THE GREAT COMMISSION, Part I.
John R. W. Stott
Text: John 20:19-23
It seems not only appropriate but indispensable that the first three Bible Studies of the Congress should be concerned with the Great Commission which Christ our Lord has given us. For, in the last resort, we engage in evangelism today, not because we want to or because we choose to or because we like to, but because we have been told to. The Church is under orders. The risen Lord has commanded us to "go," to "preach," to make disciples;" and that is enough for us. Evangelistic inactivity is disobedience.
It is, therefore, right for us to go back to the very beginning and re-examine
our marching orders.
The so-called "Great Commission" or "Universal Commission" occurs five times in our Bibles, at the end of each of the four Gospels and once at the beginning of the Acts. There is no need to suppose that these are five versions of a single occasion. It is much more probable that, during the forty days which elapsed between the Resurrection and the Ascension, the risen Lord repeated the same commission many times, although in different words and with different emphases.
John records what Jesus said on the day of the Resurrection it- self (20:19-23).
Matthew records what He said later to a group of disciples on a mountain in Galilee (28:16-20).
Luke in his Gospel seems to be giving his own summary of what the Lord said on this subject during the whole period of the forty days (24:44-49). We gather this because immediately be- fore the discourse in question it is still Easter Day (v 43), whereas immediately afterwards it is already Ascension Day (v. 50).
In Acts 1:6-8, Luke gives another version of the Commission, the final one, uttered just prior to the Ascension.
The fifth version is in Mark 16:15-18. From the plain evidence of the manuscripts, it is universally acknowledged that Mark's original conclusion to his Gospel has been lost and that this so-called "Longer Ending" is a later addition by another hand. We must, therefore, treat this passage with great caution; for our purposes, I propose to omit it.
Let us begin with the Johannine version of the Commission (20:19-23).
It is the evening of the first Easter Day. For fear of the Jews, the disciples have met secretly, behind closed doors. Through these closed doors comes the risen Jesus and stands in their midst. He has already appeared privately to Mary Magdalene and Peter, to the other women and the two Emmaus disciples This, however, is the first official appearance to the Twelve.
His commission to them is in striking contrast to their actual situation. They are terrified, but He tells them to have no fear and rather to be of good courage. They are in hiding, but He bids them throw open the closed doors and, risking the dangers of persecution and death, to mark out to the spiritual conquest of the world.
On this occasion, He spoke four short sentences--of greeting, of command, and of promise. Let us examine them closely.
1. "Peace be unto you!”
He said it twice (vv. 19, 21), and yet again the following week when Thomas was present (v. 26).' While superficially it was only the familiar Jew- ish greeting, there was more here, much more, than meets the eye. As Bishop J. C. Ryle has commented, "the first words that our Lord spoke to the disciples afford a beautiful proof of His loving, merciful, tender, thoughtful, pitiful, and compassionate spirit." When Christ says "peace I leave with you, my peace I eve unto you," He neither speaks nor gives like the world (John 14:27). No, he was actually giving the Twelve the peace they needed and went on to con- firm His word with a sign. We read, "He showed them His hands and His side" (v. 20), visible, tangible evidence that it was He who had died for them, and that He who had died had risen again. ,What sort of peace was this, then?
(a) It was peace of conscience through His death. Those disciples had met as fellow sinners for they had denied and deserted their Lord. Their greatest need was forgiveness and the assurance of forgiveness. How could they proclaim forgiveness to others until they had been forgiven themselves, and knew it? So He spoke His word of peace to them and the scars in His hands and side were evidence (however dimly they understood it then) that He who promised them peace had actually "made peace by the blood of His cross" (Col. 1:20). His death had an abiding significance; He still carried its marks in His body.
Our first need too, before we can begin to evangelize, is the forgiveness of our sins and the assurance of it. Indeed, the risen Christ still speaks peace to the conscience of His people, and He still confirms His word with a sign. For are not the bread and trine of Communion to us today what the hands and side of Jesus were on that day? They are visible, tangible tokens that He loved us and gave Himself for us.
But the peace Christ gave involved still more.
(b) it was also peace of mind through His resurrection. The disciples who gathered in the upper room on the first Easter Day were one in doubt as well as in sin. Despite our Lord's repeated predictions of His death, it took them by surprise. They had not expected it. How could Jesus be the Messiah if he had ended His days on a cross, on an accursed tree? Their faith lay in ruins; their minds were in turmoil.
So the "peace" which Jesus spoke to them and the sign which He gave to them were for the mind as well as for the conscience. His wounded hands and side were evidence, not only that He had died, but that He had risen, and that the One who had risen was the same One who had died. "Then were the disciples glad when they saw the Lord" (v. 20). It was the same for Thomas a week later. Unutterable indeed is our joy when into the dark places of our doubt shines the bright light of the Resurrection.
