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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
 
Preached At:Providence Canadian Reformed Church
 Hamilton, Ontario
 
Title:Christ commissions his apostles with their missionary calling
Text:Mark 16:15-18 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Mission Work
 
Preached:2013
Added:2013-07-09
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

NOTE:  all songs from the 2010 Book of Praise

Psalm 111
Psalm 32:1,2
Psalm 87
Hymn 84
Psalm 92:1,2,6,7

Scripture reading:  Acts 27:27-28:10
Text:  Mark 16:15-18
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved congregation of Christ Jesus,

Around the globe missionaries are working with zeal to bring the gospel of Christ to the lost.  Zeal – it’s been described as passion on steroids, and most missionaries are passionate to the extreme about what they do.  They’re working in hundreds of cultures, in thousands of cities, in countless languages, all to bring the hope we have in Christ to the unsaved. 

The Canadian Reformed Churches are involved in this great worldwide missionary effort too.  We have two missionaries in Papua New Guinea, Rev. Cornelis Kleyn and Rev. Henry Versteeg.  Not far away from there, on the island of Timor in Indonesia, we have Rev. Edwer Dethan.  Staying in Asia for a moment, our churches support the work of Rev. Frank Dong.  He works with others on the Asian continent as well as with Chinese immigrants in the Vancouver area.  Rev. Jim Witteveen has been doing missionary work in the northern BC city of Prince George.  Of course, we all know about Streetlight and the work that’s been going on there for a good number of years.  Our missionary there has been Rev. Paul Aasman.  Then there’s Brazil too, of course.  Rev. Abram De Graaf has been there for many years in Maceio.  Rev. Julius Van Spronsen and Rev. Ken Wieske have been working in Recife and many other places throughout Brazil.  For a small federation of churches, we have a relatively large number of ministers dedicated to mission work at home and abroad.  That number may increase in the next few years with some churches looking at sending out more missionaries to places like Mexico and southern Manitoba.

A good question to ask would be:  why do we invest all this effort in mission?  On the one hand, we could say that it’s because we care about the lost.  We have been loved deeply by God and therefore we love others and want them to have what we have in Christ.  But we could also say that it’s a matter of thankful and loving obedience to Christ.  He has sent the church out into the world with the message of salvation.  Since we have been saved by grace, we aim to please our Saviour.  That goes for what we do as individual Christians, but also for what we do as a church when it comes to mission.  We do mission because we love Christ and because we want to follow his Word.

This morning we want to look closely at Christ’s last words in the Gospel of Mark.  In these last words, he lays out his will for the apostles and for the church which they would lead.  His last words also then have a bearing on us as the church of Jesus Christ today.  So I preach to you God’s Word and we’ll see how Christ commissions his apostles with their missionary calling. 

We’ll look at: 

1.      The message and manner of their calling

2.      The marvelous signs that would accompany them

In the verses before our text, Christ rebuked the disciples for their unbelief.  They were stubborn and hard-hearted, slow to believe the first witnesses of the resurrection.  Despite that, Christ graciously held on to them as his disciples.  He didn’t abandon them.  Instead, in love he rebuked them. 

Now in our text we’re right before his ascension into heaven.  From the parallel in Matthew, we learn that these words were spoken in Galilee on a mountain.  That means that some time has elapsed between verse 14 and verse 15.  In verse 14, the disciples were eating together at some place soon after the resurrection.  Here in verse 15, the eleven are together with Jesus on a mountain right before he leaves – this is forty days after the resurrection. 

Our Lord Jesus gives them their marching orders.  There’s to be no doubt in their minds as to what needs to happen next.   He’s told them very explicitly.  This is what we call the Great Commission.  It’s found in each of the four gospels in a slightly different form.  Each account of the Great Commission places the accent somewhat differently.  There are no contradictions between these different versions of the Great Commission; rather they complement one another, they fill one another out, and together they give us a clear understanding of what Christ has in mind for the apostles and their missionary calling.  But our focus this morning is not on the Great Commission in general, but on the Great Commission as found in Mark.  Where does Mark place the accent and emphasis?

Over the years many have thought that the accent falls on the first word Jesus speaks in verse 15, “Go.”  They then concluded that the most crucial thing is to get out there and go somewhere else, preferably somewhere that involves a long flight on a wide-body jet.  Aside from the fact that the apostles didn’t fly on wide-body jets, the Greek grammar here doesn’t support this understanding.  There is a command in verse 15, but the command is not “go.”  The command is “preach.”  The going happens along with that, but it’s not the key thing.  The key thing is that the apostles “preach the good news to all creation.”  Let’s look closer at what that involves. 

When Christ says “preach,” he does not mean the same thing as “speak.”  He’s not referring to a casual conversation that one person might have with another.  The word that’s used has an authoritative connotation.  This preaching has an official character.  It’s the message of a herald who has been appointed by an authority figure.  In ancient times, a herald was required to be faithful in delivering the message exactly as it had been given to him by the king.  When this was done, it could be known for certain that a higher authority stood behind the message.  Moreover, heralds were not only appointed for their task, they were also sent – just as the apostles were here in our text.  They were being appointed and sent by Christ to proclaim his message authoritatively.  They were to be his heralds, speaking on his behalf.  Whoever would hear them would be hearing Christ speaking through them.

