For those of us who identify ourselves as evangelical Christians, evangelism is unapologetically central to our sense of mission in life under God. We may not always agree about how it should be done. We may blush in embarrassment at how it is often practiced in inappropriate or crude ways by others who lack, shall we say, our own delicate sentiments (or perhaps they are just immune from the cowardice and fear we are infected with? I prefer the former.). But we nevertheless hold steady in the face of all resistance from a wishy-washy, weak-kneed pluralistic society. We affirm without reservation the necessity of sharing our faith with those who have not heard or received the gospel of Christ.
As evangelicals with such passionate committment to the spread of the gospel through personal evangelism, it is no surprise that the “Great Commission”–uttered by the risen Jesus himself and recorded at the conclusion of the gospel of Matthew–is one of our bread and butter passages of Scripture, along with verses like John 3:16, Romans 3:23, 6:23, etc. In fact, it would be fair to say that Matthew 28:16-20 has been instrumental in creating a great deal of the precise shape that modern evangelicalism bears. I have personally heard countless sermons and lectures over the years on these words of Jesus.
Like so many other overly familiar things in life to which we are constantly exposed (Scripture proves to be no exception), passages like Matthew 28 and John 3:16 have often become, to be blunt, boring to us. I’ve heard it all before, I get it, now let’s move on to the deeper theology or the practical how-to. Fortunately, from time to time the Lord gives grace to open my eyes and cause me to see the beauty and glory of the truths expressed in these passages–a glimpse of the very stuff that originally caused them to be beloved by so many. Sometimes this work of grace is mysterious. I simply find myself appreciating the fundamental reality I have chewed on for so long, and it is new and fresh once again and overflows in fullness. Other times, my heightened sensitivity to the wonder inherent in these passages comes specifically from viewing them in a new, heretofore unimagined perspective. Matthew 28 has been the place of just such an encounter this past year.
Jesus’ commission to his disciples in Matthew 28 seems straightforward–and it absolutely is. Go. Make disciples. All nations. Baptize. Trinity. Obey. Forever. The fresh perspective I share here won’t get you out of any of these tasks or realities (admit it, there’s a part of each of us that desires that). But hearing Matthew 28 in its original context will help us to perceive all these things in a new light, in a way that might, indeed, set them on fire. You see, I’ve become convinced that the biggest problem in our (superficial?) understanding of the Great Commission is, quite simply, our tendency to think that it’s primarily about US. In spite of the enormous calling Jesus’ followers are given there, I am nonetheless persuaded that these words are essentially about JESUS. Their significance lay first and foremost in what is communicated about who Jesus is and what he has accomplished, which in turn serves as the true basis of the mission he entrusts to his church. Too often, I fear, we hastily embrace the mission in relative isolation without first waking up to the sweeping, cosmic foundation that undergirds and gives impetus to the mission.
Two factors are important in reconstructing the original context of Matthew 28: the Hebrew Scriptures (what we know today as the Old Testament) and the overall narrative flow of Matthew’s gospel. Both conspire together to broaden our grasp of the meaning of Jesus’ words here. With respect to the first, few subjects (i.e. the use of the Old Testament in the New) have been more profitably mined in the past few decades in biblical scholarship (see here, here and here).
With my interpretative instincts increasingly more in tune with the conceptual importance of the OT in the gospels, I initially noticed that Matthew 28 contained a number of allusions and echoes to Daniel 7–by any account, one of the most influential passages in the OT for Jews of that time period. Afterwards, I observed that the two key ideas of Daniel 7–the “coming” of the kingdom of God and the arrival of the “Son of Man”–are key themes in Matthew’s presentation of who Jesus is and what his mission preeminently concerns. Next time, I’ll draw out some implications of reading the Great Commission of Matthew 28 in light of Daniel 7 (which itself is concerned with a larger biblical narrative). I hope that even now you might open your Bible and compare them to each other. Either way, here are the parallels I see between Daniel 7:13-14 and Matthew 28:18-20; the first two are not in the Great Commission itself, but recur frequently in the overall narrative of the gospel and are also prominent in Daniel 7:
1.) The Son of Man: Jesus’ favorite self-designation, it appears about 30 times in Matthew’s gospel–always on Jesus’ own lips, never on another’s.
