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The Great Commission-Is it for Today?

By Michael Krall

"And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying,All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, [even] unto the end of the world. Amen." Matt. 28:18-20

"And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. 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." Mark 16:15-18

Back in the 1970's there was a contemporary "Christian rock musician" who prided himself of his efforts to reach the lost with his music and to encourage individual Christians to fulfill the great commission. He stood up at a concert after singing a song and shouted something to the effect of "What are you doing standing around? GO! GO! GO! You are commanded to go into all the world and preach the gospel, so what are you doing standing here?"

That is an illustration of the belief that the great commission as recorded in Matthew 28 and Mark 16 is meant for the individual Christian. Those holding to that view would justify any means necessary to get the gospel to as many people as possible. As a result, we have so called "Christian rock music" to reach the lost teenager, We have "Christian drama" to reach the lost who would never sit under preaching, and a whole host of other unbiblical methods which find no support in Scripture.

Then there are those, seeking to be more faithful to the Word, who see that the great commission was not a command to freelance Christians, but had attached to it the baptizing and teaching of those to whom this gospel was the power of God unto their salvation. They see this as a command to the churches throughout the age to continue this commission as given to the apostles. But is this the proper understanding of the great commission as given to the apostles? We believe that a proper understanding of the great commission as originally given by our Lord will lead us to say otherwise. Many unbiblical methods have resulted from a misunderstanding of the commission which, in turn, has many a decisioned professor filling the churches.

We have entitled this article, "Why Pray?-Just Go!" for a good reason. In our first example of the rock star, we have a consistent position of the great commission that is in force today. If God commands something, there is no need to pray about whether or not we are to do it. Therefore, if an individual or a church is commanded to go into all the world, then there need not be prayer to determine whether or not it is the will of God to go into a certain place. Just go! The fact is many a church seeks to know the mind of Christ through prayer when sending out missionaries. I ask why? Just go!

In this article, we want to show why we believe that a proper understanding of our Lord's words will lead us to see that it was given to the apostles and fulfilled by them. We believe that any biblical basis for preaching the unsearchable riches of Christ must be done by other texts of Scripture, specifically laid out for the purpose of instructing those other than apostles.

At the outset, we want to make a qualifying statement lest some think we see no warrant at all for proclaiming the gospel to any but those already in the church. We believe that it is the servant of Christ's obligation to preach Christ whenever and wherever God gives opportunity. We are not saying that God is not raising up servants to reach those elect that have not yet come into a knowledge of Christ; for this, we most certainly believe, the Lord of the harvest is doing. Paul was clear on that point when he said, "How can they hear without a preacher and how can they preach unless they be sent?"

The question is whether or not we make claim to the great commission with all its implications, for it is our springboard in proclaiming the gospel of God's free and sovereign grace.

Our basic format in studying this theme will be to first look at the nature of the commission as given by our Lord to see if the language suggests that it is to be perpetual. Secondly, we will look at the nature of the gospel church to see if that will present a commission for world evangelism in each local body. Thirdly, we will look at the duties normally assigned to the ministers of the gospel in the church to see if there is any mention of fulfilling the great commission. Finally, we will examine the texts that more clearly lay out the method of proclaiming the gospel to those outside the church.


Our Lord's words are commonly quoted by many as they appear in the Authorized Version "Go ye..." implying a direct imperative to go. But a careful examination into the original language will shed a little more light on the subject. The word translated "Go ye" in both Matthew and Mark is more literally "having gone". It is what is known as an aorist participle which is a past tense. A participle is a verb that is used as an adjective. So here we have a past tense verb describing something. What is it describing? To better understand this and see how it relates to the commission, we need to go back to the commissioning of the apostles. The reason for this is that the very words "having gone" are implying some action already in the past connected with the command given in the commission.

In Matthew 10:5-8 we have these words:

"These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them, saying, Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into [any] city of the Samaritans enter ye not: But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give."

Here, we have the initial commission given to the twelve. Three things should be observed in this commission and how it relates to that given in Matthew 28 and Mark 16. First, they were not to go to the Gentiles with their preaching. Secondly, they were to preach that the kingdom was at hand, or more literally, "has drawn near". And thirdly, they were to "Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils." Let us compare these to the great commission and see the difference.

In Matthew 28, our Lord begins his words with:

"All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations.."

Notice the words, "All power....therefore."

In the Matthew 10 passage, the Apostles were forbidden to go to any but the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But here in Matthew 28, He says that since all power (authority) has been given to Him having gone (the original commission in Matt 10), they are to make disciples of ALL NATIONS, not just the lost sheep of the house of Israel. There is a direct connection between the Matthew 10 and Matthew 28 passage, and that connection is reinforced by the "having gone" in Matthew 28.

Next, we have the contrast in Matthew 10 of "the kingdom of heaven is at hand (drawing near)" and "make disciples of all nations" of Matthew 28 and "go into all the world and preach the gospel" of Mark 16. Before the Resurrection of Christ, the message was to preach that the kingdom was about to come. But since all authority has been given to Christ after He was raised from the dead, the Apostles are now to preach the gospel in its entirety to all the world. Thirdly, we have the reference to preaching, separate from the commission to "Heal the sick, cleanse he lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils.." What is interesting is that these words were not in any way removed from the commission, but were reinforced in Mark 16:19-20.

"So then, after the Lord had spoken unto them, He was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God. And they went forth, and preached everywhere, the Lord working with [them], and confirming the word with signs following. Amen."

Added to the great commission was not only that the Apostles' words would be confirmed with signs and wonders, but that the signs would also be manifested in those believers.

Therefore, we have a striking contrast of our Lord's Word in the great commission, between the initial words and those given after His Resurrection. Before we proceed onto the next point in showing the nature of the gospel church and the great commission, we need to look at the scope of this commission and see if it was fulfilled by the Apostles. They were to go into all the world and preach the gospel, so how can we say that it was given to them? Did they preach to all the world? There are three verses of Scripture that do make it plain that the Apostles believed that they did.

In Colossians 1:5-6 and verse 23, we read these words:

"For the hope which is laid up for you in heaven, whereof ye heard before in the word of the truth of the gospel; Which is come unto you, as [it is] in all the world; and bringeth forth fruit, as [it doth] also in you, since the day ye heard [of it], and knew the grace of God in truth:"

"If ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and [be] not moved away from the hope of the gospel, which ye have heard, [and] which was preached to every creature which is under heaven; whereof I Paul am made a minister;"

In both these passages in Colossians, we see that Paul was quite certain that he had preached the gospel to the world. We know that the known world that they had knowledge of did not include the whole world. But was Paul speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit? Are we to believe he would use the same words as our Lord, speaking by inspiration, and mean something different?

Another passage to look at is Romans 16:25-26. "Now to him that is of power to stablish you according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began, But now is made manifest, and by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith:" Again, we see the language of Paul is quite clear that he was convinced that the gospel had been made known to the whole world.


The second point is the nature of the gospel church. It has always been the belief of Baptists that each church of our Lord Jesus Christ is an independent, autonomous body. Nothing and no one is higher than the local assembly except our Lord Jesus Christ. Baptists do not believe in a universal church like the Roman Catholic or the Mormon Church.

At first glance, this does not appear to be related to the great commission. But if the command to go into all the world is a command to the church, then I ask "which church?" If we believe that each church is independent, then each church would be responsible to fulfill that great commission and go into all the world. But has there ever been a church that has done that? Unless we concede that there is one, "Holy Catholic (universal) Church," how are we to say the church has been or can fulfill this commission? Do we have any other example of a command given to the church that could not be fulfilled by any particular local assembly? In response to that, one can say that when a church seeks to go to various parts of the world, that church is fulfilling their part of the great commission. But Jesus did not say ATTEMPT to go to various parts of the world, but GO into the whole world. So, we can conclude that if the church of Jesus Christ is a local, independent autonomous body, then we cannot assign the duties in the great commission to any one local church.


The third point is to examine the verses that describe the duty of those in the church. There is one texts that we can call a "watershed passage" in regards to this. "And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: That we [henceforth] be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, [and] cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, [even] Christ: From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love." Eph. 4:11-16.

Here we have a clear description of the various ministries of the church including the apostles and evangelists, and we see no mention of what is commonly called evangelism. The primary duty of the ministers of the gospel is to edify the church by building up the faith of the child of God.


Our last point is to examine the verses in the New Testament that give us the basis for preaching the unsearchable riches of Christ for the gathering in of the elect. If it is not the great commission that is to be our starting point, what then is the minister of the gospel's basis for preaching the gospel to the lost? Are we suggesting that there should be no concern at all the lost? To take that position, would be to deny many portions of Scripture. What we do believe is that faithfulness to the call of God in a preachers life is not tested by how faithful he is to the great commission. If that were the case, then no servant of Christ could be faithful to his call. Who do you know that has preached the gospel to the whole world? What church has done that?

