Matthew 28:16-20, Faith in the Triune God

[June 15, 2014] Today being Trinity Sunday, I want to focus on one clause in the so-called Great Commission. Matthew’s entire gospel was designed to come to a head at this particular point. From these words we can see what Matthew was up to all along: he was providing a basis and instruction for this command. Here the resurrected Jesus met those who remain of the Twelve (the “Eleven”) on a mountain in Galilee to which he had earlier directed them. In my view Matthew was the first of the gospels written. Based simply on what he tells us, when Jesus rose from the dead, just outside the walls of Jerusalem, he first met some women and instructed them to tell his “brothers” to meet him in Galilee. We are not told of any other appearances until the Eleven go to Galilee where in fact Jesus appeared to them. We know from the other gospels and from Paul that Jesus did make other appearances, but Matthew wants us to focus simply on this one and only appearance after Jesus’ meeting with the women.

All we are told of this appearance, other than that the disciples worshiped him—the word means to fall down prostrate and do obeisance—(though some doubted, Matthew tells us), is that Jesus came up to them and said, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and disciple all the gentiles, baptizing them into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you all the days until the consummation of the age.”

The commission itself is framed by two statements of fact: “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth,” and “Behold, I am with you all the days until the consummation of the age.” Both of these presumably are on the basis of his resurrection. Whatever else it was that he accomplished by his passion, he who was the coming presence of the kingdom of the heavens has now been given the kingship of the kingdom of the heavens. This means that as such he has jurisdiction of heaven and earth and the power to exercise his authority within that jurisdiction. In the writings of Paul and Luke this is reserved for his ascension into heaven when he sits at the “right hand” of God. It is also infinite in extent, that is, it corresponds to God’s own authority and power. So what we are talking about is that God’s power and authority is given to the humanity of the Son of God, because presumably the Son of God as God already was in possession of God’s power and authority.

Also, this resurrected Jesus—who has been granted the authority and power possessed by God—will be with the Eleven (and presumably with us) all the days until the consummation of the age, that is, until the age in which we live comes together at its end, its synteleia, the place where it is all headed. This speaks of his continuing presence among us. Where Luke and possibly Mark have the ascension of Jesus, Matthew and John allow Jesus to continue with us. Yet both these gospels do not mean that Jesus would be visibly present with us. John spells out for us that Jesus’ continuing presence among us is a presence within us by the Holy Spirit. All four gospels imply that Jesus’ presence is heavenly. Insofar as heaven is parallel to earth, as close as the invisible to the visible, Jesus is right there. Here too the implication is that Jesus—in his human nature—has become eternal and omnipresent, though what is stated is limited to the duration of this age and his presence with his disciples. The first statement (verse 18) implies though that whatever his particular presence is with his disciples, the reach of his power is everywhere in heaven and on earth. If in fact Jesus’ humanity has been granted qualities of divinity, then Jesus—obviously in his divine nature but also in his human nature—is as omnipresent as God. Then likewise his duration in time might not be merely temporal but—like God—eternal, transcending and including all time, not only the time from that point on but also all the time preceding it, in a kind of all-inclusive present in which past and future are also present. This means that in the past, he was already present as all that he would do and become.

(This is an interesting point to consider, because the extension of this is that the eschatological realization of our glorification and the glorification of the whole of creation is also in mystery already present. But this digresses from our discussion.)

Both of these statements (in verses 18 and 20) refer then to the divinization of Jesus’ humanity upon his resurrection—what the Gospel according to John calls “glorification.” Matthew, however, is still a long way off from the insights of John’s gospel. Matthew’s gospel is more foundational in a practical and communal sense. Matthew is more concerned than John is with the planting of actual churches—new churches not only in the familiar Jewish milieu but out in the gentile world. Matthew was witnessing Paul’s apostolic work and had that in mind when he composed. John wrote after the death of the Twelve, after the first horrific Roman persecution, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, after Jesus did not return when expected, and after (and during) the attempts of others within the Christian community to make sense of it all (the Docetists and proto-Gnostics). John’s gospel crystalized the essence of the Christian faith, and indeed was the first to give a clear teaching about the Trinity.