It’s important to recognize this point because there are many who misunderstand the words of Christ here.  Many read these words and jump to the conclusion that Christ is commissioning all Christians for this work.  Many say that all Christians without distinction have been appointed to preach the good news.  That’s incorrect.  It fails to account for two important features of our text.  One:  Christ was speaking to the eleven apostles.  Two:  Christ uses official and authoritative language; he uses the language of special office.  Elsewhere in the New Testament, preaching is something done by those specially appointed and ordained for that task.  It’s not something done by all Christians without distinction.  No, the Great Commission was not given to all Christians, as if Christ is speaking directly to each individual believer and assigning them this task.  Rather, the Great Commission was given to the apostles first of all, and then, through them to the church.  The church is built on the foundation of the apostles says Ephesians 2:20.  It’s because of that truth that these words are still relevant for us today.  The church still has the Great Commission.  The church still has the responsibility to send out men to authoritatively proclaim the good news.

So what happens now to individual believers in the church who are not special office bearers?  Do they still have a role in spreading the gospel?  To answer that we have to go beyond Mark and what it says in our text.  But to answer that briefly, yes, all Christians are still called to be prophets, confessing the name of Christ.  All Christians are called to be witnesses for Christ with their lips and lives.  No one should think that Mark’s emphasis on the apostles and the church here in our text means that we as individuals can fall back into passivity and not caring about the lost around us.  Furthermore, all of us have a supporting role in the official missionary work of the church too.  We can and should pray for our missionaries.  We can and should encourage our missionaries as well.  When was the last time you sent a note of encouragement to a missionary?  It can be lonely and discouraging work at times and to know that people are praying for you can give strength.  We should want to be an outward looking church and that definitely involves doing what we can to stand behind our missionaries out there on the front lines.                                            

Now as we look further at verse 15, what exactly is the message that the apostles were entrusted with?  Christ sent them out into all the world to preach the good news, to preach the gospel.  But what is “the gospel”?  To answer that, we can start with what Christ says in verse 16, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”  The gospel is a message which must be believed.  The message is about Christ, the Son of God, our Lord and Saviour.  It’s a message which, when believed, leads to salvation.  Now when we see the word “saved,” we should ask, “saved from what?”  And here the answer is clear because of what follows in this verse, “the one who does not believe will be condemned.”  Without Christ, there is condemnation.  Without Christ, there is God’s just wrath against sin experienced consciously in hell forever.  Without Christ, you have made the holy God your enemy.  To be saved from that, one must turn from sin and rest and trust in Jesus Christ and what he has done.  The good news is that there is salvation from the coming wrath in the person and work of Christ.  The good news is that God graciously forgives sinners who throw themselves on Christ alone.  He forgives not just in part, but in full.  He forgives not just past sins, but also present and future sins.  He forgives, not conditional on our future obedience, but unconditionally through Christ’s merits alone.  He graciously gives us the righteousness that we could not attain for ourselves, but that we need so desperately.  He transforms our lives with the power of his Holy Spirit too, renewing us into his image.  All that is part of the message which we each have to believe.  That’s the message we’re called to embrace again this morning.  That’s the message which has to be proclaimed by the church far and wide. 

When that message is proclaimed, when people believe it, they will be baptized.  They will receive the sign and seal of God’s covenant of grace.  Verse 16 could be understood as saying that baptism is necessary for salvation, that it’s a component of the salvation equation, so to speak.  However, that’s not the case.  Baptism is mentioned there as a consequence of faith, not as a requirement for salvation.  You can see that in the way the phrase is structured.  Baptism is mentioned in the first part of the verse.  But in the second part of the verse, it isn’t there.  Christ doesn’t say, the one who is unbaptized will be condemned.  Rather, the one who doesn’t believe is the one condemned.  Baptism is important – for one thing, it brings one visibly into the fellowship of the church.  But it is not essential for salvation – here one could think back to the repentant criminal on the cross.  He believed and was saved, but he wasn’t baptized.  The crucial thing is faith in Christ alone.  That’s the message the apostles were called to preach; that’s the message the church today is still called to proclaim.

But to whom?  The last words of verse 15 answer that question.  It’s comprehensive:  to all creation.  The fact that the apostles are commissioned to preach implies that those who hear are those who can respond.  So when Christ says “all creation,” he means, “all human beings.”  The gospel is a message the church needs to bring to everyone, everyone without exception.  This is a good reminder that the mission of the church is global.  In the past, people thought about mission as something done in a foreign country, far away.  The church’s missionary calling had nothing to do with its own neighbourhood, because we lived in a Christian country.  We don’t live in a Christian country anymore and it’s questionable whether we ever did.  Canada needs the gospel as much as Papua New Guinea or Indonesia or Brazil. 

