Resurrection and discipleship

By Brian Edgar

Matthew’s account of the life of Jesus is the only one with a decisive ending. The gospel of John may have originally finished at the end of chapter 20,[1] the ending of Mark is uncertain[2] and Luke’s gospel finishes so it can move on to the sequel in the book of Acts. Matthew, however, chose to finish clearly and decisively and to leave his readers with the final words of the risen Lord Jesus ringing in their ears.

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

This is one of the passages which I discuss in The Message of the Trinity: Life in God (Leicester: IVP, 2004). Chapter 10 is entitled, “Resurrection: commissioned to discipleship”.  The Introduction to the book can be found here.

What follows is simply the first few pages. It includes a discussion of the mission of the church. I’m afraid you’ll have to buy the book if you want more.

Matthew 28:16-20

The words of the Great Commission found inMatthew 28:16-20 have continued to resound down through the centuries as a constant and challenging call to Christians to  mission. Those who have come to know the life of God through the missionary activity of the Son are themselves given the privilege of  becoming ‘co-missionaries’ with God. The universal and timeless nature of this commission is made clear by the way Matthew strips the context bare of all detail in order to focus entirely upon the words of Jesus. He says almost nothing about the setting (the mountain where it takes place is ‘unnamed and mysterious’[1]) and, unlike the other gospels, there is no description of Jesus’ appearance, nor is there any attempt to prove the reality of it. He does not record anything of what the resurrected Jesus did, there is no reference to his final ascension and these few words are all that Mathew selects out of Jesus’ extensive post-resurrection teaching.[2] Clearly Matthew wanted them to stand out as being of the utmost importance and he certainly achieved his aim, for they have served to form Christian life and discipleship for two thousand years.

1. Commissioned to make disciples of Jesus

The mission which is given to all of Jesus’ disciples – therefore go and make disciples of all nations – is based on the fact that God the Father redeemed the world through the life, death and resurrection of the very first missionary – his own Son, Jesus Christ. Now, in these few words Jesus, in turn, commits his followers to a disciple-making mission. In many situations brief segments of long speeches have captured people’s imaginations. Patrick Henry’s speech considering the forthcoming American war for independence from the British late in the eighteenth century powerfully concluded, ‘Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!’[3] Winston Churchill’s wartime speeches also contained many memorable and inspiring passages such as when he both warned and challenged the British people, ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.’[4] In a struggle of a different kind civil rights campaigner, Martin Luther King Jr, famously preached ‘I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.’[5] Then there is Nelson Mandela’s ‘there is no easy road to freedom’ speech[6] and John F. Kennedy’s famous ‘Ask not what your country can do for you … ask what you can do for your country’ These are all memorable words which sum up a powerful message. They can define a movement, inspire a nation and even change the course of human history. This is what Jesus has done. Matthew records a mere fifty of all the words of teaching of the resurrected Jesus ‘yet nothing more and nothing greater could be expressed with a thousand words.’[7] With these words the followers of Jesus are commissioned to become disciple-makers and world-changers. It is ‘the unifying climax of the entire Gospel’s teaching on mission that is anticipated in many ways throughout Matthew’s narrative.’[8] It is a brief statement which encapsulates a whole theology.

Although these words are the culmination of Jesus’ ministry they do not constitute an ending for they are also speak of the continuation of this ministry in the life of the disciples. The disciple-making ministry of Jesus is a privilege in which Christians may share. The Great Commission is not just an obligation which must be dutifully shouldered (though it is that) but it is a privilege which may be joyfully entered into. God allows ordinary people the opportunity to become participants in his life and mission. It is a high calling and a great privilege that Christians are able to share with the Lord Jesus, one that Christians should undertake with great commitment. The fact that disciples are called to share in his mission is not the result of necessity or desperation, it is not an act of last resort nor done out of frustration. It is God’s choosing and he delights in the ministry of his people. God wants to work through his people so that we can share in his creative endeavour and in his missionary love. To be a missionary is to share in an act of love with God and to be involved in mission is to discover grace. The Great Commission is not a problem to be faced, nor an obligation to be fulfilled. It is not a duty to perform, but a possibility to be explored. In mission we discover what God can do! Often Christians operate out of a sense of duty, but there are much better motives than that. Our question to ourselves should not be ‘What do I have to do?’ but ‘What are the possibilities that are open to me?’  By sharing in the mission of Jesus we not only benefit others, we also bless ourselves. God is revealed to us as we reach out to others.

