Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Matthew 28.16-20
Holy Trinity - Year A

Other texts:


I will offer some exegetical notes on the text, then some comments and quotes about the Trinity.

THE CONTEXT -- WHY DO WE WITNESS & WHAT IS OUR WITNESS

When our text is viewed within the context of ch. 28, significant word connections and contrasts can be discovered. I will try to make the connections with English translations rather than including a bunch of Greek words, which you can look up of you so desire.

At the empty tomb, the two Marys are told to "go and say" to the disciples (v. 7). They run to "report" to the disciples (v. 8). On their way, they are encountered by the risen Jesus, whom they "worship" (v. 9). He repeats the angel's command (although with different words), "depart and report". They must have carried out the command because the disciples are on the mountain in Galilee in our text.

While the women are "going," the guard who had also been at the tomb (and seen and heard the same things?), "report" to the chief priests everything that had happened. He and other soldiers are bribed to "say" .... After taking the money, they do as they had been "taught". This logos was that the disciples had come at night and stolen the body was spread widely among the Jews.

Two widely different stories emerged from the empty tomb event. One motivated by obedience to the command of the angel and Jesus. The other motivated by money, self-protection, and in obedience to the priests' plan. One reports the promises of God. The other the reports human schemes and lies.

I think that these stories should be read in conjunction with our text. Too often I've found that congregations emphasize the need to go and make disciples because they need more money and self-preservation. If they don't get more money, they might die. In contrast, the women "go" because of the command of the angel and Jesus. The eleven "go" to the mountain because of the women's message. We all are to "go" because Jesus told us to -- not because of what we or our church might get from it.

These contextual stories also indicate the need for clarity about the "what" of our witness. Are we conveying the promises of God or wonderful human plans?

DISSECTING THE TEXT

The mention of the eleven disciples is a reminder of the imperfection of the disciples. Judas, who betrayed Jesus, hanged himself (27:5).

MOUNTAIN (oros), while many commentators talk about the importance of "mountain" for Jesus in Matthew -- a place of temptation (4:8); a place of teaching (5:1; 8:1; 24:3); a place of prayer (14:23); a place of healings (15:29); the place of transfiguration (17:1, 9) -- I wonder if they have overlooked a couple references of "mountain" perhaps being the church.

You are the light of the world. A city is not able to be hid which is lying on a mountain. (5:14)

What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? (18:12 -- in Luke 15:4 the 99 are left in the "wilderness")

Could "mountain" not only refer to a place, but a symbol for the church community -- the 99 who are gathered together? the community whose "glowing" witness cannot be hid from the world? the people who obey Jesus' command (conveyed by the women) to meet Jesus in Galilee?

It is on the mountain (in the community?) they see the risen Jesus. There they worship the risen Jesus and they doubt.

Who doubts? Most English translations render v. 17: "When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted" (NRSV).

However, the word "some" doesn't occur in the text. The little Greek word de is often translated "but," but it can also mean "and". With this understanding, the verse could be translated: "And seeing him they worshiped and they doubted."

Those who worship are also those who doubt -- like being simultaneously saint and sinner, or the divine and human natures in Jesus, or the body/bread, blood/wine of communion. We frequently talk about two things existing at the same time.

Mark Allan Powell writes about this verse in his book, Loving Jesus.

... I want to note that the word some is not actually found in the Greek Bible. Why is it in the English version? Well, Matthew uses a particular construction here that allows translators to think that the word some could be implied. He also uses that construction in seventeen other instances, though no one ever seems to think the word is implied in those cases. It could be implied here, but why would it be? I asked a Bible translator that question one time and got the following response: "The verse wouldn't make sense otherwise. No one can worship and doubt at the same time." I invited this fellow to visit a Lutheran church. We do it all the time. [p. 121]

However, this verse is understood, it illustrates that the separation of the wheat and weeds has not yet occurred (13:39, 40). Both worshipers and doubters are present in the community and/or in individuals.

It is also to be noted that whether worshipers and doubters are two groups of people, or a description of the whole group, Jesus gives the Great Commission to them all -- to the worshipers and doubters.

