Matthew (Part 39) - The Great Commission
We will return to Matthew 27 briefly to discuss the miracles that occurred immediately at the death of Christ. Verses 51 through 53 tell us that the veil in the temple marking the entrance to the Holy of Holies was torn from top to bottom. An earthquake violently shook the area to the extent that rocks were split apart. And some tombs were opened from which resurrected saints emerged. These miraculous events were not necessarily actual events but were theological teachings Matthew metaphorically incorporated to explain to his primarily Jewish audience what was happening.
No one except the High Priest, and he only once a year, could enter the Holy of Holies—the place where God Himself would meet with his covenant people. The symbolism of the veil ripping in two from top to bottom indicated that Christ’s sacrificial death for the sins of people provided access to God that had in the old covenant been denied. The earthquake showed that the death of Jesus was no misstep or canceling of God’s plan. Jesus freely gave his life for the purpose of redemption. He was in control as the violent earthquake symbolized.
The dead being raised is illustrative of the result of the atonement—Christ's crucifixion and resurrection. Christian Jews need not fear that OT saints were lost forever because they died before the atonement. With this imagery, Matthew insists they too will unite with God through Jesus's work as surely as the rest of us will. They will rise from their graves; they will be given new bodies (when the rest of us get ours), all their friends and lineage will see them again.
These three events, then, show us the following:
Veil torn: represents access to God—shows Jesus as Messiah
Earthquake: represents control over all—shows Jesus as King
Resurrected saints: represents purpose of God—shows Jesus as God
After the resurrection in chapter 28, we learn that the soldiers who had guarded the tomb returned to the chief priests with their amazing story. Certainly they would not have wanted to return directly to Pilate and give this account. At least the chief priests might believe them since they seemed more accepting of the miraculous. And besides, Pilate had given this guard to the chief priests; so the guards were technically reporting back to those who had directed them to watch the tomb. The Sanhedrin is assembled and after discussion they pay the soldiers money to circulate the lie that the disciples came and stole the body while they slept. They also promise to keep them out of trouble with Pilate. The soldiers agree.
It would seem that only the unthinking and extremely gullible would buy this story. Surely an immediate question to follow would be: “Did you get in trouble? How were you punished for your failure?” And the guards would have had to stumble over some answer trying to explain why not performing their duty would be excused by their superiors. Others may have asked, “Did you then immediately arrest the disciples and toss them in jail?” Again, the soldiers would have had to come up with some excuse as to why they let them go. But perhaps most difficult to answer would have been any question about how they knew the disciples had taken the body if they were asleep. At best, they would have to admit it was presumption, and therefore this could not be a denial of the resurrection.
Finally we come to the last five verses of Matthew that hold what has come to be called the Great Commission. We see in verse 16 that Jesus meets them in Galilee at a mountain. From Luke, both in his Gospel and Acts, we learn that Jesus ascended to heaven near Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. Therefore the commission given in Matthew must have been earlier before they returned to Jerusalem after meeting with them in Galilee (John 21). But although this commission is not at the same time or place as the one in Acts 1:8, the message is much the same. The disciples had proved numerous times through Matthew as needing instruction repeated often before they completely understood.
The location in Galilee (probably the same mountain from which Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount at the beginning of his ministry (5-7)) also helps us understand why verse 17 tells us that some still doubted. They had all seen the risen Christ in Jerusalem, but the long journey back up to Galilee may have got some of them wondering again whether what they had seen was real or a vision. But Jesus satisfies them enough so that by the time of his actual ascension recorded by Luke, they surely were convinced and accepting of Jesus as Messiah, King, and God.
The commission in Matthew differs in certain respects from the commission in Acts. Both have directions to Go and Do. But Acts emphasizes the going while Matthew emphasizes the doing. In Acts, Jesus briefly mentions that they are to be witnesses (the Doing) but goes into detail about where they would witness (the Going)—in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the end of the earth. In Matthew, Jesus merely gives the command to go, but he emphasizes what they were to do: make disciples, baptize disciples, and teach disciples. Now, was this commission a general command to the church or should it be considered as an individual command to each covenant person? The location (the Going) part of the commission must certainly be a general instruction to the church (i.e., all New Covenant believers as a group). But the Doing commands seem more individual. Certainly if the opportunity for witnessing to the lost presented itself, each of us who are Christians would consider it not only a privilege but a duty to speak of Christ and the gospel. Likewise, we would not fail to teach another Christian through simple biblical direction and personal experience who came to us for spiritual help in some aspect of his/her Christianity. We would not tell that person that we are called only to evangelize and not to help others. Or in the first situation, we would not argue that we are not called to evangelize. Therefore, these commands concerning disciples seem to be for each of us individually.
