After His resurrection, the Apostles record at least 12 separate occasions where Jesus appeared to His Apostles and different disciples in small groups, and at one occasion to a crowd of over 500 people. During this time, He ate with them, taught them, encouraged them and prayed with them.
On the 40th day, Luke tells us that He gathered His Apostles and took them for a walk (Luke 24:50; Acts 1:9-11). They left Jerusalem and headed towards Bethany on the same road that goes through the Mount of Olives where He had prayed on the night before His Passion. Luke mentions that they had gone about a Sabbath day's distance (Jews were only allowed to walk 2000 paces on the Sabbath day) which would put them where the road branches out in two different directions, one side to Jericho and the other to Bethany.
As they walked and talked, He reminded them to stay in Jerusalem until they received power from the Holy Spirit. He told them that after they had received this power they were to become witnesses of everything that they had seen and heard, and tell it to all the world: His life, His miracles, His teachings, His death and His resurrection.
He then stopped walking, faced them and lifted up His hands; He prayed a blessing upon them, and as they listened to His prayer, He began to rise up into the sky until He was taken completely into the clouds out of their sight. There was something very different about this departure. Every other time in the last 40 days, He had merely appeared and then disappeared. This time, however, He visibly ascended into the sky until they could see Him no longer.
Luke tells us (Acts 1:10-11) that as they looked, two men in white (angels?) told them to return to Jerusalem and wait for the power promised by Jesus who would one day return from the heavens in the same way that He had ascended.
10And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was going, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them.11They also said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven."
- Acts 1:10-11
They went away amazed and while they waited ten more days in Jerusalem for the power of the Holy Spirit to descend upon them, they had time to ponder the incredible final command that He had given during His last few moments with them.
His Last Command
Both Matthew and Mark record different occasions when Jesus gave His Apostles their final instructions.
16But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated.17When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful.18And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.19Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,20teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age."
- Matthew 28:16-20
16He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.17These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues;18they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover."
- Mark 16:16-18
Basically, the command could be broken down into three parts:
- They were to tell the good news of Jesus who died to pay for the sins of all men and rose from the dead to prove His divinity, to every person in the world.
- They were to baptize (immerse in water) those who believed their witness about Jesus.
- They were to teach the converts to know and obey everything that Jesus commanded so that they would become faithful disciples as well.
This command and its execution was critical because in carrying it out, the Apostles would create a turning point for mankind in its relationship with God.
The Three Things That Changed
When they began preaching the gospel, baptizing repentant believers and teaching them the way and the words of Christ, three things happened that had never taken place before. For the first time in the history of mankind:
1. There was Absolute Exclusivity in Religion
Until this time, religion was very much a cultural or tribal thing. Each country had its religion and gods, and when countries merged through wars and alliances, so did their gods and religions. There was strength in numbers and so the more "gods" you had, the better off you were.
Jesus told them to preach only Him. "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given unto Me." (Matthew 28:18)
Peter boldly declared this fact to the religious leaders of his day:
And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.
- Acts 4:12
This is the reason that the Apostles were tortured and killed, not that they preached about a mere religion (they had thousands of gods and religions in their day) they were martyred because they dared to say that Jesus Christ was the only way a person could come to God.
Nothing has changed today. People may not like it, may disagree with it, or even reject it, but no one can deny that Jesus Christ demands exclusive loyalty to Himself and that the Bible teaches that a person cannot be saved from hell by any other person or religion. People still hate this idea and anyone who preaches it.
In our society, we are at the point in history where only two concepts in religion remain: one is inclusive which is represented by those who espouse religious pluralism. This concept includes as valid all disciplines and religions for the common good. Most churches and religions are going in this direction as well as most educational systems. The other concept of religion is exclusivity, which is represented by New Testament Christianity. It declares that there is only one way: Jesus Christ.
After His resurrection, Jesus commanded His Apostles to preach that He and only He could save men to the exclusion of every other god or religion, philosophy or prophet. Much tension and conflict concerning religion throughout history has been caused by Christianity's demand for exclusivity, and will continue until He returns to vindicate those who believe and depend on Him.
This is a hard idea to accept, especially in the U.S.A. where we pride ourselves on being tolerant of every religion and point of view. We must remember, however, that salvation is not based on democracy but on the blood of Jesus shed on the cross and His subsequent resurrection. This makes Him the final arbiter in matters of religion, especially on the question of personal salvation.
2. There was a Final Solution to Life's Major Problems - Sin and Death
In Mark 16:15, Jesus commands the Apostles to go preach the good news to all nations.
