The Incomparable Role of the Apostles
Part II of V
Paul declared, “And God has appointed in the church, first apostles…” (1 Corinthians 12:28). Although the apostles were literally “first” in the church according to chronology, this is not the intent of Paul’s declaration. The apostles were first with regard to rank, order, or prominence. The catalogue cited by Paul in this passage makes reference to the appointment of greatest eminence first, descending to those of lesser significance. The apostles were honored with unequaled eminence in the church.
The special work assigned to the apostles – like Moses of old – was absolutely unique upon earth; and since these men were to sustain a relationship to the church unlike any other in their age or in any age thereafter, there were some extremely peculiar points of distinction that served to identify the apostles. We will now note some of those things that were peculiar to the apostles of Christ, serving to distinguish them from all other Christians:
1. The Apostles Served as Ambassadors.
In explaining the important work of the apostles, Paul confidently asserted, “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were entreating through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20). Notice how Paul affirms the apostles (“we”) as ambassadors through whom the Sovereign (“Christ”) speaks, begging sinners (“you”) to be reconciled to God.
The word “ambassador” is never used in the New Testament to describe any except the apostles. While in Roman captivity, Paul requested prayers on his behalf “that utterance may be given to me in the opening of my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains” (Ephesians 6:20). Some scholars further believe Paul refers to himself as an “ambassador” in Philemon 9, e.g., “Paul an ambassador’ is to be accepted, the original almost certainly being presbeutes (not presbutes), ‘an ambassador’” (Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary, p. 20).
The Greek presbeuo is defined: “be a representative, be an ambassador” (Swanson, 1997, Dictionary of Biblical Languages With Semantic Domains: Greek). The English term ambassador denotes, “A diplomatic official of the highest rank appointed and accredited as representative in residence by one government or sovereign to another” (2004, The American Heritage College Dictionary). The office of ambassador – throughout history – has been one endowed with plenary authority to represent the sending government in a foreign country. In modern times, nations are allotted embassies in foreign countries whereby their ambassadors reside as missionaries, conducting official business in the name of their home government.
The apostles were Christ’s embassy on earth and clothed with the power of the Holy Spirit to qualify them for the work they were to perform. The initial appointment of these men as ambassadors appears in the blessing conferred upon Peter by Christ: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19, NASB 95). The conferment of the same authority upon the remainder of the apostles regarding binding and loosing appears in Matthew 18:18.
The NASB 95 properly translates the original Greek verbal tenses in both of these passages, revealing the corruption of the Catholic system which claims the Pope incurs the right of apostleship to presently bind and loose as he determines. The phrases “shall have been bound” and “shall have been loosed” are perfect tense, passive voice participles. The perfect tense signifies the completion of the binding and loosing as having already occurred in heaven and that the effects of that completed action would remain. The passive voice indicates the apostles themselves had no part in the decision of binding or loosing. God had already bound and loosed in heaven what these men would bind and loose on earth in their role as ambassadors.
The same is true in the affairs of world governments as well. The Congress of the United States is the legislative body that enacts laws and treaties by which this country will conduct business. The ambassadors for the United States serve as representatives of the established legislation. The apostles of Christ could only bind or loose consistent with the Law that had been decreed in heaven. This is further seen in Christ’s promise to the apostles of “the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you” (John 15:26).
Another unique function of the ambassador is delivering or receiving terms for peace or negotiating treaties of alliance. God commanded Israel, “When you approach a city to fight against it, you shall offer it terms of peace. If it agrees to make peace with you and opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall become your forced labor and shall serve you. However, if it does not make peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it” (Deuteronomy 20:10-12). Josephus paraphrased, “but when you are about to go to war, send ambassages and heralds to those who are your voluntary enemies, for it is a right thing to make use of words to them before you come to your weapons of war” (Antiquities, 4. 296).
In Jesus’ parable of the nobleman who “went to a distant country to receive a kingdom for himself,” it is stated that “his citizens hated him and sent a delegation (apesteilan presbeian) after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to reign over us” (Luke 19:12-14). The “ambassador” of this passage was sent as a representative of fellow citizens who opposed the ascension of one of their own to a throne of power, i.e., the Jews rejection of Christ.
In relating parables on the cost of discipleship, Jesus described the actions of a king who set out to do battle with another king, but realizing the inability of his own army to successfully face the approaching army, “he sends a delegation (presbeian aposteilas) and asks for terms of peace” (Luke 14:31-32). The meaning of Jesus’ parable is clear: mankind, acting as king of his own life, should weigh the inevitable loss to be incurred in a battle with God; and while the wrath of God “is still far away,” terms for peace should be desperately sought in order to avoid disaster.
It is in this manner of ambassadorship that Paul speaks for all the apostles, saying, “He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20). The apostles were entrusted with the terms of peace, being sent out with a treaty of alliance whereby the enemies of God may be reconciled as friends and saved from the wrath of God (Romans 5:8-11). Paul spoke of “the authority which the Lord gave me for building up and not for tearing down” (2 Corinthians 13:10).
The gospel entrusted to the apostles came directly from heaven and had no origination from man (Galatians 1:11-12). Acting as emissaries on behalf of Christ by preaching the gospel to all nations, Paul acknowledged, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves” (2 Corinthians 4:7). Although many preachers today build great oratory lectures around this particular statement (promoting and exalting modern evangelists as the ones now possessing the “treasure in earthen vessels”), this particular phrase actually has no contemporary representation.
The apostle’s statement is with reference to the inspiration, revelation, and confirmation of the gospel which emanated from the human ambassadors of Christ. The expression “earthen vessels” most likely alludes to the creation of man from the dust of the earth (Genesis 2:7). But what man today possesses “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16)? Where are the men who can be questioned independently on the most difficult topics involving the Scriptures and yet supply the same answers? The “earthen vessels” of the New Testament preached the exact same gospel, for the gospel “entrusted” to them was supplied by “He who effectual worked” in each one (cf. Galatians 2:1-9; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11).
The church of Christ in modern times has become fragmented and split over a great many issues. Although some of these are quite trivial and insignificant, e.g., the number of cups which may be used in communion, other issues are of extreme doctrinal importance. Many congregations claim only the Father is God; others, though recognizing the trinity concept of the Godhead, still refuse to extend worship thru prayer and song to Jesus and the Holy Spirit. To them, the Father is the Supreme God, while Christ and the Holy Spirit are viewed as somehow less than God.
The work of the Holy Spirit in the scheme of human redemption is taught differently block to block, and the meaning of Peter’s promise in Acts 2:38 concerning the gift of the Holy Spirit boast at least three major explanations within the church of Christ. In addition, the interpretation of the book of Revelation has never been duplicated in every respect by any two preachers of my acquaintance or reading. Here is insuperable evidence that there are no “earthen vessels” possessing the “treasure” today. No two men may be found who teach every aspect of Christianity alike.
However, when the gospel preached by Paul came under dispute, the Lord sent him to Jerusalem where he rehearsed the gospel he preached to the Gentiles. By these means it was determined that the gospel preached by Paul was the same as that preached by Peter, and the power behind their preaching was also recognized as the same, Paul explaining, “seeing that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised (for He who effectually worked for Peter in his apostleship to the circumcised effectually worked for me also to the Gentiles), and recognizing the grace that had been given to me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, so that we might go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised” (Galatians 2:7-9).
The apostles were “entrusted” with the “treasure” of the gospel, and by the extension of inspiration afforded through the apostles’ hands, the “treasure” was also entrusted to other believers during the age of the miraculous (cf. 2 Timothy 1:14). The gift of the Holy Spirit provided the needed inspiration, revelation, and confirmation to certify the speaker and the spoken gospel as genuine. Paul affirmed, “the truth of the gospel is in me” (2 Corinthians 11:10), and that it was “Christ who speaks in me” (2 Corinthians 13:3). No man can truthfully make this claim today, as none are “earthen vessels” in the way argued by Paul.
The treasure is now contained in the Book, available for all men to carefully mine through for precious gemstones of truth. A man may come to know the truth today without ever hearing the voice of a preacher. The inspired Book provides the template of Christianity. If he must have a man to help, how does he find the right one? Phillip was sent to the Ethiopian to guide him, but Phillip was an inspired spokesman able to exhibit the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:6-7). The same is true in the case of Ananias with Saul (Acts 9:17-18), and of Timothy (1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6, 14), and of every other inspired spokesman found in the New Testament. All these labored under divine inspiration confirmed by miraculous demonstration. The gospel literally flowed out of the apostles and prophets as living water into a dry land (cf. John 7:37-39).
The gospel once entrusted to the “earthen vessel” is now entrusted to the Book, and every man is absolutely dependent upon the Book for gaining knowledge of God and the scheme of human redemption. In stark contrast, Paul appealed mightily to the divine inspiration, revelation, and confirmation given to the apostles as ambassadors of Christ. The gospel originally entrusted to the apostles and prophets (cf. Ephesians 3:5) has now been transferred to the book.
This fact is witnessed in Paul’s earnest exhortation, “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us” (2 Thessalonians 2:15; cf. 2 Peter 3:1-2). The apostles were specially endowed ambassadors, possessing the very “mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16), through which they revealed the Law of Christ. Aware of this unique appointment, Paul warned of things which are “contrary to sound teaching, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, with which I have been entrusted” (1 Timothy 1:10-11). Christ’s ambassadors were entrusted with the word of truth.
Concerning the apostolic ambassadorship of 2 Corinthians 5:20, Spicq correctly observed, “That the apostle indeed means presbeuo in the full sense of the word is proven by the very way in which he describes his mission: (a) hyper Christou, on behalf of Christ…hence, not in the Lord’s place, but in his service; (b) the justification of this mission: ‘seeing that God exhorts through us.’ The Sovereign speaks through his ambassador…the credit given the ambassador’s words correspond with the authority of the Sovereign. Paul is not the one who matters – he does not act in his own name, and his message does not originate with himself – he represents Christ, and when he speaks, his words are to be taken as coming from God; (c) the goal of the apostolic embassy is to offer reconciliation with God, and Paul begs his hearers to accept this offer” (1994, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, Vol. 3, 175-76).
As ambassadors for Christ, the apostles revealed and confirmed the gospel to the whole world – not only to the world in which they lived and taught orally, but through inspired written revelation, the apostles continue to function as ambassadors today, teaching all men what they must do in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. This was the final charge issued to the apostles when Christ commanded them, “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). The apostles have special significance as ambassadors who enjoy the full accreditation of the Lord with a universal commission to what is to be a universal community. The terms of man’s surrender to God involved conditions, and no one will be counted a servant in the kingdom of Christ who has not obeyed from the heart the doctrine set forth by the apostles (cf. Acts 2:42; Romans 6:16-18; 1 Timothy 6:3-5).
The apostles were set into the church with special responsibilities not belonging to any other Christian. In the same way that a typical citizen of the United States cannot officiate business in the name of the U. S. Government while visiting another country, neither may any Christian or preacher today claim to be an ambassador for Christ. The apostles were given divine inspiration to reveal and confirm the law of Christ to the entire world – past, present, and future. David Lipscomb expressed remarkable insight into the role of the apostles. He articulated a view of their uniqueness of office that is as difficult to locate in the modern pulpit as one searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. Lipscomb sagely commented:
The apostles were and are the ambassadors of Christ. They sustained a relation to the gospel that no other preachers in their day or since sustained or could sustain. They were the revealers of the gospel. The rest are simply proclaimers of what was revealed through the apostles. No preacher today has any new revelation, nor can he make any valid claim to be a witness of the resurrection. He has no authority to declare the remission of sins; but can only point people to the apostle’s declaration on the subject. He may preach the gospel, but he can never reveal it. He has no message that is not already made known. Then he has not the credentials of an ambassador. He cannot work miracles (Second Corinthians, 83).
As heaven’s appointed envoys, the apostles functioned as true ambassadors for the kingdom of Christ, making known the terms of peace by which all men could be reconciled to God and saved from the wrath to come upon the disobedient.
2. The Apostles Received a Special Call.
For one to serve as an ambassador, he must be appointed by the government he will represent. No one can simply assume the responsibility, but only those carefully selected, trained, endowed with authority, and given credentials to prove the appointment may serve as ambassadors. Each of the apostles received an exclusive call from Christ. After spending the entire night in prayer, Christ gathered His disciples, and from this large group of followers, He “chose twelve of them, whom He also named as apostles” (Luke 6:12-13). These twelve became the “apostles of Christ” who would represent His kingdom.
Mark’s account says, “and He appointed twelve that they might be with Him, and that He might send them out to preach, and to have authority to cast out the demons” (Mark 3:14-15). Notice how Mark says these twelve were selected from the multitude of disciples “that they might be with Him.” Christ chose twelve who would represent Him in a special way, would be more closely associated with Him, and afterwards would therefore possess special authority as they accomplished the mission assigned to them.
The phrase further implies that each apostle would share Christ’s condition, would abandon his property, his employment, his family, would be hated even as Christ was hated (John 15:18), would drink His cup (Matthew 20:23), receiving the baptism with which Jesus Himself was baptized (Mark 10:39). Commissioning by Jesus means humiliation rather than exaltation (2 Corinthians 6:1-10; cf. 12:7-10). This gave credibility to the teaching and promises related by the apostles (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:5-12).
