Part 4: What This Commission Does and Does Not Say
by Pastor Cornelius R. Stam
The author, in his youth, heard many messages on the so-called “great commission,” but they were all devotional or inspirational in character. Though thrown into contact from his earliest youth with great men of God from far and near, and rejoicing in the light they brought on the lately-recovered truth of our Lord’s imminent return, he does not recall one single exposition of the commission as a whole, or one series of Bible studies, in which it was explained exactly what our Lord did and what He did not say in this commission.
It did not take him long, however, to realize that the commission to the eleven does not harmonize with our God-given message and ministry as later revealed to Paul and outlined in his epistles.
WHAT THIS COMMISSION SAYS
As we consider all the records of what our Lord did say in His commission to the eleven, it is impossible to conclude that this commission pertains to the dispensation under which we now live.
OUR LORD AS KING
Observe how the first record of this “great commission” begins:
“All power is given unto Me in heaven and in earth” (Matt. 28:18). By “power” of course, our Lord did not refer to physical strength or political influence, but to authority committed to Him by His Father. “All authority is given unto Me in heaven and in earth.” (“Heaven and earth,” because the kingdom, or government of heaven was to be established on earth (Matt. 5:3,5; 6:10 cf. Dan. 2:44).)
“Go ye therefore….” Does not this opening statement of our Lord’s commission to His eleven apostles associate their ministry immediately with His kingdom and His right to reign? (Cf., Acts 2:29-31; 3:19-21). Thus the passage continues:
“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations…” (Ver. 19). (The Greek word ethne, or nations, is generally rendered Gentiles when used in contra-distinction to the Jews. However, the King James translators correctly rendered it nations here, for the apostles were to make disciples of all nations, including Israel. Indeed, Israel was the first nation the apostles were to bring to Messiah’s feet (See Luke 24:47; Acts 1:8 cf. Acts 3:25,26; 13:46).)
TEACHING THEM TO OBSERVE ALL THINGS
But what should the nations be taught? What was the apostles’ message to them? The next verse gives us at least part of the answer—an important part:
“Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Ver. 20). Are we to obey this specific command of our Lord’s commission to the eleven? If we do we will surely bind our hearers hand and foot with the law of Moses, its sabbath observance, its sacrifices and all the other ceremonies.
Galatians 4:4 clearly states that our Lord, when on earth, was “made under the law,” and the records of His earthly ministry bear witness that this is so. Indeed, as we have seen, the Lord commanded His disciples to obey the scribes and Pharisees because they occupied Moses’ seat (Matt. 23:1-3).
In this connection it is interesting to note that the disciple who baptized Paul was “a devout man according to the law” (Acts 22:12) and that as late as Acts 21:20 those who had been working under the so-called “great commission” said to Paul: “Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law.”
Can we, then, carry out the commission to the eleven without bringing our hearers under Moses’ law and contradicting all that Paul, by divine revelation, later taught about the law and about salvation by grace, through faith, entirely apart from the law?
But there is more involved here, for in His Sermon on the Mount and all through His ministry our Lord had given His disciples many commands besides those contained in the law of Moses. We cite a few:
Matt. 5:42: “Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.”
Matt. 6:25,26: “Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?
“Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?”
Some have neutralized the force of this latter passage by interpreting the phrase “take no thought” to mean “don’t worry” or “don’t be anxious,” but this wrests the meaning of the next verse, where our Lord calls His disciples’ attention to “the fowls of the air,” and says: “They sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?” Thus Verse 25 stands just as it is. As His followers they were to give freely to those in need, nor were they to lay up store for the future since their heavenly Father, who cares even for the birds of the air, would surely care for them.
Little wonder the Sermon on the Mount is called “the charter of the kingdom,” for during our Lord’s kingdom reign His people will spontaneously care for each other rather than for themselves—as indeed they did in the Pentecostal foretaste of His reign.
Our Lord had strong words about the importance of obedience to these commands. As He closed this great sermon He said:
“And every one that heareth these sayings of Mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand:
“And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it” (Matt. 7:26,27).
