The Resurrection of Christ and the Commission of the Church – Matthew 28

As Christians, we don’t buy into the story of the resurrection of Christ because we are gullible and ready to ascribe the status of miracle to every seemingly mysterious display of power.  Nor is it because we are ready to see a miracle under every rock and behind every tree.  You can see this attitude displayed even in Matthew’s telling of the resurrection.   A careful reading of the text shows that Matthew does not in fact describe how Christ rose from the dead.  He is not interested in supernatural bling.  Rather, he is content to simply announce the fact of it and to give us the evidence for it in the first ten verses.  This gospel writer is not interested in the way Jesus rose from the dead; he is interested in the fact that Jesus rose from the dead and the evidence for it.

Some might argue that verses 2-4 describe the resurrection of Jesus.  But note carefully that Jesus is never mentioned in these verses.  This is not a description of the resurrection but of the descent of the angel who comes down to open the tomb.  The purpose of this seems to be to give the first witnesses ready access to the empty tomb.  In any case, our Lord certainly didn’t need the help of an angel to leave the tomb.  According to Luke, Jesus could pass through walls, and so he didn’t even need the door to the tomb to be opened in order to leave it. 

All in all, one of the remarkable things about the resurrection narrative in Matthew is again the sobriety with which Matthew records the events, especially when compared to the later apocryphal gospels.  In the Gospel of Peter, for example, the stone rolls away by itself.  Two angels go into the tomb, described as having heads that reached to heaven, and when they bring Jesus out – who has to be supported by them – they are followed by a cross!   In contrast, Matthew’s account (and indeed, all the accounts given by the canonical gospels) are much more restrained, and certainly sound like a sober telling of history. 

The Eye-witnesses to the Resurrection of Jesus

What is the evidence that Matthew gives for the resurrection?  Essentially, the evidence Matthew gives is that of eye-witness accounts.  Now I was told once by someone that there just isn’t much evidence for Jesus apart from the first-century historian Josephus.  In this person’s mind, the gospels themselves somehow didn’t count as witnesses.  But why not?  Nelson Glueck, a Jewish archeologist (and not a Christian) has argued that every book in the NT was written by a baptized Jew between 40 and 80 A.D.  This is important because these gospels were tools for the spread of the Christian church, a church that had its nucleus in first-century Judea.  These gospels are full of details such as names and places and events that could have been easily fact-checked.  If their witness is so distorted and full of false-hoods, it’s hard to understand how the church could have gained such traction in Judea, let alone places as far away as Rome.  What makes this even more compelling is that first-century Jews were not likely to buy into a story about a crucified and resurrected Christ – unless the story was true.  (Nor were people who were steeped in Greek culture, which loathed the idea of a bodily resurrection.)

Moreover, if Matthew were making this up, he wouldn’t have written it the way he did.  In every gospel account, the first witnesses to the resurrected Christ are women.  In Matthew’s account, we are told that this group included Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” (ver. 1).  In Mark’s account, they are listed as Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome (Mk. 16:1).  In Luke, they are not specifically named, but described as “the women who had come with him from Galilee” (Lk. 23:55).  In John, again Mary Magdalene figures prominently (Jn. 20:1-18).  This is significant, because in Matthew’s culture, a woman’s testimony was not considered legally binding.  If he had been just making this all up in order to start a religion, it’s incomprehensible that he would have written the story like this.

The second set of witnesses that Matthew records are the eleven disciples, who went to Galilee to receive further instructions from the Lord (16-17, cf. ver. 10).  Matthew, who was one of them, tells us that “they saw him” (17).  Now you can say what you want about these witnesses.  You can claim that they were liars.  But these were men and women many of whom went on to seal their testimony with their own blood.  Why would they do this if they knew it was a lie?  I can understand a person dying for a religion that is false if they really think it is true; I cannot understand a person dying for a religion that they claim is true but know is false.  But this would have been the case with the apostles and early Jewish Christians who had been with Jesus and saw him die and buried.  Why would they go on and concoct a story about him rising from the dead?  Why indeed? – unless it were true.

However, from the very beginning this is what people who are opposed to the gospel have wanted to believe.  It is what motivated the false report from the guards, recorded in verses 11-15.  The guards probably didn’t see the risen Christ.  But they did feel the earthquake and see the angels.  In fact, it was the appearance of the angels that caused the guards to faint out of fear and “become like dead men” (4).  This temporary unconsciousness perhaps became the basis for their story later that they had fallen asleep and had the body of Jesus stolen while they were sleeping (13).  

