The Great Commission

by Vladimir Gelesnoff

THE object of this paper is to call the attention of the Lord's people to a portion of Holy Scripture which has suffered greatly at the hands of men; and which, having been wrongly referred to the church, has done much to help forward the confusion and bring about the present lamentable condition of affairs. We allude to the so-called Great Commission, recorded in Matt.28:18-20; Mark 16:15-18; Luke 24:46-49; and John 20:21-23.

The command to disciple all nations, given to the apostles upon the Christ's ascension into heaven, is looked upon as the Magna Charta of Christian Missions. Matt.28:19 is the scripture habitually read at missionary meetings, the invariable text for missionary sermons and addresses, and the motto of home and foreign mission boards. It is the foundation stone in the constitution of young people's societies and guilds promotive of evangelistic interest and aggressive Christian work; and is pointed out to prospective missionaries as the authoritative order for their departure to, and service in, the regions beyond. Let us be understood. We neither discountenance nor discourage missionary effort. We simply enter a plea to base it upon the proper scriptures.

Two things stand out conspicuously in this command:--In the first place, it is national in character; and, in the second place, baptism and a cluster of miraculous promises--casting out of demons, speaking with new tongues, taking up of serpents, drinking of deadly things without experiencing harm, recovery of the sick by the laying on of hands- -is inseparably joined to it.

There is no authority for consigning these signs to the apostles, as has been so violently attempted. The Son of Man solemnly announces that His hand, vested with all power in heaven and on earth, has woven into one cord two separate strings of promise:

"He that believeth; shall be saved:
Them that believe; these signs shall follow."

The former bestows salvation, the latter miraculous signs upon all believers. Both rest on the same condition of faith, and neither is hedged by restrictions of any sort. We are not at liberty to unbraid this twofold cord, holding fast to the first thread because we can appreciate its advantage, and flinging the other back because it finds no place in our doctrinal system. So closely intertwined are these promises of salvation and miracles, that we do not see how any one can have the hardihood to stretch down the one to the end of the gospel economy, and condition the other with a date. We are not at liberty to throw one-half of this great command into eclipse, and bring the other into sharp relevancy. The words of Christ are emphatic and admit of no possible limitation to those to whom they were first spoken. The miracles are an integrant part of the commission; and, as if to safeguard them from the attacks of that licentious exegesis which seeks to gloss over whatever displeases its taste or transcends the level of its comprehension, it is forthwith added: "And they went forth, and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word by the signs that followed" (Mark 16:20).

It is an incontestable fact that these signs have not followed in the wake of missionary enterprises succeeding the apostolic age. A true interpretation should be able to account for this fact, and that by leaving scripture intact, without either detracting or adding, and without straining its obvious grammatical meaning. Those who read the Bible only to escape the stigma of ignorance, or in a perfunctory way, from sheer sense of cold duty, may view the subject with equanimity and deem it unworthy of their thought. But to those who sincerely love the Lord, and whose aim is to please and serve Him--to those, who have deeply drunk at the well of Divine love and proved the vitalizing energy of God's living oracles, and who draw from its gushing stream with a view to know the Father's will, and, as far as possible in the present state of probation, translate it into the realm of daily experience,--the question of miracles is one of vast importance. How many Christians have needlessly shuddered, pondering the Great Commission with mingled feelings of anxiety and fear, wondering what cause to assign for the total absence of those signs which the Lord said would inevitably follow them that believe! How many perplexities of mind and anxious searchings of heart has the reading of these chapters caused to many reverent souls! Is it lack of faith and prayer? Is it some hidden sin, lack of consecration, or unwillingness to bear the cross? A thousand doubts, springing from a sincere desire to serve God, but fanned by Satan's hand, have invaded many an inquirer's mind; while his trembling heart has swayed from one doubt to another, eagerly grasping every fresh suggestion in hope of finding relief.

With unfaltering confidence in God's faithfulness, relying on this command, some have ventured into heathen darkness, braving disease and danger, only to leave behind sorrow-stricken friends to bewail their premature death, and scoffing infidels to deride faith in God and denounce it as fanaticism. Others, claiming to have these signs, have made of themselves a sad exhibit, learning from painful experience that our "claims" are powerless to veer God's purposes to the support of our ideas.

