Second in a series

At the time of the Great Commission as Matthew records it (28:16–20), more than a week—we do not know just how much time—had passed since the first Easter Day. The disciples of Jesus had returned north to Galilee, and there on a mountain, by appointment, Jesus met them again. This was probably the occasion Paul meant when he said that Jesus appeared to more than 500 brethren at one time (1 Cor. 15:6).

When they saw him (evidently from a distance, at first), their reactions ranged from adoration to unbelief. Some “worshiped him” (NEB, “they fell prostrate before him”), but “some doubted.” Jesus then came and spoke to them. He made an announcement (Matt. 28:18), issued a command (19, 20a), and then gave them a promise (20b).

1. The announcement he made: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (v. 19, RSV).

That this affirmation preceded the commission to go forth to the nations is of vital importance. Indeed, without this announcement of his authority, the Great Commission would have lacked justification as well as impetus. Not until one is convinced of the full authority of Jesus Christ is he in a position to hear and to obey Christ’s commission to go.

a. What was this authority he claimed? “All authority in heaven and on earth.” Here Christ used different prepositions, as if to distinguish the two spheres over which his authority extended—the earthly and the heavenly.

Take earth first. Since he has all authority on earth, he has authority over his servants; this is doubtless a part of his meaning. He is like a commanding officer, who can deploy his forces as he chooses and send them wherever he likes. He has authority to say to anyone, “Go!” He has said it to the Church, but as a whole, the Church has dared to disobey its sovereign Lord.

Since his authority takes in all the earth, it extends beyond those whom he sends to all the nations to which they are sent. Although Satan, the “prince of this world,” had usurped this authority, it now has been given to Christ.

This fact asserts unequivocally that the religion of Jesus was not Palestinian or Jewish, Semitic or Asiatic, let alone “Western,” but a world religion—indeed the world religion, intended to embrace all the nations then in existence and those that might yet be. It was to transcend all barriers of language and culture, nationality and color, race and rank.

But Christ declared that he had been given all authority in heaven as well. No doubt this means, in part, that the authority he claimed on earth was recognized in heaven, and that the disciples won on earth would be acknowledged and accepted in heaven.

Article continues below

But it involves more than that. It signifies that Jesus Christ has supreme authority in those “heavenly places” (as Paul called them in his Ephesian letter) in which evil “principalities and powers” still operate and wage war (cf. Eph. 6:12). Having raised Jesus Christ from the dead, God has “made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come; and he has put all things under his feet …” (Eph. 1:20–22). The authority of Jesus Christ extends over all creatures, whether human or superhuman; over the Church; over the nations; over the devil and all his works.

b. When was this authority given to Christ? He claimed it on that Galilean mountain as an accomplished fact (aorist edothē, “was given”). Probably it was given to him by the Father by virtue of the Cross and in anticipation of the Ascension. Certainly this statement is confirmed by the rest of the New Testament. It was at the Cross that he “disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it” (Col. 2:15 m., RSV). It was by his blood that he ransomed men for God from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation (Rev. 5:9). And it was at his Ascension that God “highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9–11).

The fundamental basis of all Christian missionary enterprise is the universal authority of Jesus Christ, “in heaven and on earth.” If the authority of Jesus were circumscribed on earth, if he were but one of many religious teachers, one of many Jewish prophets, one of many divine incarnations, Christians would have no mandate to present him to the nations as the Lord and Saviour of the world. If the authority of Jesus were limited in heaven, if he had not decisively overthrown the principalities and powers, believers might still proclaim him to the nations but they would never be able to “turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God” (Acts 26:18).

Only because all authority on earth belongs to Christ dare the Church go to all nations. And only because all authority in heaven as well is his has it any hope of success. It must have seemed ridiculous to send that tiny nucleus of Palestinian peasants to win the world for Christ. For Christ’s Church today, so hopelessly outnumbered by hundreds of millions who neither know nor acknowledge him, the task is equally gigantic. It is the unique universal authority of Jesus Christ that gives Christians both the right and the confidence to seek to make disciples of all the nations.

