UNQUALIFIED OBEDIENCE TO THE “GREAT COMMISSION”
We have seen that Paul would not have qualified as Judas’ successor, for the Lord had said to His apostles:
“Verily I say unto you, that ye which have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of His glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt. 19:28).
Thus it was that Peter, before Pentecost and the offer of the kingdom, declared that according to Scripture another would have to be chosen to fill Judas’ place—and that this person would have to be one who had “companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John [the first day of Christ’s earthly ministry], unto that same day that He was taken up from us [the last day of His earthly ministry]” (Acts 1:15-22).
The choice of Matthias to succeed Judas was made after much earnest prayer (Acts 1:14), in obedience to the Scriptures (Ver. 20), and evidently under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, for we read that “the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles….And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost” (1:26; 2:4).
This infilling with the Holy Spirit empowered the Pentecostal believers not only to speak with tongues and work miraculous signs, but also to live lives that were entirely under the Spirit’s control, so that we find no trace of error or sin in those early chapters of Acts. Indeed, we read in Acts 4:32,33, when their number had grown to more than five thousand men alone, that
“…the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had all things common.
“And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all.”
This way of life was nothing less than a fulfillment of Ezekiel 36:27:
“And I will put My Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My statutes, and ye shall keep My judgments, and do them.”
This also confirmed Peter’s declaration that the last days had begun.
Thus divinely chosen, equipped and empowered, the twelve apostles immediately began carrying out their commission—all of it.
How futile, then, has been the choosing of commissions by God’s people today! How wrong to select certain passages from our Lord’s parting instructions to bind upon the Church of this dispensation! How wrong to arbitrarily disregard the other passages! Yet this is what is being done by those who believe that both the commission to the eleven and the epistles of Paul belong to God’s program for our day.
The twelve apostles had no such problem. These instructions had been given to them. It was their “great commission” and they considered it all binding, thus they began immediately to obey all of it in detail. Let us now examine all the records of this commission again and see how amply this is confirmed. That their work was interrupted by Israel’s rejection of Christ and the revelation of the mystery, does not affect the fact that they were faithful to their commission in its entirety.
Here it will be necessary only to deal with such details of the commission as have been, or might be, brought into debate. With the rest there is no problem.
“…teach all nations, baptizing them….”
We have seen that the King James translators rendered the Greek ethne by the word Gentiles when used in contradistinction to Jews, or Israelites. Here, however, all nations, including Israel, are in view as noted above, hence the translators correctly rendered the Greek word by our English word nations.
The twelve did immediately begin to obey this part of the commission for, as we know from Luke and the Acts, the apostles made their first appeal to Israel, the first nation to be brought under Messiah’s sway, and those who truly repented and believed were baptized.
A Baptismal Formula?
“…baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”
As we have seen, some object that Matthew’s record of the commission could not have been intended for the apostles because they did not use the “formula” here given, but rather baptized “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 2:38; 8:16). To this we offer a twofold reply:
1. There is no indication that the phrase “in the name of,” etc., was meant by our Lord to be a formula. They were not instructed to repeat these words, but simply to baptize in the name of, or by the authority of, the triune God, just as a British officer might apprehend a criminal in the name of the queen, or an American officer might shout: “Stop, in the name of the law!” or our ambassador to France might speak or act in the name of the government of the United States. The repetition of words here is not in question, but rather the authority of the representative. Furthermore, when we read that people were baptized “in the name of the Lord Jesus,” we must not forget that “in Him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily” (Col. 2:9).
2. Matthew’s record clearly states that this commission was for their obedience. “Go ye,” is the Lord’s simple command, and it is a perversion of Scripture to conclude that He must have meant this order to be carried out by others who will live at a future time.
Obedience to Moses’ Law and All the Lord’s Commands
“Teaching them to observe all things, whatsoever I have commanded you.”
We have seen from Galatians 4:4, Matthew 23:1-3 and 28:20 that our Lord Himself was under the law of Moses and taught His disciples complete subjection to the law. Thus, in obedience to His instructions in Matthew 28:20 the twelve taught their hearers subjection to Moses’ law and set the example themselves.
1. In those early chapters they practically lived in the temple. In Acts 2:46 we find them “continuing daily with one accord in the temple.” See also Acts 3:1,3,8,11; 5:20,21,25,42. In the last of these verses we read that “daily in the temple, and in every house, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ.”
2. We are informed in Acts 22:12 that Ananias, the person who baptized Paul, was “a devout man according to the law, having a good report of all the Jews which dwelt there” (Acts 22:12).
3. At the great council at Jerusalem it was agreed only that the Gentile believers were not to be subjected to the law of Moses. The status of the Jews was not even discussed. It is evident that they had, until that very time, remained under the law, and they evidently assumed that they were so to continue. God had not yet given the twelve any revelation delivering believing Jews from the law (See Acts 15:1,19,21; Gal. 2:3,7,9).