Soon after their selection, Christ initiated their training phase through verbal instructions followed by orders which sent them out to preach (Matthew 10:1-15). Here, then, is authoritative sending in the sense of full delegation, followed by a later return and report: “The apostles gathered together with Jesus; and they reported to Him all that they had done and taught” (Mark 6:30). This early assignment is generally referred to as the Limited Commission because of the restrictions that prevented any preaching to the Gentiles or the Samaritans. In reality, this exercise was ordered as training or preparation for the greater appointment these men would receive under the Great Commission in which they would serve as credentialed ambassadors for the kingdom of Christ.
The vital link in the appointment of these men for service under both the Limited Commission and the expanded Great Commission is seen in the prophetic discourse related by Jesus concerning things to transpire as the apostles preached the gospel following the day of Pentecost (Matthew 10:16-23). Christ foretold of these post-Pentecostal events while instructing them in the Limited Commission, revealing the greater work they would eventually engage as ambassadors for Christ under the Great Commission, preaching the gospel to the entire world (note “Gentiles,” 10:18).
Christ discussed simultaneously in Matthew 10 what preachers have subsequently labeled as two distinct or separate commissions. But Christ discusses both without an air of distinction; revealing the Limited Commission as merely preparatory to the greater work they would endeavor as ambassadors under the Great Commission, accomplishing the task uniquely assigned to them alone. For this reason, the label “Apostolic Commission” is a more apt and fitting description of Christ’s instructions than is the terms “Limited Commission” and “Great Commission” as commonly bandied about today.
The apostles were called by Christ to serve as His embassy to the world. Subsequent to the institution of the Lord’s Supper, Christ informed the apostles, “And I appoint unto you a kingdom, as My Father has appointed unto Me; that ye may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Luke 22:29-30). The apostles were called and appointed with enduring authority; authority exercised not only during their earthly lives, but authority over the spiritual Israel (i.e. church, cf. Romans 2:28-29, 9:6-8; Galatians 3:7, 27-29; 6:16) which remains intact during the entire Christian dispensation. This explains why the apostles do not have any successors.
A similar promise indicating the enduring authority of the apostles is found at Matthew 19:28: “Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” The “twelve thrones” represents the authority vested in the apostles as ambassadors to “bind” and “loose” (cf. Matthew 18:18; Ephesians 2:20). The promise of sitting on thrones in judgment belongs exclusively to the apostles.
The period of “regeneration” (cf. Titus 3:5) signifies the time of new birth and embodies the same conception as expressions like “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15), “new man” (Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10), and “restoration” (Acts 3:21). Peter identifies the time of “restoration,” not as some alleged distant millennial reign of Christ on the earth, but as “these days” (Acts 3:24), i.e., the present Christian age. The apostles preached the gospel orally to the world in which they lived, and they continue to preach the gospel to every generation through the inspired written revelation.
These men were called to be apostles by Christ and none other. When Judas abandoned his place among the apostles, the remaining eleven, according to divine prophecy (see Psalm 109:8; cf. Acts 1:20), sought his replacement from among those who had “accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us – beginning with the baptism of John, until the day that He was taken up from us – one of these should become a witness with us of His resurrection” (Acts 1:21-22).
The selection would not be conducted by the eleven, but with due respect for the authority of Christ in choosing His own ambassadors, the right of appointment was deferred to Him. Prayer was uttered, entreating, “Thou, Lord, who knowest the hearts of all men, show us which one of these two Thou hast chosen to occupy this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place” (Acts 1:24). Of the two qualified candidates, Matthias was appointed to serve alongside the eleven.
The final call of apostleship was the appointment of Saul of Tarsus by Christ (see Acts 9:1-16; 22:1-21; 26:1-18). In the same way Moses was called by the double use of his name, so Saul was called. Such double use of a man’s name always implied very unusual urgency and importance. The period of Israel’s sojourn and affliction in Egypt had been foretold by God to Abram (see Genesis 15:13-14), and it was during the final year that the Lord appeared to Moses in the burning bush, calling him with urgency.
Saul was also called to his apostleship with great urgency, the Lord telling him, “But arise, and stand on your feet; for this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness not only to the things you have seen, but also to the things in which I will appear to you; delivering you from the Jewish people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you, to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, in order that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me” (Acts 26:16-18). Nothing on earth could compare in importance to the task awaiting this zealous Jew; hence the Lord’s call, “Saul, Saul…” (26:14).
Ananias confirmed Saul’s appointment, restating to him that “The God of our fathers has appointed you to know His will, and to see the Righteous One, and to hear an utterance from His mouth. For you will be a witness for Him to all men of what you have seen and heard” (Acts 22:14-15; emp. added). Paul continues to witness “to all men” today through his own written testimony contained in the New Testament. Contrary to sectarian claims and even some within the church who claim to be witnessing for Christ today, there are no modern day witnesses. This was the work assigned to the apostles (cf. John 15:27; Luke 24:48; Acts 1:8; 2:32; 3:15; 5:32; 10:39, 41; 13:31).
The majority of Paul’s Epistles begin with introductions touting his relation to Christ, e.g., “Paul, a bond servant of Christ Jesus, a called apostle…” (Romans 1:1); “Paul, called as an apostle of Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:1); “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God” (2 Corinthians 1:1); “Paul, an apostle (not sent from men, nor through the agency of man, but through Jesus Christ…” (Galatians 1:1). Through this common recurrent formula, Paul emphasizes his authority as an appointed proxy. No surer basis can be given for the legitimacy of the apostolic mission: the mandate comes from God, and all humanity should be careful to comply with the terms of peace revealed by the Lord’s ambassadors.
The apostles of Christ each received a special call. At the conclusion of His “I Am the Bread of Life” discourse, Jesus reminded the twelve of their personal selection and call, inquiring, “Have I not chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?” (John 6:70). Jesus reiterated the significance of this special call at the end of His ministry, saying to them, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit” (John 15:16). These words apply only to the apostles of Jesus Christ.
The Lord Jesus has no living apostles on earth today, nor does He need any. The chosen apostles, duly appointed and commissioned as ambassadors, still function in this capacity today through the written New Testament. No preacher today has any authority to “bind” or “loose,” nor do they have authority to “remit” or “retain” sins (cf. John 20:23). These exclusive commands where never reiterated by the apostles as instructions applicable to all Christians. When Christ commanded the apostles to make disciples, “teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:20), He most certainly did not mean all Christians were to follow the commands given to the apostles by Christ, but those given through the apostles by Christ.
