My message for this morning would probably not be well-received by my teachers in Bible school. Most of them believed the things which their teachers had taught them – without much examination. And to be frank, that is what we, as students were expected to do, if we wanted to pass their classes. My professors, if they taught what I am hoping to teach this morning, would have lost their jobs. Most of my instructors did not fully understand – nor did they care to understand – the authority of God. Among other things, they believed in the free will of man rather than the sovereignty of free grace. Most of them would have spat upon last Sunday night’s message, which declared that Christ Jesus declared, “I have sovereign control over the hearts of all men.” The king’s heart, the queen’s heart, the knave’s heart and the servant’s heart, all are in the hand of the Lord, and He turneth them whithersoever HE chooses” – Proverbs 21:1. This message would not be well-received in Baptist Bible College, Springfield, Missouri, because I hope to let these verses and these words speak to us, rather than trying to tell them what I want them to say.
Having said that, I’m not going to tell you that I am speaking ex-cathedra. There could very well be some errors and holes in my interpretation and thinking. It may be impossible to prove, but I do not proudly picture myself as smarter, better, more spiritual or in any other way their superior to those people. And I hope that no one thinks that I have an axe to grind – that I am angry for misleading me.
As the man whom Christ has placed in this church as His under-shepherd, it is my job to try to “teach you to observe all things whatsoever the Lord has commanded us.” This includes what is known as “the Great Commission.” So the title of this message is “Misconceptions” followed by three or four question marks. Let’s chop this scripture apart, asking ourselves if it really teaches what we have been told that it teaches.
For example, should we say that these verses summarize our responsibility as a church?
And my answer is – “Yes, I think so.” Should this be called “the Great Commission”? I don’t see why not. In these things, my teachers were correct. I am quite certain that Christ’s first church was atop that hill in Galilee when these words were spoken. The membership MAY have been confined to eleven men at this point. But in a few days, “the number of the names together were about an hundred and twenty” – Acts 1:15. When did the membership grow from less than a dozen to more than a hundred? Could there have been another five hundred potential members overhearing this commissioning? Yes it is possible that there were people there who were not yet members. But I firmly believe that these orders were among that last which Christ gave directly to His church – whatever number comprised the membership.
The Bible clearly declares the importance of Christ’s church – or perhaps I should say “the Lord’s churches.” The people of the church make up the House of God – “the pillar and ground of the truth” – I Timothy 3:15. Each church is “the body of Christ” in the community where it is found. The membership of those churches will in some way make up the bride of Christ. And there is no such thing as an universal, invisible church. The only kind of church in the New Testament is an assembly – a local assembly. And the orders recorded in Matthew 28:18-20 were given directly to Christ’s local church. They were not given to the apostles as a group, or to all the saints of God on earth at the time. The Great Commission was given to the Lord’s first church, and through it to all the churches which came from that original ministry.
Last Wednesday I read a few verses which were not a part of my intended message. I Thessalonians 5 contains the exhortations – “Rejoice evermore” and “Pray without ceasing.” “In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you. Quench not the Spirit. Despise not prophesyings. Prove all things; hold fast that which is good. Abstain from all appearance of evil.” These commands are not less important than the Great Commission, nor are they greater. But these are given to all of us as individual Christians. Matthew 28:18-20 contains commands which are given to the church of which Jesus was the pastor. And through that church they were passed on to us – the body of Christ which is in Post Falls.
In verse 18 Christ speaks about authority.
He says, “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.” As I have said, the Greek word translated “power” doesn’t speak of “might” or “strength,” but of “authority.” In Luke 23:7 this same Greek word is appropriately translated “jurisdiction.” When Pilate learned that Jesus was from Galilee, “he knew that he belonged unto Herod’s jurisdiction,” so “he sent him to Herod, who himself also was at Jerusalem at that time.” “Exousia” speaks of “legal power,” “jurisdiction” – “authority.” Christ declares that not only does He possess the authority of heaven, but absolute jurisdiction over all things upon earth. We are not surprised at this, because Christ is the eternal Son of God – the Creator of the universe. But not only does He possess all “authority” but also all might and strength, applying that authority. So Christ has authority to send His church into the uttermost parts of the earth. Of that there isn’t the slightest doubt. It is through CHRIST’S authority – not their own – that His churches evangelize the world, baptize converts and train their members to become the next generation of missionaries and pastors. Only to the Lord’s churches has this commission been given. It doesn’t belong to any man or to the Baptist Bible Fellowship, the Southern Baptist Convention, Southwestern Theological Seminary or the Baptist Bible College.