4. In the latter part of Acts (21:20-25), we are specifically informed that whereas it had been “written and concluded” that the Gentiles should not be subjected to the law of Moses, the Jews which believed remained “zealous of the law.”
5. Not until the raising up of the Apostle Paul do we hear any such declaration as: “But NOW the righteousness of God without the law is manifested” (Rom. 3:21), or “through this man [Christ] is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins; and by Him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38,39).
As to the Sermon on the Mount and the other commands referred to in Chapter 3, they obeyed these too. They did liquidate their assets and turn the proceeds over for the common good.
Acts 2:44,45: “And all that believed were together, and had all things common;
“And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.”
Acts 4:32,34,35: “And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.”
“Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold,
“And laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.”
Even the apostles went forth in obedience to Matthew 10:9,10, carrying “neither gold, nor silver, nor brass in their purses,” so that Peter could say to the lame man at the temple gate: “Silver and gold have I NONE” (Acts 3:6).
This was indeed a foretaste of the wonderful kingdom of Christ, the “times of refreshing” referred to in Acts 3:19. What blessed fellowship, with everyone spontaneously living for others rather than for self!
So the apostles immediately began to carry out all the details of that segment of their commission recorded in Matthew 28:18-20. They did not, like some today, presume to choose what they should obey and ignore the rest.
It is true that they did not get to all nations with this wonderful program, but this was not due to any failure on their part. As we have seen, it was because Israel, the first nation, stubbornly rejected Messiah, so that God finally set her aside (temporarily) as a nation and, in matchless mercy and love, interrupted the prophetic program, ushering in the present parenthetical dispensation of grace through Paul, who had been our Lord’s bitterest enemy on earth but was now the appointed herald of His infinite grace.
“Preach the gospel.”
Many have supposed that this command of our Lord conclusively proves that the commission to the eleven is for our obedience, but this is not so. We have demonstrated by the clearest Scripture that the eleven at that time knew nothing of the gospel of the grace of God. They knew only “the gospel of the kingdom.” True, the King had now been crucified and raised from the dead, but this did not change the basic content of their message. Only now, rather than proclaiming the kingdom “at hand,” they could actually offer the return of Christ to sit on David’s throne, along with “the times of refreshing,” which every true Israelite longed for (Acts 2:29-31; 3:19-21).
Baptism and the Remission of Sins
“He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.”
The apostles preached and practiced exactly this. When some of Peter’s hearers were convicted of their sins and asked: “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” Peter did not tell them that Christ had died for their sins and that they could receive salvation as the gift of God’s grace, apart from religion or works. Rather he said:
“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).
Years ago, in a series of debates on dispensationalism, the author asked his opponent: “Suppose, after a Sunday evening service, some of your hearers were convicted of their sins and asked you and your co-workers: `Men and brethren, what shall we do?’ Would you tell them what Peter told these convicted sinners at Pentecost?” “Why, of course!” he exclaimed. “In those words?” I persisted. He thought for a moment and then replied: “Well, I guess not exactly in those words.” The fact is that this pastor would not at all have said to his hearers what Peter said to his. Even though a Baptist, he would not have said: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins,” for he believed that subjection to water baptism should be left to each believer’s conscience, and he did not believe that it had anything to do with salvation. He would rather have said what Paul said when the convicted Gentile jailor asked: “What must I do to be saved?” Like Paul, he would have said: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved…” (Acts 16:31). But Peter, at Pentecost, preached what he was commanded to preach under his commission: “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.”
The Sign Gifts
“And these signs shall follow them that believe….”
Filled with the Holy Spirit, the apostles and disciples also began carrying out this part of their great commission:
Acts 2:4: “And they…began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.”
Acts 2:43: “And…many wonders and signs were done by the apostles.”
This, of course, did not please the Jewish leaders, but they could not gainsay the facts. We find the members of the Sanhedrin discussing the situation in Acts Chapter 4.
Acts 4:16: “What shall we do to these men? for that indeed a notable miracle hath been done by them is manifest to all them that dwell in Jerusalem; and we cannot deny it.”
And the evidence mounted even higher after that.
Acts 5:16: “There came also a multitude out of the cities round about unto Jerusalem, bringing sick folks, and them which were vexed with unclean spirits: and they were healed every one.”
Acts 6:8: “And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people.”
Acts 8:6: “And the people with one accord gave heed unto those things which Philip spake, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did.”
It is not germane at this point to discuss the reasons why Paul also wrought miracles, except to explain (1) that God gave him “the signs of an apostle,” chiefly as a confirmation to the twelve and the Jewish believers that his ministry was indeed of God, and (2) that these “signs” were wrought during his early ministry, until Israel was officially set aside in Acts 28:28.
LUKE 24:45-48; ACTS 1:8
Beginning at Jerusalem
Luke 24:47: “…beginning at Jerusalem.” Acts 1:8: “…and ye shall be witnesses unto Me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.”
