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Understanding the Great Commission

The gospel, according to Matthew, closes with a poignant and powerful image: Jesus meeting his disciples at an appointed rendezvous in Galilee and commissioning them to proclaim his word and make disciples of all the nations on earth.

“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt 28.18-20).

This is often referred to as “the Great Commission” — the ultimate mandate of Christ to the Church. But to understand these words, we need to read them in context. And reading them in context means starting at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel with the genealogy of Jesus Christ.

Writing for a predominantly Jewish audience, Matthew’s aim was to present Jesus as the “Son of David” — the King Messiah — and the “Son of Abraham” — the promised Seed of the Covenant. Thus, he begins his account with the words, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham’ (Matt 1.1).

The Book of Genesis tells us how God called Abram out of an idolatrous culture, established a covenant with him, and promised to bless him and make of him a great nation (Gen 12.1-3; 17.1-7). God said to Abraham, “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice” (Gen 22.18).

The apostle Peter quoted this promise whilst preaching to the Jews in the forecourt of the temple and made it clear that, in his opinion, the seed of Abraham was Christ, and the blessing was the forgiveness of sins, procured through Christ’s death and resurrection:

“You are sons of the prophets, and of the covenant which God made with our fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ To you first, God, having raised up His Servant Jesus, sent Him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from your iniquities” (Acts 3.25-26).

Likewise, in his letter to the Galatians, the apostle Paul quoted God’s promise to Abraham, identifying Abraham’s seed as Christ and the blessing as right-standing with God based on Christ’s redemptive work:

And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, “In you all the nations shall be blessed.”

Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as of many, but as of one, “And to your seed,” who is Christ (Gal 3.8,16).

From the time of Abraham until the time of Christ, God had a covenant relationship with only one nation — Israel. For this reason, He referred to Israel as His chosen, a special treasure above all people (Ex 19.5; Psa 135.4). The Lord promised that if Israel was faithful to the covenant, they would be a holy people, called by His name, distinguished above every other nation on earth (Deut 28.1,9-10).

For their part, the people of Israel were responsible to keep God’s commandments and walk in His ways, and be a light to the nations that were in darkness (Isa 42.6-7; 60.1-3). Ultimately, this prophetic destiny would be realised through the coming of the Messiah and the proclamation of his gospel (Luke 2.30-32; Acts 13.47).

The lost sheep of the House of Israel

At first glance, it might appear from Matthew’s gospel that Jesus was prejudiced against the Gentiles. For example, he instructed his apostles, “Do not go into the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter a city of the Samaritans. But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And as you go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons. Freely you have received, freely give” (Mat 10.5-8).

And on another occasion, when a woman of Canaan beseeched him to heal her daughter, he ignored her, saying, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In the end, it was only her unyielding faith and perseverance that caused the Master to grant her request (Mat 15.21-28).

However, this was not a case of racial discrimination or preferential treatment. Jesus was born a Jew, and as stipulated, was initiated into the Abrahamic covenant through the rite of circumcision when he was eight days old (Luke 2.21). As a devout Jew, he lived in obedience to the Law of Moses. The focus of his life was fulfilling the will of God as prescribed in the Law and the Prophets (Mat 5.17).

As the Seed, Christ came to fulfil the promise God had made to Abraham some 2,000 years earlier: namely, to bless his descendants and to deliver them from their enemies (Gen 22.17-18). The apostle described how the eternal Son of God emptied himself of his privileges and relinquished his glory when he became a man (Phil 2.5-8). As a spiritual being in a human body, Jesus experienced some of the same limitations as you and I. For example, he could only be in one place at one time, and only minister to a given number of people.

But Jesus was also limited in another way. As the Servant of the Lord, the Messenger of the Covenant (Mal 3.1), he could only impart the blessing of God to the nation with whom God had established a covenant relationship — Israel. Whilst God’s ultimate purpose was to impart the blessing of Abraham to all nations, it was ‘necessary’ that the gospel be preached to the Jews first (Acts 3.25-26; Acts 13.46; Rom 1.16). Covenant connotes legal responsibility, not just deep familiarity.

When God was planning to destroy Sodom, He said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing, since Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?” (Gen 18.17-18). Similarly, the Lord does nothing unless He reveals His secret to His servants the [Jewish] prophets (Amos 3.7).

Just as God could not and would not bypass His intimate friend and covenant partner, Abraham, or His faithful servants, the prophets, so He could not and would not bypass the Jewish people and impart His blessing to the Greeks, Romans, or Egyptians. Jesus came, firstly to his own people, in accordance with the terms of the covenant (John 1.11).

In a covenantal sense, Jesus was only authorised to minister to the Jewish people, not the Gentiles. Hence, his interactions with Gentiles were notable for their rarity. When Jesus healed the Roman centurion’s servant, he said rather wistfully, “I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!” (Mat 8.10). The implication being, “Not even in Israel, the covenant nation, where I would expect to find it!” Jesus appeared to be frustrated that his ministry was restricted to people who, for the most part, did not believe in him and did not respect him.

The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world

When John the Baptist saw Jesus, he exclaimed, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1.29). This declaration signalled a seismic shift in God’s dealings with Israel and the nations. It indicated that God was about to extend His blessing beyond the parameters of Abraham’s family and encompass the whole world. It signified that God was about to establish a new covenant, not just with members of the house of Israel, but with people of all nations who, like Abraham, put their trust in His word.

During the Pesach meal Jesus took the cup of redemption and said, “This is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Mat 26.27-28). In the gospel of Matthew, ‘many’ is shorthand for the ingathering of the Gentiles (Mat 8.11). Indeed, through the shedding of Jesus’ blood God established a covenant relationship with the whole world — all of humankind. From henceforth the gates of heaven would be opened to “whosoever will” (Isa 55.1-5; Rev 22.17).

In his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul described the new paradigm that came into existence through Jesus’ death and resurrection:

Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh — who are called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands — that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ …. Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God (Eph 2.11-13, 19).

Through his blood Jesus redeemed humankind to God — every tribe, language, people, and nation (Rev 5.9). And on that basis, he is authorised to impart the blessing of God to all nations — the world that God so loves (John 3.16).

This is the reason that the resurrected Christ could stand on a mountaintop in the Galilee and say to his disciples, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations …”

In other words, “This is a new era. This gospel is for all people, in all times, in all places. I have given you a template on which to base your ministry. The things you have seen me do among the Jewish people during the past three years, go and do likewise among the Gentiles. And know this: I will be right there with you, prompting you what to say, showing you what to do, and attesting to the message you deliver with irrefutable signs of my power and presence.”

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