To Whom Was The Great Commission Given?

When I was a boy it was argued by some that Matthew 28:19 and Mark 16:15 applied only to the apostles and that we therefore are no longer under obligation to take the gospel to the whole world. I would like to make a rather detailed study of this matter.

As we study the Great Commission in Matthew and Mark, the context shows that these commands were indeed directed to the apostles.

"Afterward He appeared to the eleven as they sat at the table; and He rebuked their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they did not believe those who had seen Him after He had risen. And He said to them, 'Go into all the world ...'" (Mark 16:14-15).

"Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had appointed for them. And when they saw Him, they worshipped Him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, 'All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore ...'" (Matthew 28:16-19).

He also told them: "But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth" (Acts 1:8).

It was the purpose of the Lord to have twelve witnesses whom He called apostles. So we read: "Therefore, of these men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John to that day when He was taken up from us, one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection. ... And they cast their lots, and the lot fell on Matthias. And he was numbered with the eleven apostles" (Acts 1:21,22,26).

A witness can testify to what he has seen, heard or touched. This was the basis of John's teaching: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life - the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us - that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you that your joy may be full" (1 John 1:1-4).

The twelve apostles were the witnesses of the resurrection. Although Paul saw Jesus on the way to Damascus, he acknowledges that the twelve were the witnesses. In his sermon at Antioch of Pisidia he says: "But God raised Him from the dead. He was seen for many days by those who came up with Him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are His witnesses to the people" (Acts 13:30,31). Peter explains further: "Him God raised up on the third day, and showed Him openly, not to all the people, but to witnesses chosen before by God, even to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead. And He commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that it is He who was ordained by God to be Judge of the living and the dead" (Acts 10:40-42).

At first some of the apostles doubted (Matthew 28:17; Mark 16:14). Thomas was among them. He was not present one Sunday evening for the meeting when Jesus came to them (John 20:19,20,24). The other disciples told him of Jesus' appearance. "But he said to them, 'Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe" (John 20:25). He was asking for the evidence of sight and touch.

The apostles were assembled again a week later. This time Thomas was there. Jesus, knowing in His divine wisdom what Thomas had said, told him: "'Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.' And Thomas answered and said to Him, 'My Lord and my God!'" (John 20:27,28).

Jesus said men must believe the gospel in order to be saved (Mark 16:16). Paul said that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation to the believer (Romans 1:16). Paul said that the gospel is the death, burial and resurrection of Christ attested by faithful witnesses (1 Corinthians 15:1-8). Jesus said that we are to become believers by the words of these chosen men: "I do not pray for these alone [the apostles], but also for those who will believe in Me through their word: that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one is Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me" (John 17:20,21). We are saved by faith in that gospel which was made known by the apostles.

We can have a blessing the apostles could never have. Thomas, after seeing the risen Lord, said: "My Lord and My God!" (John 20:28). How precious to each of us are the following words of Jesus: "Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" (John 20:29).

When we accept the evidence of the chosen witnesses we are blessed according to the promise of Christ. We are to be believers in the written word. "And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name" (John 20:30,31).

We have learned what the gospel is. Men are to be saved by that gospel. The gospel was to be preached by the apostles. Their witness of the resurrection is to be believed. A great blessing is ours when we accept the written word.

This gospel was never to be changed. We read: "I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed" (Galatians 1:6-9).

I want to emphasize one thing in the gospel. Jesus said after He arose from the dead: "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth" (Matthew 28:18). By the power of the Holy Spirit Paul said that Christ was "declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead" (Romans 1:4). Jesus saves those who obey (Hebrews 5:9). We are not to go beyond the things that are written (1 Corinthians 4:6; 2 John 9).

Finally we want to go back to the Great Commission. We have learned that the gospel was given to the apostles. The message they proclaimed is never to be altered. It is only by their word that men become disciples of Christ being baptized into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). These baptized believers are to receive further instruction: "teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:20). What had Jesus commanded the apostles? Among other things He commanded them to preach the gospel to the whole creation! So this command of Jesus to the apostles also applies to every baptized believer.

Paul by the power of the Holy Spirit said to Timothy: "And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (2 Timothy 2:2).

After the command, Jesus also gave a promise: "and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20). The Great Commission, originally given to the apostles, is to echo through the ages until the end of time. Amen.

J. C. Bailey

Published in The Old Paths Archive (