Did the Apostles Obey?

I suppose that without considering all the facts, what many (most?) Christians think and teach implies that they did not.

"Obey? What command are you talking about?"

I am referring to the Lord's last earthly command to them found in what is commonly called "The Great Commission." Read it again:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Go, therefore, and disciple all nations, baptizing them into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and remember, I will be with you always, to the close of the age (Matthew 28:18-20).

These words are often lightly handled by those who promote missionary activity. To merely quote them is usually thought sufficient. Detailed exegesis seems unnecessary, and is frequently avoided altogether. And why not? Didn't Jesus clearly command us to take the Gospel into all the world?

No, He didn't. I beg to differ. His words contain no commission to today's Church. Rather, they constitue a command to the apostles alone.

"Wait a minute," you say. "They must be addressed to us as well because the task laid out was too large for the apostles and, what's more, they simply didn't fulfil the command in their lifetime. Everyone knows that. It's obvious."

See, I told you so! You agree with many others that the apostles failed to carry out the task Jesus assigned to them.

"Well, the task was given to the church - not only to the apostles - wasn't it?"

No, it wasn't. Consider again the context in Matthew 28 (vv. 16, 17):

So the eleven disciples went to Galilee to the mountain where Jesus had directed, and they saw Him and worshipped, but some doubted. Now Jesus came to them and said to them . . . [and then follows Jesus’ Great Commission]

This missionary-educational commission (the commission is not only evangelistic1) clearly was given to the “eleven” (Judas was missing and he had not yet been replaced by Paul). Nothing said in the passage includes others. Indeed, the phrase “the eleven” singles out that body of disciples who alone would be “sent off”2 as Christ’s official representatives to the nations. The phrase precludes the common notion of “disciples” in general.

Because Jesus’ words were addressed to the apostles alone, we must also conclude that the promise to be with them “always, to the close of the age” must have to do with the age in which they lived. This “age” was the interim period of forty years from the time of Jesus’ earthly presence until the destruction of Jerusalem. It was at that time [tote] that the prophecy of the “close” [sunteleia3] of the Old Testament age (Cf. Matthew 24:3) would be fulfilled. But not until the “good news about the kingdom” would “be preached to the whole civilized world for a testimony to all the nations” (Matthew 24:14). “At that time” [tote], moreover, the abomination that left the city and temple desolate occurred and the believing Jews in Jerusalem fled to the mountains across the Jordan (Matthew 24:15-224) as Jesus had commanded them. So, it is plain that the Great Commission was given to the apostles and pertained to the period during which they conducted their ministries. Indeed, if they hadn’t obeyed by carrying the message to “all nations” as a “witness,”5 during their lifetime the destruction of Jerusalem would not have occurred.

“But you can’t possibly mean that the apostles—twelve men if you include Paul as a substitute for Judas—could actually fulfil so mammoth an undertaking.”

Ah, but that’s exactly what I mean. Of course, there is no reason to think that in their own strength or ability they could do so; but remember, Jesus promised to be “with them.” While the task was formidable, it was not too much for the Lord at work through them to accomplish.

“But I still don’t see it. You’ll have to convince me.”

Granted, but the Scriptures alone must do so. There is no other reason for believing what I say. So, take a look at the biblical evidence. Perhaps the best place to begin is with 1 Timothy 3:16:

He appeared in the flesh, was vindicated in the spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was trusted in the world, was taken up in glory.

Note, carefully, Paul listed every one of these six events in the past tense. Either Christ was preached among the nations [Gentiles] or He wasn’t. There can be no two ways about it.6 Your choice is to believe Paul or not!

But, perhaps that citation isn’t sufficient to satisfy you. So, let’s look at some additional verses. Take Paul’s declaration in his last letter: “But the Lord stood with me and strengthened me so that through me the proclamation might be fully preached and all the Gentiles [nations] might hear about it” (2 Timothy 4:17). Paul’s term, plerophoreo (“to complete, to carry out fully” the proclamation of the kerygma) can mean nothing other than that he considered his part in the proclamation of the Gospel as a witness to the nations to have been successfully completed.

Alluding to the same fact, Paul declared to the Roman church that the Gospel “now has been disclosed by order of the eternal God, and through the prophetic Scriptures,” so that it was “made known to all the Gentiles [nations] to bring about obedience by faith” (Romans 16:25, 26). Clearly, since he planned yet to go to Spain to preach, Paul did not think that he alone was the one to “disciple all nations” [Gentiles]. There were eleven other apostles who had proclaimed the same message in the power of the Spirit (not to speak of people like Apollos, Barnabas and numberless other believers (Cf. Acts 8:4). But, perhaps, you are not yet fully convinced. If not, then hear these two verses:

You heard before about the Word of truth concerning the good news that came to you as also in the whole world it is bearing fruit and growing . . . (Colossians 1:6) and “. . . the good news that you heard . . . has been preached to every creature under the sun7 . . .” (Colossians 1:23).

“Well, if I accept your understanding of these passages—and I confess that it’s difficult not to do so—does that mean there is no more need to preach the Gospel throughout the world?”

Certainly not! World missions did not end with the fulfillment of the apostolic commission. Although the task of making the Gospel known among the nations of their day prior to the destruction of Jerusalem was admirably fulfilled by the apostles, there is still a need to proclaim the Gospel everywhere in every generation. Paul was anxious for the preaching of the truth to continue after his death. He wrote to Timothy (to whom he was passing the torch): “And the things that you heard from me before many witnesses pass along to trustworthy persons who will be competent to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2). It is clear that Paul expected a succession of preachers who would continue to spread the Gospel in each generation after him. What I am contending for here is not the cessation of missionary activity, but to see that the apostolic commission was the beginning of it. Careful understanding of a passage of the Scriptures that has been widely misunderstood, however, requires adequate exposition.

As I indicated above, there are still other aspects of the Great Commission that have not received adequate attention. Because of such a heavy emphasis on the present missionary mandate that is supposed to be the subject of the Commission, the large, educational aspect of the passage has been played down.In addition, the significant phrase “all that I have commanded you [emphasis mine]” has been all but ignored. Yet, here we have an educational program for new and old converts alike that we have failed to carry out. Perhaps, at another time, it will be possible to explore these additional aspects of the Commission. For now, it is enough to understand that the apostles did obey the divine command!

In this article I shall not go into the facts of education that loom so large in the commission. It is enough to note that the evangelistic emphasis (“make disciples”) is followed by the command to “teach to observe” what Jesus commanded the apostles to do as they went about baptizing converts from “all nations.” There is, moreover, a counseling emphasis inherent in the command. The teaching is not to be academic (teaching facts), but edificational: “teaching to observe.” That is to say, it involved not only teaching facts but also how to put them into practice in daily living.

The word apostello (from which we get the title “apostle”) means “to send off on a commission.”

The same word is used in Matthew 28:20. Sunteleia means the “full closure” of something. The Old Testament order did not come to its full closure until 70AD.

4  The prayers of the saints were heard and the flight took place in October rather than in winter, and on a Tuesday rather than on a Sabbath day (See Matthew 24:20).

This is an interesting qualification that helps explain what Jesus meant in Matthew 28:20 when he spoke of discipling “all nations.”

The verse does not admit of any qualifications such as “among some nations.” In light of Matthew 24 and the great commission it is a verification of the prediction and the command.

Almost an exact equivalent to the disputed passage in Mark 16:15.

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