That people would readily believe this (15) is testament to the fact that people will believe what they want if it lines up with their preferences and refuse to believe something no matter how strong the evidence for it if it conflicts with their personal agendas.  That people would believe this story is incredible.  How in the world would Roman soldiers sleep through grave robbers pushing a huge cylindrical stone up an incline in order to get into the tomb?  I’ve heard of sound sleepers but I don’t think anyone in the history of sleeping has slept that hard.  In any case, it is highly unlikely that Roman soldiers would have slept at their posts since this would have endangered their careers, if not their lives (cf. ver. 14).  So, whereas the resurrection of Christ is a powerful and satisfying explanation of the events of the first Easter Sunday, this attempt (and all of the contemporary ones as well) to explain the same events certainly lacks explanatory power.

I think it is interesting that in verse 17 we are told that some of the disciples who saw Jesus “doubted.”  There is a lot of consternation among commentators as to who doubted and what is meant by doubting in this context.  However, the Greek word here does not point to the doubt of unbelief but the doubt of men and women who didn’t know yet quite what to think of this dramatic turn of events.  This is the doubt of hesitation.  They were in the process of going from fear to faith and it wasn’t quite as smooth a transition as they might have hoped.  In any case, I think this speaks to the power of fear – fear can blind us to obvious truth right in front of us and keep us from the joy in God that could be ours in faith.   

So we have the testimony of the women in verse 1-10 and the testimony of the eleven in verses 16-17.  However, in the last verses of Matthew (18-20) there is implicit a third cloud of witnesses: the church in every age.  The witness of the eleven was not meant to stop there; in Galilee, our Lord gives to the disciples the Great Commission and thus sets in motion the mission of the church which will encompass all nations and every generation from that point on.  

In my opinion, this is one of the strongest evidences for the resurrection.  Christianity does not advance in the world today by forcing people to convert at the end of a gun barrel.  Rather, Christianity advances by “making disciples” in every nation, by teaching and preaching and living the gospel in this world.  Christianity advances, not because people are forced to accept it from outward compulsion but because people are changed from within as they experience the liberating power of the gospel in their lives.  The gospel advances because it does not come “in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:4, ESV).  It advances because the gospel does not come in word only but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit, and with much conviction (1 Thess. 1:5).  We know the resurrection is real because we’ve seen it change hearts; above all, many of us have experienced first-hand in the new birth the power of God and the fruit of the resurrection in our own lives.

Thus this entire chapter serves in some sense as a list of witnesses to the truth of the resurrection, from the women to the Eleven to the church in every age.  Along with the early witnesses, the church of the Commission points to the truth of the resurrection.  The Great Commission exults in the Resurrection of our Lord.  

A Resurrection-Created Great Commission

But there is another connection between the commission and the resurrection.  By fulfilling the commission, the church proclaims the risen Christ.  But the reason why this proclamation is successful at all is because Christ is risen.  The resurrection created the commission; the commission points back to the resurrection.  In different ways they point to each other.

In the remaining part of this sermon, I want to explore this double connection between the commission and the resurrection: the fact that the commission announces the resurrection of our Lord and the resurrection is what makes the Great Commission possible and meaningful and successful.

This is not merely a homiletical device on my part.  The text itself makes the connection explicit in verse 19: “Go therefore and make disciples.”  The essence of the Great Commission lies in the verb “make disciples” (Gk. matheteuo).  Why are we to make disciples?  The reason is pointed to in the word “therefore,” which points us back to verse 18: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”  This is the reason for the Great Commission.

Now what is Jesus referring to in verse 18?  Surely Jesus as the Son of God has always had all authority in heaven and earth.  Why then would he say that it had been given to him if he always had it?  What was there to give?

It is true that the Son of God as such has never lacked authority and power.  However, this was not always true of the incarnate Son of God, the Son of man.  As the Son of man, up to his death, Jesus was abased and humbled among men.  To the Philippian believers, Paul explains that our Lord in his incarnation “made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and become obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:8-9).  He “became poor” (2 Cor. 8:9).

However, all this changed when he rose from the dead.  Paul goes on in Phil. 2:9-11, “Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”  This is what our Lord is referring to in Mt. 28:18.  Jesus Christ has been exalted in virtue of his resurrection to have authority and power over all nations.  

It’s possible that our Lord had Daniel’s prophesy in mind when he spoke these words in verse 18: “And I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him.  And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed” (Dan. 7:13-14).  In any case, Mt. 28:18 is clearly a reference to the radical change that occurred when Jesus was raised from the dead.  This is the authority and the power that has been vested in the risen Christ.