We learn then that the Church's very first need, before it can begin to engage in evangelism, is an experience and an assurance of Christ's peace ... peace of conscience through His death that banishes sin, peace of mind through His resurrection that banishes doubt. Jesus repeated his greeting for emphasis. "Peace be unto you," He said, “ Peace be unto you." It is utterly im- possible to preach the gospel of peace to others unless we ourselves have peace. Indeed, the greatest single reason for the church's evangelistic disobedience centers in the Church's doubts. We are not sure if our own sins are forgiven. We are not sure if the Gospel is true. And so, because we doubt, we are dumb. We need to 'near again Christ's word of peace, and see again His 'hands and His side. Once we are glad that vie have seen the Lord, and once we have clearly recognized Him as our crucified and risen Saviour, then nothing and no one will be able to silence us.
2. "As my Father hath sent me, even so send I send you.” (v. 21).
I venture to say that, although these words represent the simplest form of the Great Commission, it is at the same time its most profound form, its most challenging and therefore its most neglected. In these words Jesus gave us not only a command to evangelize ("the Father sent me; I send you"), but also a pattern of evangelism ("As the Father sent me, so send I you"). The Church's mission in the world is to E-e like Christ's. Jesus Christ was the first missionary, and all our mission is derived from His. Now we might ask, how did the Father send the Son? Here are three straightforward answers.
(a) The Father's sending of the Son involved birth into the world. He did not stay in heaven; He was sent into the world. Nor did He come into the world in the full regalia of His divinity; He laid aside His glory. He became poor. He did not even come in human disguise, like-an Old Testament theophan7. He actually took our nature. He was born into the world.
(b) The Father's sending of the Son involved life in the world.. Having assumed our nature, He shared our experience. Once “Word was made flesh," He "dwelt among us" (John 1:14). He exposed Himself to temptation, sorrow, loneliness, opposition. scorn. He mixed freely with men, even in sinful, secular society. He was criticized for fraternizing with publicans and sinners. "This man receives sinners and eats with them," men sneered (Luke 15:1, 2). Indeed He did! It is our boast: one of His most honorable titles is "Friend of publicans and sinners" Ce. g., Matt. 11:19).
( c) The Father's sending of the Son involved death for the world. God's Son did more than just take upon Himself our nature and our life; He took upon Him our sins as well. If He was "made flesh," He was also “made sin" and "made a curse" (John 1:14; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13). 1 know, of course, that the sinbearing death of Jesus in its atoning significance and power was absolutely and utterly unique. Yet there is a secondary sense in which we, too, are called to die, to die for the very people we seek to serve. Not until the seed dies is the fruit borne. "The disciple is not above his master ... If anyone serves me, let him follow me ... If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me." See John 12:24-26, Luke 9:23. We are to be ready to lay down our lives for others, not only in martyrdom, but also in self-denying service a.-id despised and rejected of men sometimes in the living death of misunderstanding, misrepresentation, ridicule and obscurity.
Thus, in a word, by His birth, by His life and His death., God's Son identified Himself with us. He did not stay apart from us or aloof from us; He made Himself one with us. All this was involved in His being sent by the Father into the world.
Now He says to us "As the Father sent me into the world, so send I you." I personally believe that our failure to obey the implications of this command is the greatest weakness of evangelical Christians in the field of evangelism today. We do not identify. We believe so strongly (and rightly) in proclamation, that we tend to proclaim our message from a distance. We sometimes appear like people who shout advice to drowning men from the safety of the seashore. We do not dive in to rescue them. We are afraid of getting wet', and indeed of greater perils than this. But Jesus Christ did not broadcast salvation from the sky. He visited us in great humility.
Our reluctance is understandable to some extent. It derives partly from our sharp reaction against certain theological liberals and radicals who lay such stress-on identification that they have renounced altogether the duty to proclaim the Gospel. "We must sit down beside these unbelievers," they say, and they are quite right. Then they wrongly add, how- ever "We have nothing to say to them. We must listen to them. We must let them teach us."
By all means we must be ready to listen and learn. But we cannot give up preaching, for proclamation is of the essence of salvation. Yet true evangelism, evangelism that is modelled on the ministry of Jesus, is not proclamation with- out identification any more than it is identification with- out proclamation. Evangelism involves both together. Jesus Christ is the Word of God, the proclamation of God; in order to be proclaimed, however, the Word was made flesh.
Frankly, this is my own greatest dilemma and problem as a parish minister. I love to preach the Gospel--to those who will listen to it. I find no greater joy in any ministerial activity than in the exposition of God's Word, whether to believers or to un- believers, who come to Church (or even to open-air services) to hear it. But how are we to identify with the people of the parish who will not hear? That is the problem. How can we become so one with secular men and women, as Christ became one with us, that we express and demonstrate our love for them, and win a right to share with them the good news of Christ? I am not content to shout the Gospel at them from a remote and sheltered vantage ground; I want to become their friend and argue it out with them side by side; I want to witness to Christ among them in their very midst. Just how to do this is an urgent question to which we must address ourselves seriously if we would follow in the footsteps of our Master.
