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Jesus Christ came to earth to establish His church, not to build an empire. At no point in our Lord’s messianic ministry is this made any clearer than in those days immediately after our Lord’s death and resurrection, but before His ascension. In the final chapter of Matthew’s gospel, we read of how our Lord’s disciples went to the mountain in Galilee where Jesus had directed them to go (Matt. 28:16). When they saw Jesus there they worshiped Him and then they received His final words of instruction. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore 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. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (vv. 17–20).
This important directive from our Lord has come to be known as the Great Commission. Not only do these words constitute marching orders of sorts for the church our Lord came to found, they loudly echo the words of the messianic prophecy of Daniel 7:14: “And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.” Not only is Jesus that one about whom Daniel was speaking, Jesus alone possesses all authority on heaven and earth. With the authority given to Him, Jesus commands His disciples to go into the world with great confidence and make disciples, for Jesus will be with His people until the end of the age (His second advent).
Since we often remember what someone tells us the last time we see them, this is why we must understand our Lord’s first advent in light of the Great Commission. These were Jesus’ parting words to His disciples. Very likely they know they will never again see Jesus in this life. They know these words are important. They will recall these words vividly. For in them, Jesus expresses with a marked purpose and great clarity the reason why He came to earth — to establish His church through the making of disciples. But Jesus has also given His disciples the means to do this through the message of the Gospel — the message of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and the fulfilling of all righteousness through His own perfect obedience — and through the sacraments. Jesus speaks here of the sacrament of baptism in the name of the triune God.
That the founding of the church is an essential part of Jesus’ redemptive mission can also be seen in the very fact of our Lord’s incarnation. Through His humble birth to a lowly Jewish virgin in the Judean backwaters of Bethlehem, God has taken to Himself a truly human nature. The child who was born was given the name Jesus, “for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). The very fact Jesus will save His people from their sins implies that His people will not be rescued from the guilt and power of sin as isolated individuals. Jesus has a people who will be called out from the nations through the preaching of the Gospel to form a church, which is a new society of redeemed people from every race and language. These are people who gather together on the Lord’s day to worship the true and living God, to hear His Word, to receive His sacraments, to sing His praises, to pray and to give gifts of gratitude for all that God has done for us.
That God saves a people can be seen in the remarkable discussion between Jesus and Peter as recorded in Matthew 16:13–20: “Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’”
When Peter confessed that Jesus is the Christ, Peter clearly affirmed that Jesus is Israel’s Messiah, the One of whom the prophets foretold throughout the Old Testament. Peter also grasps the fact that Jesus is the Son of God and the one in whom all of Israel’s hopes are fulfilled. While Jesus responds to Peter’s confession of faith with words of blessing: “blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah,” Jesus goes on to extend His blessing to His people. This can be seen in the fact that Jesus promises that the “gates of hell” (the power of Satan) will not prevail against His church. This is why Jesus goes on to tell us that His church is given power both to bind and loose (through the preaching of the Gospel). The message of the Gospel will bind the strong man (Satan), conquer unbelief, and create disciples. And this, after all, is why Jesus came to earth. “For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt. 9:13).