It is therefore on the basis of the resurrection that the Great Commission is given.  And it is the resurrection that gives the commission its specific characteristics.  In particular, it is the universal power and glory of our risen Lord that gives this commission to the church its universal character.  If there is one word that seems to permeate verses 18-20, it is the word “all”: “all power” (18), “all nations” (19), “all things” (20), and “always” (20).  In other words, it is the universal sovereignty of Christ (all power) that leads to a mandate with global scope (all nations) with comprehensive implications for discipleship (all things) secured by the never-ending presence of Christ (always).

Now let’s come back to the central command in these verses: “make disciples.”  To become a disciple of Jesus is to be a learner, a follower, of Jesus.  “Disciples are those who hear, understand, and obey Jesus’ teaching.”   So to make disciples is share the gospel with others so that they hear it and by the power of the Holy Spirit understand it and obey it.  That is the mission that our Lord gave to the Eleven, and, by extension, to the whole church in every age.  It is the mission that is given to you and me.  

Making Disciples

Of course the obvious question is, how are we to do this?  Well, obviously, we do this by living and sharing the gospel with others.  You cannot make a disciple of Jesus if they do not understand who Jesus is or what he has done.

What does this look like?  Well, first of all, it means that we live the gospel.  A lot of people have come down hard on St. Francis of Assisi, who said something along the lines of, “Share the gospel, and use words if necessary.”  The criticism – which I believe is valid up to a certain point – is rooted in the fact that words are necessary when sharing the gospel.  It’s not that they are sometimes necessary.  And yet Francis was making an important point.  People will have hard time listening to the gospel you are trying to share if you are not living it out.  This is what the apostle Paul was getting at when he exhorted believers to adorn the doctrine of God in the way we work and speak and act in the public sphere (Tit. 2:10).  If we are not living the doctrines of grace by showing grace to others, then the contradiction of our lives will inevitably overshadow the sweetness of the gospel.

Secondly, it means that we know how to speak the gospel to others.  Sometimes, I think that we make this more complicated than it really is.  What is the gospel?  It is simply the good news that God saves sinners through Jesus Christ and that if we believe in him and repent of our sins we will be saved.  That is the gospel.  It’s not supposed to be complicated, although the amount of truth we may need to share will vary from person to person.  Especially in our day and age, you may need to back up and do some pre-evangelism and apologetics, but the content of the gospel is simple, no matter what day and age you and I live in.

Now our Lord says that we are to go and make disciples.  The word “go” can be translated, “as you go, make disciples.”  In other words, as you go through life, be purposefully seeking out others to make disciples.  Thus, this mandate doesn’t just apply to those who leave for foreign countries, although foreign missions is a necessary concomitant of the universal scope of the commission (how can you make disciples of all nations if you stay in your little enclave?).  But the point is, that it applies to all of us, you and I, whether we ever set a foot in India or China or Africa or not.  

An excellent illustration of this can be found in the conversion of the early church father, Justin Martyr.  Justin was born around 100 A.D., and grew up in Palestine.  Surprisingly, Justin grew up knowing little or nothing of either the Jewish or Christian religions (this is due partly to the fact that after the Jewish wars Palestine had been depopulated of Jews).  However, in his youth (like St. Augustine after him) he spent a lot of time studying the various pagan philosophies and religions of his day in a quest for truth.  In the midst of this quest, he casually came across a man as he was walking by the sea shore and these two men started a conversation.  Justin’s interlocutor was a Christian.  Now Justin was clearly the more learned of the two, and finally the Christian stopped in the middle of the argument (which he was probably losing), and said, “You are a mere dealer in words, and no lover of action and truth; your aim is not to be a practicer of good, but a clever disputant, a cunning sophist.”  Justin replied, “Where then is truth?”  To which the man replied, “Search the Scriptures and pray that the gates of light may be opened to thee, for none can perceive and comprehend these things unless God and his Christ grant them understanding.”  As a result of this conversation, Justin was converted and became one of the great early church fathers.

Now there are several great lessons that we can learn from Justin Martyr’s conversion.  One is that it illustrates the “as you go, make disciples” principle.  Justin was not converted in a religious rally or a special meeting (not that any of these things are wrong!).  He was converted because he met a Christian who was taking a walk by the sea and decided to share the gospel with a pagan philosopher.  And because the gospel is not just about winning arguments but about sharing something that the Holy Spirit will bless, we should not be surprised when our feeble efforts meet with success.

