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The Great Commission, Part III
by John Stott

Text: Luke 24:44-49




Luke's account of the Great Commission differs from that of John and Matthew by appearing to be a general summary of the teaching rather than a particular utterance by Christ. John records what the risen Lord said during His first appearance to the Twelve on Easter Day itself. Matthew records His words on a later occasion when He met His disciples on a Galilean Mountainside. But Luke summarizes what Jesus said on the overall subject. We know this because these six verses represent the sum total of Christ's teaching between the day of His resurrection (vv. 36-43) and the day of His ascension (vv. 50-53). If we had only Luke's Gospel, we might get the impression that Luke thought the Ascension followed the Resurrection almost at once. But since he tells us in Acts 1:3 that forty days elapsed between the two events, we must conclude that he deliberately gives at the end of his Gospel only a brief digest of the Risen Lord's teaching about the Church's worldwide mission.

We begin our study of it by noticing not the details of the central commission but its nature This is indicated by the verb in verse 47. Translated "preached" in most versions, it is in fact the Greek word Keruchthenai, meaning "to be heralded." It stands first in the Greek sentence, and so receives the chief emphasis. Christ's will and purpose are "that there should be preached" a certain message throughout the world. He made His Church the herald of His Gospel, to publish it abroad to the ends of the earth.

The commission of the Church, therefore, is not to reform society, but to preach the Gospel. Certainly, Christ's disciples who have embraced the Gospel and who themselves are being trans- formed by the Gospel, are intended to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Mt. 5:13, 14). That is, they are to influence the society in which they live and work, by helping to arrest its corruption and illumine its darkness. They are to love and serve their generation, and play their part in the community as responsible Christian citizens. But the primary task of the members of Christ's Church is to be Gospel heralds, not social reformers.

Again, the commission of the Church is not to heal the sick, but to preach the Gospel. I am not suggesting that doctors or nurses give up their professional Of course not, They are caring for the sick, and harnessing modern discovery to the treatment of the sick in accordance with the principle of neighbor-love so beautifully illustrated in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. I am simply saying that the miraculous healing ministry, exercised by Jesus and to some extent by His Apostles (viz. instantaneous and complete healing without the use of means) is not part of Christ's commission to the Church. I do not doubt nor deny that God can, and sometime does, still miraculously heal the sick. But the Church today has no authority to exercise a regular ministry of miraculous healing. Such supernatural healing was plainly part of Christ's charge to the Twelve and to the Seventy during His early ministry; both these charges Luke recorded earlier in his gospel (9:1 ff.; 10:1 ff.). On these occasions the disciples were commanded not only to preach the Gospel but also to heal the sick and, according to Matthew 10:8, even to raise the dead. We cannot automatically assume, however, that these commands apply to the Church today, unless we are ready to obey as well all the other commands of the mission charge to the Twelve and to the Seventy. Are we prepared, for example, to take with us on our evangelistic campaigns neither food nor money nor spare clothing? Are we prepared to forego the use of public transport and to walk barefoot, and indeed, to go only to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matt. 10:6)? No. These commands, including that to heal the sick and raise the dead, belong to Christ's charge to those disciples who shared in His own healing ministry during the days of His flesh. It is of great significance that these commands were not repeated in the Great Commission of the risen Lord. According to this commission, which is still addressed to us today, our primary duty is to be neither reformers of society nor healers of the sick, but rather preachers of the Gospel.

Having sought to establish that the Great Commission to the Church is to be Christ's heralds in the proclamation of the Gospel, we are now in a position to consider the details of the Proclamation. Five aspects of it are given to us. It is a proclamation.

1. Of the forgiveness of sins.

Literally the commission reads: "that there should be preached forgiveness of sins... ". This Gospel of Christ is good news of salvation for sinners, and the foremost meaning of salvation is the forgiveness of sins. We have already seen how this is confirmed by the Johannine version of the commission, in which Jesus declared "whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted."

That the Gospel is essentially an offer of forgiveness is denied by many today. Some even dare to assert that "man come of age" is no longer so conscious of his sins as were his guilt-laden forebears, and that the Church must grow out of its agelong obsession with sin. Biblical Christians cannot even begin to agree with this modern tendency to soft-pedal sin. Jesus Christ has sent us to be heralds to all nations of the forgiveness of sins. This means that all men of all nations are guilty sinners under the judgment of God and stand in need of forgiveness.

In this task we seek not only to obey the forthright command of Christ, but also to follow the exaindle of His Apostles. They were faithful to their commission. In the first Christian sermon ever preached, the Apostle Peter cried, "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins!" to a conscience-smitten crowd. "Let it be known to you therefore, brethren," said the Apostle Paul in the synagogue of Fisidian Antioch, "that through this Man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you" (Acts 13:38).

It is a proclamation of the forgiveness of sins.

