Tag Archives: Matthew 28: 16-20

Matthew 28: 16-20 A Sent Community and a Present Lord

Fra Angelico, Fresco in the Cloister of Mark in Florenz (1437-1445)

Matthew 28: 16-20

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted[1]. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,[2] baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” [3]

This is Matthew’s unique and well-known conclusion to the gospel narrative, often called the Great Commission. This sending of Jesus’ disciples to all the nations brings together several themes from throughout the gospel of Matthew and puts one final exclamation point on the identity of Jesus for the gospel. These words, which have been influential for the church’s sense of mission and its development of a trinitarian language to talk about the experience of God in both Jesus and the Spirit, come with the expectation of these disciples and those who follow them forming communities that can practice the type of life that Jesus points to throughout the gospel. These communities, like the disciples who form them, will be places where the risen Christ can be worshipped but where doubt can coexist with that worship. These sent disciples remain ‘little faith ones’ who still need Christ’s presence as they go about their mission of making disciples and teaching until this eon ends and the kingdom of heaven is brought fully to earth.

Mountains have in Matthew’s gospel serve as places where the identity of Christ is revealed, the followers of Jesus are taught, and the kingdom of heaven is realized through healing and feeding. Previously on a mountain during the temptation (4:8) the devil attempted to challenge Jesus’ identity as the Son of God, and during the transfiguration (17:1-9) the divine voice affirms Jesus’ identity as, “My Son, the Beloved.”[4] The location of the mountaintop becomes a place where the disciples now learn that Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and on earth and that his identity as Son is now included with the baptismal naming of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The mountain is also a place of teaching in Matthew’s gospel, especially in reference the Sermon on Mount (Matthew 5-7). Now on the mountain these disciples who are sent to make disciples are to take the teaching they received to instruct the communities they will form in obedience to the commands of Christ.  For Matthew, mountains are a place where people come to know the identity, authority and teaching of Christ and at this final sending from the mountaintop Jesus’ identity, authority and teaching are confirmed and to be taught to a new generation of disciples.

The disciples have come after hearing the message delivered by Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. The eleven traveled to Galilee and see Jesus and bow down to worship and doubt at the same time. This is only the second time in Matthew’s gospel where the word doubt has appeared,[5] and doubt and worship were paired in that occurrence as well. In Matthew 14:22-33, when Jesus walks on the water towards the disciples in the boat and Peter comes to Jesus on the water, Jesus says to Peter, “little faith one, why (have you entered) into doubt?” (my translation) As I mentioned in that section, I believe that instead of castigating Peter for experiencing doubt, perhaps he is reassuring Peter (and ‘little faith ones’ throughout the ages) that he indeed is ‘God with us’ in the midst of the storm. Now this is reinforced by the use of the word diatazo here on the mountain in Galilee after the resurrection where the disciples doubt is paired with the encouragement “I am with you always, to the end of the age. When Jesus and Peter returned to the boat the disciples worshipped, and here on the mountain they worship as well. Being a ‘little faith one’ or ‘one who doubts’ does not exclude one from being a disciple who can worship the experience of ‘God with us’ in Jesus. As M. Eugene Boring aptly states,

but they doubted…represents Matthew’s own theological understanding of the meaning of discipleship, which is always a matter of “little faith,” faith that by its nature is not the same as cocksureness, but incorporates doubts within itself in the act of worship. (NIB VIII,502)

Several English translations indicate that ‘some’ doubt, but in the Greek the indication is that all share this doubt. The resurrection event did not generate ‘perfect faith’ among the disciples, but their ‘little faith’ was enough to understand that the proper response was worship and obedience.

Throughout the gospel we have seen people bow down and worship Jesus. While the word here can simply mean to bow down and pay homage, Matthew often uses this term in scenes of “epiphanic self-manifestation” (Hays 2016, 167) which highlight the ways in which Jesus is revealed as ‘God with us’ throughout the gospel.[6] In addition to the times when the disciples worshipped after Jesus saved Peter in the storm mentioned above and the multiple approaches of people coming to Jesus to seek healing or an honor to be bestowed by Jesus[7] it is enlightening to see how Matthew uses the act of worshipping Jesus to bookend the gospel. The first to worship Jesus are the Magi (2:2, 11) and the gospel closes with both Marys worshipping Jesus (28:9) and now the disciples. As David Garland can illustrate the way Matthew uses this worship to bracket the gospel’s response to Jesus,

Their worship means the story has come full circle. The magi came to worship him as the king of the Jews in the beginning (2:2,11). At the conclusion, however, Jesus declares to his disciples that he is the supreme sovereign of the cosmos and owed unconditional obedience. Satan had only pledged to give Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world,” but Jesus grasped after nothing and has received much more through his faithful submission to the will of his heavenly Father—all authority in heaven and earth (see Ps. 2: 7-8) (Garland 2001, 270)

The commissioning of the disciples for their mission in this age has echoes of the commissioning of Joshua to lead Israel into the promised land. Jesus has already appeared as one who can on the mountain speak the law of God, and now the disciples are to carry forward all these teachings. Joshua has two separate commissions in the scriptures, and both are resonant here. First in Deuteronomy 31:23:

Then the LORD commissioned Joshua son of Nun and said, “Be strong and bold, for you shall bring the Israelites into the land that I promised them; I will be with you.”