The apostles were ordered to “not worry about how or what you are to say; for it will be given you in that hour what you are to say. For it is not you who speak, but it is the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you” (Matthew 10:19-20). Would any in the church today argue this command to the apostles is binding upon all Christians? Luke specifically records that after Christ gathered the apostles together, “He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised” (Acts 1:4). The apostles received numerous commands and promises that were peculiar to them alone, and if we fail to discern the difference, we will prove to be “false apostles” giving mere lip service to the work assigned uniquely to the ambassadors of Christ.
Beginning in Acts 2 is the record of commands and instructions spoken by the apostles as applicable to all humanity. Christ never commanded the apostles to “repent and be baptized for the remission of sins” because the eleven were “clean” (John 13:10). Christ told them, “You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you” (John 15:3). Would any preacher claim these words spoken to the apostles apply to all men today? Of course not! All recognize that the apostles were different that all others. These men were ordered to instruct sinners in how to be reconciled to God; they never repeated the many promises and commands that concerned their own special call.
The apostles never commanded sinners or Christians to obey every command that Christ had spoken exclusively to them as ambassadors, but they did reveal the commands that sinful humanity needs to obey in order to be saved, along with the instructions on how to remain saved. These instructions fill the pages of the New Testament beyond Acts 2. It is a mistake to apply promises or commands given to the apostles as instructions for all men generally. Especially grievous is the use of the “scissors and paste” method so common today that picks and chooses from among the many commands given to the apostles, applying only certain of these to the church today.
Only those who received a special call from Christ were given the instructions assigned to the ambassadors. The terms of peace and reconciliation belong exclusively to those called to serve as apostles; and Paul affirmed his apostolic appointment as the very last while rehearsing the post-resurrection appearances of Christ, saying, “After that, He was seen by James; then all the apostles. And last of all He was seen of me also, as one born out of due time” (1 Corinthians 15:7-8).
The apostles saw Christ alive after His resurrection, and this eyewitness testimony was essential to their preaching (cf. Acts 3:14-15). No one can witness to that which they have not personally seen, and the inspired word of God says Paul was the last person on earth to whom the Lord Jesus appeared; therefore we may be assured that no additional apostles have been appointed – notwithstanding the claims of Catholics and Mormons.
3. The Apostles Received a Special Commission.
In keeping with the special call that the apostles received to serve as ambassadors for the kingdom of heaven, Christ further issued a special commission, charging the apostles alone with the exceptional responsibility of revealing and confirming the message of the gospel to the entire world. It is my personal conviction that a misunderstanding of the Great Commission (Apostolic Commission) has resulted in many passages of Scripture being lifted from their original context and reassigned meanings that better harmonize with the situation of the mature church guided solely by the written New Testament. This, of course, is careless handling of the Bible.
It must never be forgotten that the infant church existed several years without any book of which the New Testament is comprised. The great majority of the New Testament books were penned between 50 and 70 A.D. with only a couple written earlier. Lacking written testimony for the first couple of decades, the infant church was absolutely dependent upon inspired teachers guided by the Holy Spirit. Christians today are guided by the inspired book, but the earliest Christians were guided by the inspired man; and the inspiration that filled the early church came first through the apostles, and then through the gift of the Spirit bestowed upon other Christians when the apostles laid hands upon them, distributing the vital inspiration (Acts 8:14-19; cf. 19:1-6; 2 Timothy 1:6).
The special commission assigned exclusively to the apostles embraces all these pertinent facts. Christ was speaking only to the apostles when He promised, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you ” (John 14:26), and that the Spirit would “guide you [apostles] into all the truth” (John 16:13). No such promise belongs to anyone else.
Although inspiration was subsequently provided to other Christians through the hands of the apostles as an extension of their work, the New Testament is without evidence that any secondary prophet ever revealed a gospel truth prior to the apostles’ revelation of the same. The apostle Paul referenced the “in part” knowledge and prophetic utterance (see 1 Corinthians 13:9) which characterized the apostles and infant church while awaiting completed revelation. Prior to John writing the concluding book, the things he revealed had remained hidden from all others, but with his final words, the gospel of Jesus Christ was completed, and inspiration transferred to the written word.
This explains why Jesus told John seven times, “To the angel of the church…write…He who has ears to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 2-3). As the church reads the written testimony, it is the Spirit speaking. Although the Holy Spirit spoke through the mouths of the apostles and prophets in revealing the gospel of Christ, He now speaks through the written word. Every man obtaining the written word for personal study has all that any man can now receive, and the written word now carries the same authority as the gospel originally spoken through the apostles and prophets.
The apostles were the dispensers of divine truth, and this privilege was granted them as the unique ambassadors for the kingdom of heaven. They became Christ’s authoritative representatives, but the very nature of their commission meant they would become itinerant missionaries of the gospel. They were charged with proclaiming the law of Christ whereby sinful humanity could be saved from the wrath of God. The special commission given to the apostles is depicted multiple times in the New Testament – a number which no modern preacher has yet to answer correctly.
A careful study of the various accounts will demonstrate that the Great Commission was charged exclusively to Christ’s chosen apostles. The Greek apostolos (apostle) is defined: “one sent forth” (Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary, 30). Christ chose, trained, and commissioned the group of men He called apostles, sending them out with the gospel to proclaim to all mankind. The term “apostle” has immense significance.
Matthew’s Primary Account
In Matthew 28:16-20, the eleven apostles rendezvoused with Christ on a designated mountain in Galilee following the resurrection. This particular account (along with Mark 16:15ff) is always quoted by those referencing the Great Commission. Although it is not the first issuance of the Commission, we will use Matthew 28:18-20 as a template to help clear up some misconceptions that have arisen regarding the language employed in Matthew’s account, demonstrating that the Great Commission is actually the Apostolic Commission.
Speaking to the remaining eleven apostles (Judas no longer alive), Jesus said, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into 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 [lit. ‘all the days’], even to the end of the age.”
The importance of this passage cannot be over-estimated, yet it remains one of the most misunderstood passages in the church today. The reading of the King James Version has magnified the confusion, but a simple misapplication of inspired pronoun numerical values has far and away been the greatest source of misunderstanding associated with this passage. The KJV unfortunately translates “world” into the final clause of the Lord’s statement, giving rise to the speculative assertion among KJV preachers that since the apostles did not live to the end of the world, the passage must have reference to Christians of all ages. This is a gross misunderstanding.
The original Greek word in this place is aion (eye-on), defined as “an age, a period of time” (Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary, 685). In his comments on the word “end” (sunteleia), Vine explains, “the rendering ‘the end of the world’ (KJV and RV, text) is misleading; the RV marg., ‘the consummation of the age,’ is correct. The word does not denote a termination, but the heading up of events to the appointed climax. Aion is not the world, but a period or epoch or era in which events take place” (Ibid, 199).
