As I have read and studied the words spoken by Jesus to his disciples after his resurrection, I discovered a common thread. In addition to offering comfort, confirmation, and clarification, a key focus of Jesus’s teaching is commissioning his disciples. I’ll give a brief overview of these nuances found in the commissioning words found in each work (all verses are from the CSB).
The Authority of Jesus in Matthew 28
The most famous “commissioning” words of the resurrected Jesus are found in Matthew 28:16-20, with verses 19 and 20 often dubbed “the Great Commission” – “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, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you.” Because of the “therefore” found in these words, this commissioning to make disciples of all nations is grounded in what Jesus says just prior to that: “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:19) – showing that the reason to go out and make disciples is because of Jesus’s authority over all things. Because Jesus is Lord, we should help others both hear this truth and become his disciples. Because Jesus is Lord, people should observe or obey everything that Jesus taught us. For the disciples, the focus on “all nations” indicates that his message is not just for the Jewish people but for every nation of the earth; this word also reminds us of who is called to hear this good news about Jesus. Perhaps because of the continued doubt the disciples had even in this moment (see Matthew 28:17), Jesus concludes his word by noting “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” He sends the disciples out not in place of himself but rather with his presence. These words provide a fitting conclusion to the gospel that begins by noting that Jesus is Immanuel, which means “God is with us” (Matthew 1:23); his presence is not just for salvation or for comfort, but also for mission.
The Fulfillment of Old Testament Words in Luke 24
The specific commissioning of the disciples in the Gospel of Luke follows and connects with the clarifying words Jesus has about the Old Testament. Not only does he note that the Old Testament pointed to the dying and rising Messiah (Luke 24:46), but also that this is “what is written” and “repentance for forgiveness of sins will be proclaimed in his name to all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47). Thus, the commissioning of the disciples stands in continuity with the hope and teaching of the Old Testament. God would come to save His people and would also send them out so that all the nations would learn and discover this. In fact, the description of the disciples as “witnesses” in Luke 24:48 draws on the Old Testament (Isaiah 43:10). Jesus also mentions the coming of the Holy Spirit when he speaks about what the Father had promised and being empowered from on high, as God had promised to send the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:39). Therefore, while Matthew grounds the commission of the disciples in the authority of Jesus that is now present, Luke grounds it in the ongoing story of God. While Matthew encourages the disciples in their mission due to the presence of Jesus, Luke encourages the disciples in their mission due to the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Fulfillment of the Mission in Acts 1
Since Luke was also the author of Acts (and refers to his gospel in Acts 1:1), it is not surprising that the words of Jesus in Acts are similar to those found in Luke. Jesus likewise tells the disciples to stay in Jerusalem as they wait for the fulfillment of what had been promised (referring to the reception of the Holy Spirit) and then states that the disciples will be his witnesses (Acts 1:4-8). Jesus’s words in Acts more closely connect the reception of the Holy Spirit as the spark and pathway (Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, to the ends of the earth) for their witnessing. In essence, Jesus’s commissioning words in Luke look back at how it connects to the Old Testament while his words in Acts look forward to seeing how it will happen so that the reader can see the fulfillment. Interestingly enough, the Book of Acts ends in a way that does not really have the closure one might expect (Paul is still in prison but the word of God is going forth unhindered). However, it would seem that such an ending is an invitation for readers to see themselves as part of the story; the work that Jesus commissioned the disciples did not only end with them, but began with them and thus needs to be carried forth. In Acts, we look back at how the church fulfills its commission so that we might do the same.
The Sending of the Disciples in John 20
A key theme of the Gospel of John as a whole is that Jesus is the one “sent” by the Father. Jesus then uses this same sort of language in his commissioning of the disciples, saying, “As the Father has sent me, I also send you” (John 20:21). This means that the church is the continuation of Jesus’s work…the next part of the chain of God’s mission. Similar to what we see in Luke and Acts, Jesus links the ministry of the church then with the Holy Spirit as he follows these commissioning words with, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). Once again, this links the church to Jesus, as the Gospel of John also highlights the Spirit’s presence in and with Jesus. Jesus also notes that the church has the power to forgive sins (John 20:23), something that stems from their mission as the ambassadors of Christ; the church doesn’t do this in its own power or authority, but rather because of being rooted and connected in Jesus. If Matthew highlights the authority and Luke (and Acts) the continuation of the Old Testament narrative, one could say that John’s commissioning links the church’s mission to the extension of Jesus’s mission.
A Note on the Ending of Mark
As previously mentioned (see this post), I agree with many scholars (including most who have worked on contemporary Bible translations) who believe that the Gospel of Mark probably originally ended at 16:8 with verses 9-20 added at a later time. Therefore, I won’t go into the details of the commissioning that occurs in Mark 16:15 other than to note that we once again see an account in which the resurrected Jesus commissions his disciples. This shows how important the theme of commissioning is. In fact, an account seems incomplete if it does not note that Jesus told his disciples to spread His message and make disciples.
What This Means
This recurring thread in the resurrection accounts points to the importance of Jesus’s commissioning of his disciples to spread forth his message. This does not seem to be an add-on or tacked-on idea, but part of the essence of what Jesus told his disciples after he rose from the dead. The comfort, confirmation, and clarification that Jesus offers his disciples is meant so that they might believe and understand his work…which should lead them to spreading word of it. We have not seen the resurrected Jesus in our flesh, but we have heard his words of commission – will we go out in obedience to this calling?
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