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.” One should be struck by the repetition of the word “all” in this passage:
- Jesus has been given all power (v.18).
- Disciples are to be made of all nations (v.19).
- Disciples are to obey all that Jesus commanded (v.20).
- Jesus will be with the disciples always (literally “all the days”; v.20).
The universality of Jesus’ power and his continuing presence provide the dynamic for the universal discipleship mandate. The disciples will be able to make disciples of all the nations only as they recognize that Jesus has been given all authority and that he will be with them all the days until the end. The universal task is daunting, but it can be done because of the continuing power and presence of Jesus.
Baptizing and teaching (v. 20) are the constituent actions within the larger command to make disciples. Baptizing has been mentioned in this Gospel only as the activity of John, though the Fourth Gospel makes it clear that it was a characteristic also of Jesus’ ministry at least in the early days while John was still active (John 3:22–26; 4:1–3). It was against the background of John’s practice that it would be understood, as an act of repentance and of identification with the purified and prepared people of God (3:6, 9, 13). But while John’s baptism was only a preparatory one (3:11), Jesus now institutes one with a fuller meaning. It is a commitment to (in the name is literally ‘into the name’, implying entrance into an allegiance) the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (all three of whom, interestingly, were involved in the event of Jesus’ own baptism, 3:16–17). Jesus thus takes his place along with his Father and the Spirit as the object of worship and of the disciple’s commitment. The experience of God in these three Persons is the essential basis of discipleship. At the same time the singular noun name (not ‘names’) underlines the unity of the three Persons.
Jesus alone had been the teacher, and the verb has not been used by Matthew of his disciples’ ministry. Now they take over his role of teaching, which is the necessary application of his ‘authority’ (v. 18). They are to teach not just abstract ideas, but to observe all that I have commanded you, the latter verb being from the same root as the noun for ‘commandments’ in 5:19; 15:3; etc. (and cf. the same verb in 15:4; 19:7). There is thus a strongly ethical emphasis in this summary of Christian mission and discipleship, as there has been in Jesus’ teaching throughout this Gospel. To ‘make disciples’ is not complete unless it leads them to a life of observing Jesus’ commandments.
Jesus’ universal reign demands a universal mission. The restriction of the disciples’ mission to Israel alone in 10:5–6 can now be lifted, for the kingdom of the Son of man as described in Daniel 7:14 requires disciples of all nations. Ethnē (‘nations’) is the regular Greek term for Gentiles, and it has been argued that this command therefore actually excludes the Jews from the scope of the disciples’ mission. But to send the disciples to ‘the Gentiles’ is merely to extend the range of their mission, and need not imply a cessation of the mission to Israel which has already been commanded, and can now be taken for granted. Moreover, the phrase panta ta ethnē (‘all nations’) has been used previously in 24:9, 14; 25:32 in contexts which include Israel in ‘the nations’. And surely there can be no suggestion in Daniel 7:14 of the exclusion of Israel from the dominion of the Son of man, who himself represents Israel. This then is the culmination of the theme we have noted throughout the Gospel, the calling of a people of God far wider than that of the Old Testament, in which membership is based not on race but on a relationship with God through his Messiah (3:9; 8:11–12; 12:21; 21:28–32, 41–43; 22:8–10; 24:14, 31; 26:13).
Image credit: Jesus’ ascension to Heaven depicted by John Singleton Copley in Ascension (1775) Public Domain