“Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was there, prophets and teachers: Barnabas, and Simeon who was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.”Acts 13:1-3
We have placed our discussion of the church at the end of this section on “The Foundations of the Great Commission” for the purpose of emphasis and not because it is of lesser importance than the other subjects. In fact, we will argue that the local church is the very “center” of the Great Commission and should be at the forefront of all our missionary endeavors!
There would be few who would argue against the proposition that the Great Commission has been given to the church. In fact, most would respond with a hearty, “Amen!” However, we must go one step further if the above proposition is to have any impact on the way we do missions—We must define what we mean by the term “church.”
In the New Testament Scriptures, the word “church” (Greek: ekklesía) is used to denote both the “universal” church and the “local” church. The universal church refers to all peoples in every age and geographic location that have been redeemed through faith in God and the atoning sacrifice of His Son Jesus Christ.1 In contrast, the local church refers to an individual congregation of believers in a specific time and geographic location in the world.2 It is a visible manifestation of the church universal and is to be governed in its leadership, ordinances, conduct, ministries, and methodologies by the commands, precepts, and wisdom of the Scriptures.
In our assertion that the Great Commission is the work of the church, we are making specific reference to the local church with its leaders and congregation as opposed to the church universal, “parachurch” organizations,3 mission agencies, cooperative programs, or individual Christians. This does NOT mean that these other entities are outside the will of God or have no use in the advancement of the kingdom. We are simply seeking to put things in their proper order, and that order places the responsibility for the Great Commission upon the shoulders of the local church and its leadership.
In the various commissions that are found in the Gospels and the book of Acts, it is obvious that Christ is primarily addressing the Apostles or “the eleven.” However, this is not an argument for limiting the Great Commission to only the Apostles or diminishing the entire church’s responsibility to devote itself to the Great Commission until the end of the age.
In the Gospel of Luke, there is evidence that a wider circle of disciples than the Apostles was present when Christ gave His commission. According to Luke 24:33-48, the two disciples4 who walked with Christ on the road to Emmaus were present, as well as others who were already with “the eleven” when the two disciples arrived in Jerusalem. Furthermore, the Apostle John tells us in his Gospel that “the disciples” were present when Christ gave His commission.5 Most scholars agree that although the context makes it difficult to determine if the reference is to the Apostles or to a wider circle of Christ’s followers, it is not “unlikely” that a wider circle was intended.6The renowned New Testament scholar, Leon Morris writes:
“The term ‘disciples’ is wide enough to include others and there is no real reason for thinking that ‘apostles’ only are in mind. Certainly, if the occasion is the same referred to in Luke 24:33 there were others present, for Luke expressly mentions them. It should also be borne in mind that in this very chapter Johns speaks of ‘the twelve’ (v.24) so that presumably he means something different when he says ‘the disciples.’”7
In contrast to the Gospels of Luke and John, Matthew and Mark make reference only to “the eleven” (Matthew 28:16-20; Mark 16:14-15), while the book of Acts mentions only the “Apostles” (1:1-8). However, this is not a valid argument for restricting the Great Commission to only the apostolic band. In the first chapter of Acts, Luke records that the “apostles” were “given orders” regarding the Great Commission (1:2) and “commanded” to stay in Jerusalem until they were endued with power (1:4). However, in the same chapter, we learn that in response to this command, “about one hundred and twenty persons,” both men and women, were gathered together in the upper room (Acts 1:13-14) and waiting for the fulfillment of the promise. Thus, it is obvious that the Apostles interpreted the commands that were given to them regarding the Great Commission as not limited to themselves but as pertaining to a wider circle, even the entire church.
- Scriptural references to the universal church: Acts 9:31; I Corinthians 15:9; Ephesians 1:22; 3:21; Ephesians 5:25-32; Hebrews 12:22-23
- Scriptural references to the local church: Acts 14:23; Romans 16:1; I Thessalonians 2:14; Philemon 1:2.
- Parachurch – The Greek prefix pará means “to come along side.” It thus denotes a ministry that comes alongside the church in order to help. For example, the Holy Spirit is referred to as the “helper,” from the Greek word parákletos [pará = along side + kaléo = to call], which literally denotes one who is “called alongside to help.”
- These two men who walked with Christ on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-32 were not Apostles, but from the wider circle of disciples who were with the Apostles (Luke 24:9). One of them was named Cleopas (Luke 24:18).
- John 20:19-21
- Andreas Köstenberger writes, “In light of the characterization of Thomas as ‘one of the Twelve’ in 20:24, it is possible that this resurrection appearance is to the twelve minus Judas and Thomas, though it is not unlikely that others joined them as well.” (Baker Exegetical Commentary, John, p.571)
- Leon Morris, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, The Gospel According to John, p.844).
Paul is the founder of HeartCry Missionary Society and currently serves as its missions director. He also ministered as a missionary in Peru for ten years. He has preached hundreds of sermons and has authored a dozen published works. Paul lives in Radford, Virginia, with his wife Charo and their four children: Ian, Evan, Rowan, and Bronwyn.More By Paul David Washer