“Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you: and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20).
The good news according to Matthew ends with truly great news.
Matthew has set forth Jesus’ resurrection from the dead: the women have come to find the tomb empty, for an angel had rolled the stone away, sat upon it, proclaimed the good news of the resurrection to them, and declared how He went before them to Galilee (Matthew 28:1-8). Jesus then appeared the women and instructed them to tell the rest of the disciples to go to Galilee to see Him there (Matthew 28:9-10). The disciples went to Galilee and saw the Lord Jesus; many believed, but some doubted (Matthew 28:16-17). In His final words in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus gives the “Great Commission”: all authority has been given to Him in heaven and on earth, and so they are to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them (Matthew 28:18-20a). The Great Commission ends with a promise: Jesus is with them always, unto the end of the αιωνος, “age” or “forever,” and thus “world” (Matthew 28:20b).
We can imagine how the disciples would have found this promise very comforting. And yet, within forty days, Jesus would ascend to heaven (Acts 1:1-11); He will only again walk the earth on the day of judgment (Matthew 25:31-46, Acts 1:11). So if Jesus no longer walked with them, or, for that matter, with us, how could He say that He would be “with” us until the end of the world?
Throughout the book of Acts the Apostles seem to interact frequently in some way with the Lord Jesus. Peter declares that Jesus is the one who, on the basis of the Father’s promise, poured out the Holy Spirit on them (Acts 2:33); Peter affirms that faith in Jesus provided the power which healed the lame man in the Temple (Acts 3:16). The Lord Jesus would give Peter a vision and speak with him in it (Acts 10:9-17). Stephen saw Jesus as the Son of Man standing at God’s right hand (Acts 7:55-56). Paul saw the Lord Jesus in the resurrection and heard Him speak (Acts 9:1-8, 22:6-10, 26:12-18), as would Ananias, whom the Lord called to minister to Paul (Acts 9:10-16). Paul would receive further messages from the Lord Jesus, both direct and spoken as well as through circumstance and hindrance (Acts 16:6-9, 18:9-10, 23:11). We do well to remember how Luke begins the book of Acts, speaking of the previous Gospel as “all that Jesus began to do and teach,” implying that the whole book of Acts continues Jesus’ work (Acts 1:1): Jesus is with the Apostles throughout, strengthening them, empowering them, reassuring them. He may not have been present in the way He had been during His ministry, but He was still there, reigning as Lord, sustaining His people to do His work.
Is Jesus still there since the days of the Apostles? Some have suggested that Jesus’ promise extended only to the destruction of Jerusalem, and such “ended the age.” Such is inconsistent with the promises of Jesus and His Apostles and the reality of the faith ever since. It is true that Jesus made Himself known to the Apostles in ways which He no longer does so; they saw Him in life, fully experienced Him, and bore personal eyewitness testimony to His resurrection, and no one since the first century can do so (1 John 1:1-4). There is nothing further to be made known about the good news of Jesus Christ than has already been made known through the Apostles and their associates. And yet Jesus’ promises remain. The universe continues to exist through Him and for Him and is upheld and sustained by Him (Colossians 1:15-17, Hebrews 1:3). Jesus still reigns as Lord (Hebrews 13:8). Where two or three of His people are gathered, He is in their midst (Matthew 18:20). In Revelation 4:1-5:14 John is able to see what goes on in heaven beyond the veil: God is on the throne, and the Lamb with Him, and they reign in glory and honor. We may not be able to see past that veil, yet such makes it no less true and no less real. Furthermore, if we are in Christ, we have His Spirit, the Spirit of God (Romans 8:9-11); by means of the Spirit He maintains His presence in and among His people individually and collectively (1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 6:19-20, 2 Corinthians 5:5, Ephesians 1:13-14). Jesus, therefore, remains with us.
The end of the Gospel of Matthew is as its beginning. When narrating Jesus’ birth Matthew directs our minds to the prophecy of Isaiah, that the child born of the virgin would be Immanuel, God with us (Matthew 1:22-25; Isaiah 7:14); Matthew ends the Gospel with Jesus’ own promise that He will remain Immanuel, God with us (Matthew 28:20).
Thus it cannot be said that Jesus merely was Immanuel, human and in the midst of mankind for a short time, only to depart and abandon humanity. Jesus is Immanuel; He still is “God with us.” Is He with us in the exact same form and way He was with the disciples in Galilee and Judea? Not at all; instead, He is with us in more profound and compelling ways, ruling heaven and earth from the right hand of the throne of God, actively sustaining the creation, and strengthening His people through the Spirit. And so we can have the great confidence, as John declares, that He who is in us is greater than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4); we have hope that as Jesus now is we will be in the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20-58).
We will experience difficult times and wonder if God has abandoned us. At those times we do well to remember Jesus’ final promise in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus is Immanuel; He is with us until we will be with Him in eternity in the resurrection. We may not see Him with our eyes of flesh but we can discern Him through eyes of faith and spirit. We can know that He is there, for in God we live and move and have our being, and Jesus sustains our life (Acts 17:27-28, Hebrews 1:3). It may seem that the forces of darkness are prevailing, but we know that the Lord Jesus truly reigns and will gain the victory over them, having already sealed those who are His (Ephesians 6:12, 1 John 4:4, Revelation 12:1-20:10). May we entrust ourselves to the Lord Jesus and make disciples of all nations as He commanded us, reliant on His strength!
Ethan R. Longhenry