Jesus Verse by Verse

an expanded commentary on the Gospel of Matthew

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APPENDIX 3: The Great Commission

The words of Mk. 16:15,16 are clear enough to the open, child-like mind: "Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved". Commands to repent, all men, the Lord’s resurrection... these ideas all recur in Acts 17:30; God now commands all men to repent, through our words. These words clearly don't apply to the first century only, for they are intended to be linked with Mt 24:14, which uses the same language about the preaching work of the very last days (even though the context may imply that as a community we will only be obedient to this command once egged on by major persecution). If we say that we are not commanded to obey the command to go into all nations, then we must also conclude that we are not commanded to baptize people. And if these words about baptism don't apply to us today, then there is no command of the Lord Jesus to be baptized. The connection between the command to preach and the command to baptize is made clearer by the parallel record: "Go ye therefore, and teach (make disciples of, AVmg.) all nations, baptising them... and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world" (Mt. 28:19,20), i.e. Christ will be with us in our preaching right to the ends of the world. The special closeness of the Lord in preaching work has been widely commented upon by preachers. The commission of Mt. 28:19,20 is alluded to in Acts 14:21 AVmg. concerning the work of Paul and Barnabas, neither of whom were among the twelve: "And when they had preached the Gospel to that city, and had made many disciples...". This in itself disproves the idea that the great commission was intended only for the twelve. It is difficult to read 1 Thess. 1:6-8 in the RSV without seeing an allusion to the great preaching commission: as if Paul is saying: 'Well done for realising that the great commission which some of us received specifically, does in fact apply to you too!': "You became imitators of us...for not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere". And he again seems to have the commission in mind, when he wrote to the Corinthians that to all of us has been committed the ministry of reconciliation [a reference to the great commission?], and in discharging it we are ‘workers together’ with God (2 Cor. 6:1)- the very same word used in Mk. 16:20 concerning how the Lord Jesus ‘worked with’ His men as they fulfilled the commission.
The great commission comes in the context of the Gospel records labouring how the various believers all ‘went’ or were told to ‘go’ with the message to others. This ‘go-to-them’ spirit is what should energize us; and yet in so many church discussions, preaching is pictured as making the church attractive to the outsider, e.g. by making the Sunday morning service more attractive. This ‘come-to-us’ mentality stands in stark contrast to the ‘go-to-them’ spirit of the great commission and the early church. Indeed, there’s a growing idea in many churches that you can only preach if you are ‘authorized’ to do so by some committee or group of elders. The personal relevance and reference of the great commission means we can rightly ignore this. In fact, such an attitude is really a preservation of Roman Catholicism. In 1184 at the Council of Verona, Pope Lucius III declared that the list of heretics should be extended to include those who “preach without permission”. And the same is being said today in essence; ironically, by those who are the most condemnatory of the Catholic church.

