The Great Commission
The primary thrust of the apostolic witness is twofold: Christ’s judgment at the day of the Lord and forgiveness of sins by faith in the Cross (i.e. the first and second comings of Christ). Thus we see the consistent emphasis throughout the NT on justification by faith and the return of Jesus (verses too numerous to cite). This is reflected in Peter’s summation of Acts 1:6-8 and the apostolic commissioning: “He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:42-43) Again, Peter’s synopsis is twofold: the judgment of Christ at the end of the age and the forgiveness of Christ according to what happened at the Cross.
Though the Acts 1 commissioning and the “Great Commission” of Mt. 28:18-20 are different events (one taking place in Galilee and the other in Jerusalem), we must conclude that their content is substantially equivalent. Before his ascension, Jesus gathers his disciples and tells them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (v. 18). This authority is assumed to be in line with the commonly held Jewish eschatological framework (cf. “restore the kingdom to Israel,” Acts 1:6), and thus Jesus assumes this authority to be in relation to the day of the Lord and the judgment of the living and the dead. Moreover, the command to baptize (Mt. 28:19) was universally understood as a rite of forgiveness of sins. And the reference to divine companionship “to the end of the age” (v. 20) clearly assumes the termination of the commission at the day of the Lord. Thus, the discipleship of the nations (v. 18) is simply in line with the rest of the NT witness concerning conformity to the Cross in this age unto the inheritance of eternal life in the age to come.
Astonishingly, concerning Mt. 28:18, there is no reference to the day of the Lord in any of the major modern commentaries (e.g. NICNT, WBC, ICC, NIGTC, BECNT, NAC, EBC, NIVAC, TNTC). I believe this confusion and lack of centrality concerning the day of the Lord has greatly inhibited the church’s ability to carry out the Great Commission. The mission of the church is simple: “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). Like an athlete with two legs, so is the church’s twofold emphasis in its race of faith (cf. 1 Cor. 9:24; Phil. 2:16). If the day of the Lord and the coming of Christ are not central to the church’s proclamation, then it is severely handicapped, racing with one leg, so to speak. Let the church recover her apostolic witness, and let the Holy Spirit be poured out from on high to confirm the message of his coming.