In my last Field Notes post, I began to examine four biblical threads that are woven into Matthew’s Great Commission. In that post, I examined how the Great Commission echos both the Cultural Mandate of Genesis 1 and the promises made to Abraham, especially in Genesis 12. Today, I want to continue by examining two other biblical threads: (1) the promise of a Davidic kingdom and (2) the hope of a new covenant.
By examining these biblical threads, I hope to counter those who try to deemphasize or downplay the significance of the Great Commission. If we understand the Great Commission within the context of the entire Bible, we will never want to diminish its greatness. Instead, we will seek to deepen our understanding of Jesus’ words in Matthew 28:18–20, and give our lives to obey them.
The Great Commission is the method of establishing the Davidic kingdom.
The promises to Abraham are reaffirmed and given greater specificity in the promises made to David. Yahweh gives David the same promises he gave to Abraham. He will give David a great name, make Israel a great nation, and settle Israel in a good land (2 Sam 7:9–11).
Yahweh specifies that he will accomplish these blessings through raising up one of David’s sons who will rule in his place. He will establish for this son a kingdom that “will endure before me forever” (2 Sam 7:16).
But when Babylon conquers Judah and takes the Davidic king into exile, the promise of an eternal Davidic kingdom seems empty. Yet, it is in exile that Yahweh reaffirms these promises in the strongest possible ways. Yahweh does this through giving the conquering, pagan king himself a revelatory dream. Nebuchadnezzar sees his kingdom as simply one among four others, which will be shattered by an eternal kingdom (Dan 2:24–49).
Years later, Daniel himself sees a vision with the exact same message, confirming the certainty of Yahweh’s plan. Daniel sees four kingdoms, which will all come and go. In his vision, Yahweh appoints “one like a son of man” to posses authority over “every people, nation, and language” (Dan 7:13–14a). “His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away” (Dan 7:14b).
When Jesus tells the disciples to “make disciples,” he begins by identifying himself as this Son of Man, saying, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth” (Matt 28:18). He might as well be saying, “Guys, pay attention! I’m the one Daniel saw, and now is the time!”
Jesus hadn’t kept his identity a secret from his disciples. Repeatedly, he identified himself as the Son of Man from Daniel 7 by name (for example, Matt 8:20; 9:6; 10:23; 11:19; 12:8). Jesus commands his followers to “make disciples of all nations” because the time for establishing the Son of Man’s kingdom has come. The promise to David of an eternal and universal kingdom will now be fulfilled.
The Great Commission is an expression of the new covenant.
In the Old Testament, Yahweh establishes his relationship with his people through covenants. Deuteronomy 4:39–40 records a simple summary statement of how Yahweh’s covenant with Israel worked:
Today, recognize and keep in mind that the LORD is God in heaven above and on earth below; there is no other. Keep his statutes and commands, which I am giving you today, so that you and your children after you may prosper and so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you for all time.
In this statement, we see (1) God’s authority for establishing his covenant, (2) the obligations placed upon Israel to keep his covenant, and (3) the blessing promised if they keep his covenant.1
Israel, however, rejected Yahweh’s universal authority and failed in their covenant obligations by worshiping other gods. As a result, they did not receive the blessings of the covenant, and instead endured the curse of exile.
As Jeremiah experiences the exile, he foresees a future covenant that will fix Israel’s shortcomings. Yahweh promises to “make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah” (Jer 31:31). Under the new covenant, Yahweh’s people will fulfill their covenant obligations and receive the covenant blessings. How will this happen? It will happen because Yahweh will transform the people and enable them to keep the covenant. Yahweh will forgive them. They will know Yahweh, and he will write his law on their hearts, giving them the desire to obey (Jer 31:33–34). Then his covenant goal will truly be accomplished: “I will be their God, and they will be my people” (Jer 31:33).
Just a few weeks before Jesus gave the Great Commission to his disciples, he had alerted them to the fact that his death would institute Jeremiah’s new covenant. Holding up a cup, he said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt 26:28). Covenant. Forgiveness. Jesus might as well have told them to turn in their Bibles to Jeremiah 31. That is, if anyone was carrying a pocket-sized version of the Jeremiah scroll with them (which they weren’t).
When Jesus gives his disciples the Great Commission a few weeks after his death, the covenant structure of the statement would be quite clear to anyone familiar with Deuteronomy. Like in Deuteronomy 4:39–40, Jesus begins by identifying his authority. Then he proceeds to identify his disciples’ obligations. They must “go, therefore, and make disciples” (Matt 28:19), but furthermore, they must teach those who will be incorporated into the covenant community through baptism “to observe everything I have commanded you” (Matt 28:20a). Finally, he issues the promise: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20b).
Through his disciples, Jesus will be incorporating people from every nation into the new covenant community. This will be a people who live under the authority of Christ and obey him because, in fulfillment of Jeremiah 31, God has forgiven and transformed them. This will be a people who will in fact enjoy the fullness of God’s promised blessings.
How great is the Great Commission?
The Great Commission is not “the so-called Great Commission.”2 It is in fact greater than most of us initially understand.
One school of biblical interpretation has infamously labeled the establishment of the church as a “parenthesis” in God’s plan.3 Understanding the biblical background to Matthew 28:18–20, however, helps us to understand that the Great Commission was not part of some parenthesis or time-out from God’s primary work. It is part of the fulfillment.
This is why Matthew saw it as such a fitting conclusion to his gospel. His gospel is the gospel of fulfillment. The verb plēroō (πληρόω, “to fulfill”) occurs 16 times in Matthew. The point that Matthew makes from chapter 1 is unmistakable: Jesus has come to fulfill Israel’s Scriptures.
Even though we don’t see the word “fulfill” in Matthew 28, Matthew is still making the same point. Through the Great Commission, Jesus is fulfilling all the promises and hopes revealed to Moses and the Prophets. The last days have arrived. The eschaton has begun! It is time for the eternal and universal kingdom of God to come, and it will come through making disciples of all nations. “This good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed in all the world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matt 24:14).
- Although Christopher J.H. Wright downplays the significance of the Great Commission, he does a fantastic job connecting the Great Commission to the Deuteronomic and new covenants. It’s quite unfortunate that he isn’t inspired by these connections to emphasize the Great Commission even more, rather than downplay it. See The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Nottingham: IVP, 2006), 354–55.
- Wright, The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 78.
- This is the view of classic dispensationalists, but is a concept that has been abandoned by most dispensationalists today.