Jesus' last words: The Great Commission

So...are Jesus' last words really that important? There exist whole movements in Christianity today that hold a strong preoccupation with what many call the "Great Commission," Jesus' last words moments before He left this earth.

They see Christ's command as a call to personal evangelism. According to this belief system, every Christian should fulfill the Great Commission on a personal level. It's a command for every believer no matter whom they are or when they lived.

But are these believers right in trying to adapt the Great Commission to modern Christian life? I mean, weren't Jesus' last words given to eleven men two-thousand years ago? Why does the Great Commission hold so many Christians in its sway?

To answer these questions and many more, we're going to go to God's Word and find out what the deal is with the Great Commission of Jesus Christ. So get your Bible or click here for an online version and we'll try to discover what God's Word says about Jesus' last words.

The Right Side of the Issue is...?

To fulfill the Great Commission on a personal basis has been a historical precedent in the Christian realm throughout church history. But there have also been those throughout this same period who have disagreed with the idea of personal evangelism.

And today is no different. There are some who question the validity of the idea that Jesus' last words were spoken for all Christians throughout time.

So who's correct?

Let's find out by first examining the arguments against applying the Great Commission to modern life. We'll do that in the form of some of the arguments I've been given for why these folks don't believe we ought to obey Jesus' last words.

A Perspective Against Personal Evangelism

Many years ago, I had the chance to speak to a pastor about this subject. I don't remember how the conversation began, but I do still recall the shock I endured when this much older and wiser friend disagreed with me about personal evangelism and Jesus' last words.

"I don't believe it was meant for me," he said.

I couldn't believe it. I mean, don't all pastors engage in personal evangelism? That's just a part of being a minister...isn't it?

But sure enough, he didn't believe that the Great Commission, Christ's command to evangelize the world, is for us today. And he was quite staunch in his view on the matter.

I asked him why he believed that way. I've always been open minded. So I was interested in why he believed that way.

First, he explained that Jesus' last words were only for those who had the gift of evangelism, the spiritual gift God gives whereby the believer has the ability to preach the Gospel clearly and boldly bringing many to a saving knowledge of Christ.

His gift was not evangelism. So he concluded that the Jesus' last words could not be for him. God would have gifted him better if He had wanted him to evangelize those around.

Next, he argued that it was a command given only to the eleven remaining disciples. It was something they were to accomplish immediately. It was not something that was supposed to be continued.

If it were so important for the church to continue such an activity, provision would have been made in the "doctrinal" books of the Bible. But it wasn't. It's only found in a narrative form. And you can't create a whole doctrinal system from a narrative passage. So it isn't a command for us today.

Finally, he explained that Jesus' last words only extended to those in the first century and shouldn't be practiced today. Why did he believe this?

Some of those things that followed were unique to the first century church (e.g. drinking poison and not dying, handling snakes without harm, etc.) He was sure these things had no bearing on the modern church. Therefore, if some of the Great Commission doesn't apply, none of it does.

The arguments he gave seemed biblical and were quite convincing. He took time to explain in detail his feelings on each of these matters. That's just the way he was. He was always willing to spend time with those closest to him.

But, I have to tell you, his words troubled me for many years. I studied Scripture, throwing out everything I had learned before, and started fresh with the intent to find the Truth. Here's what I found...

Jesus' last words are for us today!

Let's examine the biblical Record by taking each of the arguments above and looking at them in the light of the Bible.

Jesus' Last Words and the Bible

Jesus' last words are found in...

Matthew 28:18-20
Mark 16:15-18
Luke 24:46-49
Acts 1:6-8

We find all we know about the Great Commission in these passages. I'll give you a chance to read them through first before we continue with this lesson. Go ahead and do that now...

All done? Good!

Let's look at the first argument once more...

"I don't have the gift of evangelism."

An interesting concept, but unfortunately it's flawed in one important way. It confuses the idea of personal evangelism with the gift of evangelism. Are they different? Let's look at the facts...

Nowhere in Scripture does it ever say the eleven remaining disciples (remember Judas committed suicide) ever had the gift of evangelism. In fact, it's quite clear that they didn't. Why can I say that with confidence?

The Bible clearly says they were apostles not evangelists. They were labeled "apostles" throughout the Scriptures. Apostleship was a separate spiritual gift as outlined in Ephesians 4:11...

And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;

It seems clear from this passage that the two are different spiritual gifts. So it was impossible for the disciples to have evangelism as their primary gift and calling.

But then we find the apostle Paul (who evangelized by the way) exhorting his ward, Timothy, a pastor of a church, to "do the work of an evangelist" so that he could "make full proof" of his "ministry." If Timothy was a pastor, why would Paul encourage him to evangelize too. Timothy was a pastor and would have the gift of pastor and teacher as outlined in Ephesians.

And if he did have the gift of evangelism, why would Paul have to encourage him to engage in such an activity. Wouldn't it have come naturally for him?

Yet Paul still instructs him to "do the work of an evangelist." Why?

The only explanation I could come up with is that, whether he had the gift of evangelism or not, Timothy was to engage in personal evangelism.

So we need to be careful that we don't confuse the Great Commission with the gift of evangelism. They're not the same!

The next argument we heard is...

"Jesus' last words were only given to the remaining eleven disciples."

There's so much biblical evidence to the contrary, I don't know where to start! This couldn't be further from the truth! There were many more than just the eleven there. How do we know this?

