The great commission begins with all authority. Without understanding who is king and how he uses his authority, we’re likely to misuse that authority.
We’ve heard that it was said:
Go into all the world and convert everyone to Christianity.
What he said was more like this:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been entrusted to me. On that basis, everywhere you go you are to train the nations, plunging them into the leadership given by heaven for the earth: the authority of the Father, his Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Your role is training the nations to obey what their king has commanded. And I promise you I will always be backing you my servants, until the goal of the era is fully accomplished (i.e. heaven’s authority is fully restored to earth).
— paraphrase of Matthew 28:18-20.
Begin with his authority, and his commission takes meaningful shape.
The authority of the Christ (28:18)
Matthew’s message has been that Jesus is the Christ — the leader chosen by heaven for the earth, the Son restoring the reign of his Father in heaven to their earthly realm.
But his kingship was not acquired by crushing the enemies of his reign, those in power who would crucify the king of the Jews. His authority was received through loyalty to heaven’s authority, even obedience unto death. He received the kingship when the purifying Spirit breathed life into his dead body, raising him out of corruption and death, anointing him as the king with all of his Father’s authority in the heavenly realm, as the king whose resurrection brings that authority to the earth. That’s the living story behind his gospel declaration, All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
How does this good news redefine life on earth? How does the enthronement of King Jesus redefine our role, what the king expects of those who give him allegiance?
His kingship redefines life for everyone and everything in his realm. Through the declaration of the Father and the life-giving work of the Spirit, the crucified king of the Jews is the resurrected king of the nations.
The nations had been the struggle for God’s nation in Old Testament times. David’s son served as God’s anointed in each generation, until the kingship ceased. That language is preserved in the Psalms:
Psalm 2 (NIV) 1 Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? 2 The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed …
While the Psalms acknowledge this conflict, they insist that the Lord is enthroned in heaven (2:4), and that he has installed his king on earth (2:6). On the day of his coronation, the Davidic king received the authority of the heavenly sovereign as his prince representing him in his earthly realm:
Psalm 2 7 I will proclaim the Lord’s decree: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have become your father. 8 Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession.”
That promise has astounding scope. The Davidic king represented God’s reign not only for Judah, not only for Israel, but for the nations. The king declared that the reign he inherited from the heavenly throne would ultimately extend to place on earth.
Isn’t that the kingship claim Jesus is making in Matthew 28:18? The resurrected Christ has received all the authority of his Father in heaven, all authority over all the nations of the earth.
This authority was entrusted to him in fulfilment of God’s covenant commitment that he would never give up his reign over humanity, all the creatures of the earth, and the earth itself, no matter how difficult we were to manage (Genesis 9:8-17). The nations built kingdoms through war (Genesis 10:8-12), banding together to take heaven’s authority to the earth in human hands (Genesis 11:4). God responded by establishing a nation through Abraham to bear his authority (Genesis 12). That was the great commission that launched the Old Testament story.
But God’s nation had a problem with aligning themselves with human powers instead of relying on their heavenly sovereign. When God sent them his anointed to save them, the temple leaders colluded with the imperial power to get rid of him. That’s when God demonstrated his faithfulness and how he uses his authority: raising up his anointed through the life-giving Spirit, enthroning this physical descendant of King David as the leader to whom the nations should give allegiance and obedience (Romans 1:1-5), enthroning him with all authority in heaven and on earth.
The resurrected Christ is the faithfulness and authority of God in person:
- He is the son of man in the image of the heavenly sovereign (Genesis 1:26) restoring earth as the dominion of its Creator (Psalm 8).
- He is the lion of Judah inheriting the promises of Jacob’s family (Genesis 49:10; Numbers 24:17).
- He is the son of David entrusted with the eternal reign of his Father in heaven (2 Samuel 7:14-16), sinking into death as the kingship had done (Psalm 22:1; Amos 9:11), and being raised up over his enemies by divine decree (Psalm 110:1-2).
- He is the greatness of divine government and unending peace, the ruler of God’s kingdom who brings enduring justice and right-living to the earth through the unflagging zeal of earth’s eternal Sovereign (Isaiah 9:7).
When we understand the authority of the Christ, we understand what he is calling us to do. The authority of the king defines our role.
The commission of the Christ (28:19)
Many missionary endeavours of recent centuries were inspired by the Great Commission. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see how mixed motives muddied the waters, leading us to promote the power and lifestyle of human empires (colonialism). At the heart of that problem is a failure to grasp how Christ’s commission relates to his authority.
Jesus said nothing about going overseas to convert people to his religion.
Actually, that’s not quite true. He did mention it once, but he seemed to realize the danger — that this would probably be a power move (Matthew 23:15).
What Jesus commissioned us to do was to make disciples. We know what that means, because he did it. He called some of the people he met to follow him: fishermen, tax collectors, and so on. Some said No. The ones who said Yes, he trained with stories of the kingdom and his regal authority to heal suffering. Receiving all authority, he sent these apprentices to train all the nations in what it means to live as their king commands, as communities implementing everything I have commanded you.
This is how the nations are immersed into the authority of his Father, implementing the authority of the Son, through the enabling of the cleansing Spirit. This is how earth is restored to heaven’s reign, with all the nations implementing the way of life commanded by our heaven-anointed leader.
The Great Commission is about the servants of the king taking the way of the cross instead of the usual paths of power. His apprentices following the self-giving way of life we’ve learned from our king is the only way to immerse the nations in divine kingship (name).
That’s why Paul and the others who wrote the NT letters never called their churches to travel overseas to convert the heathen. That’s a misunderstanding of the Great Commission. Instead, the epistles constantly declare God’s authority in Christ (e.g. Ephesians 1–3), and call us to implement his authority in the face of other powers (3:10), as a global community that belongs in our Father and his Son’s governance (3:15-19), unified in his leadership (4:1-16) instead of how the nations think power operates (4:17). Our homes and workplaces are microcosms where his authority is already being implemented (5:1–6:9), so the authorities see God is implementing his kingdom (6:10-20). This is what it looks like to fulfil the Great Commission.
The promise of the Christ (28:20)
I am with you always might sound like a personal promise, but the you is plural and the context is a community embodying the king’s authority. As we model life under his kingship, the nations can recognize their king. The king is always with us, implementing his kingship among us.
That’s the kind of king he is. You find him wherever there is suffering or injustice, just as the Gospels described. You find him in the community that is apprenticing the nations in the lifestyle the king expects. We’re not doing that alone; we’re doing that in the presence of our king. That’s a credible gospel.
And it works. Not overnight, because he doesn’t force his kingship on the community. He’s the king who takes up his cross as the way of resolving the injustice and suffering of his world. He has called his apprentices to do the same. And as we suffer, he is still with us in our suffering, bearing away the sin of the world.
He is with us like this until the age is complete (πάσας τὰς ἡμέρας ἕως τῆς συντελείας τοῦ αἰῶνος). His strategy will work. It’s how our king restores heaven’s authority to the earth.
What a privilege to represent his strategy now, showing the nations how the divine kingship works, a world reconciled and unified with each other and with our king.
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