Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Another Look At The Great Commission
My blogging friend Don Rogers, of the always interesting Reflections blog which I love to read, left a comment on yesterday's post that got me to thinking about what has become known as The Great Commission. Does it mean what most Christians think it means? Does it contradict the theory I advance, that Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher who was preaching the soon coming end of the world and establishment of God's kingdom on earth, by calling for a centuries-long mission to carry the gospel to every individual on the planet?
As that commission is usually understood, Christians allegedly have a responsibility to carry the gospel of Jesus Christ to all the nations of the world, and in effect go to these people and say (when all is said and done and faux-diplomacy is laid aside for what it is): "Look folks, your traditional belief system, the religion of your fathers and your father's fathers is not only totally wrong, but will carry your immortal souls to a place called Hell, wherein you will punished for all eternity for not believing the truth you are hearing from us; there is no other way to Heaven but our way, no other savior upon which to rely for salvation except ours, period."
Nice message, isn't it? And I'm sure one that is appreciated by every Christian in this land when they hear something similar coming from foreign missionaries of other religions who come here to set the record straight (as they understand the matter).
First let me get these passages which teach The Great Commission on here in order to look a bit more closely at them.
I will start with what the version contained in Matthew's gospel:
And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20, New American Standard Bible).
Now in case you are wondering why I didn't start with what most Bible scholars feel is the oldest gospel, the Gospel According to Mark, well, honestly, according to the oldest manuscripts, Mark doesn't record this commission. Originally that gospel ended at chapter 16 verse 8, when the ladies had found Jesus' tomb empty and a "young man" informed them that they should go tell his disciples about it, and: They went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had gripped them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid (verse 8 NASB).
Not a very good ending for a gospel. A definite down note, with much uncertainty. But not to worry, later hands added on to this account, and in bringing it more into line with the other gospels, included the following version of the Great Commission found in later manuscripts:
And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned. These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
So then, when the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them, and confirmed the word by the signs that followed (Mark 16; 15-20. NASB).
(Uh-oh. There's that snake handling thingy I posted about a few weeks ago!)
Lastly, we'll go to Luke's gospel for his account:
Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24: 45-49, NASB).
Wow! Again we are faced with the question: What exactly did Jesus say? Do these sayings really represent an actual teaching of Jesus, or were they added later by his followers as a logic for carrying on the mission of their teacher?
Well, again, I point out that the oldest gospel didn't have Jesus issuing such a commission, ending instead with his resurrection from the dead. It was later added, and with a version more spectacular than the others.
My opinion on this is that Jesus likely did say something about his disciples going on with the good news of the coming kingdom in the probable event of his death (there can be little doubt that he was always treading on dangerous ground with his kingdom preaching, appearing as one leading a potential insurrection against the Roman government). I believe this commission idea was probably part of Jesus' earlier sayings and was relayed out of place as a post-resurrection command as his followers were trying to come to grips with the meaning of the death of their leader.
However, a question I first want to emphasize is this: [Granting for the sake of argument that Jesus did say something roughly similar to what Matthew and Luke record] To whom was Jesus speaking? Christians of today? Every Christian who would follow along later?
No. Clearly he was speaking to his disciples, and it was they who were tasked with carrying on the mission he started but died before completing.
And the many well-meaning missionaries down through the centuries who have been tortured and killed and endured incredible hardship and loss of health in the carrying of the gospel to all parts of the globe did so under a false premise. They might all just as well have first gone to Jerusalem and stayed there until they were "clothed with power from on high" (complete with tongues of fire and speaking in foreign languages they did not know as in the book of Acts, where we find the fulfillment of Jesus' instructions here) before starting their missions, for that was a part of the Commission as well - that they go to Jerusalem and wait.
What I'm suggesting is that the so-called Great Commission is just as dated and just as much a historical matter as is Jesus' original gospel that the time was fulfilled and the kingdom of God was at hand (Mark 1:15). It is in the book Acts that we find the disciples waiting for the promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the beginning of their efforts to carry on with Jesus' mission.
The problem is, people tend to read the New Testament with modern eyes, as having a direct relation to our times. The truth is, Jesus never envisioned a centuries long "church age." When his message is taken at face value, his message was geared to an event that he thought was "in the air" and taking shape in his day and age.
