Matthew 28:2-20, The Beginning

Recapitulation and Fulfillment

[April 8, 2012] Today we come to the last chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew. It is the conclusion not only of the passion account that began in chapter 26 but of the entire gospel. In no way is it an appendix. It is momentous; it is that to which everything was leading: the resurrection. In the beginning of the gospel the Kingdom of the Heavens breaks into the continuum of our time and space in the birth of Jesus, the Son of David. The Kingdom of the Heavens presents itself (in Him) and reveals the ways of it. Then—beginning in chapter 21—we see the Kingdom of the Heavens (in Him) bearing down on history in judgment, human history centered in the history of the chosen people under Roman rule, and then Himself bearing that judgment in the only mode of repentance acceptable to the reality of the divine. In the ordeal of the cross Jesus accomplishes the Kingdom of the Heavens; and now we see the anticipated outcome in His resurrection. Are we in this story? Are we part of it? I speak to the believer: How are we part of it? Are we only coasting along as we remain in the center of our own story?

The connotation of the “Kingdom” in the gospels is not territorial or governmental but martial. There is a territorial aspect, yes, for it sets itself up over against a false claim of territory, what the New Testament calls the “world.” There is also a governmental aspect, for the word means “kingship” and has to do with the sovereignty of God over the good creation and its disorder. But in this general sense, the Kingdom does not need to come, for God already rules over all. However, there is that which defies God and denies the creation: this false realm of the world, ruled over by Satan, enslaving all the people, isolating them in their souls, and bounding them for misery, futility and destruction. It is a realm of falsehood; it is a delusion; and it attempts to, and imagines it does, insulate itself from the reality of God and createdness itself (though it claims and believes itself to be doing the opposite). The Kingdom of the Heavens is God’s overcoming all that which opposes and resists God. Christ reigns until “He has abolished all rule and all authority and power, for He must reign until God puts all His enemies under His feet” (1 Corinthians 15:24-25). The Kingdom of the Heavens therefore cannot be separated from judgment and salvation. What is also clear in all the writings of the New Testament is that God accomplishes all this in His Son. There is no aspect of the Kingdom of the Heavens that is independent of Jesus Christ and His own accomplishment in incarnation, death and resurrection. And there is no aspect of our lives that does not come under the Kingdom of the Heavens and is not affected by it in some way.

So the Easter story in Matthew’s gospel speaks of this accomplishment. There is a recapitulation of the entire gospel here in its fulfillment. An angel appears to Joseph in a dream before the Lord’s birth (1:20), and in the events following His birth (again in 2:13, 19); and they appear in the wilderness before the Lord’s emergence into public life (4:11). Now an angel appears rolling away the stone from the tomb (28:2). He sits, with a sense of accomplishment. It is done!

In the beginning Matthew quoted Isaiah where the prophet says, “‘They shall call His name “Emmanuel”’ (which is translated, God with us)” (1:23). At the end of the gospel Jesus says, “Behold, I am with you all the days until the consummation of the age” (28:20). God is with us—fulfilled in the resurrected humanity of Jesus. In the heart of the gospel, Jesus told His disciples (when teaching about the church), “Where there are two or three gathered into My name, there am I in their midst” (18:20). God’s presence, in the humanity of the resurrected Jesus, is in our midst—with us—when we gather into the name of Jesus.

Then there is also Galilee. The ministry of Jesus began in Galilee and culminates in Jerusalem, yet He has the disciples return to Galilee in the end. What is the significance of that? There is the aspect of God’s judgment on the Temple and the stewards of God’s people, the chief priests and elders, and God’s judgment on the City itself. As the Shekinah left the Temple in Ezekiel’s vision to be with the exiles in Babylon, so it leaves the outward forms of City and Temple to be with the dispersed of God’s people among the nations—the faithful of Israel and the believers in the Messiah among the Jews and the Gentiles. “Galilee of the Gentiles” (4:15) therefore represents this decentralization—though Christians have repeatedly—and presumptuously—tried to recentralize the church in Rome and elsewhere.

