By Tom M. Roberts
In this second of a series designed to encourage a deeper consideration of the themes to be found in the Book of Acts, we want to consider the faithfulness and accuracy of the apostles in carrying out the “marching orders” given to them by Christ when he gave to them the Great Commission. No greater call to duty has ever been issued. No greater response has ever been registered than the successful response of the apostles as they took the message to the entire world in their day (Col. 1:23). No greater failure of the modern religious world exists than our failure to agree on the message of the Great Commission and to take it to our world. The confusion in our modern world concerning the plan of salvation would suggest that there is no basis for exact preaching concerning salvation when, in fact, The Acts presents the clear precedent for every age to follow. One can hear everything today from Universalism to the individual predestination of Calvinism, with all the shades of doctrines in between. A veritable cacophony, a babel of preaching, fills the air waves and pulpits of the land, confusing the untaught and detracting from the clarity of the biblical message. Can we not be sure of what the Lord intended when he spoke so poignantly concerning the mission of the apostles after his departure? Are we to be cursed to wonder forever about the grand theme of Justification or can we not learn from apostolic preaching what Jesus intended?
It is one of the themes of the Book of Acts that the apostles had a clear vision of the Great Commission and that New Testament Christianity was founded upon a faithful proclamation of that saving message. Luke provides a valuable connection between the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus and the history of gospel preaching in the first century. His inspired record provides the assurance that we, too, can understand the intent and purpose of the Great Commission which was spoken to the apostles but which embraced every responsible person from then until the end of the world.
The Great Commission
The synoptic Gospels give us the record of what we have come to call the Great Commission (as opposed to the Limited Commission given only to the Jews, Matt. 10:5); only John omits it.
And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen (Matt. 28:18-20).
And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned (Mk. 16:15, 16).
And said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem (Lk. 24:46-47).
If we understand that the different accounts by Matthew, Mark and Luke are not antagonistic to each other, but harmonious accounts by different men who wrote to give us the cumulative total to revelation, we can see clearly what the apostles saw. None of the accounts is disparate from the others, but they fuse and merge into a single message.
From these three accounts, we observe the following ingredients: (1) Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and on earth. (2) Upon this authority, the apostles are sent forth, beginning at Jerusalem, (3) teaching all nations who will (4) believe, (5) repent, (6) be baptized, (7) receive remission of sins (be saved), (8) be further taught all that Jesus said.
This is a simple outline of the Great Commission but one that can be easily compared to the gospel accounts. Is it understandable? Can it be preached in its pure form today? Are the doctrines of Universalism, justification by faith alone, preach the man and not the plan, Pentecostalism, etc., compatible with Jesus’ message? Has anyone ever faithfully preached the Great Commission?
Did The Apostles Understand It?
In the light of so much confusion about the plan of salvation today, we raise the question, “Did the apostles understand and correctly proclaim the Great Commission gospel?” If they did not understand it, being so closely associated with Jesus and later endowed with the Holy Spirit, there might be some justification for the lack of unity among us. If we can show that the apostles either did not understand or that they taught widely conflicting doctrines about salvation, we can give up any semblance of unanimity without feeling guilty. But, on the other hand, if it can be demonstrated that the apostles not only understood what Jesus divulged to them but that they faithfully adhered to this message, we must realize our obligation to this same faithful proclamation. Thankfully, Luke does not leave us in the dark, but shows throughout his marvelous work that all the first century preachers clearly understood Jesus’ commission and that they harmoniously taught this message throughout the Roman Empire. One of the themes of the Acts is how the gospel went “unto the uttermost parts of the earth” (1:8).
Examine the Record
Our examination begins in chapter two. True to his promise, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1ff) upon the apostles “to teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said unto you” (Jn. 14:26), and to “guide you into all the truth” (16:13). Thus, the apostles were not comfortless (orphans), but had the power of the Holy Spirit. Who can doubt that they truly understood the Great Commission as they addressed the multitudes in Acts 2 or that they realized they were at the “beginning” (Acts 11:15) of the gospel, fulfilling the Great Commission? As they spoke to the “devout Jews” from all around the world, they asserted the authority of Jesus (“Lord and Christ,” 2:36), taught faith in Jesus, repentance, baptism, remission of sins, and continued teaching (2:40,42) after the conversion of 3000 souls.
Could anyone ask for a clearer chronicle of the Great Commission?
If the apostles understood it and preached it, why can’t we also teach it today? Are we not obligated to do so? As Paul said to Timothy, a second generation preacher of the gospel, “And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).
But did Paul teach the same gospel as the other apostles? It is affirmed that he did, because he received his message from the Lord, even as the original twelve: “But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:11, 12). Also, the others apostles knew what he preached, giving him the right hand of fellowship (Gal. 2:9), and accepting the gospel which he preached to the Gentiles as being the same as preached to the Jews (Acts 15). All the apostles preached the same gospel and Paul even warned that those who preached “another” gospel would be cursed of God (Gal. 1:6-9).
No, there were no dissenting voices among the apostles, no denominational creeds, no church manuals, no catechisms written by church councils. The simple message of the cross was preached by one and all alike. Men and women of honest and good hearts (Luke 8:15) obeyed the message (Acts 2:41) and were saved, being added to the church (Acts 2:47).
All the rest of Luke’s records throughout Acts attest to the same harmony and oneness. Only when Judaizing teachers attempted to bring in the “law/gospel” did something different appear, but Heaven spoke against it and all the apostles concurred (Acts 15).
In Acts 8, the story of the Samaritans and Simon illustrate the Great Commission gospel. Philip proclaimed Christ (v. 5), they heard the message, believed in Jesus, repented (gave heed, v. 6), and were baptized.
In this same chapter, the Ethiopian showed the Great Commission in his conversion. He heard Philip concerning Christ (v. 35), and was baptized.
Acts 9, 22 and 26 relate the conversion of Saul (Paul) and it deviates not a whit from previous cases of conversion. Paul heard from Christ himself that he was a sinner, believed in Jesus (9:5), repented (9:9), and was baptized (9:18; 22:16; 26:19).
The Gentiles came into Christ through the Great Commission (remember that it was to be preached to the whole world). Acts 10 records the conversion of Cornelius and though legalistic Jews tried to void the message, it prevailed (Acts 15). Cornelius heard the message (10:33; 11:14), believed(15:9), repented (11:18), and was baptized (10:48). Peter noted that what happened to Cornelius was like that which happened to the Jews “in the beginning” (11:14).
Shall we omit the first European converts: Lydia and her household and the jailer and his household? In both instances, they heard Christ proclaimed, believed and were baptized.
The Corinthians of Acts 18, “hearing, believed, and were baptized” (v. 8).
In no case before us from the book of Acts has there been shown any deviation from the Great Commission. Isn’t it wonderful to know, every time that you preach the gospel, that you are taking your place in the company of faithful men and women through the ages who have been true to the Great Commission? Faithful preaching is Great Commission gospel preaching. Faithful preaching is preaching like it is revealed in The Acts. Luke does us a great service in making so plain in his record that the apostles fully understood the message of Jesus and with it conquered kings and nations. We can enroll ourselves in no nobler task than that of preaching the gospel of the Great Commission.
Guardian of Truth XXXVI: 7, pp. 208-209
April 2, 1992