The solution obviously hangs on either of the two horns of the dilemma: either the Lord has failed to keep His promise, or else we have utterly misunderstood His teaching. Can we waver in the decision? The first supposition is inadmissible: "He abideth faithful, He cannot deny Himself." We are therefore driven to the other alternative.

The confusion is due to failure to differentiate between the kingdom and the church, and one stroke of right division will do more to extricate the entanglement than the tons of literature that have been written on the subject.

Matthew ends his gospel abruptly with the words of the Commission; and John, after the pronouncement of the charge, winds up the narrative by recounting Christ's appearance to the disciples. In Mark's gospel, the words of the Commission are followed by a weighty declaration: "So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken unto them, was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went forth, and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word by the signs that followed." These words direct us to expect a sequel and prepare us for the message of the treatise called Acts, which takes up the narrative at the exact point where it was dropped off in Mark. The disciples baptized (Acts 2:38). They cast out demons (Acts 5:16; 8:7; 16:18; 19:12). They spake with new tongues (Acts 2:4; 10:46; 19:6), took up serpents (Acts 28:3-5), laid hands on the sick, and recovered them (Acts 5:15,16; 8:7; 9:12).

There is, however, another sign in apostolic ministry claiming attention. They raised the dead (Acts 9:40; 20:9,10). This is not without significance. When the "Twelve" were sent off to proclaim the kingdom, He charged them: "Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons: freely ye have received, freely give" (Matt.10:8; Luke 9:6). Healing and miracles are the indispensable addenda to "the gospel of the kingdom." The salvation of the soul included the healing for the body. "And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of disease and all manner of sickness among the people" (Matt.4:23; 9:35; 10:1,8; Mark 6:7; Luke 9:1,6; 10:1-20). Now the Great Commission, as recorded by Mark, and as carried out by the apostles in Acts, is along the same lines as that of the Twelve and the Seventy, and differs from them in only one particular, namely, that whereas those limited the preaching to the lost sheep of Israel, this one extends it to every creature.

The opening sentence of the Acts of the Apostles links it with Luke's former treatise, and proclaims that the ministry of the apostles, about to be related, is a continuance of the kingdom ministry, begun by the Lord Jesus in the Gospels. The same fact is repeated in a solemn warning to the Hebrews: "How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation? which having at the first been spoken through the Lord, was confirmed unto us by them that heard (i.e., heard Him, namely, the `Twelve'), God also bearing witness with them (cf Mark 16:20), both by signs and wonders, and by manifold powers, and distributions of the holy Spirit, according to his own will" (Heb.2:3,4). Clearly, therefore, the apostles acted upon the commissions recorded in Mark and Luke. In harmony with the former, they baptized and wrought miracles; in harmony with the latter, they preached repentance.

The command in Matthew, unlike Mark's and Luke's, is not transported into the Acts. The Twelve never used the three-fold formula in baptizing, and never went to the nations, but confined their ministry to the "Circumcision" (Gal.2:9). To account for this circumstance by a charge of disobedience is to make the cure worse than the disease; for it is an explanation that not only does not explain, but it actually creates a new difficulty. The apostles were men of like passions with us; and whatever plea of ignorance and failure may be made against them, to account for some to us strange proceedings, may in fairness be allowed some force; but to presume that throughout the entire period of ministry, extending over 30 years, all the apostles went deliberately contrary to Christ's injunctions is altogether inadmissible.

We shall be assisted in our quest by keeping in mind Israel's place in the divine counsels respecting the earth. The entrance of the nations into the kingdom follows Israel's conversion, It is when the "set time" to favor Zion has come, and Israel's penitent sons pity her dust, and take pleasure in her stones, and the Lord shall appear in glory, to build Zion, that the nations shall fear the name of the Lord, and all kings of the earth His glory (Psa. 102:13-18). Salvation comes from the Jews (John 4:22). It is when the fountain for sin and uncleanness is opened in Jerusalem, that idols shall be cut off and no more remembered (Zech.13:1,2). The decree of peace to the nations shall go forth from exalted Zion (Isa.2:1-4). Our Lord's command, being in accordance what "what is written," provides that repentance should be preached "beginning from Jerusalem." Now the Command in Matthew concerns the Gentiles exclusively; its carrying out was consequently dependent on the reception accorded to the witness of the Twelve at Jerusalem. The hostile attitude of the nation made it quite evident to the twelve--their eyes having been opened by the Lord to understand the scriptures--that the time for the discipling of the nations had not yet arrived.

