16 The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted. 18 Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Mt 28:16-20)
In the Gospel according to Matthew, this is the first scene in which disciples have appeared since they fled during the arrest of Jesus (26:56). Since that point in the narrative, Jesus has been crucified, died and laid to rest in the tomb. In the verses just before our text, the tomb has been just found empty by the faithful women who reported that an angel of the Lord and Jesus himself has appeared with a message for the “eleven disciples.” Presumably the disciples are following the message of Jesus, delivered by the women, to meet Jesus in Galilee. Thus, the disciples are not acting based on their own witness to the risen Christ, but upon the testimony of others. It is by that witness that the disciples take their next step on the journey of faith. Thus, there is already a nascent belief in the Resurrection, even if they do not yet fully comprehend the implications and consequences of that salvific act.
That sets the immediate context of our passage. But there is a larger context in play. R.T. France [1987, 417] writes that these final verses of Matthew 28 serve to complete the framework of the entire Gospel.
First, v. 18 presents Jesus as the universal sovereign. In 1:1–17 he was presented as the successor to royal dignity, and 2:1–12 portrayed him as the true ‘king of the Jews’. So in due course he entered Jerusalem as her king (21:1–11), but it is this very claim which has brought him to the cross, where it was mockingly displayed (27:37). But now the promise of chs. 1–2 is proved true after all, and on a far wider scale than a merely Jewish kingship, in ‘the enthronement of the Son of Man,’ whose rule is over ‘all nations’ (v. 19), indeed over both heaven and earth (v. 18). Secondly, and still more wonderfully, 1:23 presented Jesus the baby under the name ‘God with us’; now in the final verse Jesus the risen Lord confirms the promise, ‘I am with you always.’
Each of their essential points combine for an overarching consequence for the believer: universal kingship and accompaniment until the end of the age, means that there is a universal and timeless element to mission. We are a people sent into the world to proclaim the Good News.
Some Initial Thoughts. Jesus was from Galilee and since the beginning of his public ministry had moved from the northern most reaches of Israel to its center in Jerusalem – the locus of the confrontation and rejection by the leaders of Israel. But now the “Galilean” has triumphed against all odds and it a manner none had foreseen. The preparation of the “twelve” was not lost in their abandoning Jesus at the Passion. They are now restored to their positions of trust and responsibility and given final instructions for fulfilling the mission to which they had already been called (cf. 10:1-15) – but the scope is now far wider than Israel and included all the nations (28:19)
The baptism which John had originally instituted as a symbol of a new beginning for repentant Israel (3:1-12) is now to be extended to all peoples of the earth. At the heart of this new community of faith is the risen Jesus himself, as he said he would be (18:20). The new community will consist of his disciples who keep his commandments and are sustained by Jesus’ abiding presence among them. The abiding presence of the one who holds all power in heaven and on earth – a power greater than that offered by Satan in the desert (4:8-10)
Eleven not twelve. After Matthew’s emphasis on the fate of Judas (27:3–10) it is appropriate that he now describes the ‘inner circle’ as the eleven disciples. While some scholars argue that more disciples were present, it seems to me that their arguments are to ensure that the commission and promises of vv.18-20 were given to more than the “eleven” – an argument constructed to “head off” any later succession arguments about who is to direct the early mission. To accept that only the eleven were present does not, of course, require us to believe that the commission and the promise of vv. 18–20 applied only to them; here, as often, they represent the whole body of Jesus.