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The Great Commission, Part 2: Historical Setting

In a previous blog (“The Great Commission or the Great Suggestion?”) we looked at the Greek construction of Matt 28.19-20 and concluded that the typical English translation, “Go and make disciples,” was pretty accurate. The participle translated “Go” is really dependent on the mood of the main verb (the imperative, “make disciples”) for its force. However, in such constructions (known as attendant circumstance), the main idea is not shared equally by both verbal forms; rather, it falls on the main verb. The participle is the prerequisite needed for the fulfillment of the imperative. Thus, going is commanded rather than assumed, but the going is not the main idea, for if someone were to go without making disciples he would miss the point. But making disciples “of all the nations” cannot be accomplished apart from going. So much for the grammar.

This blog will look at the historical context. Both with reference to grammar and history, many a pastor has put the applicational cart before the interpretive horse. It is crucial that we distinguish these two, and deal with interpretation at first apart from application. Obviously, there is a huge intersection between the two, but we confuse them only to our peril. Too many Christians are impatient with interpretation and simply want to get to the application. Sadly, too many pastors accommodate them and the result is often eisegetical anarchy. One of the questions that must be asked before one gets into application of a text is whether such a passage has direct validity, indirect validity, or merely illustrative, historical, or negative value for believers today. The Great Commission is a classic text that has been applied before it has been interpreted, or has been applied with the interpretation, making a hopeless mess of things, and the result is that both the interpretation and application often miss the point.

This blog will deal with the historical setting; a final blog on the Great Commission will deal with the application of this passage to our lives today.

Now for the history lesson. The scene of the Great Commission is an unspecified mountain in Galilee (Matt 28.16). Jesus gives his command here, then the Gospel concludes. No ascension to heaven is mentioned. However, by comparing the data in Luke 24 and Acts 1, we see that Jesus’ ascension took place on the Mount of Olives, in Bethany just across from Jerusalem. And the final instructions he gave the disciples were to stay in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit came upon them. Then they would be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1.8). Why does Matthew seem to ignore the ascension right outside of Jerusalem? He is in the habit of telescoping events in his narrative (compare Matt 9.18-26 with Mark 5.21-43). And since the resurrection account has the women being instructed to tell the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee, that’s what they do. And there they get their commission, and the Gospel ends. But it’s important for us to recognize that the place where the implementation of the commission is to start is in Jerusalem, not Galilee.

The disciples then are waiting in Jerusalem until the Spirit comes upon them, which will occur some ten days after the ascension of the Lord. We may be puzzled as to why Jesus wanted the apostles’ evangelistic ministry to begin in Jerusalem rather than in Galilee. It could be that this was where Jesus was executed and where the apostles abandoned the Lord in the moment of his sacrifice. The apostles needed to stand up here, and demonstrate that they were no longer afraid of the enemies of the gospel or of the consequences to their own lives. It may be that Jesus wanted to have the apostles witness to the Jews in the heart of Judaism, so that the announcement of God’s coming kingdom would be directly relevant to these folks since the kingdom would begin here. It may be that the Lord recognized that the Day of Pentecost was strategic for the quick spread of the gospel throughout the Mediterranean world. Whatever the reason, the main point for our purposes is that the apostles begin their testimony within Israel, within Judaism, and to the Jews.

The commission, then, is to begin with the nation of Israel. But it is not to end there. The command to “make disciples of all the nations” clearly indicates that more than Jewish evangelism is in view. The word ‘nations’ can also be translated ‘Gentiles.’ When that command is juxtaposed with Acts 1.8, a hint of how the commandment would be implemented seems to be coming into view: although the apostles were commanded to go to the nations, Acts 1.8 only says that they will do this. It is thus here predicted, not commanded.

How do the disciples obey the Great Commission? What is the catalyst that gets them to move beyond the walls of the Holy City, and into Samaria and beyond? Persecution. Specifically, the persecution carried out by one Saul of Tarsus, a zealous Pharisee, a man who hated Christians and hated Jesus because Jesus was an accursed criminal whom God judged by hanging him on a tree. The next several chapters in Acts show, in rapid literary succession, how the gospel spread outside of Judaism. Immediately after the stoning of Stephen, Saul (also known as Paul—this was not a name given to him later, unlike Simon Peter) goes on a witch-hunt for Christians, and he ends up looking for them in Syria (Acts 9). In chapter 8, Peter goes to Samaria to check on the responses of the half-Jews to the gospel that Philip had brought to them. And in chapter 10, Peter is sent to Caesarea Maritima, a largely Gentile city on the coast of Palestine in northern Samaria. He is sent to preach the gospel to Gentiles. And when they have the same experience of the Spirit that the apostles had had on the Day of Pentecost, Peter is convinced that the gospel was also meant for Gentiles and, further, that they did not need to observe the dietary laws of the Jews to be saved. But it was persecution that got the apostles and other disciples out of Jerusalem.