When the rich young ruler pressed our Lord as to eternal life and asked, “What lack I yet?” the Lord replied:
“If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow Me” (Matt. 19:21).
This too has been neutralized by the suggestion that the Lord said this to the young ruler because He knew that his riches stood in the way of his salvation. But our Lord had instructed His apostles to do the same!
Matt. 10:8-10: “…freely ye have received, freely give.
“Provide neither gold, nor silver, nor brass in your purses.
“Nor scrip [bag] for your journey, neither two coats, neither shoes, nor yet staves: for the workman is worthy of his meat.”
Is this the way we should send our missionaries out today?
Indeed, our Lord even gave a similar command to all of His disciples.
Luke 12:33: “Sell that ye have, and give alms; provide yourselves bags which wax not old, a treasure in the heavens that faileth not, where no thief approacheth, neither moth corrupteth.”
Thus the Lord gave the same instructions to one man, to His twelve apostles, and to all of His followers. As they prayed for the establishment of His kingdom (Matt. 6:10), and preached that it was “at hand” (Matt. 10:7), they were also to practice it, not laying up store for themselves, but rather caring for others and trusting God to provide for them (Matt. 10:8-10). This was to be the way of life in the prophesied kingdom.
If we, then, are to work under the commission given to the eleven, teaching men to observe all that Christ commanded His followers, should we not close out our bank accounts, liquidate all our assets and distribute to the poor? Surely Matthew 28:20 is one important part of the so-called “great commission” which is not obeyed today. Presently we shall see that it cannot and should not be practiced during “this present evil age.”
Moreover, if we would strictly obey this commission we would have to baptize our “converts” (Ver. 19). But could we then avoid associating this baptism with what John the Baptist said about the subject:
“And I knew Him not; but that He should be made manifest to Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water” (John 1:31).
Surely the essential purpose of water baptism had not changed since John, for under the so-called “great commission” the apostles baptized for the remission of sins just as John had done (Mark 1:4 cf. Acts 2:38).
And if we baptized our “converts” with water, would we not be doing what Paul said he had not been sent to do?
“For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel; not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect” (I Cor. 1:17).
Do we hear the objection that Paul did baptize some? Of course! He also circumcised Timothy, he spoke with tongues, he prophesied and wrought many miracles, but this all belonged to the program under which he was saved and from which he emerged. None of these things belonged to his special commission. Thus the fact remains that while the Scriptures state that John the Baptist was sent to baptize and the eleven were sent to baptize (Mark 16:15,16), it states with equal clarity that Paul was not sent to baptize. Indeed, if he had been sent to baptize it would surely have been a sin on his part to thank God that he had baptized so few among the Corinthians (I Cor. 1:14-16). All this receives even greater emphasis as we consider what Mark’s record of the commission says about baptism.
Mark’s segment of the commission begins with the well-known words: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15).
The fact that our Lord here sent His apostles forth to preach “the gospel” is to many proof positive that we are to work under this commission.
But is it not illogical to assume that the Lord referred here to “the gospel of the grace of God,” which was only later committed to Paul? To this some reply on the basis of Galatians 1:8,9, that the Bible contains only one gospel. But Galatians 1:8,9 says no such thing. How could the Bible contain only one gospel when it so clearly distinguishes between “the gospel of the kingdom” (Matt. 4:23), “the gospel of the circumcision” (Gal. 2:7), “the gospel of the uncircumcision” (Gal. 2:7), “the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24), etc.? Does a housewife label the jars in her pantry, “peaches,” “pears,” “corn,” tomatoes,” etc., because they all contain the same thing?
In Galatians 1:8,9 Paul simply states that if any preached to the Gentiles any other gospel than he had preached to them they would be cursed. And those who claim to be working under the so-called “great commission” should consider this solemn passage most thoughtfully and prayerfully, for it is the common disregard of this warning that has brought upon the Church the curse of confusion and division which renders its ministry so ineffective.