Also, Joshua 1:7:

Only be strong, and very courageous, being careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go.

Like the divine commissions of Joshua, now the disciples are commanded to teach new disciples obedience to the commands of Jesus, but they are also promised the presence of their Lord in their mission.

Matthew’s gospel does not have a developed “Trinitarian theology” like the later church, but the seeds that would grow into that theology are present here. Matthew’s baptismal formula which links together the identities of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit reflect Matthew’s continued invitation to see how the actions of Jesus and the Holy Spirit are linked with God’s revelation. Central to the development of the church’s later doctrine of the Trinity was the question of how to talk about the identity of Christ. Matthew’s continual use of scriptural images previously reserved for God to talk about the actions of Jesus have continued to point to a rich unity in identity between Jesus and the God of Israel. As Richard B. Hays speaks forcefully,

Matthew highlights the worship of Jesus for one reason: he believes and proclaims that Jesus is the embodied presence of Gad and that the worship of Jesus is to worship YHWH—not merely an agent of facsimile or an intermediary. If we read the story within the hermeneutical matrix of Israel’s Scripture, we can draw no other conclusion. (Hays 2016, 175)

Matthew’s gospel announces the upcoming birth of Jesus with the title Emmanuel (1:23, citing Isaiah 7:14) and Matthew’s gospel concludes with an echo of this title. The gospel is bookended with the claim that in Jesus, “God is with us.” This has been pointed to throughout the narrative and is also present in the promise that, “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (18:20) This promise that I will be with you to the end (Greek sun-telos) of the eon is where the words and images and promises of Matthew’s gospel reach their telos.[8] As Hays again can state,

beyond the simple logical implications of Jesus’ parting promise, its significance is amplified by the extensive network of scriptural intertexts it evokes. In the MT and the LXX[9] there are atleast 114 instance[10] of a formula declaring God is “with” an individual, group, or the nation of Israel. (Hays 2016, 171)

This short conclusion to Matthew’s gospel brings together several central themes to instruct the disciples in their formation of the community of Christ. They once were commanded to go only to the lost sheep of Israel, but now their commission by their risen Lord is to go to all the nations. The story of Jesus has come full circle as the disciples worship the one who is God with them as they fulfill their commission until the completion of the eon. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus has only talked about the completion of the eon in parable form (13:22, 33, 39, 49) and the disciples ask Jesus about this again in relation to the destruction of the temple (24:3). The disciple of Jesus are not given signs which will herald the ending of the age, but they are given the promise of their Lord’s presence both in their mission and the sufferings that will come. As these ‘little faith ones’ now go out making disciples, baptizing, teaching and forming communities that can hand on the practices and faith which sees in Jesus the presence of God with us. Communities that can worship even in the midst of their doubts and questions as they, like Matthew, search for language that can bear witness to experience of the God who meets us in the crucified and resurrected Christ. Matthew has, like a scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven, brought out of the storehouse of scripture treasures old and new (13:52) for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. His act of handing on this gospel to us is a gift to teach disciples who now approach this text how to read the scriptures in light of Christ, how to practice obedience to the way of Christ and how our lives continue in the promised presence of the God who is with us.

[1] The Greek simply states that they doubted (oi de edistasan) there is no differentiation between those worshipping (proskuneo) and the doubting ones.

[2]Greek ethnos can mean either Gentiles or nations. I would agree with the translation of all nations instead of all Gentiles here (Matthew does not see an exclusion of the Jewish people from the ongoing mission).

[3] The Greek suntelieais tou aionos brings together two important words in Matthew. The first word is telos with the prefix sun attached, telos being a word of goal or end point and the combination with the prefix gives the idea of completion, closing. The translation of aion as age is appropriate if you are referring in the sense of ‘the age of man.’ This is the closing of the current eon and the initiation of the eon of the kingdom of heaven.

[4] This same title was also used in the baptism of Jesus (3:17). Although Matthew does not develop a baptismal theology for the early Christians he points to this as an activity of this community of Christ and the practice of baptism is linked to the narrative of Christ’s baptism.

[5] Matthew 21:21 in the NRSV is translated doubt, but it is the Greek diakrino instead of distazo used here and in 14:31.

[6] Matthew uses the Greek proskuneo (bow down, worship) a total of thirteen times in his gospel and almost always as an act of worship towards Jesus. In comparison Mark only uses this word twice and Luke three times.

[7] 8:2, 9:18, 15:25, 20:20

[8] Telos means goal, end, destination, or completion.

[9] MT is the Masoretic text or the Hebrew scriptures behind the English translation of the Old Testament, the LXX or Septuagint is the Greek text of what we refer to as the Old Testament.

[10] In addition to the commission of Joshua mentioned above Hays focuses on three particular examples: Genesis 28:12-17 (God in Jacob’s dream), Jeremiah 1:8-9 in the commissioning of the prophet Jeremiah and in the hopeful message of the Prophet Haggai (Haggai 1:13).