The word translated "doubt" (distazo) is a verbal form of dis = twice, double. It is not "disbelieving" (apisteuo) so much as wavering between two (or more) strong possibilities. We might say, "to have second thoughts." Its only other occurrence in the NT is Mt 14:31, where Jesus after saving sinking Peter, criticizes him, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" Peter, seeing Jesus and himself walk on water, knows that it is possible to do that; but Peter also knows the strong possibility that people sink in water. He wavers. He walks on water and he sinks into the water. After they get into the boat, the wind ceases, and then 14:33 states: "And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, 'Truly you are the Son of God.'" (The Greek for "worship" in 14:33 is the same word in 28:17.)

The two times that the disciples doubt Jesus, they also worship him!

Powell [Loving Jesus] writes more about this:

I think that worship is the essence of spirituality. But worship ... can sometimes be superficial. In Matthew 15, Jesus tells the Pharisees that they worship God with their lips while their hearts are far from God. The Pharisees, of course, are often the fall guys in this Gospel and they seem to stay in trouble the whole time. Still, say what you will about the Pharisees -- the one thing they never do is doubt. They are always certain about everything. They are the "God said it, I believe it, that settles it" people of the Bible. It never occurs to them that they might have overlooked something or misunderstood something. As a result, they are often wrong, but they are never in doubt.

By contrast, disciples of Jesus worship and doubt at the same time -- and Jesus doesn't call their worship superficial. It might be going too far to say that doubt is a good thing, but I do note that Jesus never rebukes anyone for it. I am tempted to believe that, just as fear seasons joy, so doubt seasons worship. Joy without fear becomes shallow, and worship without doubt can be self-assured and superficial. Fear and doubt are not good things in themselves, but they do keep us grounded in reality. [p. 123]

M. Eugene Boring (Matthew, NIB) says this about the verse: "Whatever the nature of the resurrection event, it did not generate perfect faith even in those who experienced it firsthand. It is not to angels or perfect believers, but to the worshiping/wavering community of disciples to whom the world mission is entrusted." [pp. 502-503]

We are commissioned even if we don't fully comprehend the doctrine of the Trinity or if we are unable to understand the Athanasian Creed or even if we waver in our own faith.

Jesus has been given all authority (exousia). The same word is used in 8:9, when the centurion says: "For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, 'Go' and he goes, . . ."

Jesus, with all authority, tells us to Go. Do we honor that authority over us and go? The two women earlier in the chapter do.

Our task is "to make disciples" (matheteuo also occurring in Mt 13:53; 27:57; Ac 14:21). The noun "disciple" carries the sense of "being a pupil or learner". Do we see the Church's outreach as inviting people to be life-long learners of God? or just members of the congregation?

Jesus' earlier commissioning of the Twelve did not include the Gentiles or Samaritans, but only "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (10:5-6). That restriction is lifted.

Two present tense active participles explain the process of the main verb "make disciples." That is, the means for making disciples are "baptizing" and "teaching".

Baptism and teaching need to go together. Churches that baptize infants receive promises that the baptized will be taught. Perhaps we would do well to consider Baptism as the initiation into the teaching ministry of the church, rather than just into church membership.

In previous notes I've expressed my thinking about tereo ("keep/obey") as meaning "to make into a keepsake," "to hold dear," "to consider important" rather than "to (blindly) obey".

This also implies that our "teaching" is more than just imparting knowledge, but also values. We not only need to know what Jesus did and said, but to hold them dear so that we desire to do what he said and emulate what he did. Values are "caught" more than they are "taught". An unbelieving college professor can teach about Christianity; but only a believer can share the spirit of being Christian.

Similarly, I think that it is only disciples who are able to produce other disciples. To use a biblical image: the fruit of a plant contains the seed and nutrients to produce another plant. The "fruit" of a disciple should be something that is able to produce another disciple. Recent books I have been reading have stressed the need for congregational leaders to be disciples -- to practice marks of discipleship: daily prayer, weekly worship, Bible reading, service, spiritual friendships, and giving. Michael Foss lists these marks in Power Surge: Six Marks of Discipleship for a Changing Church. I would add one to these: being invitational. If we don't believe what we believe strong enough to invite others into it, then I wonder how strongly we really believe it. While certainly believe in Christ is part of that, but also belief in our congregations and in our congregational ministries and activities.

