One of the most well-known passages in the Bible is Matthew 28:18-20, referred to by many as the Great Commission because it outlines Jesus’ final marching orders for his followers:
Then Jesus came to them and said, “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.”
Over the years I’ve heard more sermons, read more books, listened to more tapes, and had more discussions around that passage than any other in the Bible. That passage was one of the initial reasons I decided to become a pastor. Churches, mission organizations, colleges, and other ministries around the world point to that passage as the basis for their existence: to help every person on the planet become a follower of Jesus. It’s undeniable that Matthew 28:18-20 has become the international rallying cry for Christians everywhere.
There’s a glitch though: we’ve distorted the original meaning of the passage. Any student of literature knows that in order to properly understand a passage, you must read it within the context it was originally written. Anyone can lift a passage from just about any text and interpret it to mean whatever they want it to mean. Unfortunately, this is what many Christians have done with Matthew 28:18-20.
Notice how this same passage sounds when I add the two verses that immediately precede the Great Commission. Matthew 28:16-20 (with italics added) reads:
Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “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.”
Do you see the difference two verses can make? Notice how even two words—“some doubted”—changed the entire tone of the passage. Who doubted? The context tells us that “the eleven disciples went to Galilee,” so “some” refers to a few of the original disciples Jesus gathered and trained. We’re not told specifically which ones. All that we’re told is that some doubted.
For years I skimmed over those preceding verses (vv. 16, 17). Then one day last year I was studying this passage again while preparing for a sermon, and I was struck by the words “some doubted” as if reading them for the first time.
There is great irony in the way those two verses precede Jesus’ Great Commission. Jesus’ disciples had just spent three years watching him perform awe-inspiring miracles, not to mention his last and greatest miracle of all—rising from the dead. After that experience, the last people on earth one would ever suspect of doubting are these eleven disciples. Aside from this, it’s ironic that Matthew chose to include “some doubted” at all. Couldn’t he have left those words out? I’m sure he was tempted to gloss over this seemingly minor incident, but he didn’t. Why? I believe he deliberately penned these words because he wanted to communicate a very important truth to all future Christians: struggling with doubt is a natural part of being a follower of Jesus.
Surely Jesus knew what his disciples were thinking. Here stood the very people who were going to take over his worldwide mission, and still doubt lingered in some of their minds. But what did Jesus do? Did he get angry and say, “Guys, I’m furious. This doubt you’re experiencing is a show stopper. I’m not sending you anywhere until you wrestle those questions to the ground and reassure me that you’re one hundred percent convinced of who I am and my plan for your lives”? No. Instead, he sent them out with their doubts.
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