A counter-mission to deny the resurrection is mounted while Jesus sends his disciples out with the great commissions.
Through this lesson, students should:
1. Begin to understand the nature of God’s call for the church.
2. Be encouraged not to live in fear of the world’s counter mission.
3. Empowered by the power of the Spirit to go into the world and make disciples.
Catching up on the Story
Jesus has been raised from the dead. The Marys have witnessed the empty tomb and the crucified yet risen, Jesus. They are the first witnesses to this miracle and they are sent out with a simple mission to proclaim what it is they have seen and heard. As Jesus appeared to the Marys, Jesus appears to the disciples, stilling their fear, and helping them to understand all that they had seen and heard.
This week’s text picks up where the resurrection story left off. The two Marys have gone off and found the disciples. They have told the remaining eleven that Jesus is indeed alive and that they are to go to Galilee to meet him there.
Meanwhile, the guards who were posted at the tomb to ensure that no one ran off with Jesus’ body recovered from their fear-induced death-like state. Surely the guards were struck with a second round of fear as they realized just what had happened. Regardless of whether or not they believed that Jesus actually was raised from the dead, the fact remained that the body was gone. They were supposed to be guarding the body; if it disappeared on their watch there would be consequences.
So, the guards set off to find the chief priests to tell them everything that happened. That phrase “and told the chief priests everything that happened” is important. The “told” of the phrase is, according to Bruner, an unusual word in the New Testament. It is a verb that is missionary in nature. In other words, it is a word of proclamation, a word that spurs others onto action and belief in a cause (Bruner, 800). While the Marys went on their own mission, these guards had their own mission as well.
The chief priests embark on a counter mission of their own. They believe that the idea that Jesus has been raised from the dead must be stopped. A plan to give a large sum of money to the guards to keep quiet is set in motion. If need be, they will pay off the governor, too, so that no harm comes to the guards. The chief priests will also circulate their own story about the missing body. They will tell everyone it was Jesus’ disciples who stole the body, just as they feared they would. Matthew tells us that at the time of the writing of this gospel, this fictitious story was still being circulated.
The chief priests were engaged in a counter mission against the mission of Jesus. For every good move, there is a countermove. As we explore the continued story of God’s interaction with and for humanity we will note the ways in which the counter mission seeks to stop, slow down or destroy the mission God has given the church. For his part, Matthew does not seem to be too concerned with the chief priest’s counter mission. It is mentioned but it is not dwelt upon. Rather, the narrative continues.
Up on the Mountain
Jesus and the eleven meet up on a mountain in Galilee. Mountains are always significant in Matthew’s gospel. It is on a mountain that Jesus gives his greatest sermon, the Sermon on the Mount. It is on a mountain that Jesus feeds the multitude. It is on a mountain that Jesus teaches his disciples. It is on a mountain where Jesus is transfigured, revealing to the disciples in ever greater detail just who he is. Mountains for Matthew, and for Israel, are places where God reveals himself to us. Once again, Jesus and the disciples gather on a mountain so Jesus might give them one final set of instructions.
After Jesus and the disciples meet, the disciples worship Jesus, but some have doubts. We are not told what they doubted, but that they doubted. It is unlikely that they doubted that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Perhaps some of them doubted that they could actually continue to follow Jesus’ path. After all, they had abandoned him not long before. Regardless, Jesus issues this great commission not to a group of perfect individuals who are strong in their faith, but to a group that contained doubt. The church, as it is created and empowered by Jesus, is not a place free from doubt. It is a place where doubt is welcomed, where those who have questions of belief, doubts of if they can really and truly follow this guy named Jesus, are welcomed and loved through their disbelief.
Jesus begins to speak and we are immediately reminded of another story at the beginning of the gospel. Jesus proclaims that he has been given “all authority in heaven and on earth.” Way back in chapter four Jesus enters the wilderness and is tempted. In the last temptation, the devil takes Jesus up onto a high mountain and shows him the kingdoms of the world. He promises that all of those kingdoms could belong to Jesus if only he were to bow down and worship the devil. Of course, Jesus refuses. Jesus will receive authority because he is obedient to the Father, and indeed, Jesus has been obedient, obedient unto death. As a result, Jesus proclaims that he does have all authority, not just on earth, but in heaven as well. He doesn’t need the devil’s permission to be King Jesus.
