Sermon preached on Matthew 28:16-20 concerning the significance of the resurrection to the Great Commission by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the worship service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 4/4/21 in Novato.
As we consider today the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, we are looking at Matthew’s unique contribution to the accounts of the various appearances of the risen Lord Jesus. After his resurrection, Jesus made appearances to his disciples both in Judea and in Galilee. Prior to the cross, Jesus had given his disciples special direction to meet him in a certain place in Galilee after he was raised. Matthew’s account starting in verse 16 tells us of this initial post-resurrection appearance in Galilee. And how thankful we are that Matthew has preserved this encouraging and comforting record. For it teaches us so much about how to respond to the risen Jesus, of the significance of the cross, and how this all calls the church to be making disciples of all the nations.
Look with me first at how the disciples responded to the risen Jesus by worshipping him. In verse 16 we see the eleven disciples had gone up to Galilee to wait for Jesus to come to them as he promised. This eleven refers to that inner circle of twelve disciples Jesus had, minus Judas Iscariot who had betrayed him. It is possible there were other disciples there also with the eleven, as other disciples often were with Jesus’ inner circle too. Some have wondered if this was the same occasion when Jesus appeared to more than five hundred disciples at once, per 1 Corinthians 15:6. But the attention especially is given to the eleven here.
So then, they behold the risen Jesus there on that mountain in Galilee. And they worship him. This word of worship is one that literally would entail bowing down and laying prostrate before someone in worship and adoration. It’s a wonderful bookend to the book of Matthew which began with the Magi coming to worship the newborn Jesus. Now, at the end of Matthew’s account, these disciples worship the resurrected Jesus, same word for worship in the Greek.
Let us not quickly gloss over this point. This is indeed a fitting response by the disciples here. Remember what had happened. They had followed Jesus for the last few years, receiving his teachings, witnessing his miracles and all the wonders he performed. Through it all they were increasingly coming to the conclusion that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah who would save God’s people from their sins and deliver them to a glorious kingdom. They had finally started to come to that conclusion, but then Jesus told them he would have to suffer and die at the hand of the religious leaders, but that he would also then rise from the dead. This prediction bewildered them, and when Jesus finally was arrested this inner circle of his disciples initially deserted him in the moment, denying him, fleeing for their own lives. But then the reports came in that he was risen. Then they had even seen him, but he pointed them to go to Galilee and meet him there like he had previously instructed. So, they went. And lo and behold, here he is! Here, up from the grave, he stood arose. And so, as he appears to them in Galilee, they bow to the ground. They worship him for the Lord and King and the Son of God that he is. When Jesus had predicted ahead of time this would happen, they had struggled to believe it, not understanding that he had to rise from the dead. But now, it was all coming true, just as he had told them it would. How marvelous, how amazing, how wonderful, how glorious this was! It would have left them in awe and resulted in this response of worship of Jesus! And that is what Matthew recorded.
Interestingly, Matthew also tells us here in verse 17 that while the disciples worshipped the risen Jesus, yet “some doubted”. This is such a brief statement that doesn’t give us details to the questions that naturally arise when we read this. We know of some resurrection doubting in the other gospel accounts. Luke’s gospel tells us of those disciples who doubted on the road to Emmaus, whom Jesus then appeared to and ultimately dispelled their doubts. John’s gospel tells us of doubting Thomas whom Jesus then mercifully appeared to and allowed him to touch him and see that he was truly risen. Jesus then admonished Thomas to stop doubting and to believe. Yet we aren’t told the details here of who was doubting. It seems hard to imagine that any of the eleven themselves still had any doubts at this point, so the “some” of verse 17 very well may refer to some of those other disciples that may have been attending the eleven. Ultimately, we don’t know.