Those who hold that the Bible contains only one gospel should also consider that after the twelve had been preaching “the gospel” (Luke 9:6) for some two years, and the Lord, in the shadow of the cross, told them that He must suffer and die and arise again,
“…they understood none of these things: and this saying was hid from them, neither knew they the things which were spoken” (Luke 18:31-34).
In fact we are clearly told in Matthew 16:21,22 that when the Lord began to tell His disciples that He must soon suffer and die, He was rebuked for it:
“Then Peter took Him, and began to rebuke Him, saying, Be it far from Thee, Lord: this shall not be unto Thee.”
How, then, could the apostles have been preaching “the gospel of the grace of God”? They had not been engaged in “the preaching of the cross,” for they did not even know that Christ was to die, much less what His death would accomplish. They had been preaching about His throne, not His cross, about His reign, not His death.
With their message, before His crucifixion as well as after, went the healing of the sick. Luke 9:2 and other passages declare that:
“…He sent them to preach the kingdom of God, and to heal the sick.”
And in Acts 3:19-21 we find Peter offering the return of Christ to Israel and the long-promised “times of refreshing,” on condition that they would “repent and be converted.” How much those early chapters of the Acts have to say about the healing of the sick! We will deal further with this subject in connection with the “signs” of the commission here in Mark.
BAPTISM FOR SALVATION
But more. In connection with “the gospel” which the eleven were to proclaim under our Lord’s commission as found in Mark’s record, there was water baptism for salvation. Could this be stated any more clearly than it is in Mark 16:16:
“He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.”
How shallow is the argument that the latter part of this verse somehow changes the meaning of the former simply because our Lord did not say: “He that believeth not and is not baptized shall be damned”! If one did not believe would he likely be baptized? And if an unbeliever were baptized would that save him? Thus the meaning is clear just as the passage reads. “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned”—i.e., whether or not he is baptized.
ALTERING THE SCRIPTURES
Bible-believers who hold that we are to work under this commission find it very difficult to accept this verse just as it reads, thus they generally change it to suit their beliefs. The most popular alteration of this passage is that made by our Baptist friends. They interpret it to say: “He that believeth and is saved should THEN be baptized.” But this is not what it says, and to alter the Holy Word of God in this way is a most serious offense indeed. It is with such alterations of Scripture that false teaching begins. (See the author’s booklet, False Teachers.)
The man of God who does this may indeed appear to be forced into such a position, since he knows from Paul’s epistles that salvation is by grace, apart from religion or works and he thinks he knows that we are to labor under the so-called “great commission.” However, it is always better to wait for further light than to be found tampering with the Word of God.
Remember, the man in the pew has good reason to ask: “If my pastor changes this passage to uphold his own views, what other passages may he change next?” Indeed, he may well conclude that in this measure his pastor is already a false teacher. He is certainly not teaching what the passage says, and the seriousness of this fact is aggravated when it is considered that the alteration is made in no less important a matter than a divine commission to evangelize the world.
But when a man of God who believes we should be working under this commission, frankly confesses that he does not know how to explain Mark 16:16, and resolves to wait and pray for further light—that man is in the right attitude to receive further light when God imparts it to him.
There is another strong argument for leaving Mark 16:16 just as it is. Surely no one would question the fact that Peter was one of those to whom this commission was given, and that he labored under this “great commission” at Pentecost.
Moreover, we read of Peter and his comrades that the Lord had “opened their understanding, that they might understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45). With eyes thus opened, the apostles further sat under Christ’s personal instructions for forty days before His ascension (Acts 1:3). And to cap it all, we read in Acts 2:4 that “they were all filled with the Holy Ghost.” We shall pursue this further presently, but surely under such conditions Peter could not have misinterpreted his commission. And are the terms laid down in Mark 16:16 omitted from his offer of salvation, or does he change or neutralize them in any way? Indeed not! Rather he emphasizes them as he says to his convicted hearers:
“Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:38).
Surely Spirit-filled Peter, taught by Christ for forty days, with his understanding opened to comprehend God’s revealed plan, would not have demanded water baptism for the remission of sins if he had not been instructed to do so.
MUTILATING THE SCRIPTURES
This affects one more question about Mark 16:16 which should be answered. If Peter was working in obedience to his commission when he told his hearers to “repent and be baptized…for the remission of sins,” where do we find this commanded? Only in the account given by Mark.
We bring this matter up because there are some who teach that the last twelve verses of Mark’s account of the Lord’s earthly ministry are not to be found in the inspired text. Actually this appears to be a device to eliminate the problem these teachers have experienced with regard to water baptism and the sign gifts.
On what, then, do these brethren base their claim that these words are not in the original? They base it on the fact that the two oldest manuscripts, Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, do not contain them. We are convinced, however, that one can hardly look into this contention objectively without concluding that the last twelve verses of Mark were included in the original manuscripts.
First, it must be remembered that we possess none of the original manuscripts of the Bible. Second, the manuscripts we do have contain Mark 16:9-20 in a ratio of 300 to 1. More than 600 manuscripts contain them. Only Sinaiticus and Vaticanus do not! Third, the Vatican and Sinaitic manuscripts, which do not contain these verses, leave clear indications that they were omitted. Fourth, we have translations earlier than our oldest manuscripts which do contain them. Fifth, we have the writings of fathers who lived still earlier, containing quotations from this passage. Sixth, Sinaiticus and Vaticanus have by now been thoroughly exposed as two of the most corrupt manuscripts in existence. (Here the reader may consult Which Bible? and True or False? both compiled by Dr. David Otis Fuller, and containing the writings of some of the greatest scholars on the subject. Both contain much evidence of the corruptness of these two manuscripts.)
The most conclusive evidence, however, that these twelve verses are part of the original, is that mentioned above: the testimony of Peter. Peter, in Acts 2:38, did make water baptism a requirement for salvation, or the remission of sins. If he was not divinely commanded to do this we must conclude that he arbitrarily stepped out of the will of his Master. But we know that he was “filled with the Holy Ghost,” thus we must conclude that he did act in obedience to our Lord’s command found in Mark 16:16 and only there, as far as baptism for the remission of sins is concerned.
THE SIGN GIFTS
The question of the miraculous signs in Mark’s record of the commission still remains. This great subject should be discussed in a separate volume, but since it is so vitally associated with what the apostles were to do and teach, we must deal with it here at some length.
First let us read again, thoughtfully and prayerfully, the exact words of our Lord’s instructions to His apostles regarding miraculous signs, as we find them here in Mark 16:17,18:
“And these signs shall follow them that believe; In My name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;
“They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick and they shall recover.”
We often stand amazed at the lengths to which some otherwise objective teachers of the Word will go to explain away those parts of the commission to the eleven with which they have problems! A case in point involves the first statement in the above passage, which has been interpreted by some to mean that “these signs shall follow those who believe they can perform them,” or “who believe deeply enough to perform them.” The fallacy of this interpretation is exposed by the verse that precedes (Ver. 16), for here believing is clearly associated with salvation: “He that believethand is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.” It is against this background that our Lord continued: “And these signs shall follow them that believe,” i.e., those who are saved.
Considering the whole passage, then, water baptism was a requirement for salvation, and miraculous signs the evidences of salvation. If this commission is binding upon us today, then this author is not even saved, for he was not baptized when he believed, nor does he work miracles. This would be true also of many great men of God down through the ages whose lives and labors have borne witness to the genuineness of their conversion to Christ. Indeed, this was what troubled John Bunyan as he considered this record of the commission to the eleven.
But the miraculous demonstrations of our Lord’s earthly ministry and of His commission to the eleven had a very particular purpose. They confirmed His Messiahship. In Acts 2:22 Peter declared to his hearers:
“Ye men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by Him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know.”
Later, just after Pentecost, Peter stated in connection with the healing of the lame man:
“Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by Him doth this man stand here before you whole” (4:10).
Thus we read in Hebrews 2:3,4 about the “great salvation
“…which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard Him:
“God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to His own will.”