“Go ye therefore…
The Lord gave a reason for His command: "Go ye therefore". "Therefore". Because of what? Mt. 28:18 provides the answer: "All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore". Because of this, we must spread the Gospel of Christ to the whole planet, because His authority is over the whole earth. He has that power just as much now as He did in the first century; and therefore the command to spread the Gospel world-wide still stands today. Indeed, His words here in Mt. 28 have evident reference to Dan. 7:14, where the Son of Man is given authority and power over all so that people of all nations, races and languages should serve Him. We must remind ourselves that out of the 5,000 or so languages in the world, the vast majority have no true Christian representatives; and only about half of them have the Bible in their own language. And as of the year 2000, only 12% of the world have English as a first or second language; yet the majority of those holding true Bible teaching, so far as we know, are English speaking. If, as indeed we believe, we alone preach the True Gospel... then we have a long way to go in fulfilling this. Either that, or the scope of God’s acceptance of men from all these languages and nations over time and over space today is far wider than we as a community have thought. Both of these possible conclusions arise from meditation upon the fact that the authority of the Lord must be extended over every nation and language group. Both of them are intensely challenging to our community. Rev. 5:9 presents us with the picture of men and women redeemed from every kindred [tribe / clan], tongue [glossa- language], people [a group of people not necessarily of the same ethnicity] and nation [ethnos- ethnic group, lit. ‘those of the same customs’]. This means that not only redeemed ‘Yugoslavs’ will stand before the throne in the end; but Macedonians, Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Montenegrans, Bosnians... every ethnic group, with every custom, will have representatives who will have believed the Truth and been saved. This idea is confirmed by considering how 70 bullocks had to be sacrificed at the feast of ingathering (Num. 29), prophetic as it was of the final ingathering of the redeemed. But 70 is the number of all Gentile nations found in Gen. 10. And it is written: “When he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the people according to the number of the children of Israel” (Dt. 32:8). A total of 70 went down with Jacob into Egypt; and thus 70 seems an appropriate number to connect with the entire Gentile world. And representatives of all of them will be finally ingathered.
It seems highly doubtful to me that over the past 2,000 years, the true Gospel has been taken to every ethnos, tribe, clan, custom and language, especially in Africa and Asia. So it follows that only once we have done it in our generation will this come true. The brethren in those parts especially have work to do yet, it seems to me. And we should all support them as best we can. I have a real belief that given the current rate of progress in preaching, the current generation could witness literally world-wide representation by those who understand true Christian doctrine- if we all do our bit. It is very difficult for me to reproduce in writing the kind of picture I have in my mind. But it is a thrilling and all consuming, all-demanding vision.
The same connection between the universal authority of the Lord and the need to preach it is made in Jn. 17:2,3: “Thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to [men]... and this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent”. The great commission says that because He has power over all flesh, therefore we must preach Him. Jn. 17:2 says that because He has this power, He can give men eternal life through the knowledge of Him. The extent of our obedience to the preaching commission- and who can argue that we don’t have freewill as to the extent to which we fulfil any command- this is the extent to which eternal life is given to men. Their eternal destiny is placed in our hands. The authority to save all men and women has been given to the Lord, but the extent to which this becomes reality depends upon our preaching it.
There has always been opposition to spreading the Gospel outside our own environment. Jonah was unwilling to take it to Nineveh, Israel failed miserably in their intended role as a missionary nation, and the apostles showed remarkable reluctance to obey the command to take Christ into all the world in the first century. The women were told to go tell the disciples of the resurrection, but they went away and told nobody, Mark records (Mk. 16:7,8). The other records say that they did tell the disciples. There is no contradiction here; Mark’s point is surely that they were reluctant to obey the great commission initially.
It seems that once human beings enter into covenant relationship with God, they are tempted to become spiritually selfish; to forget that they only have that relationship with God because someone else spread it to them. We must be careful not to justify our own weakness in this area by saying that actually it is supported by Scripture. It seems that the early brethren chose to understand the Lord’s universal commission as meaning going out to preach to Jews of all nations, and they saw the response of Acts 2 as proof of this. And yet “all nations” is used about the Gentiles in all its other occurrences in Matthew (4:15; 6:32; 10:5,18; 12:18,21; 20:19,25). Such intellectual failure had a moral basis- they subconsciously couldn’t hack the idea of converting Gentiles into the Hope of Israel. They allowed themselves to assume they understood what the Lord meant, to assume they had their interpretation confirmed by the events of Acts 2… instead of baring themselves to the immense and personal import of the Lord’s commission to take Him to literally all.
Ezekiel was prepared for his ministry by being told to eat and absorb the roll containing the words he was to preach. He was then picked up the spirit-wind, and transported to his audience (Ez. 3:12,13). The noise of the wind in the wings of the cherubim is elsewhere interpreted as the sound of God's word (Ez. 10:5). Yet Ezekiel 3 goes on to warn Ezekiel that if he doesn't preach the word to his audience, their blood will be upon his head (Ez. 3:17-21). This warning was given after Ezekiel had been transported to the people but sat silent with them for 7 days (Ez. 3:16). I understand from all this was that God's intention was that His message was not to be merely parroted out by Ezekiel, but that it was to be fundamentally part of him; and the message of God's word, symbolized by the awesome wind-spirit generated by the movement of the cherubim's wings, was to propel him forward to make his witness to hard faced men and women. This is the ideal. And yet Ezekiel even when he failed to live to up it, was still propelled forward in the mission. And many a missionary knows the truth of this. I take the way that Ezekiel was told to go preach to the captives, and yet was then taken up and transported there, to suggest a reluctance on his part. Perhaps being struck dumb until the fulfilment of the prophecies (Ez. 3:26; 24:27) suggests this was a punishment of Ezekiel for a lack of faith- for this is exactly the judgment upon Zacharias for faithlessness (Lk. 1:20).
"How shall they hear...?"
It is sometimes implied by those who oppose world-wide preaching that people will find the true Gospel anyway if they have access to a Bible. Taken to its logical conclusion, this argument would mean that we should not preach at all. Yet, as any fresh convert will testify, "how then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?" (Rom. 10:14). This clearly states that (as a general rule) it is impossible to believe in Christ without a preacher. The Ethiopian eunuch was the classic case of this. Bible in hand, his exasperation boiled over: " How can I (understand), except some man shall guide me?" (Acts 8:31). It is perfectly possible that Rom. 10:4 alludes to this, implying that this man's case was typical [and notice the connections between Acts 8:37 and Rom. 10:9]. Likewise the Lord Jesus spoke of "them also which shall believe on me through their  (the preachers') word" (Jn. 17:20)- not through their unguided Bible reading. If all we had been given was a Bible, most of us would simply not be where we are today, spiritually. If I had started reading from Genesis, I don't think I'd have got much beyond Leviticus before giving up on the Bible. Yet there are some who have made it through, from Genesis to Revelation. And their testimony is even more emphatic: "Without doubt I needed someone to guide me, I was just crying out for all the pieces to be put into place" , in the words of one such recent convert.