Matthew is not aware yet of the doctrine of the Trinity (no one yet, of course, had the terminology for it). Yet here he is the first (in 52 CE) to report Jesus putting in one simple string of conjunctions the singular Name of “the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

The commission itself has three parts, (1) “Go and disciple all the gentiles,” (2) “baptizing them into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” and (3) “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” The word “disciple” comes from the word mantha, which means to learn and come to understand. Jesus’ disciples were his pupils or students but more in the sense of an apprentice than a modern day student. A disciple learned the entire way of life of her master by obedience and imitation. Nevertheless, this learning corresponds to the teaching that Jesus also gives. The teaching is of course the entire Gospel according to Matthew, but Matthew also conveniently summarizes it in five teaching sections (chapters 5-7, 10, 13, 18-20, and 24-25). This teaching is not doctrinal but practical—we are to teach the learners to “observe” or “keep” what is commanded—though doctrine always underlies it.

So, the factual statements concerning the glorification of Jesus’ humanity in verses 18 and 20 frame the commission, and it also seems that the commands to “disciple all the gentiles” and to “teach them to observe all that I have commanded you” bracket the central commission: to “baptize them into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This central piece is the point of the arrow, the spout of the funnel, which everything else is serving. So it is not just textually central but central in importance. The word “baptize” is a participle as is “teaching”: we are to disciple the gentiles by baptizing and teaching them. And the disciples’ observing what Jesus has commanded follows from the Name into which they are baptized. So we need to grasp something here. The Name implies and therefore demands this observation. They are inextricably bound.

The Name itself is comprised of three characters, three characters in a story into which the new disciple becomes a part. A disciple cannot be a part of this story without a particular relationship to these three characters, characters who form one Name, the one Name into which disciples are baptized. What does it mean then to be baptized into someone’s Name?

At this point, let us backtrack one bit, to the word “gentiles.” The word ethnos means a people, not in the modern sense of a political state but more in a cultural sense, how people identify themselves. Our modern nation-state was not a concept back then. It is something we have created since in the last few centuries and it is quite artificial and often arbitrary. While “peoples” include the people of Israel, it usually refers to everyone else, the heathen or pagans, people who are not included in the Mosaic covenant, who do not worship the God of Israel.

For Matthew to record that Jesus said, “Go therefore and disciple all the gentiles” is really quite remarkable. It was also quite controversial as to what he meant. The Pharisees after all “go about the sea and the dry land to make one proselyte” (Matthew 23:15). A proselyte is a gentile who converted to Judaism, which means that if he were a male he would have received the mark of circumcision. At the time in which Matthew composed his gospel, the “zealous” among the Jews (the “Judaizers”) could countenance this, but other than in the case of full conversion, Jews were not to have any association with gentiles except under very controlled restrictions. For example, a Jews could not eat with gentiles or even set foot in their homes. Gentiles were unclean, and uncleanness was contagious. Sinners (Jews who did not keep the Halakah, the Law) were also unclean, as were the sick (no one more so than lepers) and the dead, and one never knew in public whether to trust a woman that she was not in her monthly “flow,” which was also considered unclean. Not all Jews were so strict or zealous. Jesus deliberately provoked controversy in this matter. He associated with all people regardless, conversing with them, touching them and even eating with them.

In the Jewish Diaspora, not only were there proselytes, who were gentiles who became Jews, there were also the “devout” or the “god-fearers”: gentiles who attended synagogue worship without becoming Jews. They sat separately from the Jews, but they could hear and learn the Jewish Scriptures and even say the prayers. They worshiped the God of Israel without keeping the Halakah. The first “Christians” were gleaned from this group. That is why Paul could write epistles to them that expected them to know the Scriptures of the Old Testament. (I mean, these epistles were written to Messianic congregations that included such gentiles.)

The word “Christian” distinguishes gentiles from Jews. It is a Latin and therefore a legal term, attempting to name these folk who were not Jews but were still followers of the Jewish Messiah. Most believers in Jesus, in the beginning, were Jews and there was no need to distinguish them from other Jews, at least not legally. Why was it necessary to distinguish these others then? Were they different from the “god-fearers” who attended the synagogues? Yes. Because unlike the “god-fearers,” the apostles and their co-workers insisted that these believers give up idolatry and the worship of other gods. Typically “god-fearers” kept up their familial and civic obligations to family and local deities while also worshiping the God of Israel. To society, that was fine: you could always accommodate additional gods. It was important, however, to honor the gods of city and family. To disrespect them could bring bad results if not disaster. “Christians” were gentiles who abandoned their obligations and therefore were easily the target of persecutions. If things went badly, then the gods were upset, and they were probably upset because they were not getting the honor that they demanded in exchange for whatever protection they offered. “Christians” were accused of atheism.

