5-2 The Great Commission
The words of Mk. 16:15,16 are clear enough to the open, child-like mind: " Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved" . Commands to repent, all men, the Lord’s resurrection...these ideas all recur in Acts 17:30; God now commands all men to repent, through our words. These words clearly don't apply to the first century only, for they are intended to be linked with Mt 24:14, which uses the same language about the preaching work of the very last days (even though the context may imply that as a community we will only be obedient to this command once egged on by major persecution). If we say that we are not commanded to obey the command to go into all nations, then we must also conclude that we are not commanded to baptize people. And if these words about baptism don't apply to us today, then there is no command of the Lord Jesus to be baptized. The connection between the command to preach and the command to baptize is made clearer by the parallel record: " Go ye therefore, and teach (make disciples of, AVmg.) all nations, baptising them...and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world" (Mt. 28:19,20), i.e. Christ will be with us in our preaching right to the ends of the world. The special closeness of the Lord in preaching work has been widely commented upon by preachers. The commission of Mt. 28:19,20 is alluded to in Acts 14:21 AVmg. concerning the work of Paul and Barnabas, neither of whom were among the twelve: " And when they had preached the Gospel to that city, and had made many disciples..." . This in itself disproves the idea that the great commission was intended only for the twelve. It is difficult to read 1 Thess. 1:6-8 in the RSV without seeing an allusion to the great preaching commission: as if Paul is saying: 'Well done for realising that the great commission which some of us received specifically, does in fact apply to you too!': " You became imitators of us...for not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere" . And he again seems to have the commission in mind, when he wrote to the Corinthians that to all of us has been committed the ministry of reconciliation [a reference to the great commission?], and in discharging it we are ‘workers together’ with God (2 Cor. 6:1)- the very same word used in Mk. 16:20 concerning how the Lord Jesus ‘worked with’ His men as they fulfilled the commission.
The great commission comes in the context of the Gospel records labouring how the various believers all ‘went’ or were told to ‘go’ with the message to others. This ‘go-to-them’ spirit is what should energize us; and yet in so many church discussions, preaching is pictured as making the church attractive to the outsider, e.g. by making the Sunday morning service more attractive. This ‘come-to-us’ mentality stands in stark contrast to the ‘go-to-them’ spirit of the great commission and the early church.
“Go ye therefore…”
The Lord gave a reason for His command: " Go ye therefore " . " Therefore " . Because of what? Mt. 28:18 provides the answer: " All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore " . Because of this, we must spread the Gospel of Christ to the whole planet, because His authority is over the whole earth. He has that power just as much now as He did in the first century; and therefore the command to spread the Gospel world-wide still stands today. Indeed, His words here in Mt. 28 have evident reference to Dan. 7:14, where the Son of Man is given authority and power over all so that people of all nations, races and languages should serve Him. We must remind ourselves that out of the 5,000 or so languages in the world, the vast majority have no true Christian representatives; and only about half of them have the Bible in their own language. And as of the year 2000, only 12% of the world have English as a first or second language; yet the majority of those holding true Bible teaching, so far as we know, are English speaking. If, as indeed we believe, we alone preach the True Gospel...then we have a long way to go in fulfilling this. Either that, or the scope of God’s acceptance of men from all these languages and nations over time and over space today is far wider than we as a community have thought. Both of these possible conclusions arise from meditation upon the fact that the authority of the Lord must be extended over every nation and language group. Both of them are intensely challenging to our community. Rev. 5:9 presents us with the picture of men and women redeemed from every kindred [tribe / clan], tongue [glossa- language], people [a group of people not necessarily of the same ethnicity] and nation [ethnos- ethnic group, lit. ‘those of the same customs’]. This means that not only redeemed ‘Yugoslavs’ will stand before the throne in the end; but Macedonians, Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Montenegrans, Bosnians...every ethnic group, with every custom, will have representatives who will have believed the Truth and been saved. This idea is confirmed by considering how 70 bullocks had to be sacrificed at the feast of ingathering (Num. 29), prophetic as it was of the final ingathering of the redeemed. But 70 is the number of all Gentile nations found in Gen. 10. And it is written: “When he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the people according to the number of the children of Israel” (Dt. 32:8). A total of 70 went down with Jacob into Egypt; and thus 70 seems an appropriate number to connect with the entire Gentile world. And representatives of all of them will be finally ingathered.
It seems highly doubtful to me that over the past 2,000 years, the Truth has been taken to every ethnos, tribe, clan, custom and language, especially in Africa and Asia. So it follows that only once we have done it in our generation will this come true. The brethren in those parts especially have work to do yet, it seems to me. And we should all support them as best we can. I have a real belief that given the current rate of progress in preaching, the current generation could witness literally world-wide representation by those who understand true Christian doctrine- if we all do our bit. It is very difficult for me to reproduce in writing the kind of picture I have in my mind. But it is a thrilling and all consuming, all-demanding vision.
The same connection between the universal authority of the Lord and the need to preach it is made in Jn. 17:2,3: “Thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to [men]...and this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent”. The great commission says that because He has power over all flesh, therefore we must preach Him. Jn. 17:2 says that because He has this power, He can give men eternal life through the knowledge of Him. The extent of our obedience to the preaching commission- and who can argue that we don’t have freewill as to the extent to which we fulfil any command- this is the extent to which eternal life is given to men. Their eternal destiny is placed in our hands. The authority to save all men and women has been given to the Lord, but the extent to which this becomes reality depends upon our preaching it [this is further developed in Christians Unlimited].