Paul continues his theme of preaching in Rom. 10. Having spoken of the vital need for preachers, he quotes Old Testament prophecies concerning the preaching of the Gospel: "Have they not heard? Yes verily, their sound went into all the earth, and their words unto the ends of the world" (Rom. 10:18). Paul is doubtless alluding to the great commission here. But he says that it is fulfilled by the preachers spoken of in Ps. 19:1-4, which he quotes. This speaks of the "heavens" declaring God's gospel world-wide. In the same way as the sun 'goes forth' all over the world, so will the "heavens" go forth to declare the Gospel. The 'heavens' do not just refer to the twelve in the first century; the New Testament says that all in Christ are the "heavenlies"; we are all part of the "sun of righteousness". The arising of Christ as the sun at His second coming (Mal. 4:2) will be heralded by the church witnessing the Gospel of His coming beforehand. The enthusiast will note a number of other preaching allusions in Ps. 19: "The firmament sheweth  His handiwork" (v.1) uses a word (in the Septuagint) which occurs in Lk. 9:60 concerning the publishing of the Gospel. "Their line is gone out through all the earth" (v.4) is picked up by Paul in describing his preaching (2 Cor. 10:13-16 AVmg.). The idea of 'going out' throughout the earth was clearly at the root of Christ's great commission (Mk. 16:15). Yet, as we have said, the " heavens" to which this refers in Ps. 19 are interpreted by the New Testament as referring to all  believers in Christ.
"All nations"
Clearly enough, God’s ideal intention even in Old Testament times was for the Gentiles to respond to the Hope of Israel. The aim of God’s judgments upon Moab were so that they might be ashamed of their idols, and that their “flavour” might be changed to be more pleasing to Israel’s God; they were intended to hide themselves in the rocks in repentance (Jer. 48:11,13,28 cp. Is. 2:19-21). And the way the King of Syria found his servants returning to him their master with stories of the amazing grace of the God of their enemy Israel was surely to try to bring him to conversion too (2 Kings 6:23; 5:1). Israel were to be the light to the Gentile world around them, the righteous servant who showed light to the Gentiles. But they sadly failed. Note too how the prophets pointed out to Gentile nations their sins and failed responsibilities before the God of Israel (Am. 2; 9:7; Is. 10:5; Jer. 46; Ez. 27,29). As always, closer analysis reveals God's will even more powerfully. The parallel record to the preaching commissions of Mk. 16 and Mt. 28 is found in Lk. 24:45-47. There we read how Christ explained to the disciples that their preaching of the Gospel "among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem" was foretold in the Psalms and prophets. So the Bible student asks: Where in the Psalms and prophets? The Lord spoke as if the prophecies about this were copious. There do not seem to be any specific prophecies which speak of the twelve spreading the Gospel from Jerusalem in the first century. Instead we read of the Gospel being spread from Jerusalem in the Kingdom, and often the phrase " all nations" occurs in a Kingdom context, describing how "all nations" will come to worship Christ at Jerusalem (Ps. 22:27; 67:2; 72:11,17; 82:8; 86:9; 117:1; Is. 2:2; 66:18,20; Jer. 3:17; Dan. 7:14; Hag. 2:7; Zech. 8:23). This selection of "Psalms and prophets" is impressive. Yet the Lord Jesus clearly interpreted these future Kingdom passages as having relevance to the world-wide spreading of the Gospel. "All nations" also occurs in many passages exhorting us to praise Yahweh among all the nations of this world. The reason for this is that God's glory is so great it should be declared as far as possible by us. 1 Chron. 16:24,25 is typical of many such verses: "Declare his glory among the heathen; his marvellous works among all nations. For  great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised... for all the gods of the people are idols". World-wide preaching is therefore an aspect of our praise of Yahweh, and as such it is a spiritual work which is timeless.
Because the Kingdom is to spread world-wide, we should therefore spread the Good News of this coming Kingdom world-wide. In prospect- and no more than that, let it be noted- the Kingdom has been established in that Christ has all power in Heaven and earth (Mt. 28:18). This is the language of Dan. 7:14 concerning the future Kingdom. The believer must live the Kingdom life now, as far as possible (Rom. 13:12,13). In the Kingdom, we will be spreading the Gospel throughout this planet. In this life too we should live in the spirit of the Kingdom in this regard.
The preaching of the Gospel was prophesied as beginning at Jerusalem, Jesus said. If this world-wide preaching abruptly finished at the end of the first century, to begin again at Jerusalem in the Kingdom, surely this would be prophesied in the Old Testament? The impression one gets from the Old Testament passages listed above is that the Gospel would begin to spread from Jerusalem, and would go on spreading until the full establishment of the Kingdom. This explains why Christ's command to get up and go world-wide with the Gospel stands for all time. The command to preach to "all nations" would ring bells in Jewish minds with the promises to Abraham, concerning the blessing of forgiveness to come upon "all nations" through Messiah (Gen. 18:18; 22:18; 26:4). Therefore God's people are to preach the Gospel of forgiveness in Christ to "all nations". The offer of sharing in that blessing did not close at the end of the first century. Putting the "all nations" of the Abrahamic promises together with Christ's preaching commission leads to a simple conclusion: The Hope of Israel now applies to all nations; so go and tell this good news to all nations.
Preaching “To every creature”
As so often with reading the Gospels, it is profitable to imagine the tone of voice in which the Lord spoke the words which are recorded. "Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature". If only we could sense the intensity of desire, the deepness of spiritual meaning, which His voice would have conveyed. We must have the spiritual ambition to take the Gospel to the whole world- no matter how small our world may be. The world of our street, of our town, nation- and as far as we are able, the whole planet. Paul had this ambition, quite apart from any personal commission he received. His desire to go to Spain (Rom. 15:24) indicates a commitment to taking the Gospel to the very ends of the world he then knew. He may well have been motivated in this by wishing to fulfil in spirit the Kingdom prophecy of Is. 66:18,19, which describes how Tarshish (which he would have understood as Spain) and other places which “have not heard my fame, neither have seen my glory” will be witnessed to by those who have seen His glory and have “escaped” from God’s just condemnation by grace. Paul sees this as referring to himself. For he speaks in Rom. 15:19 of his ambition to take the Gospel to Spain; and in that same context, of how he will bring the Gentile brethren’s offering up to Jerusalem. This is precisely the context of Is. 66- the offerings of the Gentiles are to be brought up to Jerusalem, as a result of how the Lord’s glory will be spoken of to all nations. So Paul read Isaiah 66 and did something about his Old Testament Bible study; he dedicated his life to taking the Gospel to the Gentiles, and he encouraged them to send their offerings to Jerusalem. He was no mere theologian, no academic missiologist. His study and exposition of Old Testament Scripture led to a life lived out in practice, to hardship, risk of life, persecution, loneliness, even rejection by his brethren. It is also significant in passing to note that Is. 66:19 speaks of nations which occur in the list of nations we have in Genesis 10, in the context of the effect of Babel. It is as if Paul sees the spreading of the Gospel as an undoing of the curse of Babel and the establishment of the Kingdom conditions described in Is. 66. By his preaching of God’s Kingdom and the reign of Christ, he brought about a foretaste of the future Kingdom in the lives of his converts. And we can do likewise. Note how once again, the preacher preaches from his personal experience; Paul takes the vision of glory which he has beheld to those who have not seen nor heard.  Paul speaks of how he had preached the Gospel from Jerusalem " as far round as Illyricum" (Rom. 15:19). This was a Latin-speaking province. Was he not implying that he had preached throughout the Greek speaking world, and now wanted to take it into the Latin-speaking world? He wanted to preach to the regions beyond his previous limits (2 Cor. 10:15); his aim was to spend some time in Rome and then preach in Spain.
