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More on the Apostolic Commission

10 December, 2008

brannansmallIn my last post I explored some of what’s going on in the broader picture behind Jesus’ parable to the disciples, about the disciples, in Matt 13:51-52. Although there are several implications of Jesus’ comparison of his disciples to ‘scribes well trained for the kingdom of heaven’, one of the most important is that they would become his apostles, those whom he commissioned to carry his very words by the power of the Spirit, to build the once-for-all foundation of the church on Christ the cornerstone. And Matthew’s own Gospel is a powerful example of just the kind of well-trained, effective kingdom scribe that Jesus compared him to. But we can take this further and talk about the apostles and the character of their commission more broadly. Our friend Barks commented that I

…should incorporate Acts 13:47, noting particularly how Paul uses Isaiah 49:6 (a clearly messianic portion of Isaiah) as descriptive of his ministry. I think it would add another level to your analysis.

In Acts 13, Paul and Barnabas are preaching quite powerfully to the Jews at Pisidia in Antioch, converting many, but eventually the broader community became jealous because of the great crowds who were coming to hear the preaching, and began contradicting and ridiculing Paul. The key point is that the crowds were mainly Gentiles. So Paul and Barnabas proclaimed that since the Jews were clearly rejecting the good news, they would now ‘turn to the Gentiles’ — and here’s Barks’s point — they did so consciously believing it was a fulfilment of Isaiah 49:6:

I have made you a light to the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.

This is really important for Paul’s understanding of his own apostolic calling and work, because this passage in Isaiah is a Messianic prophecy fulfilled by Christ. Christ himself is the light of the Gentiles, and is himself the one who brings salvation to the ends of the earth, as Luke clearly testifies (Luke 2:32). So how can Paul say that this prophecy is fulfilled in his turning to the Gentiles? Well, precisely because Christ became a light to the Gentiles through the apostles he commissioned to bear the light of his gospel and his person, works and words to the Gentiles. Christ brought salvation to the ends of the earth through the apostlic testimony he commissioned and upheld by the Spirit’s own power and enabling.

I’ll put in an excerpt from an article in the new ESV Study Bible, which I think does a very good job of setting out this apostolic commission and its significance in the context of the trustworthiness and authority of the New Testament:

The Canon of the New Testament

The foundations for a NT canon lie not, as some would assert, in the needs or the practices of the church in the second, third, and fourth centuries a.d., but in the gracious purpose of a self-revealing God whose word carries his own divine authority. Just as new outpourings of divine word-revelation accompanied and followed each major act of redemption in the ancient history of God’s people (the covenant with Adam and Eve, the covenant with Abraham, the redemption from Egypt, the establishment of the monarchy, the exile, and the restoration), so when the promised Messiah came, a new and generous outpouring of divine revelation necessarily ensued (see 2 Tim. 1:8–11; Titus 1:1–3).

The OT Authorization

The prospect of a NT Scripture to stand alongside the OT was anticipated, even authorized, in the OT itself, embedded in the promise of God’s ultimate act of redemption through the Messiah, in faithfulness to his covenant (Jer. 31:31–33; cf. Heb. 8:7–13; 10:16–18). Jesus taught his disciples after his resurrection that “the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms” predicted not only the Messiah’s suffering and resurrection but also that “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:44–48). Prophetic passages such as Isaiah 2:2–3; 49:6; and Psalm 2:8 spoke of a time when the light of God’s grace in redemption would be proclaimed to all nations. It naturally follows that this proclamation would eventuate in a new collection of written Scriptures complementing the books of the old covenant—both from the pattern of God’s redemptive work in the past (mentioned above) and from the actual writing ministry of some of Jesus’ apostles (and their associates) in the accomplishment of their commission.

The Commission of Jesus

God, who spoke in many and various ways in times past, chose to speak in these last days to mankind through his Son (see Heb. 1:1–2, 4). Bringing this saving message to Israel and the nations was a crucial part of the mission of Jesus Christ (Isa. 49:6; Acts 26:23), the Word made flesh (John 1:14). He put this mission into effect through chosen apostles, whom he commissioned to be his authoritative representatives (Matt. 10:40, “whoever receives you receives me”). Their assignment was to “bring to . . . remembrance,” through the work of the Spirit, his words and works (John 14:26; 16:13–14) and to bear witness to Jesus “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8; cf. Matt. 28:19–20; Luke 24:48; John 17:14, 20). In time, the apostolic preaching came to written form in the books of the NT, which now function as “the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles” (2 Pet. 3:2).

So, in sum, this is why Paul can say that whoever preaches another gospel than the one he preached is cursed by God (Gal 1:8, 9). This is a big part of why John made such a big deal about his seeing, hearing and touching Christ with his own eyes, ears and hands — in order that we who hear John’s testimony would have fellowship with who he has fellowship with, God in Christ (1 John 1:1-3). And this is also why the apostolic word of the New Testament is effective, not just a trustworthy account, but the powerful, God-breathed means by which the Spirit accomplishes his redeeming purposes (2 Tim 3:14-4:2; James 1:18; cf. 1 Ptr 1:3).

For much more, see the brief but powerful discussion of these and other related themes in Herman Ridderbos’s Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures, an inexpensive little book I’ve found really helpful.


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