ascending feet - of Jesus - in clouds and red garment

Study Notes – Matthew 28 16-20 and Acts 1 6-8

We are studying Matthew 28:16-20 along with a little bit of Acts, Acts 1:6-8, for Sunday, April 28. The Matthew text is what we often think of as “the Great Commission.” The Acts text is a portion of Luke’s account of the ascension that corresponds to Jesus’ statement in Matthew. One way to think about this might be to see these texts as two different angles on Jesus’ final instructions to “the eleven.” [Discussion questions for these texts are here.] Here are my notes on these texts:

Matthew 28:16-20 – BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT We’re winding up our study of Matthew’s gospel. In that context, this text follows the events of Easter morning, the report of the angel, the women, and the guards. We assume the women got through to Jesus’ brothers, since they’ve gone to Galilee, in line with the message the women were given, and this action takes place in Galilee.

This text is the finale of Matthew’s gospel.

CLOSER READING In v16, we are dealing with the eleven, whom Matthew calls disciples, who have assembled on a mountain in Galilee. We don’t have a name for this particular mountain, although the disciples had directions from Jesus (Matthew 26:32, maybe?). We have seen mountains before in Matthew’s gospel: Jesus preached a long sermon on a mountain (Matthew 5-7), prayed on a mountain after feeding 5,000+ people (Matthew 14:23), right before helping Peter walk on the Sea of Galilee and calming a storm, and was transfigured on the top of a high mountain (Matthew 17:1). Could mountains be a kind of symbol for Matthew of Jesus’ divine authority?

The verbs in vv17-18 seem out of order – or do they? The disciples see Jesus, worship him (as the women did in v9), and some doubt. The word used here for “doubt” occurs just one other time in the Bible, in Matthew 14:31. It’s what Peter does when he starts noticing the waves, that undoes his act of walking on water. It seems worth thinking about what it’s doing here.

After the disciples see and worship Jesus, Jesus comes and says a significant speech to them.

The speech itself is the subject of some text-critical controversy, in particular because of the Trinitarian baptismal formula in v19. There is a fair amount of agreement that this is, or at least could be, a later scribal addition to the text. It presumably reflected the practice of the early church that was using this gospel as its text.

[Treating a “scribal addition” as scripture bothers some people. Especially, it seems, people who are somewhat less enthusiastic about the whole idea of the Trinity in the first place. I’m not one of those people, so I’m quite content to take the canonical text “as is.” Besides – why can’t scribes be just as inspired as authors?]

If we parse Jesus’ speech here, we might treat it as breaking down into several clauses:

  • a statement of authority, which opens the speech; Jesus has all authority in the unseen and the seen worlds, as a gift, and this authority grounds the instructions that follow.
  • a complex instruction to the disciples: make disciples, which will require (in the order mentioned) going – to all nations, rather than just to the lost sheep of Israel (remember Matthew 10:5), baptizing them (in the strong name of the Trinity, as St. Patrick would have said), and teaching them to keep all Jesus’ commandments. Here it might be worth recalling that a person might not have had to “go” too far, in the Roman empire, to encounter people of “all nations.” We might want to think of this as an instruction about who to strike up a conversation with, at least as much as it is an instruction about where to locate.
  • an instruction to remember that Jesus is with them to the very end of “the age.” The word for “age” here suggests a VERY long time – it is sometimes translated “forever” in other contexts, and sometimes has the connotation of eternity. In other words, we probably shouldn’t get the impression that this “age” will be over soon. It might also be worth noting that people don’t usually give an instruction to “remember” something unless it will be possible, or even easy, to “forget” it.

Acts 1:6-8 – BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Confession: I got annoyed by this particular pairing of texts. I think it amounts to glossing over the frank differences in these two stories, for the sake of presenting them as a seamless account.

In Luke-Acts, Jerusalem is important, in the way mountains are important in Matthew. In Luke, the resurrection appearances happen near or in Jerusalem (Luke 24:13-49), Jesus explicitly tells the apostles to stay in Jerusalem, and there’s a brief synopsis of the ascension (Luke 24:50-51) that takes place in Bethany (near Jerusalem). This emphasis on staying in Jerusalem is reprised at the beginning of Acts (part II of Luke-Acts) – Acts 1:4, an instruction from Jesus (!), and there is evidence in the text (Acts 1:12) that the action in Acts 1:6-8 is taking place on the Mt. of Olives (again, near Jerusalem).

[Hence my annoyance. I feel strongly that we need to read the text we have. Matthew and Luke are presenting accounts that differ in important ways. They presumably have their reasons for these differences. We usually think authors’ reasons contribute to the meaning of what we’re reading. Ignoring them is something like … idk, making Huckleberry Finn take place on the Hudson River, because you want to read it along with a story by Washington Irving. OK, that overstates the difference, but you get the idea. Grr.]

So: the context for these verses is Luke-Acts, the beginning of Acts, the adventure story of how the gospel of Jesus Christ travels from Jerusalem and the first preaching to Jews from all over the known world through the angst-ridden decision to extend that preaching to the Gentiles, with the authorization of the community of Jesus followers in Jerusalem (so, an account of the emotional and cultural difficulty in obeying Jesus expansive instructions in Acts 1:8), through the commissioning of Paul as an apostle, his various exploits, and his final arrival in Rome, all under the aegis of the Holy Spirit.

CLOSER READING: There’s some q & a here, and the question on the minds of the apostles (see Acts 1:2) seems to be the restoration of Israel. Jesus cuts them off, attributes authority to God the Father (v7), and refers the apostles to the Holy Spirit (v8). So, the Trinity is here, too, “in kit form” as my New Testament teacher used to say.

We might ask ourselves whether Jesus’ response in v8 is an instruction, or a prediction.

We might also ask ourselves whether being Jesus’ witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth is equivalent to making disciples of all nations. The idea of being a “witness” might put more emphasis on personal testimony and on a particular kind of living, and a little less emphasis on institutional life (baptism) and catechism (teaching) – although the apostles in Acts will baptize and teach in the course of their witnessing activity, and they will have to pay attention to organizational matters (e.g., Acts 6:1-7). So maybe it all comes to the same thing in the end.

They will presumably need the power that will come from the Holy Spirit to make the testimony and way of life of witnesses to Jesus Christ possible. [We might be able to go along with that.]

assembled apostles watching Jesus' disappearing feet
I love this picture so much!

4 responses to “Study Notes – Matthew 28 16-20 and Acts 1 6-8”

  1. One thing that fascinates me in the Great Commission is the part about “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” It blows my mind to think He wants us to do what the disciples did, and that He wouldn’t command us to do something without enabling us to do it.


  2. Indeed. It’s like the founder of the Vineyard Fellowship used to point out – why don’t people today expect to do “the stuff”? Because that would be Biblical.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: