The Great Commission
The mandate to evangelise was given by the Lord Jesus during His last days on earth (Mt 28.16-20). The eleven disciples were the prime recipients of this commission, but the reference to "the end of the world" (v.20) gives the command permanent import; it has relevance for us today. These eleven men had already been involved in a preaching ministry, but their sphere of activity had been restricted to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Mt 10.5-6). Now their horizons were being broadened to encompass "all nations", "all the world every creature" (Mk 16.15). They were being taught that it is Gods will for "all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim 2.3-4). Jewish prejudice had to be abandoned to tell the news of a God who "loved the world" (Jn 3.16), and of the Son of God who is "the Saviour of the world" (Jn 4.42), and of the Spirit of God who convicts "the world" (Jn 16.8). It is wonderful that the triune God has an interest in the salvation of men and women wherever they are located on the planet. Christ says to them, "Come", but so that they can hear that gracious invitation, He says to His servants, "Go".
With courage, these men and their successors obeyed the call, penetrating the enemys territory with the message of life and hope, and seeing his captives emancipated from the tyranny of sin. The dangers were many, the cost was great, and the opposition was fierce, but they went as authorised by Him to whom all authority in heaven and earth belongs (Mt 28.18). He commanded; they obeyed. He directed; they went.
The terms of their commission are instructive. Their remit was primarily to "preach the gospel" (Mk 16.15), but beyond that was the duty to "make disciples of all the nations" (Mt 28.19, RV). The goal of evangelism is not only to see people saved from the eternal burnings, but also schooled in the ways of God for what remains of their earthly lives. The divine grace that brings salvation also teaches us that "denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world" (Tit 2.11-12). Preaching and witnessing should take that into account. There is a danger of the aggressive marketing of the commercial world becoming a feature of spiritual activity. People can be talked or frightened into a profession of faith without the implications being spelled out. Discipleship demands denying self, taking up the cross, and following (Mk 8.34). The claims of discipleship are massive (Lk 14.25-35), and so the Lord Jesus stressed the importance of counting the cost (vv.28-33). Henry Drummond once had opportunity to address the members of a gentlemans club in London. When speaking about salvation he used the language of his environment. "Gentlemen, the entrance fee to Gods kingdom is nothing; the annual dues are everything". Enquirers should be made aware of that.
We are convinced that salvation is by faith in Christ alone; large areas of the New Testament are devoted to establishing that fact. However, in Scripture baptism is closely allied to the conversion experience, so much so that in Mark 16.16 the Lord mentioned both in the same breath. His subsequent statement leaves us in no doubt that it is the absence of faith that exposes men to Gods judgment, and not being unbaptised. Nevertheless, in obeying the instructions of their commission, these apostles insisted on a public avowal of allegiance to Christ by baptism, so that even a cursory reading of Acts shows that people were baptised immediate upon conversion. It has often been pointed out that the longest interval between conversion and baptism was in the case of Saul of Tarsus, and that was only three days (Acts 9.9-19). To us, three days seems a very short delay, and yet Ananias had asked the question, " why tarriest thou"? (22.16). Should we still observe that New Testament pattern? Older preachers taught us that we ought to preach the gospel with a tank that is open and filled in readiness to baptise new converts. Some will argue that we live in a different age from New Testament times, and that we really should exercise more caution and give the converts time to find their feet. We are told that in this modern society people come with a lot of baggage, and that it would be less than prudent to baptise them immediately. With their appalling history, we would have been reluctant to baptise many of the Corinthians (1 Cor 6.9-11), but the Spirit simply records that "many of the Corinthians hearing believed, and were baptized" (Acts 18.8). We might have consented to baptise the noble Ethiopian immediately, or the gentle Lydia, but we would have insisted that the rough jailor prove himself! We would have taken issue with Paul for baptising him "the same hour of the night" (Acts 16.33). It is understandable that we deal cautiously with someone who on requesting baptism tells of professing to be saved quite some time ago and there has been no evidence of a work of grace in the life. In such a case a deferment would be reasonable, but New Testament precedent favours baptising a new convert as soon as practicable.
These apostles had a further duty, and that was to teach those who had been made disciples. It is evident that right from the start this commandment was followed, for the 3,000 who believed on the Day of Pentecost "continued stedfastly in the apostles teaching" (Acts 2.42, RV). The new assembly at Antioch had a years intensive instruction from Barnabas and Saul (Acts 11.26). The passing of time did not diminish the need for teaching, as at a later stage it is recorded that "Paul also and Barnabas continued in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also" (15.35). The scope of the teaching should be "all things whatsoever I have commanded you". Pauls equivalent phrase is, "the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20.27, RV). No aspect of "the faith once delivered unto the saints" (Jude v.3) should be ignored. You would only have to read the letters to Thessalonica to find that in a short space of time Paul had given a wide range of teaching. He had taught them that in personal Christian living their walk should reflect their links with God, and bring pleasure to Him (1 Thess 2.11-12; 4.1); he insisted on the need for morality and holiness (4.2-3). He had alerted them to the fact that they should anticipate opposition (3.4). They had been instructed in prophetic teaching (5.1-2). Evidently, assembly order with regard to leadership had been put in place (5.12-13). They had been taught their social responsibilities (2 Thess 3.10). Pauls great desire was that there would be no deviation from all that they had been taught. "Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle" (2.15).
Are we as diligent in ensuring that converts are taught? There is a growing tendency for believers to take time out from employment to enrol for a Bible School course in preparation for some particular "ministry". In New Testament times, the assembly was the sphere of teaching and should still be today. It is unbiblical to suppose that new believers should be fully taught before being received into the fellowship of the assembly; New Testament assemblies were formed with raw material from an idolatrous background, and the truth of God was then communicated to these new Christians. However, it is wise to ensure that people are completely convinced of the error of their former connections if they have come from a background where their minds may have been poisoned by false teaching.
One of the responsibilities of elders is to ensure that the whole counsel of God is taught: the doctrine of the Godhead - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; gospel truths such as justification and sanctification: practical teaching as it affects the home, the family, employment, morals and ethics: church principles that emphasise assembly distinctives: prophetic matters. Full knowledge of the truth of God cannot be attained overnight, but prominence must be given to "Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you". Elders and teachers, make certain that the full range of truth is taught, so that there is no imbalance in the spiritual diet of the saints.
There will be no one left to teach unless the first part of the commission is observed. There is constant need for new initiatives in the work of the gospel so that sinners will be reached and saved. But remember, the object of New Testament evangelism was to make disciples: saved, yes, but now "his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them" (Eph 2.8-10).