But then we turn to 1 Corinthians 1 and find what at first appears to be a strange statement by Paul. In verse 14 he first thanks God that he did not baptize the Corinthian Christians. How can he thank God for not doing something the Jesus commands to do in Matthew? And even worse, in verse 17 he says, “For Christ did not send me to baptized but to preach the gospel.” What?! Paul denies being commanded to baptize when Jesus clearly says in Matthew to “Make disciples of all nations, baptizing them….”
Let’s consider that word—baptize. What does it mean? Most lexicons will tell us that the Greek word baptizw means immerse or submerge. Well, how did we get the word baptize? The word baptize is a transliteration from the Greek. That means that we took a Greek word and made it into an English word rather than translating it. Why did this happen?
Some people believe that when the KJV was translated, the translators did not want to use the translation immerse for baptizw because the Church of England practiced sprinkling. It would be rather embarrassing to have the English version of the Bible, authorized by the king (who was head of the church), to advocate immersing in Holy Scripture when their practice was sprinkling. But we do find a couple of translations prior to the KJV from the previous century that also used the transliteration baptize.
Probably the reason for the transliteration was so that people would understand that what was meant was the water rite. After all, when we say immerse, we don’t necessarily mean in water. We could be immersed in study, immersed in a hobby, or immersed in a daydream. So the translators, wanting people to understand that the Bible was speaking of the water rite, transliterated the word so that it could be identified as that special ordinance. Of course, the problem then came about that since every time the Greek word presents itself in the NT it is transliterated, when reading we automatically assume it is talking about the water rite. What if the author used the word like we use immerse—meaning in another fashion besides water? Too late, our minds have already settled on the idea that the author is speaking of the water rite. I think some of our confusion about baptism (including baptismal regeneration) has come about because of this transliteration.
Could that be the case in our passage in Matthew? Is this commission really instructing us to conduct the water rite of baptism or could it be something else? One way to help us understand is to examine Matthew’s use of the word. There are six verses in Matthew that refer to a baptism of some sort.
Matthew 3:11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me...will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
John the Baptist is speaking in Matthew 3:11. Clearly, he speaks of his baptism as one with water. But the baptism of Jesus, he says, will be of the Holy Spirit.
Matthew 3:13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized
This verse definitely points to Christ being baptized in water. Notice that this is a baptism by John. John’s baptism was to show repentance and identification with the kingdom of heaven. Although Jesus had no sin of which to repent, he was baptized by John to show the purpose of his mission—for the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 3:16 ...and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him.
Matthew 3:16 does not use the words baptize or baptism, but it does present a baptism. The baptism of the Holy Spirit by the Father, immediately after the baptism in water by John, is intended to show (1) that Jesus walked by the Spirit and (2) that Jesus was in relationship with the Father (remember as the Spirit descends on Christ as a dove, the Father speaks from heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son”).
Matthew 20:22 in Byzantine family (KJV) “Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”
Only the KJV and other translations from the Byzantine family of manuscripts (most modern translations such as NIV, NASB, HCSB, ESV, etc. are from the older though less populous Alexandrian family) include the phrases using the word baptize. However, in this verse we see that it is neither the water rite nor baptism by the HS that is intended. It is a baptism of death.
Matthew 21:25 “The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?”
Clearly, Matthew 21:25 refers to the water rite that John performed.
Matthew 28:19-20 “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.”
So based on the previous verses, how should we understand this last use of baptizing in Matthew 28? It is certainly not referring to John’s baptism. And Matthew never mentions the Christian water rite (although we find it elsewhere in the NT). Perhaps context, then, should point us to an understanding here in Matthew 28 of baptism by the Holy Spirit.
This understanding certainly matches Christ’s baptism by the Holy Spirit in chapter 3. When we are baptized by the Spirit at salvation, we both receive the Spirit and we are identified in relationship with God as his child—exactly as Christ received the Spirit and was identified as God’s Son. Furthermore, the commission in Matthew 28 actually is not three separate commands. It is one command—make disciples. Jesus further explains how they are to make disciples—by “baptizing them” (this is the point of salvation) and by “teaching them” (this is the instruction about the kingdom).
In Acts 1, just before the commission is given, we read in verse 5, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” This, at the end of Christ’s earthly appearance, appears to be the direct fulfillment of what John the Baptist said at the beginning of Christ’s mission in Matthew 3:11 (quoted above). Immediately following this we read his commission prior to his ascension. Therefore, even from Christ’s instruction it appears that the idea of baptizing disciples has to do with the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
Each Gospel and Acts has a version of Christ’s post-resurrection commission. In Mark 16:15 we read: “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” Certainly we should not understand the baptism mentioned here as the water rite. The water rite does not give salvation. But it is with the baptism of the Holy Spirit that salvation comes.
Luke’s and John’s versions (Luke 24:46-48 and John 20:21) don’t mention baptism. Acts 1:8 reads: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Notice that it does speak of a baptism (though not using the word) in that they are to wait for the Holy Spirit to come upon them (which Christ told them earlier in verse 5 was a baptism).