2. Baptized in the name of the Trinity

The Great Commission calls people into discipleship and fellowship through baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  The distinctive nature of this formula has led to the idea that it is not original, but a later insertion reflecting the theology and the baptismal practices of a later age when, it is suggested, baptism in the three-fold name supplanted the earlier practice of baptism in the name of Jesus.[9] But it is a mistake to read this phrase from the standpoint of later theology or to treat it as the liturgical formula which it later became and the absence of any actual textual evidence for the view that it is not original certainly counts against it. Theologically this statement need not be considered out of place at all as Matthew has already recorded Jesus’ own words in which he variously describes God as Father, himself as the Son and the Spirit as the source of his power.[10] This trinitarian statement is simply a summation of the teaching Jesus has already given and is only new in the form he has used to bring these themes together. Baptism then is not primarily defined in terms of an action which takes place with water (although it does of course involve that) and the greatest issue is not the age at which it takes place (although that is not a matter of no consequence) it is primarily part of the disciple-making mission of the church which is defined theologically by the fact that it takes place in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Baptism is a trinitarian action, it is the gracious gift of God the Father through which believers are incorporated by faith into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ[11] and become part of the forgiven, gifted and sanctified community of the Holy Spirit[12] which is a sign of the forthcoming kingdom of God.[13] Baptism is a missionary, disciple-making activity. Too often baptism is domesticated, it becomes an in-house rite, something with little connection to the wider world, a private act of faith undertaken by individuals, rather than being a missionary activity, a public act which challenges the broader community about God’s grace and people’s response of faith. Baptism is part of the trinitarian mission of the church.

While it is quite clear that baptism links mission with both Trinity and church the precise nature of that relationship needs to be carefully defined. There have been a number of interpretations of it and some have been less helpful than others. A brief review of the ways mission has been related to Trinity and church will help ensure that the church’s mission is undertaken in healthy and helpful ways.

a. Mission as the trinitarian activity of God: For more than a thousand years ‘mission’ was understood as an activity of the trinitarian God alone. Missio Dei, the mission of God,  referred to the Father’s sending of the Son and to the sending of the Holy Spirit by the Father and the Son (John 14:26). Mission was an action of God rather than an activity of the church in spreading the gospel.[14] As Christianity became established in Europe as the dominant religion it was also isolated from the rest of the non-Christian world by the presence of Islamic nations. These factors when combined with the conceptual separation of mission from the life of the church meant that the church lost most of its missionary impetus. A theological understanding of mission as the trinitarian activity of God which has no reference to the mission of the church inevitably meant that the on-going divine mission of disciple-making was unfulfilled.

b. Mission as an activity of the church: Eventually, the role of the church in mission re-emerged in both seventeenth century Catholic[15] and post-reformation Protestant traditions. Indeed, the concept of mission was turned around so that it was primarily thought of as an activity of the church rather than of the Trinity. The Protestant version of this can be traced through the early Lutheran missions, the German Pietist movement, the Great Awakening in North America, the Wesleyan revival in Britain and the founding of numerous mission societies devoted to the communication of the gospel around the world.  The transition from the idea of mission as purely the activity of God to the conviction that the church has a responsibility for it is illustrated in the controversy surrounding John Wesley’s innovation – evangelism outside church buildings![16] The belief that disciple-making was an activity the church should practice in fields, market places and at work was an idea resisted by many church goers at that time. The same kind of shift in thinking is illustrated in the well known account of William Carey’s call to mission.[17] As a young man Carey developed a vision for world mission at a time when this was not generally considered to be the church’s responsibility. Some supported the idea but there was also considerable resistance to the idea. At a meeting of Baptist pastors, Carey suggested that they discuss the Great Commission but was told by a more senior minister, ‘Sit down, young man. If God wants to convert the heathen, he will do it without consulting with you, or me!’[18] Here was a conflict between those who understood mission as purely an activity of God and those who saw the necessary role that the church plays in it.

