What was the original scope of the Great Commission?

Posted: 26th November 2007 by ElShaddai Edwards in Uncategorized

We’re all familiar with the Great Commission, Jesus’ charge to his disciples to preach the message of the gospel:

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20, NASB)

I was re-reading Matthew this past week and ran across what probably is the proto-Great Commission as stated by Jesus as part of the Mt. Olivet discourse:

“This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:14, NASB)

In Matthew 24 “the end” is translated from the Greek word telos; in Matthew 28 “the end” is translated from the related sunteleia. The nouns sunteleia and telos both refer to the end, but in the sense of the completion or consummation of an act or the fulfillment of its purpose. This is also the meaning of Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:17 that “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.” (NASB)

The Greek aion [“the age”] carries the meanings of 1) forever, an unbroken age, perpetuity of time, eternity; 2) the worlds, universe; 3) period of time, age. If we take the third option for aion, as does the NASB and most modern translations, meaning a finite period of time or an age, then we can read these various statements as meaning that the completion or the fulfillment of the age of the Covenant of Law would be accomplished when the gospel was preached “in the whole world”.

In both Matthew 24 and 28, the Greek word ethnos has been translated as “the nations”, while the Greek noun oikoumene is translated as “the world” in Matthew 24. The former can be understood to mean “foreign nations not worshipping the true God, pagans, Gentiles”, while oikoumene generally is used in the Bible in reference to the Roman empire, but can also mean all the inhabitants of the earth.

With all that in mind, let’s restate one possible interpretation of Matthew 24:14 —

“This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in [the Roman empire] as a testimony to [the Gentile nations], and then [the Covenant of Law will be be completed].”

Similarly, Matthew 28:19-20 —

“Go therefore and make disciples of [the Gentiles in the Roman empire], baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the [completion of the Law].”

Roman armies destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in 70AD. By that time, Paul had indeed reached the ends of the Roman empire, preaching the fact of the gospel, even while under house arrest in Rome up until his death in 64 or 65AD. As such, can we read the Roman destruction of Jerusalem as the completion of the First/Old Covenant of the Law and thus fulfillment of the original scope of the Great Commission? The seeds of the New Covenant had to be carried from the empty tomb and sown before the old crops were plowed under the land as fertilizer.

Mission accomplished?!? What about us today? Isn’t there more work to do?

Obviously I’ve chosen a set of specific meanings of the Greek references above. There are other interpretations and renderings that put a different [and perhaps more accurate or plausible] face on the Great Commission, e.g. “Go therefore to all nations and make them my disciples […] I will be with you always, to the end of time.” as translated in the Revised English Bible.

Even if we accept that as a “sensus plenior“, a fuller meaning, of the text, I’ve been struck recently by a number of statements by Oswald Chambers in his devotional, My Utmost for His Highest, to the effect that we can only testify to the fact of the cross and Christ’s resurrection. All we can hope to do is make the facts of the gospel heard; we’re not to fill the air with vapid testimonials or conversion calls, only the black and white truth of the cross. From the point of hearing, everything else is worked out and fulfilled by the Holy Spirit.

  1. Steve says:

    Great post, ElShaddai. I just responded to someone’s comment on my “About” page on the same topic. Our logical need for evangelism is in no wise mitigated by recognizing the original audience relevance of the Great Commission. Paul’s words are not context-sensitive in Romans 10:14-15, where he says, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!'”

    I do think that a study of evangelism in the NT will show little resemblance between the first century message and the modern message. How much of the differences are related strictly to the importance of the impending eschaton as C.H. Dodd’s kerygma formulation emphasizes, I’m not sure. For those not familiar with it, here are the main points (as listed on Wikipedia):

    1. The Age of Fulfillment has dawned, the “latter days” foretold by the prophets.
    2. This has taken place through the birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
    3. By virtue of the resurrection, Jesus has been exalted at the right hand of God as Messianic head of the new Israel.
    4. The Holy Spirit in the church is the sign of Christ’s present power and glory.
    5. The Messianic Age will reach its consummation in the return of Christ.
    6. An appeal is made for repentance with the offer of forgiveness, the Holy Spirit, and salvation.

    In theory, it is quite possible that we may adapt the kerygma for our purposes. This puts us somewhat in the role of the servants at the end of the Parable of the Wedding Feast who were told to go out and invite everyone after the wicked who spurned their invitations were killed.

    Again, good topic!

  2. Thanks for the notes… yet another term to learn! Proclaiming the facts of the gospel as outlined above would certainly seem to fit with Oswald Chambers’ comments noted at the end of my original post.

    I never realized that C.H. Dodd was so sympathetic to a first-century “realized eschatology” viewpoint, though it should be fair that I know almost nothing about Mr. Dodd, other than his active involvement in the NEB translation and promotion of the term “expiation” instead of “propitiation”. I ought to read more about him.

  3. The believers who are commissioned – believers including all who embrace Jesus – are also to be followed, in their telling of God’s good news, by signs and wonders, which includes the driving out of demons and the healing of the sick.

    Do you offer an explanation as to why we hear so little of the full ministry of Jesus as it could be lived in our lives?

    With love,

    Dr. Kathy

  4. […] of Matthew 28 and the proto-Great Commission of Matthew 24 a few days back entitled “What was the original scope of the Great Commission?” He gets into some of the Greek of the two chapters such […]