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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Commission

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COMMISSION.—Christ’s last recorded words to His disciples, as contained in Matthew’s Gospel, are weighted with the impressiveness befitting such an occasion. They contain a commission, which focusses the duty of professed followers with regard to His own Person and Work. All four Evangelists give this Commission in one form or another (Matthew 28:18 ff., Mark 16:15 ff., Luke 24:46; Luke 24:49, John 20:21; John 20:23). Without discussing the critical questions raised by these passages, what follows is based on their historicity, as that has been held by the Christian Church.* [Note: It should be noted, however, that as Mark 16:9-20 is lacking in the best MSS, modern scholars are practically unanimous in holding that these verses did not form a part of the original Gospel, so that it is doubtful whether they possess any independent value.]

On two other occasions our Lord formally commissioned His Apostles. First, the Twelve were sent forth on a trial mission (Matthew 10:5-6, Luke 9:1 ff.). That mission was limited, both as to area—the towns and villages of Galilee—and to objects—the lost sheep of the house of Israel. It aimed (1) at preparing the way of the kingdom of heaven, which our Lord came to found; and (2) at training the Apostles themselves in faith and fortitude for the more responsible work afterwards to devolve upon them. Later, seventy disciples were chosen (Luke 10), and sent—also, apparently—to itinerate in Galilee. Their instructions were similar to those of the Twelve. But, as opposition had now become more pronounced, greater emphasis is laid on it; and the brethren, like carabinieri patrols in modern Italy, travelled two and two. The instructions given to both the Twelve and the Seventy may be called lesser commissions in comparison with the great Commission of Matthew 28. As these commissions were local, temporary, and provisional, it is unnecessary to do more than mention them, except for purposes of comparison and contrast. At one point, however, there is an interesting link between them and the great Commission. After giving His instructions to the Twelve, Christ fell into an audible soliloquy, and went on (Matthew 28:16-20) to speak of the trials, the duties, and the supports of those who in subsequent ages were to carry on His missionary work.

That Christ should speak frequently to the disciples about their future work during the forty days between His resurrection and ascension, is what might be expected. This accounts for the various forms under which all four Evangelists record His Commission. Conditions of time, place, and circumstances call for fuller, or more condensed, general, or particular statements. Processes of repetition, condensation, expansion, or omission in recording the subject of conversations which extended over nearly six weeks, were present to each writer’s consciousness as he penned his narrative. Grotius, as quoted in Poli, Syn., says: ‘Uno compendio Matthaens complectitur praecipua capita sermonum quos Christus cum Apostolis non in monte tantum, sed et Hierosolymis, antea et post, in cœlum jamjam ascensurus, Bethaniae habuit.’ Notwithstanding these conditions, certain essential features of the Commission correspond in the Gospels, as the following table shows:

Contents of Commission Common to Evangelists.

 

Matthew 28:18 ff.

Mark 16:15

Luke 24:46-49

John 20:21-23

Universal Mission

Universal Mission

Universal Mission

Mission of undefined range

Baptism

Baptism and Faith

Repentance and Remission of sins

Message whose substance is Forgiveness

Promise of spiritual Presence

Promise of Comforter

Gift of Holy Ghost.

‘All power is given unto me in heaven and on earth. Go ye therefore, and make disciples of (μαθητεύσατε) all nations, baptizing them into (εἰς) the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world’ (Matthew 28:18-20). These words constitute the charter of the Christian Church. They define in a solemn, authoritative, formal manner, the Commission under which the Apostles and that Church of which they were representatives were to prosecute to its consummation the work begun at Christ’s Incarnation. If our Lord gave this Commission in presence of the five hundred witnesses referred to by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:6, we can understand the remark of Matthew 28:18 that ‘some doubted,’ for these doubters could scarcely at this stage be any of the Eleven. Should this be so, ‘it follows that the Lord Himself here committed His formal institutions and commissions to the whole assembled Church, with the Apostles at her head, just as at a later day He poured out His Spirit upon the whole assembled Church. And from this, then, we argue that, according to the law of Christ, the Apostolic office and the Church are not two divided sections. In the commission to teach and to baptize, the Apostolical community is one, a united Apostolate involving the Church, or a united Church including the Apostles’ (Lange, Com. on Matt. [Note: Matthew’s (i.e. prob. Rogers’) Bible 1537.] , Edinburgh ed. p. 560). John 20:21-23 Luke 24:46-49.Mark 16:15 ff.

