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What does Matthew 28:16-20 mean?

Helping each other become like Jesus


One problem with Matthew 28:16-20

While there are many apparent problems with Matthew 28:16-20, one worth noting is the difference in the way teaching the gospel occurs. In Matthew it appears to be “extreme didactic… legalistic… an embarrassment” (Bosch). In other words it appears dry and intellectual when compared to how Luke, John and Acts describe preaching. Theirs is one of calling people to repentance for the forgiveness of their sins by the power of the Holy Spirit (John 20:21-23, Luke 24:47 and Acts 1:8). In Luke, John and Acts there appears to be more excitement and passion involved. In response to this apparent difference, Bosch claims that in Matthews mind the term, “teaching” referred to much more than just appealing only to the intellect but was an appeal to the will and submission to the will of God, not just obeying the law. What Bosch means in this is that there is actually no difference between Matthews’s method for how to accomplish the Great Commission and the method that we find in Luke, John and Acts.


Author of Matthew 

There are two main views on the authorship of the gospel of Matthew. The first is that Matthew the tax collector, turned disciple, and Apostle of Jesus wrote the book. The second is that we are not sure who wrote the book. MacArthur claims that Matthew the Apostle was the author because his name is found on the earliest copies of Matthew and “because the early church Fathers unanimously attest him to be the book’s author.” While MacArthur is convinced of these things, Morris takes a different stab at the authorship of Matthew. He says that, “the authorship of this Gospel”  remains a dispute. Many orthodox critics dispute Matthew the Apostle as the author or any one of Matthew’s close friends. This dispute is based on how scholars claim to have found evidence in Matthew that the author used Mark and another source to put together this record. Morris recognizes that this is an important consideration. If Matthew was the author, why would Matthew cite sources from other people? Surely he would not have needed any other source because he was a witness of the events himself. On this point Morris mentions that it was common in the first century for authors to reference each other. In his opinion, “There is more to be said for the Apostle Matthew than recent scholarship commonly allows and more for Matthew than for any other candidate.”


Date of Matthew 

The date of the gospel of Matthew is largely unknown. Having said this, there are some interesting views. MacArthur claims that the date of Matthew was before the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70 since Matthew does not record it. France says that due to the relationship between the synoptic gospels we can only lay down a date, “very tentatively.” Most modern scholars say that it was written at some point in the last twenty years of the first century. In conclusion we could say that the date of Matthew is most likely anywhere between 60 and 100 A.D.


First readers of Matthew 

It is well documented that the original audience of this book were converts from Judaism: Jewish Christians (France). We can say this rather confidently because of the Jewish characteristics of the book. Matthew is, “Characterized by the thought patterns and spirit of the Hebrews” (Hendriksen and Kistemaker). These factors point clearly to the original audience being Jewish believers.


Reason for writing Matthew 

Since the audience of Matthew was a Jewish Christian community, it is important to discuss the occasion for this writing. Bosch argues that the occasion for this writing was to respond to conflict within the community. He points out that the community was, “in crisis.” Bosch explains that at the heart of this crisis was the issue of their “self-understanding”, which was manifesting itself in disagreements and apostasy. This identity crisis was present because of the conflict between Pharisees who at some point in the 70s and 80s A.D. took complete control over many synagogues. Along with this, came their opposition to the Jewish Christians, over issues such as their relationship to Judaism, usage of the law, view of Jesus and their view on the mission to Jews. It left the community, “groping for direction.” The main purpose of Matthew was therefore to strengthen Jewish Christians by showing their true identity as the Church on a mission of “disciple making.”


Literary structure of Matthew

The literary structure of Matthew is difficult to clearly define as there are many options. In his work Matthew: An Introduction And Commentary,  France identifies a few of the “obviously deliberate structural patterns” found within the text itself and then suggests his own approach, which can be summed up in this way: the birth and preparation of Jesus (1:1-4:16), the public ministry in and around Galilee (4:17-16:20), the private ministry in Galilee (16:21-18:35), ministry in Judea (19:1-25:46) and death and resurrection of Jesus (26:1-28:20). What is interesting from France’s view on the literary structure for this research paper is that France uses the words, “Jesus is alive and sovereign” to describe verses 28:16-20. In France’s mind, Matthew ends off his gospel with the news that Jesus is not only alive but is sovereign over all things and it is under this Jesus that his disciples were commanded to make disciples by baptizing and teaching.


The theme of teaching

Morris discusses the theme of teaching at length, making the following claims. He says that Matthew is very interested in the teachings of Jesus which is seen in his record of five considerable sections of teachings (chs. 5-7, 10, 13, 18, 23-25). These sections contain the famous Sermon on the Mount and a number of parables. Morris continues by claiming that Matthew was himself a good teacher and wrote, “In such a way as to be of help to them.” Writing in a day when it was very expensive to put concepts on page, Matthew writes in such a way to make memorization easy, namely the three denials of Peter and the seven parables. Morris also points out how Matthew was very good with his usage of words. For example when recording the story of the woman with the hemorrhage, Matthew uses 48 words, Mark uses 154 words and Luke uses 114.


Comparing three translations of  Matthew 28:16-20

In comparing the NIV, LB and ESV translations of Matthew 28:16-20 we see that all three contain the following: First, the eleven disciples going to a mountain in Galilee to meet with Jesus where He told them to go. Second, after arriving they see the risen Jesus, some worshiped and others doubted. Third, Jesus reveals to them that He has authority over all things and then commands them to go and make disciples of all nations. Fourth, the activity of water baptism is to be done in the, “name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Fifth, the command to teach all nations how to obey the commands of Jesus and finally sixth, the promise of the presence of Jesus. There are no major differences in this text between these three different translations.


What did  Matthew 28:16-20 mean for the original readers?

Since we know from above information that Matthew was written to Jewish Christians who were suffering not only the crisis of persecution but also one of identity, the question we need to ask is how these people would have understood this text. Based on commentaries, I suggest ten ways in which the Jewish Christians would have understood this text.  First, they understood Jesus as God which made him worthy of worship (MacArthur). Second, they understood God is Triune as Father, Son and Spirit (Morris). Third, they understood that they were sent by Jesus to go out, not stay (Price). Fourth, they understood that every kind of person, Jew and Gentile, should hear the gospel message (France). Fifth, they understood that the mission was to see people become like Christ (Hendriksen and Kistemaker). Sixth, they understood that the primary activities to accomplish this mission were full water baptism and the proclamation of the gospel (Bosch). Seventh, they understood that the central activity for discipleship was to “teach” (Hendriksen and Kistemaker). Eighth, they understood that “teaching” included more than just explaining doctrine, but it included the application of it to the lives of those who hear it (Bosch). Ninth, they understood that the content of what they taught was to be all of scripture (France). And lastly, all of these activities were to be done because Jesus had commanded it, under his authority and with his presence (MacArthur).


What does Matthew 28:16-20 mean for us?

Since Boice says that Matthew 28:16-20 is for “all Jesus’ disciples…not only for the apostles”, we can infer then that the way that the original audience understood it, is also for us today, even if we are not a splintering community like they were. This means that the significance of this passage for us is the same as it was for the original readers. Through Matthew 28:16-20 we are taught today that God is one and more than one, God the Father, God the son and God the Holy Spirit. We are shown that Jesus has all authority on heaven and on earth and that his presence is with his disciples today. This means that all his disciples alive on the earth today are to willingly obey his command to go to all kinds of people spreading the gospel with the intention of making disciples, not converts – those who are becoming like Christ. We do this by baptizing and teaching, but by focusing on teaching all people how to obey all scripture.