Christ is speaking directly to His apostles in this passage, conferring upon them their marching orders to reveal the unknown terms of salvation to “all the nations.” The promise to be “with” the apostles is the promise of miraculous power to sustain these men in their work of revealing and confirming the gospel. The equivalent promise is seen in John 14:16-18 where Christ states, “And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever [lit. aion – “an age, a period of time”]; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not behold Him or know Him, but you shall know Him because He abides with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans, I will come to you.”
In this passage, the promise of the Holy Spirit coming upon the apostles (v. 16) is made equivalent to the coming of Christ to the apostles (v. 18). The language is a reference to the miraculous power given to the apostles as they revealed and confirmed the gospel. Comparable to the fact that to see Christ was to see the Father (John 14:9), the unity of the Godhead is also demonstrated in the language of Christ with regard to the coming of the Holy Spirit being equivalent to the coming of Christ – not a physical coming, but a presence in miraculous power or provision.
Matthew’s account of the Great Commission promises inspiration to the apostles “until the end of the age.” The same is true for John 14:16-18 which also explicates the duration of the Holy Spirit with the apostles as “aion” (lit. “an age or period of time”). The “end of the age” is not the end of all time or “the end of the world” as the KJV incorrectly translates, but to the end or consummation of Judaism in the overthrow of Jerusalem and the Jewish temple in 70 A.D. (cf. Matthew 24:2-3).
It is also a possibility that the phrase “end of the age” signifies the end of the miraculous age, but as the end of the age of Judaism and the end of the miraculous age coincided, the phrase seems elsewhere to describe the fall of Judaism and the end of the Jewish age. Christ died at the “consummation of the ages” (Hebrews 9:26, NASB), not at the end of the world as the KJV incorrectly states. The word for “ages” is plural in the Greek and can by no means be harmonized with the singular “world” as translated by the KJV. Besides, Christ did not die at the end of the world, but at the consummation of the Patriarchal Age for the Gentiles and the Jewish Age for those under the Law of Moses, ushering in the Christian Age.
Earlier, Christ spoke of the Jewish age as He warned against blaspheming the Holy Spirit, saying, “And whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever shall speak against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age (aion), or in the age to come” (Matthew 12:32). Since there is not a possibility of forgiveness in the age of eternity for anyone, these words of Christ must be understood as warning against blaspheming the Holy Spirit under the existing Jewish age in which Christ was speaking, and including the Christian age which loomed on the horizon. The “end of the age” in Matthew 28:20 refers to the end of Judaism in the fiery holocaust of the temple’s demise in A.D. 70.
Sufficient evidence is available within the Scriptures to prove the entire New Testament was penned preceding the fall of Jerusalem. The book of Revelation concludes with the affirmation of the cessation of prophecy, thus terminating the miraculous age of divine revelation and confirmation witnessed in the infant church. Christ promised the apostles miraculous provisions until the end of the Jewish age and the completion of written revelation. As these events can be shown to have transpired in close proximity, we have a definite end to the promise of Matthew 28:20 which involved only the apostles.
A careful examination of the pronouns in Matthew 28:18-20 will further demonstrate that the Great Commission in all its parts was spoken exclusively to the apostles. Beginning with the words “All authority has been given to Me,” Christ is the speaker and all first person pronouns are a reference to Him. The apostles are the object of Christ’s discourse, and every second person pronoun refers explicitly to the apostles. Christ introduces a third person group into the conversation when He orders the apostles to “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.” The third person pronoun “them” which follows this statement is always a reference to the “disciples” (or Christians) that are produced by the preaching of the gospel by the apostles.
In the same manner that no one today would dare claim they are represented by the first person pronouns “I” or “Me” (as these are unequivocal references only to Christ); neither should the second person pronoun “you” be read as though it was a reference to any person living today. Christ was speaking forthrightly, commissioning His special envoys before He departed, leaving them to accomplish the work to which they were appointed. Every “disciple” of Christ that has been made since the day of Pentecost onward has been a result of the gospel preached by the apostles – this includes each and every Christian.
Christ ordered the apostles to make disciples of all the nations, “teaching THEM [the disciples of all the nations] to observe all that I [Christ] have commanded YOU [apostles]; and lo, I [Christ] am with YOU [apostles] always, even to the end of the age.” Christ did not say, ‘Lo, I am with them.’ The inspired pronouns reveal unmistakably that the Great Commission was given to the apostles. Every Christian has obeyed the gospel proclaimed by the apostles, thus having their sins remitted; while every unbeliever has rejected the apostles’ teaching, thus having their sins retained.
After calling Paul to the apostleship, Christ sent him to the Gentiles “in order that they may receive forgiveness of sins” (Acts 26:18). Later on, Christ affirms His presence with the apostle Paul, comforting him by saying, “Do not be afraid any longer, but go on speaking and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no man will attack you in order to harm you, for I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:9-10).
Here is the proof in black and white that the promise of Christ to be with the apostles is a reference to the miraculous presence that would accompany them in their work as ambassadors. The promise is clearly stated in Matthew 28:20 that Christ would be with the apostles, but we are not left to blind speculation regarding the implication of these words. The miraculous presence of Christ supplied every need of the apostles.
Paul exemplifies the fulfillment of the promise while defending his apostleship to the Corinthians, answering a challenge by stating, “since you are seeking proof of the Christ who speaks in me, and who is not weak toward you, but mighty in you” (2 Corinthians 13:3). Here Paul acknowledges that it is “Christ who speaks in me,” referring to the revelation of the gospel which he, by divine power, proclaims and confirms (cf. Galatians 1:11; 1 Corinthians 2:3-5). Can any preacher honestly make this claim today?
Even the continuation of the thought, that Christ “is not weak in you, but mighty in you,” refers to the miraculous power possessed by the Corinthian church. Since the apostles were able to distribute the Holy Spirit to baptized believers (cf. Hebrews 2:4), the language is equally true concerning those in the infant church who received miraculous power through the laying on of the apostles’ hands. Christ worked mightily in the Corinthians through the exercise of the miraculous gifts discussed in 1 Corinthians 12-14 in fulfillment of Joel’s ancient prophecy and also the promise of Jesus in Mark 16:17-18.
The fulfillment of Matthew 28:20 is realized in the events following Pentecost, proving that Christ was with the apostles in providing inspiration and miraculous powers of confirmation to enable them to complete their work as ambassadors by completing the Apostolic Commission. Recall the very same promise given to Moses at his call and commission, the Lord stating, “Certainly I will be with you” (Exodus 3:12). The Lord was with Moses by supplying the power to perform miraculous acts of confirmation.
