Formations 04.01.2018: Signs and Wonders

Matthew 28:1-10, 16-20

Signs meant for navigation above the port of Anafi in Italy.

The sign told the Vestavia Hills Lutheran Church, “you are now entering the mission field.” And so it proclaimed that the nations began in my neighborhood at the top of the mountain where Shades Crest Road crossed US-31.

Four blocks from the house I grew up in, that sign bent from use was posted cattycorner to the whitewashed-concrete replica of Sybil Temple. The temple stands several miles south of Birmingham and, since 1976, has welcomed visitors to my hometown developed in the middle of the twentieth century. Still, despite such a promising sign, the one at the Lutheran church insists that the mission field begins here.

While my neighborhood was being built, a mad farmer called people to lose their minds and leave them “as a sign to mark the false trail, the way you didn’t go.” The mad farmer’s manifesto took aim at the patterns that had promised us salvation through technology, consumption, and separation.

As it marks the ways they didn’t go, the sign hints also at the paths they took. It directs those who can read the nearly hidden sign to call rotting leaves profit and to hear songs in carrion. Full life, it whispers, comes from the places where death is seen first. Only in these places, the farmer tells us, can we “practice resurrection.”

Holy Week posts similarly unexpected signs. The palm branches waved today will be burned in less than a year. The cross that kills Christ will carry flowers before the week is through. And the tomb, filled and sealed Friday, will break open on Sunday.

The disciples are commissioned around these signs. At the tomb, the angel calls the women who came to carry the good news to the disciples. On the mountain, Jesus comes to the eleven who had stayed away from the cross and the tomb and invites them to carry good news to the nations. These disciples, all of them, respond in the same tension seen in these other life-giving signs. The women were filled with “fear and great joy” (v. 8). The eleven worshiped and they doubted (v. 17).

These signs, both human and nonhuman, reflect the promise that life will be found in impossible places. Even more surprisingly, they promise that not even the mountains we’ve built on to ignore the suffering we’ve caused, seen, or felt can keep us from life.

These signs are chipped by fear and doubt and failure. And we are all the better for it.

Wendell Berry, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” The Country of Marriage (Berkeley CA: Counterpoint, 1973), 14–15.

Discussion

• What signs of life and death do you see in this passage? How are these signs related?
• What experiences of suffering or conflict are most important to you? How have these shaped your faith?
• What experiences of healing or reconciliation are most significant in your life? How have these shaped you faith?
• Where in your own life and in your community do you see signs of death? Where do you see signs of resurrection? How might you “practice resurrection” in all places?

Reference Shelf

Jesus’ Resurrection

While the evangelists offer various descriptions of the resurrection of Jesus, only Paul attempts an explanation. Paul summarizes the resurrection as a mystery to be probed rather than as a problem to be solved. While Paul is unable to define the event, he does indicate that resurrection is transformation. The antitheses developed in 1 Cor 15:42-50 lay equal stress on the continuity and the discontinuity between the “physical body” and “spiritual body.” Paul contends that something of the image of the physical endures through the resurrection transformation although he emphatically states “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 15:50). Significantly, the same point is implied through the evangelists’ descriptions of resurrection appearances. The risen one is the crucified one, yet somehow different (Matt 28:9ff., Luke 24:13ff.; John 20–21).

The resurrection of Jesus differs in one crucial respect from the prevalent first-century Jewish expectation for a general resurrection of the dead. Jewish expectation was for a corporate resurrection—all the righteous would be vindicated—which would occur at the end of time. The resurrection of Jesus does not diminish the eschatological flavor of resurrection hope but it does relocate the hope radically. The resurrection of Jesus—that which happens to one person—is confessed as an event in history which has eschatological significance. Thus, not only is the resurrection of Jesus a transformation of Jesus, it is also the immediate cause for the transformation of a resurrection hope from a corporate, eschatological event to a personal, historical event with corporate , eschatological implications.

Richard F. Wilson, “Resurrection in the New Testament,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 755–56.

Jesus’ Commission

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.

In conclusion, we must deal with the part of this passage that seems most likely to be post-Easter, indeed, most think late first century—the baptismal formula. We note first the preposition eis, which can mean “into,” including the meaning “into the account of ” or “into the possession of,” and that may well be the sense here. Baptism puts the baptisand in the position of belonging to God. It is thus a rite of passage from one owner to another. Secondly, we note that the word “name” is in the singular. God is a unity, and so we hear of just one name, not three, despite the three ascriptions that follow. The implication is clear enough that all three forms of the divine name that follow can properly be called God. We should have expected this when the Son was already called Immanuel, God with us, in Matthew 1.

Ben Witherington III, Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006), 534–35.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.

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