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Short Lessons on the Church’s Mission 1: Matthew 28.16-20

At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, meets his disciples and commissions them on a mission to the nations. 

Matthew 28:16-20 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.  17 And 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 in1 the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

This amazing passage makes several important points about the Church’s mission.

The Old Testament Allusion

I have argued for years now that the great commission passage in Matthew 28.16-20 alludes to what I will call the great commission passage in Isaiah.  Both texts come at the end of a book.  Both texts speak of a mission carried out by a small group: the ‘survivors’ (Isaiah) or ‘disciples’ (Matthew).  Both texts speak of a mission to the nations.  Both texts understand this mission to involve a gathering together of a people for God: Isaiah sees this as a mission to bring in the diaspora from the nations to the holy mountain, Jerusalem, along with those Gentiles who will also come; Matthew sees this as a mission to bring together all from the nations who will be baptized and obey the commandments of Jesus.  With Isaiah 2.1-5 in the background, Isaiah’s great commission in ch. 66 must also envision this as a ‘moral mission’—the nations’ coming to the holy hill of Jerusalem is to learn God’s ways and how to walk in his paths (2.3).

Sin, Exile, and Restoration

Matthew highlights the narrative of Israel’s sin, exile (both in Egypt and in Babylon), and restoration from captivity (or sins) in his Gospel, tying Jesus’ ministry of fulfillment to the prophetic promises of Isaiah.  Jesus picks up the role of Israel and fulfills it.  He does not reenact Israel’s story in the sense of falling into sin but in the sense of accomplishing what Israel failed to do: instead of sin, Jesus brings righteousness.  Instead of an exiled people, Jesus restores Israel from exile.  The parallels between Israel and Jesus are drawn out at several points.
  •  Jesus’ genealogy is broken into three parts, with each transition a significant dimension reflected in Jesus’ own life.  The genealogy moves from Abraham (the father of a people) to David (the king of a people) to the exile/return from exile to Jesus. 
  •  Like the Gentiles bringing gifts to Israel upon their restoration from captivity (Isaiah 60; cf. Ps. 72), the magi bring Jesus gifts (Mt. 2.11). 
  •  Like Israel who was in captivity in Egypt and then in exile (Hosea 11.1), Jesus and his parents go to Egypt and return. 
  • Like Israel tempted in the wilderness—and failing (Deut. 8.3; 6.16; 8.19)—Jesus is tempted in the wilderness for 40 days—and succeeds (Mt. 4.1-11). 
  •  As Moses establishes the people of God by delivering the ten commandments on Mt. Sinai (Ex. 19-20), Jesus establishes his disciples with his commandments with a sermon on a mount (Mt. 5-7). 
In such ways, Matthew draws a tight parallel between Israel’s being established as God’s people, being exiled, and then being restored from captivity.  This message of Israel’s sin, exile, and restoration is the narrative substructure of Isaiah and of Isaiah 40-66 in particular.  It is equally that of Matthew’s Gospel.  And both books conclude with the ongoing task of restoration in the mission of the remnant—the survivors or disciples—to the nations.

Having noted these parallels between Isaiah’s and Matthew’s narrative substructure and great commissions at the end of each book, what can be said about missions?

1.     Matthew views the promise of mission in Isaiah to be fulfilled in the time after Jesus’ death and resurrection and his second coming (‘the end of the age’).
2.     Matthew views his ‘twelve’ disciples as representative of the twelve tribes of Israel, and the ‘eleven’ surviving disciples are sent out on a mission to the nations to gather in other disciples.  Thus, the missionary disciples represent the Church, and so Mt. 28.16-20 is not limited to the original disciples but extends to the whole Church until the end of the age.
3.     As in Isaiah, Matthew’s understanding of the disciples’ mission is not an exclusion of the Jews and a turning to a mission to the Gentiles.  Rather, it is a mission to the nations to restore the other Jews still living in captivity and to include the Gentile converts who join in the restoration of God’s people.
4.     Mission involves the formation of a people of God—as in the exodus from Egypt or the restoration from Babylon or in Jesus’ and the Church’s mission.
5.     Mission further involves ethics, the formation of a righteous people: the people of God formed through missionary work are those who (a) repent and are forgiven their sins (baptism), (b) belong to the Triune God (baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), and (c) live according to God’s commandments (teaching to obey all that Jesus has commanded).  The purpose and result of mission is a holy people of God—not simply believing individuals—a restored people who, as it were, are redeemed from exile in their sins and formed in and through Jesus Christ.