After His resurrection, Jesus appeared multiple times to His disciples. During these interactions, Jesus gave the apostles some instructions regarding their mission following His ascension.
Jesus charged them with what became known as "the great commission."
Matthew's account describes the earliest of these recorded such conversations, from Galilee:
16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
(Matt. 28:16-20 NIV)
It's called "the great commission" because earlier in Jesus' ministry, He sent the apostles on a smaller mission around the towns of Israel, only (see Matt. 10). To distinguish the two, that first sending is commonly referred to as "the limited commission." It was limited by Jesus to only the towns of Israel and only the Jews.
Welcome to the 43rd post in my series of rethinking Christian eschatology. Because these posts build upon each other, if you've not already done so, I invite you to read the previous posts in this series before continuing here.
Over the centuries, many Christians have understood that the great commission applied to them and all Christians just as much as it did the apostles.
I used to believe this, too.
However, after my studies of the past several years, I now realize that Jesus' specific instructions applied only to the eleven apostles.
All Christians share a responsibility to evangelize in accordance with their ability and opportunity. But the great commission was given specifically to the apostles.
This realization has some big implications on our lives today.
Let me show you...
Let's analyze these verses from Matthew.
Observation #1: Identify the primary audience
Jesus was talking to the eleven apostles. (Remember, Judas had committed suicide after Jesus was condemned to death.)
Observation #2: "Earth" means "land"
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
(Matt. 28:18b NIV)
While it is certainly true that Jesus had been given authority over all of planet Earth, this statement has a special meaning.
Recall that the word translated "earth" here can also mean "land."
What land, then, was Jesus referring to here? It was the land of the kingdom at that time, the physical land of Israel.
Jesus was saying that He was now in charge of what happened to that land. This is impactful when we recall that John the Baptist had been GOD's last-ditch effort to avoid destroying the land (see Mal. 4:5-6).
And Jesus had already foretold coming destruction on the temple buildings, the city of Jerusalem and the religious leaders.
So this statement conveyed a powerful message to the apostles, one that typically gets entirely overlooked.
Observation #3: "All nations" didn't mean "planet Earth"
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations...
(Matt. 28:19a NIV)
When the New Testament Scriptures spoke of all nations, its writers weren't referring to every place on planet Earth.
Instead, they were referring to the nations where the Jews had been scattered, which was the Roman Empire, which was essentially the civilized world at the time.
How can we know this?
Consider two Scriptures which illustrate.
Here's the first:
1 And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.
(Luke 2:1 NKJV)
The New King James Version, quoted here, more accurately renders Luke 2:1 than other translations I frequently use. Other translations interpolate what is meant by "all the world" in an effort to enhance understanding. See for yourself here.
Luke, by inspiration, used the phrase "the whole world" but Caesar Augustus had no authority over lands outside of the Roman Empire. Luke implied that Caesar commissioned a census of the nations Roman Empire. The Roman Empire practically covered the known civilized world at the time.
The second example comes from Acts 2:
5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”
(Acts 2:5-11 NIV)
Acts 2:5 says that people were in Jerusalem from every nation. Then, vv.9-11 lists those nations. And those nations equate to the places where the Jews had been scattered (because of their rebellion centuries earlier) and those nations were subject to Rome (just as Daniel revealed to Nebuchadnezzar from his vision; see Dan. 2).
Therefore, when Jesus told the apostles to go into all nations, these were the places He was sending them.
This is why there is no record in the Scriptures of places like Great Britain being evangelized and yet Paul could honestly claim every creature had heard the gospel during his lifetime (see Col. 1:23).
One reason why Christians have tended to conclude that the great commission applied directly to all Christians is that, during the time they in which they live(d), they realize that there were places on planet Earth which had not been discovered at the time Jesus spoke these words.
Note that the same thing is often done by misunderstanding Matthew 24:14, which says:
14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
(Matt. 24:14 NIV)
Observation #4: "The end of the age" isn't the end of time
And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
(Matt. 28:20b NIV)
We've extensively covered "the end of the age" already, so I won't rehash everything here.
- The New Testament Scriptures use the phrase "end of the age" repeatedly but never define what it means.
- Therefore we have to look back to the Old Testament Scriptures to see what the phrase means.
- Passages such as 1 Cor. 10:11 and Heb. 9:26 explicitly place the end of the age during the first century.
- The Old Testament Scriptures reveal that the phrase refers not to the end of the universe but to the end of physical Israel and the old covenant.
Thus, Jesus was telling the apostles that He was going to be with each of them personally as they carried out their specific mission to evangelize and make disciples throughout the known world.
What the great commission means for us
The great commission was a specific command given to 11 men.
Yet, in the instructions, Jesus also told the apostles to instruct new disciples to obey everything He had commanded them. As a result, in a general sense, the instruction to evangelize and make disciples is also inherited by subsequent generations of Christians.
Jesus hand-picked these 11 men for the specific purpose of following Him and executing His mission for them once He had returned to heaven. These men were chosen to be evangelists. They were armed with divine ability to recall Jesus' teachings as well as perform miracles to prove GOD was with them.
I used to get depressed and feel badly about myself because I thought all Christians were expected to carry out the great commission and I simply wasn't very good at evangelizing. I still consider myself not gifted in that area.
I mean, I can sit down with anybody who wants to study the Scriptures and I can teach them. But I don't excel at "getting them to the table," so to speak. It simply isn't my gift.
For years I prayed that GOD would help me grow to become an effective evangelist so I could please Him by obeying the great commission. Seeing no noticeable improvement, over time I began to pray for understanding regarding these things and for peace with the gifts GOD had given me.
I just wanted to please Him, whatever that meant.
As I began to study the things I've shared during this series, I began to realize how I'd under-appreciated the "primary audience principle." With continued study, I began to see the things I've shared in this post.
I realized that GOD had unique expectations for the apostles with regard to evangelism, and He had equipped them specifically for that mission.
All the pressure in the world left my shoulders as I realized I hadn't been failing to fulfill GOD's mission for me, after all.
Does GOD want Christians today to teach others about Jesus?
Certainly, as opportunity presents itself.
Does GOD expect every Christian to excel at evangelism?
Does GOD want you to leave your home to travel to some remote country to share Jesus with lost people?
Maybe. That might be GOD's plan for you and if so, if you align your heart and will to His, He'll make that plain to you. But if that comes to pass, it won't be specifically in obedience to the great commission. That command has already been fully obeyed. GOD confirmed it through Paul.
Continue to the next post where we look at how this helps us understand the topic of miraculous spiritual gifts.
Got questions or comments? Leave them below. (I'm truly happy to help. But please, carefully read the entire series first.)