As William Shedd explains, “Jesus commissioned his apostles as teachers and gave them promises of a supernatural aid of the Holy Spirit in their teaching, like the promises made to the Old Testament prophets” (2003, Dogmatic Theology, 3rd ed., p. 199). This particular quote – like those by Spicq and others quoted herein – was discovered many years after this understanding of the Apostolic Commission was derived from studying the New Testament and the meaning of the promises of inspiration and confirmation.
That Shedd understood the phrase “lo, I am with you always” as indicating the miraculous presence of Christ with the apostles is certain from his listing this passage as his primary example which immediately followed the previous citation: “Mat. 28:19, 20–‘Go ye…teaching…lo, I am with you’” (Ibid.). This three phase directive constitutes the formal pattern observed by God when commissioning prophets in the Old Testament.
The identical language is also found in the Lord’s appointment of Gideon as the leader of Israel against the Midianites. After instructing Gideon of his appointed task of delivering Israel, the Lord asked, “Have I not sent you?” Following Gideon’s excuse for not being qualified to perform the work, “the Lord said to him. ‘Surely I will be with you…’” (Judges 6:1-16). What was the meaning of the Lord’s promise to be with Gideon?
The phrase meant the same to Gideon as did the Lord’s promise to be with Moses and to be with the apostles. The narrative following God’s promise to be with Gideon is filled with miraculous events (Judges 6:17, 21, 34, 36-40). Furthermore, the Midianites were defeated, not by the army of Israel, but by the Lord who brought upon the Midianites a state of confusion so that they destroyed one another (Judges 7:22).
Gideon was called to lead God’s people (Judges 6:11). He was told to “Go,” the Lord adding, “Have I not sent you?” (v. 14). Gideon was promised inspiration, the Lord saying, “Surely I will be with you” (v. 16), resulting in Gideon’s reception of the Holy Spirit (v. 34). These are the exact parameters given to the apostles.
The same is true concerning the call, commission, and promise of inspiration given to Jeremiah. God called Jeremiah into service (1:4-5), appointing him as “a prophet to the nations” (1:5), saying, “everywhere I send you, you shall go, and all that I command you, you shall speak” (1:7). To comfort Jeremiah’s insecurities, the Lord promised, “I am with you” (1:8; cf. 1:19). What was the meaning of this promise to Jeremiah?
The answer is found in the immediate inspiration provided and the subsequent supernatural visions afforded (1:9-13). The Lord further promised divine protection from the inevitable enemies produced by Jeremiah’s message, saying, “They will fight against you, but they will not overcome you, for I am with you to deliver you” (1:17-19; cf. Acts 18:9-10). The promise “I am with you” pertained to the inspiration, miraculous confirmation and protection afforded God’s prophets.
Although the promise “I am with you” is not recorded in the call of all the Old Testament prophets, other accounts indicate “the hand of the Lord came upon me” (Ezekiel 1:3; cf. 1 Kings 18:46) or an equivalent reference to God’s miraculous presence with his appointed spokesmen. The “hand of the Lord” is also mentioned in the New Testament with reference to the miraculous power that accompanied the preaching of the apostles and others in the infant church (Acts 13:11; cf. 4:30; 11:21).
Prior precedence proves the linguistic pattern involved in the call, commission, and promise of inspiration to the apostles in the New Testament. We are not predisposed to succumb to various suppositions as to the possible meaning of a promise as well attested as this one is in the Scriptures. The Old Testament gives us all the information we need to accurately interpret the meaning of the Lord’s promise, “I will be with you,” when used in connection with those sent out to reveal the will of God; the phrase denotes divine inspiration and supernatural accompaniment for confirmation that the message is from God and not from man.
In Matthew’s primary account of the Great Commission, all three critical factors of God’s pattern of commissioning prophets are clearly evident: (1) Christ ordered the apostles to “Go…” (2) He ordered the apostles to “make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them…” (3) He included the promise of miraculous power in the phrase “lo, I am with you [all the days], even to the end of the age.”
Of these three, the promise of inspiration is actually the decisive factor in the Commission. Without the promise of inspiration, the apostles – like Moses of old – would have been unable to complete the task assigned to them of revealing and confirming the gospel to all nations. Because of their unique commission – one unlike any other – the apostles were promised a relationship with Christ that was peculiar to them as His only ambassadors on earth.
The three dynamics related above are so interrelated that it is impossible to fulfill the Great Commission if any point is lacking. If Matthew’s primary account of the Great Commission literally promises inspiration to the apostles in the phrase, “Lo, I am with you,” we should not be surprised to find the promise of inspiration in every account of the Commission. As will become readily apparent in the remaining accounts, the promise of miraculous power was literally the enabling factor that allowed successful completion of the work assigned to the apostles as ambassadors. Without the promise of inspiration, the apostles would have been dismissed by their auditors as heretics or seditionists.
Matthew’s Secondary Account
The first and earliest account of the Great Commission is actually recorded in a secondary sense as Matthew relates the initial selection of the twelve apostles and reviews the subsequent instructions assigned to them by Jesus. Matthew 10:5-15 details the provisions of what is commonly called the “Limited Commission” due to the restrictions barring the apostles from preaching to the Gentiles during this early ministry conducted during the personal lifetime of Christ. One of the more interesting aspects of these instructions appears in the continuation of the details which clearly describe events that would follow Pentecost in A.D. 30 as related in detail throughout the book of Acts.
Beginning in Matthew 10:16, Jesus passes beyond the restrictions involving the “Limited Commission,” and without voicing any change in thought from the instructions that began in 10:5, He proceeds to declare to the twelve the difficulties they would face after Pentecost as the gospel began spreading to all nations, including dignitaries and high officials among the Gentiles. Matthew opens the narrative by indicating the apostles were “sent forth” by Christ (v. 5), but the instructions related by Christ on that occasion included the events that would follow Pentecost. While the specific charge to the apostles to “go into all the world” is not directly stated in this instance, the fact is none-the-less demonstrated in the language of Christ as He announces, “I send you forth…and you shall be brought before governors and kings for My sake, for a testimony against them and the Gentiles” (10:16-18).
The three features comprising the Great Commission as seen in Matthew 28:18-20 are likewise discernable in Matthew 10:5ff: 1) Christ affirmed “I send you forth,” equaling the order to “Go.” 2) The apostles would provide a “testimony,” speaking words that men would either accept or reject; this parallels the order to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them.” 3) The words they would speak would not be their own, “but the Spirit of your Father which speaks in you.” This is the promise of inspiration to the apostles and is equal to the phrase “lo, I am with you.” These three factors are inherent to the Apostolic Commission.
