Just like that, He was gone. A flood of emotions filled those who looked on. Their hearts were filled with remorse for the loss, again, of their leader, followed by excitement at what his parting words meant to them. Those emotions were soon replaced by a feeling of uncertainty; how were they supposed to accomplish it all.
Those who had followed Jesus during his three years of ministry, those he considered his disciples, had watched him change the lives of individuals throughout the region and now they were by themselves. But this was not unfamiliar territory for them. Just a few weeks prior they had been in a similar situation. At that time, the first time they lost Jesus, the disciples had all returned to their former lives filled with confusion, disillusion, and frustration. They had watched from a distance as people cried out for his crucifixion, they had watched from a distance as he struggled up the hill to Golgotha carrying his cross, and they stood by as he died in humiliation and shame. From their vantage point had left each of them without direction and they didn’t know what to do next. Their thoughts of ruling over the Romans had been dashed as Jesus breathed his last, and the life they had known for three years had come to an end. So, many of them returned to their previous lives of fishing for just fish.
The first time, their state of confusion would last only a couple of days and their lives were once again turned upside down. Jesus had risen from the dead and was once again among them. Once again there was hope, purpose, a future; but this future was much different than the one they had once envisioned. In the forty days he walked with his disciples, Jesus made it clear once and for all his intention was not to cast off the Roman occupation of Israel or to establish a new Jewish kingdom. Jesus came to demonstrate and teach his followers in the art of service to one another. Just before he ascended out of sight from his beloved followers, he left them with instructions: go and make disciples in all the world. As they stood peering into the sky realizing their master was physically gone for good, they were left with uncertainty. This time, though, the uncertainty was focused on how they were going to carry out the Master’s directive, not what they were supposed to do. That was made clear this time. Instead of returning to fishing for fish, they finally understood their future: go and fish for men.
Within the four walls of the local church, the idea of leadership is accepted with mixed emotions. For some, there is the concern to fully embrace leadership practices is a step toward corporate institutionalism where the ebbs and flows of the Holy Spirit are stifled. On the other end of the spectrum, churches have embraced leadership so whole-heartedly that metrics of attendance and giving have overshadowed the mission Jesus gave to his disciples almost two thousand years ago.
Despite the various levels of acceptance of leadership within the church, a case can be made that leadership is a vital part of the health, well-being, and effectiveness of the church. It is in the final words of Jesus in Matthew 28:18-20 the church can find the mandate God has given to lead effectively. By studying this passage using socio-rhetorical analysis, the depth of Christ’s words is revealed.
Often times when we interpret scripture we begin seeking to understand the meaning of the passage so we can then jump into the application. Unfortunately, though, we inadvertently look at the scriptures with traditions of understanding we already own which can sway us from seeing the original meaning intended by the author. This can cause us to only see the religious tradition we started with.
Since meaning can be contrived or manipulated, we need to begin interpreting scripture by looking at the text itself. Socio-rhetorical criticism allows us to examine the textures within a text of scripture before seeking the meaning of the text. It is a tool that can provide a responsible and contextually sound reading of a passage.
Social and Cultural Texture Overview
For this analysis of Matthew 28:18-20, the texture that will be used is the social and cultural texture, which considers the world from which the text existed in when originally penned by the author.[xvi] This helps to understand the type of person who would live in the world described by the text.[xvii] This texture is an investigation into the “social and cultural location of the language and the type of social and cultural world the language evokes or creates.”[xviii] Through this texture, it will become clear why Jesus said what he said to his intended audience, and what he expected them to do with his mandate.
Social and Cultural Texture Analysis of Matthew 28:18-20
Specific Social Topics
One area of consideration within the social and cultural texture is specific social topics. This is taking into consideration the topics and concerns of a given people group and how it informs their relationship to the world around them.[xix] It is an understanding of the mindset of the people receiving a given text and how they understand and interpret the words spoken to them.
