The Book of Acts relates how the risen Christ appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus and commissioned him to go as an apostle to the Gentiles (non-Jews). The story is related three times: Acts 9:1-20; 22:3-21; 26:9-20. Paul alludes to this event often in his letters (1 Corinthians 15:3-9; 9:1; Galatians 1:13-16). Paul took this commission seriously as can be seen in Acts and Paul’s letters.
But as I read and study the New Testament there are some questions that keep coming up.
1. Did Paul know about the “Great Commission(s)” that Jesus gave to the original disciples as recorded in the Gospels and Acts 1?
2. Did the original apostles understand the Commission?
3. Why did the 12 procrastinate and stay so long in Jerusalem building a church and not move out?
4. Why was there such a flap about including Gentiles (non-Jews) in the church?
I suppose that the last 3 questions could, with a bit of re-wording, be asked of the church today.
The first question is related to some matters I attempted to deal with in my two previous posts. I have come to the conclusion that Paul was familiar with the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, at least in their “rough draft” form, even though most scholarship dates Paul’s writings earlier than all three. I’ve found too many parallels to believe that they are only coincidental or even that the writers were all just using a common vocabulary.
Perhaps one of our problems with seeing parallels between Paul and the Gospels re: the Great Commission is the Greek word ethnos (plural ethne) which has two different, though related, meanings and is translated by two different words in our English translations. One meaning and translation is “nation” or “people.” It is used of “the Samaritan people” in Acts 8:9, “seven nations in the land of Canaan” in Acts 13:19 and even of “the nation of the Jews” in Acts 10:22.
The second meaning (used in the plural only) is non-Jews, pagans, or heathen, usually translated Gentiles. Our English translations sometimes disagree as to which is meant and sometimes seem to be arbitrary in their choice of words. However, if we translate all the uses with the same word we see the parallels more clearly:
Matthew 28:19: “Go then, disciple all the nations (panta ta ethne) …”
Luke 24:47: “… and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in His name to all the nations (panta ta ethne) …”
Romans 1:4b, 5: “… Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we received grace and apostleship, unto the obedience of faith among all the nations for His name’s sake.”
Romans 16:25, 26: “… according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ … has been made known to all the nations unto the obedience of faith.”
In the commission as recorded in Mark, Jesus uses different wording, but Paul uses nearly the same words in Colossians:
Mark 16:15: “… preach the gospel to all creation (keruxate to euaggelion pase te ktisei).
Colossians 1:23: “... the gospel (tou euaggelion) that you heard, which was preached in all creation (tou keruchthentos en pase ktisei) under heaven …”
As for the last three questions, I would almost have to conclude that the original apostles and the other disciples who may have been with them just didn’t get it! When I look at the passages quoted above as well as Acts 1:8: “You will be my witnesses both in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and even to the ends of the earth,” I have to come to this conclusion. Eventually they did go; bits of history in the New Testament, as well as tradition, tell us this. But it took a lot of prodding.
And not only were they slow in moving out, they were slow to reach those of the ethne who were right nearby; and to accept them on an equal footing when they did reach them.
What I see in the history in the Book of Acts is not men and women who immediately took Jesus’ words to heart and acted on them, but men and women who obeyed in fits and starts, who got off to a good start, then fizzled and had to be constantly prodded by visions and persecutions. God even had to bring in replacements – Stephen, Philip, Paul, Barnabas, Silas – to do the job.
The sad thing is that we seem to be cut from the same cloth. Do we still fail to take Christ’s commission seriously?