Peculiarities in two of the Synoptists’ accounts are noticeable. St. Luke tells how Christ opened the understanding of His disciples that they might understand the Scripture testimony to His suffering and resurrection on the third day. This is the line which we should expect Christ to take, if, on any of the occasions when He discussed their future work with the Eleven, He referred to His own part. The Divine necessity for His death would most readily impress itself on their minds when associated with intimations thereof in the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms.

Mark 16:17 f. [a passage that is very early, even if not from the pen of St. Mark],* [Note: The critical questions connected with Mark 16:9-20 will he found thoroughly discussed in Swete’s Gospel according to St. Mark, Macmillan, 1898, pp. xcvi–cv.] where the promise of miraculous gifts (σημεῖα) is made, has occasioned difficulty, because it seems strange that any of the Evangelists should have omitted to mention so great an endowment. On the other hand, the historicity of these verses is strongly urged by Calvin on a priori grounds. He argues that the power of working miracles was essential to the establishment of the disciples themselves, as well as necessary for proving the doctrine of the gospel at its commencement, that the power was possessed by only a very few persons [but cf. Mark 16:17, where the power is to belong to them that believe] for the confirmation of all, and (though not expressly stated by Christ) granted only for a time.

Turning now to St. Matthew’s narrative, as fullest and most formal, the first noticeable thing is that the Commission proper is prefaced by our Lord’s claim of universal power; and concluded with a promise of His abiding presence. The risen and glorified Christ speaks as Lord and King of heaven and earth, in ‘the majesty of His exalted humanity and brightness of His divinity’ (Lange). His disciples, having to undertake a superhuman task, required to be assured that they were backed by superhuman authority. Nothing but the assurance of such power at their disposal could nerve men to attack those strongholds of sin and Satan which must be overthrown before the kingdom of heaven can be established in human hearts. Meyer defines the power here claimed by Christ as the ‘munus regium Christi without limitation.’

By the promise ‘And, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world,’ Christ assures His followers that the universal power possessed by Himself will be at their disposal when engaged in doing His work. The mystery of Christ’s name Ἐμμανουήλ—God with us, is here fulfilled—I in the fullest sense, as if He, the risen, exalted, all-powerful head of the Church, ‘stretched out His hand from heaven’ (Calvin). He is present in the Person of the Holy Spirit (John 14:16; John 14:26) through His Word (John 14:25) and Sacrament (Matthew 26:28). This promise is made to the whole Church in the widest sense, as well as to the Apostles and all who should take up their official work in propagating and preserving the Christian Church as missionaries and pastors. Alford says: ‘To understand μεθʼ ὑμῶν only of the Apostles and their (?) successors, is to destroy the whole force of these most weighty words.… The command is to the Universal Church, to be performed in the nature of things by her ministers and teachers, the manner of appointing whom is not here prescribed, but to be learnt in the unfoldings of Providence recorded in, the Acts of the Apostles, who by His special ordinance were the founders and first builders of that Church, but whose office, on that very account, precluded the idea of succession or renewal.’

The Mediatorial Presence is to last unto the end of the world—whether that refer to the end of the material order here, or the end of the present moral and spiritual order, for Christ’s return will make all things new. Schaff points out that ‘unto’ (ἕως) ‘does not set a term to Christ’s presence, but to His invisible and temporal presence, which will be exchanged for His visible and eternal presence at His last coming.’ An important link between the power and promised presence—one which connects them also with the intervening Commission—is this: The power is placed at the disposal of, the presence granted to, those alone who obey the command, Go and disciple the nations.

The Commission itself is evangelistic, or missionary, and pastoral—the one merging into the other, with Baptism as the link connecting these two departments. Its order is threefold—Discipling, Baptizing, Instructing. All nations are to be brought to the obedience of the faith. Their standing is to be sealed and ratified by the sign of the gospel. Then their instruction is to go on, that so these baptized scholars in the school of Christ may reach up to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.