The experience of preaching is in itself a foretaste of the future world-wide Kingdom. The harvest is both at the end of the age, according to the parables of Mt. 13, but also is ongoing right now (Jn. 4:36) as we gather in the harvest of converts. The Lord in Jn. 4:35,36 took this figure far further, by saying that the harvest is such that the interval between sowing and harvesting is in some sense collapsed for those who engage in preaching. The reaper was already collecting his wages; the harvest was already there, even though it was four months away (Jn. 4:35). This clearly alludes to the promises that in the Messianic Kingdom there would also be no interval between sowing and harvest, so abundant would be the harvest (Lev. 26:5; Am. 9:13). And hence, we are impelled to spread the foretaste of the Kingdom world-wide by our witness right now.
William Barclay comments: “Paul never saw a boat riding at anchor or moored at a quay but he wanted to board her and to preach the gospel to the lands beyond. He never saw a range of hills in the distance but he wanted to cross them and to preach the gospel to the lands beyond” (1). When Paul was in Pamphylia, he decided to go on to Galatia, where on account of infirmity of the flesh he preached to the Galatians (Gal. 4:13). The suggestion has been made that the low-lying Pamphylia was a source of malaria, which may have been Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”, and he therefore sought the uplands of Galatia. And yet he could easily have returned to Antioch. But instead, he went on, up into the highlands, to spread the Gospel yet further. The way there led up precipitous roads to the plateau; the roads were cut by mountain streams, prone to flash floods which often carried travellers to their death. And these roads were the haunt of bandits, who would murder a man just for a copper coin. No wonder Mark went back. But as William Barclay observes, “the wonder is not so much that Mark went back as that Paul went on”. Although a sick man, he was driven by that desire to spread the Gospel further. Surely this is why his Lord was so pleased to open the hearts of the Galatians to the Gospel. Consider too how Paul was stoned and dragged out of Lystra as dead- presumably they didn’t want him to die within the city limits as they were under Roman jurisdiction. Yet, hobbling and bleeding, he returned into the city to witness (Acts 14:20). And it was here in Lystra that he made one of his greatest converts, Timothy (Acts 16:1). And when Paul asks us to follow him, he is speaking in the context of his life’s work and preaching. He is our pattern, to be lived out in spirit within the confines within which God has placed us.
Even in Old Testament times, the basic idea of spreading God’s ways was implicit in God’s commands, although each time it seems to have met with resistance. Adam and Eve were to multiply and fill the earth, but it seems they didn’t even have intercourse , or at least Eve wasn’t pregnant, before they sinned. Noah was given the same command after the flood, but the next we know he is lying there dead drunk. And the incident at Babel shows that effectively, his children had not taken seriously the command to spread throughout the earth. Israel were to be a missionary nation, but they so evidently failed in this. The law given to Israel was intended to be a “testimony”, a witness, as the Hebrew word implies. By living out that law, Israel were to have been a witness to the world, a light to the Gentiles (Ps. 78:5). The prophets are full of invitations for the whole ends of the earth to turn to Israel’s God, yet the nation produced few real missionaries. Jonah perhaps epitomizes the resistance to the idea of sharing Israel’s relationship with God with the Gentiles. The need to spread the word has therefore always met up with opposition and indifference from those who ought to be doing it. Our own reservations about preaching are all a manifestation of that same basic human tendency. The way that Israel were intended to be a missionary nation is brought out very beautifully by the way that God speaks of carrying Israel on eagles' wings out of Egypt (Dt. 32:11). Apparently, the type of eagle throws one of its young into the air and catches it, bearing it on its wings, until it learns to fly freely, and then the others learn from this how to fly (2). If this is the right track of interpretation, then we are left with the conclusion that it was God's intention that all the Gentile world were intended to be God's ultimate children, and that they would learn from the example of Israel. But Israel failed to fly as God intended, and thus they were not the intended example for others. Note in passing how God's intention is that we should fly freely- not merely be His initiative-less servants for the sake of it.
The above paragraphs provide evidence which demands some kind of verdict. Should we make special effort to spread the Gospel, or not? There is an unmistakable connection with the great preaching commission in Mt. 24:14: " This Gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come" . It cannot be sensibly denied that Mt. 24 is a prophecy of the last days, before the coming of Christ. Isn't the Lord saying 'My great command to preach world-wide will be mightily fulfilled in the last days, and then I will return in glory'? And it is marvellously appropriate that our latter twentieth century has so many facilities, linguistically, politically and technologically, for the spreading of the Gospel to literally all nations. If the above reasoning is sound, then we need to wake up to our responsibilities; in terms of money, time, resources of all kinds, and above all in fervent prayer and spiritual effort to fulfil our Lord's earnest desire: that all men might see the light of the Father's love which He reflected. We each have our specific area, either of people or the world, in which God intends us to make a witness. Paul thus spoke of how both he and other brethren had their specific " line" or sphere in which they were intended to witness (2 Cor. 10:16 cp. Ps. 19:4 AVmg.; Am. 7:17). We each have ours, whether it be the people who live in our block of flats, an area of our own country or city; or another part of the world. " Go ye into all the world..." , obey the command, catch the vision- " for his name's sake" (3 Jn. 7), for the surpassing excellence of the knowledge and experience of all that is in Him. And hence Paul urged Timothy to fulfil, fully, the ministry of preaching which he had been given, just as he could say that he had (2 Tim. 4:5, 17 Gk). We each have a potential to live up to.
There is one final point which clinches the personal urgency of the great commission as relevant to every one of us. 1 Tim. 3:16 speaks of how Christ was:
God manifest in the flesh [on the cross]
justified in the Spirit [in the resurrection- Rom. 1:4]
seen of angels [at the resurrection]
preached unto the Gentiles
believed on in the world
received up into glory [the ascension].
It must have occurred to many expositors that this would be nicely chronological- were it not for stages 4 and 5. “Preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world” seems a clear reference to the great commission- to preach the Gospel of the resurrection to all the world, and whoever believes it will be saved. But the tenses are definitely past tense, not future. Indeed, the whole passage seems to have Mark’s record of the resurrection, preaching commission and ascension specifically in mind [not surprising if tradition is right in saying that this Gospel was learnt by heart by candidates for baptism in the early church] (3). I would suggest that Paul is using a Hebraism although writing in Greek (and E.W. Bullinger provides scores of other examples of where Paul does this, in Figures Of Speech Used In The Bible). Paul is thinking in the Hebrew ‘prophetic perfect’ tense, to describe something yet future as already past, so sure is it of fulfilment. He is referring to the great commission when he speaks of Christ as “preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world”; and he is giving a chronological account of the Lord’s resurrection, with reference to Mark’s Gospel record. But he sees the command to go and preach to the Gentiles, to make them believe, as so sure of being obeyed that he speaks of it in the past tense. The fact the Lord asked us to do this, for all the many reasons outlined in this study...this of itself is such a strong imperative to do it that Paul sees it as already done. And so the Lord’s bidding should weigh as heavily with us. In fact, He had just the same idea when in Luke’s record of the commission He says: “Beginning at Jerusalem you are witnesses” (Lk. 24:48 RVmg., cp. Acts 1:8). What He meant, according to Mark’s version, is that ‘You are to go world-wide and be witnesses’. But He speaks as if they have already done this, as if He were saying: ‘Go and be world-wide witnesses, you are witnesses, it’s axiomatic to your experience of my resurrection that you will witness, so I see it as if its already being done, even as you stand here before me’.
(1) William Barclay, Ambassador for Christ (Edinburgh, Saint Andrew Press, 1973), p. 25
(2) Martin Buber, 'The election of Israel' in On The Bible (New York: Schocken Books, 1982) p. 90.
(3)   L.G. Sargent, quoting C. Spicq, tabulates the following parallels in The Gospel Of The Son Of God p. 210 (Birmingham: CMPA):

