The Great Commission

Matthew 28:18-20


From Exegetical Commentary on Matthew, 2006, AMG Publishers.

[16] In obedience to Jesus' command (vv. 9-10), the eleven disciples departed for Galilee to encounter the risen Christ. They "marched on (from poreomai [4198], to proceed) to Galilee, to a mountain that Jesus had appointed (from tssō [5021], to arrange, appoint) to them" (a.t.). So certain was Jesus of His resurrection that He even told His disciples on which mountain to meet Him afterward. Possibly this was the mountain (ros [3735]) near the Sea of Galilee where Jesus retired to pray during His ministry (Matt. 14:23). No other person has ever made an appointment to meet someone following his or her death and kept it. In Matthew 26:32 Jesus had prophesied, "But after I am risen again, I will go before you into Galilee."

[17] Again, Jesus was worshiped, this time by the eleven disciples: "And when they saw (from edon, the aorist of horō [3708], to see and perceive) Him, they worshiped (from proskunéō) Him, but some doubted (from distzō [1365], to doubt or to hesitate)" (a.t.). An alternate translation of the verb distzō is "to hesitate."

The Greek has two verbs for doubt. The one is amphibllō (n.f.) and the other distzō (1365). Only distzō is used in the New Testament. Matthew 14:31 says, "O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?" In our present verse, it is translated "but some doubted" (28:17). This concerned the eleven true disciples of Jesus Christ who had already marched into Galilee to see the risen Jesus at the mountain where Jesus said He was going to meet them. Now they had no reason to doubt the resurrection of Jesus. He was not in the grave. That was a fact. Even the guards could not explain it.

The verb edstasan refers to the true disciples, who were persuaded about the risen Christ, but they hesitated about the evangelization of the world. The verb distzo in Matthew 14:31 is used in conjunction with the adjective, calling Peter "a man of little faith" (oligpiste [3640]) for hesitating to go to Jesus Christ who walked on the water (Matt. 14:22-33; Mark 6:45-52; John 6:15-21). The same Jesus also told the disciples to disciple all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Jesus' appearance was changed (hē idéa, from edon, aorist of horō meaning to perceive). The noun "idea" in English derives from idéa. It is the recognition a person has of a past acquaintance. Mary Magdalene recognized Jesus after He spoke her name at the tomb. Having been freed from demons who had possessed her, she became a follower of Jesus (Luke 8:2, 3). She proved faithful to Him and His cause to the very end. She was at His crucifixion (Matt. 27:56; John 19:25) and burial (Matt. 27:61; Mark 15:40, 47); she helped prepare the materials to embalm Him (Mark 16:1); and she was the first to go to the sepulchre after the resurrection (Matt. 28:1; Luke 24:10).

At Christ's Second Coming, those who died in Christ will be raised first, then those believers who are still alive will be caught up together with them to meet Christ (hma [260]) (Matt. 13:29; 24:26-27; 1 Thess. 4:13-18; 5:10). The verb used in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 referring to what will happen to believers is expressed by the Greek verb harpagēsmetha, translated "weshall be caught up" from harpzō (726) to catch up, to pluck, to snatch away, especially used for the rapture (Acts 8:39; 2 Cor. 12:4; Rev. 12:5). Second Corinthians 12:2 says that Paul was caught up into paradise, the third heaven (trtou ourano), where he heard unspeakable words (rrēta [731], inexpressible, rhēmata [4487] specific words having divine significance).

The rapture refers to the saved people who make up the church (ekklēsa [1577]). The believers resurrected and those living when Jesus Christ comes again have a dual relationship with Christ. His Spirit took possession of the believers' spirits and made them one spiritual family. In Matthew 18:20, Jesus said, "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them."

This is why Matthew 28:17 states, "but they hesitated" because they were believers of little faith (oligpistoi [3640]). Today believers' little faith is the culprit for not accomplishing great things for God. The great things are megalea (3167), and the verb is megalnō (3170), which Mary, the mother of Jesus, used in her Magnificat (Luke 1:46-56), translated "magnify" which seeks to manifest God's greatness (megaleitēs [3168], Luke 9:43; 2 Pet. 1:16). In Luke 1:47, Mary acknowledged her unborn Son as the Lord her God and Savior. The same verb, echartōsen, an intransitive verb in the case of Mary, was used in the angel Gabriel's greeting in Luke 1:28. The same word is used in Ephesians 1:6 for believers as a result of their active faith in Christ (tos pisteousin [John 1:12]). Their faith in Christ makes it possible for Him to give them His grace (charzomai, which is equivalent to charitō).

Jesus' promise that He would precede His disciples into Galilee implied some ministry to be done there. Perhaps now, even after the resurrection, they still were hesitant to take a stand for His name. The disciples had difficulty accepting the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ at first. Mark 16:11 says they did not believe Mary Magdalene even after she had seen Christ risen from the dead. And Mark 16:12-13 says they did not believe two other disciples (probably Cleopas and his companion, as recorded in Luke 24:13-31) to whom Jesus appeared in another form while they were walking into the country. But when they heard later testimony from Peter, John, and the women that Jesus rose and the tomb was empty (John 20:2-18), some believed. Thomas doubted, but when he physically "handled" the risen Christ, he believed (John 20:26-29).

[18] Once the resurrection was verified, Jesus dispelled the disciples' hesitation and assured them of the promise He gave in John 14:12-14 that believers would perform greater works when the Holy Spirit personally came on them (John 16:7). Oddly, even the ascension bewildered the disciples. The angels asked, "Why stand ye gazing up into heaven?" (Acts 1:11).

Before His actual ascension, Jesus explained its full theological import: "All authority (exousa [1849], moral right and physical power) is given (from ddōmi [1325], to give) to Me in heaven and in earth" (a.t.).