In addition to possessing all authority over all the earth, Christ also has sovereign control over the hearts of the people to whom His churches ministers. So we are not surprised, while on a journey to persecute the church of Christ in Damascus, Saul of Tarsus was stopped in his tracks, converted from a rebel to a believer in Christ, and was sent on his way as a new servant of the Lord. And also for this reason –“a certain woman named Lydia, of the city of Thyatira, attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul,” because her “heart the Lord opened.” – Acts 16:14. This is why the Philippian jailor threw himself down before the Lord’s servants crying out, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” This is a point which my former teachers would not acknowledge, and yet which is taught by this verse. God opens up hearts and saves sin-dead souls, according to His sovereign will and control.
Based upon that authority, the Lord commissions His churches to go and teach all nations.
The word “teach” has the same root as the Greek word applied to the “disciples.” “Go ye therefore and teach all nations” in the sense of turning them into learners – disciples. Without trying to minimize the work of the evangelist, this scripture doesn’t appear to be speaking about that kind of ministry that most of my former teachers tried to declare. This verse doesn’t talk about the militant way that I was taught to evangelize the lost.
I hope that you can define the gospel as it is found in the Bible. I Corinthians 15 – “Brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures.” Literally translated, the noun “gospel” means “good news.” – “euaggelion” (yoo-ang-ghel’-ee-on). The verb form of the word –“the preaching the gospel” is “euaggelizo” (yoo-ang-ghel-id’-zo). And the man who preaches the gospel is an “euaggelistes” (yoo-ang-ghel-is-tace’) – an evangelist. Without a doubt the Bible praises and encourages evangelists. But I’ll challenge anyone to find “evangelism” directly mentioned in this Great Commission – especially the kind of evangelism which my teachers tried to impress upon me.
The Great Commission is to make learners of people who formerly either hated or thought nothing of Christ. Yes, before someone can become a disciple, he must be born again. And people dead in trespasses and sins, can be born again only through repentance and faith in Christ. So evangelism is a part of that process.
But here is my point, Jesus’ emphasis is on discipling all nations – making them learners – disciples of Christ. Evangelism is not teaching sinners to say a little prayer, or to ask Jesus into their hearts. Evangelism does not involve the swords, spears and torture chambers that we see in “Christian” history. Evangelism is rarely a 20 minute visit in a man’s home followed by a plea to believe on Jesus. Evangelism is not any of the eight, ten or twelve steps which I was told to memorize and use to bring the lost to trust in Christ. Biblical evangelism may take months, years or a lifetime. And it is something which the Lord must control – not the evangelist with all this psychology and technology.
“Baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”
There are hundreds of professional evangelists who quote the Great Commission as the authority for their work who never give a thought to this aspect of our orders. And well they shouldn’t, because most of them are not working as missionaries of local churches. Yet, I’m quite sure that my teachers would have little problem with what I believe about this point. Christ Jesus, here, does not get into the theology of baptism or Baptist practice. He doesn’t debate whether to baptize believers immediately or to establish a probationary period. He doesn’t get into the arguments about the mode of baptism or who should be candidates for baptism.
And yet in some ways He does without trying. For example, He tells His churches to immerse those disciples. That is the meaning of the word Christ spoke – “baptizo” – dip, plunge, immerse. He doesn’t say a word about sprinkling or pouring water on them. And in the context of discipling, He doesn’t leave any room for babies. Only people who are capable of learning spiritual truths, and who want truth, are to be baptized. Only people who are born again – regenerated – are capable about learning the things of God. “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” Until a natural man is spiritually quickened – made alive – he can’t learn the simplest things about God. Only believers are to be baptized.