In Matthew 28:18-20, the disciples have gone through a transformation of how they perceive their world. Throughout their time with Jesus, many of them had a thaumaturgical perspective, which focuses on the “individual’s concern for relief from present and specific ills by special dispensation.”[xx] Living under the thumb of Roman rule, and centuries of oppression from other nations, had left the Jews seeking relief through a messiah. As Pontius Pilate took over rulership in the years leading up to Jesus’ ministry,[xxi] the situation went from bad to worse, and his heavy handed methods created a deep fear in the Jewish community.[xxii] Their situation at the time of Jesus’ ministry harkened them to their time under Egyptian oppression, and they longed for a present day Moses to lead them out from under such oppression. The disciples had seen Jesus heal many of sickness,[xxiii] demon possession,[xxiv] and birth defects[xxv] and it appeared to them that he would be the one to bring relief to the Jewish people.
Others among the disciples had a revolutionist perspective believing only the destruction of the world in which they lived, particularly the social dynamics that currently existed, would bring hope for them. They had seen Jesus stand up to the Pharisees[xxvi] and oppose the religious traditions they promoted, while also witnessing his overall authority over all things, so it would be a logical response to believe that Jesus came to do mighty things with this power and authority. The revolutionist perspective of the disciples is demonstrated by one example in the request by James and John to sit at his right and left in his coming kingdom.[xxvii] They were preparing for an overthrow and wanted to secure their place of authority before anyone else did.[xxviii]
These perspectives by the disciples were, for the most part, laid to rest as Jesus breathed his last breath. With his resurrection and the forty days he spent with disciples leading up to his ascension, Jesus doesn’t talk about revolution or relief; he talks to them about peace,[xxix] forgiveness,[xxx] belief,[xxxi] and repentance.[xxxii] His final words in Matthew 28:18-20 are about authority,[xxxiii] right living,[xxxiv] and relationship.[xxxv] These words he imparts to them also imparts a new perspective: a gnostic-manipulationist perspective. This perspective “seeks only a transformed set of relationships – a transformed method of coping with evil.”[xxxvi] It is with this perspective the evil of the world may be overcome by observing all that Jesus had commanded and making salvation possible; through learning the right means and improved techniques to deal with problems.[xxxvii] Jesus’ final words call the disciples to a proactive approach to changing the world be harnessing his authority, they are supposed to make disciples in accordance with all that he had taught them, trusting in the relationship they have with him. It is not by force or overthrow of government change is to come, nor is it solely through Jesus and his actions, but it is through the influence and leadership of the disciples to impart proper daily living among the people that will promote change.
Common Social and Cultural Topics
Another area of the social and cultural texture is the common social and cultural topics. These are the normal living behaviors of a given people that make up the overall environment of a text.[xxxviii] Whether it is through conscious or instinctual application, everyone in a given area lives according to certain values, patterns and codes.[xxxix] For an interpreter to know the common social and cultural topics, it guards from ethnocentric and anachronistic interpretation.[xl]
The first century world was one of clear levels of social class and authority. Everyone existed within an understood hierarchy of honor, which translated into a given worth upon an individual’s existence. This honor entitled different individuals to different levels of social status that dictated particular interactions with equals, superiors, and subordinates.[xli]
Throughout Jesus’ ministry he was ridiculed for spending time with those of low social status or unsavory behavior. In Mark 2 Jesus visits the house of Matthew, the author of the Gospel, and is chastised by the Pharisees for being with “tax collectors and sinners”[xlii] who were social outcasts. Not only did Jesus interact with those of lower class, but the disciples were, for the most part, of a low social class.[xliii] All of them would have been moved through the education system away from the honorable path of rabbinic training and towards the lower class of technical trade, such as fishing. From their early teens the men who followed Jesus would have been considered lower class because of this early educational distinction.[xliv] With Jesus’ first remarks in Matthew 28:18 Jesus turns all of this around, and changes the status of the disciples according to the honor, guilt, rights culture.