This “great salvation,” which “began to be spoken by the Lord” was, of course, that of Luke 1:67-77, and concerned His reign on earth. And now, under the so-called “great commission” this message was “confirmed…by them that heard Him,” so that Peter could offer to Israel “the times of refreshing” and the return of Christ upon condition that they would repent and turn to Him (Acts 3:19,20).
These miraculous demonstrations, unlike those of our day, were so evidently supernatural that no one, apparently, questioned their genuineness. Saved and unsaved alike were compelled to acknowledge the mighty miracles of the Pentecostal era (Acts 3:11; 4:14,16, etc.).
LUKE 24:45-48; ACTS 1:8
NEEDED LIGHT AND POWER
There are at least four reasons why we should consider the records of Luke and the Acts together as we determine what the commission to the eleven says.
1. Both books were penned by Luke, thus naturally have much in common.
2. Both relate how before His ascension our Lord equipped the eleven in a special way for the ministry they were to undertake.
3. Both contain the command to “tarry” or “wait” at Jerusalem for the fulfillment of the promise of the Holy Spirit’s coming to endue them with power.
4. Both record the command to begin their ministry at Jerusalem.
In Luke 24:45 the Lord’s commission is introduced with these words:
“Then opened He their understanding, that they might understand the Scriptures.”
No question need be raised as to which Scriptures are referred to here, for the preceding verse identifies them as “the law of Moses, and…the prophets, and…the Psalms….” Thus, the Hebrew Scriptures.
Does this mean, then, that these eleven men now understood every detail of every prophetic passage, with no questions left unanswered? Surely not. It means rather that they now had an intelligent understanding of God’s revealed plan and purpose as presented in the Hebrew Scriptures. This statement in Verse 45 doubtless bears the same sense as if we should say that someone had come to understand the mystery. By such a statement we would not mean that that person now understood every detail of this great body of truth, but rather that he now had an intelligent understanding of God’s secret, eternal purpose, the plan which had been “hid from ages and from generations” until revealed by the glorified Lord to and through Paul.
In the context of the Acts record we find a fact quite as arresting, and one that is generally overlooked in connection with the commission to the eleven. In Chapter 1, Verse 3, we learn that during the period between our Lord’s resurrection and His ascension He spent forty days with them, “speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God.”
Think of it! A forty-day seminar, conducted by the Master Teacher, the risen Lord Himself! Forty days of teaching, with the spiritual eyes of His students already supernaturally opened to understand the Scriptures!
What then shall be said of the many who have charged these apostles, so thoroughly enlightened by the Lord Himself, with being ignorant of God’s plan, prejudiced against the Gentiles, etc.? Surely they, not the apostles, are the ones who are ignorant of God’s plan.
It has often been charged that the apostles’ question of Acts 1:6 was due to ignorance and unbelief. Again, however, it is not the eleven but their critics against whom this charge should be levelled. Consistently the Old Testament Scriptures bear witness to “the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow” (I Pet. 1:11). Is it strange, then, that after our Lord’s sufferings were over and He had been raised from the dead, the eleven should ask: “Wilt Thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?” Of course not. They were correct in now expecting the restoration of the Davidic kingdom, with Christ on the throne. Clearly understanding the prophetic program, they had no question about the restoration of the kingdom to Israel. Their only question was whether this would take place “at this time.”
Our Lord’s reply: “It is not for you to know,” however, indicates that there was one great body of truth they did not understand, or even know about: “the mystery.” God’s secret purpose concerning this parenthetical interruption of the prophetic program was not to be revealed until Israel had rejected the ascended Christ and God had graciously raised up that other apostle, Paul.
Thus the eleven clearly understood the prophetic program, under which they were to labor, but the revelation of God’s secret, eternal purpose regarding the Body of Christ, the Church of this present dispensation, was reserved for the Apostle Paul, whom God used to usher in “the dispensation of the mystery” (Rom. 16:25; Eph. 3:2,3; Col. 1:25,26). (For a detailed comparison of prophecy and the mystery see the author’s book, Things That Differ.)
