May 18: Matthew 28:18-20

Today’s note on the on the Holy Spirit, examines briefly the so-called “Great Commission” of Jesus in Matthew 28:18-20. This passage is altogether unique among the references to the Spirit in the Gospel Tradition, and is especially noteworthy as the only clear and specific Trinitarian passage in the Gospels (for other seminal trinitarian formulae in the New Testament, cf. 1 Cor 12:4-6; 2 Cor 13:14; 1 Pet 1:2).

Matthew 28:18-20

These verses which close the Gospel of Matthew represent Jesus’ (final) instruction to his followers. It is unnecessary to attempt to harmonize this post-resurrection appearance (in Galilee) with the very different tradition in Luke-Acts and the Gospel of John, in which Jesus appears to his followers (giving final instructions to them) in Jerusalem. Many critical scholars would hold that the Gospel writer has simply created a narrative setting in Galilee, based on the tradition in Mk 16:7 (par Matt 28:7, 10; note the different reference to Galilee in Lk 24:6), for the words of Jesus in vv. 18-20 which would have been transmitted independently. Some commentators also consider the authenticity of Jesus’ words themselves to be suspect, especially the declaration in verse 19 which seems so much to reflect a Christian baptism formula. It is worth considering whether, on objective grounds, there is any validity to such a suspicion: has a later baptismal formula been retrojected into the Gospel? Before proceeding with an exegesis of verse 19, it will be helpful to summarize the context:

  • Verse 16:
    • “the eleven learners [i.e. disciples]”—the episode involves only the twelve specially chosen ones (Matt 10:1-4 par), minus Judas Iscariot
    • “travelled/departed into the Galîl {Galilee}”—they left Jerusalem and journeyed north (back) into Galilee, according to Matt 28:7, 10 par; it does not say precisely when this took place, but based on the narrative context, it surely would not have been long after they were informed by the women (v. 10). This, of course, would seem to be contrary to the tradition(s) in Luke 24:36-53 / Jn 20:19-23
    • “unto the hill/mountain which Yeshua arranged for them”—apparently referring to some specific instruction or preparation made by Jesus, which has not been recorded; in the narrative context, it may have been part of the information provided by the women (v. 10). According to the wider Synoptic tradition, the Twelve were originally chosen and commissioned upon a mount(ain), cf. Mark 3:13ff, though this detail is not in the parallel Matt 10:1ff; perhaps the mount(ain) in Matt 5:1ff is intended.
  • Verse 17:
    • “and seeing him”—possibly indicating a sudden or unexpected appearance by the resurrected Jesus (cf. Lk 24:36; Jn 20:19)
    • “they kissed toward (him)”—this verb (proskune/w) serves as a Greek idiom for giving homage, worship, etc. The appearance of the resurrected Jesus is not described, but his very presence would be enough to cause his followers to be in awe and to pay homage. The context here does not necessarily indicate a specific belief in Jesus’ deity on the part of his followers (but cf. Matt 14:33; 16:16; 27:54, etc).
    • “but the(y also) were of two (mind)s”—i.e. they had doubts or uncertainty that it was really Jesus; this could mean either (a) they harbored some doubt, or (b) some of them doubted. For a general parallel, cf. Luke 24:41, and note Jn 20:25ff.
  • Verse 18:
    • “And coming toward (them), Yeshua spoke to them”—introducing the words/saying of Jesus

The actual saying (Commission) by Jesus can be divided into three parts:

    • Verse 18—Declaration: “All authority [e)cousi/a] in heaven and upon earth is given to me”
    • Verse 19-20a—Instruction/Commission, governed by three participles (indicating regular/continual action), one primary (aorist), and the other two subordinate (present):
      • poreuqe/nte$ (“going, travelling”) make all the nations (my) learners [i.e. followers/disciples]
        • bapti/zonte$ (“dunking”, i.e. baptizing) them…
        • dida/skonte$ (“teaching”) them…
    • Verse 20b—Declaration/Promise: “See, I am with you every day until the (full) completion of the Age”

The central instruction, regarding baptism, is the portion to be examined in detail here:

Verse 19b:

bapti/zonte$ (“dunking”)—the verb bapti/zw literally means “dunk, submerge”, but in a Christian context is typically transliterated into English as “baptize”. As a technical term for the Christian rite, it does not necessarily indicate a full dunking or immersion in water. That the historical Jesus would have instructed his followers to ‘baptize’ is not at all unlikely; one may cite the following evidence, from the Gospels and the cultural background of the time:

    • The precedent and example of John the Baptist, central to the early Gospel tradition, and reliable on objective grounds. According to Jn 1:35ff, at least two of Jesus’ disciples were John’s followers before turning to Jesus. A number of (critical) commentators have suggested that Jesus himself may have begun as a disciple of John; at any event, he was baptized by John, and the brief dialogue in Matt 3:14-15 suggests that Jesus intended this as an example to follow, i.e. the fulfillment of righteousness (cf. Matt 5:6, 20; 6:1, 33, etc).
    • According to Jn 3:22-23; 4:1-3, Jesus’ disciples were baptizing people already during the early days of his ministry. Commentators readily admit the unusual nature of these details; according to the so-called “criteria of authenticity”, their historical reliability would seem to be confirmed—it is not at all the sort of thing that early Christians would emphasize or invent.
    • The central significance of baptism in John’s ministry was repentance (i.e. washing/cleansing) from sin, in preparation for the coming of the Lord (for Judgment). Jesus continued this emphasis throughout his own ministry—Mk 1:15; Matt 4:17; cf. also Matt 11:20-21; 12:41 par; Lk 5:32; 13:3ff; 15:7ff, etc. His disciples likewise followed the pattern in their own preaching (Mk 3:7-13 par, cf. Matt 10:7; Lk 10:9-11). Repentance was, from the beginning, a key element in accepting and following Jesus: Mk 1:17-18 (note the proximity to v. 15); 5:14-17 par; 10:21ff par; Matt 21:28-32 par; Lk 5:8ff; 19:7-10; Jn 8:11, etc. The early Christian preaching clearly followed the pattern of John and Jesus (Lk 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:19, etc).
    • The Community of the Qumran texts practiced ritual washing (ablution) in manner similar, and roughly parallel, to Johannine and early Christian baptism. It signified cleansing from sin/impurity, entry into the Community and participation in its (daily) life—cf. 1QS 3:4-5; 5:13-14. The practice of ritual baths would seem to be confirmed by the archeology of the site of Khirbet Qumran, i.e. the presence of cisterns and pools (miqw¹°ôt).
    • Ritual washing/bathing is widely attested in numerous ancient cultures and religions, prior to, or contemporary with, the time of Jesus. Going “into the water”, with the symbolism of washing and the start of a ‘new life’, played a role, for example, in the Greco-Roman “mystery cults” (cf. for example the Eleusinian rituals).

ei)$ to\ o&noma tou=… (“into the name of…”)—this important phrase will be discussed in the next daily note.

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