c. The church as the basis of mission: The shift to recognize the church’s responsibility in mission was, in many ways, positive but there was a tendency to focus on ecclesiology at the expense of the fundamentally theological and trinitarian dimensions of mission. This produced at least two problems. The first was that the stress on ecclesiology led to a tendency to view the purpose of mission as being to reproduce clones of the sending church. Presbyterians, Anglicans, Baptists and so forth saw their responsibility, at least in part, as being to establish their own denomination in other countries. The second problem was that the neglect of the theological, trinitarian foundation led many to operate on the basis that missiological issues were primarily methodological when, in fact, they are theological. A number of popular mission strategies have focused on purely pragmatic issues aimed only at increasing numbers attending church while neglecting other important aspects of church life. Disciple-making is not just about numbers, and it is not complete when someone is baptized, it involves an on-going process of applying the gospel to all dimensions of life, including matters of justice, equality, oppression and politics. The Micah Declaration expresses this in terms of ‘integral mission’, saying, ‘God by his grace has given local churches the task of integral mission… the church is not merely an institution or organization, but communities of Jesus that embody the values of the kingdom… Integral mission or holistic transformation is the proclamation and demonstration of the gospel. It is not simply that evangelism and social involvement are to be done alongside each other. Rather, in integral mission our proclamation has social consequences as we call people to love and repentance in all areas of life. And our social involvement has evangelistic consequences as we bear witness to the transforming grace of Jesus Christ… Justice and justification by faith, worship and political action, the spiritual and the material, personal change and structural change belong together. As in the life of Jesus, being, doing and saying are at the heart of our integral task.’[19]

d. Mission as the basis of the church: This enhanced recognition of the role of mission since the time of Wesley and Carey and others led to further developments. The creation of numerous mission societies was indicative of the growing importance of mission in the mind of many people. Mission societies generally understood themselves to be fulfilling the most essential activity of the church but the broader church was, consequently, able to feel exonerated from any further mission activity as long as they supported the mission societies prayerfully and financially. To some extent those who understood mission the most – the mission societies  – were complicit in this alienation of mission from most church people by the focus on the ‘call’ (which only some people would hear and respond to) and the general need to engender support for their mission from those who they identified as ‘sending churches’. This reinforced the notion that mission was, on the one hand, and important activity but, on the other hand, something engaged in only by certain groups and individuals from churches. Gradually however, the significance of mission as an activity of the church grew and developed. It came to be understood that not only is the church not the final object of mission nor is it the sending agency. It is the church itself that is sent. This means that mission becomes an activity of the whole church rather than of some societies or individuals who are sent out on behalf of the church. Consequently, a failure to engage in mission is not just a failure of the church in one of its activities, it is to fail to be the church.  If a church exists for its own sake it is no church. As it has been said, ‘The church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning.’ No burning, no fire. No mission, no church.