When people read "go into all the world" they naturally assume this means all the developed countries in our day. The disciples, in that age of limited knowledge of the vastness of the planet and limited means of travel, could hardly have entertained the thought of being globetrotters.
Understanding that point, the matter of the Great Commission ties in perfectly with Jesus' prediction that all these things, the fulfillment of the great tribulation, the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the holy temple, the end of the age, and the establishment of God's kingdom would occur during the lifetimes of these commissioned disciples.
To get the true perspective of this, we should turn to Mark chapter 13, which is the earliest version we have of Jesus' great discourse in answer to his disciples question "when will these things be [the complete destruction of Jerusalem' temple which he had just predicted], and what will be the sign when all these things are going to be fulfilled?"
While I won't take the space to give Jesus' entire answer to their question, I hope my readers will turn to that passage and read it and notice especially verse 10, were he said: "The gospel must first be preached to all the nations."
Remember that the upper limit for the fulfillment of all the things Jesus here predicts is the lifetime of that first generation of his disciples:
Even so, you too, when you see these things happening, recognize that He is near, right at the door. Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place (Mark 13:29, 30, NASB).
The conclusion, then, is inescapable that whatever Jesus meant by the gospel having to be preached in "all the nations," it was something he deemed both necessary and doable in the first century A. D. And it also follows that the common popular interpretation of the Great Commission is dead wrong.
It so happens that the book of the Acts of the Apostles, a sequel to Luke's gospel and apparently written by the same author, sheds further light on how Jesus' commission to his disciples was understood. Chapter 1 of that book has the disciples waiting as directed in Jerusalem.
During this period we are told that the resurrected Jesus appears to his disciples, who asked him: "Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” This, of course, is the kingdom that the Old Testament prophets had predicted and that Jesus had preached during his ministry. And we are told that Jesus responded as follows:
“It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (verse 7).
Again, even the qualifier "the remotest part of the earth" must be understood in the context of what was known in the first century. As large as that sounds, it still had a limited scope in comparison to what we know of the planet in our day. In that same book of Acts, chapter 2, we are told that when the promise of the Holy Spirit was fulfilled to the disciples on the day of Pentecost "there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven" (Acts 2:5). I must insist that Jesus' commission to his disciples was something Jesus expected would be fulfilled in their lifetime.
Now notice something else. Assuming as the majority do that Jesus' discourses were spoken in approximately A.D. 33, we notice that another of his followers, the Apostle Paul, who also followed the tradition of predicting an imminent apocalypse, wrote to the Christians in Colossae that the gospel had been preached in all the world in their day, some three or so decades after Jesus' death:
And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach—if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard, WHICH WAS PROCLAIMED IN ALL CREATION UNDER HEAVEN [emphasis mine], and of which I, Paul, was made a minister (Colossians 1:21-23, circa A.D. 60, NASB).
So in summary:
The church today can in no way be fulfilling the Great Commission of Jesus because
(a) it was a commission given only to his disciples,
(b) found fulfillment beginning on the day of Pentecost,
(c) had been fulfilled during the first century as stated by the Apostle Paul,
(d) and was specifically stated by Jesus to be accomplished within the lifetime of the disciples, during which the age was to have ended and the Kingdom of God established on earth.
My position is that the understanding of Jesus as an apocalyptic preacher and prophet is the only view that does justice to his teachings as we have them in the canonical gospels, the earliest credible sources we have, without deleting huge portions of not only what Jesus had to say about the end of the age and the kingdom, but the majority of the rest of the New Testament (which was written from the perspective of being in the "last days" and "last times").
The fiction that Jesus came to establish a new religion that was to last centuries into the future is just that.
The Christians of our day are not followers of the gospel of Jesus. They couldn't be, because the prophecies of that gospel went unfulfilled with the death of his disciples and so are null and void, but instead are followers of a mythology created by the Roman Catholic Church, which created Orthodox Christianity and held the great church councils that established the Christian Bible and decided matters relating to the proper (according to their view) understanding of the person of Jesus. The Catholic Church has also wielded great political power throughout the centuries.
And the Protestant Christians (even the Baptists who claim not be Protestants but the original church of Jesus) are really renegades from the Mother Church who have ditched the tradition and authority of the Mother Church - yet retain their orthodoxy - in favor of something they call Sola Scriptura, the idea that the Bible alone contains all the necessary religious truth.