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The inescapable commission

The inescapable commission

Last week I had the opportunity to do the Oilstone leadership program. It was a very stimulating time, and all the more useful because what we learned was firmly anchored in the same disciple-making focus we have here at Matthias Media.

One of the ways that focus manifested itself was in opening each day by reflecting together on the Great Commission in Matthew 28:16-20.

I don’t know whether you’ve ever done something like that: soaked yourself in the meaning and significance of just five verses over multiple sessions. But I found it fascinating that as a group we received new insights on each of the five days.

One of my new thoughts came out of a comment about the fact that some of the eleven disciples “doubted” (v. 17).1 I have always taken that to mean that they still weren’t sure if this really was the resurrected Jesus standing there with them—just like Thomas in John’s Gospel (John 20).

But it was pointed out to us that the Greek word used in Matthew 28:17 could be translated ‘wavered’ or ‘hesitated’. It’s different to the word used of Thomas in John 20:27 or the disciples in Luke 24:41 (or Mark 16:14). It’s the word Jesus said to Peter when he walked towards Jesus on the water, saw the strength of the wind and began to sink (Matt 14:31): “why did you doubt [waver]?” As RT France puts it in his commentary: “It denotes not intellectual doubt so much as practical uncertainty, being in two minds”.2

So I wonder if those present, knowing that Jesus’ mission is to continue, were wavering, perhaps no longer sure they really wanted to be part of a movement that gets people persecuted and killed (see Matt 10:16-25)? Just like they wavered once before and deserted Jesus at his arrest (Matt 26:56).

If that’s right, Jesus' next words may take on extra significance: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore…”

Due to the way I was reading “some doubted”, I assumed that Jesus’ assertion of his ultimate authority was simply the foundation stone for their work of going out to make disciples of all nations. Which I still think is true and important! But that reading assumes there is no connection to the doubt of the disciples in the verse before. However, if they were wavering or hesitating, I think Jesus’ assertion of authority probably also carried with it a bit of an inescapable challenge: “Hey, no wavering! No hesitating! I have total authority to send you out to do my work. Remember, don’t put your hand to the plow and then look back.”

So is verse 18 a tough word from Jesus to disciples who are feeling a little out of their comfort zone? Next time you’re asked as a disciple of Jesus to go door-knocking—or God gives you an opportunity to say something about Jesus to a work colleague, or you’re deciding whether to go to your home group tonight—and you’re wavering, do you need to remember who has commissioned you to make disciples and the boundless authority he has to send you to do that work? (As well as take comfort from his promise that he is “with you always, to the end of the age”?)

What do you think? I’m no New Testament scholar, so I’d love to hear your insights. I’m sure there are more than five days’ worth out there!

1. I recognize that there is some discussion from scholars about whether it was all of the disciples, some of the disciples, or some others who were with the disciples. For my purposes, I don’t think that’s a big issue.

2. RT France, The Gospel of Matthew, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 2007.

Ian Carmichael

Ian has been with Matthias Media from its beginning (1988). In late 2020 he stepped down from the CEO role, and now works as an honourary consultant and editor for Matthias Media and Vinegrowers. Ian and his wife, Stephanie, have two adult children, two (gorgeous) grandchildren, and are part of Chatswood Presbyterian church in Sydney. Ian is one of the Vinegrowers team providing free consultations for church leaders who want to more effectively grow the disciple-making culture in their church.