e. The Trinity as the basis of mission with the church as the means: At this point church and mission were becoming more firmly integrated and they can be seen in their proper order, with mission as fundamental to church. It is now also possible to relate theology and Scripture to mission and church in a more helpful way. And just as it was helpful to reverse the mission – church relationship (so that mission becomes the basis of the church, rather than the reverse) so it is helpful to reverse the relationship of Scripture and mission. The significance of mission is often defended, in sermons, bible studies and courses at theological colleges, by exploring ‘the biblical basis of mission’.  But to talk about the biblical basis of missions is to imply that missiology needs to be justified or approved by biblical theology. Of course that is, in one sense, completely legitimate, but it is also possible, and perhaps more helpful, to reverse this relationship and argue for ‘the missiological basis of the bible’. Not every good and spiritual writing is included in the canon of Scripture. The various writings of the Old and New Testament are considered to be Scripture because they speak about God who reached out to the world in Jesus Christ his Son in order to redeem humanity.  Scripture is specifically the story of God’s mission to the world. Mission thinking is foundational and the beginning of Christian theology.

The missiological basis of theology can easily be seen by reflecting on what would happen to theology generally if there was no theology of mission. (a) Without mission the doctrine of God and Trinity are lost. The mission of God reflects the inner nature of God as love. (b) Without mission Christology is a story of Jesus, a good and wise teacher, but it is not an account of the first missionary, the Son of the Father, the saviour of the world. (c) If mission is not theologically foundational then the church is not a community of the redeemed living in the fellowship of the Spirit, it becomes more like a social club or a private school (or even a ghetto). (d) Without a mission focus preaching will not be the message of salvation found in Christ, but will become moral advice for those who want to improve themselves. (e) Even one’s theology of creation suffers if mission is not foundational. Instead of being a world in the process of being redeemed, a creation that will one day be completely transformed one would have to conclude that this – what there is now – is all there is and all that there will be.  By the time one has evacuated the doctrines of God, Christ, church and creation of all missionary – and therefore of all trinitarian – meaning there is not much left of Christian faith. Where a part of the church neglects the theology of mission and its relationship to the Trinity it is in danger of ending up with a diluted and irrelevant theology.

Of course, this is not the way it with Scripture, which is the story of God’s mission to the world. A triple mission is involved. First, the Father sent the Son to proclaim and embody the kingdom and to reconcile all things to God. Then the Father and the Son send the Spirit to empower, create community, conform people to the image of the Son and to give gifts to the church. These gifts, including the presence of  the Spirit, enable the church to engage in the third act of the divine mission in which the church is sent to make disciples of all nations. Whereas previously the doctrine of the Trinity was seen as a barrier to mission there is now a greater recognition that it is actually the basis of the mission in which the church participates. Karl Barth, often considered the premier theologian of the twentieth century, developed his entire theology in terms of the mission of the trinitarian God and related this to his theology of the church. And the International Missionary Council at Willingen, Germany, in 1952, affirmed the following statement: ‘Mission is not only obedience to a word of the Lord, it is not only a commitment to the gathering of the congregation; it is participation in the sending of the Son, in the  missio Dei, with the inclusive aim of establishing the Lordship of Christ over the whole redeemed creation. The missionary movement of which we are a part has its source in the Triune God Himself.’ [20] Missiological reflection continued to develop the idea of the trinitarian foundation of mission[21] and this has helped the church move towards a new understanding of  mission as primarily a divine activity. While it is important not to dismiss mission as something disciples are involved in, the emphasis should be upon the paradigmatic missionary activity of God. This is the heart of missionary activity and it should be at the centre of the teaching ministry of the church which is so important for making disciples. Theologically, mission is not primarily a human activity, it is God’s  mission in which we have been included.  Or as Lesslie Newbigin said, ‘the beginning of mission is not an action of ours, but the presence of a new reality, the presence of the Spirit of God in power.’[22] The most immediate implication of this is that mission therefore starts with the trinitarian love of God which overflows in love for the world. While it is important to understand that this love deals with human sin, mission is, first and foremost, an expression of divine love. The most important message of the church is not that the world is sinful (though this is an essential aspect of the gospel) but that Christ is beautiful, lovely and loving. If we first of all proclaim Christ Jesus and teach people to obey everything he has taught then people will soon enough understand the seriousness of their sin. The trinitarian foundation also reminds us that the church is not the source of mission. It is God who sends and it is the church itself which is sent. The whole church is therefore called to mission for the church. The church is God’s agent for mission in the world. Mission cannot be left to mission-societies – unless of course, the church as a whole sees itself as a mission-society! The Great Commission has commissioned all disciples of Jesus to be participants in the divine mission and baptism is not the end-point or the culmination of a disciple’s commitment, rather it is the beginning of a life of discipleship in which they are to share in God’s own mission by making disciples of others.


