Reading Matthew: Make disciples

Beginnings and endings of books can help us grasp and remember what the books mean. Recently I finished reading through Exodus and left some thoughts on what that book means in light of its ending. I have also just finished reading through the Gospel of Matthew.

Matthew begins with a genealogy that grounds the meaning of Jesus in the Israelite heritage back to David, and back to Abraham. Matthew presents the teaching of Jesus in such as way as to present him as a new Moses. Just as there are five books of Moses in the Old Testament, in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus delivers five blocks of teaching: the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7), the instructions for mission (Matthew 10), the parables of the Kingdom (Matthew 13), the rules for ordering the community of believers (Matthew 18), and the discourse on last things (Matthew 23–25). Like the other gospels, Matthew also tells about the healings and exorcisms that Jesus performed, and about his crucifixion and resurrection. And much (most?) of the material that Matthew presents in the five blocks of teaching is present somewhere or other in the other gospels. But the five blocks of teaching are distinctive to Matthew.

As is the ending. And the ending is what I want to talk about here.

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

This is how Matthew ends. This is what Matthew gives you as the last word, the word in light of which you are meant to remember all the other words of the First Gospel. We don’t ordinarily sit down and read a whole gospel at a time, even thought it would only take a couple of hours. And so we miss the intended impact of the ending. We read and talk about this verse or that passage, and we forget that they come along the way in a story that begins with a look back to Abraham and David and ends with this passage, the final, summary statement from Jesus.

So let’s look at what this Matthean ending leaves us with. I’ll take the elements in reverse order, working from the end back to the beginning of the passage.

“To the end (or consummation, or perfecting) of the age.” We are not to regard the current state of affairs, the current order, as final or permanent. The world is on its way to a culmination not yet achieved.

“I am with you always.” These are Jesus’s closing words. Jesus does not leave. At the end of Luke (and again, for good measure, at the beginning of Acts), Jesus departs. John deals with the departure of Jesus in a different way, and Mark’s ending is another kettle of fish altogether. But in Matthew, Jesus does not leave. At the beginning of the gospel we are told that his name is supposed to be Immanuel, meaning “God with us.” He comes, he teaches, and he stays. God with us. Jesus is with us always. Jesus is still here.

“Teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.” In case we were too obtuse to realize what all that stuff was as we were reading it—the Sermon on the Mount, the instructions for mission, the parables, the community rules, the end-time discourse—Jesus tells us now what it was: he was commanding (eneteilamēn) us, intending that we should obey (tērein, “keep”) every bit of it. Paying attention to this ending could have saved us from serious mistakes, those of us who have seen the Sermon on the Mount as teachings meant not for us but for some other age (Dispensationalist teaching), or of for some special higher class of Christians (some strata of Catholic teaching). Nope. They are for us. They are part of the “everything that I have commanded you.” This teaching—we could call it catechesis—is not only making people know things, it is getting them to do thing, and baptism does not happen without it.

“Baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” These words, presented as words of Jesus, present a huge red flag to secular biblical scholarship, but for the Christian reading the Bible as canon, they say that Jesus did not come to inspire freelance followers who aren’t interested in incorporation into orthodox-catholic-evangelical church. He came constitute a community of disciples under the banner of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So Matthew tells us.

“All nations.” The mission of the church is universal, not focused on Israel. The acknowledgment in the beginning of Matthew of the Abraham to David to the Exile to Jesus line deliberately sets up this explicit statement at the end that the scope of Jesus’s mission is much broader: it aims at panta ta ethnē, all the gentiles, all the nations. This doesn’t mean that Jews are excluded—the disciples in Matthew are all Jewish—and it doesn’t mean that individual discipleship doesn’t matter. But the scope of Jesus’s command to make disciples is breathtakingly broad.

“Make disciples.” If Jesus had wanted to say “make converts,” there was a word available for that. In Matthew 23:15, Jesus criticizes the scribes and Pharisees as hypocrites because they cross land and sea to make one prosēlytos. He has no use for mere proselytization, which he regards as the process of making another person even more a child of hell than you are yourself. Jesus says mathēteusate. Make them disciples, make them learners, make them people who will observe everything that I have commanded. He doesn’t say to make them believers. To make disciples is to make doers.

“Go.” Poreuthentes, a participle: going, as you go, as you go on your way. Jesus’s assumption is that our making of disciples will not be sedentary or passive but will involve deliberate activity, intentional locomotion.

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” One of the strongest Christological claims in the whole New Testament! As with the explicitly trinitarian baptismal formula already noted, this claim, presented as a statement made by Jesus, becomes a bone of contention between believers who want to read biblical texts as positive, Von Rankean history and scholars who are quite sure that’s not what they are. But for Christians reading the scripture as canon, this problem does not occur. Christians are by definition people who submit to the lordship of Jesus over all of heaven and earth.

So, the Gospel of Matthew: from divine absence to divine (in the person of Jesus) presence, and teachings to heed in order to keep oneself—and others (all nations!) in that presence. Funny how closely Matthew turns out to agree with Exodus, isn’t it?

One thought on “Reading Matthew: Make disciples

  1. I always thought that “teaching them to obey “all the things I have commanded you” kind of begs the question, “what things?” But I don’t remember anyone ever saying, “the things in the five blocks of teachings in the book you just read.” So thank you, James.

    Liked by 1 person

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