Matthew Week 11
The Story Doesn’t End After All: Matthew 28:1-20
Seattle Pacific University Professor of New Testament Studies
Read this week’s Scripture: Matthew 28:1–20
Enlarge A New Day Has Arrived
It is just before dawn on Sunday, the first day of the week, the day after the Jewish Sabbath. The two Marys have observed the holy day of rest, but their minds are on the horrific events of the day before, the day of their Lord’s murder at the hands of religious and governing authorities.
They have come “to see the tomb.” No doubt their eyes first fall on the soldiers, those human symbols of worldly power, placed there at the insistence of the religious leadership to keep Jesus’ disciples from perpetrating a hoax. “His disciples may go and steal him away,” they worried, “and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first” (27:64). No one — not the Marys, not the authorities, not the guards — expects an actual resurrection. There is only stillness, and sadness, and the faint glow of light breaking on the horizon.
With this, the stage is set for an explosive finale. In the 20 verses of this culminating chapter, Matthew will draw his story to a dramatic close, and along the way offer his readers a concise summary of the main points of his entire gospel. So we will let Matthew lead the way, allowing his final words to shape our ultimate reception of his work. After a brief summary of verses 1–15, we’ll pause over each phrase of 26:16–20 to reflect on what Matthew has taught us.
The Moment of Resurrection
Jesus taught his disciples that the one who wished to be great would strive to be a servant, and that all who humbled themselves would be exalted (20:16, 26–28; 23:11–12). This teaching is proved true in the final events of Jesus’ life: after pouring himself out in service to God, he was highly exalted in a spectacular resurrection from the dead.
Once again there is a great earthquake, and in blinding light an angel of God descends triumphantly from heaven, rolling the stone away to reveal the dark emptiness of the tomb. The soldiers fall away in fear, and the angel instructs the women to not be afraid, but to go tell the disciples that Jesus has risen from the dead — just as he said he would — and that he will meet up with them in Galilee. They turn to run, and immediately encounter Jesus himself, who reinforces the angel’s words with a commission of his own.
These women who stood vigil at Jesus’ death and burial become the first to experience his new life and, in turn, are honored to become the first preachers of the good news of his resurrection.
The shocked guards run off in the opposite direction to deliver a message of their own. Though the leadership was initially worried about the possibility that the disciples might try to deceive people with stories of a resurrection, they apparently had no problem carrying out a deception of their own — so they bribe the guards to spread the rumor that the disciples stole Jesus’ body (28:11–15). Once again we see these guardians of the law happily bear false witness against their neighbor to retain their power.
The Great Commission
The final scene of Matthew’s gospel is related in a carefully constructed paragraph designed to sum up the key themes of the entire gospel.
“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them” (28:16).
Once again, we find ourselves on a mountain with Jesus (4:8; 5:1; 17:1), and our minds are drawn back to Matthew’s repeated attempts to transition us out of the Old Testament and into the New by drawing points of connection and disconnection between Moses and Jesus. It is worth recalling that Moses ended his days on another mountain, Mount Pisgah (Deuteronomy 34). From there he took one last look, over Jordan, into the Promised Land, and heard God’s assurance that one day his people would dwell there.
Then, as all humans do, Moses died. Jesus died too, but he is not simply another Moses. No, Jesus passed through death and is newly alive on a mountain in Galilee (earlier called “Galilee of the Gentiles,” 4:15), and he is about to tell his followers to make disciples of all the nations. In fulfillment of God’s commission to Abram, Jesus is taking the good news of God’s blessing to all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:1–3).
The point is worth repeating: in Jesus and his disciples, Israel is fulfilling its vocational task. Recall again from the earlier chapters of this book how Jesus’ life was cast as a recapitulation of Israel’s history. Like “God’s Son” Israel (Exodus 4:22–23; Hosea 11:1), Jesus was called out of Egypt (Matthew 2:13–15), passed through waters (3:13–17), and suffered temptation in the wilderness (4:1–11). But unlike Israel, Jesus remained faithful. In all this Jesus does not replace Israel; Jesus becomes the embodiment of a faithful Israel.
We must be more careful when we speak of these things. There is a way of articulating what God has done in Christ that marginalizes Israel, the Law, and the Old Testament as a whole. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets,” Jesus said. “I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill” (5:17). Matthew’s gospel seeks to transition us into the new covenant without losing our grip on the old. Have we as new-covenant people kept the Bible intact?
“When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted” (28:17).
Some doubted? There they are, standing before Jesus in all his glory, and some still doubt? What point is Matthew trying to make? Let’s think back on how the word “doubt” functioned in this gospel.