Which is the other point.  You don’t have to have superior knowledge in order to share the gospel.  The article that I read this story from makes this fascinating observation: “We are sometimes not only ashamed to witness to others of the truth, but we readily excuse our failure to witness by an appeal to the superior knowledge of those with whom we dispute. It remains, however, a striking fact of the church in the immediate post-apostolic years that the rapid spread of the gospel throughout the whole Mediterranean world was through the faithful witness of the people of God. There were few if any missionaries in these days after the great missionary labors of Paul. Only faithful and often uneducated people of God, testifying of the truth and manifesting in their lives the joy of salvation, were the means God used to spread the gospel throughout the known world. Here we have an instance of that -- the learned Justin, brought to his knees in sorrow for sin, by a humble and childlike old man on the seaside near Ephesus.”  (Italics mine)  As you go, make disciples.

However, it’s not only fear but also tradition that can keep us from sharing the gospel as we ought.  I was listening to a message recently by Iain Murray about the Scottish reformer, John Knox, and he was talking about the need for flexibility in our churches as we think about ways to reach our world, as Knox and his fellow reformers had.  It’s a word for us on this side of the pond as well and it illustrates what I am talking about here.  This is what Murray says: “My point is this . . . that we while we are to cherish our traditions, they all need to be examined.  And we have come to a day in which the church at large is somewhat viewed as the church was before the Reformation: people despise it, and people aren't going to come flooding into our churches and it’s needless for us to pray that they will, I think.  What we need to pray for is that something will happen within us and within our people that will make our believers a missionary force that will go into the world.  And we don't need church buildings for that; these men had no church buildings at all before 1559.  But what we do need are vibrant Christians, whether they be plumbers or tailors or whatever they be, but that’s what we need.  And to get to that we need a degree of flexibility that we don’t have at the moment.”   And I think an application for us as a church is for all of us, whether we be ministers or not, to think about how we can serve the cause of God and truth in the world, how we can be witnesses for Christ.  This is not just up to preachers.  It’s not a matter of having nice buildings and smart programs.  It’s about being the light of Christ in a world that is full of darkness.  We all need to be involved in that; and we need to be willing to be flexible, and, if need be, to throw away unbiblical traditions that get in the way of that.

Maturing Disciples

Now we shouldn’t be content that people embrace the good news about Jesus but that they grow in that knowledge.  In fact, the Great Commission is unintelligible if you try to separate evangelism and conversion from growth in grace and sanctification.  For our Lord goes on to say that those who are made disciples are to be baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit and so outwardly identify with the people of God.  And he says that they are to be taught everything that our Lord commanded.

Those who claim to believe in Jesus and yet have no desire to identify publicly with the church are not really serious about discipleship and their claim to be followers of Jesus cannot be taken seriously.  In any case, if they profess to love Jesus and yet refuse to obey his clear command to be baptized – they have already contradicted themselves.  It’s not that baptism saves you; it’s simply part of our obedience to Christ and a natural response to faith in his name.

The same can be said with wanting to learn all that Jesus commands.  Those who are content to say a canned prayer, walk the aisle, and get wet and then have no desire to go on and become more like Christ in their hearts and lives, they too condemn themselves as hypocrites.  They have simply set about getting insurance against hell, nothing more.  But they will find such insurance poor policy in the end, for as Bonhoeffer put it, when our Lord calls a man he bids him come and die.  All who truly embrace Jesus as Lord and Savior (and there is no other way to embrace him) will willingly take his yoke and follow him.  Our Lord himself said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (Jn. 10:27).  If you are not following Christ, then you have no reason to identify with his people and his salvation.

We need to let this sink in: “teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” – our Lord never envisions a time when the church will outgrow any of his teachings.  We live in a time when the church is under considerable pressure to be relevant by ditching “out-moded” teachings, especially on sexuality and family.  Many churches have done just this, and I would not be surprised if they tell you that they have done it in order to fulfill the Great Commission.  But you cannot fulfill the Great Commission and lose even one of our Lord’s commandments.  It doesn’t matter if they are unpopular or not.  When Christians were being fed to the lions they were not popular then, either.  And yet it was precisely those Christians that eventually conquered paganism.  Oh, for more of their spirit!

Which brings us to our last question: Can we have confidence in this mission?  And the answer is, yes; yes because we serve a risen Savior who has all power in heaven and earth.  And not only does he have all power, he has promised to bring that power to bare upon his church for its good and his glory: “And lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.”  Our Lord has not just given us a commandment; he has promised to be with us every step of the way as we carry it out.  We have no reason to give way to fear, but rather every reason for unspeakable joy.


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