“Great Commission” is the label we use for Matthew’s closing paragraph. Raised from tomb to throne, the Christ commissioned his followers to train the nations in his enduring presence.
The Old Testament also ended with a great commission in the Hebrew Bible. Chronicles was the final book of the Writings (after the Law and Prophets), so this is how the story of God’s reign ended before Christ:
2 Chronicles 36:22–23 (NIV)
22 In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and also to put it in writing:
23 “This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: ‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of his people among you may go up, and may the Lord their God be with them.’”
Christ’s great commission to us is not the same as God’s great commission to Cyrus, but there are similarities. Matthew may have shaped his closing paragraph to present Christ as the fulfilment of all the hopes of the centuries. He keeps telling us that all the unfulfilled hopes of the Jewish story are fulfilled in God’s anointed. The Cyrus story could help us understand the authority Christ has received, and how that shapes the commission we received.
Who was Cyrus, and why did he matter?
The kingdom of God fell apart when Babylon invaded God’s nation, destroyed God’s house, terminated the Davidic kingship, and took the land for their Empire. God had given the kingship to Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 2:37). Exiled from their land, the last remnant of the tribes of Israel was in danger of losing its identity, as the northern tribes had done (2 Kings 17:24-41). It felt like the end of the Abrahamic project (Ezekiel 7:1-6). Everything was lost.
But it wasn’t the end. Babylon the destroyer was destroyed by an invasion from Persia, so God’s people were now under Persian rule. Though they had no son of David representing God’s reign in Jerusalem, they insisted that God was sovereign over all the nations of the earth. If God had taken the kingship from David’s descendants and given it to a Persian king, then this king was God’s anointed leader for them, and God could direct him for his purposes.
And they saw it! They saw the Persian king issuing a decree that was exactly what God wanted for his people. Cyrus ordered them to return to Jerusalem, restore the city, rebuild their national identity, reconstruct a temple to the Lord, and teach the people to walk in his ways (Ezra / Nehemiah).
Cyrus’ decree introduced a new phase of the Abrahamic project to restore the blessing of God’s reign to the earth. The ruler of the known world was serving as a servant of the Lord:
- Cyrus was God’s shepherd (Isaiah 44:28), gathering the lost sheep of Israel, since they had scattered in exile when God sacked the shepherds of Israel (Ezekiel 34).
- Cyrus was God’s anointed (Isaiah 45:1), since the sons of David were no longer governing with God as the Lord and his anointed (Psalm 2:2). (In the LXX, the word is christos, background that informs our proclamation of Jesus as the Christ.)
So, in that moment of history, God’s great commission to Cyrus was the hope of the world. In God’s sovereign care, what looked like the end of his people had advanced to a new phase of God’s project to redeem the world. God took hold of the king of the nations as his anointed, shepherding his people back into God’s authority and presence.
That’s the force of the great commission God gave to Cyrus.
The new development, and the shared commission
But Cyrus isn’t the end of the story. Matthew’s message is that God’s reign has now arrived in an anointed son of David (1:1).
And once again, disaster struck. The shepherd appointed by God (2:6) to lead his harassed and crushed people (9:36) was struck down so his flock was scattered (26:31). The crucifixion of the King of the Jews looked like the end, until God raised up his anointed out of death and gave him authority that extended beyond the borders of Judah, beyond the boundaries of the Empire, beyond the earth.
His commission takes the story of God’s reign to a whole new level:
Matthew 28:16–20 (my translation, compare NIV)
16 His eleven followers went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus directed them. 17 When they saw him, they knelt in homage, though some were uncertain.
18 As he came near, Jesus declared to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth was entrusted to me. 19 So as you spread out, train all the nations by immersing them into the authority of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 instructing them to obey everything I commanded you. And look: I myself am with you the whole time, until the era is fully realized.”
So, what’s the same, and what’s different?
Chronicles ended with God’s commission to King Cyrus. God’s commission to Christ Jesus is implied: All authority in heaven and on earth was entrusted to me. The rest of the statement is the Christ giving his regal authority to his servants who implement his kingdom among the nations. We plunge the nations into the kingship of the Father and his Son and God’s Holy Spirit, by instructing the nations in life under his command. In this way we provide a temple where the triune God lives among his people until the kingship of the Son is fully realized.
