What is Christ’s Commission in Matthew 28?
“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 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.'” -Matthew 28:16-20.
Starting from the position that Jesus here, in what is often called the Great Commission, appoints every individual Christian to go and share the gospel as the central mandate of the church and Christian life is not listening to Matthew on his own terms. The 11 apostles are specifically identified as the ones who received this command from Jesus; the question is, What does that commission have to do with the church today? What does it mean to be a Great Commission church?
We see two things are given. The first is the authority that Christ received over all heaven and earth. The second is the command given by Jesus to disciple all the nations. The command is connected to the authority. Because Jesus has received authority, he is giving the task of discipleship. The nature of the authority received is intertwined with the task given and with those who received the task.
The authority that Christ received is given him by the Father as a result of his mediating work through his death and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:24-28, Ephesians 1:20-23). This authority had already been exhibited by Christ in his teaching and healing ministry throughout Matthew (e.g. 7:28-29, 9:6-8, 21:23-27). This authority had been provisionally granted by Christ to the apostles in their calling (10:1-3) and is now being extended to them normatively.
Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ is critical to understanding the authority of Jesus’ commission. Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth, and in making Peter and the christological confession the foundation of the church (16:17-19), Jesus grants to Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven. What is bound or loosed on earth will be bound and loosed in heaven. Peter is given an authority over souls that comes from Jesus’ own authority. Because Jesus’ authority is secured through his redemptive work on the cross and resurrection, this is a gospel authority.
Matthew expands the scope of this authority regarding one Christian sinning against another (18:15-20). There, the church is affirmed as having this authority of binding and loosing (18:17-18), which is exercised in the ministry given to the disciples (18:1). Peter and the apostles have the authority of the keys of the kingdom by virtue of exercising them within and on behalf of the church. Jesus later instructs the disciples to administer the sacrament of his body and blood (26:26-28; cf. Luke 22:19-20), given to secure forgiveness of sins. The apostles are authorized to administer the sacrament of redemption. The commission in 28:19-20 is the culmination of this idea of authority in Matthew’s gospel. How is the binding and loosing on earth to effect the reality of heaven? Through the discipleship of word and sacrament.
The apostles are both the immediate recipient of the commission (28:16) and the proper recipients. They are the ones commissioned to disciples through Christ’s word (teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you) and sacraments (do this in remembrance of me; baptize them). The apostles exercise the authority of this commission by administering word and sacrament within and on behalf of the church: this is binding and loosing with the keys of the kingdom. This is the authority and commission Jesus gives the disciples in John 20:20-23: “As the Father has sent me I am sending you…If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” Forgiveness of sins for salvation comes from receiving Christ as he is given to church by his word and sacraments. This is historically what the Reformed churches confessed it means to use the keys of the kingdom to bind and loose (e.g. Westminster Confession 31.2, Heidelberg Catechism 82-85, Second Helvetic Confession 24, 27).
Apostolic ministry continues on in the life of the church through the administration of word and sacraments by its pastors. The apostles are the foundation of the church that God continues to build (Ephesians 2:20-22), which Christ does through giving the church first apostles, prophets, and evangelists, second pastors and teachers, for the work of the church’s ministry (1 Corinthians 12:27-29, Ephesians 4:11-12). Christ’s commission to disciples was given to the apostles, on behalf of the church, which fulfills that commission through its pastors and teachers administering Christ’s word and sacrament.
John Calvin says in Institutes 4.6,
When our Lord sent forth the apostles, he gave them a commission (as has been lately said) to preach the Gospel, and to baptize those who believed for the remission of sins. He had previously commanded that they should distribute the sacred symbols of his body and blood…Such is the sacred, inviolable, and perpetual law, enjoined on those who succeed the place of the apostles—they receive a commission to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments
Calvin notes that terming Matthew 28:19 a “commission” was a new phenomenon. That does not mean calling Matthew 28:19-20 a commission, whether “great” or “apostolic” (my preferred descriptor), is wrong, but that this verse did not take on its evangelical importance until much after the Reformation. For instance, the only reference to a commission in the Westminster Standards is Larger Catechism 53: Christ was exalted in his ascension by giving the apostles a commission to preach the gospel.
The centrality of Matthew 28:19-20 to the mission of the church and individual believers, and the popularization of the title “Great Commission”, comes from the efforts of 19th-century Baptist missionary Hudson Taylor. Anthony Bradley’s summary criticism of so-called “Great Commission Christianity” in contrast to the superior “Cosmic Redemptive Christianity” of the Reformation and the Reformed is well worth the read on this point. Matthew 28:19-20 are not the verses upon which the mission of the church orbits, but is part of the biblical tapestry for a far more radically ordinary approach to gospel ministry.
What is a Great Commission church? A church that through the divinely ordained institution of the pastorate makes disciples through the administration of Christ’s word and sacrament.