Jesus starts by telling the disciples “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore,”[xlv] which draws a connection from his authority to that of the disciples. With Christ’s resurrection it is clear that heavenly authority has been placed upon him, transcending all other authority,[xlvi] including that on earth. So, Jesus declares this to the disciples, proclaiming all authority on heaven and earth are his, but he then follows up with ‘go therefore’. The word ‘therefore’ indicates that because of the former the latter is possible. In this particular instance, since Jesus has all authority of heaven and earth, the disciples are empowered to go and make disciples because through Jesus they also have the authority. This authority changes their honor status, and elevates them from their lowly social location of fishermen and tax collectors to men of God and disciples of Jesus. It is this change in social status that allows Peter to proclaim with authority the message of Jesus on the day of Pentecost,[xlvii] and Peter and John to speak so authoritatively to the council after they healed the lame beggar.[xlviii] The disciples receive an ascribed honor from Jesus through his words of commissioning on that final moment with them.
Social and Cultural Texture Conclusion
In his final words to the disciples, Jesus knows what he says to them must have a lasting effect and give direction, which they did not have when he was crucified. He needed to insure they didn’t return to their old lives as they did when he died by imparting direction to them. Part of the direction he imparted, though, needed to not just be logistical orders; it needed to change who they were and how they perceived their world. Jesus’ words in Matthew 28:18-20 did just that.
Jesus shifted the disciples’ mindset away from revolution to realization. The disciples didn’t need to rise up against Rome, but instead they needed to influence the people to think differently than they had. The world was not going to be free from evil as the people desired since it is within mankind that evil exists. The only way to live free from evil was to live in accordance with the teachings of Jesus, and since he was leaving them it was their responsibility to make more disciples who lived in accordance to his ways. It wasn’t going to be him reaching people any longer, it was going to be them acting in his authority. No longer did they have to see themselves as lowly fishermen or tax collectors or sinners. They were disciples of Jesus Christ who had all authority in heaven and earth, and they were commissioned by him to live out that authority to make disciples. The disciples were being called to change the world through discipleship rather than revolution.
Through the social and cultural texture these truths become apparent. Jesus final words move the disciples once and for all away from the thaumaturgical and revolutionist perspectives they once held, and move them to a gnostic-manipulitionist perspective. His words also change their social status from one of lower honor to one of the highest honor. They are disciples of Jesus, the Son of God, who has ultimate authority that he has imparted on them to fulfill the calling of making disciples. If anyone were to stand in the way of accomplishing the mandate Jesus had given them, the disciples were assured the authority of the individuals would not be higher than the authority they carried as Jesus’ disciples.
Leadership in Matthew 28:18-20
Leadership involves influence and without influence, leadership does not exist.[xlix] Webster defines influence as the “power to change or affect someone without directly forcing change to happen.”[l] The potential of an individual to influence is called power, and power comes through two different avenues: position and personal.[li] Personal power comes from followers, given freely to a leader because they believe the leader to have something of value.[lii] The one valuable thing that every leader possesses and followers are drawn to is authority, which makes it possible for followers to count on leaders to make things happen. Before Jesus’ ascension, the disciples had no real authority, but Jesus wanted to change that.
Due to the lack of authority in the lives of the disciples, there was always a disconnect from what they desired to see happen and what actually did happen. Their lack of authority is what made them seemingly insignificant in the first century world, and it was what drove their fear the night Jesus was arrested and caused them to flee into hiding.[liii] It is what fueled their thaumaturgical and revolutionist perspectives: some feeling they were powerless to cause change without the messiah making change for them, and others feeling as though the only way for change to happen was through force. With Jesus’ final words he gives them the very thing they were missing to gain true influence in the lives of others: authority. Now, the disciples were empowered with authority to exercise influence in the lives of others and teach them all that Jesus had taught the disciples in order to resist evil in the world. Jesus called his disciples to exercise authority and lead.