Everything hoped for in God’s commission to Cyrus will be finally realized in God’s commission to his Christ, and his commission to his followers.
Our role in Christ’s reign
Our role is defined by Christ’s authority. He is God’s anointed ruler, raised to reign over all the nations of the earth with the authority of heaven. His reign is good news for a world that has been divided by conflicting claims to power.
So, our king’s commission is to train the nations in life under his leadership, compliance with all that he commands for the people of the earth. This isn’t about one leader grasping power: the name under which we live is the triune power of heaven where life is shared in everlasting peace. The obedience of the nations is the result of his leadership (Rom 1:5; 16:26), the outworking of the good news of peace that breaks down the dividing walls so that humanity together forms a temple where God lives among his people as he always intended (Eph 2).
And that’s the goal of the commission. As we spread out and train the nations in Christ’s communal leadership, the king is present in his kingdom, so we’re living in his presence. This is what God intended from the beginning: he commissioned humans to function in his image, inviting them to live in his Garden.
That’s the king’s final promise. His kingship is not fully here yet, but it is here. The king is reigning in and with his servants, and he promises to do so through all the days of our lives until the era of his reign is fully here, until heaven’s kingship over the earth is fully restored.
The great commission is a grand vision for the reunification of earth and heaven. In his reign, earth becomes a kingdom of heaven — the message of Matthew. This isn’t something the king does alone, for we’re commissioned to image our sovereign, to represent his reign, until the nations come under his kingship.
Jesus did not call us to go to the heathen to change their religion. He did not tell us to make them feel guilty so they will ask for forgiveness. He did not tell us to carry guns to the ends of the earth so that foreign cultures could be subjugated to British or Spanish rulers. Could we give some thought to improving the way we have understood and applied his great commission?
Training the nations is primarily about embodying God’s kingship among his people. Apprenticeship is lived instruction, embodied experience. Even when those in power want to crucify us. Isn’t that the example of discipleship that Jesus gave us?
What others are saying
Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Second Edition. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 23:
Matthew begins with the words “Biblos geneseos Jesou Christou …” The title is a pun that has a variety of possible meanings: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Messiah,” or “The book of (the) Genesis of Jesus Messiah,” or “The book of the origin of Jesus Messiah …,” and the like. This opening pun connects with the last words of the work: “till the end of the age” (Matt 28:16), marking off the beginning and end. Moreover, the last passage of the work, an edict by the risen Jesus (Matt 28:18–20), closes the Gospel with the same type of passage that closes the Hebrew Scriptures, the edict of Cyrus in 2 Chron 36:23. Thus the Gospel begins with “the book of genesis” and ends with a final edict of one empowered by God, just like the Sacred Scriptures of Matthew’s day. Further, by beginning with a genealogy and closing with an edict, Matthew’s work likewise follows the pattern of last book of the Hebrew Bible, Chronicles. For Chronicles (called in Hebrew “The Book of Days” = genealogy) begins with a genealogy and ends with an edict from one with power over “all the kingdoms of the earth” (2 Chron 36:22–23; used by Ezra 1:1–2), namely, God’s Messiah, Cyrus (Isa 45:1; see Isa 44:28).
Richard B. Gardner, Matthew, Believers Church Bible Commentary (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1991), 401–402:
The declaration of authority in verse 18 is framed in language reminiscent of two OT passages. In the final verse of the final book of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Persian king Cyrus proclaims: “The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth” (2 Chron. 36:23). The second passage is found in the visions of Daniel, where a human figure appears before God’s throne, and “to him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Dan. 7:14). The cosmic authority of which these texts speak is the authority God has granted to Jesus by raising him from death.
- Great authority for a great commission (Mt 28:18-20)
- The church’s role: public servants
- Society on the couch
Photo by Allen Browne, 2008. The Cyrus Cylinder contains Cyrus’ decree for the nations to return and rebuild.