What is the good news? Not that "only" Jesus is Lord of all. Not that people could now go to church and pray and read their Bibles. These are good things but not the good news.
The good news was that God had successfully dealt with man's two oldest problem: sin and death.
Until Jesus, there was no solution to:
- Sin: People kept sinning, and even when they knew what was right or wrong they still did not have the ability to consistently do what was right, even if they wanted to. It is the same today; we continue to sin even when we don't want to.
- Death: No matter how great, strong or holy the people were, they still died. And no one knew for sure what happened afterwards. There were many rituals and theories, but death remained the terrible mystery and destiny of every person. Things have not changed today, even with modern medicine's many advancements, everyone still dies at some point.
3000 years ago the psalmist said that the average lifespan of man was about 80 years and this has not changed much to this day (average life-span is 79.5 years, Fortune Magazine).
As for the days of our life, they contain seventy years,
Or if due to strength, eighty years,
Yet their pride is but labor and sorrow;
For soon it is gone and we fly away.
- Psalm 90:10
However, in Acts 2:38, Peter announces the good news, and the heart of this good news is the solution to the problem of sin:
Peter said to them, "Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
- Acts 2:38
- Forgiveness: By His death on the cross, Jesus has paid the moral debt for man's sins. Because of this, God can now offer all men forgiveness for sin. The final solution to man's imperfections, to his mistakes and to his disobedience is God's loving forgiveness. And with that forgiveness comes freedom from guilt, freedom from fear, freedom from the need to perfect self by self and freedom from condemnation to a joyful and peaceful conscience before God. In addition to this, the Holy Spirit gives the disciple of Christ the power to overcome sin.
13for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.14For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.
- Romans 8:13-14
In John 6:39-40, Jesus clearly announces the final solution to the problem of death which every man had to suffer:
39This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day.40For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day."
- Resurrection: Man could now see that death was real, but not final, there was life after death, even eternal life.
In His final command, a resurrected man is telling His disciples to go and tell the entire world how God will forgive their sins and give them resurrection and eternal life after death. This was a message never heard or even imagined before!
This was a message that offered a real solution to man's two greatest problems: sin and death. Forgiveness for sin and resurrection from death, both through Jesus Christ.
Now, that is "good news" for a guilty sinner who is condemned to die!
3. The Entire World was Made to Choose
The problems of sin and death were solved by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus' appearance after His death confirmed His divine nature, His complete authority and His claim to exclusive loyalty. Jesus now sends out His Apostles to confront the world with these facts and force them to choose, before He returns one last time to judge all men.
Mark writes very plainly concerning the choice:
He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.
- Mark 16:16
The entire issue of life and death is reduced to one choice. Those who believe and are baptized will be saved (meaning that forgiveness, resurrection and eternal life belong to the one who believes and is baptized - immersed in water). Those who disbelieve (and consequently refuse baptism) will be condemned (found guilty of sin and punished to an eternity suffering in hell away from God).
- Is exclusive, it's one or another.
- Is terrifying when considering the options.
- Attacks my privacy and sense of independence.
- Is demanding, urgent and offensive because it judges me.
- Weighs a million tons on my conscience until I answer it.
- Makes me angry because now that I know what the choice is, I want to say, "Why do you make me choose? Being neutral is more comfortable."
Through the gospel, God brings us face to face with reality. For the first time in history men could come to the edge, look into eternity and face the incredible responsibility of choosing to live or die. For most, pride and attachment to sin cause them to actually throw away the opportunity to live forever in exchange for the momentary sinful pleasures of this world.
But Luke tells us of the thousands who, after being given the choice, gladly responded to God's gracious offer of forgiveness and life after death (Acts 2:37-41).
So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls.
- Acts 2:41
Jesus' final command to tell the world about God's solution to sin and death through His death and resurrection was truly a turning point in the history of mankind:
- With it God established Jesus as the only Lord and Savior - no one could please God or come to God except through Him.
- With it He also revealed God's solution to sin and death - forgiveness and a promise of resurrection.
- With it He also presented a clear choice to all men - believe in Him and be baptized for salvation or perish in your sins. The choice was painfully clear and simple.
That final command was first preached by the Apostles and then handed on to every generation of Christians to present to their society. It also needs to be presented and passed on by the present generation until Jesus returns. It is no different for our generation - the final command stands before us in all its urgency and terror, promise and glory.
Every one of us must make a choice concerning our eternal destiny based on these words of Jesus: "Those who believe and are baptized will be saved..."