What did Jesus command (entellomai) them? Only once in Matthew does Jesus "give a command". After the transfiguration, Jesus commands them: "Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of man has been raised from the dead" (17:9). Now is the time to speak about Jesus' transfiguration. The related noun (entole) is used to refer to the law and the prophets (5:19) and in reference to the Ten Commandments and the Greatest Commandments which summarizes all the law and prophets (15:3; 19:17; 22:36, 38, 40).

Matthew's gospel ends as it began, with the promise of "Emmanuel" = "God with us"; (in contrasted to Luke's ascension and John's "going to the Father".)

We need the assurance of this presence before the "end of the age." That phrase is used three other times in Mt. At that time the angels will separate the weeds and the wheat (13:39, 40) and the evil from the righteous (13:49). Before that time, weeds and wheat grow up together. Evil and the righteous exist side by side. And we will worship and doubt.

THE DOCTRINE OF THE TRINITY -- SOME QUOTES

Frederick Houk Borsch, since 1988, has been Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. I don't remember where I first read this quote on the Trinity, but my notes indicate that when he wrote it, he was a religion Professor of Religion at Princeton University and Dean of the Princeton University Chapel.

 

There are probably a number of people who imagine that the idea of the Trinity was thought up by ivory-tower theologians who, typically, were making things more complicated than they needed to be and were obscuring the simple faith of regular believers. In fact, it seems that the process worked pretty much the other way around. Practicing believers and worshipers were driven by their experiences of God's activity to the awareness that God related in several different ways to the creation.... Thus what these believers came to insist upon was that God had to be recognized as being in different forms of relationship with the creation, in ways at least like different persons, and that all these ways were divine, that is, were of God. Yet there could not be three gods. God, to be the biblical God and the only God of all, had to be one God. This complex and profound faith was then handed over for the theologians to try and make more intelligible. They have been trying ever since.

THE TRINITY -- ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN FAITH

I don't think that the doctrine of the Trinity and orthodox Christian faith can be separated -- even if we can't comprehend it. There is quite a debate going on in Utah whether or not Mormons can be part of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. FCA maintains that the Mormons are not Christian. The Mormons say they are. (They are not Christians in my opinion. Among other things they do not believe the doctrine of the Trinity.)

Marva J. Dawn in Reaching Out without Dumbing Down has a chapter called "Outside the Idolatries of Contemporary Culture. She begins it with:

To be in the world but not of it requires the Church both to understand the surrounding culture and to resist its idolatries.... As Walter Brueggemann makes clear in Israel's Praise, the worship of God's people is praise, not only toward God, but also against the gods." [p. 41].

On Trinity Sunday when we uplift the one true God, we may need to also shatter all the false gods permeating our society. Some of culture's gods that Dawn names are (indented quotes are from the book [pp. 42-53], otherwise they are my comments):

The God of Efficiency

Our culture is characterized by an enormous push to do everything faster. (We must finish the worship service in an hour.)

Can we actually "waste" a whole day for Sabbath rest and worship? Set aside a whole day for God and each other? What gods are we worshiping when we are unable to "remember a whole Sabbath day to keep it holy"?

The Idolatry of Money

Our worship services ought not to be designed by what appeals to the masses in order to survive financially; rather, they must be planned in a genuinely worshipful way that invites persons into the essence of truthful Christianity.

There are certainly many other ways we idolize money and fall under the power of Greed.

The Idolatry of "The Way We've Always Done It Before"

On the opposite pole of trying too hard to appeal to the masses and consequently losing the substance of the faith is the idolatry of traditionalism, which causes us to do everything as it's always been done, to such an extent that worship remains boring and stale.

A friend suggests that Christianity should never be boring.

The God of Vicarious Subjectivism and The Idolatry of "Famous People"

At the 1987 Vancouver World's Fair, the Christian pavilion's presentation utilized glitzy double-reversed photography and flashing lasers. When I tried to explain my qualms about the production to an attendant who had asked me how I liked their 'show,' she protested that it had saved many people. I asked, "Saved by what kind of Christ?" If people are saved by a spectacular Christ, will they find him in the fumbling of their own devotional life or in the humble services of local parishes where pastors and organists make mistakes? Will a glitzy portrayal of Christ nurture in new believers his character of willing suffering and sacrificial obedience? Will it create an awareness of the idolatries of our age and lead to repentance? And does a flashy, hard-rock sound track bring people to a Christ who calls us away from the world's superficiality to a deeper reflection and meditation?