With a call to leadership, the question is raised: what kind of leadership did Jesus call his disciples to? In his final words, Jesus calls his disciples to exercise a transformational leadership style. He did not call them to a laissez-faire leadership style of passivity and indecision[liv] because in verse 19 he commanded them to “go therefore and make disciples.” This is not a passive call, but a proactive intentional call. He also did not call the disciples to a transactional style of leadership, which is based on a series of exchanges between leaders and followers.[lv] There is nothing in Jesus’ words that would indicate the relationship the disciples are to have with followers should gain anything for the disciples. Everything that the disciples have to offer others is from Jesus, not themselves. The teachings and commands come from Jesus, and it is with his authority the disciples are even sent out. There is no transaction to happen, because the disciples are to gain nothing from their followers, everything is to go right back to Jesus.
With his words, Jesus calls the disciples to lead through a transformational style. By definition, transformational leadership is a process by which people are changed and transformed.[lvi] This style of leadership is characterized in four ways: idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration.[lvii] It is with the words Jesus uses that indicate he intends for them to be transformational. He commands them to ‘go’ which rules out laissez-faire, he equips them with nothing of their own but only what has to give eliminating a transactional style, and he sends them to create transformational change in other people by commanding them to make disciples through baptism and the observation of all Jesus had taught. The goal Jesus gave the disciples was to change the hearts of people, just as their hearts had been changed.
Modern Application of Leadership from Matthew 28:18-20
Likewise, modern followers of Jesus should do the same thing. It is through his authority Christians are called to lead and make disciples of all nations. It is the mandate of Jesus to cause change in the lives of people through the teaching of all that Jesus had taught. As disciples, modern Christians are called to be transformational leaders, active and vibrant in the community that surrounds them. It is not within Jesus’ final words that Christians are called to passively sit back and allow the world to go the way it chooses, nor are Christians called to exchange the truths of Jesus’ life for personal gain and advancement. Instead, it is a transformational approach that causes change in the lives of others for the advancement of the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ final words were a call to leadership that no faithful follower of his can deny or turn away from in good conscience.
It is often believed that leadership is for select individuals to be a part of and exercise. For those in the secular world, this may be the case, but within the body of Christ leadership is not an option; it is a mandate. It is a mandate modeled throughout Jesus’ ministry and a mandate left with his final words to the disciples. It was his words that freed the disciples from the perspectives that held them back, it was his words that granted them the authority they needed to make change in the first century world, and it was his words that carried through the ages to every Christian that has followed Jesus Christ since. Leadership is not optional, rather, it is the very reason Christians walk the earth and exist among a secular people. It is the calling of Jesus that every Christian would go, make disciples, teaching Jesus’ way of living, and gain freedom from the evil of the world, because he is always with each Christian; till the end of the age.
[i] Larry Richards and Lawrence O. Richards, The Teacher’s Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1987), 762.
[ii] Mt. 27:22 ESV
[iii] Jn. 19:17 ESV
[iv] Lk. 23:46 ESV
[v] Irving, Justin A. “Leadership Reflection: A Model for Effective Servant Leadershiph Practice: A Biblically-Consistent and Research-Based Approach to Leadership.” Journal of Biblical Perspectives in Leadership 3, no. 2 (2011): 119.
[vi] Jn. 21:1-2 ESV
[vii] Lk. 24:6 ESV
[viii] Chana, Safrai. “The Mother of the Zebedee Brothers (Matthew 20:20-28).” Beginnings for Christianity, 2005.131.
[ix] Mk. 16:19 ESV
[x] Mt. 28:19-20 ESV
[xi] Tuppurainen, Riku Pekka. “The Contribution of Socio-Rhetorical Criticism to Spirit-Sensitive Hermeneutics: A Contextual Example–Luke 11:13.” Journal of Biblical and Pneumatological Research 4 (September 1, 2012): 38.
[xii] Robbins, Vernon K. Exploring the Texture of Texts: A Guide to Socio-Rhetorical Interpretation. Valley Forge, Pa: Trinity Press International, 1996.1.
[xiv] Hoehl, Stacy. “Empowered by Jesus: A Research Proposal for an Exploration of Jesus’ Empowerment Approach in John 21:1-25.” The Journal Of Applied Christian Leadership 2, no. 2 (2008): 8.
