Vol. 1 - No. 9
The Great (Unlimited) Commission Has Been Fulfilled
by R. L. (Bob) Craig
Back in the first part of the nineteenth century powerful gospel preachers had planted the gospel seed and it was bearing much fruit ... people were being discipled, churches after the New Testament order were being established, things were looking good for the spiritual prosperity of God's kingdom.
But, some began to long for the leeks and garlic of Egypt; that is, they became weary in the long, uphill battle against great odds and thought about means and methods of making it a little easier. One way, they thought, was to imitate the nations (denominational churches) round about and bring into existence a central organization through which the churches could work and, perhaps, "fulfil the great commission" in that generation.
After all, they reasoned, we cannot cover the globe like we are commanded to do, unless we have the machinery for such, thus, in 1849, the American Christian Missionary Society became a reality, and with it came division. Congregations were rent asunder and the majority followed the digressive element into what is now -- total apostasy!
The minority began to retrench and to rebuild. By the mid-1940's things were beginning to look up. The great depression was finally over; the "big" war. had been fought and won, returning G.I.'s recognized the need for the gospel in the foreign lands where they had been. And once again, the great commission became the banner under which this huge task of filling the earth with the gospel must be accomplished "in our generation." But, once again, how can just a local congregation accomplish such a monumental work? We must have machinery; a central organization --but NOT A MISSIONARY SOCIETY!
So, the argument was made for the "sponsoring church" arrangement and, once again, the great commission was used as a basis. Here is an argument that was made by one man and endorsed by thousands of others:
"It's the obligation of the church of our Lord to preach the gospel to the whole world. In Mark 16:15, 16, Jesus said, 'Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature, he that believeth and is baptized shall be saved, he that believeth not shall be damned.' Had it ever occurred to you to take notice of what is involved in that proposition? In the first place that necessitates our going to every nation in the world. In going to every nation in the world, it becomes necessary to go to every community in every nation in the world and then secondly to every city in every nation and then to contact every person in every city and to preach the gospel to every person in every city in every nation in all the world. I want you to see how our obligation is magnified in that command. In the first place, if I came to Birmingham I would have discharged my obligation to come to the city here. But observe step number three. I must then contact every person in Birmingham, which magnifies my obligation 600 thousand fold. So it goes throughout the entire earth. It follows then without some sort of cooperative effort, it is impossible for this commission to be carried out ... Now since the apostolic church did carry the gospel into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature under heaven, Col. 1:23, it follows that there was cooperative effort on the part of those New Testament churches." (Cogdill-Woods Debate)
I deny this application of Mark 16:15, 16 and I also deny that the church or churches of the first century ever did any such thing as that outlined in the quotation and I further deny that the churches or the apostles of the first century or that the church or churches of this generation have any such obligation; and I shall proceed to try to establish such proof.
First of all, the great commission was a charge specifically directed toward the apostles. Read each account carefully: Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15, 16; Luke 24:47; Acts 1:8. To fulfill it, they were endowed with special powers. "Tarry ye ... until ye be endued with power." (Luke 24:49).
This charge was so different from the one they had received about two and one half years before. In that charge, which is often called the "limited commission," these same men had been told, "Go NOT into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not: But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." (Matthew 10:5, 6). Now this order was set aside and the opposite was stated: "Go to ALL nations."
I am suggesting that this charge was not a geographic charge at all. This was the time in which the promise made to Abraham should be fulfilled: "In thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed." (Genesis 18:18) At another place it was stated using a different word, "all families;" while in yet another place the phrase "all the kindred" was used. Joel used a little different word in his prophecy in Joel and quoted by Peter on Pentecost: "all flesh." Each one of these phrases just simply mean -- Jew and Gentile. NOT JUST JEWS, but all nations, all kindred, all families, all flesh, shall be blessed ---both Jew AND Gentile.
Peter said basically the same thing in Acts 2:39: "For the promise is unto you (the Jews), and to your children, and to all that are afar off (the Gentile world)." Paul uses that kind of language in Ephesians 2 when he talks about those who were nigh (Jews) and those who were afar off (Gentiles). (Ephesians 2:17) Now, was he speaking of geographical location when he spoke of those afar off? Did he mean "across the sea?" Certainly not. He was discussing their relationship to God. The Jews had been favored above the Gentile; they had been given a covenant; they were nigh unto God. But the Gentile was afar off. Geographically? No!
I believe the same idea is under consideration in Acts 1:8 when Jesus told his apostles "ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth." Even though he was using geographical locations, he was, in figurative language telling them the same thing stated by Peter when he said, "unto you, your children and those afar off." He was saying what Paul often said in the Roman letter, "To the Jew first and then to the Gentile." And that would be wherever either might be found.
In Acts 2 we read of a number of Jews who had come to Jerusalem from far away countries to worship God, but even in their far away homes they were the ones "who were nigh." There were Gentiles in Jerusalem during this feast-time; Romans, Greeks, and perhaps others. And even though they were in Jerusalem, the holy city, they were the ones who were "afar off."
In Ephesians 2, Paul tells how those who were "afar off" could be made "nigh," by the blood of Christ. It didn't take an overland nor ocean journey to bring them close to God; it took the sacrificial offering of God's son.
So, you see, when Jesus said, "Go ye therefore and teach all nations," he wasn't talking about taking a long journey into a far country, he was simply telling them that under this new commission, they were not to draw any lines. Before, they had been limited in the scope of their preaching -- "Go NOT" -- but now they had been released -- "GO TO ALL!" He was not telling them to do what was quoted in the beginning of this article; he was telling them that they were now free to preach this good news to anyone they came in contact with, wherever they might be. If he was telling them to do what was quoted, then they would miserably fail. It would be impossible.
I contend that just as Joel's prophecy was fulfilled when "all flesh," which was Jew and Gentile, received the enabling power of the Holy Spirit, even so, the great commission was fulfilled when both Jew and Gentile heard the good news of the kingdom and of their salvation. Hence, I choose to call that charge they received, "The Unlimited Commission" in simple contrast to "The Limited Commission."
But what about Colossians 1:23 which says that the gospel had been preached to every creature which is under heaven. Had Paul gone to every person, in every city, in every nation, in the world of his day? I don't think so and neither does any Bible historian. Had all the apostles together done what was quoted in the beginning of the article? I wot not. Well, what HAD they done? They had fulfilled the promise made to Abraham -- all nations, all kindred, all families, both Jew and Gentile, had had the door of God's mercy opened to them. No one had been excluded. The great commission had been fulfilled.
Now, don't let anyone reach the unwarranted conclusion that I have said that we don't have any obligation to preach the gospel in this present time. No, we have a similar obligation to those of the first century -- to preach and teach to the extent of our abilities. That obligation includes the individual (2 Timothy 2:2), and the local churches (1 Timothy 3:15). As the individual has opportunity and ability, he has obligation. The same can be said of the churches -- as a church has opportunity and ability, it has obligation. If a church or individual has the resources and opportunity to preach in Africa, or anywhere else, they should do so. As we do this, no one is to be excluded, no lines drawn. Black, white, brown or red -- all now can be made nigh by the blood of Christ.