I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but the so-called Great Commission is past its expiration date.
Not only practically—because so few of us lazy Christians really do anything Commission-like—but also rationally hermeneutically, the Great Commission has expired.
The GC is great sermon fodder, and this is partly why I want to challenge the common view of it–not it, mind you, but the common view of it. To be clear, I don’t really believe there is an “it.” I think “it” is a “them.” Four thems, to be precise.
Matthew’s is the most commonly quoted version:
So the eleven disciples went to Galilee to the mountain Jesus had designated. When they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted. Then Jesus came up and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Historical. Instructive. Inspiring. Charterous (I doubt that’s a word, but I mean “constituting a charter” … guess I could have said “constitutional”). Connective. Trinitarian. And empowering. Or is it?
And John’s (sort of) version:
Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.” And after he said this, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained.”
Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and examine my hands. Extend your hand and put it into my side. Do not continue in your unbelief, but believe.” Thomas replied to him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are the people who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Now Jesus performed many other miraculous signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
Jesus said a third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was distressed that Jesus asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” and said, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.” Jesus replied, “Feed my sheep. I tell you the solemn truth, when you were young, you tied your clothes around you and went wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and others will tie you up and bring you where you do not want to go.” (Now Jesus said this to indicate clearly by what kind of death Peter was going to glorify God.) After he said this, Jesus told Peter, “Follow me.”
And Luke’s version:
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds so they could understand the scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it stands written that the Christ would suffer and would rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And look, I am sending you what my Father promised. But stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
Then Jesus led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands, he blessed them. Now during the blessing he departed and was taken up into heaven. So they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple courts blessing God.
And Mark’s disputed, possibly un-authorized version:
After this he appeared in a different form to two of them while they were on their way to the country. They went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them. Then he appeared to the eleven themselves, while they were eating, and he rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they did not believe those who had seen him resurrected. He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved, but the one who does not believe will be condemned. These signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new languages; they will pick up snakes with their hands, and whatever poison they drink will not harm them; they will place their hands on the sick and they will be well.” After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. They went out and proclaimed everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through the accompanying signs.
It is Mark’s version–probably the earliest or at least as early as Matthew’s–that first caused me to suspect that the so-called Great Commission has been given too high a pedestal in our day. (Its historical significance can’t easily be overestimated, but its current significance can be.) So, which of these GC versions is universally applicable, and which is stated more as specific “marching orders” for the eleven remaining apostles? Let’s go backwards chronologically, by supposed date of authorship.
- John’s words contain the summary inspiration of 20:30-31–clearly speaking of the ages and all believers to come.
- Luke’s version, probably written in the 60s or 70s, as I recall, seems almost as broadly applicable in the certain aspects–His opening minds for the understanding of the scriptures, His blessing, and worship, for example. Yet the connection to the beginning of Acts, or more properly, the next chapter in the continuing account of Luke, leads to the conclusion that not all was intended to be universal. Rather, some appears to apply specifically to the twelve (Matthias was added in Acts 1).
- Matthew’s “Great Commission” is, again, the most quoted, but is spoken to the apostles. We in this age particularly love to think about Jesus’ being “with us” till the end of the age, but which age was he really referring to there?
- Mark’s “Great Commission” is included only in the longer, disputed ending. Although it is the most similar to Matthew’s, it adds the bits about demons and snakes and poisons.
It seems to me that if we are going to take part of the Great Commission (the evangelizing “marching orders”) and say it applies to us, we can’t do that without also applying the other parts–such as the waiting in the temple to be clothed with power from on high, the authority leading to the teaching of everything He commanded, the special receipt of Jesus’ Spirit, the commission to feed the sheep and be killed in the process … and yes, the handling of snakes and drinking of poisons.