There’s so much in these chapters that it’s hard to know what to focus on. But it’s only Matthew who includes the ‘Great Commission’ of 28:16-20, so that seems as good a place as any – though that skips across the Cross and Resurrection! I’ll concentrate on them in commenting on the other gospels, a bit closer to Good Friday and Easter.
One of the puzzling things is 28:17 – how could it be that some of the eleven disciples still doubted, after all that they’d seen? It doesn’t get any less puzzling on realising that, as Matthew presents it, this is the first time the male disciples have seen the risen Jesus – not, as Luke tells us of the Ascension, that the gathering on the mountain is forty days after Easter. That at least makes sense of the disciples’ doubting, but leads to more questions about ‘what actually happened’. I think I may need to come back to this in the course of looking at Mark and Luke.
What is clear, though, is the message the risen Jesus gives to his wondering friends. First he sets the scene – all authority in heaven and earth has been given to him. It’s not the false authority of the Temptation in chapter 4. This is the real authority that has been won by integrity and obedience to God, living love to the end. It’s in that authority that Jesus now gives his friends a command and a promise. The command is to spread the good news of the Kingdom. They are called to bring others into a life of discipleship, through baptism and teaching the way of Jesus. So what, in the light of having just read through Matthew, is the ‘everything that I have commanded you’ that they and we are to teach as the basis of discipleship?
It’s not all commands, of course. The biggest thing that Jesus has proclaimed through Matthew is that the Kingdom of God has come near. He’s told and shown people that God is close at hand, calling us to live in the light of his love. He’s made it very clear that this life is to be one of freedom and openness to others. As for commands – there are all sorts of individual instructions given to different people, but they’re bound together by the two great commandments, to love God and to love others. When Jesus spells out what this means, as in the Sermon on the Mount, he calls us to a life of radical and demanding holiness in our own lives – and to understanding of the less developed discipleship of others, even those whom many would call ‘sinners’. Underpinning this call is the call to prayer, as we join in his own prayer to his Father.
And as we live this life, we don’t do it alone. Matthew doesn’t have the developed picture of the Holy Spirit that we’ll see in John, but the promise is perhaps the same – ‘And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’ (28:20)