This they also did. Indeed, so scrupulous were the twelve in their obedience to these instructions that Jerusalem remained their headquarters even when the disciples were “scattered abroad” by the great persecution that arose when Stephen was stoned to death.
The twelve, Matthias replacing Judas, had begun to carry out their world-wide mission, but had not gotten beyond their own nation. We should always associate Acts 1:8 with Acts 8:1 in our study of the Acts, for Jerusalem, rather than turning to Messiah so that the apostles could go on with their “great commission,” had started a “great persecution” against the Church there, with the result that “they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles” (Acts 8:1).
The twelve have often been charged with bigotry and unfaithfulness for remaining in Jerusalem at this time. In fact, however, it was rare courage and fidelity to their commission that kept them there while persecution raged and their very lives were in danger. They remained at Jerusalem for the same reason that the rest fled: because Jerusalem was not turning to Christ. The first part of their commission had not yet been completed, therefore they were duty-bound to remain there.
Certainly the twelve did not remain at Jerusalem because they were prejudiced against the salvation of the Gentiles. There is too much Scriptural evidence against this. Rather, they remained there because they had a clear understanding of the prophetic program and of their Lord’s commission. They knew that according to covenant and prophecy the Gentiles were to be saved and blessed through redeemed Israel (Gen. 22:17,18; Isa. 60:1-3; Zech. 8:13). Our Lord had indicated no change in this program, and He Himself had worked in perfect harmony with it. Before His death He had insisted that Israel was first in God’s revealed program, commanding His disciples not to go to the Gentiles or the Samaritans, but to “go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:6), and saying to a Gentile woman who came for help: “Let the children first be filled” (Mark 7:27). And now, in His “great commission” to the eleven, He specifically stated that they should begin at Jerusalem, as we have seen above.
It is amazing that some should charge the twelve apostles and the Jewish believers with prejudice against the Gentiles because they did not immediately go “to the uttermost part of the earth,” when they were explicitly told by the Lord to make disciples of all nations beginning at Jerusalem and when there is so much evidence that they longed for the salvation of the Gentiles and rejoiced when Gentiles turned to Christ (See Acts 3:25; 10:9,15; 11:18,23,24; 15:3; 21:19,20).
Which took the greater courage, to flee from Jerusalem now or to remain there in the raging persecution, in daily peril of death? Wouldn’t unfaithful men have fled at such a time? We are not blaming the multitude of the disciples for fleeing for their lives, but are rather giving the twelve due credit for faithfully carrying out the orders specifically given them.
“Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them.”
The apostles were surely laboring under this part of their commission when they baptized their convicted hearers “for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38,41).
At the series of debates on dispensationalism referred to earlier, our opponent asked: “Do you mean to tell us that Peter, at Pentecost, did not proclaim the gospel of the grace of God?” I responded that this was exactly what I believed. This amazed him, so I asked him to define the gospel of the grace of God. To this he replied correctly: “We’d have no disagreement on that. I believe that the gospel of the grace of God is that we are sinners, condemned to judgment, but that because Christ died for our sins we may be saved by grace through faith in Him, plus nothing.” I then asked him whether he could find this in Peter’s Pentecostal address. “Yes,” he said. However, we had agreed that in this debate questions would be answered by the Word of God alone, so he stood looking at Acts 2 for some time, until finally he continued: “Well, it does say here in Verse 21 that `Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved,’ but I know what you’ll say about that.” “What will I say?” I asked. To this he replied: “Well, I guess you’ll say that when they did call Peter said, `Repent and be baptized for the remission of sins.'” “Yes,” I replied, “that is exactly what the record says.”
Those who, like this pastor, have supposed that Peter at Pentecost proclaimed “the gospel of the grace of God,” should ask themselves why he did not tell them that Christ had died for their sins, so that they might be saved by grace, through faith alone; why, instead, he demanded repentance and baptism for the remission of sins.
Doubtless this is what is back of Paul’s statement in I Corinthians 1:17: “For CHRIST SENT ME NOT TO BAPTIZE, but to preach the gospel: (The gospel committed to him, of course (Acts 20:24).) not with wisdom of words LEST THE CROSS OF CHRIST SHOULD BE MADE OF NONE EFFECT.” This, the cross, was the heart of Paul’s God-given message. This is what he preached “for the remission of sins,” and this is why his gospel is also called, “the preaching of the cross” (I Cor. 1:18).
Mark 1:4 states plainly that John the Baptist preached “THE BAPTISM OF REPENTANCE FOR THE REMISSION OF SINS.” This part of God’s program was not changed by the commission to the eleven. The great change came later, with the raising up of Paul, the chief of sinners saved by grace. He declared that Christ had not sent him to baptize (as John and the eleven had been sent) but to preach the gospel—”the gospel of the grace of God.”