What Paul was doing, then, was quite controversial: he was making disciples of gentiles in the Diaspora, baptizing them and giving them full access to the fellowship of the churches without requiring that they become proselytes. The zealous among the Jews persecuted the Jewish believers because of this move. The gentile authorities and society did not like it either, because it meant these believers were refusing to maintain their civic obligations to the gods, and thus were endangering everyone else. They could persecute these Christians with enough provocation. Paul and his co-workers were creating a socially volatile situation both among Jews and Gentiles, and the history of the time shows this to be a fact: persecution against these types of communities arose in every major city of the empire during the forties and fifties, well before the Emperor himself declared Christianity illegal.

Yet Paul was following through with a Pharisaic interpretation of the Psalms and the Prophets, that when the Messiah would come, the gentiles would come to him and worship the God of Israel: gentiles as such, that is, without first converting to Judaism. In other words, they would still be pagans, except they would no longer worship anyone but the God of Israel, YHWH.

I believe that the Gospel according to Matthew was composed in this controversial atmosphere and, underlying its entire presentation, argues in favor of the Pauline apostolate (mission): a mission that includes all people.

“Go and disciple all the gentiles, baptizing them into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Whatever else this means, and it means a lot else, baptism means that you are washing yourself clean of every other name and giving your adherence completely to this one Name: the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Baptism represents a turning, a turning away and a turning to. The immersion in water is the judgment, drowning and burial of what you once were, and the emergence of someone new. The water itself signifies division. Not only are you turning to the one God of the Shema (“Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One”) but you are renouncing all your previous loyalties and allegiances and commitments and obligations and duties to other gods.

In the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) faith is not about a set of beliefs, it is about one’s loyalty and allegiance, one’s fidelity and faithfulness, indeed, one’s fealty to a lord. To have faith in Jesus is to own him as your Lord. Yet this is in no way to conflict with one’s absolute and exclusive adherence to God. To be faithful to Jesus is to be faithful to the One who sent him. He is the Son of the Father, the expression of the Father. In meeting him one encounters God. There is no other. The Person of the Son is no other than the “I am and there is no other” of God.

The creed of Israel is the Shema: Deuteronomy 6:4-9, which was to be recited repeatedly, daily. There is another creed too: Deuteronomy 26:5-10a, which the Israelites were to say when they entered the Land that was promised to them, as a way of dedicating themselves to God. The Shema is a statement of fact, that God is one, and the command to love God. The second is the story of Israel’s coming to the Land by God’s grace.

Baptism is a divide that separates the convert to Christianity from the “world” which is a “cosmos” (or system of things) that is under the influence and control of idolatry and false gods. Peter compares its waters to the Flood of Noah that wiped out the world. Christ is the ark which the believer rides to safety on the other side of the deluge. Baptism thus “saves” you, not from damnation exactly but from the world. This is obvious everywhere in the world, where everyone, Jew, Muslim and pagan, all recognize that the believer has definitely switched allegiance. It often marks the point of rejection by family and society, and in Muslim countries it can be punishable by death.

Thus to be baptized into a Name means that one is taking on a new allegiance. One is swearing fealty to a new lord. The question then is critical: into what Name were you baptized?

Many people are baptized into the Name of Christ or the Name of Jesus, and that is fine: we see it in the New Testament. But it may not be enough to declare one’s true allegiance. It is enough substantively, but not necessarily as a confession. This became particularly true when simply being baptized into the Name of Jesus no longer made it clear into whose Name you were baptized. Which Jesus? Matthew alone has “into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” and Matthew’s account in my opinion precedes the statements in Paul and Acts that refer only to the Name of Jesus or Christ. Perhaps Matthew did not mean it as a formula, then. Once false teachings confused the issue, however, the Triune Name became necessary to declare on whose side one really was on.

In the Apostolic Tradition attributed to Hippolytus (215 C.E., but probably compiled in the late fourth century), at the moment of baptism the candidate was asked three questions, who if she or he answered affirmatively, was dunked in water after each affirmation. These three questions were:

  1. Do thou believe in God, the Father Almighty?
  2. Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was born of the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was crucified under Pontius Pilate and was dead and buried and rose again the third day, alive from the dead, and ascended into heaven and sat at the right hand of the Father and will come to judge the living and the dead?
  3. Do you believe in the Holy Spirit and the holy Church and the resurrection of the flesh?

Presumably this sound familiar to us. Different churches formulated these questions differently but eventually an ecumenical creed was agreed on, the one from the Council of Constantinople in 381, though the Western Church later added the controversial filioque. We know this creed as the Nicene Creed (from the earlier version agreed upon at the Council of Nicaea in 325).