And yet while we don’t know the details of the doubting, it’s actually rather encouraging to our faith that Matthew’s gospel didn’t hide this fact. It shows that Matthew didn’t need to hide the fact that some people in their weakness still struggled to believe. It shows that Matthew didn’t fear it would somehow take away from the credibility of his account, that in fact Jesus did rise from the dead and so many bore witness to this fact. Matthew didn’t need to hide from any part of what happened. That some people doubt is a reality, but it doesn’t change the fact that Jesus really did rise from the dead.
So then, Matthew’s account shows that the right response to Jesus’ resurrection is to worship him. Even if others doubt, may we not doubt this fact that has been so well attested to in history. May we praise and worship the risen Lord Jesus Christ again today!
Let us turn now to our second point for today and observe what happened next in this resurrection appearance at Galilee. Jesus makes this amazing declaration in verse 18. He said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Now as it pertains to his divine nature, the eternal Son of God would have always possessed all authority in heaven and on earth. But notice the language “given to me”. This implies that such total authority is something that Jesus now has come to receive and possess in a way that he did not possess previously. That leaves only one clear yet obvious solution. When Jesus says that now he possesses such complete authority, he speaks even out of his humanity, as the human mediator and savior, in virtue of his accomplished work of redemption at the cross. As to his human nature, he would not have possessed such authority innately. But now, as the divine man, as the resurrected mediator between God and man, he stands before them and declares that he now possesses all authority in heaven and on earth. This was given to Jesus in light of his perfect active and passive obedience to God that culminated at the cross where he died to save a people unto himself.
This is what we find described in Philippians 2 where the Apostle Paul describes that the Son of God, took on the form of a servant, being born as Jesus in the likeness of men, and being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore, it says that God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus ever knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under that earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father, Philippians 2:7-11.
That beautiful statement in Philippians 2 is exactly what we see literally going on in this post-resurrection appearance of Jesus. Here his disciples bow their knees to Jesus in worship as the one who possesses all authority in heaven and earth. Here his disciples rejoice in the fact that Jesus has been officially set as king over a kingdom of his redeemed people. This is the kingdom to which we belong to now as well – if we too bow the knee to Jesus and put our faith and allegiance in him as our Lord and Savior.
Likewise, we read statements like Acts 20:28 that speak of how Jesus bought his church with his own blood. Or Romans 1:1, that says that Jesus was, “Declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead”. The point is that there is an exaltation of the God-man Jesus Christ who earned such in the redemption he accomplished especially in his death and resurrection. If Christ Jesus had not obeyed unto his death at the cross, he would not have known such exaltation, and would not have acquired such a kingdom. But now he has, and in his resurrection he has come into the glory and authority and might of his eternal kingdom. And we in faith have also come into his kingdom. Our remembrance today of his resurrection reminds us again that we have been made a part of such a kingdom by his grace shown to us in going to the cross and by his victory over death in his resurrection.
In our third point for today, I’d like us to consider Jesus’s call for them to then go and make disciples, verses 19-20. Again, see this in light of the resurrection. We often point to these verses as the Great Commission and talk about them in general as Jesus’ call for us to evangelize. While that is true enough, I hope we can especially appreciate this in light of the resurrection. It is the resurrected, exalted, victorious Lord and King Jesus who issues this commission. Here he boldly issues a call for an ongoing campaign of enlisting new citizens for his kingdom in a way he had never done before.
Yes, Matthew 10 we read how Jesus had earlier sent out the twelve on a mission to proclaim that the kingdom was at hand, Matthew 10:7. Even then, he gave them very narrow parameters that they were not to go to any of the nations yet, just to the towns of Israel. He also later sent a broader group of seventy-two disciples in Luke 10 out in advance of him, with a similar message that the kingdom had drawn near. And yet these limited times where he commissioned his disciples to spread the good news was also alongside various times where Jesus called for a measure of secrecy. He had rebuked various demons who had tried to reveal his ultimate identity. A number of occasions he healed someone and gave them an exhortation not to tell anyone that he had done it. When, in Mark 8, his twelve disciples finally came to officially recognize and acknowledge the Jesus was the promised Messiah King, he had strictly charged them to tell no one about this. And so, prior to the cross, Jesus had been very guarded in what ways he would allow his disciples and others to spread the word about the coming of the kingdom and even about the coming of himself, the one who was to be the king of that kingdom.
