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Well-Trained Scribes: Some Thoughts on the Apostlic Commission from Matthew 13:51-52

8 December, 2008

brannansmall1Matt 13 is well known as a collection of parables of the Kingdom of Heaven. What may not be so well known is the interesting fact that the last parable in this chapter isn’t directly about the kingdom — it’s actually about the disciples:

‘[Jesus concluded,] “Have you understood all these things?: They [the disciples] said to him, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

I think this taps into a really significant aspect of the disciples’ ongoing ministry, particulary with those who were commissioned to be apostles of the kingdom, including Matthew himself.

A scribe was someone well trained in the interpretation of the scriptures as a whole, who knew the scriptures as well as anyone, and was well respected as a leader and authority in the religious community. For these reasons scribes were in a position of amazing opportunity to bear and foster true faith and fruitfulness among the people of God, and lead by personal example. The tragedy was that the scribes, like the Pharisees, were so often unfaithful and unfruitful hypocrites. In Matt 23, Jesus proclaims seven woes (curses) on the scribes and Pharisees, and he begins by warning both the crowds in general and his disciples in particular, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you — but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice” (vv. 2-3). They were the original groups who could rightly say, ‘Do what I say, not what I do.’

The next time Jesus calls his own followers scribes is in 23:34, where Jesus is pronouncing the last of the seven woes on the ‘scribes and Pharisees’; in contrast to these unrighteous leaders, who had always persecuted those truly sent from God (vv. 29ff.), Jesus promised to send his own ‘prophets and wise men and scribes’, some of whom will likewise be persecuted and even killed (v. 34). The reason is that, using the metaphor in ch. 13, the disciples are not like the hypocritical scribes. They are well trained in the kindom of heaven; they ‘understand all these things’ that Jesus has said and done about himself and his work, even if they didn’t understand the full scope until after the resurrection, ascension, and Penecost.

The ‘well-trained scribe’ analogy is really profound when applied to the disciples as apostles. The apostles were those commissioned by Christ not only to bear the message about him out into the world, but to bear his very words by the enabling of the Holy Spirit (see John 20:19-23). As such, their proclamation would bear the authority and power of Christ himself, and because of the accompanying work of the Spirit, their message would carry with it complete effectiveness as the word of God, which does not return to him void but accomplishes all his purposes (Is 55:11). In other words, the written apostolic testimony, the foundation laid once and for all on Christ the cornerstone, isn’t just words about everlasting life through faith in Jesus (or condemnation as a result of rejecting him), but written apostolic testimony effects the very reality it pronounces through the Spirit’s powerful work, either for redemption through faith or condemnation because of unbelief.

Something very much like this is swirling in the background — along with a host of other amazing things — at the culmination of Matthew’s Gospel, the Great Commission. Think about how Jesus describes his disciples as scribes well-trained for the kingdom of heaven, and then hear the Commission:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

One of the amazing things going on here is the fulfilment of the metaphor Jesus used of the disciples in ch. 13. In light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the disciples are commissioned upon Jesus’ authority to make disciples, baptize, and teach in the Triune Name of God, with the promise of Jesus’ sure and continual blessing. This is definitely a job for a well-trained scribe!

Finally, I find it really remarkable that a huge part of Jesus’ words in ch. 13 is fulfilled in the existence of the Gospel of Matthew itself. Matthew by God’s grace and enabling has done exactly what Jesus described him doing: bringing out of his treasure what is old and what is new. That is to say, Matthew as a well-trained interpreter of the scriptures constantly testifies in his work as Jesus’ ‘scribe’ that all the scriptures find their fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus Christ (see for example 1:1-17, 22-23; 2:4-5, 15, 17, 23; 5:17-20).

And finally…finally, an all-too-brief glance back at the Great Commission: What could be a greater and  more majestic example of ‘what is new and what is old’ than “the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”!? This truly ‘new’ reality revealed to us by God is simultaneously the ‘old, old story’ precisely because it is the story’s fulfilment in Christ in the present which by the Spirit guarantees its full consummation in the future.

Well-trained scribes indeed.

  1. Barks permalink
    8 December, 2008 3:02 pm

    You should incorporate Acts 13:47, noting particularly how Paul uses Isaiah 49:6 (a clearly messianic portion of Isaiah) as descriptive of his ministry. I think it would add another level to your analysis.

  2. 8 December, 2008 9:01 pm

    Nice stuff B, I’ll steal it for a future sermon…

    Barks!!!! Wuttup homie. Good point. Hope you’re doing well in you ministry opportunities.
    Thanks again for being so helpful during my last semesters.

  3. 9 December, 2008 9:12 am


    Will do. In another post, say, Wednesday. 😉


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