Similar to Matthew’s dual account, John also includes more than one instance of Jesus issuing the Great Commission to the apostles. Neither of these has ever been identified as accounts of the Great Commission by preachers questioned on this issue. The first is found in the dissertation of Christ with His apostles on the eve of His betrayal (John 14-16). These three chapters contain promises and responsibilities belonging solely to the apostles. This is made certain by Christ’s declaration, “These things I have spoken to you while abiding with you” (14:25), and by His acknowledgement, “You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you…” (15:16). The two statements are made with reference to the selection of the twelve and the personal instructions Christ issued to them beginning in Matthew 10.
Every attempt to apply the special promises contained in John 14-16 to Christians in general is a gross misapplication of Scripture that results in a false teaching. Jesus was speaking directly to the chosen apostles and was in the process of reiterating their appointment as ambassadors charged with representing Christ in the world. Notice again the exclusiveness of the promises as relating to the apostles who were personally selected by Christ at the beginning of His ministry: “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me, and you will testify also, because you have been with Me from the beginning” (15:26-27).
The testimony of the apostles would include the entire gospel of Christ, confirmed by the testimony of the Holy Spirit speaking unmistakably through the miraculous power demonstrated by the apostles. The three chapters under consideration constitute the lengthiest narration found in the Scriptures of the issuance of the Apostolic Commission. The three factors comprising the Commission are clearly discernable within John’s primary account of the charge given to the apostles by Christ, occurring for the second time prior to His death and resurrection. On this basis, Matthew 10 and John 14-16 represent the unique appointment of the apostles before they were fully capable of comprehending the scope of events to follow.
As the Apostolic Commission always involves (1) the command to “Go,” (2) the authority to preach the gospel, and (3) the promise of miraculous power through the reception of the Holy Spirit and coming of Christ to fulfill the work assigned to the apostles, notice how Christ clearly articulates each point in the narrative of John 14-16.
1. Jesus asserts His authority over the apostles by reminding them, “You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go…” (15:16). This is equivalent to Matthew 28:18-19 where Jesus announced, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore…” The command to “Go” or the acknowledgement that the apostles are being “sent” is the first of the three dynamics always used in association with the Apostolic Commission.
2. Comparing the reading of John 15:16 and Matthew 28:19 reveals another parallel: “…and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain”; “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…teaching them to obey all that I commanded you.” As the apostles made known the gospel of Christ to all nations, “disciples” or “fruit” were being garnered as those receptive of the gospel obeyed the things commanded by Christ through the apostles.
3. In order to achieve the desired results and fulfill the Commission assigned to them, the apostles needed help. The promise of inspiration to the apostles is never asserted more comprehensively than in John 14-16. Seven times Christ affirms Divine guidance will be given to the apostles to aid their work of presenting the untarnished truth of the gospel to the world:
(1) “I will ask the Father and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you” (14:16-17).
(2) I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (14:18). This promise does not indicate a personal coming of Christ in bodily form, but a coming in the presence of the Holy Spirit. In the same way the Holy Spirit was “with” the apostles (i.e. in the physical presence of Christ), but would later be “in” them personally (cf. 14:17), so Christ would be with them through the Holy Spirit dwelling in them. The unity of God is vividly displayed throughout this discourse (cf. John 14:8-11).
(3) “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you” (14:26). Here is the promise of true inspiration.
(4) “You have heard that I said to you, ‘I go away, and I will come to you’” (14:28). Again, Christ promises to come to the apostles, but the coming is inseparably connected with the coming of the Holy Spirit, proving these two statements are interchangeable; both indicating the promise of inspiration that would attend the apostles “[all the days], even till the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
(5) “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me, and you will testify also, because you have been with Me from the beginning” (John 15:26-27).
(6) “But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you” (16:7).
(7) “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you. All things that the Father has are Mine; therefore I said He takes of Mine and will disclose it to you” (16:13-15).
The promise of inspiration and miraculous power is the final dynamic that characterizes the issuance of the Apostolic Commission; but here, as in every other instance, the Commission is given exclusively to the apostles, i.e., “ones sent forth with orders” from Jesus. If we lay aside what has always been taught concerning the “Great Commission” and simply allow the Scriptures to interpret themselves, it is easy to recognize why the Lord promised the apostles, “Lo, I am with you” (Matthew 28:20). Without the miraculous accompaniment of Christ and the Holy Spirit, the apostles would have been unable to reveal the mind of Christ to all nations, confirming the gospel as the only hope of reconciliation with God.
Additional evidence demonstrating that the promise of Christ to “be with” the apostles is a reference to miraculous power comes from Luke 21:14-15 where Christ speaks to four of the apostles privately, warning them of a future time when severe persecution would “lead to an opportunity for your testimony. So make up your minds not to prepare before hand to defend yourselves; for I will give you utterance and wisdom which none of your opponents will be able to resist or refute.” Notice from this passage that Christ affirms Himself as the source of divine inspiration to the apostles.
In Matthew 10:19-20, it is the Holy Spirit who is promised as the source of inspired speech during the apostles’ testimony before courts of justice. Mark 13:9-11 is a record of the identical discussion found in Luke 21:14-15, but in Mark’s account, it is the Holy Spirit who is promised as the spokesman for the apostles. There is no contradiction as some are wont to assert, but the total fulfillment of everything Jesus had promised concerning Himself and the Holy Spirit being with the apostles in miraculous power (John 14:16-18).
John’s Second Account
Following the resurrection, John 20:21-23 records, “Jesus therefore said to them again, “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.’ And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.’”
The apostles received the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost in fulfillment of this statement, and by means of the utterance provided by the Holy Spirit, the apostles revealed the conditions of pardon by which all who were obedient could have their sins remitted. Those rejecting the apostolic message would have their sins retained. None but the apostles have ever possessed such authority on earth following the ascension of Christ.
After reading this particular account of the Apostolic Commission, would anyone dare claim the pronoun “you” in Jesus’ statement refers to anyone other than the apostles? Although the Lord’s opening phrase, “as the Father has sent Me, I also send you,” is frequently lifted from the immediate context and misapplied from the pulpit as a reference to every Christian, it cannot be recalled that verse 23 has ever been so misconstrued or misapplied. Here is the evidence that preachers are well aware of the need to discriminate between orders given solely to the apostles and those for ordinary Christians; the glaring mistake is lifting some statements out of the immediate context in order to apply them to people not intended on the occasion they were originally spoken.
The second person pronoun “you” in verse 23 has obvious reference to the apostles alone, but the immediate context begins with verse 21 where the pronoun “you” first appears in Jesus’ instructions, indicating that it is only the apostles who are sent by Jesus. Because of the unparalleled authority bestowed upon the apostles to “bind” and “loose,” to “forgive” sins or “retain” sins, this particular account of the Apostolic Commission is never quoted by any pretending to obey the directives of the so-called Great Commission.