There has always been opposition to spreading the Gospel outside our own environment. Jonah was unwilling to take it to Nineveh, Israel failed miserably in their intended role as a missionary nation, and the apostles showed remarkable reluctance to obey the command to take Christ into all the world in the first century. The women were told to go tell the disciples of the resurrection, but they went away and told nobody, Mark records (Mk. 16:7,8). The other records say that they did tell the disciples. There is no contradiction here; Mark’s point is surely that they were reluctant to obey the great commission initially.
It seems that once human beings enter into covenant relationship with God, they are tempted to become spiritually selfish; to forget that they only have that relationship with God because someone else spread it to them. We must be careful not to justify our own weakness in this area by saying that actually it is supported by Scripture. It seems that the early brethren chose to understand the Lord’s universal commission as meaning going out to preach to Jews of all nations, and they saw the response of Acts 2 as proof of this. And yet “all nations” is used about the Gentiles in all its other occurrences in Matthew (4:15; 6:32; 10:5,18; 12:18,21; 20:19,25). Such intellectual failure had a moral basis- they subconsciously couldn’t hack the idea of converting Gentiles into the Hope of Israel. They allowed themselves to assume they understood what the Lord meant, to assume they had their interpretation confirmed by the events of Acts 2…instead of baring themselves to the immense and personal import of the Lord’s commission to take Him to literally all.
Ezekiel was prepared for his ministry by being told to eat and absorb the roll containing the words he was to preach. He was then picked up the spirit-wind, and transported to his audience (Ez. 3:12,13). The noise of the wind in the wings of the cherubim is elsewhere interpreted as the sound of God's word (Ez. 10:5). Yet Ezekiel 3 goes on to warn Ezekiel that if he doesn't preach the word to his audience, their blood will be upon his head (Ez. 3:17-21). This warning was given after Ezekiel had been transported to the people but sat silent with them for 7 days (Ez. 3:16). I understand from all this was that God's intention was that His message was not to be merely parroted out by Ezekiel, but that it was to be fundamentally part of him; and the message of God's word, symbolized by the awesome wind-spirit generated by the movement of the cherubim's wings, was to propel him forward to make his witness to hard faced men and women. This is the ideal. And yet Ezekiel even when he failed to live to up it, was still propelled forward in the mission. And many a missionary knows the truth of this. I take the way that Ezekiel was told to go preach to the captives, and yet was then taken up and transported there, to suggest a reluctance on his part. Perhaps being struck dumb until the fulfilment of the prophecies (Ez. 3:26; 24:27) suggests this was a punishment of Ezekiel for a lack of faith- for this is exactly the judgment upon Zacharias for faithflessness (Lk. 1:20).
" How shall they hear...?"
It is sometimes implied by those who oppose world-wide preaching that people will find the true Gospel anyway if they have access to a Bible. Taken to its logical conclusion, this argument would mean that we should not preach at all. Yet, as any fresh convert will testify, " how then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?" (Rom. 10:14). This clearly states that (as a general rule) it is impossible to believe in Christ without a preacher (this theme is expanded upon in Christians Unlimited). The Ethiopian eunuch was the classic case of this. Bible in hand, his exasperation boiled over: " How can I (understand), except some man shall guide me?" (Acts 8:31). It is perfectly possible that Rom. 10:4 alludes to this, implying that this man's case was typical [and notice the connections between Acts 8:37 and Rom. 10:9]. Likewise the Lord Jesus spoke of " them also which shall believe on me through their (the preachers') word" (Jn. 17:20)- not through their unguided Bible reading. If all we had been given was a Bible, most of us would simply not be where we are today, spiritually. If I had started reading from Genesis, I don't think I'd have got much beyond Leviticus before giving up on the Bible. Yet there are some who have made it through, from Genesis to Revelation. And their testimony is even more emphatic: " Without doubt I needed someone to guide me, I was just crying out for all the pieces to be put into place" , in the words of one such recent convert.
Paul continues his theme of preaching in Rom. 10. Having spoken of the vital need for preachers, he quotes Old Testament prophecies concerning the preaching of the Gospel: " Have they not heard? Yes verily, their sound went into all the earth, and their words unto the ends of the world" (Rom. 10:18). Paul is doubtless alluding to the great commission here. But he says that it is fulfilled by the preachers spoken of in Ps. 19:1-4, which he quotes. This speaks of the " heavens" declaring God's gospel world-wide. In the same way as the sun 'goes forth' all over the world, so will the " heavens" go forth to declare the Gospel. The 'heavens' do not just refer to the twelve in the first century; the New Testament says that all in Christ are the " heavenlies" ; we are all part of the " sun of righteousness" . The arising of Christ as the sun at His second coming (Mal. 4:2) will be heralded by the church witnessing the Gospel of His coming beforehand. The enthusiast will note a number of other preaching allusions in Ps. 19: " The firmament sheweth his handiwork" (v.1) uses a word (in the Septuagint) which occurs in Lk. 9:60 concerning the publishing of the Gospel. " Their line is gone out through all the earth" (v.4) is picked up by Paul in describing his preaching (2 Cor. 10:13-16 AVmg.). The idea of 'going out' throughout the earth was clearly at the root of Christ's great commission (Mk. 16:15). Yet, as we have said, the " heavens" to which this refers in Ps. 19 are interpreted by the New Testament as referring to all believers in Christ.