Mark 16:9-19

1 Tim.  3:16

:12 appeared (i.e. was manifested) in another form

manifest in flesh

:15 preach the gospel

preached unto the Gentiles

:15 into all the world…:16 he that believeth

believed on in the world

:19 was received up into heaven

received up, into glory

Latter Day Fulfilment of the Great Commission

The great commission bids us go into all the world with Gospel; and we have pointed out the evident connection with Mt. 24:14: "This Gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come". This definitely suggests that the great commission will be mightily obeyed in the last days. When the Lord sent out His disciples upon their preaching tour during His ministry, He envisaged them being brought before Gentile "governors and kings... for a testimony to them and to the Gentiles" (Mt. 10:18). But they didn't achieve this, and so He used the same kind of language in the Olivet prophecy, in the expectation that the Gospel would go into all the world in the lead up to AD70. But again this didn't happen; and so the Olivet prophecy, including the demand that we take the Gospel "unto all nations" before His coming in glory, has been rescheduled in total fulfilment until our last days. There are many other Biblical implications that there will be an unprecedented spread of the Gospel to the whole planet in the last days:
- Dan. 12:4 speaks of a time in the very last days when “many shall run to and fro (an idiom often used concerning response to God's word: Ps. 119:32,60; 147:15; Amos 8:11,12; Hab. 2:2; Jn. 8:37 RV; 2 Thess. 3:1 Gk.), and knowledge shall be increased [the context is of Daniel wanting to understand about the second coming of Jesus]... many shall be purified, and made white, and tried (in the tribulation); but the wicked shall do wickedly: and none of the wicked shall understand; but the wise shall understand". This increase of knowledge of the Gospel is to be spread world-wide by many running to and fro in the last days. The great commission will be fulfilled then as never before.
- The parable of the marriage feast  highlights the tragedy of Jewish rejection of what could have been theirs. There will be an ever-increasingly vigorous preaching campaign by the " servants" , seeing that "they which were bidden were not worthy" (Mt. 22:8) - the Greek implying not enough numerically.   As a result of this preaching, "the wedding was furnished ('filled' - numerically) with guests" (Mt. 22:10). This indicates that in some ways, God does work to a number. Once the required number of converts is made, then the supper can begin. Their appeal being to "the poor... maimed... halt and... blind" suggests that the marginal and desperate within society will be those who respond- and this is happening right now in the triumphant progress of preaching in our day. The servants are sent "into the highways" (Matt. 22:9), the Greek meaning 'a market square'.   This must be designed to recall the parable of the labourers standing idle in the market place at the 11th. hour (Mt. 20:6,7).   The very short probation of those 11th.-hour workers will match that of the latter-day converts. And again, it was the old and weak who nobody wanted to hire.
- In the parable of the great supper, which is similar but not necessarily the same as that of the marriage feast, the same point is made. The servants going forth " at supper time" (Lk. 14:17) fits more naturally into the context of a preaching appeal just prior to the second coming than to the first century.   The "supper", i.e. the Kingdom (Lk. 14:15; Mt. 22:2), is prepared, and at "supper time" - 'Kingdom time' - the appeal is made.   "All things are now ready" (Lk. 14:17) explains the unmistakeable sense of urgency in the commissions given to the servants to preach.   This again indicates reference to an eleventh hour preaching campaign just prior to the second coming.   The 'decorum of the symbol' suggests that the animals being killed for the meal would necessitate a brief period of invitation immediately prior to the feast, rather than them being on the table for 2,000 years.
- A careful reading of Mt. 10:16-39 reveals many links with the Olivet prophecies concerning the latter day persecution of the saints; verses 17-21 are effectively quoted in Lk. 21:12-18. However, Mt. 10:16 prefaces all this by saying that these tribulations will attend those who go out preaching the Gospel in that latter day period. At this time, when many "shall be offended" (spiritually stumble) and "the love of many shall wax cold" for the truth (Mt. 24:10,11), the "Gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come" (Mt. 24:14)- i.e. the full establishment of the Kingdom. At that time, "What ye hear in the ear (in quiet halls at the moment), that preach ye (then) upon the housetops" (Mt. 10:27). This seems to be giving special encouragement to persevere in preaching during the last days.  There is a connection here with Mt. 24:17, which advises those upon the housetops to go with Christ at the time of his coming. This implies that at the moment of Christ's coming there will be zealous "upon the housetops" preaching by the faithful. This latter day witness will be accompanied by some measure of  persecution. "Ye shall be hated of all nations for my name's sake" connects with "this Gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached for a witness unto all nations" (Mt. 24:39,14). "My name's sake" and the Gospel of the Kingdom's sake are interchangeable expressions (Mt. 19:12,29; Mk. 10:29; Lk. 18:29).
- Before every 'coming' of the Lord there has been a period of persecution and zealous preaching: Noah preached righteousness before the flood, as Lot probably tried to before the Lord's coming down in judgment on Sodom (would God have wrought such wholesale destruction without giving the people a chance to repent? Cp. Nineveh and Jonah). The schools of the prophets preached from the street corners and temple steps to warn of the coming of the day of the Lord at the hand of the Babylonians and Assyrians. And of course the dramatic coming of the Lord in judgment upon Israel in AD70, was heralded by Paul and his committed band of zealots staging the greatest preaching campaigns this world has seen.
- We have suggested elsewhere that the great commission is repeated in John’s Gospel but in more spiritual language. The whole world is to know the Gospel because of the unity of the believers (Jn. 17:18,21,23); and it follows that a situation will arise in which the extraordinary nature of true Christian solidarity over linguistic, ethnic, social and geographical lines will make a similar arresting, compelling witness as it did in the first century. The Lord had prophesied that His followers over time “shall become one flock” (Jn. 10:16 RV); they would be “perfected into one, that the world may know” (Jn. 17:23 RV). He surely hoped this would have become true in the first century. As the Gospel spreads world-wide in the last days, the unity of the believers will become all the more comprehensive, and this will of itself provoke yet more conversions. It could have been like this in the first century- for Eph. 3:9 speaks of how the unity of Jew and Gentile would “make all men see” the Gospel. This is the urgency of Paul’s appeal for unity in Ephesians- he knew that their unity was the intended witness to the world which the Lord had spoken of as the means of the fulfilment of the great commission in Jn. 17:21-23. But sadly, Jew and Gentile went their separate ways in the early church, and the possibility of world-converting witness evaporated.
- Dan. 11:32,33 speaks of how in the time of the end “The people that do know their God shall be strong, and do exploits... instruct many”.
- The dragon/ beast made war with the seed of the woman "which keep the commandments (word) of God, and have the testimony (i.e. preaching) of Jesus" (12:17); it was because of "the word of their testimony (i.e. preaching) (that) they loved not their lives unto the death" (12:11), and then  Rev.12 goes on to describe how this final witness amidst tribulation is resolved by the coming of Jesus and the establishment of the Kingdom.
There are some definite links between the Greek text of Matthew’s record of the commission, and the LXX of the end of Daniel 12:


Daniel 12:13 LXX

Go ye into all the world (Mt. 28:20)

Go thou thy way

“…then shall the end come” (when the Gospel has been preached to all the world)

till the end

I am with you all the days (28:20 Gk.)

for still there will be days

unto the end of the world

to the end of the world.