All this demonstrates clearly the close connection between the commission to the eleven and God’s prophetic program as outlined in the Hebrew Scriptures. Moreover, as a clear understanding of the prophetic program was essential to the fulfillment of their God-given ministry, so a clear understanding of “the mystery” is essential to the fulfillment of our God-given ministry. Hence Paul’s fervent prayers that “the eyes of our understanding” might be opened to comprehend this great body of truth (Eph. 1:15-22; 3:14-21; Col. 1:9; 2:1-3).
In both Luke and the Acts we also have our Lord’s command to the eleven to wait at Jerusalem until they had been baptized with the Holy Ghost. These passages have been erroneously interpreted to mean that the apostles were to pray for the Holy Spirit’s coming. Many a modern “tarrying” meeting has been patterned after this false notion.
The apostles were not told to pray for the Holy Spirit’s coming, but to wait for the fulfillment of God’s promise to send the Spirit. The precise wording is as follows:
Luke 24:49: “And behold, I send the promise of My Father upon you: but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high.”
Acts 1:4,5: “[He] commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father which, saith He, ye have heard of Me.
“For John truly baptized with water, but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence.”
And thus it was that “when the day of Pentecost was fully come,” the apostles and disciples were “all filled with the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:1,4).
This baptism with the Spirit was, as we have seen from the above Scriptures, for power, supernatural power to work mighty miracles in confirmation of Christ’s resurrection and to live lives that were completely under the Spirit’s control (Acts 2:43-47; 4:32-37). (See the author’s book, True Spirituality, for a discussion of the difference between our Lord’s baptism of the disciples into the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and the Spirit’s baptism of believers into Christ today.)
One more detail—an important one—that is found alike in the records of Luke and the Acts: They were to begin their ministry at Jerusalem. Luke’s record simply says:
“…that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47).
In the Acts record we have the geographical order in which their commission was to be carried out, and again Jerusalem is first:
“…ye shall be witnesses unto Me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Well-meaning but confused Bible teachers who insist that the so-called “great commission” is for our obedience, often interpret “Jerusalem” here to be any place but Jerusalem. Only recently the author heard a Chicago pastor say: “Your Jerusalem is Chicago. You must witness for Christ here first. Then your Judaea is Illinois, your Samaria the USA and your `uttermost part’ the foreign field. You must be a missionary at home before you can be used in foreign lands.”
We do not deny that it is true that if a man is not a witness for Christ at home, he is certainly not ready for a ministry in a foreign land. But this is not what our Lord meant in His commission to the eleven. He clearly had in mind something very different from witnessing first at home.
He knew, and had taught the apostles, that according to all covenant and prophecy the nations were to be blessed through redeemed Israel, with Himself reigning as King in Jerusalem, the capital city. From here, and under these circumstances, the blessing would flow to the ends of the earth (Gen. 22:17,18; Isa. 2:1-4; 35:10; 60:1-3; 62:1-3; Jer. 23:5-8).
How, then, could the apostles and their co-workers make disciples of all nations if the nation, God’s chosen nation, did not first repent and turn to Christ? How could the promised blessing flow from Jerusalem to all nations if Christ was not enthroned at Jerusalem? This is why the apostles were instructed to begin at Jerusalem, and to go from thence to all Judaea, Samaria and the uttermost part of the earth.
How perfectly this explains two little-noticed passages by Peter and by Paul! The first, by Peter, just after Pentecost:
“Ye are the children of the prophets, and of the covenant which God made with our fathers, saying unto Abraham, And in thy seed shall all the kindreds of the earth be blessed.
“Unto you first God, having raised up His Son Jesus, sent Him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from his iniquities” (Acts 3:25,26).
The second, by Paul to the Jews at Pisidian Antioch:
“…It was necessary that the Word of God should first have been spoken to you; but seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46).
All this proves with the greatest clarity that God did not usher in the present dispensation of grace at the crucifixion, or the resurrection, or at Pentecost, but later through Paul—after Israel, to whom salvation was first offered, refused it. True, the passage in Acts above refers to a local incident, but what Luke here records about that incident is typical of what was taking place on a national scale.