While some people disbelieved Jesus (13:58; 17:17), the Greek word here was used previously only at 14:31, where Jesus saved Peter from sinking in the water, saying, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” The disciples are not disbelieving; they’re hesitating. They aren’t denying; they’re dumbfounded! They’re set back on their heels in amazement, just like all of us who hear the radical call of Christ in this gospel.
How can Jesus expect us to live up to the task set before us? Love our enemies? Give our money away? Seek the kingdom before all else? How can such a powerful new life emerge from this dead body of mine?
One of Matthew’s central claims in this gospel is the fact that the community of disciples is a mixed bag. As was the case with Jesus’ inner circle of disciples, so also it will be with the church: it is made up of wheat and weeds (13:24–30), fish that are “keepers” and fish that are ultimately thrown back (13:47–50), servants who invest their talents and servants who don’t (25:14–30).
Everyone — both the good and the bad — is invited to the wedding feast (22:10). This depiction of a “mixed” church carries at least two messages forward for me. First, despite Jesus’ call to pursue moral and spiritual perfection, the church is clearly not perfect. It is characterized by sin and brokenness, duplicity, compromise, fear, laxity, and faithlessness.
We should not be surprised by this. We might even take comfort from this gospel’s depiction of disciples who struggle to follow Jesus. Indeed, we can take this even further: the church is a place that is not surprised by the presence of sin in its midst, precisely because it is a community that passionately embraces the sinner.
Recalling that God is the only legitimate judge, and that God “desires mercy, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 9:13; 12:7), faulty, broken people are welcomed into this community of discipline so that they might participate in the restorative cycle of confrontation, confession, and forgiveness that sharpens our step and leads us down the path of transformation into Christ-likeness. The church is to be a place where people are allowed to be honest about their shortcomings in the knowledge that admitting sin is not opposed to perfection. It is a step on the path to perfection.
Enlarge“And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (28:18).
Jesus does not berate the disciples for their doubt, but reassures them by reminding them of the power he brings into their midst. The language brings to mind the words applied to the “son of man” in Daniel, which Jesus has already applied to himself (24:30; 26:64); God gave this son of man “dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Daniel 7:13–14).
Jesus claimed this authority before the resurrection (9:6; 11:27), but now the assertion takes on a far grander meaning: Jesus is not simply the Messiah of Israel, he is the eternal king of all creation, the firstborn of the dead, the ruler of the kings of the earth (Revelation 1:5). The disciples may be uncertain, but that hardly matters; the one who rules creation will empower them with his presence (Matthew 28:20).
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (28:19a).
The task of disciple-making, such a prevalent theme in this gospel (4:19; 5:13–16; 9:35–10:42; 13:52; 24:14; 26:13), is now officially given over to the disciples themselves. The earlier restriction of the mission to “the lost sheep of Israel” (10:5–6; 15:24) is now expanded to include all the nations of the earth. The “therefore” suggests that the authority of Jesus is being expressed in his enlistment of the whole world to his service.
Ending the gospel with a call to make disciples underscores Matthew’s theme that the way of salvation is loaded with ethical importance. Salvation is not a simple matter of receiving forgiveness from God; it is an enlistment, a call to partner with God in the restoration of the world.
Likewise, grace is not simply a covering over for our failings. The grace of God rescues us from our self-interest and lovingly takes us up as students trained to be faithful witnesses to God in the world. Salvation is a mission, a call to the task of witnessing to God by living into the kingdom God is bringing into being. “You are the light of the world,” Jesus says. “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (5:14–16). Matthew’s gospel launches the New Testament witness with the insistence that we are called to the kind of missional kingdom performance that will attract others to follow as well.
“[B]aptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (28:19b).
This performance of discipleship is itself inaugurated by the command to practice a particular ritual of initiation: baptism with water in the name of the Trinity. The association of baptism with the Father, Son, and Spirit recalls Jesus’ own baptism in 3:16–17, where the Son comes out of the water, the Spirit descends on him, and the voice of the Father is heard coming from heaven. If the connection is intentional, it suggests baptism is commanded for Christians as a part of their imitation of Christ.
Regardless, the command to make disciples via a communal entry ritual brings to mind Matthew’s unique emphasis on Jesus’ desire to establish a distinctive earthly society called “church” (16:18; 18:15–20). Jesus has given us no indication whatsoever that discipleship can be practiced in isolation. We need brothers and sisters to remove the specks from our eyes by confronting our sin, hearing our confession, and proclaiming God’s forgiveness.
