The mountain (v. 16) recalls the other sites of revelation in the Gospel (5:1; 17:1). All our earliest evidence indicates the Christian missionary impetus; this suggests that it originated with Jesus, as various Gospel accounts independently attest. The women offered a true report (28:1-10) and the guards a false one (vv. 11-15); Matthew's closing paragraph announces that we, like the women at the tomb, must offer a true report and resist temptations like money and protection to which the guards succumbed.
The narrative teaches us about faith and unbelief. Some of those who see Jesus worship him (compare v. 9), which suggests that they recognize him for who he is—"God with them" (1:23; 28:18-20). Others, however, despite seeing him, doubt (v. 17; compare Lk 24:40). Matthew here agrees with Mark (Mk 16:8) that disciples often are foolishly unbelieving (Mt 6:30; 14:31; 17:20), even after the resurrection. If even seeing is not necessarily believing, we ought not to wait to see before we will believe, as if God had not provided enough evidence already.
The narrative teaches us about Jesus' identity. Jesus holds all authority as does the son of man in Daniel 7 (28:18; compare 7:29; Jn 17:2; Dan 7:13-14). One may contrast here Satan's offer in Matthew 4:8-9; by pursuing obedience Jesus received more than Satan offered. Jewish teachers felt that confessing the one Lord by means of the Shema expressed submission to God's royal authority (m. Berakot 2:5); in this passage we learn that such submission requires confession of Jesus (compare 10:32). Disciples of rabbis normally made disciples of their own when they became rabbis, but Jesus is more than a normal rabbi (28:19) and summons us to make disciples for him alone and not for ourselves (23:8-10).
Disciples baptize not only in the name of the Father and the Holy Spirit, whom biblical and Jewish tradition regarded as divine, but also in the name of the Son. Placing Jesus on the same level with the Father and Spirit (28:19) makes even more explicit what is implicit in Acts's "baptism in Jesus' name" (Acts 2:38; 8:16; 10:48; 19:5; compare 22:16)—that Jesus is divine (Mt 1:23). One other aspect of this pericope emphasizes Matthew's high Christology. Jesus' continuing presence with his followers even after his departure (28:20) suggests his omnipresence—an attribute limited to deity alone (see comment on 1:23; 18:20).
Finally, the narrative teaches us about our mission. Because Jesus' future reign (28:18) has begun in the lives of his followers in the present age (v. 20), his people should exemplify his reign on earth as it is in heaven, as people of the kingdom, people of the future era (compare 6:10). Most significant in this passage, because Jesus has all authority, because he is King in the kingdom of God, disciples must carry on the mission of teaching the kingdom (10:7). Jesus' instructions include an imperative (a command) surrounded by three participial clauses: one should make disciples for Jesus by going, baptizing and teaching. Making disciples involves more than getting people to an altar; it involves training them as thoroughly as Jewish teachers instructed their own students. Most of modern Christendom falls far short on this count.
Making disciples involves "going" (28:19), as it had before (10:7). Because "going" (NIV go) is a participle, we could read, "as you go"—essentially, "on your way," implying that one need not cross cultural boundaries to fulfill this commission (compare Culver 1968). But this misses the parallel between the final commission and the model mission in chapter 10: even while remaining within Galilee, the disciples had to proclaim the kingdom to those who had not yet heard the message (10:7; compare Mk 1:38). Nevertheless, the commission probably emphasizes teaching and baptizing while presupposing that disciples have already done the necessary work of crossing cultural boundaries. "Going" might mean "having gone" (the Greek aorist); the aorist participle "going" may represent part of the command, the aorist imperative "make disciples," while the two present participles explain how to make disciples (Rogers 1973; compare R. White 1960:127 n. 3). But this does not require us to excessively subordinate "going," since Matthew often uses this participle in a sense coordinate with the main verb (compare 2:8; 11:4; 17:27; 28:7; Blomberg 1992:431). Given Matthew's similar expression in 10:7, we must still regard crossing cultural boundaries as an integral part of the commission.
Unlike other ancient teachers, Jesus' disciples would not raise disciples for themselves but only for Jesus (23:8). Greek tradition could praise those who made many disciples (as in Diog. Laert. 8.1.16). Greek philosophers thought in terms of "conversion" to philosophy (see Nock 1933), and various pagan religious cults were propagated by travelers in antiquity (Stambaugh and Balch 1986:42; compare Acts 8:4). Judaism also spoke of sages as having disciples (see comment on 4:19; 19:21-22) and sometimes even persuading large numbers of people to become students of Torah (as in ARN 26, Section 54); they also separately recognized the conversion of Gentiles (see comment on 23:15; see De Ridder 1971). But ancient hearers would, and modern hearers should, recognize a drastic innovation in a command to disciple nations.
All nations may signify all groups of "peoples," rather than the modern concept of "nation-states" (McGavran and Arn 1977:38); in many nations a variety of different peoples coexist. Thus Christ commands us to sensitively reach each culture, not merely some people from each nation. Also far from abandoning the mission to Matthew's own people, his commission represents "peoples" and not simply "Gentiles" (Saldarini 1994:59-60, 78-81; compare Meier 1977), although in the context of his whole Gospel he lays the emphasis on Gentile peoples, whom his community most needs to be encouraged in evangelizing.
As long as unreached peoples exist, we disobey the Great Commission by refusing to cross those boundaries. Given the explicitness of Jesus' command, perhaps many use the lack of "call" to missions as an excuse; yet it may be that the Lord of the harvest has been calling us through the need of the world but we are not willing to hear. If Christ has already called his disciples to go, is it not possible that it is those of us who stay who need an explicit message from God?
Matthew needed to encourage Jewish Christians in their commitment to reach Gentiles, but he could not have imagined the present situation: a huge Gentile church with Jewish Christians as a small and marginalized minority. If Matthew were writing his Gospel to the church today, he would certainly plead with Gentile Christians to remember, pray for and minister to his own people, who gave them the gospel (compare 10:6; Rom 15:25-27).
But wherever God leads particular disciples to carry out this commission, the text is clear how one makes disciples. First of all, one baptizes them under the lordship of Christ. Baptism was an act of initiation and conversion (see comment on 3:6), so this text suggests that we initiate people into the faith, introducing them to Jesus' lordship. But once they are initiated, we must also build them into stronger discipleship by teaching them Jesus' message. The summaries of Jesus' teachings earlier in Matthew's Gospel work well as a discipling manual for young believers. Here, as in Jewish instruction of converts to Judaism, the process of teaching continues subsequent to initiation.
The Gospel closes with a promise: as Jesus' disciples carry out the Great Commission, he will be with them to the end of the age (28:20). The text probably specifies the end of the age because at that time the Son of Man would return in his kingdom—after the nations had heard the good news of the kingdom (24:14) and hence been prepared for the judgment (25:32-36). If many Christians today have lost a sense of Jesus' presence and purpose among us, it may be because we have lost sight of the mission our Lord has given us. If we would be his disciples, then we must prepare the way for our Lord's second coming and his kingdom, as John the Baptist did for his first coming (3:1-3). If we truly long for our Lord's return, our mission is laid out before us until he comes.