3. "Receive ye the Holy Ghost!" (v. 22).
You will have noticed the Trinitarian references in these verses. The Church's mission is modelled on the Father's sending of the Son and empowered by the Son's sending of the Spirit.
I do not myself believe that Jesus gave these disciples a special gift of the Spirit at that moment. His teaching about the Spirit, both in the upper room and during the forty days, suggests rather that here we have a dramatic anticipation of Pentecost, when He would pour out the Spirit upon them and endue them with power for their evangelistic task. This was the promise He made to them repeatedly during the forty days. Now He breathed on them in order to confirm His promise with .a sign. Just as before and in anticipation of His death He broke bread and gave it to them saying "Take, eat, this is my Body," so before His outpouring of the Spirit and in anticipation of it He breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit." Again, just as He enforced His word of peace by showing them His hands and His side, so He enforced His promise of the Spirit by breathing on them. His breath upon them was an outward and sensible sign to confirm and guarantee His promise of Pentecost- al power. After this experience they could never separate the Spirit from the Son. He had actually breathed on them. They knew the Spirit was His gift, the Holy Breath of Jesus Christ Himself.
But the Church needs more than power; it needs a message. To this the Lord says
4. "Whosoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosoever sins, ye retain, they are retained.” (v.. 23). it is upon the flimsy foundation of these controversial words (with Matt. 16:19 and 18:18 about binding and loosing) that the Church of Rome has built its rigid structure of sacramental confession and priestly absolution.
But without hesitation we repudiate this interpretation as false, and indeed untenable. We do so on solid grounds, namely, by applying to Christ's words the two most basic principles of biblical interpretation. We can never interpret a text in isolation, bu-u vie must set it in its double context, that is, in its historical and in its biblical contexts.
(a) The historical context. In seeking to under- stand any text we must ask-w7at-the speaker meant by it and what his hearers understood by it. We must be care- ful not to impart into it alien ideas of a later age.
What, then, did the Apostles understand by this statement of Christ about the remission and the retention of sins?
That they did not imagine they were being given priestly or judicial authority to forgive sins is abundantly plain from the fact that they neither claimed nor exercised such powers. There is no single occasion in the Acts or the Epistles of an Apostle (or anybody else) requiring the private confession of sins or the giving of absolution to sinners.
No. What they did, and what they did constantly, was to preach the Gospel, declaring with authority the terms on which God forgives sins. We find them doing this throughout the Acts and the Epistles, promising pardon to penitent believers and warning of judgment to impenitent unbelievers. The Apostles understood that the authority the risen Lord had given them was the authority of a preacher and not that of a priest.
Incidentally, the so-called "Absolution" mentioned in reformed Anglican Prayer Books which the minister pronounces in public worship is simply a stylized preaching of the Gospel, an enunciation of its terms, and a declaration to those who fulfill them that God has in- deed granted them forgiveness.
(b) The biblical context is as important as the historical. We mus-t allow Scripture to interpret Scripture, particularly when there are parallel passages.
So in this case we ask: what other scriptural evidence is there concerning what the risen Lord taught about the forgiveness of sins during the forty days?
The answer is not far to seek. Luke records Christ's commission to preach repentance and remission of sins to all nations on the basis of His Name. Christ's charge to them was not to give remission but to preach it, on condition of repentance.
This, then, is how we must interpret our Lord's vivid statement: "whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained." He was not giving men authority to remit or retain sins, for, as Christ's contemporaries rightly asked when He forgave sinners, "who can forgive sins but God only?" (Mk. 2:7). No. In a dramatic way, He was simply telling them to proclaim with authority the circumstances in which God remits sins and retains them. Both the historical and the biblical context require us to interpret the verse in this way, just as the Reformers saw it.
Our commission, therefore, is not only to identify ourselves with the world, as Christ did, but also to proclaim to the world the Gospel of divine forgiveness. It is striking that identification and proclamation are brought together in the same paragraph.
The Church's message, as originally given by Jesus, has not changed. Man's greatest need is still the forgiveness of his sins and his reconciliation to God. The whole world is burdened with a bad conscience; mental institutions are full of guilt-laden souls. But vie have the message to set men free and must proclaim it with authority and without compromise! It is a message of blessing and of judgment: of the remission of sins to those who repent and believe, and of the retention of sins to those who will not,
In summary; In this first form of the Great Commission, given on Easter Day itself and recorded by the Apostle John, Christ emphasizes four marks of Christian evangelism:
1st. an assured personal experience of peace in both mind and conscience.
2nd. a humble, sacrificial identification with those to whom we are sent.
3rd. the power of the Holy Spirit in our ministry.
4th. an authoritative proclamation of the divine terms of peace.
This was the risen Lord's word to the infant church when it was still in hiding;
it may yet bring the church out of hiding today.