Many consider it no less than that, and many consider it much much more. To them, that “great commission” (Mt 28:19-20) establishes once and for all time, for all men, a Divine command for the continual and perpetual preaching of a single inerrant, infallible, inspired Holy Book, and nothing else (except a little Piper. Keller, or Chan as needed…). The seminarian adds for good measure the Romans 10:14 and Ephesians 4:11 “booster” passages. These are asserted as proof of followup Pauline mandates for carrying out that Bible preaching commission into all christendom, in perpetuity. We offer that that position is much more from repeated tradition, than revealed truth; sustained more by cultural conditioning than compelling context. It quickly leads to the Bible itself as the thing that must be taught. More content than concepts. And it’s a short hop from there to the use of the canon as a weapon against all ancient and newly emerging forms of ungodliness (cf. “the Sword of the Spirit” Eph 6:17b). We submit rather, that these venerated texts should be more tool than weapon, wielded less with canonical authority, and more with contextual analysis. A flashlight, not a flagellum.
So let look carefully at Matthew’s account. Matthew’s record makes clear the historical and geographical context. It was issued by the resurrected Christ, to His eleven surviving disciples, on a mountain in Galilee, between the resurrection and the ascension. The disciples were there in Galilee, within 40 days of the resurrection, because Christ had told them beforehand to meet them there, through a divine messenger at the tomb on resurrection day.
“Go quickly and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead; and behold, He is going ahead of you into Galilee, there you will see Him; behold, I have told you.” Matt 28:7
There’s also significant literary context here, and accounting for it reveals the specific content, extent, and intent of the event. Christ verbally issued instructions to his closest disciples, and one of them, Matthew, included the event in his apostolic teachings. Then either Matthew himself, or one of his own disciples, put a brief transcript of it in print. We refer to that transcript as “the Great Commission” (Matt 28:18-20) and we can read it in the Greek in which it was likely written, but not the Aramaic in which it was likely spoken. Somehow despite neither the words “great” nor “commission” in the text, we have emphatically ascribed that title to that encounter.
And with unintended consequences.
As if unable or unwilling to recognize the highly specific context of the event, there are those who use it specifically and exclusively to buttress a particularly aggressive and narrow evangelistic doctrine. They latch onto that account as though it launched an eternal evangelistic crusade. Is that what was intended? Absolutely! That is, if by “eternal” we mean, “continual” and by “evangelistic” we mean “good news” and by “crusade” we mean “ministry of instruction”. Otherwise, maybe not. Truth is, we weren’t there to hear it, but eleven specific men were. If we can understand what they took this “commission” to mean, then we might more clearly recognize its imprint across Kingdom space and time since. If we will study the ruins and remnants and relics and residuals of their proclamations of the Good News, we can understand what they reveal about the Kingdom they were exposing to the next, and ultimately all subsequent, generations of disciples. But if we focus on what they said instead of what they revealed, we can easily miss it. And instead find (and found) just a new religion. Are we too late?
No. But we’ll need to choose to recalibrate our Biblical optics. So let’s continue.
What exactly did the master-teacher instruct the eleven? On that mountain In Galilee, Christ issued those men instructions for further and future… instruction. There he said to the imminent apostles, to make their own students (mathetes, G3101) and teach them to observe the things He had commanded them. Evangelical church tradition has majored on the commanded part of this, preferred obey over observe (tereo, G5083) and given short shrift to the disciple making and teaching part. The observable product of commandment-minded, obedience-driven teaching is rigid and rigorous and reinforced religion, short on context and compassion.
Consider instead that the event on that mount in Galilee is best understood as the master-teacher Christ inaugurating the apostolic ministry of Bridal preparation. He knew it would result in the baptism of many into His Body. In effect, the Bridegroom was chartering the groomsmen to prepare the Bride!
Key Point: the apostles were to commence preparation of the Bride by instruction in Kingdom matters — the whole logos of God, following on with the message and the method of the Master.
Did they take their commission as a directive to “preach the Bible”? No, and for many reasons, not the least of which was there was no “Bible” between the resurrection and the ascension when this event took place. It was what they actually did teach that ended up being recorded in the documents later canonized as the New Testament. So let’s look at what the apostles actually ended up teaching. Luke records their first foray into Kingdom instruction at Pentecost.
Pentecost: does it set a standard for “Bible Preaching”?
Plot spoiler: the answer is “if only that were so”…
With a Galilean commission in hand, what did the new apostles teach their new disciples? Well, Luke, Paul’s companion, scribe, and supporter, records much of this for us in the orderly and thoroughly researched accounts of the Acts of the Apostles. In 1:16-20, Luke records that Peter first centered and grounded their apostolic ministry in the Kingdom context they found in their scriptures. He interpreted the words of their shepherd-King David as foretelling that the Lord’s betrayer, whom they recognized as Judas Iscariot, was rightly “blotted out of the book of Life” (Ps 69:28), and that he was to be replaced in the ministry of the good news (“Let another take his office” Ps 109:8). Hence the appointing of Matthias.
Luke also records (Acts 2:16-40) that in the context of the multi-lingual proclamations prompted by the falling of the Spirit at Pentecost, Peter interpreted their scriptures to orient the crowds to the correct heading in Kingdom space-time — as it was being revealed in real time! He pointed out that what they were seeing was the fulfillment of what the Creator’s prophet Joel (2:28-32) had foretold. That was, that the time would come when God would pour out His spirit for His purposes. He used the Divine opportunity to underscore the certainty and the significance of the Christ who had lived among them. In a sense, he as best man, announced the long-standing wedding plans of the Father, and reintroduced the Bridegroom, His Son who had lately dwelt among them.
Luke records further what happened after the Jews began to catch on to a fresh understanding of their times. They appealed for some instruction in what to do about it! To which Peter said, “repent” (get a new mind) (2:38) and “be saved from this perverse generation” (2:40). Some call that good old fashioned Gospel preaching! But recall Peter quoted Joel, not John 3:16. In sad point of fact, “old fashioned gospel preaching” (aka “Bible thumping”), is not that old. “Cannon-as-cudgel” preaching is a hallmark of the modern Western protestant evangelical Christian denominations. And it is a poor substitute for “Kingdom instruction”. As we’re endeavoring to show, this is not the teaching mode modeled by the master-teacher, or demonstrated by His apostles when revealing Kingdom truths to the Bride of Christ.
The apostles’ teaching was in content, proclaiming what they had heard and seen from the Christ, now that they themselves understood it correctly. Their master-teacher had employed contextualized interpretation of their scriptures, such that they could not miss the Kingdom significance of their times.
But the “perverse generation” did miss it.
Who was that “perverse generation”? The greek word for them is “skolias” — twisted ones (G4646), who had “twisted” the good news of the Kingdom of God into … a religion. Yes, perverse is the name for a generation which taught, enforced, and reinforced a religion — all the way to Calvary, to Damascus, and wherever that Damascan convert went attempting to redeem that religion in the decades to follow. And in doing so, the perverse ones were misleading God’s sheep away from the true pasture. What’s that? The eternal marriage to the Bridegroom Christ, in the new heavens and the new earth.
So if that’s what the “perverted” ones taught (or failed to teach), what did the apostles teach?