Several passages give us clues as to the identity of who was there that day. If we look in the verses previous to the Great Commission account mentioned in Matthew, we find something very interesting. Verses sixteen (16) and seventeen (17) tell us...

Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus had appointed them.And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted.

Notice the last three words of these verses. They very clearly state "but some doubted." Yet, we see that, when every one of the Eleven saw Jesus, they believed (cf. John 20:19-29.) Even Thomas, called "the Doubter" by some, believed when he saw Jesus standing before him.

Is there a contradiction in Scripture. Certainly not! The best explanation is, there must have been others there.

It's also interesting to note that there were others who followed Jesus faithfully. Two of these were Justus and Matthias who were said to have followed Christ but were not numbered among the eleven (cf. Acts 1:23.) These, plus many women (Mark 15:40,41) may have been among the temporary "unbelievers" mentioned in Matthew.

The clear fact is...there were others there.

We can also see that Jesus gave His "disciples" strict instructions to stay in Jerusalem. Acts 1:4 says...

And, [Jesus] being assembled together with them, commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, which, saith he, ye have heard of me.

So who obeyed this command? Was it just the Eleven? Nope!

Acts 1:12-15 says...

Then returned they unto Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is from Jerusalem a sabbath day’s journey. And when they were come in, they went up into an upper room, where abode both Peter, and James, and John, and Andrew, Philip, and Thomas, Bartholomew, and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon Zelotes, and Judas the brother of James. These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren. And in those days Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples, and said, (the number of names together were about an hundred and twenty,)

Here we see a large number of "disciples" who obeyed Christ's command. His last words were obeyed not just by a few, but by 120 people! Could they have been confused in thinking that the words were meant for them? Probably not!

But there's more. Let's continue with Jesus words in Acts 1:8a...

But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you:

He promised the Holy Spirit to those listening. So if the Great Commission were only to the Eleven, then they should have been the only ones to receive the Holy Spirit. But that's not the situation.

Acts 2:1-4 tells us...

And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.

The Holy Spirit came upon "each of them," meaning the 120 we saw in chapter one.

And to make sure of the fact there were more than the Eleven, the number of tongues (languages) spoken by these folks numbered seventeen (vv.9-11.) There had to be more than just the Eleven who received Jesus last instructions in the Great Commission.

Also, the Great Commission couldn't have been just for a select few. The scope of Christ's command could never have been (and wasn't) completed by those in the first century. Think about what Christ said in Acts 1:8...

But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.

Did you catch that? Christ said that those taking part in the Great Commission would take the Gospel to "the uttermost part of the earth."

Jesus carefully used the word "earth" rather than "world" here. He wasn't speaking of the Roman Empire. He use the word that spoke of the physical globe of the earth. He was referring to everywhere.

But Jesus disciples didn't take the Gospel everywhere. They were limited by space and time. So Christ would have been a liar because He quite emphatically said His followers would take the Gospel everywhere. So Christ would have lied to those closest to Him. Unless...

...that command was given to more than just the Eleven or a select few in the first century.

Finally, we know Jesus' last words were given to more than just the Eleven because Christ said in Matthew 28:20b...

and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.

If Jesus had been only speaking to the Eleven, we could not claim the promise that Christ is always with us. But if Jesus last words are for us today as well...

Jesus will dwell with us always. The Great Commission has to be for us today!

We'll deal with the last argument briefly. But this proof is probably one of the strongest arguments for a modern day interpretation for Jesus' last words. To refresh your memory the last argument was...

"The Great Commission can't be for today."

There is some textual proof that shows the fallacy of this argument. But we'll only look at the most obvious and most overwhelming proof why Jesus last words are for today. That proof is found in Matthew 28:19. Jesus says...

Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:

Did you see the overwhelming proof? It's really easy to miss. I missed it for ten years before I "stumbled" across it one day. Give up? Here it is...

There were two commands given here. The first is what we normally call the "Great Commission." This is what the pastor friend and I were discussing. This is the part that he refused to acknowledge as applicable, personal evangelism.

Yet, if you look at the whole verse, you'll see the second part of the Great Commission that many overlook. The commands were to "teach" and to "baptize."

It's interesting that some in the Church will try to justify their apathy toward personal evangelism by saying that it isn't for them. But these same believers have no problem accepting baptism as a command of God.

Scour the Scriptures. You'll find no other such command to baptize. It's only here in the Great Commission. And...

If you throw out part of Jesus' last words, you'll have to throw out the whole Great Commission which includes baptism!

Such an idea is almost unthinkable (I said, almost!) Yet, following the logic of those who deny the Great Commission is for us, it would have to be done.

But no one has a problem with baptism. Why should anyone have difficulty with personal evangelism?

Bring It Home!

The plain fact is, the Church has shirked it's duty too long in personal evangelism. And we're paying a price now. In many places on the globe, countries that once were "Christian" are now practically pagan. Why?

Much of it stems from the fact that a large portion of their population is "biblically illiterate." They haven't heard the "Good News" of Jesus Christ. Who's job is it to make sure they don't remain ignorant?

It's ours!

That's why we have Jesus' last words recorded in the Bible.

Paul put it this way in Romans 10:14...

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?

You don't need a pulpit to preach. The word "preach" simply means to "publish openly." We're to publish the Truth to our family, friends, neighbors and co-workers. This is what Christ meant by "the uttermost part of the earth."

We need to make sure those around us know Christ the way we do. Jesus' last words are for us...

We need to obey them!

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