There is more going on here, however. Jesus sends His disciples back to where they were in the beginning, where they would meet Him on a mountain as in 5:1 (mountains and hills are spiritual high points as in 17:1), and there He commands them to teach new disciples “to observe all that I have commanded you” (28:20). In other words, He sends them—and us—back to the beginning of the Gospel, to re-embody it in a way that they could not before, now that He is with them in resurrection. We are to “remember” Him, as we do in the Lord’s Supper. This remembering, however, is inseparable from the “I am with you.” When we “remember,” He is in our midst as actually present. His past time becomes present in the crucible of eternity. This is something that His resurrection does. His time, from conception to death, becomes eternal—always immediately present—no longer limited by the passing away of time with which we are familiar. Thus the angel speaks of Him as “the crucified One” (28:5). He embodies all His time in the present eternal moment of who He is; nothing is any longer “past.” This is also true of His future: who He will be He already is, and in His sphere (the sphere of His Person) we are already partaking—in a limited sense—in the ages to come.

Practically speaking, the reader of Matthew’s scroll is therefore also sent back to the beginning of the scroll. The church remembers Jesus over and over again in the breaking of the bread as we listen to the scroll of the Gospel read through year after year. Like the Jewish lectionary of the Torah, each gospel is written to be read to the congregations in the course of the year, perhaps culminating around the time of Passover (this was Michael Goulder’s thesis; and the correlations he found between the gospels and the annual Jewish lectionary are nothing short of amazing). Hearing and reciting Scripture texts repeatedly is (and was) an important aspect of the Jewish (and Christian) way of life. For as young and old gather to hear the texts read, we absorb their meaning on our individual levels. Jesus also teaches us that the Spirit of God awakens our spirit through the words of the texts, as our mind metabolizes them with the help of the exposition; and the Holy Spirit comes to our spirit via the conduit of these words. This is the teaching of John’s gospel: not only does the Spirit of God do this, but through the resurrection of Jesus, the Spirit of God becomes the Holy Spirit, that is, She becomes the sanctifying indwelling of Jesus, with all that He is in divinity and humanity, and all that He has—all His time and accomplishments and attainments and obtainments, His body, soul and spirit, everything—by the mutual indwelling, the co-inherence, of the Holy Spirit and the Son. Jesus Himself therefore comes to us in—we could almost say, as—the Holy Spirit: through the oral words of the Gospel (as spoken by the first eyewitnesses to whom He was spiritually revealed), through the written words of the gospels, and by the proclamation of these words in preaching. The outward form of the church then is similar in this respect to the synagogue. It centers round the reading of the Scriptures, in particular of the four gospels, and round the breaking of the bread as we remember Him.

The Earthquake (Matthew 28:2-4)

Sometime on Easter morning “there was a great earthquake.” Such a phenomenon accompanied theophanies associated with judgment and liberation (see for example Exodus 19:18 and Isaiah 29:6). Jesus’ body, that is, His entire humanity, is recreated in resurrection, and divinized. That is, it now participates fully (the self-emptying of the divine kenosis—Philippians 2:7—is over) in the perfections of His divine nature. It is eternal, omnipresent, etc. The Son of God, whose Person (hypostasis) is divine and therefore whose original essence (ousia) is divine, took on our human essence (as a form of createdness) as His own, so that He possessed two essences fully—His divine essence by nature and a created essence by participation. Yet in His human essence, His divine essence was hidden. He participated fully in both essence in His Person but His human essence was limited to what it was: its sharing in His divine essence was restrained by the kenosis. This restraint ended on Easter. Not only was death overcome, but so was the confining of our Lord’s humanity. Suddenly both essences fully shared each other’s properties without losing what was essential about their own (even as each essence fully shared in the other; neither lost its own integrity). In Him createdness was divinized, or in more biblical language, “glorified.” At that moment, God underwent a change (as in the unfolding and enfolding of God in time—that is, in salvation-history—not in God’s eternal being): for the Spirit of God now became the Holy Spirit, as She “embodied” the divinized humanity of Christ in Herself through the divine co-inherence, or (to put it another way) He “became” the Holy Spirit (“the last Adam became [the] life-giving Spirit,” 1 Corinthians 15:45; “the Lord is the Spirit,” 2 Corinthians 3:17). Thus the great earthquake signified a theophany such as had never happened before: the true divinizaton of createdness at the loci of His body.

