The Great Commission Appearance in Galilee
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And 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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16–20 ESV)
Matthew’s gospel is the first in the order of the gospels not because it was considered more inspired than the others — they were all equally inspired — but because it is the most structured of the four gospels. Matthew himself, having been a tax collector, was a man with an eye to detail, times, and order of events. He specifically recorded that on the Resurrection Sunday Christ told the disciples that He would appear to them in Galilee on a certain unnamed mountain. Scholars have suggested that it could have been the same mount where the Transfiguration took place, and maybe it was, but that s just guesswork. The mountain is simply unnamed, but one that the apostles knew of.
Christ ascended to heaven from the Mount of Olives which lies across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem (Acts 1:12), and not in Galilee, and there He also gave a commissioning. Luke also recorded how on the night of the first resurrection Sunday, Christ appeared to them in Jerusalem and also gave them a commissioning (Luke 24:44–49). In the Luke and Acts commissions, Christ emphasized Spirit-empowered preaching of the gospel and witness. But Matthew recorded the commission that happened in Galilee. When we speak of the Great Commission, more often than not, we seem to turn to Matthew, again, because of the structure of the commission he recorded.
An Intimacy of the Exclusive Group: Matthew stated that the eleven remaining disciples came together on this occasion. So this would have been no earlier than the latter part of the second week after His resurrection — requiring the inclusion of Thomas and the trip by foot to Galilee. We read in 1 Corinthians 15:6 that Christ also appeared to over 500 of the brethren at the same time, but that that was after He had appeared to the twelve (or now eleven) disciples. Some have tried to include that appearance along with this one in Matthew 28, but there is no benefit for doing so. The scripture above says that just the eleven were there. We will have to consider the appearance to the 500 as having happened at another time.
The exclusiveness of this appearance speaks to the intimacy the eleven had with the Christ. In this day we are prone to think of the power of large numbers, but the scripture’s emphasis is on the intimacy of the Christ with His followers. To these eleven men He came and, in a way similar to the Transfiguration where after Moses and Elijah left, “They saw no one but Jesus only” (Matt. 17:8), they were alone with Christ.
The Authenticity of the Worship: The honesty of the gospel account commends its authenticity to us: They worshiped Christ though some doubted. Here is no effort to deceive anyone about the resurrection. These men who had seen Him die and watched His dead body come off the cross, could not help but be overwhelmed by all of this. Authentic worship brings its doubts along with its faith.
The nature of worship is the heart-felt realization of the worth of God and of Christ. This was such a moment when they loved Christ more than before and they valued Him in a new and deeper way. In the intimacy of Christ-centered worship they drew near to Him.
For me personally the order is important, for in my own experiences of drawing close to God, of coming in my own brokenness to Christ for cleansing and healing, those are the times when He has directed the paths that my feet have taken in life. My initial calling into the ministry was during a time of summer youth camp some fifty years ago (seems like yesterday) when I saw confronted by the Spirit about my sin, when I repented and regave my life to Christ, and sincerely worshiped Him. In the intimacy of that moment Christ spoke to me clarifying in my heart what had been a suspicion by myself and many in my church — that He had called me to the gospel ministry.
The Authority of the Commission: Amid intimacy and worship Christ commanded these eleven. We can breakdown the command in the following categories:
- An affirmation of His authority: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
- A general description of the goal, “To make disciples.” On the basis of His authority He commanded them and us to out and “make disciples of all nations.”
- Three specific means we are to use, represented by three participles: (1) “going” into all the nations, (2) baptizing those who believe, and (3) teaching them to obey all things that Christ commanded, including this command to make disciples.
- A promise of His divine presence, “I am with you always to the end of the age.”
Jesus’s pragmatism is evident in the way that He gave the command. The “going” was to be as significant a part of the command as the “baptizing” and the “teaching.” The disciples and missionaries through the centuries would testify that Christ was as present with them as they went places as when they preached the gospel once they arrived. Their obedience would be seen in doing all of these things.
Christ commanded them to teach the disciples not for the sake of knowledge alone, but so that they would obey what He had commanded. Teaching that makes a difference in the world has this element of obedience to the Person and teachings of Christ. We call people in His name and in His power to believe and to follow, not merely to learn new information.
Though Luke and Acts describe this element of Christ’s presence in the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit in more detail, it was clear that this was the divine presence that Matthew was referring to. The commission is bracketed in by divine authority and divine presence, both of which are essential to the work of evangelism and missions.
The only response we can make to this passage is fresh worship again, and honest assessment of how obedient we have been to this commission. And upon those two responses must come a submission of heart and soul, mind and will, time and energy, and all of our resources to the fulfillment of this commission. This is what Christ-followers do.