But now that all changes. Now Jesus declares himself to be the king full of all authority. Implied in that is a way in which the kingdom had now in fact come, albeit only yet in an inaugurated sense. And now Jesus declares an unconstrained, open, and ongoing call to go and make disciples of all the nations. Now Jesus gives them standing orders to go and enlist as many people as they can to follow Jesus. There is nothing constrained in the scope. To any and all they are to make their appeal to the nations – apparently the disciples had not yet even understood the full import of that. And this was not a temporary mission, as Jesus clearly means for his church to be about recruiting such new disciples until the end of this age.
To point out the obvious, these recruited disciples are to be disciples of Jesus. Thus, they are to be disciples of Christ’s kingdom. They are to be baptized into Christ. They are to be taught how to live in righteousness as obedient subjects of Christ’s kingdom. And all this is in the backdrop of Jesus’ atoning work on the cross whereby he secured an eternal cleansing for the sins of his disciples and purchased them out of death. That is indeed what the baptism represents as it is to be applied on all new disciples who turn in faith to entrust themselves to Christ as king – showing that their sin is washed away in Jesus.
And so again, see how this is in light of the resurrection. If Jesus had been put to death on the cross and remained dead, then his message and ministry would have come to and end. We certainly wouldn’t be here today. But instead, in the resurrection, his message and ministry rises to a height that it hadn’t before. It takes on a new plane of significance in the triumph of the cross. It’s why we can speak of the kingdom today in terms of Christ-crucified and Christ-resurrected. The resurrection puts to death the slander that had previously mocked Jesus as a failure when he hung on the cross. The resurrection shows that indeed he now possessed all authority on heaven and earth. The resurrection urgently brings this call for all to come and find salvation in him and in him alone.
For apart from Christ’s saving work on the cross, we are all guilty sinners under the wrath of God. When Christ returns to this earth to usher in the age to come, all who do not belong to him will receive the eternal punishment due for all their sins. They will not be ushered into the glory of the age to come but be thrown into a place of everlasting torment. That is why this great commission is so important. It’s why we continue to bring it to the world today. This is what we continue to do, right now, even this morning. We call to any and all here today, if you have not yet become a disciple of Jesus Christ, I implore you to do so. That begins by putting your faith in him to save you from your sins, and to set him then as Lord of your life. Then it involves being baptized into a life of discipleship where you learn more and more what it means to follow Jesus. If you have not yet done this, I urge you to talk today to myself or one of the elders about being baptized into Christ Jesus.
As a church, as we continue to be about this call to make disciples, we remember today that it is because the significance of Jesus’ resurrection continues on as well. And as we are about this gospel work, we rejoice at that the final encouragement Jesus gave here in verse 20. Jesus said, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” That is a truth he could not have promised if he had not been raised from the dead. And if he had been raised from the dead but then later died again, then this promise also would not be true. But this promise is true, because Jesus not only rose from the dead, but continues to live ever more. Even now he, the God-man Messiah King is seated on high reigning over his kingdom at the right hand of God. Even now he has poured out his Spirit which proceeds from him and the Father so that he is with us, always and forever, just as he promised. So then, King Jesus is with us as we go out proclaiming his kingdom.
Let us take comfort in that. Let us be comforted in that as we look to make disciples, that he goes with us. Let us be comforted in that as we ourselves are being discipled, that he is with us in our own discipleship. We are both representatives of Christ and students of Christ. And the living Christ Jesus is with us in both roles. One day he will return to bring this age to a close when he ushers in his kingdom in consummate glory. What comfort to know that until then, while he might seem like he is away from us, to know that he is truly with us always. Even now today. May his presence be at work mightily now among us in this holy assembly. Amen.
Copyright © 2021 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
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