The Great Commission--Part 1
Jul 10, 2009
In reading the newspapers these days, and in looking at the downward spiral of morality in the West, one would think that Christianity itself is on the wane. But what is actually taking place is not a wane but a shift. A megashift, if you please. This is the topic of James Rutz' book (2005) by that title.
When I met him in Colorado Springs last month, he gave me his book, The Meaning of Life, in which he shows some interesting statistics. In the year 100 the ratio of non-believers to Christians was 360:1.
In 1430 it was 99:1
In 1790 it was 49:1
In 1940 it was 32:1
In 1960 it was 24:1
In 1970 it was 19:1
In 1980 it was 16:1
In 1983 it was 13:1
In 1986 it was 11:1
In 1989 it was 10:1
In 1993 it was 9:1
In 1997 it was 8:1
In 2000 it was 7:1
The decline of spiritual vigor in the Western Church has been upended by the rise of Christianity in third-world countries. These figures do not reflect the activity of a militant church conquering new lands and forcing conversions on pain of death or persecution. These figures reflect the acceptance of Christ by acclamation, not by force. In fact, as James Rutz writes on page 39,
"A confidential survey (about 1995) showed that 25% of the Indian people [from India] would like to become Christians now if they could stay in their family groupings. Nagaland and Mizoram states now claim to be 100% Christian.
The Codex W account of the Gospels includes the last verses of Mark, whereas some of the later manuscripts leave it out. More than that, however, Codex W includes some information left out of the later manuscripts. As you may have noticed, Mark 16:14 seems a bit disconnected from verse 15 and does not flow smoothly. Codex W adds the equivalent of about two verses in this passage:
14 Later he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table, and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.
ADDITION: They excused themselves saying, "This age of lawlessness and unbelief is under Satan, who does not allow the truth and power of God to prevail over the unclean things of the spirits. Therefore reveal your righteousness now"--thus they spoke to Christ.
Christ replied to them, 'The term of Satan's power has been fulfilled, but other terrible things draw near. And for those who have sinned I was handed over to death that they may return to the truth and sin no more, that they may inherit [be given] the spiritual and imperishable glory of righteousness that is in heaven."
15 And he said to them, "Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation."
This tells us that the Gospel ("good news") to be preached is that a change has taken place since the Cross, that "the term of Satan's power has been fulfilled" (thus ended), and that now the world of unbelievers "may return to the truth and sin no more" (i.e., no longer be lawless as in the previous age).
This fuller version of Mark defines the Gospel message of the Great Commission.
But in the months after Pentecost, the Christians remained largely in Jerusalem and limited their efforts to evangelizing the Judeans, local and those visiting Jerusalem. Finally, Philip went to Samaria and astonished the other apostles by his success. When Cornelius and his Roman friends received the Holy Spirit, Peter was again astonished and had to explain himself to the others.
It is obvious that in spite of the Great Commission to preach the gospel "to the whole creation," they still had not overcome the limitations of their ethnic blinders. It took a divine "reality check" to teach them that they should not call any man common or unclean (Acts 10:28) and that God was no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34). The Holy Spirit was equally at home in men of other nations as He was in Judeans.
Even then, the Christians needed some prodding to fulfill their Commission. So God raised up Saul to persecute them (Acts 8). This scattered the Christians into other nations, where they proclaimed the Gospel to other ethnic groups. Then God converted Saul (Paul) and used him to spearhead the world evangelism in a greater way.
I find it interesting that the fourth-century Church apparently did not learn from its own history what effect persecution could have. After the Council of Nicea in 325, which made the Trinity an "orthodox" doctrine, they persecuted Arius and his followers, who denied the Trinity. Many Arians fled into exile to the North among the "barbarian" tribes (Goths) and soon converted them! Within a century, those same "barbarian" Arians invaded the Christian Roman Empire!
Perhaps they should have realized that the use of law enforcement on penalty of death was not a proper way to instruct "heretics" in the love of Christ. Of course, the Arians did not learn this lesson either, for whenever they had power, they persecuted the Trinitarians with equal vigor. If they had been instructed in the love of Christ, they would not have invaded the Roman Empire.
What shall we say, then? What is the lesson of history? Forcible conversion by conquest changes men's religion, but does not give anyone a true knowledge of God. It forces men to join an institution, an organization, and puts men into submission to a religious hierarchy, but it fails to give any man a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It creates Christians in name, but fails to change the heart. In other words, it creates the type of hypocritical religion found in first-century Judaism.
Note how the Judeans conquered Edom in 126 B.C. and forcibly converted that entire nation to Judaism. If Edom had been converted by acclamation instead of by force, that nation might have reversed the curse upon itself that dated all the way back to their father, Esau. No longer would they have been Edomites, but they would have become equal citizens of the Kingdom of God. They would have had opportunity to break those generational curses and receive the blessing of Israel.
Instead, they brought the entire curse of Esau into Judaism itself. Their penchant for violence was added to the rebellious instincts of most Judeans in their hatred for Rome and their refusal to submit to the divine judgment as Jeremiah and Daniel had advocated. Both groups were equally "evil figs" (Jer. 24), and so God hired the Roman army to "destroy those murderers and burn up their city" (Matt. 22:7).
I have found no historical mention of any Idumean Jews being converted to Christ in the first century. In fact, Josephus tells us that they were rabidly orthodox in their Judaism and were the prime instigators behind the revolt against Rome.
But thank God, the spread of the Gospel today is being accomplished not by violence but by demonstration of the Spirit.
This is the first part of a series titled "The Great Commission." To view all parts, click the link below.
Dr. Stephen Jones