Boomers who are too busy to be committed themselves think they can just hire others to do all the work of the Church.

This practice creates vicarious Christians -- believers who don't recognize the value of their own daily experiences of following Jesus, but create (and financially support) "hyped-up performers" who do Christianity for them.

The God of Competition and The Idolatry of Numbers and Success

How destructive it is to genuine discipleship to measure the success of the Church by the numbers of people attracted rather than by the depth of faith and outreach nurtured!

On the other hand, the danger of these idolatries cannot be used as an excuse not to care for the people in the world around us, not to do all we can to attract them to Christ. That concern, however, must always be guided by the goal of faithfulness rather than of numerical success.

The Idolatry of Power

Persons trained to "demand their rights" want the power to set the agenda for the Church's worship.

Rumor and the tastes of the public become more important in making planning decisions than the skill and training of qualified theologians, pastors, and musicians.

This may also spell over into people demanding that others accept their understanding of God, no matter how heretical it may be. Like Constantine, they may be unwilling to place themselves under the tutelage of qualified Christian teachers. Bill Easum suggests that rather than seeing church membership as something that offers rights and privileges, what if we stressed the obligations of servanthood? For example, for churches that have schools, why give a discount to church members? Why not charge members more, so that discounts might be given to the unchurched?

A NEW SUBSECTION: THE NAME "FATHER"

Marva Dawn in the book presents the following argument for the use of Father as a name for God. It certainly isn't the only reason we should keep the word, but it offers an important perspective.

Human beings have especially violated God's plan for harmony and mutuality. Consequently, all images for God offer us correctives, visions of how to live out our new creation. God's image as the Perfect Father is certainly such a corrective.

I delight in the Scriptures' feminine images for God, but for years I've wondered why God chose to reveal himself more often as Father, since that image has led to such ungodly patriarchal oppression. Perhaps Isaiah 49:15 provides a key to the mystery. God asks rhetorically, "Can a mother forget the baby she has borne?" We all respond, "Of course not!" Tragically, in our present culture drug problems, the stresses of a technological milieu, extreme disarray in families, and other factors do sometimes cause mothers to forget their children. Generally, however, in the history of the world's various cultures, it is an exception rather than the rule if women don't properly care for their children. Fathers, on the other hand, are often absent, frequently emotionally distant, sometimes negligent. In the Greek and Roman societies of biblical times, elite men might attend orgies with educated, high-class prostitutes while their wives were kept hidden at home to raise good children. Even more so today, as we see from the statistics of absentee fathers and single-mother households, fathers are more likely than mothers to forget their children. Among other reasons, God reveals himself as Father to teach us his design for human families. The Hebrew image of 'womb-love' (the principal First Testament word for God's compassion) functions similarly, but women seem to have done a better job of following God's nurturing design. To the question "Can a woman forget the baby she has borne?" we still answer, "No, not usually."

The image of Father, therefore, accomplishes three important purposes: it reveals God as lord, lover, and model. The divine Father stands in a transcendent, yet caring relationship with his children and thereby models the perfect combination of authority and intimate tenderness that human fathers need to care best for their children. [pp. 101-102]

If men want to know what being a father should be like, they need to look to the Father. The same is true for properly understanding a mother's love for children.

For us to properly understand the Christian God, we need to maintain our (inadequate) understanding of the Trinity. Without it, we are falling prey to some other god. I also think that we need to keep in mind that we have been commissioned by the risen Jesus: We, Christians, who are saints and sinners; worshipers and doubters, who don't have all the answers, have been commended by Christ to go and make disciples other people who are saints and sinners, worshipers and doubters, and who won't have all the answers either. We all live by faith, not by answers.

Finally, I don't know where I got the following quotes there were in an old sermon, but I like them.

"To try to deny the Trinity endangers your salvation, to try to comprehend the Trinity endangers your sanity." Martin Luther.

"Bring me a worm that can comprehend a human being, and then I will show you a human being that can comprehend the Triune God!" John Wesley


Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 2215 S 8th Ave., Yuma, AZ 85364
e-mail: brian.stoffregen@gmail.com