An angel of the Lord “descended out of heaven and came and rolled away the stone and sat upon it. And his appearance was like lightning and his garment as white as snow.” Jesus actually did not need the stone to be rolled away. He may have already left the tomb when the earthquake occurred (though this might be nonsense—He was already everywhere, He manifested Himself where He wanted). The rolling away of the stone revealing the empty tomb therefore was a sign. The angel has a magnificent appearance as in Daniel 10:6. This is not always the case, for an angel could hide its nature, but here the angel’s heavenly character is evident. The angel appears similar to the way Jesus did in His Transfiguration in chapter 17, for “His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as the light.” This was a manifestation of Jesus’ divine essence as it shone through His humanity. In the case of the angel, though, it is the angel’s heavenly nature that shines on its own. The invisible heaven, in which angels dwell, stands between the “earthly” realm of the visible creation and the divine essence (which transcends the whole creation, for God is certainly “higher than the heavens”). God dwells with the angels in the heavens and His will is done there (6:9-10, etc.). Angels are creatures too but they exist as “messengers” (angeloi) of God connecting God to the “earth” (the visible realm). Heaven is the “mystery” of the earth, the invisible side of the creation. When it is revealed, it is full of light and magnificent.

This glimpse of heaven, and the mystery of creation, is too much for the practical minded soldiers guarding the tomb. In the presence of so much life, they are overcome with fear and become like dead men. Their terror, however, only terrorizes them. In the presence of something divine, or in the proximity of the divine, they feel its judgment of them; but there is no impulse to do anything but cower before it. It does not open their eyes to see what they are seeing. It does not change them. In verses 11-15 we see how in the end they are morally unaffected by the scene. Humanity cowers before the divine, sensing its judgment, and therefore it never gets beyond a bad conscience to the power of life that is offered to it in grace. Not willing to acknowledge their cowardice, human beings deny any sense of the judgment, terrified of their own conscience. When this goes a step further and the conscience itself is denied, what issues forth is the manifestation of evil.

The Angel Speaks to the Women (28:5-10)

While the soldiers are scared to death by the angel, the angel speaks consolingly to the women. “Do not be afraid.” Their love of Jesus takes away any threat. Having been with Jesus, they could be at home with the heavenly, for Jesus always brought the heavenly to them. The angel speaks with absolute authority and clarity, as one familiar with Jesus, and with them. “I know that you are seeking Jesus, the crucified. He is not here, for He has been raised, even as He said.” Even resurrected, Jesus is still “the crucified.” He does not stop being who He was, but who He was is now no longer past but immediately present. The angel invites the women to see the empty tomb.

The empty tomb is a clear indication that Jesus’ resurrection was tangible and physically real. The physical body was not in the tomb! His resurrection was no vision, nor was it a metaphor for an internal experience. It took place objectively, outside of their internal experiences. Jesus’ human body rose from the dead. Not only was His broken body healed and restored. It was recreated. Yet it was still His own body, the body of the crucified. He, in His own body, was raised. His body was what it was and yet it was far different; they seemed to have trouble recognizing Him; it could now no longer suffer sickness or death; and in time it began to radiate light and take on a heavenly, angelic, appearance (as when He appeared to Stephen or Paul or later John). These are just degrees of His manifestation. Yet there was no mistaking who He was—His familiarness to those who knew Him before. Heaven was shining through the earthly—the earthly was still there!—for the divine was radiating through the membrane of the heavenly to the earthly.