How much more could be said about the portions of the so-called “great commission” recorded in Luke and the Acts, but the above, we hope, will suffice to prove that this commission is not ours, but is rather related to the prophesied reign of Christ on earth.
If the commission to the eleven were for our obedience and we were even now to begin to properly carry it out, we would have to begin at Jerusalem in an effort to win the nation Israel to Christ. And what success might we then expect? Witnesses to Christ are not even permitted in Israel, and the few faithful ones who are seeking to “rescue the perishing” there must carry on an underground ministry, and operate as teachers, technicians and what not. If we openly organized a group of a few hundred missionaries to go to Jerusalem to tell the people of Israel about God’s grace in Christ, they would be denied entry.
THE POWER TO REMIT SINS
“As My Father hath sent Me, even so send I you” (Ver. 21). How can anyone possibly read these words and eliminate them from the commission our Lord gave His eleven apostles in the forty days between His resurrection and ascension? Yet, with all the talk we have heard about “the great commission” and the urgency of fulfilling this commission “in our generation,” most Protestant fundamentalists have treated this segment of the commission as though it were non-existent—except in such hymns or devotional sermons as have taken note of the words, “so send I you.”
Generally speaking, it has only been when faced directly with the words, “Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them,” that these brethren have even attempted to deal with the passage in greater detail.
It should be carefully observed that when our Lord said, “As My Father hath sent Me, even so send I you,”
“…He breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost” (Ver. 22).
Further, it should be noted that the last phrase of Verse 22 belongs with Verse 23, so that together they read:
“Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained” (Vers. 22,23).
In other words, in sending them forth, the Lord breathed on them, imparting the Holy Spirit and divine authority to remit (elsewhere the same Greek word is rendered “forgive”) sins.
Bewildered Protestants have found it difficult to accept this part of the “great commission,” and in general have vainly tried to explain it away. This, of course, because the claims of the Roman Catholic Church to “absolution” are largely based upon this passage.
Some of the denominations also make Rome’s claims in modified form in their ritualistic creeds—but with reservations and apologies. Others argue that our Lord here merely gave the apostles authority to state the terms of salvation. Others again contend that the apostles were given the ability to discern and declare whose sins were forgiven and whose were not. Still others hold that our Lord meant only to impress upon His followers the fact that through their conduct some would accept Christ, while others would reject Him. But all these arguments wrest the natural, obvious meaning from our Lord’s plain words. If He did not mean what He said, why did He not say what He meant?
Rome, of course, contends that our Lord’s words in John 20:23 mean exactly what they say, and objects strenuously when Protestants modify, qualify, or in any way alter their obvious meaning.
Since the Church of today is, according to Roman Catholic doctrine, a perpetuation of the organization which Christ instituted when He was on earth—and many Protestants agree—this question takes on enormous theological significance.
In Matthew 18:18 our Lord said to His disciples:
“Verily I say unto you, whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
And to Peter personally He said:
“And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (16:19).
On the basis of these passages, along with that regarding the remission of sins in John 20, the Church of Rome claims that our Lord committed authority in spiritual matters to the Church, represented by the twelve apostles and personified in the Apostle Peter. And since the Church of today is a perpetuation of that which our Lord founded (according to Rome), spiritual authority resides in the Church, with the apostolic body perpetuated in the College of Bishops, and one of their own number, the Pope, St. Peter’s successor, as their chief and the supreme head of the Church on earth.
Protestants may lift their hands in horror at such claims, but next to the Roman Catholic interpretation their own arguments are weak indeed.
Must we then return to Rome, acknowledge her claims and commit our souls to men who can either bless or curse us? No, the solution to this problem is again a dispensational one, a question of “rightly dividing the Word of truth.” It lies in the fact that with Israel’s rejection of Christ and His kingdom, God interrupted the prophetic program and through Paul, ushered in a new dispensation, “the dispensation of the grace of God” (Eph. 3:1-3).