We need exemplars to embody the kingdom in our midst and entice us to imitate them as they imitate Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). Jesus, who was without sin, submitted to a baptism of repentance; in like manner we need to submit to the training of a Christ-empowered community.
“[A]nd teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (28:20a).
We also need leaders who will teach us the way of Jesus, the communication of which is without a doubt one of Matthew’s primary objectives in writing this gospel. Jesus is many things in this story, but he is without a doubt a teacher (4:23; 5:2, 19, 21–48; 7:29; 9:35; 11:29; 23:8, 10; 24:35). Indeed, he is the one authoritative teacher of God’s righteousness (7:28–29; 23:8–10). “All that I have commanded you” gathers up the many instructions in the gospel — Jesus’ teachings and doings alike — and sets them before us as mandates to be observed.
It is impossible to miss Matthew’s concern over the existence of believers who claim Christ’s name but do not actually follow his example. His preferred term, “hypocrite,” has hovered uncomfortably over the content of this gospel (6:2, 5, 16; 7:5; 15:7; 22:18; seven times in Chapter 23; 24:51), and his communication of Jesus’ condemnation has been unrelenting. He describes believers:
- who break God’s commandments and teach others to do the same (5:17–20);
- who call Jesus “Lord” but persist in doing evil (7:21–23);
- who hear the teaching but do not act on it (7:24–27);
- who want to call Jesus “brother” but do not do the will of his Father (12:50);
- who accept God’s forgiveness but refuse to forgive others (18:21–35);
- who think that saying they’ll do God’s will is a replacement for actually doing it (21:28–31);
- who accept the invitation to the wedding feast but do not put on the appropriate attire (22:1–14);
- who focus on outward show to impress others of their righteousness but fail to address the sin that resides within them (23:1–36);
- who are like servants who slough off work while their master is away (24:45–51) or bury their talents instead of investing them for the kingdom (25:14–30).
- who, ultimately, do not believe that “the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father and will repay everyone for what has been done” (16:27).
“Be perfect,” Jesus said, “as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48) — that is, be whole, be consistent, be complete. Practice what you preach. Live your lecture. Refuse to draw a sharp distinction between creed and deed. This is the only way to witness rightly to the Lord, who not only taught God’s way but lived it to the fullest.
“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:20b).
But we mustn’t get the cart before the horse. We cannot end with exhortation to obedience, for Jesus ends his commission with a promise designed to call to mind the “presence” theme of this gospel. In the first chapter we read that Jesus would be called “Emmanuel, God with us” (1:23), a concept that was demonstrated repeatedly in Jesus’ miracles.
Jesus also insisted his presence would be felt in Christian ministry, saying “Whoever receives you receives me” (10:40), “whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me” (18:5), and “what you did to one of the least of my siblings, you did to me” (25:40). He likewise committed his ongoing presence to the church in its common meal (“take, eat; this is my body,” 26:26) and in its expression of authority (“where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,” 18:20).
Just as God often promised to be present to the people of Israel (e.g., Genesis 28:15; Exodus 3:12; Joshua 1:5, 9; Isaiah 41:10), so also “God with us” promises to accompany us always.
In this final call to remember, we should remember Peter, striding God-like on the waves of the sea, his eyes on Jesus, the words “Take courage! I am! Do not be afraid!” still ringing in his ears. He has forgotten that he is just a faulty, broken, sinful human being. Indeed, he has forgotten himself entirely.
But storms bring stress, and soon the wind is in his ears, and his eyes shift to the precariousness of his powerlessness. He sinks. Then, remembering the source of his strength, he calls out, “Lord, save me!” He doesn’t miraculously float back up to the top of the waves; instead, a powerful hand grabs him, and a voice says, “Why did you doubt?”
It is not Peter’s ability but the presence of Jesus that enables him to do the impossible. If you feel like Matthew’s gospel has called you to an unreasonable task, remember Peter remembering Jesus. “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed … nothing will be impossible for you.”
Questions for Further Reflection:
- “Matthew’s gospel seeks to transition us into the new covenant without losing our grip on the old.” Have we as “new covenant people” kept the Bible intact? Now that we’ve finished reading this gospel, take a moment to re-evaluate your attitude toward the Old Testament.
- “The church is to be a place where people are allowed to be honest about their shortcomings in the knowledge that admitting sin is not opposed to perfection. It is a step on the path to perfection.” Is this an accurate description of your community of faith? How might we help nurture this kind of culture within the church?
- “Salvation is not a simple matter of receiving forgiveness from God; it is an enlistment, a call to partner with God in the restoration of the world… Salvation is a mission.” Do you have a clear sense of your mission after reading this gospel? What remains unclear for you?
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