In this issue and the next, I will be analyzing the Great Commission as found in Matthew 28. The Great Commission is simultaneously one of the most familiar passages in Scripture and one of the least understood. It is found at the conclusion to the Gospel of Matthew after the resurrection of Christ and as a consequence of that glorious event. Its appearance at the end of Matthew is most apropos, for this is the gospel designed to introduce Christ as the King. The Lord Jesus Christ is the authoritative ruler sent from God to establish the Kingdom of God.
Matthew 1:1 opens: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham.” As the introductory heading to the gospel, this clearly indicates its content: Matthew is presenting Christ as the Messianic King, “the son of David” (which title is applied to Him nine times, Mt. 1:1, 20; 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30-31; 21:9, 15; 22:42).
In Matthew 2:2 we discover the Gentile Magi seeking the “King of the Jews.” This report troubles the political king, Herod. In Matthew 3:2 John the Baptist preaches that the Kingdom of heaven is at hand, then anoints Christ as the Priest-King, after the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 5:6-10).
In Matthew 4:8-9 the newly anointed King is approached by the usurper king, Satan, “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4), “the prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2). In the temptation Satan offers Him the “kingdoms of the world.” After successfully resisting the tempter, Christ begins preaching that the “kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt. 4:17). In keeping with his concern to demonstrate Christ’s kingship, the phrase “the kingdom of heaven” occurs twenty-seven times in Matthew’s gospel, while “kingdom” occurs forty-five times.
In Matthew 5 the King ascends a mountain to establish the legal structure of His Kingdom by affirming the law of God. He reaffirms the law of God by “filling it up” to its full measure over against the Pharisees who emptied it of its meaning: “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and so teaches others, shall be called least in the Kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the Kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:17-20). In that same discourse, He teaches His disciples to pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 6:10).
Skipping ahead to Matthew 12, the Lord speaks of His battle against Satan, and of the victorious coming of the Kingdom in His day (Mt. 12:28-29). In Matthew 13 Christ extensively defines the nature, glory, and expectation of the Kingdom via the Kingdom Parables. Though it begins very small, it will grow to worldwide proportions, eventually permeating the whole of human culture (Mt. 13:31-33).
A little later in Matthew 21, He enters Jerusalem and is lauded as King, in fulfillment of prophecy (Zech. 9:9). In Matthew 25 we see the King seated as a Judge over all the nations on Judgment Day. There He invites His faithful servants to enter His eternal Kingdom (Mt. 25:34), while banishing to everlasting condemnation those who refused His rule.
In Matthew 27 Christ is taunted for His kingship (Mt. 27:11, 29) and crucified beneath a sign declaring: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” (Mt. 27:37). It is from this reference that we jump to the Great Commission in which Christ claims kingly authority. Clearly Matthew is presenting One who is a majestic King.
Christ’s Resurrection Authority
It is extremely important to locate the Great Commission in Christ’s ministry. He does not issue the Great Commission until after His resurrection. The significance of the resurrection is not fully appreciated by modern evangelicals, who are more theologically attuned to singing “There Is None Like the Lowly Jesus,” than “Crown Him with Many Crowns.” Their eschatology and overall view of historical progress is more shaped by the Fall of Adam than the Resurrection of Christ. But in this season of remembrance of His resurrection, we should reorient our thinking along Biblical lines.
Prior to the resurrection, a frequent refrain of Christ was: “I can do nothing of Myself” (cf. Jn. 5:19, 30; 8:28; 12:49; 14:10). But now after the resurrection, He sovereignly declares: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Mt. 28:18). We should note that a literal rendering of the verse reads: “And having come near, Jesus spake to them, saying, ‘Given to me was all authority.’”1 Both the position and the tense of the word “given” should be noted. In Greek, words thrown to the front of a sentence are being emphasized — as “given” is here in Christ’s statement. Not only is “given” emphasized as being particularly significant, but according to the Greek verb tense,2 His being “given” authority was at some point in past time. “Has been given” is an aorist passive verb, which speaks of this grant of “all authority” as occurring at a past point in time. This grant of “all authority in heaven and on earth” is given by God the Father, who according to similar terminology in Matthew 11:25, Acts 17:24, and elsewhere, is called “Lord of heaven and earth.”
This investiture of Christ with universal authority is a frequent theme of later Scripture. Acts 2:30-31, the passage which the Lord used to deliver me from dispensationalism, reads: David “being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that of the fruit of his body, according to the flesh, He would raise up the Christ to sit on his throne, he, foreseeing this, spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ.” Here that investiture with kingly authority at His resurrection is to the Messianic throne of David.
The Lord is seated there in confident expectation of victory, as Peter points out by citing Psalm 110:1 in Acts 2:34: “For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he says himself: The LORD said to my Lord, Sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool. Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Ac. 2:34-36).3
In Romans 1:4 Paul observes that Christ is “declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.” Again we see that He was invested with authority as the Son of God at the resurrection.