[xv] Tuppurainen, “The Contribution of Socio-Rhetorical Criticism to Spirit-Sensitive Hermeneutics: A Contextual Example–Luke 11:13”, 40.
[xvi] Robbins, Exploring the Texture of Texts: A Guide to Socio-Rhetorical Interpretation, 71.
[xvii] Tuppurainen, “The Contribution of Socio-Rhetorical Criticism to Spirit-Sensitive Hermeneutics: A Contextual Example–Luke 11:13”, 43.
[xviii] Robbins, Exploring the Texture of Texts: A Guide to Socio-Rhetorical Interpretation, 71.
[xix] Robbins, Exploring the Texture of Texts: A Guide to Socio-Rhetorical Interpretation, 72.
[xx] Robbins, Exploring the Texture of Texts: A Guide to Socio-Rhetorical Interpretation, 73.
[xxi] DeSilva, David Arthur. An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods & Ministry Formation. Downers Grove, Ill. : Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press ; Apollos, 2004.69.
[xxii] DeSilva, An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods & Ministry Formation, 70.
[xxiii] Mk. 3:10 ESV
[xxiv] Mt. 8:16 ESV
[xxv] Jn. 9 ESV
[xxvi] Mt. 23:13 ESV
[xxvii] Mk. 10:37 ESV
[xxviii] Richards, The Teacher’s Commentary, 623.
[xxix] Jn. 28:21 ESV
[xxx] Jn. 20:23 ESV
[xxxi] Jn. 20:29 ESV
[xxxii] Lk. 24:47 ESV
[xxxiii] Mt. 28:18 ESV
[xxxiv] Mt. 28:19-20 ESV
[xxxv] Mt. 28:20 ESV
[xxxvi] Robbins, Exploring the Texture of Texts: A Guide to Socio-Rhetorical Interpretation, 73.
[xxxvii] Robbins, Exploring the Texture of Texts: A Guide to Socio-Rhetorical Interpretation, 73.
[xxxviii] Robbins, Exploring the Texture of Texts: A Guide to Socio-Rhetorical Interpretation, 75.
[xxxix] Robbins, Exploring the Texture of Texts: A Guide to Socio-Rhetorical Interpretation, 75.
[xl] Robbins, Exploring the Texture of Texts: A Guide to Socio-Rhetorical Interpretation, 75.
[xli] Robbins, Exploring the Texture of Texts: A Guide to Socio-Rhetorical Interpretation, 76.
[xlii] Mk. 2:16-17 ESV
[xliii] Wood, D. R. W., and I. Howard Marshall. New Bible Dictionary. 3rd ed. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996.567.
[xliv] Safrai, Shemuel, Menahem. Stern, David Flusser, and W. C. van Unnik. The Jewish People in the First Century. Historical Geography, Political History, Social, Cultural and Religious Life and Institutions. Assen: Van Gorcum, 1974.
[xlv] Mt. 28:18 ESV
[xlvi] Keener, Craig S. “Matthew’s Missiology: Making Disciples of the Nations (matthew 28:19-20).” Asian Journal of Pentecostal Studies 12, no. 1 (January 2009): 12.
[xlvii] Acts 2 ESV
[xlviii] Acts 3 ESV
[xlix] Northouse, Peter Guy. Leadership: Theory and Practice. 6th ed. Thousand Oaks: SAGE, 2013.5.
[l] Merriam-Webster. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Revised edition. Springfield, Mass: Merriam-Webster Mass Market, 2004.
[li] Northouse, Leadership: Theory and Practice,15.
[lii] Northouse, Leadership: Theory and Practice,15.
[liii] Mt. 26:56 ESV
[liv] Northouse, Leadership: Theory and Practice,196.
[lv] Northouse, Leadership: Theory and Practice,186.
[lvi] Northouse, Leadership: Theory and Practice,185.
[lvii] McCabe, Laurie. “Jesus As Agent of Change: Tranformational and Authentic Leadership in John 21.” Journal of Biblical Perspectives in Leadership Volume 2, no. No. 1 (2008): 40.