The majority of Christians still believe, but with many reservations, that the Body of Christ, the Church of today, began under the ministry of Peter and the eleven at Pentecost. But at Pentecost Peter, “filled with the Holy Ghost,” said nothing whatever about the Body of Christ. Rather he pointed to Joel’s prophecy and said without qualification: “This is that.” Thus Protestantism’s problem with John 20:23 is the result of a “Roman hangover,” the result of following Peter rather than Paul.
If, then, Matthew 16:19; 18:18 and John 20:23 mean what they say, we must acknowledge that divine authority was conferred by our Lord upon the apostles and upon Peter in particular as their head, and that this authority extended even to the remission of sins.
The fact is, that working under their “great commission,” the apostles did baptize “for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38).
Was the remission of sins, then, left in the hands of failing human beings? No, not failing human beings, for not only did our Lord breathe the Holy Spirit into them so that they could remit sins (John 20:22,23), but later, at Pentecost, they were all “filled with the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:4), and with this filling miraculous gifts were bestowed upon them, including the gift of knowledge.
This is the answer to those who ask: “Could not some shrewd person have deceived them?” Did Ananias and Sapphira deceive Peter? They were carried out dead!
Thus the apostles could represent our Lord in His absence, even to the forgiveness of sins, and what they “bound” on earth was “bound” in heaven. Whose soever sins they remitted were remitted unto them as they baptized them “for the remission of sins.”
Note: we do not teach, as some do, that there is saving power in baptism itself. Not at all. But water baptism was required for salvation at that time, thus submission to baptism by water was the natural expression of faith; it was coming to God in the way that He had prescribed. This, in every age, is what has brought salvation.
WHAT THE COMMISSION DOES NOT SAY
A consideration of what the commission to the eleven does not say is, perhaps, a greater eye-opener than a consideration of what it does say.
Unless the author’s experience in this matter is entirely unique, it may greatly surprise many of our readers to note that the so-called “great commission”:
Does not even contain the word “grace,” or refer to “the gospel of the grace of God.”
Does not mention “the preaching of the cross.”
Does not mention salvation through the blood of Christ, much less by faith in His shed blood.
Does not mention Christ’s death as the payment for sin, or His all-sufficient work of redemption as the basis for salvation.
Does not offer salvation as the gift of God, apart from works.
Does not offer salvation apart from the law of Moses.
Does not mention salvation by faith alone, apart from the law or works.
Does not associate Christ’s death and resurrection with our justification.
Does not state that there is “no difference” between Jew and Gentile; in fact, it does the opposite by giving Israel priority.
Does not contain one word about the Body of Christ, or about our divine baptism into Christ and His Body.
Does not contain one word about a heavenly position and prospect, or “all spiritual blessings in the heavenlies in Christ.”
Under the so-called “great commission,” then, we would not be preaching any of the above. And when we realize that all this is the very theme of Paul’s God-given message, and ours, does it not become irresistibly evident that there has been a change in dispensation, a change in program, since our Lord commissioned the eleven?
If the so-called “great commission” is for our obedience and we tell a sinner that he may be saved by grace through faith, apart from works or the law, because Christ died for his sins, are we not working outside, even contrary to our commission?
It is not until we come to Paul that we learn about “the preaching of the cross” as good news (I Cor. 1:18), “the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24), justification through Christ’s finished work, apart from the law and apart from works (Acts 13:38,39; Rom. 3:21; 4:5; Eph. 2:8,9; Titus 3:5; etc.), “the mystery” of the “one body” with its “one baptism,” and its heavenly position, blessings and prospect (I Cor. 12:13; Eph. 1:3; 2:4-7,16; 3:1-6; 4:4,5; Col. 3:1-3; etc.).
Yet today pastors and Bible teachers, living more than 1900 years after the commission given to the eleven, and the subsequent raising up of Paul, claim to be working under the so-called “great commission”! Is it any wonder that an ever-deepening confusion has gripped the Church? (We refer to theological confusion, of course, for we are well aware of the artificial union that the new evangelicalism has partially succeeded in bringing about through its false emphasis on love and tolerance.)