Therefore, in reading the commission of Matthew 28:19-20, we should understand the baptizing reference to refer to the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The context of Matthew demands it; the comparison with other commission passages demands it; and the justification of Paul’s statement in Corinthians denying his call to baptism demands it.
The understanding of the commission is important because it is on its foundational basis that the disciples conducted their work and that we should conduct our kingdom ministry as well. Eschatology, the study of things to come, provides much of our goal (hope) basis for which we live in this age. Postmillennialists tend to see the Great Commission as particularly indicating their eschatological outlook. Since in our Revelation series we focused more on Amillennialism as opposed to Dispensationalism and classic Premillennialism, we need to examine the Postmillennial claims concerning the commission before going on.
Lorraine Boettner was perhaps the leading postmillennialist of the 20th century. In an article (Statement of the Doctrine), Boettner had this to say concerning the commission:
“Postmillennialism…holds that the universal proclamation of the Gospel and the ultimate conversion of the large majority of men in all nations during the present dispensation was the express command and meaning and promise of the Great Commission given by Christ Himself…. We believe that the Great Commission includes not merely the formal and external announcement of the Gospel preached as a 'witness' to the nations, as the Premillennialists and Amillennialists hold, but the true and effectual evangelization of all the nations so that the hearts and lives of the people are transformed by it. That seems quite clear from the fact that all authority in heaven and on earth and an endless sweep of conquest has been given to Christ and through Him to His disciples specifically for that purpose. The disciples were commanded not merely to preach, but to make disciples of all the nations. It was no doubtful experiment to which they were called, but to a sure triumph. The preaching of the Gospel under the direction of the Holy Spirit and during this dispensation is, therefore, the all-sufficient means for the accomplishment of that purpose.”
We will examine this statement in four parts. The first concerns his statement concerning “true and effectual evangelization.” Boettner sets this idea in opposition to the Amillennial view of the Great Commission as a command to preach or witness to the nations. Boettner’s insistence that a difference exists here (since Boettner would not believe that we as disciples could actually change hearts and apply salvation) appears to be that the preaching command by Christ carries with it the power to eventually convert the world (or at least the vast “majority of men in all nations”).
However, if we would complain to the Boettner that it would then seem that “effectual evangelization” is not currently alive in our generation or those previous since the world remains not Christianized, he would no doubt argue that I am unjustifiably limiting the view of the process. It is in the larger view, he would say, that what past generations and our generation is accomplishing is the end of a Christianized world, and that whole process then is effectual evangelization.
My argument here is that it is Boettner (and postmillennialists) who unjustifiably limits the view of this age. The postmillennialist view of effectual evangelization is not that all (or most) people of all nations must be Christianized, but that all (or most) people of all nations who happen to be alive at the same time must be Christianized. And it is this point for which I believe the postmillennialist has no support. If you take a broad view of this age (as postmillennialists argue you must do), you must include all people who have ever lived during it to be consistent. And if we include all those people across the scope of this age, it would defy the postmillennial difference for which Boettner argues in regard to effectual evangelization. (Note also that the postmillennial argument regarding the commission is not that faith, righteousness, and peace are the commission but rather than making Christian disciples is the commission, resulting in faith, righteousness, and peace.)
Boettner’s next statement is that effectual evangelization seems clear based on Christ’s authority. However, again this conclusion is predicated on a false limitation of a time period when all who happen to be alive at the same time are Christians. Looking at the complete picture of this age, if Christ has authority even though vast hordes of people die apart from the kingdom, then Christ’s authority does not necessitate the result of a specific time period when the people alive during that time period happen to be all Christians.
Next Boettner argues, “The disciples were commanded not merely to preach but to make disciples of all nations.” To Boettner and postmillennialists this means that nations would have to all be Christianized. But the word for nations is e[qnoj, which means any people group, tribe, nation, etc.—in other words, not necessarily literal nations. And if we look at how the Bible uses the word, it doesn’t indicate that all must be alike in whatever the subject of discussion. For example, Romans 2:23-24 has Paul telling the Jews, “You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles (nations or e[qnoj) because of you.’” Certainly not all nations knew of the Jews. Therefore using the term does not mean Christ had in mind a literal encompassing of all nations of a future time period that exist on the earth at the same time. Besides this, we must understand from context that Christ’s use of nations was to show the difference in New Covenant application to individuals everywhere as opposed to the old covenant application to a specific nation (Israel).
Finally, Boettner states that the Christianization of the world is the “sure triumph.” Along this line, Ken Gentry, a leading postmillennialist of our day, states, ““What is more, not only does Jesus authoritatively command the apostles to disciple all nations, but he even promises he will be with them (and all his people) ‘always.’ That is, he will be with them through the many days until the end to oversee the successful completing of the task. This is the postmillennial hope” (emphasis added) (Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond, edited by Darrell L. Bock, p.48).
The sure triumph and postmillennial hope will be discussed in the next summary.