In the Day of the Lord, the Jews will return (presumably) in unbelief to the land of their fathers, and Jerusalem will become (as before) the center of God's operations. The Israelitish remnant will then preach the gospel of the kingdom unto all the nations for a testimony (Matt.24:14; Rev.14:6), and the Lord will be specially present with His servants as in the Pentecostal days. Then, too, when the dragon, the wild beast, and the false prophet will be on earth, and mankind, seduced by the lying marvels and harangues of the false prophet, induced to worship the wild beast and receive on their foreheads his hellish brand, the worshippers of God will be baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the holy Spirit. May not "the seal of the living God" (Rev.7:2) be a sign received by the tribulation saints at the time of their triune baptism?

Peter's testimony in Jerusalem met with a storm of opposition and culminated in the martyrdom of Stephen. Samaria received the word of God more favorably, but not extensively. The preaching in Judea provoked a torrent of indignation, civil and ecclesiastical authorities joining hands in persecuting God's assembly. Jerusalem and the whole land of Israel were exulting in rebellion against Messiah.

But God will not be balked of his purposes. While certain prophets and teachers at Antioch ministered unto the Lord and fasted, the holy Spirit said, "Separate unto me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them" (Acts 13:2). It is well to note in passing, that Paul and Barnabas were the first apostles sent forth by command of the holy Spirit; the Twelve having received their commission from the risen Lord before His ascension.

This gospel, which Paul is so particular in telling he received not from the Twelve, but by revelation of Jesus Christ, while not fully revealed in the Old Testament scriptures, was promised, in them and compatible therewith. Though its medium, the Gentiles were brought into the blessing of the Abrahamic covenant and made heirs of righteousness and heirs of the world independently of the legal and ceremonial standing of the Hebrews. These assemblies of the Gentiles (some Jews being associated with them) occupied a distinct place, and had the hope of being saved from the wrath to come (Rom.5:9; 1 Thess.5:9). For the time their position was in the kingdom, and their hope connected with the parousia, or Christ's presence. Their standing was recognized by the Jerusalem Council which issued a "decree" to safeguard them from any possible molestation on the part of the "churches of Judea which were in Messiah."

The commission connected with that economy was the following:

"To Him Who is of power to make you strong by my gospel and the heralding of Jesus, Messiah, in harmony with the unveiling of the mystery silenced throughout the lapse of former eras, but now fully brought to light by means of prophetic writings (in line with the decree of the God of the ages) and, with a view of obedience to the faith, is made known among all the Gentiles--to God, the only wise, by Jesus, Messiah, even to Him be the glory throughout all the ages" (Rom.16:25-27)!

The rendering of the Authorized Version (with which the Revised agrees), "the scriptures of the prophets" is misleading. The Greek is graphon propheetikon--prophetic writings. Now as these writings set forth a mystery, silenced during the course of the eras, it is evident that "prophetic writings" is an appellation bestowed on the Pauline Epistles.

The opening and closing verses of the Roman letter, which Prof. Godet has aptly styled "the cathedral of Christian faith," show the relation between "the Gospel of God" (1:1-4), and "the Mystery of the gospel" (Rom.16:25-27; Eph.6:19), thus:



1. Promised afore 1. Silenced through former eras,
2. To the prophets, 2. Now made known to Paul,
3. In the holy scriptures, 3. And fully revealed by namely the Old Testa- prophetic writings ment (Acts 17:2; 18: namely, the Pauline 28; Rom.1:2; 2 Tim.3: Epistles. 15).