In short, it almost seems as if Paul led more people to Christ as a Pharisee than as an apostle! The Lord was able to use persecution to get the eyewitnesses of the resurrection out the door. “You will be my witnesses… in Samaria” was indeed a prophetic word.

Seen in the light of history, the Great Commission altered the manner and contents of evangelism by God’s people. For the most part, Old Testament evangelism focused on pagans coming to Israel to get saved (the story of Jonah is an exception that proves the rule). But they could not remain uncircumcised Gentiles and get saved. They had to follow dietary laws, get circumcised, and offer the sacrifices that marked the Jews out as a special people.

Now, with the Great Commission, we see in seed-plot form an evangelism that is no longer ethnocentric (i.e., focusing on and staying within Jerusalem as the ethnic, political, and religious center of Judaism) but rather was eccentric (i.e., moving away from this center). Further, with the removal of the food laws as a barrier to getting within the community of believers, the evangelists themselves were forced into an unfamiliar world. The vision that Peter had about killing and eating unclean animals underscored this to him. Just imagine what it would be like to be an apostle who, for the first time in his life, ate a ham sandwich or had bacon and eggs for breakfast! If these men had been taught all their lives of the repulsion of such cuisine, how would that first bite go down? Frankly, my guess is that it would come up just as fast! Obedience to the gospel certainly made them squirm. It got them way outside their comfort zone.

The apostles were surely acquainted with the story of Eleazar’s refusal to eat defiled meat before Antiochus Epiphanes and his subsequent torture and death by fire (4 Maccabees 5–6), or the more famous story of the murder of seven brothers before their mother’s eyes (4 Macc 8–12). In this text, “the guards had placed before them wheels and joint-dislocators, rack and hooks and catapults and caldrons, braziers and thumbscrews and iron claws and wedges and bellows” (4 Macc 8.13 [NRSV]) to help persuade these seven brothers to eat pork. The next several chapters of 4 Maccabees (8–18) describe in an NC-17 manner the tortures that these young men suffered out of reverence for the Law—each with their mother looking on. Each died without so much as taking a bite. Whether or not this story is true is not the point; rather, that it would have been used in Jewish circles to teach young Jewish children to be brave and obedient to the Law no matter what is.

But through the paradoxical route of redemptive history, once the gospel was unleashed from its Mosaic fetters, eating defiled food was regarded as a courageous act and refusal to eat was considered cowardly (Gal 2.11–14)! I cannot stress enough how difficult this change in perspective must have been for these apostles. But for the sake of the gospel, they became evangelists on an eccentric mission with a Christocentric focus. In short, they moved outside of their comfort zone: they went and then made disciples “of all the nations” rather than making disciples along the way. If it had been along the way, they would have avoided Gentiles like the plague. To translate Matt 28.19 as “as you are going” or “along the way, make disciples” misreads not only the syntax but the historical setting as well.

 

Addendum: In my previous blog on the Great Commission, some readers took issue with my understanding of the inapplicability of the Mosaic food laws to Gentile Christians. Rather than take up that discussion here—which could distract from the main point of this blog—I ask you to continue the discussion only in the comments section of the first blog.

 

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6 comments on “The Great Commission, Part 2: Historical Setting

  1. Thank you Dr. Wallace for the burst of energy you are directing into this blog. I know it comes at a price, but for those of us who hone our theology in the streets of the Internet, it is an invaluable source of learning. Your credible refutation of Bart Ehrman and defense of the reliability of the transmission of Scripture is unmatched, and for that I am grateful.

  2. Great stuff…I particularly love the comment…”Too many Christians are impatient with interpretation and simply want to get to the application. Sadly, too many pastors accommodate them and the result is often eisegetical anarchy. One of the questions that must be asked before one gets into application of a text is whether such a passage has direct validity, indirect validity, or merely illustrative, historical, or negative value for believers today. The Great Commission is a classic text that has been applied before it has been interpreted, or has been applied with the interpretation, making a hopeless mess of things, and the result is that both the interpretation and application often miss the point.”

  3. Excellent insights. Thank you very much Dr. Wallace.

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