The Great Commission: Mission Accomplished

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Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15).

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19).

These verses contain two different accounts of Jesus’ instruction to His apostles regarding what they were to do following His ascension. We often call this the “Great Commission.” Their responsibility was to tell the world of the gospel of Christ in order to bring followers to Him.

The book of Acts records the apostles carrying out this commission. Right before His ascension, Jesus told them, “You shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The gospel message began to be preached in Jerusalem (Acts 2). Later it spread to Judea and Samaria (Acts 8). From chapter 10 on, we read of the gospel being spread to the rest of the world. Keep in mind, the record in Acts centers on the work of just two apostles – Peter and Paul. The rest of the apostles were also working to carry out Jesus’ command just as these men were. The efforts of the apostles had been so successful that just a few decades after the first sermon in Acts 2, Paul was able to say that the gospel “was proclaimed in all creation under heaven” (Colossians 1:23). The apostles were given a commission. They fulfilled it. The gospel had been sounded forth.

Are We Bound by the Great Commission Today?

There is a common belief among Christians that we are bound to fulfill the Great Commission today (even though Paul said it had been fulfilled). These passages are often used to contend that we need to do more in the work of evangelism. There are certainly important lessons for us in these passages – the fact that the gospel is for all, the role of baptism, the necessity of obedience – but Jesus does not expect all of us to “go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15).

We must remember the context of these passages. Jesus was speaking to His hand-picked apostles (Matthew 28:16; Mark 16:14). The instruction was not for the disciples to go to all the nations, but for the apostles to “make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19). Also, in Mark’s account, Jesus said they would perform various miracles to confirm the word (Mark 16:17-18, 20). Clearly this passage was talking about what the apostles would do, not what a Christian today (or even in the first century) would do. The Great Commission was not given for us to complete today.

What Is Our Responsibility?

If we say the Great Commission was for the apostles and not for us, does that mean we should not try to evangelize the lost? Of course not! While it is true that not all should engage in the public teaching of the gospel (James 3:1), every Christian must be “ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). This means that our family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and anyone else we might meet are potential candidates for hearing the gospel. We ought to make the most of the opportunities we have to teach those around us. We should teach others where we are.

This is what brethren in the first century did. A few men traveled around preaching, but the majority of Christians worked together where they lived. When the disciples (not apostles) left Jerusalem and “went about preaching the word” (Acts 8:4), it was not because they were on some evangelistic mission. It was because they were fleeing from persecution (Acts 8:2, 4). They were forced to relocate, some at least as far as Antioch (Acts 11:19). When they found themselves in a new place, they worked to teach there. We can do the same today. As we live among those in the world, we can look for and try to create opportunities to teach them the gospel.

That being said, it is certainly not wrong for Christians today to travel to faraway parts of the world to spread the gospel (assuming they do not neglect other responsibilities in the process – particularly to their families – and they are being good stewards with the blessings God has given them). Those who travel to foreign countries to preach the gospel and/or encourage Christians there are doing a good work. I commend those who do this faithfully.

However, I have witnessed some Christians who are very zealous about foreign evangelism use the Great Commission passages in such a way as to try to make brethren feel guilt or remorse for not traveling to some other country to preach and teach. They make comments, whether from the pulpit or in conversation, that would make one think they should question their own faithfulness for not being eager to travel to Africa, or India, or the Philippines, or wherever. Shame on anyone who dares to make his brethren feel guilty for not engaging in foreign evangelism! Are the lost souls in Africa more precious in the sight of God than the lost souls in our own town? Of course not!

We need to be careful too. Jesus gave this as a command. If this command is intended not just for the apostles, but also for us today, then we would be committing a sin by not traveling far and wide to preach the gospel. It would be wrong to remain in your own town and do your work there. Even of those who misapply the Great Commission passages and try to shame their brethren who are not interested in traveling abroad, I do not know of any who would go this far. They may question their faithfulness or their love for lost souls (even though they should not), but I do not know that they would say they are sinning. Because it is not a matter of sin, they must not cast judgment against their brethren.

I do not write this to discourage Christians from traveling to other countries to preach and teach. I believe it is a good thing for individuals to do. But I also believe that it is a good thing for individuals to work to teach and influence others in the community in which they live. Like the Christians in the first century, we need to work wherever we are. In every place in the world, there are people who need the gospel. As we fulfill the other obligations God has given us, let us look for opportunities to teach those who need to hear.

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