 The angel sends the women to the disciples with the message that He is risen and to go meet Him in Galilee.

The women hurry away “with fear and great joy” to report this to the disciples. Their fear is mixed with great joy and, far from acting like dead men, they are enlivened by the angel’s words. Their fear is not the terror that the soldiers felt but a combination of awe and great humility (almost a fear of themselves rather than of the Other) and gratitude for undeserved favor. They were overwhelmed with the joy of the news that Jesus had been raised—He was alive!

Jesus Meets the Women (28:9-10)

For a moment, all that the women had was the news, but very shortly Jesus met them. The resurrected Jesus is not just the evidence of the empty tomb, nor is it simply the news that He is risen, but He is One who meets us Person-to-person, face-to-face. He encounters us in our lives in the reality of who He is. There is nothing distant about Him. This news is no mere “truth” or teaching or doctrine (I do not deny that it is that too, however). Jesus Himself calls us to Himself through the word of the Gospel. In other words, the encounter is not simply an intellectual affair or an affair of the emotions. It is not simply a “being deeply moved.” It is spiritual, as the Holy Spirit awakens our innermost being, the source of our life and ground of our awareness by the revelation of Jesus (of who He is), and the Holy Spirit comes into our spirit with this revelation and permanently imbues our spirit with Herself so that the two become indistinguishably mingled. The resurrected Jesus meets us, and even as He sends us on our way, He does not part from us.

The women render Him worship, which not even an angel will accept (though a false god or fallen angel might), acknowledging the personal (that is, hypostatic) presence of the divine in Him. When they worship Him they take hold of His feet. Theirs was not the cold worship of people in a church pew or the self-centered worship of the so-called “Spirit-filled.” Theirs was the worship and adoration and love of existential and entire submission of the heart to His Person.

Jesus repeats the commission of the angel, but now He speaks of His disciples as, “My siblings.” Except for 12:48-50 and 25:40 (which later has a future reference), He spoke to the disciples of their siblings but not of the disciples being His siblings. He was always in the position of Lord to them. He still was (and is), but to speak of “My siblings” means that He has a new relationship of kinship to them. In Matthew’s gospel these are seeds that germinate in the Gospel according to John (see John 20:17) which discloses the truth of the new birth, which is the result of His abiding within us through the transformation of the Spirit of God into the Holy Spirit at the moment of His resurrection. (The Spirit of God was already the Holy Spirit from the time of His incarnation, but with respect to Him, not yet with respect to us—compare Luke 1:35 and John 7:39.) In Hebrews 2:12 it is the resurrected Jesus who declares the Father’s name to “My siblings” (referring to the first Easter gathering in John 20) and sings His praises in the midst of the church (the resurrected Lord worships the Father when we do). Jesus’ words in Matthew’s gospel parallel His words to Mary of Magdala in John 20:17, but only initiate this great theme that the life of the church will exemplify.

The “Great Commission” (28:16-20)

The Twelve disciples minus Judas gather at the mountain in Galilee to which the angel and Jesus told them to go through the report of the women. It has been suggested that it was the same mountain on which He used to deliver the Sermon on the Mount. (It is not my purpose to reconcile the different accounts of the resurrection, but to take each gospel at face value. We know that this is not the first time they see Jesus after the resurrection, but Matthew’s narrative focuses narrowly on this occasion as if it were. More than any of the other gospels he omits the humanizing details that we like to savor.) Like the women, the disciples worship Jesus. The word “doubt” means to hesitate or waver. Perhaps they doubted whether it was really Jesus, but it might be that they hesitated about their own reaction to Him.

Jesus speaks to the eleven disciples not as the Twelve but as His disciples. The “commission” that follows is not meant for a class of clergy (though this is not what the Twelve were) but for the whole church. Jesus in Matthew’s gospel abhors a hierarchy among His disciples (see Matthew 18); and it would be inappropriate to insert it here when everything comes to fulfillment.