Let us examine two texts that we believe lay a groundwork for the preaching of Christ to sinners. We have already established that the primary duty of a gospel minister is to feed the sheep for the gospel is sheep food, not goat food. We showed how God has put certain gifts in the church for the edifying of the saints. It is a common practice in many churches to consider preaching the gospel in a Sunday morning sermon to be another way of saying that the sermon will be more evangelical in that it is aimed at the unsaved. Paul did not seem to think that the preaching of the gospel was somehow different from what was preached sheep for their edification. Notice Paul's words in a passage we already looked at in another context.

"Now to him that is of power to stablish you according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began," Rom 16:25.

It is beyond the scope of this work to look into the difference between the preaching of Jesus and the preaching of the gospel, but one thing for sure is that both of these are methods are used in establishing the child of God in the faith.

But what about beyond that in reaching the lost elect to bring them into the fold? Are we not to aggressively reach out and save as many as we can? The only basis for such a claim is the great commission, if it is, indeed, for us today. Since we believe that before God we have handled the Word of God honestly in showing that the great commission was given to and for the apostles, what is the minister of the gospel to do?

There are two passages in the New Testament, one by Paul and one by Peter, that collectively give us a good rule to follow in reaching the lost:

In 2 Timothy 4 we read "Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine." Here Paul instructs Timothy how he is to preach. He is told to be "instant in season and out of season". Now couple this with Peter's words in 1Peter 3:15:

"But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and [be] ready always to [give] an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear." Peter is basically saying the same thing to those to whom he is writing even though they were not all preachers of the gospel as was Timothy. What he was saying, as did Paul, was to always be ready as God would give opportunity to preach the gospel or bear witness to the truth of the work of grace in our own lives. Peter's whole emphasis is to be a good witness to the work of grace in your own life that the Lord might be pleased to use that as a means to bear witness to the gospel. Notice his words in the following verse: "Having a good conscience; that, whereas they speak evil of you, as of evildoers, they may be ashamed that falsely accuse your good conversation in Christ."

It is much easier to be aggressive and on the offensive to "win the lost" than it is to be an example and use the defensive method of proclaiming the Truth. These words of Peter are not put in an aggressive manner where the individual is on the offensive. It is reactionary in that it is a responsive reaction. He is basically saying be instant in season and out of season. The word used in the text for "answer" in some versions is even translated as "defense". It means to give a defense of the gospel when asked. The word in the original is "apologian" derived from two words "speak" and "from". We are to always speak from a certain position. That position is the authority of the Word of God bearing witness to the truth as it is in Jesus.

What are we to say to these things? Some will ask if it really matters as to what Version one uses to win the lost as long as they get won. All that believe in the free and sovereign grace of God, will acknowledge that the poorest methods can be used of God to save his elect. We can also agree that the best of methods will not save any more than the elect. But there are two dangers when one departs from the methods that God has laid out in his word.

First, there is the danger of decisionism. Whenever there is aggressive evangelism, there is always the danger of an emotional reaction which results in many responding with no real sense of the need for salvation. The Gospel is for the sinner who has been brought through the work of the Spirit to see his lost condition before a holy God. When aggressive evangelism is used as a method in the name of fulfilling the great commission, (and that is usually the text they use to justify it), it is most certainly to result in a mass number of decisioned professors.

The second danger is the possibility of all kinds of pragmatic methods being adopted in order to be faithful to this great commission. Some have so far as to say that it is okay to even lie and break the law in order to get bibles into countries that prohibit Bibles. Can we justify such a practice? Yes, if we are all under the command to go into all the world.

The Lord knows where his elect are, and in His Providence, He will lay upon the hearts of those He calls to go wherever and whenever He commands. But when He does that, the same principle that was given to the Apostles in their commission will be given to that servant. Note these words of our Lord: "... freely ye have received, freely give. Provide neither gold, nor silver, nor brass in your purses, Nor scrip for [your] journey, neither two coats, neither shoes, nor yet staves: for the workman is worthy of his meat." Matt 10:8b-10. If God is calling an individual to go to a certain area of the world to proclaim the gospel of Christ, then God knows there is elect there and He will provide the means to send the servant there. Just as he lays it upon the heart of the preacher, He will provide what is necessary to send them. But what has happened in the place of that biblical principle is the tithe's hawkers binding the consciences of God's children to give money to fulfill the great commission.

Therefore, because of an improper interpretation of the great commission, we have many a parachurch organization, many a carnal method of "soul winning" and many a conscience binding money hawker running to and fro in efforts to be faithful to reach the world for Christ. As a result, we have churches full with very little life. Many a solid biblical church has been watered down by the vast number of decisioned professors. As a result, we have woman preachers, homosexual preachers, and many other non-biblical practices in once solid, Biblical churches.

The question needs to be asked: "Who has required this at your hand?"

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