2. In the Name of Christ.

Literally the passage reads "that there should be preached upon His Name ... forgiveness of sins." The preposition is not 'in' His Name but 'on' His Name, epi. This indicates that the Name of Christ is to be the ground basis upon which the offer of forgiveness is made.

What this means is explained in the preceding three verses. "Then he said to them, 'These are my words which 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 to understand the scriptures, and said to them, 'Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead'" (24:44-46 R.S.V.). The Christ upon whose Name forgiveness of sins is to be heralded is the Christ who once suffered for sins and then rose from the dead, He died to bear our sin and curse in His own body. He was raised to demonstrate that His death had been satisfactory for the removal of sin and to apply its benefits to future generations of sinners. Thus Jesus Christ is to be presented by the Church to the world as the crucified and risen Saviour of sinners. We have no authority to stray from these two central events in the saving career of Jesus. Nor can we presume to offer men forgiveness on any other ground than that of the Name of Christ who suffered and rose. "There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts. 4:12 R.S.V.). The Church's message was, still is, and ever will be that "Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures..., that He was raised according to the Scriptures..." (I Cor. 15:3,4)

Moreover, this message which was entrusted by the risen Lord to the Church, is consistent, He says, with His earthly teaching, with the teaching of the Old Testament, and with the future teaching of the Apostles. He states that His post-resurrection instruction is identical with "my words which I spoke to you while I was still with you." Further, this was "that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled." What the Old Testament writers said, the earthly Jesus endorsed; and what the earthly Jesus endorsed, the risen Christ further confirmed. He had no need to contradict after the Resurrection, or even to modify, what He had previously taught in the days of His flesh. More than that, the Apostles would bear witness to Him because they were "witnesses of these things" (v. 48). For this they had a unique competence. They had been eyewitnesses of the life, death and resurrection of Christ, and could therefore bear witness to Christ (Acts. 1:8) in a way impossible to anyone of any succeeding generation. This their witness is preserved in the gospels and epistles of the New Testament.

We have, therefore, the risen Lord's own authority for believing in the unity and consistency of the Bible. We are convinced that the fundamental message of the Old Testament and of the New Testament--of the law, the prophets, and the writings in the Old Testament and of the Gospels, the Acts, the Epistles, and the Revelation in the New Testament--is the same. It is the offer of forgiveness to sinful men and women on the ground of the Name of the crucified and risen Christ. There is no other message but the offer of forgiveness, and no other ground but the name of Christ. This is the good news we are commissioned to herald. It is the Gospel according to the Scriptures. This Gospel will never change.

This proclamation of the forgiveness of sins is grounded upon the Name of Christ, and

3. On condition of repentance.

Literally, the passage reads, "that there should be heralded upon His name repentance and remission of sins." The Gospel offer is not unconditional. It does not benefit its hearers willy nilly, "whether they hear or refuse to hear" (Ezek. 2:5, R.S.V.). It is clear that sinners cannot be forgiven if they persist in clinging to their sins. If they desire God to turn from their sins in remission, they must themselves turn from them in repentance. We are charged, therefore, to proclaim the condition as well as the promise of forgiveness. Remission is the Gospel offer; repentance is the Gospel demand.

Some modern evangelists shrink from this part of the Great, Commission. They distinguish between the acceptance of Christ as Saviour and submission to Christ as Lord, and insist that the for mer does not include the latter, the latter being something that comes only later. While the best advocates of this view at least argue from a good premise, their deduction, I believe, is incorrect. With their premise that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone we wholeheartedly agree. They argue, however, that to add repentance or submission is to introduce works by the back door. So determined at all costs (and rightly) to repudiate works as contributing anything to our salvation,. they assert that only faith is necessary, and not repentance and submission to Christ as Lord.

Let me say again that I fully accept the reason for their con- cern, namely', the principle of sola gratia and sola fides, But I cannot accept their logic. The object of faith is Jesus Christ crucified and risen, crucified Saviour and risen Lord. We cannot cut Christ into pieces and believe in one part of Him but not in the other. There is but one Christ, whole and entire, God and man, Saviour and Lord. And it is because Christ is one that faith is one. We can no more divide faith into its constituent elements than we can divide Christ into His constituent elements. In other words, saving faith is an unreserved commitment, a total yielding to a total Christ. Paul called this response "the obedience of faith" (Rom. 1:5, 16, 26), for he recognized that saving faith includes an element of repentant submission. indeed, it is inconceivable that a sinner should trust in Christ for salvation and at the same time withhold a part of himself from Christ. Salvation is indeed by faith alone, but saving faith includes repentance.

This is clear also from the apostolic example, The Apostles were faithful in their demand for repentance and continually linked It with remission. Notice Peter's first two sermons: "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins," he said. Again, "repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out" (Acts 2:38, 3:19). Truly, as Paul said to the Athenian philosophers on Mars Hill, "God commands all men everywhere to repent" (Acts 17:30). It is an authentic note of Gospel preaching, which urgently needs to be recovered today.

