When you leave our parking lot, a sign on the backsides of the stone pillars reads: "You are entering the Great Commission." As a faith family, we conclude nearly every gathering with the final charge of Jesus ringing in our ears:
"All authority in heaven and 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, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age." (Matthew 28:18-20)
Sometimes I wonder what's going through our minds as those words proceed from our mouths. Just what does it look like to obey this grand commission the Lord Jesus entrusted to us as his church?
Matthew's recording of the Great Commission is the culmination of a great story narrated in his gospel account of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. it's been said that we should read Matthew backwards because all the narrative threads of the whole book are woven through that final charge at that mountain outside Galilee. It's the grand finale of all the fulfillment fireworks happening throughout Matthew's portrait of Jesus.
One implication of this that is often overlooked is how Matthew tethers the disciple-making endeavor to the context of his people on earth, the local church. Disciples form local churches and are formed by local churches. Discipleship is a corporate effort. This is the vision of the book of Matthew, but oddly enough, this can be missed if this charge is taken out of its literary morning. We somehow divorce two things Matthew held together: making disciples and the church. But is that what Jesus intended?
As BH Global, we often say, "The Great Commission is Church Work," because we firmly believe that read within its literary context, the centrality of the local church in our disciple-making endeavors cannot be missed. Matthew has gone to great lengths to set the stage for understanding every component of the Great Commission in light of Jesus' new community, the church.
To connect these dots, here is how Matthew has woven the threads of the Great Commission in light of Jesus' new community, the church.
- Jesus has been given "all authority in heaven and on earth" in Matthew 28 and as he ascends to heaven, he installs his representative authority on earth, the church. In the three instances of the word "church" in Matthew, the realm language of heaven and earth consistently appears. This community is where "on earth, as it is in heaven" is playing out: the heavenly truth of Christ's identity is disclosed to the church (Matthew 16: 13-20), ethically the sermon on the mount embodies a heavenly ethic on earth (Matthew 5-7), and relationally, the heavenly forgiveness is reflected among her (Matthew 18). This coincides with Matthew's new Moses portrayal of Jesus where Israel, centered around the old Moses and the old covenant, is displaced and the church, centered around the new covenant and Jesus, moves in to represent God on earth. Jesus commissions his church as delegates of heaven, discipling the nations of the earth.
- Jesus extends this delegated authority to the church which includes being stewards of the "Name." The church, in submission to Jesus, makes judgment calls on earth that are representative of the judgments of heaven. She functions to affirm and endorse the true confession of Jesus' identity as confessing Peter is upon whom Jesus will build the church (Matthew 16:13-20). That true confession of his identity as the church. As it has been said, the church gives shape to both the "who" and "what" of the gospel.
Jesus promises to give the "keys of the kingdom" to Peter in Matthew 16:19. These keys are utilized to bind and lose in both the heavenly realm and earthly realm and these actions finally rest with the gathered church in Matthew 18:18. This is connected to the stewardship of the "Name." The church expresses this authoritative reflection of the "Name" on earth, tagging the "name" of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit on those disciples of Jesus at the front door of the community through baptism and un-naming unrepentant disciples at the back door of this community through church discipline (Matthew 28:18-20, 18:15-20). If someone persistently disobeys Jesus, they are to be to the church like a "Gentile or a tax collector) to them because the church can no longer confidently affirm their faith is credible. A lack of repentance coincides with a lack of recognition by the community that safeguards its own integrity as Jesus' disciples on earth. Baptism expresses this binding authority to welcome repentant sinners, church discipline expresses this loosing authority to let people go who refuse to submit to Jesus in hopes they will come to their senses.
Churches function like an embassy does in a foreign land, authoritatively representing the interests of the homeland. The kind of discipleship Jesus has in mind in Matthew is one that happens in and through local churches. The church safeguards the true confession of Jesus' identity and the identity of the true community through baptism and church discipline.
- Making disciples of Jesus is expressed by "teaching them to obey all I have commanded you." This sends the reader back, combing through all that Jesus taught in Matthew's gospel and beyond. It would be unthinkable to read every command in Matthew and think an isolated, individualistic approach to discipleship would be possible. "Our Father" is impossible to pray as a lone-ranger Christian (Matthew 6:9-13). Matthew tethers obedience to Jesus to a community where Jesus' authority is supreme and in this posture toward Jesus, they are a preview of heaven on earth. It's not merely individuals who obey what is envisioned in Matthew 28, it's embodied obedience to all Jesus commanded which cannot be untethered from being the church.
The Great Commission is church work. The church is God's plan A for reaching the world. Our outreach is intended by Jesus to establish outposts of heaven among all nations, communities that offer a stark alternative as salt and light in a world of stale darkness. The church is a broken yet beautiful showcase of "on earth as it is in heaven" for the world to witness.