2.) Comes: four times in this gospel Jesus promises (threatens?) that the “Son of Man” will “come” within a generation, immediately, or before those who are standing with him taste death, i.e. 10:23, 16:28, 24:29-35, 26:64. If these sayings are taken, as they often are, as having reference (only) to the future coming of Jesus at the consummation of history, then it is hard to avoid C. S. Lewis’ admission in “The World’s Last Night” that these are the most embarrassing verses in the Bible.
THEN (i.e. after the Son of Man “comes”, the following sequence occurs in both Daniel 7 and Matthew 28):
3.) To Him/Me Was Given: The same form of the same Greek word is used in both the LXX/Septuagint of Daniel 7 and in Matthew’s account, edothe; the only difference is “him” in Daniel 7 and “me” in Matthew 28.
4.) Authority: exousia in both.
5.) In Heaven (ouranos) & on Earth (ge): This clinched it for me. In most English translations of Daniel 7–based as they are on the Masoretic (Hebrew) text–the words “heaven” and “earth” are not included as they are in Matthew 28. However, in the LXX/Septuagint version of Daniel 7 (that is, the Greek translation of the OT that was current in the first century and almost certainly the preferred version of the NT writers, including Matthew), both words appear! The Son of Man ascends/comes to “heaven”, and subsequently has authority over the nations on the “earth” in 7:13-14. It’s a fancy way of saying that the authority the Son of Man enjoys is limitless and without geographical boundaries. There can be no doubt that this is what Jesus is alluding to in Matthew.
6.) All Nations: panta ta ethne in both. Also, both have primary reference to Gentile nations as opposed to Israel in context. This makes perfect sense of Jesus’ prohibition–found only in Matthew, in 10:6 & 15:24–that his disciples, before his death and resurrection, go only to ethnic Jews and avoid the Gentiles. This is not, as some liberal conspirators have adduced, evidence that Jesus never envisioned a Gentile mission after his own lifetime. Rather, it has reference to (in theological terms) a “redemptive-historical” shift: before Jesus’ death & resurrection, he is not yet Lord over all; but after his triumph, he is exalted at God’s right hand and all nations are now called to…
7.) Serve/Obey Him: In Matthew, this idea is present in the call to “make disciples” and the charge to teach them to “observe/keep” all that Jesus has commanded.
8.) Everlasting Kingdom/With You to the End of the Age: In both Daniel 7 and Matthew 28, this precise sequence of events comes to conclusion with a reminder of the utter permanence of this brand new state of affairs: when God’s kingdom has finally arrived, it will never be overthrown.
As paramount as the call to proclaim the gospel in all the world is, even evangelism itself must be understood–in the ultimate scheme of things–to be secondary and derivative. It’s about God, stupid. How easily and quickly we forget that. What is primary and basic is this: Jesus, through his death and resurrection, has become Lord over all, offering forgiveness of sins to all who will confess allegiance to Him and admit their rebellious folly. This is the essential message of the gospel. The Son of Man has come, receiving all authority over all the nations of the world, so that they might obey and serve Him forever. As Christians, this is what we are to announce with contagious joy and utter seriousness. And the truly shocking thing is that this victory has been accomplished, not through military might or philosophical wisdom, but rather through the atoning death and life-giving resurrection of a humble, broken, now-exalted human being (i.e. son of man) who is in fact also God’s own Son. This is the ground of all biblical evangelism–that is, the person and work of Jesus by which the kingdom of God has broken into this present evil age. The Great Commission, more than anything else, is the most daring statement possible about the global kingship of Jesus Christ. The Son of Man has come. His dominion must now extend to the very ends of the earth. Therefore–GO. When we bring this to mind by faith, does not the cowardice and fear begin to melt away from our hearts?