We are charged with a proclamation of the forgiveness of sins, on the Name of Christ, on condition of repentance.

4. To all nations.

The charge is now no longer to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel," but "unto all the Gentiles" (as we might legitimately translate the words). It is this aspect of the Commission which receives the greatest emphasis. The Church has been sent, according to the longer ending of Mark's Gospel, "into all the world" to preach the Gospel "to all the creation" (16:15). This ministry would quite naturally begin in the city of Jerusalem and in the province of Judaea, but would then move on to Samaria and finally "to the end of the earth" (Acts. 1:8). All this implies a recognition that Jesus of Nazareth was no mere Jewish teacher who founded a Jewish sect, but rather the Saviour of the world who summons all nations of the world to His allegiance.

The Church, in other words, is fundamentally a missionary society, commissioned and committed to proclaim the Gospel of salvation to the whole world. Insofar as any inhabitants of the globe have not heard the Gospel, the Church should have a heavy conscience. Christ has sent us to herald forgiveness to all the nations, but we have not done so. role have failed to 'fulfill His final commission. We have been disobedient to our Lord.

There is still time to make amends, owever. As the world population explodes, the Church's task might seem to be getting harder and the goal of world evangelization more remote. But as modern means of mass communication increase, and as the Church humbly seeks fresh spiritual power, the task once again appears possible. This spiritual power is, in fact, the fifth and last aspect of the Lord's commission which Luke mentions. We are to proclaim the forgiveness of sins on the ground of Christ's name and on condition of repentance to all the nations.

5. In the power of the Holy Spirit.

Verse 49 reads: "And behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city, until you are clothed with the power from on high."

It is essential to see this promise of the Spirit's coming, and this command to stay in the city until the Spirit had come, in their historical context. Jesus was referring to the Day of Pentecost, for it was then that He sent the promised gift from heaven (Acts 2:33). But because this day of Pentecost had not yet come, the disciples were told to tarry. We however live after Pentecost and hence have no need to tarry. It cannot be stressed too strongly that the Christ who on that Pentecost day sent the promise of the Father to the Church, gives the same promised Spirit to every believer today. The gift of the Spirit is one of the major blessings of the New Covenant in fulfillment of God's word to Abraham: "in Christ Jesus we receive the promise of the Spirit by faith" (Gal. 3:14).

Yet this sure truth of the gift of the Spirit to every believer needs to be qualified in two important respects. First, the Church, for its life and its evangelistic task, needs An ever fresh experience of the power of the same Spirit. Second, in days past and perhaps still today, the sovereign Spirit has come in exceptional measure upon certain evangelists, mastering them, clothing them, anointing them, and empowering them for the proclamation of the Gospel.

Without the work of the Spirit, whether in His general operation or in His special ministries, the Church's work and witness are bound to be ineffective. While the Church may be faithful in preaching to all nations remission and repentance and the Name of Christ, it is only the Holy Spirit who gives power to the preaching. It is He who convicts sinners of their sin and guilt, opens their eyes to see Christ, draws them to Him, enables them to repent and believe, and implants life in their dead souls. Before Christ sent the Church into the world, He sent the Spirit to the Church. The same order must be observed today.

Here, then, are the five aspects of the Great Commission as summarized by Luke. We are called to proclaim the forgiveness of sins, on the basis of Christ's saving Name, on condition of repentance, to all the nations, in the power of the Spirit. Confronted by these terms of our commission, we must readily confess that at each point the Church has been guilty of some failure--at times it has distorted the message of forgiveness, or forgotten the Name of Christ, or muted the summons to repentance, or enjoyed its comfortable privileges while ignoring the cries of the unevangelized nations. At times the Church has betrayed a sinful self-confidence and has neglected the spiritual equipment promised by its Lord. We who are sent to call others to repentance need to repent ourselves.

In conclusion, let us review for a moment the three versions of the risen Lord's commission to the Church, as recorded by Matthew, Luke and John.

Our mandate is the command of Christ to go forth as His heralds; our warrant is the lordship of the Christ who bids us go.

Our Gospel is the forgiveness of Christ who died for sinners and rose again; our demand is repentant faith in Christ our Saviour and our Lord.

Our authority is the Name of Christ in which we preach; our assurance is the peace of Christ which garrisons our hearts and minds.

Our method is the example of Christ who sends us into the world as He Himself was sent; our equipment is the Spirit of Christ breathed upon us and clothing us with power.

Our task is to be witnesses to Christ to the ends of the earth; our reward is the presence of Christ to the end of time.

May God give us grace to obey our risen Lord's unchanged commission!
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Last Revised: 4/5/06
Expiration: indefinite

Wheaton College 2006