[1] R.H. Smith, Matthew, (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1982) 336. Although it is possibly the mountain where the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ was given. Cf Matt.5:1.

[2] Luke 24:13-53; Mark 16:9-20; John 20:19-21:25.

[3] Patrick Henry (March 23, 1775).

[4] Winston Churchill (May 13th 1940).

[5] Martin Luther King  (August 28, 1963).

[6] Nelson Mandela at his inauguration as President of the Republic of South Africa (10 May 1994).

[7] Robert H. Smith, Matthew, (Minneaplois: Augsburg, 1989) 336.

[8] A. Köstenberger & P. O’Brien, Salvation to the Ends of the Earth (Downer’s Grove: Apollus, 2001) 87.

[9] Acts 8:12, 16; 10:48.

[10] Matt. 11:27; 24:36; 11:27; 16:27; 12:28.

[11] Rom. 6:3-11; Col. 2:13, 3:1; Eph. 2:5-6.

[12] Acts 2:38; 1 Cor.12:1; 1 Cor. 6:11.

[13] 2 Cor. 1:21-22; Eph. 1:13-14.

[14] Other words and phrases such as ‘propagation of the gospel’ ‘preaching of the gospel’ and ‘apostolic proclamation’ were used for that.. See D. Bosch, Transforming Mission, (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1991) 228.

[15] When they started to use the word ‘mission’ to describe the work of some monastic settlements. Bosch 229.

[16] Wesley (1703-1791) was the founder of Methodism.

[17] Carey (1761-1834) was a Baptist pastor who became a pioneer of the modern missionary movement.

[18] S. Wellman, William Carey: Father of Modern Mission (Barbour, 1997). 48.

[19] The Micah Network is a coalition of over 200 evangelical churches and agencies from around the world committed to integral mission. It is named after the prophet Micah which contains the words ‘He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’ (Micah 6:8). The Declaration was formulated in 2001.

[20] N. Goodall, Missions Under the Cross (London: Edinburgh House Press, 1953) 189.

[21] For example,  L. Newbigin, The Open Secret (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978) and Bosch, Transforming Mission.

[22] Newbigin, Open Secret, 119.

Matthew’s account of the life of Jesus is the only one with a decisive ending. The gospel of John may have originally finished at the end of chapter 20,[1] the ending of Mark is uncertain[2] and Luke’s gospel finishes so it can move on to the sequel in the book of Acts. Matthew, however, chose to finish clearly and decisively and to leave his readers with the final words of the risen Lord Jesus ringing in their ears.

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

Image and link to IVP: This is one of the passages which I discuss in The Message of the Trinity: Life in God (Leicester: IVP, 2004). Chapter 10 is entitled, “Resurrection: commissioned to discipleship”. The Introduction to the book can be found here.

The full chapter can be downloaded. What follows is simply the first page or two.

Book cover Image

Matthew 28:16-20

The words of the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:16-20 have continued to resound down through the centuries as a constant and challenging call to Christians to mission. Those who have come to know the life of God through the missionary activity of the Son are themselves given the privilege of becoming ‘co-missionaries’ with God. The universal and timeless nature of this commission is made clear by the way Matthew strips the context bare of all detail in order to focus entirely upon the words of Jesus. He says almost nothing about the setting (the mountain where it takes place is ‘unnamed and mysterious’[3]) and, unlike the other gospels, there is no description of Jesus’ appearance, nor is there any attempt to prove the reality of it. He does not record anything of what the resurrected Jesus did, there is no reference to his final ascension and these few words are all that Mathew selects out of Jesus’ extensive post-resurrection teaching.[4] Clearly Matthew wanted them to stand out as being of the utmost importance and he certainly achieved his aim, for they have served to form Christian life and discipleship for two thousand years.