The Lord’s churches are to baptize in the single name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There are some religious organizations which when they baptize, immerse their converts three times. They dip them first in the name of God the Father, and then in the name of God the Son, and then again in the name of the Holy Spirit. No sir, this commission honors the unity of the God-head by pointing to a single name.
And in the context of Christ’s “all authority” only those to whom He has given His permission are to baptize. That means that individual Christians, even if they immerse, are not doing it with the authority of Christ, because that authority was only given to His church. It also means that the Methodist minister, just because someone asked him to immerse them, hasn’t really complied with this commission, because his church was not founded by Christ, but rather by Roman Catholicism through Henry VIII and John Wesley. The Campbellites, a hundred cults and dozens of Protestant sects can not properly baptize, because they either preach false doctrine or they come from human founders. This reference to baptism excludes all the Protestants, the Catholics and the cults from claiming to use this Great Commission as their reason to serve the Lord – they don’t possess authority to baptize.
“Teaching them to observe all things, whatsoever I have commanded you.”
When I was in Bible school, I was taught to hold the Fellowship evangelist in high respect. The man who was carrying out the Great Commission, especially, if he was winning at least a hundred souls to Christ every year, was to be considered next unto Christ Himself. But while quoting Matthew 28 as the authority for his work, he actually carried out only a third of the commission – if indeed we could give him that credit. By the design of his ministry, he was incapable of nurturing the people whom he discipled. He did not baptize them, and he could not teach them to observe the commandments of Christ, because he was soon moving on to conquer new souls for Christ. This Great Commission was not given to such men – not even to the Apostles. It was given to the churches of Christ, because they were designed by God to sink roots into their community – like a lighthouse at the edge of a stormy sea – or a school house in a field of children. Only the local assembly can carry out all three parts of the Great Commission.
What is it to “observe” the things which Christ has taught and commanded? It is something bigger than what I was originally taught. It means “to obey” – which is the way that I was taught, and I have no problem with this interpretation. Over fifty times this Greek word is translated “to keep.” But it is also rendered “to reserve” and “to preserve” and to “hold fast.” In other words, this commission requires that we retain His teachings as well as obeying its precepts. As far as obedience is concerned, obedience is both an individual, as well as a corporate, responsibility. And the most practical means of “preserving” Christ’s instructions is through the on-going ministry of the Lord’s churches.
It is commonly believed that there are several different kinds of churches. By that I don’t mean – the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist, the Catholic and the Baptist Church. Most Protestants believe that there is a variety of local churches, and then there is the universal church, which, they say, is made up of all believers in Christ. They often call it “the true church” – I guess that is in contrast to the “untrue” church – such as Calvary Baptist Church in Post Falls, Idaho. But that universal church cannot be found in the Bible – it does not exist. There is indeed a true church – in fact there are many of them, and they are all local assemblies.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s say that there is a universal church, made up of all believers in Christ, and this commission was given to it. Since, as they say, it is made up of born-again Lutherans, Pentecostals, Methodists, Inter-denominationalists, Non-denominationalists, and others – all holding to a variety of different doctrines, how can they honestly expect to “keep” the “all things” which Christ has taught, amidst all their doctrinal differences? No, the “all things” were committed to the Lord’s local church, and they are still committed unto us as the body of Christ in this community – which Paul calls “the pillar and ground of the truth.”
The Great Commission was given by Christ to His church – His churches.
Based upon the Lord’s absolute authority, it involves preaching the gospel of the saving grace of Christ. Those who are born again and willing to become disciples of the Lord, are to be properly baptized, something with no universal church can do. Then, having been properly immersed as a testimony of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, and that believer’s union with Lord by faith, that person becomes a member of the church which has baptized him. And then that new believer is to be taught to obey and to help preserve the instructions and commands of the Lord.
All of which brings us to this question – Are you a child of God by faith in Christ Jesus? Are you a disciple of Christ? If you are not, you must be born again – repent before God, believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave His life a ransom for many. Following that you need to be immersed in water under the authority of Christ – by this church. Come and be a part of the ministry which Christ authorized in this community – a ministry which we expect shall continue until the “end of the world.”