the Jews are replaced as God’s people. 

Third, following Isaiah, this proclamation among the nations includes a proclamation not only to the still dispersed Jews but also to the Gentiles themselves.  Matthew, however, makes the point that this good news for the nations (Jews and Gentiles) involves baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and it entails becoming disciples of Jesus.  That is, only through Jesus is the restoration of Israel and the inclusion of the Gentiles into God’s people possible.  There is no alternative route. 

Fourth, the connection of the Great Commission to the conclusion in Isaiah also shows that the progression in time for God’s salvation has been from  the time of the inauguration of the restoration of Israel from captivity in Jesus’ ministry to the time of the further ingathering of Jews and Gentiles by the survivors from captivity.  Matthew leaves his readers in this time of further ingathering, and so we see that the Great Commission was not just for Jesus’ disciples: it is a commission left to the Church ‘until the end of the ages’ (Mt. 28.20). 



[1] Rollin G. Grams, ‘Narrative Dynamics in Isaiah’s and Matthew’s Mission Theology,’ Transformation 21.4 (Oct., 2004): 238-255.
[2] David Pao argues that Luke's version of the disciples' commissioning (Lk. 24.47) echoes Is. 49.6 with reference to 'to the end/s of the earth' (Acts and the Isaianic New Exodus (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002; orig. publ. 2000), pp. 85f).  He notes that this is a theme in Acts (1.8; 13.47).  The same idea is present in being a 'light' to the Gentiles (Acts 26.23--an image also in Isaiah).  While I am not familiar with an argument such as mine that Is. 66 stands behind Mt.'s Great Commission, Pao's argument does seem to support the point indirectly.  Is. 49.6, I would note, not only speaks of going to the nations as does Lk. 24.47, but it also sees the Servant's work as restoring the 'survivors' of Israel prior to a mission to the nations.  Is. 66.19 sees this as the survivors' mission.  Matthew shares the exact same understanding of Jesus' and the disciples' mission vis-à-vis Israel and the nations.