Jesus' Two Great Commissions
The Time Was Right
" ... Probably no period in the human history of the world was better suited to receive the infant Church than the first century A.D., when, under an Empire which was literally worldwide, the scope for the spread and understanding of the faith was enormous."! God could not send His Son into the world to die for mankind's sins at just any time. The time of His coming had to be a moment in history when some people possessed sufficient understanding of God and His will to comprehend God's purposes in Jesus. If no one comprehended God's work in Jesus, His coming, His death, and His resurrection became a pointless achievement. Without that comprehension, a faith response to God's redemption was impossible.
When God rescued the Israelites from Egypt, they were primarily pagan. At best, their concept of God was vague, and their ignorance of God's ways and will was enormous. Moses had an initial concern about their inability to recognize the God who sent him.2 Their faithlessness and fears at the Red Sea and in the wilderness illustrate their ignorance of God. The incident of the golden calf at Mount Sinai documents that they were fundamentally pagan in their concept of deity.3 God sought to control and direct this ignorant, pagan people through laws which governed overt actions and through fear of physical consequences for violations.
Deuteronomy contains clear, powerful emphasis on God's desire for a relationship of love made possible by their circumcised hearts responding to God's love III a complete, unconditional love.4 However, the adults who left Egypt seemed incapable of establishing a relationship of love. They seemed incapable of appreciating recent blessings and of trusting promised blessings. They seemed incapable of producing the internal motivation and self-control necessary for a relationship of love.
Thus God created a relationship of benevolent control. From the thunder, lightning, thick smoke, earthquake, trumpet-like sound, and threat of death at Sinai5 to the solemn emphasis on the unavoidable choice they must make between the blessing and the curse6, God motivated and controlled those people through fear and awe.
For generations God was at work advancing Israel's consciousness of His nature and comprehension of His principles. From the time of the Davidic kingdom forward, many Israelites were capable of comprehending God's moral and ethical teachings. Their comprehension progressed from the ability to respond to the direct Thou shalt/shalt not of the ten commandments to the ethical principles taught by the prophets. For example, they were capable of understanding that technically correct acts of worship offended God if they were offered for wrong motives or from sinful lives.7
When Jesus came, they were capable of understanding God's activity in Jesus' life and death. A patient God, refusing to fail, worked through an often faithless people until the time was right to implement His redemptive plan conceived before time began.8 God could offer Jesus in sacrifice with the knowledge that His redemptive act could be understood.
It is important to understand that the solution to any problem which exceeds a people's comprehension will be rejected. Years ago, the author was living in rural Africa when a major cholera epidemic occurred. To those people, germs, bacteria, and viruses were non-existent; the spirit world was reality. Often, of necessity, villagers bathed, washed dishes, and obtained drinking water from the same stream. Never before had those practices resulted in cholera.
Cholera is simple to prevent. Clean hands, clean eating utensils, pure food, and pure drinking water prevent cholera. However, many of those people saw no connection between those acts and the prevention of this mysterious sickness. Because many did not understand, they refused to practice the preventive acts.
The Opportune Moment
Many physical realities made the first century opportune for preaching Jesus throughout the world. A legacy of Alexander the Great's conquests was the worldwide usage of the Greek language. One could speak Greek virtually anywhere in the Roman empire and be understood. The empire's relative stability and peace, coupled with improved roads, allowed ready access to most of the civilized world. A world empire made documents equivalent to passports, visas, or resident permits unnecessary.
However, one condition was the ultimate contribution to that opportunity--the dispersion of the Jews throughout the empire. One found devout resident Jews in virtually every region. These people knew the Old Testament Scriptures. Scripture was studied weekly, systematically in their synagogues. They were familiar with the message of the prophets.
When the evidences convinced these people that Jesus was the Christ, they instantly became teachers. They needed no intensive training, just understanding. Thus, conversion of devout Jews or proselytes in any place immediately produced those who could knowledgeably teach Jesus in that place. A congregation could begin with a Scripture-based stability rarely encountered in mission areas of today's world.
The Gentile God-fearer contributed further to the opportunity. Because he studied in the synagogue, this person believed in God and the law. Though he had not submitted to Jewish rites of conversion (including circumcision for the men), he, too, would be a knowledgeable, capable convert with immediate access to the Gentile community.The fact that devout Jews, proselytes, and God-fearers gathered each sabbath (Saturday) for study further advanced the opportunity. Those assemblies were open, and devout Jewish visitors were invited to share "a word of exhortation." 9 Thus, in the early growth period of the church, virtually anywhere he went, a Jewish Christian could teach a readymade audience meeting weekly at a specific location. He did not have to "create interest"; he had only to accept the opportunity.
Receptivity among many of the Gentile world was still another favorable factor. Thoughtful people were disillusioned with the cruelties, adulteries, deceits, battles, and lies attributed to the gods.lO Though the mystery cults had capitalized on a common desire to deal with guilt, the common desire for protection from the spirit world, and the yearning for immortality, l1 Christianity addressed all these desires in a superior manner. Many people were hungry to learn about a God who provided the power of choice rather than gods who made them victims of inescapable Fate.
Neither before nor after that time has the civilized world produced these combined circumstances: a world empire; relative peace and stability; an understood worldwide language; a specific people trained in the Scriptures who lived in identifiable communities throughout that empire; interested local nationals who were also knowledgeable in the Scriptures; a local, identifiable place of assembly which allowed visitors to teach the Scriptures; and large numbers of people disillusioned with old religions who were seeking cleansing, security, and immortality. The time, indeed, was right.
The Plan and the Implementation
The resurrected Jesus capitalized on these exceptional circumstances. By His directive, the gospel was to be preached first among the Jews, those most qualified to understand and respond, and then shared with the world. l2 That is precisely what occurred. Beginning with Peter's sermon on the Pentecost after Jesus' resurrection, the gospel was preached exclusively to Jews through the time of Acts 9. After Acts 10, the gospel was preached to Jews and Gentiles.
Paul took full advantage of the opportunity created by the existence of the diaspora, the God-fearer, and the synagogue. The synagogue was the first place he taught when he arrived in a community. He began his evangelistic efforts in Cyprus, l3 Antioch of Pisidia, l4 Iconium, l5 Thessalonica, l6 Athens, l7 Corinth, l8 and Ephesus19 in this manner. Even when the Jewish population in a community was too small to support a synagogue, he located their site of assembly and taught them.2o Results varied from city to city, but in most synagogues some of the devout Jews and many of the God-fearers quickly responded to Christ.
The initial rapid spread of Christianity was in truth an explosion. Incredibly, the rejected, crucified Jesus who died in the tiny country of Palestine became a world figure in far less than a generation. Less than 50 days after His death, His following consisted of eleven of His twelve disciples and 120 loyal men and women.21 In less than 30 years after Jesus' death, Paul could write, ... it [the gospel] is also in all the world bearing fruit.... 22 That statement certainly was not a claim that the entire Roman world had been evangelized, but a declaration that the kingdom had established a presence throughout the Roman empire.
In a world with no rapid mass communication, no printing press, a low literacy rate, and no rapid means of transportation, how could the rejected, crucified, obscure Jesus become a world figure in such a brief period of time? Obviously, God was at work. However, God is always at work. Why, then, did this happen? From its first presentation forward, the gospel utilized those favorable circumstances to produce rapid transmission of its message.
When Peter presented the gospel for the first time, his audience was composed of devout Jews and proselytes from every nation under heaven.23 In that audience were Jews from Parthia and Media (Iran); Elam (Iran/Iraq); Mesopotamia (Syria/Iraq); Judea (Israel); Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia (Turkey); Egypt; Lybia about Cyrene (North Africa); and Rome (Italy).
It is likely that the original 3,000 converts came from many of these regions. At first they remained in Jerusalem for instruction.24 Many of these pilgrims, delaying their return home, soon experienced financial problems. Resident Christians sold possessions and land, creating a fund initially administered by the apostles to provide for such needs.25
When persecution scattered that congregation, they initially went throughout Judea and Samaria, 26 but it is probable that many eventually returned to their home regions. Every convert returning from that pilgrimage to his home region was a Christian missionary to his community.
The Jerusalem persecution produced a rapid expansion of Christian teaching. In the fragmentary account of this expansion, Philip established a congregation in Samaria, 27 converted an official from Ethiopia (Africa), 28 and preached in all the cities on the Mediterranean coast from Azotus to Caesarea.29 The scattering produced Christians in Damascus, (Syria), 30 and also in Phonecia (Lebanon), Cyprus, and Antioch, (Syria). 31 It is unthinkable to conclude that Paul did not preach in his home, Tarsus of Cilicia (Turkey). 32
By tracing the mission journeys of Paul/Barnabas and Paul! Silas, Acts documents evangelistic work in Cyprus; 33 Turkey; 34 Greece; 35 Malta; 36 and Rome (Italy). 37 Paul also had definite plans to preach in Spain.38
Traditional InformationThe charge to carry the gospel to all nations was given to the twelve. The New Testament focuses primarily upon the work of Peter among the Jews and Paul among the Gentiles. Acts is not a comprehensive report on all the evangelistic activity of the twelve, nor of the work of many other evangelists such as John Mark, Timothy, and Titus. There is no justification for the assumption that all the apostles were not as involved in evangelizing the world.
However, only traditional accounts offer information concerning the work of the other apostles. Some of this information is highly suspect, and some likely is founded in fact. The existence of traditional information does reflect the fact that Christians understood that the twelve were involved actively in evangelizing the world.
William Barclay compiled both biblical and traditional information concerning each of the twelve in an interesting and readable book.39 Tradition connects Peter with evangelism in Antioch, Syria; Asia Minor; and Rome.4o John is connected by tradition with Rome and Ephesus.41 Traditions associate Andrew with Cappadocia, Bithynia, Galatia, and Byzantium (all in the area of Turkey); Scythia (modern Russia above the Black Sea); Achia (Greece); and Scotland.42 One tradition associates Thomas with Parthia (Iran), and a more detailed tradition connects him to India and China. 43 Philip is associated with Asia; 44 James, the son of Zebedee with Spain; 45 Bartholomew with India, Phrygia (Turkey), and Armenia (Turkey); 46 James the son of Alphaeus with Persia (Iran); 47 and Thaddaeus with Mesopotamia (Syria/Iraq). 48 Traditional material concerning the others is vague.
Again, all this information is not to be taken as historical fact. However, its existence reflects the fact that post first century Christians understood the apostles had been actively engaged in evangelizing the world.
No serious Bible student could deny that the Christians of the first century utilized all existing opportunities to proclaim Christ throughout their known world. Jesus came to be the Savior of the world, and the world had been introduced to its Savior in less than 70 years.
1. Discuss the religious/spiritual condition of the adult Israelites who left Egypt slavery.
a. What type of relationship did God wish to establish with them? b. What kind of relationship did God create with them?
2. What religious/spiritual change had to occur in Israel before God could send His Son on a successful mission to this world? Why?
3. Give 7 reasons which verify that the first century world A.D. was the "right time" for Jesus' earthly ministry/mission.
4. Discuss the practical significance of each of those 7 reasons in the work of evangelism.
5. How did early Christians capitalize on this opportunity?
6. Why is it correct to refer to the early conversions to Christianity as an explosion?
If such an evangelistic explosion of conversions occurred anywhere in the world of today, what reactions among Christians could be anticipated?
1Green, p. 13.
4Deuteronomy 10:12-22; 30:1-10.
8Ephesians 1 :4-7; please read this passage in several more recent translations.
9 Acts 13:15.
10Green, p. 17.
11 Ibid., pp. 21, 22.
17 Acts 17:17.
18 Acts 18:4.
19 Acts 19:8.
20Acts 16:12, 13.
24Acts 2:41, 42.
25 Acts 2:43-45; 4:32-37.
27 Acts 8:5-13.
29 Acts 8:40.
30Acts 9:1, 2.
32Acts 9:30; 11:25.
33 Acts 13:4.
35 Acts 16-18.
38Romans 15:24, 28.
39WilliamBarc1ay, The Master's Men (Abingdon Press: New York-Nashville, 1959).
40Ibid., p. 24-26.
41Ibid., p. 35.
42Ibid., p. 44, 45.
43Ibid., pp. 51-53.
44Ibid., p. 92.
45Ibid., p. 102.
46Ibid., p. 107.
47Ibid., p. 117.
48Ibid., p. 121.
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