This coming Sunday is the Solemnity of the Ascension. 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 (Mt 28:7 and 10), 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:” “Go tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.” (v.10)
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.
Image credit: Jesus’ ascension to Heaven depicted by John Singleton Copley in Ascension (1775) Public Domain