First Thoughts on Year A Gospel Passages from the Lectionary


William Loader

Trinity: 7 June Matthew 28:16-20

This is such an important text in the context of Matthew's gospel that there is a danger that its use on Trinity Sunday will lead to too much focus on its tenuous links with the Trinity, so I want to start with the passage itself. It has enormous significance as the climax of the gospel, drawing together major themes of the gospel.

Notice to begin with that the women have already encountered Jesus and worshipped (28:8-9) - and not doubted! The eleven worship, but some doubt (28:17). Is Matthew a feminist? The question is anachronistic, but the answer does seem to be that Matthew intends to highlight the fact that those who are discounted (and that certainly includes women) are frequently more in touch with God's doings than those who, in traditional terms, ought to know. Already the genealogy showed that and Matthew's passion narrative, unlike Mark's, does have the women faithful throughout in contrast to the male disciples.

The major focus is Jesus' words. 'All authority has been given to me'. Almost certainly this is a reference to the significance of his resurrection rather than to something which happened before his coming in his pre-existent state (which Matthew appears not to espouse) or the equipping for his ministry. The matter is slightly complicated by the use of the Q saying in 11:27, where Jesus declares that the Father had given all into his hands. There it must mean authorisation for his ministry. Here in 28:18 the 'all authority in heaven and on earth' refers not to authorisation for his earthly ministry but to authorisation in relation to all nations. 'All authority' and 'all nations' belong together. It is universal in scope and includes both heaven and earth. It is Matthew's version of what we find elsewhere as Jesus' exaltation to God's right hand at his resurrection, his enthronement, his being crowned Lord and given the all holy name of God.

The name which is above every name in Philippians 2:6-11 is Yahweh's name. To bear Yahweh's name is to become a second Yahweh, to be God's vice regent. There were rich and various traditions which expressed this kind of relation. Commonly they derive from coronation rituals, where the king or emperor assumed the status of a god, bore a god's name or, as in Israel, was adopted as God's son. Hence we find the coronation oracle of Israel's king, preserved in Psalm 2:7, applied by earliest Christians to Jesus at his resurrection; 'You are my Son; today I have begotten you,' a formula of adoption (Acts 13:33; Heb 1:4-6; see also Ps 89:27). Similarly the call to sit at God's right hand, found in Ps 110:1, became a standard description of the meaning of Easter and is echoed in the creed. The language of 28:18 appears also to echo Daniel 7:13 where the Ancient of Days gives the kingdom to 'one like a son of man'. That passage and the title Son of Man is a favourite in Matthew. Links between Jesus as Son of Man and his exaltation and glorification become a feature in John's gospel.

Alongside the court imagery, but often connected with it in Judaism, was the notion that the heavenly vice regent was God's wisdom or logos, so that Christians versed in such speculation would come to claim that Jesus has assumed that role, indeed, has become that one. From there it was not a major step to claim that he had always been so. These connections were made easy because some circles in Judaism portrayed wisdom or logos as God's child, first as a woman (close to being God's spouse), or a daughter, later as a son, and frequently linked with regal imagery (see Proverbs 8; Sirach 24; Wisdom 7; Hebrews 1:2-6). The same figure was thought to have been with God from eternity. How can God ever have been without wisdom! The merging of personification and myth in this stream of thought was a rich source for speculation about Jesus. Exalted to become God's deputy, he was, to those familiar with the wisdom-logos speculation, also in one sense returning to where he had always been: one with God from the beginning. In the New Testament this reaches its finest expression in the gospel of John and in Hebrews (see also Col 1:15-20). The doctrine of the Trinity attempts to trace these tangled threads without losing any one of them. The problem it addresses or, perhaps, better, holds in solution, was, in a sense, already present in Judaism as the image of wisdom came to be treated as a angel-like being in itself.

Matthew does not go so far. Like Q before it, Matthew certainly linked Jesus with God's wisdom, so that he has Jesus speak as God's wisdom (11:16-19), but we do not find the further developments which speak of a pre-existent Son. The Son is created by the miraculous conception in Matthew.

28:18 is, therefore, Matthew's version of the affirmation of Jesus' enthronement at God's right hand. What does it mean to say, 'Jesus is Lord'? What new order is thus constituted? Clearly the notion of authorisation is central. God authorised Jesus; therefore Jesus spoke with God's authority. The notion of Jesus as God's representative develops in some Christian circles into a full blown understanding of Jesus as God's apostle or envoy, as in John (earlier: Paul in Gal 4:4; Rom 8:3). Like the agent in Judaism, the 'shaliach', Jesus speaks and acts for God. In Matthew this is true without the wider speculation. Jesus is authorised and here Jesus authorises. Authorised for what and authorising for what? This is the crucial question.

The temptation narrative ended with the offer of one kind of authority which Jesus rejected (4:8-10). What the devil offered there we now hear has been given, but it is different in kind. Its real substance is defined both by what follows and by the totality of what precedes. In other words, in Matthew's account of Jesus' ministry we see what he was authorised to do and in the commission we see what he now authorises others to do: 'teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.' The two correspond, just as earlier Matthew could use the same summary to describe the preaching of John the Baptist (3:2), Jesus (4:17) and the disciples (10:7). It meshes together: the disciples are sent to teach what Jesus had taught them - all of it! That is their authorisation, their commission.

Teaching is so important in Matthew. It is not that he means teaching beliefs, but teaching about God's will, how to live in accordance with God's will, how to develop the righteousness which characterises the kingdom of heaven. And what is the teaching? Read the story! Hear the message of compassion, the challenge of judgement and accountability and observe the lowly servant. To that the disciples are authorised and authorised to authorise others. That is the church's agenda.

Were we not so familiar with it, mention of baptism might have struck us as unexpected. For Matthew's hearers it would recall Jesus' baptism and the Spirit which receives little mention but is the driving force of Jesus' ministry and the power by which he takes on the demonic world (12:28). 'The name of' is authority language again. While the so called trinitarian formula, 'in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,' sounds like a lift from our liturgy and may be from Matthew's, each part makes perfect sense in the Matthean frame of reference. The Father is the ultimate source of authority. The Son receives and passes on that authority. The Spirit enables it all to happen and is received in baptism.

The final promise of Jesus' abiding presence reminds many of Matthew's use of Isa 7:14 in the birth narratives, in which he identifies Jesus as the child to be called Emmanuel, 'God with us.' The match is not precise, because that refers to God's action through Jesus' work, whereas here we read of Jesus' own presence with his disciples. The link makes better sense when we recognise that what Matthew is saying of Jesus here was said of God's Shekinah, God's presence or glory, like wisdom, which was sometimes thought of as having an existence of its own and yet, like the persons in the Trinity, was also part of God. Matthew had echoed the image already in 18:20, where Jesus promises his presence among the two or three gathered in his name to interpret God's will. The Jewish Mishnah makes the same promise about Shekinah for those studying Torah. Judaism's incipient trinitarianism contributes to Matthew's store of images for connecting Jesus to God and for connecting us to Jesus and so to God.

This good news is worth sharing with all people (hardly all nations except Israel, as some have suggested). It is worth sharing not because we are obsessed with having everybody do things our way or because God has such an obsession, although at times one might think so in the light of some statements and practices of mission. Rather the compassionate and loving God is God and sets no limits to that love and will not collude with falsity and sin. The range is as broad as the passion is deep.

Epistle: Trinity: 7 June  2 Corinthians 13:11-13