To demonstrate that this is another instance of the Commission being given to the apostles, John’s abbreviated account includes the three basic components which always comprise the Apostolic Commission: (1) Jesus announced to the apostles, “as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” This is equivalent to the “Go” of Matthew 28:19. (2) The order to “Receive the Holy Spirit” in John 20:22 is equal to the phrase “lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” in Matthew 28:20 (cf. John 14:16-18). (3) The forgiving or retaining of sins in John 20:23 is equal to making disciples by “baptizing them into the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” in Matthew 28:19.
Luke’s account of the Apostolic Commission discloses the identical pattern. He records Jesus saying to the apostles, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and rise again from the dead the third day; and that repentance for forgiveness of sins should 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’” (24:44-49).
The three essential elements of the Apostolic Commission are present: (1) the scope of the work is “to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” This is equal to the “Go” of Matthew 28:19 and the “I send you forth” of Matthew 10:16. (2) The proclamation of “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” is one and the same with the forgiving or retaining of sins and the making of disciples by baptism. (3) The two phrases “I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you” and “until you are clothed with power from on high” are in reference to the reception of the Holy Spirit and the promise of Christ to be with them (cf. John 14:16-18; Matthew 28:20).
Matthew, John, and Luke – although representing five different occasions of Christ commissioning the apostles to their work as ambassadors – each relate the same basic components involved in the apostles’ appointment. Each account depicts Christ issuing or discussing the parameters of the Apostolic Commission.
Now consider Mark’s account: “And He said unto 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. And 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 shall 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” (16:15-20).
The corresponding components always comprising the Apostolic Commission are prominent in Mark’s account: (1) the apostles are ordered to “Go into all the world.” (2) The preaching of “the gospel to all creation” is followed by the promise of salvation for all who have believed and have been baptized. (3) The attendance of miraculous power is certain from vv. 17-18 which has reference to the distribution of the Holy Spirit to believers through the apostles’ hands as clearly illustrated by example elsewhere (Acts 8:14-17; 19:1-6; cf. 2 Timothy 1:6).
The Great Commission related by Mark appears to be the same occasion as that presented by Luke in his Gospel and also in Acts 1. The ascension of Christ occurs at the conclusion of all three accounts (cf. Mark 16:19; Luke 24:50-51; Acts 1:4-11). Reading the three accounts as one narrative broadens the understanding of what Christ actually said during this final address to His chosen apostles. While Mark records the commands of belief and baptism for salvation, Luke adds repentance for the remission of sins into the equation. The promise of miraculous power to the apostles is included in Luke’s Gospel and in Acts, while Mark adds the miraculous powers that would follow believers.
The apostles not only possessed miraculous power, but also the ability to distribute the gift of the Holy Spirit (cf. Hebrews 2:4) in fulfillment of Joel’s ancient prophecy. Miraculous “signs” accompanied the infant church during the period of revelation and confirmation, but the power to perform these signs came only through the apostles’ hands. Combining the language of Mark and Luke, it becomes clear that Jesus included all the “signs of a true apostle” (2 Corinthians 12:12) in the Apostolic Commission.
Following the recorded direct discourse of Jesus to the apostles, Mark concludes by relating in indirect discourse how “the Lord [i.e. Lord Jesus (v. 19)] worked with them [apostles], confirming the word by the signs that followed” (16:20). Here again is evidence that the promise of Christ in Matthew 28:20, “Lo, I am with you,” is an indisputable reference to the miraculous power supplied by Christ who “worked with them, confirming the word…” Not only could the apostles work every miraculous manifestation available to confirm their doctrine, but the ability to distribute the Holy Spirit to believers through the laying on of hands served to authenticate the apostles as ambassadors of Christ. Mark’s account includes the miraculous “signs” given to believers during the infancy of the church (cf. John 7:38-39).
All four Gospels, though using differing terminology, record the same basic instructions that Christ issued to His apostles when He uniquely commissioned them to the work of ambassadors for the kingdom of heaven. It is impossible to separate one or two of these points in an attempt to apply the Great Commission to Christians today. The three components noted were each vital to the successful completion of the task.
Unless one possesses the authority to remit or retain sins, or can demonstrate miraculous power to confirm every word he speaks, he is not operating under the auspices of the Great Commission. The apostles revealed the gospel to the world, binding upon all men the acts of obedience necessary for salvation and confirming their spoken word as inerrant truth by demonstrating miraculous signs and wonders which none could deny (cf. Acts 4:16). The Apostolic Commission includes this special power, but no preacher today can do this.
Luke’s Second Account (Acts)
We have studied six accounts of the Commission being charged to the apostles of Christ. Could any devout student of the Scriptures doubt or seriously entertain the idea that God would not provide a seventh and final account of the chosen twelve receiving their Commission as ambassadors for Christ? Hear Luke as he opens the book of Acts by describing the process whereby the apostles whom Christ had “chosen” were “ordered” to preach Christ and His gospel to the world:
“The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up, after He had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen. To these He also presented Himself alive, after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over forty days, and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God. And gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, ‘Which,’ He said, ‘You have heard of from Me; for John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now…but you shall 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” (Acts 1:1-8).
That the Apostolic Commission was issued or discussed more than once with the apostles is evident from Luke’s description of Christ “appearing to them over forty days, and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God.” This verifies the multiple accounts narrated by the Gospels. It is also specifically stated that Christ gave “orders to the apostles whom He had chosen” – not to future preachers or Christians in general. The apostles were appointed as “witnesses” for Christ because they had literally seen Him alive following His death, burial, and resurrection (cf. Acts 1:21-22). No Christian in general or preacher in particular has seen anything of which the apostles were called to witness, i.e., Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection.
The Apostolic Commission includes three specific factors which are inseparable to the assigned work. The seventh account reveals all three: (1) the apostles were ordered to begin in Jerusalem, then to go to all Judea and Samaria, even to all the earth. (2) Christ had spoken unto them “concerning the kingdom of God,” and now they would be His “witnesses,” teaching Christ to all mankind. (3) Christ promised the apostles that they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit, thereby receiving miraculous power.
These three dynamics occur in every instance of the Apostolic Commission, but interestingly, they are never repeated by an apostle as instruction for the church generally or for future preachers in particular. The twelve apostles were uniquely appointed by Christ, and it is a grave misapplication of Scripture to bind all or even parts of these passages detailing the Commission upon the church today. Christians are not equal to the apostles (cf. Matthew 19:27-28), and if the Apostolic Commission is in fact the Great Commission intended for every believer to obey – literally making every Christian “one sent forth” – what, then, is the difference between an apostle and every other Christian?
References: See Part 3