The final verses of the Gospel of Matthew are often referred to as “The Great Commission.” Much of the commentary on those verses focuses on Jesus’ command that the apostles go 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.”
But notice that this commission is sandwiched between two statements of assurance and promise. Having gone up the mountain, the apostles saw Jesus and they worshiped him, “but they doubted.” Why? Perhaps because much of what had transpired over the previous weeks had been disconcerting and not in keeping with what some expected of “The End.” What about the kingdom? As St. Luke records in the opening of Acts of the Apostles, the disciples asked, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” And, really, why wouldn’t they expect the kingdom of God to be fully revealed and realized at that very moment? After all, the Davidic king had come and announced himself, had endured torture and death and had conquered death itself! What was left?
The doubt was quite possibly more about the nature of future events than about the nature of the recently transpired events. St. Matthew describes how Jesus approached them and said, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” How could they argue with him on that point? His power was evident, even if his plan was still mysterious in many ways. And that sense of the unknown is addressed by Jesus at his ascension: “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority.” They might not be privy to dates and times, but they would be empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Empowered, but for what purpose? The commission consisted of three intertwined actions: to make disciples of all nations; baptizing those future disciples in the name — singular — “of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”; and then teaching them to “observe all that I have commanded you.” They were to be witnesses and missionaries, carrying on the divine mission that flows from the Father, who sent the Son, and who would soon send the Holy Spirit. They were to be priests and preachers, proclaiming the truth of the Triune God and the resurrected Christ, given authority to speak and act in the name of Jesus, as we see in the Acts of the Apostles.
Jesus was aware of their doubt. So, having given them such a daunting commission, he provides further assurance: “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” The “age” is the age of the Church, the time during which the kingdom of God is growing, even if we cannot fully see or comprehend its spread and growth. “The Church,” stated the conciliar Fathers of Vatican II, “or, in other words, the kingdom of Christ now present in mystery, grows visibly through the power of God in the world” (Lumen Gentium, No. 3).
At the Ascension, the crucified and risen Son returned to the Father. Having descended to dust and into the grave, he returned to heavenly glory. He now sits at the right hand of the Father, but not just as the Word, but as the Incarnate Word. The doors of heaven are now open and humanity can now approach the throne room of God because of Jesus Christ, who is with us until the end of the age.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.