As the time of his ascension drew near, the Risen Lord Jesus spoke to his disciples and gave them what is commonly referred to as the Great Commission.
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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 all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).
Christ was sending his church into the world to be his witnesses. They would be empowered by the Spirit to go into all the world, preaching the gospel and making disciples (Luke 24:45-48; John 20:21; Acts 1:8).
However, Meredith Kline has pointed out that the word “commission” doesn’t fully capture the significance of this watershed event. He argues that the Great Commission plays a critical role in the establishment of the New Covenant, serving as the proclamation of a new constitutional order that was now in operation.1 A closer look at Matthew 28:18-20 reveals that Christ’s new covenant commission has the same essential structure of the old Mosaic Covenant given on Mt. Sinai and serves as a concise summary of the terms of the New Covenant.
Exodus 20: A Summary of The Old Covenant
Kline notes that the Old Covenant inaugurated at Mt. Sinai had three key components:
- The claims of the person or lord making the covenant, which established his sovereign status and his rights to make the arrangement and demand the allegiance of the people. The lord’s claims are based on who he is and what he has done for the other party entering the covenant.
- The commands of the covenant, outlining the duty of the lord’s covenant servants.
- The threats and promises of the covenant, which outlined blessings for obedience, punishments for disobedience, and the commitments of the lord to enforce the covenant.
In Exodus 20 we see a summary of all three components. First, the Lord’s sovereign status and his right to make the arrangement is declared in Exodus 20:2, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Here we see who God is (Exodus 3:14-15) and what he has done (Exodus 15). Second, the commands of the covenant are found in the ten commandments given on the tablets of stone (20:3-17) as well as throughout the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. And third, the threats and promises of the covenant are mentioned in some of the ten commandments (Exodus 20:5-7, 11-12), as well as in passages such as Deuteronomy 28.
Furthermore, the Old Covenant was sealed with a meal of communion when Israel’s representatives ate and drank in the presence of the Lord (Exodus 24:9-11).
The Great Commission: A Summary of the New Covenant
While the New Covenant was ratified with the shedding of Jesus’ blood on the cross, the Great Commission serves to confirm, announce, and summarize its terms. In fact, this commission contains the same three key covenantal components as the Old Covenant.
First, the commission contains Jesus’ claims as the sovereign Lord over heaven and earth. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18). Here, Jesus is saying that what the Old Testament had prophesied about the Messianic Son of Man had been, and was being fulfilled, by himself (Dan. 7:13-14; John 3:35; 17:2; Acts 2:36; Rom. 14:9; 1 Cor. 15:27; Phil. 2:9, 10; Col. 2:10; Heb. 1:2; 1 Pet. 3:2). Kline writes, “By this self-identification as the Son of Man exalted to the pinnacle of heaven, conqueror of Satan, victor over sin and death, Jesus asserted his absolute claim on the disciples’ covenantal confidence and commitment.”2
The central section of the commission contains the commands of the Sovereign Lord over his covenantal servants (Matt. 28:19-20a). While this section corresponds to the commands of the Old Covenant, it is significantly different. For ethnic Israel, under the Mosaic Covenant, their obedience to the law was required in order to receive/maintain the blessings of the covenant and remain in the Promised Land.
But Jesus does not summon the church to earn the eternal kingdom by obedience to the demands of the new covenant. Rather, it is as the one who, obedient unto the death of the Cross, has himself already merited salvation and the kingdom of glory for his church that Jesus commissions his disciples to go and disciple and baptize.3
The blessings of the New Covenant are not earned by us but have been earned for us through the obedience of our Lord and Savior. In light of Christ’s authority, and the blessings secured for us, we can carry out the disciple-making commands of the covenant joyfully.
In the concluding section of the commission, which contains the threats, promises, and commitments, we have the Lord’s promise to be with his people always. “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). In the Old Covenant, Yahweh promised to both bless his people as covenant-keepers and punish their covenant-breaking rebellion. Under the New Covenant, however, Jesus’ promise to be with his people is a blessing; there are no curses for covenant-breakers (cf. Heb 8:8-13). The church does not have to earn the continued favor of God on their missional endeavors. In fact, because Jesus sent his Holy Spirit to be with them assured them of success in their otherwise impossible mission!
Finally, like the Mosaic Covenant, the New Covenant was also sealed by a meal of communion when the Apostles, the representatives of true Israel, ate and drank in the presence of the Lord (Matthew 26:20ff.; Mark 14:17ff.; Luke 2:14ff).
When the Great Commission is understood to contain a proclamation and summary of the New Covenant, it takes on a greater significance. Not only does it inform us of our mission, but it provides us with a guarantee of success and the comfort of our Lord’s presence with us. It reminds us that Christ Jesus has become the guarantor of the covenant, that he has obeyed and secured the blessings of the kingdom for us (cf. Heb 7:22; 8:6; 12:18-24), freeing us from striving to maintain . This is what makes Christ’s New Covenant commission truly “great.”
- Meredith Kline, God, Heaven and Har Magedon: A Covenantal Tale of Cosmos and Telos, 163.
- Ibid., 164.
Mitch Bedzyk serves as a teacher and worship leader at Elmira Christian Center. He received his Master of Theological Studies from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and works in IT for the NY Office of Mental Health. He and his wife, Sarah, have two sons, Oliver and Micah, and are foster parents. In his spare time he enjoys reading, coffee, guitar, following the Bundesliga and MLS, and playing fantasy soccer. You can follow him @mitchbedzyk