Jesus announces, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” As the Son of God He already possessed such authority, but now He says that this authority has been given to Him by God. It has been given to Him as the crucified—that is, in His accomplished humanity. It is another way of speaking of His divinized humanity. He, Jesus, who lived among us and was crucified and is now raised, has been given the authority of God, “far above all rule and authority and power and lordship and every name hat is named not only in this age but also in that which is to come” (Ephesians 1:21), so that “in the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven and on the earth and under the earth, and every tongue should openly confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11). This authority was given to Him for the sake of the church and the mission of the church (see Ephesians 1:22-23). That is, He has this authority in the church, that is, as He dwells in the midst of the church (Matthew 18:19-20) and executes their Spirit-led prayers. “I will build My church and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). “Whatever you bind on the earth shall have been bound in the heavens, and whatever you loose on the earth shall have been loosed in the heavens”; indeed, “if two of you are in harmony [symphōneō] on earth concerning any matter for which they ask, it will be done for them” (Matthew 16:19; 18:18-19). Needless to say, these open “promises” are given with the Lord’s work, the church and its mission in view, not our selfish greed (see James 4:2b-10; “double-minded” is literally “two-souled”).

“Go therefore”: “Go” refers to the work of the apostolate (from apostellō, to send). We should not wait until people come; rather, we are to go out to the people. This is how the church grows in every place; from our going out to people with the Gospel. Yet we do this on the basis of the authority of Jesus. This is the relevance of the word “therefore.” Not only do we go because we are under His authority and thus obey Him. The effectiveness of our work depends on His authority over everything in heaven and on earth. The effectiveness of our work does not depend on us and our methods and techniques but on Him: His working through the word that we speak and in the hearts of those who hear His word. No one can believe apart from His working in them: this is the significance of the Holy Spirit being poured out upon all flesh (Acts 2:17).

“Disciple all the nations,” that is, the Gentiles: before this Jesus often hinted at the mission to the Gentiles. It was, after all, foretold strongly in Isaiah. However, the Gospel going out specifically to the Gentiles was not yet explicit, for the Gospel as story/tidings/news had not been accomplished until now. And still, it would take years for the church to understand that the Gospel was to go out to the Gentiles. When Matthew composed his gospel, that work in force was just beginning. He probably wrote the gospel with that mission in mind; it justified the mission to the Jewish believers who were his milieu. His composition was probably finished by the time Paul came back to Antioch in 52 CE after his second missionary journey, and Paul probably took a copy of it with him when he set out again on his third journey. Luke also obtained a copy. Needless to say, “all the nations” means that the church does not discriminate between one people and another. Apart from Israel, they (we) are all the same.

The word disciple means one under discipline, like a student or an apprentice. It refers to those who follow Jesus, who have given Him their allegiance and come under His lordship. Discipleship has no Christian meaning apart from this adherence to Jesus.

“Baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”: The words “baptizing” and “teaching” are participles attached to the imperative aorist verb “disciple,” or “make disciples of.” Baptism is the beginning of discipleship; teaching is the course. On the one hand baptism sets us apart from the world; and therefore by being baptized we renounce the world. As far as we are concerned, the world is buried under the waters of God’s judgment, as is our sinful self, which we renounce by this act, and we also bury as dead—crucified with Christ—the self with which we identify, the artificial construct that is our insular soul (that deluded itself into thinking it was something on its own, independent of spirit, of the reality of God and creation). As we rise from the waters of baptism, we identify with the risen Christ. The request for baptism and the bestowal of it by the church presumes an acceptance of Him as one’s Savior and Redeemer—we have been bought and are no longer our own—and is therefore itself as an act of obedience as an act of fealty to Jesus as one’s Lord. In other words, baptism presupposes faith upon Christ, faith in Him, and faith into Him (all these being different ways that the apostles speak of pistis, a word that means both faith and faithfulness, both trust and commitment).