This one with supreme authority now turns to command his followers. They are to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This disciple-making really happens in three parts, discipling, baptizing, and teaching.
Part one is the slow and intentional work of showing people the love of God through our relationship with them. It means that we slowly bring them along so that they might move from doubt to belief. It is not primarily the work of the individual, but of the individual who is supported by the community of faith. At its very heart, Evangelism is the beginning of discipleship.
Part two is baptizing. The community, through its work corporately and through the work of individuals, has brought a person to believe and now that person must join with the Body of Christ through baptism. It is in baptism that they are initiated into the Body and empowered to go and live a Christ-like life.
The third part is teaching. This teaching is lifelong learning engaged in by both the one being disciplined and the one doing the discipling. It is the journey of the church as it seeks to understand what it means to follow Jesus in the church’s ever-changing cultural situation.
All of this is possible because Jesus makes one final promise to be “with you always, to the end of the age.” For as long as the world exists, Jesus, through the power and activity of the Holy Spirit, will be with his church, empowering it to make disciples in all the lands of the world. Without this promise, and its fulfillment on the day of Pentecost, the church and those who belong to it, would flounder and fall away.
The counter mission of the chief priests is nothing. It will be overcome. It is already being overcome because the one who has all authority in heaven and earth has given us, you and me, a mission to disciple the whole world. What’s even greater than that is the one with all authority has promised to be with us always, and indeed he has fulfilled his promise in the gift of the Spirit.
Unfortunately, fear of the world’s counter mission pervades Christian culture in North America. We’re afraid of those who seek to discredit the good news about Jesus. We’re afraid that Christians will continue to lose their position of power and influence in America. We’re afraid of persecution. Worse yet, we’re afraid of obscurity and insignificance. Consequently, we’ve spent the majority of our time fighting the counter mission instead of faithfully engaging in the mission of discipleship Jesus gave us.
Quite simply, we’ve focused on the wrong thing. What empowered the disciples and propelled them to take the good news all over the known world was not fear, it was love. Instead of fighting against the principalities and powers of this world, powers Jesus already has authority over, the disciples faithfully lived, proclaimed, baptized, and taught the love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ.
The same Spirit-filled love that was at work within the disciples is within us. Therefore, let us go boldly into the world around us singularly focused on participating in God’s mission in the world. And look, Jesus will be with us until the end of this present age.
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
At the beginning of the passage, Matthew informs us there are two competing missions of proclamation regarding Jesus. The first is the mission the two Marys are on, and the second mission is the one the religious leaders to discredit Jesus’ resurrection claims. What story do you think the guards told the Jewish religious leaders? Do you think they were honest about exactly what happened? If so, why? If not, why?
Why would the chief priests and the elders give the guards a “large sum of money?” Why wouldn’t they fear getting in trouble for failing at the one job they had been enough?
Matthew takes care to tell us the story the religious leaders make up is still circulated at the time of the gospel’s writing. Why would Matthew do this?
Verse 15 is the last mention of any opposition to the gospel in Matthew’s gospel. Had Matthew written a follow-up work, as the writer of Luke did, do you think he would have given much space to those who oppose the story of Jesus’ resurrection?
Some commentators believe Matthew tells us of the religious leader’s counter mission so that we know of its existence, but not so the reader would be worried about it. In other words, the counter mission doesn’t matter or is of no concern to the disciples in the post-resurrection world. How might this insight impact our engagement in the commission that Jesus gives the church in verses 16-20?
If you were to write a story detailing the work of the church in today’s world, specifically America, how much space would you give to the world’s counter mission of sowing seeds of discord and disbelief? How much space has the church (not just ours) given to thinking and worrying about the world’s counter mission?
How worried should we be about the impact those who wish to discredit the gospel might have on our culture? Justify your answer.
How can the church remain focused on the mission Jesus gives the church instead of getting consumed with worry about the world’s counter mission?
What might God be trying to say to us?
What might God be calling us to do?
Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary: The Churchbook, Matthew 13-28, Revised & enlarged edition (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004).