The Great Commission According to Matthew
Before Jesus ascended back to heaven, he gathered his disciples together and declared:
“All authority hath been given unto me in heaven and on earth. Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you: and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Mt. 28:18-20 ASV).
So reads what is commonly called “the great commission,” as presented in Matthew’s Gospel record. This narrative is a gold mine, strewn here and there with spiritual nuggets which enrich the soul. Let us explore this divine depository of truth.
The basis of the Lord’s “marching orders” is his authority. “All authority hath been given me,” declared the risen Savior.
The Greek term exousia is better rendered “authority” (ASV) than “power” (KJV). It denotes the Lord’s right, as the Son of God, to command obedience. There are several important points that need to be mentioned relative to this phrase.
First, though the verbal “hath been given” is past tense, it anticipates the imminent coronation of Christ when, following his ascension, the Lord was to “sit at [God’s] right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule, and authority, and power, and dominion,” etc. (Eph. 1:20,21).
Sometimes a past tense form is idiomatically employed in prophecy to denote the certainty of an event. While it is true that Jesus exercised divine authority during his teaching ministry (cf. Mt. 7:29; 10:1,7,8; 22:43,44), at the time of his return to the Father, that authority was expanded, i.e., exercised both in heaven and on earth (Carson, p. 594). Only the Father himself is excepted from this reign (cf. 1 Cor. 15:27, 8). Surely this declaration of the regal authority of Jesus Christ is evidence of his deity.
Second, the fact that such authority was “given” to the Lord is a commentary on his subordination to the Father. Prior to the incarnation, i.e., the point at which the eternal Word (cf. Jn. 1:1) became flesh (cf. Jn. 1:14), the Second Person of the Godhead possessed an “equality” with Jehovah.
In assuming the “likeness of man,” however, the Lord chose not to retain that equality. Rather, he “emptied himself” of the independent exercise of certain divine prerogatives, and yielded to the will of his Father (see Phil. 2:5ff). For a further discussion of this matter, see “Courier Publications” for the author’s work on Philippians (Jackson, pp. 45-48).
Third, during his reign, Christ would delegate certain authority (e.g., to the apostles — cf. Mt. 19:28); yet, there is no biblical evidence whatever that he would appoint any earthly dignitary to function as “the visible head of the Church on earth,” as is claimed by Roman Catholic writers (Attwater, p. 388). Jesus is “the [exclusive] head” of that institution (Col. 1:18).
In the Greek text, Matthew 28:19 begins with a participle, literally, “having gone.” But participles may sometimes be used in the imperative (command) sense (see Friberg, pp. 809,810), hence, it is not improper to render the term as “Go” in this passage. Christ thus admonished his men to go forth and “make disciples.”
The expression “make disciples” (“teach” KJV) is also a command. The basic form of the word is mathetes, which is actually “a learner.” The word derives from the root math, which indicates “thought accompanied by endeavor” (Vine, p. 221). Etymology thus suggests that a disciple is one who “stands in relation to another as pupil and is instructed by that person” (Balz & Schneider, p. 372).
There is a clear implication in the use of this term. One who is subject to baptism is one who is capable of being a student, a learner.
The Congregationalist scholar Philip Dodderidge, in his famous Family Expositor, argued that the verbal matheteusate in 28:19
“seems to import instruction in the essentials of religion, which it was necessary to know and submit to, before they could regularly be admitted to baptism” (quoted by Shepherd, p. 262).
Similarly, Matthew Henry, a Presbyterian, observed that discipling intimates that
“the essentials of the religion of Jesus, — the remolding of the character, through the truth, — is necessary to entitle any individual to baptism” (p. 307).
Obviously, therefore, infants are excluded. The New Testament knows nothing of baby-baptism.
Facts about Baptism
The Master’s men were commissioned to disciple converts, baptizing them. This clearly reveals that the baptism was humanly administered. Thus, this reference to immersion is not an allusion to some sort of “Spirit” baptism.
Too, the fact that baptism is administered by a second party demonstrates that the mode is such that it cannot be self-imposed, as is the case with sprinkling or pouring. In genuine baptism, the candidate is passive; he is “raised” [by another] to walk in newness of life (Col. 2:12; Rom. 6:4). Sprinkling and pouring are post-apostolic innovations.
This context also speaks indirectly to the purpose of baptism. This is indicated in two ways.
First, we must comment briefly again on the term “disciple.” This word eventually takes on a technical sense whereby it is equivalent to a “Christian” (cf. Acts 6:7; 11:26). Apparently, by anticipation, the word is employed in that sense in Matthew’s commission, for the apostle suggests we are to “make disciples … baptizing them.”