Article continues below

2. The command he issued: “Go ye therefore” (v. 19).

This imperative, “Go ye,” immediately followed the indicative statement, “All authority has been given to me”; the announcement of Christ’s universal authority was an essential preliminary to the Great Commission.

Believers “go” because they are themselves under authority. They go to “all the nations” because the nations are under authority also. The commission is no longer to seek “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:6); it is to make disciples of “all the Gentiles” (that is what the word “nations” means). So ends the most Jewish, the most particularistic, of the four Gospels. The Gospel of Matthew begins with the coming of Gentile strangers to worship the infant Christ; it concludes with the sending out of believers to win the Gentile world.

As they go, they have precise instructions to fulfill. Christ used three verbs: “make disciples,” “baptize,” and “teach.” Some scholars interpret this as a single command to “go and make disciples”; “baptizing them” and “teaching them” they consider the explanation of how disciples are made. I prefer to take the three verbs separately as descriptions of three distinct parts or stages of the one Great Commission of Christ to “go.”

a. “Make disciples of all nations.” The New English Bible rightly renders this, “Make all nations my disciples.” The addition of the possessive “my” brings out the sense. One cannot “make disciples” in the abstract, for there can be no disciples without a teacher.

How to do this is made plain in the other versions of the Great Commission. It is done by preaching the Gospel. For preaching the Gospel means preaching Christ so that men are converted to him and become his disciples. There is no getting away from this elementary truth: evangelism is preaching Jesus Christ and making disciples of Jesus Christ. The central objective of all Christian evangelism is to secure the allegiance of men and women, not to a church, nor to a system of thought or behavior, but to the person of Jesus Christ. Discipleship comes first; the church membership, the theology, the ethical conduct follow.

Article continues below

In summoning people to discipleship, we will do well not to forget the solemn conditions laid down by Christ the Master. Unless one “hates” his family, takes up his cross, and renounces all that he has (putting Christ, that is, before his relatives, ambitions, and possessions), one cannot be his disciple, he said.

b. “Baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The theological implications of this are far-reaching. It means that discipleship to Jesus Christ involves ipso facto relationship to the Father and to the Holy Spirit as well; it means, too, that although the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are distinct persons, they possess but one Name into which disciples are baptized.

The Greek word translated “in” here might better be translated “into.” Christian baptism is not just in the Name but into the Name of the Trinity; it signifies union with God, the God who has revealed himself by this threefold “Name” as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Further, whatever the precise significance of baptism may be (and convictions on this vary), baptism is essentially a public act. People may become the disciples of Jesus secretly, but they must be baptized publicly. At the very least, baptism is the public confession and public acknowledgment of those who claim to be Christ’s disciples, and it thus admits them into the visible church.

So, in advancing from discipleship to baptism, Jesus moves from the private to the public, from the personal to the corporate, from conversion to church membership.

c. “Teach them to observe all that I have commanded you.” The purpose of Christ in the Great Commission is not fully met, however, when people are discipled and baptized; they must also be taught. A lifetime of learning and obeying follows conversion, until disciples are conformed to the image of their Lord.

What they are to be taught is “all that I have commanded you”—not what they may want to hear, nor what the teacher may want to say, but what Christ himself has taught. This is what they are to “observe,” that is, to believe and to obey.

Where is all the teaching of Jesus Christ to be found? The correct answer is not “in his discourses in the Gospels” but “in the whole Bible.” Properly understood, the teaching of Jesus Christ includes the Old Testament (for he sets his seal upon its truth and its authority), the Gospels (in which his own words are recorded), and the rest of the New Testament (which contains the teaching of the apostles through whom he continued to speak, in order to complete his self-revelation).