The Gospel of God, or the good news of God imputing righteousness to the sinner on the principle of faith, was promised afore,--has already been the subject of divine testimony. It is according to the scriptures (1 Cor.15:1-4). The grace entrenched in its message was prophesied by the prophets (1 Peter 1:11). The righteousness of God therein revealed is witnessed by the law and the prophets (Rom.3:21), while the heart of its message--justification by faith--was testified to Abraham (Gen.15:6), proclaimed by the prophets (Hab.2:4), and taught by David (Psa.32:1,2). Abraham's justification in uncircumcision prefigured in shadowy outline the position into which the Gentiles were now brought by Paul's ministry.

The Mystery of the Gospel (Paul's) was foreseen and dimly foreshadowed in the Old Testament. The gloomy age bounded by Adam's fall and Moses' rise, conspicuous by its exhibition of Satan's sway over humankind, is its type (Rom.5:14). Paul is sent forth to herald it among the Gentiles, and commissioned to bring it to full view by prophetic writings. The epistles written during this period, especially Romans and 2 Corinthians, elaborate its Old Testament type and prove its compatibility with the prophets. Of the nine epistles to the churches only the three prison epistles--Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians--contain the Secret Economy. The others were written during the transitional period when the apostle was "separated unto the gospel of God" (Rom.1:1; cf Acts 13:2).

When at length Paul's gospel had been "fully preached" (Rom.15:19), Paul repaired to Jerusalem to take thither the contribution for its poor saints from the Gentile "debtors" who had been made partakers of their spiritual things (Rom.15:25-27). Seven days after his arrival, as he entered the temple, the Jews caused an uproar which resulted in his arrest. Note well that the Jews of Asia were the prime movers in this sedition. The Jews in the land had long ago rejected the holy Spirit's offer; and now those of the Dispersion joined hands with their rebellious brethren in Jerusalem. From the outset, they had watched with bated breath and intense rage Paul's progress among the Gentiles. They would fain have forbidden him to speak to them (1 Thess.2: 16), and their malice laid many an obstacle in his way and brought him many a cruel persecution. At last their rage was gratified. Their bitter enemy was a prisoner in chains and could no more go about his priestly ministry of "offering up" the Gentiles. The guilt of Messiah's death is now fastened upon the twelve tribes (Acts 26:6,7). Paul's journey to Rome, the capital of the Gentile world, and therefore also of the tribes of the Dispersion, brings about the final crisis. The last appeal to the chief Jews falls on deaf ears, and only yields fresh evidence of Israel's hostility to Messiah. The final "word" is uttered. The sentence goes forth against the sinful nation. The Roman armies stand ready to destroy those murderers and burn their city (Matt.22:7). God's face is hid from them until that far distant day when they shall look upon Him Whom they have pierced, and wail for Him as one that mourneth for his only son (Zech.12:10).

The outlook for the world was fearfully gloomy. The people through whom Jehovah had counseled to fill the earth with blessing had dismally failed. They had crucified God's Son they had withstood the holy Spirit and become guilty of an eonian sin. Man's wickedness had reached the climax. What will be God's answer to the sinful race which has trampled under foot the blood of the covenant and done despite unto the Spirit of grace? Will He engulf it in a fiery cataclysm? A secret hid in Him from all eternity--a secret which explores the depths of love and scales the heights of glory--is brought to light and proclaimed to mortal ears. He lavishes His favor upon wrath-deserving rebels, and makes them an object lesson of His grace--a theatre for the display of His wisdom to the heavenly intelligences now and the transcendent wealth of His favor in the coming eras. Such is the answer brought forth by Israel's apostasy.

A new economy is brought forth from God's bosom, and a new commission given to Paul "to show in a clear light what is the secret economy which from the eras lay concealed in God, the Creator of all" (Eph.3:9).

The decree of the God of the ages to herald the mystery of the gospel among the Gentiles superseded the commission given to the Twelve, and is now merged into the Secret Economy. With the dawning of this economy, the signs and ordinances which once accompanied the preaching have "waxed aged" and vanished away, giving place to spiritual realities. To introduce the symbols and ordinances of those past economies into the present one, is as contrary to God's purposes as would have been the bringing, into Solomon's temple of the utensils of the Tabernacle!

"We are, then, ambassadors for Christ, as God entreating through us. We are beseeching for Christ, `Be conciliated to God'" (2 Cor.5:20).

May the Lord enable us to "rightly divide" the Word of Truth, and make us faithful stewards of "the mysteries of God."

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