Jesus does not give us a baptismal formula here but rather asserts the fact which baptism accomplishes. The “name” is singular. We are baptized into union with the name, that is, into the nexus of Father, Son and Spirit, that is, into the dynamic of Their relationship. By the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (made possible by the atonement accomplished by Christ), we are “in Christ,” that is, the resurrected crucified One, and thus we are in the Son. In the Son we participate without restraint in His relationship of love and faithfulness to the Father through the Holy Spirit, and the Father shares with us all the love He bestows on the Son (“access into this grace”), through the Holy Spirit.

“Teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” With these words, Jesus refers back to His ministry among them, and Matthew, by reporting them, refers to all the teachings—collected in five sections—that he has organized in his gospel. The gospel itself is to be a manual for discipling the saints. The teachings that are given in the gospel are not to be evaded as belonging to a past or future “dispensation.” They are given to the church for the discipling of those who have been baptized.

“And behold, I am with you all the days.” In simple words this describes the existence of the church at the present time. Jesus is with us in all His fullness—His entire divinity and His complete humanity; in His humanity He is with us in His body, soul and spirit, in all His history, in all that He has accomplished and with all that He has obtained and with all that He has been bestowed. Through the Holy Spirit (I speak now as John does), He is with us in His resurrected and glorified—incarnated and crucified—humanity, that is, in His (I speak now as the later church does) divinized humanity. The church is what it is by its union with Him. The church is His body and as such is the dwelling place of God through the Spirit. The church is our participation in Him through the Scriptures spiritually received, through prayer and the spiritual life, through its witness in the world, through its manifestation of the Kingdom of the Heavens in the midst of the world through the fellowship and community of the local church, the life and life-style of its members, their involvement in the secular communities in which they live, and their deeds of kindness, mercy and love. The Lord’s own presence with us and in our midst (Matthew 18:20 implies that this promise is given to us corporately, not as isolated individuals) is the presence of God with and in the midst of world, and therefore fulfills the name given to Him in chapter 1, “Emmanu-El.”

“Until the consummation of the age.” The word for “end” is synteleia, consummation, and is used in Matthew 13:39-40, 49; 24:3 to refer alternately to the harvest of the crop, the drawing in of the catch of fish, and of the (second) coming (parousia) of the Lord at the end of the age. The word means conclusion or fulfillment: the crop is ripe for the harvest, the net is full, the Lord is ready to manifest Himself in glory at His universal revelation. Jesus describes this conclusion taking place in judgment and separation. The tares are separated from the wheat and the wheat is separated from the chaff and the tares and the chaff are burned in fire and the wheat is gathered into the barn. “Then the righteous will shine forth like the sun in the Kingdom of their Father.” At that point a new reality takes over: one age will be followed by another. During the age that follows this one, all things will be headed up in Christ and, little by little or much by much, all rule and all authority and power will be abolished until God has put all His enemies under Christ’s feet. At the end of that age, death itself will be abolished (Ephesians 1:10; 1 Corinthians 15:24-26). Already, however, the saints who have overcome, who have inherited the Kingdom through much tribulation, will be resurrected and will reign with Christ (probably on earth—whatever that means at that point) in the splendor of the heavenly. (“Reigning” here means that they will be instrumental with Christ in the work that God accomplishes in this coming age.) Those saints who have stunted their own growth, who are spiritually retarded, who have not been faithful with what Christ has given them, they will be resurrected but will not take part in the same splendor. That will be withheld from them until they mature and develop in the revelation of Jesus Christ as they should have.

The promise with which the Gospel according to Matthew ends is the promise of the presence of the Lord Jesus to be with us and among us, with all the authority and power of God, enabling us to simply be His church—it is the promise of grace to every believer—until He comes again to take us to Himself in the splendor of the resurrection.

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