[19] The giving of all authority in heaven and earth to the Son is the foundation for world evangelism (Mark 16:15). In Matthew's presentation of the Great Commission, Jesus gave only one imperative command: "make disciples" (mathētesate, the aorist active imperative of mathēteō [3100], to disciple or teach a student).

The first verbal phrase in the verse is translated by almost all English versions into idiomatic English as an imperative itself, "Go ye." But, in Greek, it is an aorist passive participle (poreuthéntes from poreomai [4198], to proceed), designed to indicate a circumstantial action that accompanies the main verb. When used with an imperative command, as here, the participle of attendant circumstance presents an activity to accompany the fulfilling of the imperative. It takes on the character of an imperative command itself, which explains why most English versions translate it as "go and make disciples."

The verb poreou (second person singular present middle/passive deponent imperative of poreomai [4198)], as poreuthéntes here) is followed by the imperative "make disciples (mathētesate, from mathēteō [3100]) of all nations." The expression poreuthéntes mathētesate (i.e. "having marched on to make disciples"), would be futile if the parable of the true vine did not teach that every believer should produce as much fruit as humanly possible with God's divine enablement (John 15).

We fulfill the Great Commission only when we go to reach others and make disciples of them. The proper translation is something like: "having gone (or "as you go"), make disciples."

This is the same thing that Mark describes in his version of the Great Commission as given in Mark 16:15: "Having gone (poreuthéntes, the same participle of attendant circumstance as used in Matt. 28:19) into all the world, preach (kērxate, the aorist active imperative of kērssō [2784], to proclaim, preach) the gospel (from euaggélion [2098]) to every created being (from ktsis [2937])" (a.t).

We make disciples through preaching or proclaiming the Gospel to people. The Gospel of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ must be preached "first" (1 Cor. 15:12). The Great Commission should always be connected with the Lord's resurrection and the authority He has in heaven and on earth.

The Lord Jesus Christ is unique. Because "all authority" (v. 18) presupposes a divine nature, He does not pass all this power to created individuals or institutions. Accordingly, when the Lord commanded the Eleven to make disciples of all nations, He did not mean they were to force nations to acknowledge Christ, as some attempted in the Crusades.

In addition to the participle of attendant circumstance, "having gone," two adverbial participles of manner describe how to make disciples, that is, what is involved in fulfilling the command to make disciples. Both participles are in the present tense, indicating that they are to be performed over and over again as often as the need arises. The first present participle of manner is "baptizing (from baptzō [907]) them." The pronoun in the phrase, "baptizing them," removes the idea that whole nations are in view. Autos is masculine, whereas éthnē is neuter (t éthnē). Thus, "them" refers to persons within the nations rather than the nations themselves. We are commanded to disciple individuals from all nations. Those who respond in faith (presupposed here) must be baptized.

These believers are to be baptized "in the (one) name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit," that is, the Triune God. The single name embraces Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in one distinct Deity; otherwise, Matthew would have said "names." "Baptizing" (from baptzō [907]) means primarily an identity that signifies burial with Christ and resurrection with Him into newness of life (Rom. 6:4).

[20] Beyond baptizing, Jesus commanded the disciples to be "teaching (from didskō [1321]) them to observe (from tēréō [5083], to hold fast, keep faithfully) all things as many as I commanded (from entéllomai [1781], to command) you" (a.t.). Jesus taught, "On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets" (Matt. 22:40), and the greatest is "love" (agpē [26], Matt. 22:38) toward God and toward our fellow humans (Matt. 28:34-40). And John forever links our love for the Lord with our obedience to Him. Jesus said, "Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you" (John 15:14).

After the Lord's final commands came the promise of His special presence: "And lo (ido [2400], "behold" something special, the imperative of edon/eidō [1492] from horō [3708], to see and perceive), I am with you all the days (hēméras [2250]) until (héōs [2193], unto) the end (from suntéleia [4930], completion, consummation; from sn [4862], together with; and télos [5056], end, completion, goal) of the age (from aiōn [165]). Amen" (a.t.).

The definite article before "days" marks out a specific age that will terminate at the end of people's opportunity to repent and accept God's free gift of forgiveness-the church age. "Until" (héōs) does not mean that the Lord will abandon us after this period. It simply means that during this particular time that may be characterized by persecution, He will manifest His special presence to us. Suntéleia, the end or consummation, also occurs in Matthew 13:39-40, 49; 24:3 and Hebrews 9:26 (where it appears with the plural "ages") and defines the purposeful goals God determines and executes.

"World" is a mistranslation in the King James Version of aiōn. The word means "age" and, similarly to the way "hour" is used in the New Testament, this period or age is filled with redemptive content flowing out of the eternal plan of God. Ksmos (2889) is better translated "world." Technically the term ksmos includes outer adornment and structure; it does not mean empty space. Structure includes a philosophy of life. Since the fall, human philosophy has been predominantly anti-God. Therefore, the term "philosophy" is a misnomer, since no one can hate God and love (true) wisdom, which is what true philosophy is. "For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He takes the wise by their own craftiness" (1 Cor. 3:19; a.t.).

The risen Christ promises to be "with" (met [3326]) His disciples, as well as being "in" (en [1722]) them in the Person of the Holy Spirit (John 14:17; Col. 1:27). No wonder the Lord tells us to "Behold!" His presence should excite and motivate us to endure under the worst of trials and to persevere against the worst of persecutions.

Spiros Zodhiates (1922-2009) served as president of AMG International for over 40 years, was the founding editor of Pulpit Helps Magazine (Disciple's predecessor), and authored dozens of exegetical books.

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