This great resurrection-based theme of “all authority in heaven and on earth” is echoed in Ephesians 1:19-22: “His mighty power worked in Christ when [God] raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come. And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church.”
Philippians 2:9-10 follows suit: “Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth.”
The investiture of Christ with “all authority” is even anticipated in the Old Testament. We will consider but one passage in this connection.
In Psalm 2:6-7 we read: “I have set My King On My holy hill of Zion. I will declare the decree: The LORD has said to Me, You are My Son, Today I have begotten You.” When Christ is to be set up as a King on Zion is when He was “begotten.” Contrary to the initial appearance, this does not refer to His conception in the womb of Mary. Paul interprets this Messianic reference for us in Acts 13:33-34: “God has fulfilled this for us their children, in that He has raised up Jesus. As it is also written in the second Psalm: You are My Son, today I have begotten You. And that He raised Him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, He has spoken thus: I will give you the sure mercies of David.” This begetting from the dead leads to His inheriting the nations, according to Psalm 2:8: “Ask of Me, and I will give You The nations for Your inheritance, and the ends of the earth for Your possession.”
What, then, is the nature of this grant of “all authority”? The “all” here is used in the distributive sense. It indicates “all kinds” of authority; authority in every realm. He possesses every kind of authority in heaven (i.e., in the spiritual realm) and on earth (i.e., in the temporal realm). He does not claim authority only over the church or over individual redeemed men. He claims authority over the family, education, business, politics, law, medicine — all areas of life.
The “all authority in heaven and on earth” reflects God’s own authority in Matthew 11:25. We must ask ourselves: In what areas of life is God’s authority limited? Obviously in no area, for “the earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness, the world and those who dwell therein” (Ps. 24:1).4 When you call Jesus “Lord,” you are not just speaking of His lordship over your spiritual life as an individual. You are affirming His lordship in all areas of life, in whatever calling you or anyone else undertakes “on earth.” Truly this is a Great Commission.
Christ’s Resurrection Rule
Though the gospel is “to the Jew first” (Rom. 1:16), though Christ “came to His own” (Jn. 1:9), though He originally sent His disciples to none but “the lost sheep of Israel” (Mt. 10:6), Matthew clearly sets forth the Messianic king as One who will rule all peoples. His Kingdom is a universal Kingdom.
I noted earlier that Matthew is the gospel of Christ’s kingship. Interestingly, the first people showing an interest in Christ outside of His family are the non-Jewish Magi (Mt. 2:1). When John the Baptist preaches “the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” he rebukes the Jews and warns of their coming destruction (Mt. 3:7-10), thus opening the door of hope to the Gentiles.
In Matthew 4:8-9 Satan recognizes Christ’s ultimate goal and attempts to allow Christ to achieve it on illegitimate grounds, when he offers Christ the “kingdoms of the world,” not simply the Jewish Promised Land. In Matthew 4:15-16 the first prophecy spoken of as fulfilled in His public ministry is Isaiah 9:1, 2: “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles: the people who sat in darkness saw a great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”
In Matthew 8:10-12 we read: “Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel! And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
In Matthew 13:38 the Kingdom of heaven is expressly said to involve the “world,” not just Israel. The temporal phase of the Kingdom comes to an end with the resurrection and judgment of all men, not just of Israel. And then in Matthew 28, the Lord commissions His people to disciple “all nations.”
As with “all authority,” it is important we grasp the significance of “all nations.” The word “nations” is the Greek word ethnos. It is based on the Greek word ethos, which indicates habits or customs of people; cultural relations. Thus, ethnos speaks of collected masses of men, considered as bound together by social bonds, forming a culture.
Ethnos here does not signify merely “Gentile.” The Jews themselves are called ethnoi ten times in the New Testament (e.g., Lk. 7:5; Jn. 11:48; Ac. 10:22). The term indicates people grouped in terms of their cultural relations, and involves Jews and non-Jews. He speaks of every culture of man, when he speaks of “all nations.” And He speaks of men in terms of their cultural relations.
It is important to recognize that the Lord did not say, “disciple all men” (anthropoi), as if His interest was individualistic, concerned with men only as stray individuals. Neither did He command: “disciple all kingdoms” (baseleia), as if His interest was purely political. The command to disciple “all nations” is directed to the conversion and discipling of the human race, as such, in all of its cultural endeavors. It begins deep within, involving the personal, spiritual aspects of life. But it branches out to include the social, legal, academic, economic, political, and all other areas of life, as well.
Thus, we see how the Great Commission is a counterpart to the Cultural Mandate of Genesis 1:26-28. In the Commission, Christ is implementing a plan to redeem all men and nations. The Commission is not designed so that the church might “snatch brands from the fire.” It seeks the salvation of man in his every relationship, as massed in cultures. The Great Commission not only has cultural implications, it creates a redeemed culture.
We need to be careful when we say, “Christ is my personal Savior.” Idol worshipers often had a “personal savior” that they could carry around with them wherever they went. Their gods were truly “personal,” and significantly limited. Certainly Christ is my Savior: He intimately loves me as an individual. But too often Christians imply Christ is sparingly parceled out to individuals in history.
Here, though, we see He has called us to disciple “all nations” as such. This is based on His possession of “all authority.” And He surely expects the discipleship of all nations by His people and the full accomplishment of the task under His providence.5
Thus, the Scripture speaks of Christ very often as “the Savior of the world.” When it does so it is not setting forth the doctrine of universalism. Hell exists, and it has an everlasting population of unrepentant sinners. Rather, such references point to the eventual actual conversion of the world as a system, as a kosmos.6 The passages that speak thus clearly portray salvation in all of its fullness. These passages do not merely say, “He is the only Savior available to the world,” allowing for the vast majority of men to reject Him.
Consider the strong redemptive terminology used in these passages. John 1:29: “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’” John 3:17: “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” 1 John 2:2: “He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.” Romans 11:15: “For if their being cast away is the reconciling of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?” 2 Corinthians 5:19: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation.”
Truly Christ expects to see a redeemed world one day! The world will be saved, man’s sins propitiated, and the human race reconciled to God. Certainly He commissions us to promote this very task. We are to disciple “all the nations” so that the world as a kosmos, a system of men and things, will become Christian.
Did not the Old Testament even expect this? Isaiah 9:6-7 points to the birth of One destined to rule the world: “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His Kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.”
Psalm 2:7-8 fits well with Christ’s Great Commission to disciple all nations: “I will declare the decree: The LORD has said to Me, You are My Son, Today I have begotten You. Ask of Me, and I will give You The nations for Your inheritance, And the ends of the earth for Your possession.”
Daniel 7:13-14 speaks of the ascension, which follows upon the resurrection: “I was watching in the night visions, and behold, One like the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought Him near before Him. Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a Kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and His Kingdom the one which shall not be destroyed.”
Consequently, in the New Testament we learn that Christ is to become the Savior of the entire world, of “all the nations.” He is even now King of kings and Lord of lords, ruling to that end. Revelation 1:5 says: “Jesus Christ [is] the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler over the kings of the earth.”
It is abundantly clear that He seeks the actual discipling of all nations. They are to be brought under the yoke of the authority of the Triune God: “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” (Mt. 28:19). The plural “them” in “to baptize,” refers back to the plural noun “nations,” which is separated from it by only one word in the Greek. And baptism is only for those under the rule of Christ’s Kingdom — believers and their seed.
Truly the Great Commission is a “great” commission. It is a task that can only be accounted for on postmillennial grounds, as I argue in Thine Is the Kingdom which was recently published by Chalcedon. In the next issue of the Chalcedon Report I will focus particularly upon the theonomic-postmillennial expectations of the church’s obligation to “disciple the nations.”
1. Robert Young, Young’s Literal Translation of the Holy Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, rep. n.d. ), New Testament, 23.
2. The Greek for “given” is edothe, which is the aorist passive indicative of didomi. The word “aorist” is made up of two Greek words: a (“no”) and horizo (“horizon”), which means “unlimited.” Normally, therefore, an aorist tense has no temporal connotation. In the indicative tense, however, it carries the connotation of a past action conceived as in a point of time.
3. Incidentally, Psalm 110:1 is in the New Testament the most frequently cited and alluded to passage from the entire Old Testament. Quotations include: Matthew. 22:44; 26:64; Mark 12:36; 14:62; Luke 20:42-43; 22:69; Acts 2:34-35; Hebrews 1:13. Allusions may be found in: 1 Corinthians 15:24; Ephesians 1:20-22; Philippians 2:9-11; Hebrews 1:3; 8:1; 10:12, 13; 1 Peter 3:22; Revelation 3:21.
4. This is also a recurring theme in Scripture: Exodus 9:29; 19:5; Leviticus 25:23; Deuteronomy 10:14; 1 Samuel 2:8; 1 Chronicles 29:11, 14; Job 41:11; Psalm 24:1; 50:12; 89:11; 104:24; 1 Corinthians 10:26, 28.
5. For my rebuttal of the claim that amillennialism fully understands the Great Commission, see Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., ed., Thine Is the Kingdom: Studies in the Postmillennial Hope (Vallecito, Calif.: Chalcedon, 2003), 135-37.
6. See: B. B. Warfield, “Christ the Propitiation of the Sins of the World,” in Gentry, ed., Thine Is the Kingdom.