In the narrow experiences of my life, Christians I know have generally understood the words of the Great Commission to mean that Jesus is speaking to all Christians. The words are most familiar from Matthew 28:18-21 (HCSB):
Then Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Though obedience to this command is varied, most Christians I have known believe that the command is for every Christian. Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary President Daniel Akin has even said, “Some of Jesus’ last words on earth were to go; so you better ask permission if you plan to stay.” Going. Making disciples. Baptizing. Teaching. Sermon upon sermon has tread on these topics to provoke obedience and faithfulness among the brethren.
But was this command actually intended for every believer or just Jesus’ disciples? Likewise, is the call for ministers of reconciliation and ambassadors of Christ from 2 Corinthians 5 a call to all who are “in Christ” or only those apostles who are writing the letter? Wouldn’t it be great if each Christian was not actually expected to personally evangelize, but only those who have been called to such a task? (Even writing that questions seems self-evidently unfaithful for many reasons.)
As best I can tell, those passages were written about the disciples (apostles) specifically. However, I also believe that the instructions apply to all who are in Christ. The following are some reasons:
- A popular observation regarding the Great Commission from Mt. 28:18-21 pertains to the instruction to teach all that Jesus commanded. That instruction to teach everything would surely include the command to go, make disciples, baptize, and teach everything. Therefore, though the commission itself might have only been spoken from Jesus to the 11 disciples, the inclusion of a re-instruction command would have immediately ignited a movement of disciple-makers.
- Paul’s words in 2 Cor. 5:18-21 are slightly more complex. Paul speaks in the same passage of anyone who is in Christ, his reconciliation to God, his ministry of reconciliation, and his ambassadorship on behalf of Christ – who is making His appeal through Paul, “Be reconciled to God.” But Paul doesn’t say “me”. Instead he says “us”. Does the “us” mean all who are in Christ or Paul and the people with him (Timothy is specifically mentioned in the introduction to 2 Corinthians)? Paul did hold an apostolic office by the authority of Jesus Christ, who came to Paul directly and set him apart for ministry. So the question then would be: Is the work of evangelism only a duty of the apostolic office?
- We see some insight into the purpose of the apostolic office as the original 11 disciples of Jesus set out to replace their 12th – a position vacated by Judas’ death. Look at Acts 1:21-22, Peter says:
“Therefore, from among the men who have accompanied us during the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us— beginning from the baptism of John until the day He was taken up from us—from among these, it is necessary that one become a witness with us of His resurrection.”
We see evidence here of a reason for the 12 apostles – they were eye witnesses of everything that had happened from the beginning to the end of Jesus’ ministry. There were no gospel books already written. Testimony of one or two would be discarded as biased or manipulated. But out of 120 people still gathered, the remaining 11 apostles were able to identify 2 who had been through everything with them. They chose Matthias to replace Judas as a witness. An apostle was a credible witness to the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ along with His teachings.
- Where the apostles the only ones who were spreading the gospel?
No. The account of the founding of the church at Antioch shows the extent to which anyone who was going out into the nations was also likely evangelizing. Look at the account from Acts 11:19-22:
Those who had been scattered as a result of the persecution that started because of Stephen made their way as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the message to no one except Jews. But there were some of them, Cypriot and Cyrenian men, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Hellenists, proclaiming the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord. Then the report about them was heard by the church that was at Jerusalem, and they sent out Barnabas to travel as far as Antioch.
Who started the church among the gentiles? Barnabas? Paul? Nope, some Cypriot and Cyrenian men – not significant enough to be mentioned by name. Were they officially apostles? There is no indication that they were. Were they doing the work of an apostle by bringing credible witness to those who had never heard? Definitely. It’s as if at some point they were commanded to go, make disciples, baptize and teach.
- What does that mean for those who now have documented Scripture?
A portion of the apostolic ministry was diminished with the documentation of the gospel letters as well as the other letters of Scripture. But the physical availability of the reliable witness does not completely exempt apostolic work. The documentation of Scripture should serve as a catalyst for evangelistic witness, not an excuse to stop speaking. Look at 2 Timothy 3:16-17:
All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
If these powers are available in Scripture, for what purpose should Scripture serve? See how many of these are outward focused, away from the reader of Scripture himself – teaching, rebuking, correcting. Training in righteousness may be both internal and external. In the end, if you are in Christ and you have the credible witness of Scripture, then you are equipped for every good work. What work could possibly be better that serving as a minister of reconciliation?
These are just a few of the many, many calls for those who have been reconciled by God through Christ to do the work of reconciliation of other to God through Christ. I hope that you have found the passages to be clear. I hope that any disappointment in the realization that all Christians are evangelists might be brought before God and addressed at its likely root: fear of man. I struggle with this fear mightily. But let us be complete and do the good work of reconciliation as those who have hope.