-  Daniel being sent away with God’s promised blessing, the very picture of spiritual calmness and peace with his maker, sure in hope, yearning for the day…this is the very picture which the Lord gives of His preachers as He sends them forth. If we are to understand the time periods at the end of Daniel as literal days, i.e. a three and a half year period at the end, then we have in the great commission a specific hint that it will be fulfilled during the three and a half year tribulation. This possibility is developed at length in The Last Days.
The crucial question, of course, is whether the Gospel has truly gone into all the world. One perspective to bear in mind is that in the preaching of Paul, ecclesias which he founded are taken as representing a whole area- e.g. Philippi is called "Macedonia" (Phil. 4:15); Thessalonica is "Macedonia and Achaia" (1 Thess. 1:7); Corinth is Achaia (1 Cor. 16:15; 2 Cor. 1:1); Ephesus for Asia (Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; 2 Cor. 1:8). In this sense Paul felt that he had fully preached the Gospel in a circle, moving from Jerusalem through Asia to Rome, and projecting onwards to Spain. Perhaps the Gospel goes into all the world in the sense that believers, however small in number, are to be found world-wide. And that seems to be where we're now up to in the 21st century.

The Great Commission in Matthew

The records of the great preaching commission are each slightly different, and each links with statements recorded earlier in the same Gospel.
Go ye into all the world” evidently connects with the Lord’s command in the parable: “Go ye” into the highways and “gather together all”, as many as were found. And this in turn is an extension of an earlier parable, where the net of the Gospel is presented as gathering “every kind”- every genos, every “kindred / nation / stock / generation”, as the word is elsewhere translated (Mt. 28:19; 22:9,10; 13:47). The work of the Gospel described in those earlier parables was now specifically delegated to the Lord’s men. Through the work of the Lord’s followers over the generations, there would in every nation and generation be some who were gathered in, of as many social classes as one finds walking along a street [highway / byway]. The net of Gospel preaching is filled (pleroo), and then pulled to shore for judgment. When the Gospel has been preached in all the world (with response), then the end will come. Elsewhere Paul uses the same word to describe how the Gospel is fulfilled by preaching it (Rom. 15:19; Col. 1:25). To have the Gospel is to have an imperative to preach it.
Matthew’s record of the great commission draws on earlier themes and passages in his Gospel. The Lord told His men to go out and make disciples of men (Mt. 28:19 RV). In the immediate context, there are many references to the disciples (Mt. 27:64; 28:7,8,13,16). And the term “disciples” occurs more often (73 times) in Matthew than in any of the other Gospels (e.g. only 37 times in Luke). The Lord is telling His men: ‘Go out and make men like you- disciples, stumbling ‘learners’, not experts’. Thus they were to witness from their own experience, to share this with others, to bring others to share the type of relationship which they had with the Lord. In this sense preaching is seen by Paul as a bringing forth of children in our own image. John likewise was “the beloved disciple”, the agapetos. And yet this is the very term which he uses in his letters to describes his “beloved children” (1 Jn. 2:1; 4:11). He saw them as sharing the same relationship to his Lord as he had. The nature of our relationship with the Lord will be reflected in that of our converts. He tells His men to go to the lost sheep, and yet in that same context He calls them sheep, in the midst of wolves (Mt. 10:6,16). They were sheep sent to rescue sheep- to plead with men and women as men and women, to witness to humanity through their own humanity. Likewise the Lord spoke of how the extraordinary unity of His men would  convince others that “thou didst send me” (Jn. 17:23), having just commented how they had surely believed “that thou didst send me” (:8).
The command to ‘make disciples’ of all men in Matthew is framed in such a way as to make ‘...baptising them...’ a subordinate clause. Baptism is only part of the work of making disciples. In Mt. 28:19-20 mathateusate ("make disciples") is the main verb, while poreuthentes ("while going" or "when [you] go"), baptizontes ("baptizing"), and didaskontes ("teaching") are subsidiary participles. The focus clearly is upon making disciples- all the other things, the teaching, baptizing, our effort in travelling and preaching, are incidental to this main aim. This is why responsibility to those we may convert only begins at baptism; it’s a beginning of a man or woman being fashioned into the image of Christ, not the end. This is why Paul often uses the language of preaching about his pastoral efforts with his brethren [e.g. his desire to ‘preach the Gospel’ to the believers at Rome to whom he was writing]. He sees himself as preaching Christ to them still, in so doing warning them, “that we may present every man perfect” (Col. 1:28). Thus Paul parallels being a minister of the world-wide preaching of the Gospel, and being a minister of the church (Col. 1:23, 25). He saw his continued work amongst his baptized readership as fully preaching the word of God (Col. 1:25 AVmg.). So Paul said  in Gal. 4:19 “I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you”. How do we see our responsibility to those to whom we have preached the gospel?  We should continue to nurture and feed them well after the time of their baptism.  It seems that this is not a general responsibility which falls on the shoulders of all of us.  Rather we have a personal responsibility to those we have begotten through the gospel (1Cor. 4:15).

The Great Commission in Mark and Luke


We are to preach to “all the world” (16:15)- the kosmos. In the last days, the Gospel will go to “all nations”- every ethnos (Mk. 13:10). The parallel record in Mt. 24:14 has Jesus saying that it must go to the whole world- oikoumene. What did He actually say? I suggest He used both words, in an emphasis of just how universal the witness would be: ‘The Gospel will be preached in the whole oikoumene, yes, to every ethnos…’. This is all some emphasis- every creature (individual), in the whole world system, every part of society (kosmos), of every nation (ethnos), on the whole planet (oikoumene) was to have the message. And this is our unmistakable mandate. The number of different words used by the Lord was surely intentional.


