Formations 04.27.2014: Go and Tell

Matthew 28:11-20

The Great Commission, Cathedral Parish of Saint Patrick, El Paso, TX. Photo by Wikipedia user Lyricmac / CC-BY-2.5

The Great Commission, Cathedral Parish of Saint Patrick, El Paso, TX. Photo by Wikipedia user Lyricmac / CC-BY-2.5

The Gospel of Matthew ends with two unique passages. In the first, Jesus’ opponents attempt to invalidate the reports of his resurrection by bribing the soldiers who stood guard at the tomb. In the second, Jesus meets with his disciples in Galilee and gives them his Great Commission to make disciples in all the world.

Taken together, these two stories help us approach the theme of witness. The soldiers were paid to keep quiet about the resurrection. By contrast, the disciples risked their lives to proclaim that message far and wide.

On this second Sunday of Easter, we must acknowledge that these two impulses still exist. Some attempt to silence the Easter story, if not through bribery or deceit, then perhaps through ridicule—or even simple neglect. At the same time, the risen Christ calls his followers to go into all the world and make disciples by faithfully declaring the good news of Jesus.

Two thousand years later, that call still sounds, and so does Jesus’ promise to be with us as we go, even to the end of this present age.

Discussion

• What compels us to tell the world about Jesus? What keeps us quiet?
• The disciples worshipped Jesus after the resurrection, and yet “some doubted” (Matt 28:17). What is the relationship between faith and doubt? Is it possible to have both at the same time? Explain.
• How does Jesus’ continuing presence give us courage to speak in Jesus’ name and call all people to follow him?

Reference Shelf

The Purpose of Matthew

The task of Jesus’ disciples according to Matt 28:18-20 is to “make disciples of all nations” and in connection with this undertaking baptize and teach. What they are to teach is made explicit in the words, “all that I have commanded you” (v. 20). They are to teach the teachings of Jesus himself, and it is a fair inference that the teachings the author has in mind are the teachings preserved in the Gospel of Matthew itself. The inference is confirmed by the fact that Matthew has arranged the teachings of Jesus topically in five long discourses (i.e., chaps. 5–7, ethics; chap. 10, missionary instructions; 13:1-52, the nature of the Kingdom of heaven; chap. 18, relationships in the believing community; chaps 24–25, the destruction of Jerusalem and the close of the age). Each discourse is terminated with a summary, “And it came to pass when Jesus had finished” (each summary a little different depending on the setting: 7:28-29; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1). Although the summary may have been traditional in early Christian accounts of Jesus’ teaching (cf. Luke 7:1), Matthew has made it a key to his arrangement of the material to be taught; it appears that the first summary (7:28-29) may have served as a model for the others. From one standpoint, then, Matthew’s Gospel appears to be a catechism or teaching book for the use of Jesus’ disciples in carrying out the mission to the gentiles commanded in 28:18-20.

J. Ramsey Michaels, “Matthew, Gospel of,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 559.

The Community’s Guide and Guard

The interpretation of v. 19 requires close attention to the structure of the sentence. The main verb here is not “go” but rather “make disciples.” It is also worth stressing that the emphasis is on teaching rather than preaching. So this is not quite the Great Commission to go out and preach to or evangelize the nations, though we should not rigidly exclude such ideas here. My point however is the one a scribe would want to make and is making here. The chief means of making disciples is teaching. Another point to note is that the baptizing is mentioned first and then teaching. If this is some sort of chronological ordering, then the point would be to get them initiated into the community by an entrance ritual and then instructing them thoroughly. Notice that Jesus is the one who is recommissioning the Eleven and reaudiencing their ministry. Now they are no longer to confine themselves to Israel, but rather are to go to the nations, and this surely includes the majority population of those nations, not just the Jews. They are to be approached deliberately and intentionally. These new disciples along with the Eleven are called to observe not just some of Jesus’ teaching but “all that I commanded you.” No wonder this Gospel places so much stress on Jesus’ teaching material and on obedience and discipleship! The basis of the new community is seen to be the teaching. It is this that preserves the continuity of the community from the time of Jesus to the time of the Matthean community and beyond.

But Jesus has not simply left them in the lurch to do it on their own, for v. 20 also says his powerful presence will be with them always, as long as human history continues, until the end of the age. Here we have a deliberate sapiential rounding off of this Gospel with a motif from its beginning in Matthew 1:23—Jesus as Immanuel. And as Immanuel, Jesus will be the community’s guide and guard, their Wisdom to help them understand his teaching. Thus, the basis of the new community is (1) the presence of the risen One, who is the royal One, the Sage who is Wisdom, and now clearly, as divine one who is greater than David or Solomon; (2) the continued teaching of his teachings; and (3) the task of making disciples. This is the perspective of the scribe who wrote this Gospel.

Ben Witherington III, Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006) 534.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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