The so-called “Great Commission” is recorded only in Matthew’s gospel (28:16-20) and is the first time anywhere in the gospel tradition that the risen Christ is said to have spoken any words. Matthew is the second gospel to be written (82-85 CE.). We need to note that in the first gospel, Mark (written in the early 70’s CE.), there is no narrative of the risen Christ ever appearing to anyone at any time and thus there is no opportunity for Jesus to be allowed to speak. According to the translation in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the words of the “Great Commission” are, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel.”
What do these words mean? First, let me state what they do not mean. They are not a challenge to become missionaries in order to evangelize the world and thus to make converts of all people to the Christian religion. That is a dreadful misconception based on the imperialism of Christianity that developed after Christianity became the established religion of the empire in the Fourth century CE. When Matthew’s gospel was written, the followers of Jesus were still members of the synagogue. The Christian community did not separate itself from the synagogue until about the year 88 C.E. which would have been within a decade after Matthew’s gospel was written.
What then do these words mean? This text is part of what I call Matthew’s “interpretive envelope.” Matthew was the most Jewish of all the gospel writers, yet he wanted to portray Jesus as the power that called people beyond all of their tribal identities and ethnic values. In his opening chapters Matthew uses the symbol of a star to proclaim the birth of Jesus. The uniqueness of a star is that its light is not bound to the territory of any single nation, but it shines all over the world and thus it can serve as a sign, a heavenly invitation to come to the light that the star announced. The wise men were symbolic of the human yearning to leave their divisions behind and to find human oneness in the God Jesus was thought to reveal. The wise men were Gentiles overcoming their fears and their prejudices by coming into the Jewish world in search of the light. Following that introduction Matthew then told the story of the life of this Jesus, who with consistency set aside all barriers of tribe, gender, race and even religion, all of which serve to separate people from one another. When the story of Jesus is complete, Matthew closes his envelope by having Jesus speak the words of the “Great Commission.” What Matthew’s Jesus was saying is that once you understand the meaning of Jesus, you have a new responsibility. You now must go into “all the world.” You must go to those you have described as unclean, unbaptized, uncircumcised, non-koshered, different or unworthy and you must proclaim to them the love of God that has no boundaries and that knows no limits. You do this by crossing all human boundaries, all human prejudices and by removing the sources of all human rejections. The “Great Commission” thus has nothing to do with converting the heathen.
Thanks for your question, it makes it possible for readers to see deeply into the biblical story, that is, to see far beyond the level of understanding that a literal reading of the scriptures would ever provide.