The participle (“baptizing”) explains “the manner in which the given action [”make disciples"] was performed" (Green, p. 332). Thus, in the final analysis, one formally becomes a Christian when he or she is immersed into a relationship with the Godhead.
Second, immersion is said to be "into [not “in” KJV] the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." The expression “into the name” (eis to onoma) is interesting. In New Testament Greek it signified that “the one who is baptized becomes the possession of and comes under the protection of” the one into whose name he is immersed (Arndt & Gingrich, p. 575).
Hence, one is not possessed by the divine Godhead until he submits to baptism. Mueller contends that baptism “into the name” of the Triune God means that one enters a relationship of “communion” with deity by that act (p. 371).
In the light of such lucid instruction, how can anyone deny that immersion is essential to a proper relationship with God?
The Godhead — Three, Not One
Matthew’s account of the commission also contains a solid argument for the doctrine of the Trinity. Jesus stated that those discipled must be immersed “into the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
Of special interest is the fact that each of the nouns — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — is preceded by the definite article (rendered “the” in the English Bible). In Greek grammar when a series of nouns is joined by the conjunction kai (“and”), if an article commences the series, but is missing from the subsequent nouns, then the nouns stand as a further descriptive of the initial subject. This is known as Sharp’s Rule (Dana & Mantey, p. 147).
On the other hand, when the article is repeated before each noun, “the distinctness of each” thing or person (as in the present case) is emphasized (Warfield, p. 42). Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are thus not merely three qualities of the One-Person God, as alleged by the United Pentecostal Church. Rather, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three separate divine Persons.
After one leads his student into a knowledge of and obedience to the Son of God, there is an abiding responsibility to instruct the novice in the fundamentals of the faith.
Consistent with this admonition, for example, is the fact that elders are required to “feed the flock” (Acts 20:28). But here is an intriguing question. If elders and teachers are required to feed, are the students obligated to eat?
It is a matter of utter amazement, not to mention consternation, that so many members of the body of Christ today feel that church attendance, beyond a Lord’s supper service on Sunday, is purely a matter of option.
Do passages like Titus 2:14; Hebrews 10:25, and James 4:17 have any meaning at all? Waning Bible study attendance is a sad commentary on the condition of today’s church.
Abiding Presence of Christ
Jesus declared that if his people carry out the commission imposed, he would “be with [them] always, even to the end of the world.” Is there a more comforting New Testament passage emphasizing the providential activity of the Savior?
Later, Paul could say:
“At my first defence no one took my part, but all forsook me … but the Lord stood by me, and strengthened me” (2 Tim. 4:16,17).
Truly, Matthew’s Commission is brimming with rich information. Let us be refreshed thereby.
Scripture references: Matthew 28:18-20; Ephesians 1:20, 21; Matthew 7:29, 10:1, 7, 8, 22:43, 44; John 1:1; John 1:14; Philippians 2:5; Matthew 19:28; Colossians 1:18; Matthew 28:19; Colossians 2:12; Romans 6:4; Acts 6:7, 11:26; Acts 20:28; Titus 2:14; Hebrews 10:25; James 4:17; 2 Timothy 4:16, 17
- Arndt, William F. and Gingrich, F. Wilbur (1967), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago: University of Chicago).
- Attwater, Donald (1961), A Catholic Dictionary (New York: Macmillan).
- Balz, Horst and Schneider, Gerhard (1981), Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), Vol. 2.
- Carson, D.A. (1984), “Matthew,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Frank Gaebelein, Ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan).
- Dana, H.E. and Mantey, Julius (1957), A Manual Grammar of the Greek Testament (New York: Macmillan).
- Friberg, Barbara and Timothy (1981), Analytical Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker).
- Green, Samuel G. (1907), Handbook to the Grammar of the Greek Testament (London: Religious Tract Society).
- Henry, Matthew (1834), “Matt.-John” The Comprehensive Commentary, William Jenks, Ed. (Boston: Shattuck & Co.)
- Jackson, Wayne (1987), The Book of Philippians (Abilene, TX: Quality).
- Mueller, J. Theodore (1960), Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, E.F. Harrison, Ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker).
- Shepherd, J.W. (1950), Handbook on Baptism (Nashville: Gospel Advocate).
- Vine, W.E. (1991), Amplified Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Iowa Falls, IA: World).
- Warfield, Benjamin (1952), Biblical and Theological Studies (Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed).