THE “GREAT COMMISSION”: WHEN WILL IT BE FULFILLED?
When we speak of the “great commission” we are speaking of the commission that the risen Christ gave to His disciples as recorded in Matt. 28:19-20 which reads, “Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in 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 always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.”
Has this commission been fulfilled? I believe not. Note that Christ told His disciples quite specifically to baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. There is no record of any of the disciples having done that. We read in Acts 2:38 of Peter telling those listening to “repent and be baptized….in the name of Jesus Christ…”. And we read in I Cor. 1:17 that Paul wrote “Christ sent me not to baptize”. It is true that Paul was not one of the twelve disciples, but neither is any one else that is presently evangelizing, and yet Paul baptized only a few. How do we account for this seeming disobedience to Christ’s commission?
I believe the answer to that question lies in the answer to another question, i.e. at what point did Christ mean for the “great commission” to be fulfilled? As we will see as we continue in this study, the “great commission” was not a new concept to the disciples, it was something about which the Old Testament prophesied. And the reason it was not fulfilled is because, according to Old Testament prophecy, it will be fulfilled in the millennial reign of Christ.
The Millennial Reign of Christ
As the following passages will show, there will be only believers in the Land of Israel for the millennium and all unbelievers who are alive at the time of the second coming of Christ will live outside the Land and will die a natural death.
Ps. 37:9, “For evil men will be cut off, but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land”. While it is very true that the phrase “cut off” may refer to being killed, it is often used to mean cut off from Israel. Note for example Prov. 2:21-22, “For the upright will live in the land, and the blameless will remain in it, but the wicked will be cut off from the land, and the blameless will live in it”.
There are other scriptures which warn of the danger of being cut off from living in the land. Ps. 37:34 reads, “Wait for the lord and keep his way. He will exalt you to possess the land: when the wicked are cut off, you will see it”.
Ps. 37:22, “Those the Lord blesses will inherit the land, but those he curses will be cut off”.
Now that we understand that there will be unbelievers living outside the millennial Land of Israel we may understand the following passages that speak of the character outside the Land.
We read for example, in Is. 60:2, “See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples but the Lord rises upon you and His glory appears over you“.
Is. 32:18-20,”My people will live in peaceful dwelling places, in secure homes, in undisturbed places of rest. Though hail flattens the forest and the city is leveled completely, how blessed you will be, sowing your seed by every stream, and letting your oxen and donkeys range free”. Note some catastrophes will occur, but not in Israel.
Isaiah 60:3, “Nations will come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn”.
In short, during the millennium there will be only believers in the Land of Israel and the unbelievers who will be alive at the time of Christ’s return will live outside the Land of Israel. Please see the paper on the Kingdom of Heaven for a more complete consideration of this subject.
The “Great Commission” Prophesied in the Old Testament
Now that we have seen that there are unbelievers outside the Land of Israel during the millennium we are ready to begin our discussion of the Old Testament prophecies concerning the “great commission”.
Now let us consider the role of Israel during the millennium. We know that Israel will be, in the millennium what they were chosen to be, i.e. a royal priesthood (see Ex. 19:6). And we are told in Is. 52:7 ,”How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, ‘Thy God reigneth’”. Note especially that those to whom the message is preached will say “Thy God….”. This tells us that it is Gentiles finally praising the God of Israel, Jesus Christ. How did they come to do that? They had been brought the message of salvation by God’s nation of priests, Israel.
In other words, during the millennial reign of Christ Israel will go unto the unbelievers of the earth and preach the salvation of God. Those who accept that message of salvation will inherit eternal life and will live in the new Jerusalem.
Let us continue with a consideration of the context of Is. 52. We read in verse 10, “The Lord hath made bare His holy arm in the eyes of all the nations: and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God”. When will this prophecy be fulfilled? We read in verse 6, “Therefore, My people shall know My name: therefore they shall know in that day that I am He that doth speak. Behold it is I”. Note the phrase “in that day”. In what day will Israel (“My people”) know God? In the millennial reign of Christ all Israel (“they are not all Israel that are of Israel”, Rom. 9:6) will know their God.
Consider also Is. 2:3, “……for out of Zion shall go forth the law and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem”. This too is a prophecy that has not yet been fulfilled. The context, once again shows this to be a millennial prophecy. Consider for example verse 2, “It shall come to pass in the last days that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established….”. I believe the most obvious conclusion is that Israel, a nation of priests, will take the word from Jerusalem to the nations of the earth.
In short, these passages in Is. 2 and 52 tell us that the nation which God chose to be a kingdom of priests will, at long last fulfill that role by going to the nations of the earth to bring them salvation. Let us consider other Old Testament prophecies concerning the “great commission”.
Ps. 9:11, “Sing praises to the Lord which dwelleth in Zion: declare among the people His doings”. The texts read “peoples”, i.e. plural, referring, of course to Gentiles and is so translated in the ESV, the NASB, the NRSV, in the NIV it is translated “nations”. In short this verse tells us that Israel will declare to the Gentiles the praises of God. This has never been fulfilled and is therefore a millennial prophecy.
Ps. 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth”. This too is a prophecy that has not yet been fulfilled but will be in the millennium, when Israel goes to the nations so that God will be exalted by them.
Ps. 96:3, “Declare His glory among the heathen, His wonders among all people”. The texts read “peoples”, referring, of course to Gentiles and is so translated in the ESV, the NASB, the NRSV and in the NIV.
And 96:10, “Say among the heathen that the Lord reigneth…”.
Is. 12:4, “And in that day shall ye say, ‘Praise the Lord, call upon His name, declare His doings among the people..”. Here again it should be understood as “peoples”, i.e. Gentiles. The ESV and the NASB translated it “peoples” and the NRSV and the NIV translated it “nations”. Here too then is the prophecy of Israel declaring God’s doings among the unbelieving Gentiles in the nations.
The “Great Commission” in the New Testament
We read in Jn. 4:22, “Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews“.
In verses 19-20 of John 4 the Samaritan woman had brought up the subject of where one worshipped. Christ’s response as recorded in verse 21 reads, “Woman, believe Me, the hour cometh when ye shall neither in this mountain nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father”.
Let us consider at what hour one would not worship in Jerusalem. We know that during the millennial reign of Christ all Israel, as well as all the nations of the world, will indeed worship in Jerusalem. So Christ was not referring to the millennium when He spoke of “the hour” that “cometh”. He must then, have been referring to worship after the millennium, i.e. on the new earth in the new Jerusalem. Who will live in the new Jerusalem? Believers of every nation and of every dispensation except for those of the dispensation of the mystery.
Was the “Great Commission” Begun In the Acts Period?
We have seen that the “great commission” is to be fulfilled during the millennial reign of Christ. Does that mean that it had not begun in the Acts period? I believe that it had not. Let us consider the primary purpose of the Acts period.
We read in Acts 1:6, “When they therefore were come together, they asked of Him saying, ‘Lord, wilt Thou at this time restore again the kingdom of Israel?”
Verses 7-8 record the Lord’s answer to that question, “And He said unto them, ‘It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in His own power. But ye shall receive power after that the holy ghost is come upon you; and ye shall be witnesses unto Me both in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and unto the uttermost part of the earth”.
The Greek word translated “earth” in the phrase, “and unto the uttermost part of the earth” is “ge”. “Ge” is used of the earth as opposed to heaven, it is used of the ground and it is used of a particular nation, i.e. Israel. The context will always make clear which is intended. In the case of Acts 1:8 I believe that because Christ named a very limited area, all of which is included in Israel (including Samaria which was part of the Northern Kingdom before the Babylonian captivity) that the most logical conclusion is that it refers to Israel. That is to say, in this particular passage Christ told His disciples to go to all parts of Israel.
One might ask why Christ told them to go to Israel. The answer to that question is found in Acts 3 where Peter is addressing “ye men of Israel” (vs.12). We read in verse 19, “Repent ye therefore and be converted that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord”. It is of extreme importance to note that the Greek word translated “when” in the phrase, “when the times of refreshing” is “hupos”, and according to the note in the Companion Bible, should be understood as “in order that”. Indeed, the NASB has “in order that” and the NKJV and the NRSV and the NIV have “so that”, and the ESV has “that”. In other words, that phrase should read “repent…….in order that the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord”.
In short, I believe that the reason Christ told His disciples to go to all parts of the Land of Israel and the reason Peter pleaded for “ye men of Israel” to repent was so that Christ would return and establish His millennial reign. That was the primary purpose of the Acts period. Certainly as each individual accepted Peter’s message they were, as believers, saved unto resurrection life. But salvation was not the primary reason Peter preached his message.
But what about Paul? As the paper on the gospels of the circumcision and the uncircumcision shows, Paul’s emphasis was the salvation of individuals. But as we shall see as we consider Romans 11, Paul’s preaching also had in mind the return of Christ in order that He might establish His millennial reign.
We read in Rom. 11:11-12, “I say then, have they (Israel) stumbled that they should fall? God forbid: But rather through their fall salvation has come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy”.
Here we have the God breathed reason for Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles, i.e. to provoke Israel to jealousy. Was that because Paul cared more about the salvation of Jews then he did for Gentiles. Given what Paul suffered because of his preaching to the Gentiles I do not believe we should draw that conclusion. I believe that the reason Paul was anxious to provoke Israel to jealousy was so that they would repent in order that the times of refreshing should come from the presence of the Lord.
Consider also Acts 28:20 where Paul said, “For this cause therefore have I called for you (“chief of the Jews, vs. 17) to see and to speak with you: because for the hope of Israel I am bound with this chain”. What was the “hope of Israel”? I believe that the hope of Israel was Christ’s return to establish His millennial reign. Some have suggested that it was salvation unto resurrection life that Paul called the “hope of Israel”. But Christ was sent to the world (“for God so loved the world….”) for salvation, not just to Israel.
The “great commission” was given by the risen Christ to His disciples and by extension to Israel which had been called to be a nation of priests. There is no record that this commission was begun in the Acts period and, in my opinion, we make not make the assumption that it was.
The “great commission” was the subject of Old Testament prophecy and will be fulfilled in the millennial reign of Christ as those prophecies tell us they will.
This paper was written by Joyce Pollard. If you would like to respond please e-mail me at: firstname.lastname@example.org