1. Commissioned to make disciples of Jesus

The mission which is given to all of Jesus’ disciples – therefore go and make disciples of all nations – is based on the fact that God the Father redeemed the world through the life, death and resurrection of the very first missionary – his own Son, Jesus Christ. Now, in these few words Jesus, in turn, commits his followers to a disciple-making mission. In many situations brief segments of long speeches have captured people’s imaginations. Patrick Henry’s speech considering the forthcoming American war for independence from the British late in the eighteenth century powerfully concluded, ‘Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!’[5] Winston Churchill’s wartime speeches also contained many memorable and inspiring passages such as when he both warned and challenged the British people, ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.’[6] In a struggle of a different kind civil rights campaigner, Martin Luther King Jr, famously preached ‘I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.’[7] Then there is Nelson Mandela’s ‘there is no easy road to freedom’ speech[8] and John F. Kennedy’s famous ‘Ask not what your country can do for you … ask what you can do for your country’ These are all memorable words which sum up a powerful message. They can define a movement, inspire a nation and even change the course of human history. This is what Jesus has done. Matthew records a mere fifty of all the words of teaching of the resurrected Jesus ‘yet nothing more and nothing greater could be expressed with a thousand words.’[9] With these words the followers of Jesus are commissioned to become disciple-makers and world-changers. It is ‘the unifying climax of the entire Gospel’s teaching on mission that is anticipated in many ways throughout Matthew’s narrative.’[10] It is a brief statement which encapsulates a whole theology.

Although these words are the culmination of Jesus’ ministry they do not constitute an ending for they are also speak of the continuation of this ministry in the life of the disciples. The disciple-making ministry of Jesus is a privilege in which Christians may share. The Great Commission is not just an obligation which must be dutifully shouldered (though it is that) but it is a privilege which may be joyfully entered into. God allows ordinary people the opportunity to become participants in his life and mission. It is a high calling and a great privilege that Christians are able to share with the Lord Jesus, one that Christians should undertake with great commitment. The fact that disciples are called to share in his mission is not the result of necessity or desperation, it is not an act of last resort nor done out of frustration. It is God’s choosing and he delights in the ministry of his people. God wants to work through his people so that we can share in his creative endeavour and in his missionary love. To be a missionary is to share in an act of love with God and to be involved in mission is to discover grace. The Great Commission is not a problem to be faced, nor an obligation to be fulfilled. It is not a duty to perform, but a possibility to be explored. In mission we discover what God can do! Often Christians operate out of a sense of duty, but there are much better motives than that. Our question to ourselves should not be ‘What do I have to do?’ but ‘What are the possibilities that are open to me?’ By sharing in the mission of Jesus we not only benefit others, we also bless ourselves. God is revealed to us as we reach out to others.



[1] Chapter 20 finishes well but then chapter 21 seems to contain some additional thoughts.

[2] Some ancient manuscripts do not have Mark 16:9-20.

[3] R.H. Smith, Matthew, (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1982) 336. Although it is possibly the mountain where the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ was given. Cf Matt.5:1.

[4] Luke 24:13-53; Mark 16:9-20; John 20:19-21:25.

[5] Patrick Henry (March 23, 1775).

[6] Winston Churchill (May 13th 1940).

[7] Martin Luther King (August 28, 1963).

[8] Nelson Mandela at his inauguration as President of the Republic of South Africa (10 May 1994).

[9] Robert H. Smith, Matthew, (Minneaplois: Augsburg, 1989) 336.

[10] A. Köstenberger & P. O’Brien, Salvation to the Ends of the Earth (Downer’s Grove: Apollus, 2001) 87.

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