Luke records how the Angel summarised the Lord’s work as good news of great joy for all men (Lk. 2:10). The Gospel concludes by asking us to take that message to all men. Straight away we are challenged to analyze our preaching of the Gospel: is it a telling of “great joy” to others, or merely a glum ‘witness’ or a seeking to educate them ‘how to read the Bible more effectively’, or a sharing with them the conclusions of our somewhat phlegmatic Biblical researches? Whatever we teach, it must be a joyful passing on of good news of “great joy”. The Lord began His ministry by proclaiming a freedom from burdens through Him (Lk. 4). And He concludes it by telling the disciples to proclaim the same deliverance (Lk. 24:47). Consider how He brings together various passages from Isaiah in His opening declaration in Lk. 4:18:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives,   and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach [proclaim] [Heb. ‘call out to a man’] the acceptable year of the Lord”.
This combines allusions to Is. 61:1   (Lev. 25:10); Is. 58:6 LXX  and  Is. 61:2. 
Is. 58:6 AV: “To loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free (cp. Dt. 15:12 re freedom of slaves, s.w.), and that ye break every yoke?” is in the context of an insincerely kept year of Jubilee in Hezekiah’s time, after the Sennacherib invasion. Is. 58 has many Day of Atonement allusions- the year of Jubilee began on this feast. We are as the High Priest declaring the reality of forgiveness to the crowd. Hence Lk. 24:47 asks us to proclaim a Jubilee of atonement. The Greek for “preach” in Lk. 24:47 and for “preach / proclaim the acceptable year” in Lk. 4:19 are the same, and the word is used in the LXX for proclaiming the Jubilee. And the LXX word used for ‘jubilee’ means remission, release, forgiveness, and it is the word used to describe our preaching / proclaiming forgiveness in Lk. 24:47. It could be that we are to see the cross as the day of atonement, and from then on the Jubilee should be proclaimed in the lives of those who accept it. It’s as if we are running round telling people that their mortgages have been cancelled, hire purchase payments written off...and yet we are treated as telling them something unreal, when it is in fact so real and pertinent to them. And the very fact that Yahweh has released others means that we likewise ought to live in a spirit of releasing others from their debts to us: “The creditor shall release that which he hath lent… because the Lord’s release hath been proclaimed” (Dt. 15:2RV).
We can’t have a spirit of meanness in our personal lives if we are proclaiming Yahweh’s release. This is one of many instances where the process of preaching the Gospel benefits the preacher. The jubilee offered release from the effects of past misfortune and even past foolishness in decisions; and our offer of jubilee offers this same message in ultimate term (1). Incidentally, the Lord had implied that we are in a permanent Jubilee year situation when He said that we should take no thought what ye shall eat … Sow not nor gather into barns” and not think “What shall we eat?” (Mt. 6:26,31 = Lev. 25:20). There must be a spirit of telling this good news to absolutely all. And yet according to Luke’s own emphasis, it is the poor who are especially attracted to the Jubilee message of freedom (Lk. 6:20-23; 7:1,22,23; 13:10-17). There are several links between Is. 58 and Neh. 5, where we read of poor Jews who had to mortgage their vineyards and even sell their children in order to pay their debts. The “oppressed” or “broken victim” of Is. 58, to whom we are invited to proclaim deliverance, were therefore in the very first instance those under the throttling grip of poverty, who had become bondslaves because of their debts and now had no hope of freedom, apart from the frank forgiveness of a year of Jubilee. We take a like message to Westerners overburdened with mortgage payments, to those suffering from absolute poverty in the developing world, and to all those with a sense of debt and being trapped within their life situation. We pronounce to them a year of Jubilee, a frank forgiveness, a way of real escape and freedom. 
To preach [proclaim] the acceptable year of the Lord (Lk. 4:19) is thus parallel with “You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants” (Lev. 25:10). Likewise there are to be found other such allusions to the proclamation of Jubilee: “We as workers together with him, beseech you also that ye receive…the grace of God…a time accepted… in the day of salvation [the Jubilee] have I succoured thee: behold, now is the accepted time” (2 Cor. 6:1,2) “Repentance and remission of sins should be preached [proclaimed, s.w. 4:19] in his name among all nations” (Lk. 24:47)


(1)   “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Mt. 6:12) is probably another allusion to the jubilee. We release / forgive men their debt to us, as God does to us. If we chose not to participate in this Jubilee by not releasing others, then we cannot expect to receive it ourselves.

The Great Commission in John

John's Gospel frequently repeats the themes of the Synoptic Gospels, but from a different angle and in more spiritual / abstract language:

The Synoptic Gospels

John’s Gospel

Mt. 16:19 the keys of the Gospel of the Kingdom

Jn. 20:21,23

the more literal accounts of the birth of Jesus

Jn. 1: 1-14

The great preaching commission

Jn. 14:12; 17:18; 20:21; Jn. 15:8,16; Jn. 17:23 RV

Lk. 16:31

"If you believe not (Moses') writings, how shall you believe my words?" (Jn. 5:47). This is John's equivalent of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, which concluded with the same basic point (Lk. 16:31).

The transfiguration

Whilst there is no account of the transfiguration in John, he repeatedly stresses how the Lord manifested forth His glory and was glorified. For John, the Lord's whole life was in a spiritual sense a form of the transfiguration experience which the synoptics described.

The Synoptics all include the Lord’s Mount Olivet prophecy as a lead-in to the record of the breaking of bread and crucifixion

In John, the record of this prophecy is omitted and replaced by the account of the Lord’s discourse in the upper room. “The day of the son of man” in John becomes “the hour [of the cross]… that the son of man should be glorified” (Jn. 12:23). “Coming”, “that day”, “convict / judge the world” are all phrases picked up by John and applied to our experience of the Lord right now. In our context of judgment now, we have to appreciate that the reality of the future judgment of course holds true; but the essence of it is going on now.

The three synoptic gospels all include Peter’s ‘confession’, shortly before Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain.

In John’s gospel the account of the transfiguration is lacking. Are we to assume that Thomas’ confession in chapter 20 is supposed to take its place?

The need for water baptism
The account of the breaking of bread



The many quotations from the Old Testament, shown to be fulfilled in the Lord Jesus.
The synoptics each give some account of the literal origin of Jesus through giving genealogies or some reference to them.

Jn. 3:3-5
John’s version is in John 6:48-58. He stresses that one must absorb Christ into themselves in order to really have the eternal life which the bread and blood symbolize. It seems John puts it this way in order to counter the tendency to think that merely by partaking in the ritual of breaking bread, believers are thereby guaranteed eternal life.
John expresses this in more abstract language: “The word was made flesh” (Jn. 1:14).
John’s Gospel speaks of Jesus as if He somehow existed in the plan of God from the beginning, but “became flesh” when He was born of Mary.

