First Look: Matthew 28:16-20

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

This is one of the better-known passages in all of scripture.  Typically called “The Great Commission”, this text is notable for being Jesus’ final instructions to his disciples before he departs physically from them.  It may seem strange for Matthew to end his gospel with instruction rather than action, but highlighting Jesus’ role as teacher is a typically Matthean emphasis.  Furthermore, Matthew ends his gospel in such a way as to shift the spotlight from the work Jesus has done in his earthly ministry to the work that Jesus will now do through the lives of his followers.  The page has been turned.  The torch has been passed.  We are to be the body of Christ now.  Matthew suggests here that the story of Jesus’ ministry continues in and through us.

That’s not a new message to most Christians today.  Most of us have heard the Great Commission and learned that it is a clear call to us – for action, for ministry, for service.  Consider the words of a familiar hymn based on this text:

Lord, you give the great commission:
“Heal the sick and preach the word.”
Lest the Church neglect its mission
and the Gospel go unheard,
help us witness to your purpose
with renewed integrity;
with the Spirit’s gifts empower us
for the work of ministry.

Lord, you call us to your service:
“In my name baptize and teach.”
That the world may trust your promise,
life abundant meant for each,
give us all new fervor,
draw us closer in community;
with the Spirit’s gifts empower us
for the work of ministry.

Lord, you make the common holy:
“This my body, this my blood.”
Let your priests, for earth’s true glory,
daily lift life heavenward,
asking that world around us
share your children’s liberty;
with the Spirit’s gifts empower us
for the work of ministry.

Lord, you show us love’s true measure:
“Father, what they do, forgive.”
Yet we hoard as private treasure
all that you so freely give.
May your care and mercy lead us
to a just society;
with the Spirit’s gifts empower us
for the work of ministry.

Lord, you bless with words assuring:
“I am with you to the end.”
Faith and hope and love restoring,
may we serve as you intend,
and, amid the cares that claim us,
hold in mind eternity;
with the Spirit’s gifts empower us
for the work of ministry.

Again, the hymn does as the Great Commission does: shifts the focus from Jesus’ work to our work, yet without severing the connection between the two.  In truth, they are very much one in the same.  However, there is something missing from the hymn, just as there is something missing from our traditional interpretation of the Great Commission.  It’s a very subtle piece of this text that we are all apt to overlook (perhaps due to our familiarity with it), and it’s found in verse 17:

When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.

Isn’t that a fascinating way to end a gospel?  Isn’t even more fascinating considering the message of the text?  Here is Jesus, sending his disciples out into the world to carry on his work and his ministry.  Here is Jesus the risen Lord, nail holes and all, going out on a high note.  But some doubted. Isn’t that just like the disciples?  Isn’t it just like us?

Far too often among Christians there’s a discernible pressure to know things for certain, to hold and express your convictions fervently and confidently, to follow Jesus without question.  The reality of following Christ is that it’s rarely that simple.  There will be plenty of times when we question, and hesitate, and doubt ourselves when faced with the work that we are called to do.  You see those three words in verse 17?  But some doubted. That’s us.  There we are in the gospel.  It’s like holding a mirror up to our faces.

But you know, that’s okay.  It’s extremely comforting to know that after some doubted, Jesus gives those same hesitant disciples authority, as well as a promise that he will always be with them.  After doubt comes the Great Commission.  Jesus doesn’t seem to mind that some doubted, because he knows something that we typically forget: the kingdom that Jesus ushered in does not depend on our abilities, but on God’s power.  This text is an echo of last Sunday’s Pentecost event, in which the disciples are given the gift of the Holy Spirit’s power – which is precisely the point.  It’s not their power at work here.  It’s God’s, and God’s alone.

First Look is a weekly commentary on the upcoming gospel lectionary text, written by Rev. Lee A. Koontz.  It is usually published on Mondays.

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