Article continues below

This, then, is the Lord’s own command: to instruct converts with biblical teaching. And it is important that from the very beginning they understand that the Bible’s teaching is Christ’s teaching. Those who have become disciples of Christ and have been baptized into Christ are to be taught what Christ commanded. They must learn to submit their minds to all, not just to some, of the teaching of Christ, if their conversion is to include their intellect. The disciples of Jesus may not select from his teaching what they like and reject what they dislike. Jesus is their Teacher and Lord, and they are under his authority and his instruction. “You call me Teacher and Lord,” he says to them, “and you are right, for so I am” (John 13:13). This lays upon the evangelist the solemn responsibility of being a good disciple himself, for how can he teach converts all that Christ has commanded if he does not himself submit to this expectation?

This is the Risen Lord’s conception of evangelism—a conception considerably more balanced and comprehensive than the usual view today. To be loyal to his commission, the evangelist must have three major concerns: first, conversion to Christ; second, the church membership of converts; and third, their instruction in all the teaching of Christ.

While it is no doubt legitimate to concentrate on the first concern in sporadic evangelistic missions and crusades, at the same time adequate provision must be made for admitting converts to church membership and for instructing them.

3. The promise he uttered: “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”

Thus the promise in the first chapter of Matthew regarding “Emmanuel, God with us” (Matt. 1:23) is confirmed and further fulfilled in the last.

The Great Commission should never be isolated from its context. Here in Matthew it is preceded by the announcement of Christ’s authority and followed by the promise of Christ’s presence. Without these, no one could obey Christ’s commission. How could anyone go forth to make disciples for Christ, to baptize them, and to teach them if he had no assurance of Christ’s authority behind him and no assurance of Christ’s presence beside him?

This was not the first time Christ had promised his disciples his risen presence. Earlier in this Gospel (18:20) he had said he would be in their midst when only two or three disciples were gathered. Now, as he repeats the promise of his presence, he attaches it rather to their witness than to their worship. It is not only when the Church meets in his Name but when it goes in his Name that he promises to be with it. The emphatic “I” who pledges his presence is the One who has universal authority and who sends forth his people. It remains questionable, then, whether a stay-at-home church—disobedient to the Great Commission, and indifferent to the need of the nations—is in any position to claim or inherit the fullness of Christ’s promised presence.

Article continues below

But to those who go, who go into the world as Christ came into the world, who sacrifice their ease and comfort and independence, who hazard their lives in search of disciples—to them the presence of the living Christ is promised. In sending them out, he yet accompanies them. “Go,” he says, and “Lo! I am with you”—with you in the person of the Holy Spirit to restrain you and direct you, to encourage and empower you (cf. Acts 14:27). “I am with you always”—in days of safety and of peril, days of failure and of success, days of freedom to preach and days of restriction and persecution, days of peace and of conflict and war—“to the close of the age.” The promise of Christ spans the whole gospel age. Although the Christ who is speaking here has only recently died and been raised from death, he even now looks ahead to his return in glory. He who has just inaugurated the new age promises to be with his people from its beginning to its end, from its inauguration to its consummation.

The great sweep of this best-known version of the Great Commission is striking:

1. Christ claimed to have been given all authority in heaven and on earth.

2. Therefore he sends the Church to make disciples of all the nations.

3. He bids those he sends to transmit to these disciples all his teaching.

4. He promises to be with his people all the days, even “to the end of time” (NEB).

Milton D. Hunnex is professor and head of the department of philosophy at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He received the B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Redlands and the Ph.D. in the Inter-collegiate Program in Graduate Studies, Claremont, California. He is author of “Philosophies and Philosophers.”

John R. W. Stott (1921 – 2011) is known worldwide as a preacher, evangelist, author, and theologian. For 66 years he served All Souls Church, Langham Place, in London, England, where he pioneered effective urban evangelistic and pastoral ministry. During these years he authored more than 50 books, and served as one of the original Contributing Editors for Christianity Today. Stott had a global vision and built strong relationships with church leaders outside the West in the Majority World. A hallmark of Stott's ministry was his vision for expository biblical preaching that addresses the hearts and minds of contemporary men and women. In 1969 he founded a trust that eventually became Langham Partnership International (, a ministry that continues his vision of partnership with the Majority World Church. Stott was honored by Time magazine in 2005 as one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World."

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.