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Rightly Understanding God’s Word: Whole-Book Context, Part 2, by Craig S. Keener

The command to “make disciples” of all nations (KJV has “teach” them) is surrounded by three clauses in Greek that describe how we make disciples of the nations: by “going,” “baptizing,” and “teaching.” Jesus had spoken of “going” when he had sent his disciples out even within Galilee (10:7), but here disciples must go to other cultures and peoples because they will make disciples of the “nations.”

Making disciples of the “nations” fits an emphasis developed throughout this Gospel. The four women specifically mentioned in Jesus’ ancestry (1:2-17) appear to be Gentiles: Tamar the Canaanite, Rahab the Jerichoite, Ruth the Moabitess, and the “widow of Uriah” the Hittite (1:3, 5-6). Ancient Jewish genealogies normally emphasized the purity of one’s Israelite lineage, but this genealogy deliberately underlines the mixed-race heritage of the Messiah who will save Gentiles as well as Jews.

When Jesus commands us to love one another as he has loved us, why does he call this a ‘new’ commandment? Did not God command all believers to love one another even in the Old Testament?

When many of his own people ignored or persecuted him, pagan astrologers from the East came to worship him (2:1-12). God and his Son could raise up Abraham’s children even from stones (3:9), work in “Galilee of the Gentiles” (4:15), bless the faith of a Roman military officer (8:5-13), deliver demoniacs in Gentile territory (8:28-34), compare Israelite cities unfavorably with Sodom (10:15; 11:23-24), reward the persistent faith of a Canaanite woman (15:21-28), allow the first apostolic confession of Jesus’ Messiahship in pagan territory (16:13), promise that all nations would hear the gospel (24:14), and allow the first confession of Jesus as God’s Son after the cross to come from a Roman execution squad (27:54). Matthew probably wrote to encourage his fellow Jewish Christians to evangelize the Gentiles, so the Gospel fittingly closes on this command.

“Baptizing” recalls the mission of John the Baptist, who baptized people for repentance (3:1-2, 6, 11). Baptism in Jewish culture represented an act of conversion, so as “going” may represent cross-cultural ministry, we may describe Jesus’ command to “baptize” as evangelism. But evangelism is not sufficient to make full disciples; we also need Christian education. “Teaching” them all that Jesus commanded is made easier by the fact that Matthew has provided us Jesus’ teachings conveniently in five major discourse sections: Jesus’ teachings about the ethics of the kingdom (chs. 5-7); proclaiming the kingdom (ch. 10); parables about the present state of the kingdom (ch. 13); relationships in the kingdom (ch. 18); and the future of the kingdom and judgment on the religious establishment (chs. 23-25).

In Matthew’s Gospel, however, we do not make disciples the way most Jewish teachers in his day made disciples. We make disciples not for ourselves but for our Lord Jesus Christ (23:8). This final paragraph of Matthew’s Gospel fittingly concludes various themes about Jesus’ identity in this Gospel as well. John (3:2), Jesus (4:17), and his followers (10:7) announced God’s kingdom, his reign; now Jesus reigns with all authority in all creation (28:18). Further, we baptize not only in the name of God and his Spirit, but in the name of Jesus (28:19), thereby ranking Jesus as deity alongside the Father and the Spirit. And finally, Jesus’ promise to be with us always as we preach the kingdom until the end of the age (28:20) recalls earlier promises in the Gospel. Jesus himself is “Immanuel,” “God with us” (1:23), and wherever two or three gather in his name he will be among them (18:20). To any ancient Jewish reader, these statements would imply that Jesus was God.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Spring 2004

About the Author: Craig S. Keener, Ph.D. (Duke University), is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is author of many books, including Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011), the bestselling IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today, and commentaries on Acts, Matthew, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Revelation. In addition to having written more than seventy academic articles, several booklets and more than 150 popular-level articles, Craig is is the New Testament editor (and author of most New Testament notes) for the The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. He is married to Dr. Médine Moussounga Keener, who is from the Republic of Congo, and together they have worked for ethnic reconciliation in North America and Africa. Craig and Médine wrote Impossible Love: The True Story of an African Civil War, Miracles and Hope against All Odds (Chosen, 2016) to share their story. Twitter: @keener_craig

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