The transfiguration is recorded in the synoptics, and their records include the idea that it happened “after six days” (Mk. 9:2). John speaks of the same theme of Christ manifesting God’s glory, but he sees it as happening not just once at the transfiguration, but throughout the Lord’s ministry and above all in His death. Interestingly, John’s record also has the idea of the Lord manifesting the Father’s glory after six days. The Gospel opens by describing events on four successive days (Jn. 1:19,29,35,43), and then we read that “the third day” [i.e. six or seven days after the story has begun], Jesus “manifested his glory” (Jn. 2:1,11). Again in Jn. 7:37, it was on the last great day of the feast of Tabernacles, i.e. on the 7th day, that the Lord Jesus manifests Himself. Perhaps too we are to pay attention to the six days mentioned in Jn. 12:1, after which the Lord was crucified and manifested the Father’s glory.
In the same way as John matches the more literal accounts of the birth of Jesus with a more spiritual interpretation in Jn. 1, so he likewise refers to the great commission, expressing it in more spiritual terms throughout his gospel. I bring together here some comments that have been made elsewhere in these studies, to show the number of allusions:
- Jn. 10:32: “If I be lifted up from [RVmg. ‘out of’] the earth, will draw all men unto me”. Straight after the Lord’s death and resurrection the great commission was given, to bring all men unto Him and His cross.
- God sanctified / consecrated Jesus and sent Him into the world (Jn. 10:36). But this sanctification was through His death on the cross (Jn. 17:19). Jesus was sanctified on the cross and sent into the world in the sense that we His people would be impelled by His cross to take Him into all the world. We would be sent into all the world in His Name.
- As the Lord was sent into the world, so He sends us into the world (Jn. 14:12; 17:18; 20:21)- the very language of the great commission. Jesus ‘came down’ to this world in the sense that He was the word of the Father made flesh, and ‘all men’ saw the light of grace that was radiated from His very being. And that same word must be flesh in us, as it was in the Lord.
- In Jn. 12:23-26, the Lord foretold aspects of His coming sacrifice: “The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit [spoke in the context of potential Gentile converts]. He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it... if any man serve me, let him follow me”. Here the Lord goes on to assume that His death, His falling into the ground, would be matched by His followers also hating their lives, that they might rise again. And He connects His death with glorification. Soon afterwards, the Lord spoke of how his followers would likewise “bear much fruit”, and thus glorify God. And in this context He continues with words which can be read as John’s record of the great preaching commission: “I have chosen you... that ye should go [cp. “Go ye into all the world...”] and bring forth fruit” (Jn. 15:8,16). Clearly the Lord connected His bringing forth of “much fruit” through His death with the same “much fruit” being brought forth by the disciples’ witness. It follows from this that the fruit which He potentially achieved on the cross is brought to reality by our preaching. And perhaps it is also possible to see a parallel between our preaching and His laying down of His life on the cross, as if the work of witness is in effect a laying down of life by the preacher, in order to bring forth fruit.
- The whole world is to know the Gospel because of the unity of the believers (Jn. 17:18,21,23); and it follows that a situation will arise in which the extraordinary nature of true Christian solidarity over linguistic, ethnic, social and geographical lines will make a similar arresting, compelling witness as it did in the first century. The Lord had prophesied that His followers over time “shall become one flock” (Jn. 10:16 RV); they would be “perfected into one, that the world may know” (Jn. 17:23 RV). As the Gospel spreads world-wide in the last days, the unity of the believers will become all the more comprehensive, and this will of itself provoke yet more conversions. And once the fullness of unity is achieved, our communal way of life will have hastened the coming of the Lord (2 Pet. 3).
- Matthew and Mark record how the apostles were sent to preach the Gospel and baptize, for the forgiveness of sins (cp. Acts 2:38). Luke records the Lord stating that the apostles knew that forgiveness of sins was to be preached from Jerusalem, and therefore they should be witnesses to this. I would suggest that John’s Gospel does in fact record the great commission, but in different and more spiritual words: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you... If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven” (Jn. 20:21,23 NIV). These words have always been problematic for me, especially that last phrase. Can God’s forgiveness really be limited by the forgiveness shown by fallible men? Yet if these words are taken as a record of the great commission to go and preach, and the ellipsis is filled in, things become clearer: ‘I am sending you to preach the Gospel and baptism of forgiveness; if you do this and men respond, then the Gospel you preach really does have the power to bring about forgiveness. But if you don’t fulfil the commission I give you to preach forgiveness, then the sins of your potential hearers will remain unforgiven’. Again, the forgiveness and salvation of others is made to depend upon our preaching of forgiveness. “Whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained” becomes the equivalent of “he that believeth not shall be damned”. Note that the Greek for ‘retain’ strictly means ‘to hold / bind’, and that for ‘remit’ means ‘to loose’. This has evident connection with Mt. 16:19, where the keys of the Gospel of the Kingdom (which we all possess) have the power to bind and loose, i.e. to grant or not grant forgiveness. Jn. 15:8,16 also has some reference to the great commission: “…so shall ye be my disciples… that ye should go [into all the world] and bear fruit, and that your fruit [converts?] should abide”. The eternal life of the converts is a fruit brought forth by the preacher’s obedience to his Lord’s commission. Likewise through the preaching of John, he turned men’s hearts- the idea of repentance, being brought about by the preacher (Mal. 4:6).
- “These are written [“in this book” of John’s Gospel] that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ…and that believing ye may have life in his name” (Jn. 20:31 RV)- belief, life, “in his name”, these are all references to the great commission. It’s as if John is saying that he fulfilled it by the writing and preaching of his Gospel record. John's equivalent to an appeal for baptism may be his concluding appeal to believe that Jesus is the Christ, and as a result of that belief, to receive life "in His name" - into which we are baptized.
John's record of the great commission is not merely found at the end of his gospel. When John records how the disciples were to proclaim "the word" to the world (Jn. 17:20), he is surely intending connection to be made with how "the word" had likewise been made flesh in the Lord Jesus (Jn. 1:14); and how it was that same "word" which Jesus had given to His men, just as His Father had manifested that word through Himself. Our witness is to be in our making flesh of the word in real life, just as it was in the Lord.