Christianity is a missionary religion, and here the disciples are formally commissioned by the risen Jesus to engage in mission, to make more disciples, who by implication are to make yet more, and not just in Galilee and Jerusalem; this is to be a worldwide international endeavour.
This plan doesn’t seem that surprising from our perspective, two thousand years later with the work well underway. But imagine being there at the time. What right did this small group of first century Jews have embarking on such a grandiose scheme, to turn people away from their native religions, worldwide! Many today would regard such a plan as very politically incorrect, and would frown on Christians’ missionary endeavours into non-Christian cultures. There’s even growing interest in ‘original’ pagan pre-Christian practices in some previously largely Christian countries. But the word ‘original’ provides the corrective to that. Before mankind turned away from God and, as the apostle Paul put it, ‘exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator’(Romans 1:25), the whole world, and mankind, was ‘originally’ created by the one true God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It’s God the Son here who, ‘came to them and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go and make disciples of all nations”’. This Christianity is no mere local invention of an ancient human culture with wild ideas about its worldwide significance. It’s a formal commission from Jesus Christ, the Lord over everything.
So where’s the proof for that amazing claim? That’s what this chapter in Matthew’s gospel is about: the resurrection. The risen Christ is speaking, and Jesus claimed that the resurrection would prove His authority. John recorded Jesus’ conversation with the Jewish authorities: ‘The Jews therefore answered Him, “What sign do you show us”… Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” … He spoke of the temple of His body’(John 2:18-21). So when Peter addressed the crowds at Pentecost, at the very start of Christian world mission, he said, ‘“This Jesus God raised up, to which we all are witnesses… God has made Him both Lord and Christ… Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you, and to your children, and to all who are far off, even as many as the Lord our God will call”’(Acts 2:32-39).
Note that in both passages baptism is the initiation rite for new Christian disciples. But it’s a mistake to think that mission is just about evangelism and baptisms, more evangelists and more baptisms. The word ‘“disciples”’ corrects that. It’s not just about making evangelists of all nations, but making disciples, and ‘“teaching them to observe all things that I commanded you”’. Christianity is a religion full of teaching and calls to obey that teaching. Matthew’s Gospel, more than any other, presents Jesus as a teacher. It preserves large chunks of His teaching, most notably the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew, in concluding his gospel with this commission, surely intends to underline all of Jesus’ teaching he’s so carefully presented for us in the preceding chapters. He intends us to use this material when making disciples and teaching them to obey.
So, our Sermon on the Mount like mission should include teaching faithfulness, self-control, purity, forgiveness, mercy, peace, humility, good deeds and self-effacing secret prayer, fasting, and giving, etc. In other words, what the world has rightly come to expect true Christians to be like. Such disciples will be like their master ‘who, existing in the form of God, didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, yes, the death of the cross. Therefore God also highly exalted Him’(Philippians 2:6-9).
Finally Jesus emphasises we’re not alone in this mission; He walks with us: ‘“Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age”’.