16 The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus appointed for them,
17 and seeing him they worshipped, but some doubted.
18 And approaching Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
19 Going therefore, make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
20 teaching them to observe everything whatsoever I commanded you. And behold, I am with you all the days until the end of the age.’
Reading Ed Stetzer’s reflections on the ‘meanings of missional’ from a year or so back provoked a familiar sense of bewilderment. How is it that five lengthy posts on the meaning of such terms as ‘missional’ and missio dei, plus a large number of appended comments from leading missional thinkers, can offer no more than the occasional passing reference to the biblical narrative? Why do missiologists so often at least appear to take scripture for granted? It seems to me that the idea of mission in the New Testament is not nearly as straightforward as we imagine it to be. The so-called ‘great commission’ is a good example.
18 There must be a strong suspicion that when Jesus claims that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me, he is alluding to the Son of man narrative (cf. Matt. 9:5; John. 5:26; 8:28). This is the authority that will be given to the suffering community of the saints of the Most High when they are eventually vindicated before the throne of God. It is central to Jesus’ claim to possess a unique calling that he appropriates this hope for himself and in that sense incorporates his followers into his own destiny. The claim also brings into view a broader apocalyptic narrative which makes him the arch-opponent of Caesar, who also claimed glory and dominion over the whole earth.
19 Jesus sends the eleven out into the whole world to establish communities of disciples who by their faithful existence will constitute an announcement, a sign, to the nations that God has raised Jesus from the dead and made him Lord above all other gods and lords so that his people may have the hope of surviving the wrath that is coming, as Paul tells us (cf. Rom. 2:9), first upon Israel, and then on the idolatrous Greek-Roman oikoumenē, the empire. They will live as Jesus lived, observing his teachings, because that is the only practical basis on which the people of God will gain victory over Rome. This is their ‘mission’.
To be baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is not to be taken here as a general religious prescription. It associates this international body of disciples with the particular narrative of renewal: the God who is trusted under radical eschatological conditions as ‘Father’; the Son who suffers for the sake of the future of the people; and the Spirit which both foresees the coming judgment and gives life to the people of a new covenant.
20 Jesus promises to be with them all the days until the end of the age. The end of the age (hē synteleia tou aiōnos) in Matthew is not the end of the world. It is the moment when Israel will be judged - when the weeds will be gathered out of the kingdom and destroyed (13:40-42), when the good fish are separated from the bad (13:49-50), and when the stones of the temple will be thrown down by an invading army (13:2-3). Jesus’ assurance at this particular point in the narrative is a limited one: he will be with his disciples every moment, no matter what they face, until the Son of man is vindicated for his radical departure from tradition when the armies of Rome raze the temple of Israel’s God to the ground; and because they are the community of the Son of man in Jesus, that moment will also be their vindication.