We find summaries of the Gospel and of the correct interpretation of Scripture in the New Testament itself (for example, 1 Corinthians 15:3-8; Romans 1:2-4; 8:34; 1 Peter 3:18-22), and the existence of such summaries in numerous places (for example, 2 Thessalonians 2:15; Romans 4:24; 6:17; 8:11; 1 Corinthians 8:6; 11:23; 1 Timothy 1:19; 2:5-6; 3:16; 4:6; 6:13-16, 20; 2 Timothy 1:1, 13-14; 4:1, 3; Titus 1:9, 19; Hebrews 3:1; 4:14; 6:2; 10:23; Jude 3, 20). The Gospel itself is a story, along with the telling of its significance, and we find it frequently summarized in the samples of preaching we hear in the Acts of the Apostles. These summaries—where Judaism was assumed—were almost always Christological.

In the second and third centuries we often find these summaries in the mouths of the bishops, the successors of the apostles of the first century (and thus apostles themselves), while engaged in controversy. They spoke these summaries as if they were “given,” as an argument in themselves rather than as a point to be proven. Ignatius in what is now France, Tertullian in North Africa, Origin in Egypt all refer to the Rule of Faith or the Canon of Truth. These summaries—now in settings where Judaism could not be assumed—always took on a Trinitarian form. They varied from place to place but said pretty much the same thing. They were confessional summaries that could be easily memorized and given back by recitation, and could be appealed to when the Gospel was contested. I will not bore you with example upon example.

Apparently, apart from their other uses, these tiny collections of sayings were used to instruct new believers in the faith and prepare them for baptism. When it came time for baptism they were questioned as to whether they adhered to this faith. Baptism marked their crossing over. After baptism they were now exposed to the censure and condemnation and persecution of others, and therefore were now considered a member of the congregation and could meaningfully partake of the Lord’s Table.

A person could still be a pagan, keeping all the traditions of her or his people, as long as they did not worship or give their allegiance to any other god. Once a pagan was baptized, however, they gave their allegiance to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit as one.

The singular Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit tells us that as Three they structure the Christian faith. Anyone who does not think in this Trinitarian mode is not thinking like a Christian. This new mode of thinking and seeing reality derives not only from study but primarily from one’s loyalty and commitment and fidelity. One commits herself to the Name before one even understands it. One does not really know Jesus (and therefore one cannot be committed to him) if one does recognize the Father. Jesus is not who Jesus is apart from the Father. We also do not know who the Father is without the Son. It is sonship that defines fatherhood. “God” is still generic without a “Name.” These two—Father and Son—are thus inseparable. Apparently this is easier to understand than the place of the Holy Spirit. But the Holy Spirit is the only way we can really know the Father and the Son. Unless one also and likewise adheres to the Holy Spirit, there is no point in confessing the Father or the Son.

When we baptize into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, then, we are not baptizing people with a mere formula or asking if they hold to certain intellectual propositions. We are asking if they are existentially bound to the Triune God as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

This “formula” then becomes the confession of our faith, that belief or allegiance that makes us Christians. We do not leave it behind once we are baptized but it continues to define who we are and shapes how we are supposed to think. It is what we affirm, confess to others, and how we praise God.

The Rule of Faith also tells us what to look for in Scripture and what matters in our interpretation of Scriptures. This summary tells us what is important. Yes, there are many things in Scriptures that are less important than other things, and when we are pre-post-erous, and interpret the weightier things by the things that matter less, we are bound to misinterpret the more important things. The creed gives us this guidance. Fundamentalists have a tendency to treat all things “equally” and therefore to give greater weight to what matters to them personally. Too much testosterone or obsessive-compulsiveness and self-interest turns us into fanatics who can easily hurt others. The Rule of Faith takes us out of that situation as we submit our intellects to something outside of our own subjective perspective. It reminds us of the perspective of Scripture.

When we interpret Scriptures, we do not only pay attention to the words themselves and their immediate context but also the book in which we find those words. Even this, however, is not enough. We need to interpret those words within a canonical context, that is, within the context of the whole of Scriptures. What, however, is the canon of the canon? It is the Rule of Faith. The truth concerning the Triune God, and the truth concerning Jesus Christ as defined by the Rule of Faith is the canon or ruler that measures the body of the Scriptures and gives us, not necessarily the correct interpretation but at least, an interpretation that is not contradictory to what is revealed to us in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit.

The church confesses its creed and should do so with conviction. It is into this Name that we were baptized and into which we baptize those who come to us.

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