(1) ‘Go ye therefore and make disciples of (μαθητεύσατε) all nations.’ ‘Demonstrably, this was not understood as spoken to the Apostles only, but to all the brethren’ (Alford). Go forth—out of the bounds of Israel—and disciple the nations,—convert them, enrol them as scholars in the school of Christ. St. Mark specifies the means by which this discipling is to be accomplished—‘Preach the gospel’ (κηρύξατε τὸ εὐαγγέλιον); herald the good news of a crucified, risen, and exalted Saviour. By the mention of ‘all nations’ the restriction of Mark 10:5-6 is now removed: for the middle wall of partition, that divided Jew from Gentile, was broken down by Christ’s death. Christ’s words give no hint of an answer to that question, soon to disturb the early Church, about the method of Gentile admission; but the principle of their admission is emphatically laid down. The corresponding words in Mark 16:15 ‘Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature’ (πάσῃ τῇ κτίσει), emphasize the universality of the gospel message even more strongly than those of Matthew. All the world is the sphere, every creature the object, of evangelistic effort.

(2) ‘Baptizing them.’ The Church of Christ being a visible community, to be gathered out of the world until it become itself universal, has its peculiar rites, by which that visibility is manifested. Besides being channels of Divine grace, they are seals of Divine favour, and pledges, on the part of disciples, of obedience to Divine commands. Baptism is the initiatory rite. It signifies both the bestowal and the reception of that grace of God in Christ which brings salvation. It testifies to the adoption of believers by grafting into the body of Christ, the washing of regeneration, and the imputation of a new righteousness on God’s part. The person baptized, on the other hand, ratifies by his signature the faith in Christ through which these blessings are appropriated. A profession of that faith has been required in all ages of the Church from those of mature years when seeking admission to her pale. This profession was manifestly intended by our Lord when He instituted the rite of Baptism. A minority of the Christian Church confine the rite to those who are capable of cherishing and professing such a personal faith. See art. Baptism.

Baptism is ‘into’ (εἱς) the name of the triune God—by the authority and unto the authority of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The unity in Trinity of the Godhead is distinctly marked by the use of the singular τὸ ὄνομα instead of τὰ ὀνόματα. These words, ‘into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,’ have been used for ages as our formula of Baptism when admitting candidates into the covenant of Redemption—‘into the name,’ ‘as the expression, according to the common Scripture use, of the whole character of God, the sum of the whole Christian revelation. The knowledge of God as Father, the spiritual birthright of sonship, the power and advocacy of the Spirit—all these privileges belong to those who, in the divinely appointed rite, are incorporated into the Divine name’ (G. Milligan in Expository Times, vol. viii. [1897] p. 172).

(3) Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.’ The process begun before, must be continued after Baptism. Admission into the Church—whether visible or invisible—is only the beginning of Christian discipleship. Eternity cannot complete the process of learning what has to be known of an infinite God, and the relation of His creatures to Him. It is part of the pastoral duty of the Christian ministry to inculcate the truth as it is in Jesus, that every member may be built up into the full manhood of the Author and Finisher of our faith. The subject-matter of teaching is the doctrines and precepts of Christ, which lie at the root of Christian faith and Christian practice. On all the members of His Church it is incumbent to be diligent scholars in the school of Christ, learning obedience to His commandments from those appointed as teachers. On some of these learners the additional duty rests of being official expounders of His law—teachers in their turn—devoting their lives, as the Apostles did, to edify the body of Christ.

The place assigned to Word and Sacrament in the spiritual perspective of this Commission is well worthy of notice. It portrays the minister of the gospel in the character of a teaching prophet rather than in that of a sacrificing priest. The ministry is first a ministry of the Word, and then of the Sacraments. Thus Baptism—the Sacrament of regeneration—is closely associated with preaching and teaching; while the Lord’s Supper—the Sacrament of sanctification—is not directly mentioned, although included among the ‘all things whatsoever I have commanded you.’ The Word must not be exalted at the expense of the Sacraments, nor the Sacraments at the expense of the Word. When each is assigned its true place as a means of grace, the work of evangelizing and edifying, committed to His Church by Christ, will most surely prosper.

Literature.—Besides the Comm. in loc., see Latham, Risen Master, 273 ff.; Denney, Death of Christ, 69 ff.; Expos. 6th Ser. v. 43, vi. 241; Expos. Times iv. 557, vi. 419. For a clear statement of the views of those who question the authenticity of the Commission, see Harnack, Hist. of Dogma, i. 79, Expansion of Christianity, i. 40 ff. For the Baptismal Formula see Resch and Marshall in Expos. Times vi. 395 ff.; and the discussion by Chase and Armitage Robinson, in JThSt [Note: ThSt Journal of Theological Studies.] , July 1905, Jan. 1906.

D. A. Mackinnon.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Commission'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/c/commission.html. 1906-1918.

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Friday, August 23rd, 2019
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20
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