At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, on a mountain in Galilee, Jesus gathers his disciples. He tells them that, since God has given him all authority, he is commissioning them to make disciples in the entire Gentile world (=“nations”) by baptizing and instructing. Whereas before, he had expressly sent them only to the Jews (10:6), not to the Gentiles or Samaritans, now they have a worldwide mission. This, of course, is often called the “Great Commission.”
Only it’s not. We might refer to it as a reaffirmation of the Great Commission, or a further messianic specification of what this mission is all about. But the Great Commission? No.
The Great Commission is in the opening chapter of the Bible: “And God blessed [the man and woman]. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth’” (Gen.1:28).
What? How Is This the Great Commission?
The male (Adam) and female (Eve) heads of humanity are addressed by the one who has all authority in heaven and on earth, namely, the Creator himself. He has, after all, just made “the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1), so all authority is obviously his.
Immediately prior to this, he creates man and woman in his image, to be specific, the Father makes humanity in the image of his Son, who is the image of the Father. The Son is the image in whose image humanity is made (a “wink” of the coming Incarnation, by the way). He then “blesses” humanity, that is, his blessing is the word that he then goes on to speak to Adam and Eve in the mission he gives to them.
What is their mission? They are to perpetuate the image of God by expanding the human family (“be fruitful and multiply”). Each child will be a regal image-bearer of the Lord to the rest of creation. They are also to Edenize the world, that it, to “fill the earth.” Eden is elevated, on a mountain (e.g., Ezekiel 28:13-14), down from which flows a river (Gen. 2:10). As more image-bearers are born, the Garden and Mt. Eden will need to expand to accommodate them. As the human family grows larger and larger, the real estate of Paradise will require more acreage.
When this happens, the un-Edenic world must be “subdued,” that is, brought under the care and control of God’s human representatives as they expand the divine kingdom to the uttermost ends of the earth. The earth is good, yes, very good, but that does not mean fields are already plowed, seeds sown, homes built, and roads constructed. Labor must be expended as the paradise of Mt. Eden expands downward and outward to the rest of the world.
As this happens, men will be the kings of creation and women the queens of creation, as they jointly rule (“have dominion”) over every living thing. Humans are not animals, one more cog in creation; they are the regal, image-bearing rulers of creation, who are to care for and nurture the world in love. They rule by serving the creation over which they have been given earthly authority.
This, in short, was the Great Commission to humanity. And it still is! But to understand how it still is, let’s briefly remind ourselves of what went wrong in the carrying out of this commission, as well as how God set it right in the Last Adam.
The Great Commission Gone Wrong
Biblical history catalogs (already in Genesis 3!) in painful detail the failure of humanity to carry out this commission. Eden is lost. Brother murders brothers. Violence mushrooms. People “exchange the truth of God for a lie and worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:25).
But it’s not as if God throws in the towel, stomps away from creation, and abandons his goal for humanity. Hardly. He knows what he’s doing.
First, he promises humanity that, though history will be thenceforth be marked by increasing antagonism between good and evil, the Lord will eventually send a man (“the woman’s seed”) who will crush the head of the serpent whose head Adam failed to crush (Gen. 3:15). In other words, this man will be a New or Final Adam.
Second, the Lord selected a man and woman to function as a sort of “Adam and Eve 2.0.” Their names are Abraham and Sarah. What I mean is that, since the first couple failed in their worldwide commission, the Lord promised this new “Adam and Eve” that in their seed the entire world (“all the families of the earth” [Gen. 12:3]) would be blessed. The human family that came from Abraham and Sarah, Israel, would carry forward the Great Commission of Genesis 1:28 as they also carried forward the promise of this future Adam.
The Great Commission Set Right
This New or Final Adam, once he had crushed the head of the serpent in his crucifixion, now stood alive with this group of disciples who were Israel continued and expanded (i.e., the church). And where did they stand? On a mountain in Galilee, just as Eden had been on a mountain. And just as he who had all authority, commissioned Adam and Eve, so now he who has been given “all authority in heaven and on earth,” reaffirms and specifies the ancient commission.
The Son of God, having been resurrected, embodies the new creation. He is the resurrection and the life, that is, he is the regenesis of the world. His followers are to baptize people, that is, to join them to his body so they too might be recreated in the image of this Final Adam. As such they are reborn; they become children of God. And the more this happens, the more image-bearers of Christ multiply over creation. They are taught, and in turn, teach the word of this Christ-Adam, that they might think his thoughts, do his works, and so reflect who he has made them to be.
As Adam and Eve were to expand Eden to the uttermost reaches of the world, so we the followers of Jesus, his image-bearers, expand the kingdom from Judea to Samaria to the ends of the world. Christian men are the kings of creation and Christian women are the queens of creation, though we rule by serving, and serve by loving, and love by giving of ourselves to others. As our King, the Christ-Adam, ruled from the cross, so we follow him by bearing our crosses, which are our thrones, from which we give ourselves in love to those around us.
And we wait. We wait as the old and frail creation comes undone more and more. We await the new heavens and the new earth which will come when the Last Adam returns finally and fully to reveal the new creation in the resurrection of the dead.
As we do, we carry out the Great Commission of Genesis. The church—that is, the ongoing Israel of God—expands the family of the Father as we teach and baptize. Every time the Gospel is preached, we claim another acre of Christ’s Eden for our King. From the mountain in Galilee, where stood the Divine and Human Adam, Jesus our Lord, his mission has gone forth. We, his disciples, are part of the mysterious, worldwide expansion of the new creation, hidden under the old, as we bring more and more lost Adams and lost Eves back home to the one in whose image they were made.
The theme of Eden, new creation, and the topics in this article are dealt with at length in Chad’s new book, The Christ Key: Unlocking the Centrality of Christ in the Old Testament.