Moreover, we need to think in multicultural terms now.  Canada is not made up of one or two definable cultures.  It’s made up of many.  Nearly two million people in Toronto speak a language other than English or French at home.  In Vancouver, nearly 750,000 people speak a language other than English or French at home, many of them Punjabi or Cantonese.  These statistics reflect a country-wide phenomenon.  The world has come to Canada.  We have unparalleled opportunities today to bring the gospel to the nations right here in our own country.  We’re only beginning to take advantage of these opportunities.  But brothers and sisters, with Christ’s words in mind, we have to learn to think both globally and locally when it comes to the mission of the church.  This was what the apostles did in their day already.  They came to recognize that the gospel was meant for everyone.  They faithfully brought the message everywhere they could, to all creation.  They started in Jerusalem and Judea, went out to Samaria, and soon enough to the ends of the world as they knew it then.

And as they did all that, there were marvelous signs that accompanied them.  Christ said in verses 17 and 18 that this would happen.  First of all, what were those marvelous signs of which he spoke?  There would be exorcisms.  In the name of Christ, some would cast out demons, bringing deliverance from demonic forces.  There would be speaking in new tongues.  That means that some would speak in languages that they’d never before learned or studied, languages that were new to them.  Some would pick up snakes without consequence.  The implication is that these would be deadly poisonous snakes.  Others would drink poison and would not suffer harm.  Finally, there would be healings.  Some would lay their hands on the sick and they would be healed.

Almost all of these things we read about in the book of Acts.  They happened as Christ said they would.  In Acts 8:7, for instance, we read that many evil spirits were driven out by Philip and many paralytics and cripples were healed.  The speaking in tongues took place at Pentecost in Acts 2 and we read about it happening in Corinth as well.  We read from Acts 28 and there we find that miraculous story of Paul and the poisonous viper that latched on to his hand.  Incredibly he walked away, though the Maltese islanders thought for sure that he would die.  Paul then went to the home of Publius and healed his father by praying and laying his hands on him.

Almost everything described by Jesus took place as he said it would.  Now if you’re sharp, you may have noticed one thing missing in Acts and elsewhere in the New Testament.  We don’t read anywhere of anyone drinking poison and surviving.  This is true.  However, that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.  It could have happened and maybe it just wasn’t recorded in Scripture.  Moreover, there is a story outside of the Bible about Joseph or Justus Barsabbas.  He was one of the two men nominated to take the place of Judas Iscariot amongst the apostles.  Matthias was chosen, but yet Justus Barsabbas was still recognized as a follower of Jesus.  The tradition was that he was one of the seventy sent out by Christ in Luke 10.  Papias, one of the early church fathers, writes that Justus Barsabbas drank poison and survived by the grace of God.

It’s important that we understand all these things in terms of their purpose.  They had the same purpose as the same sorts of things in Jesus’ own ministry.  They were signs.  Signs are meant to point to something.  They’re not significant in and of themselves.  They’re significant because of what they signify, what they point to.  Driving out demons pointed to the power of Christ over Satan.  Speaking in new languages pointed to the power of Christ to gather and unite his church rapidly through effective communication.  It pointed to the overturning of Babel.  But it also pointed the Jews to the fact that they were living in the shadow of coming judgment.  In the Old Testament, hearing new languages was a sign of imminent judgment.  Judgment was coming in 70 AD for the unbelief of the Jews, for their rejection of Christ and the gospel.  These tongues fulfilled a very distinct purpose at that point in the history of redemption.  Picking up snakes pointed to the power of Christ over the natural realm.  One can also think of the role of the serpent with the fall into sin.  The snake was symbolic of destruction and death.  In the minds of the Maltese villagers in Acts 28, the snake was an instrument of cosmic justice – giving Paul what he deserved.  But Christ had power over that viper, just as he has power over sin and death.  The viper has nothing on Christ.  The same thing is signified with poison.  This should bring death, but through Christ there is life and victory.  Christ also brought healing to the sick, showing his power over the human body and his overturning of the curse.  He restores human life to the way that it should be.  These healings were signs of that – they were not healings for the “wow” factor, not healing to astound and amaze or give some entertainment, but healings to point to the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps you’re wondering why we don’t see these things today anymore.  Why shouldn’t we expect missionaries today to have these signs at their disposal?  Brothers and sisters, the answer has to do with the special character of the apostolic period.  These miraculous signs had a distinct purpose in a time when the church was tiny, the gospel was very much unknown, and the Bible was not yet completed.  These signs helped bring rapid growth to the church in the apostolic period.  These signs confirmed the message of the gospel in a time when the New Testament was still being written.  After the apostolic period, these signs fall away.  There is no longer any use for them.  Today we have the complete Bible to confirm the gospel as it’s preached.  People can turn to the Word of God to see that what’s being said is true and certain.  Nevertheless, for Christians there are still signs.  They’re not miraculous, but yet there are signs.  We call them sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  These are divinely-ordained to strengthen our faith.  But we should not look for or expect any signs beyond these.  In our day, the church is commanded to bring the gospel to all the world.  We do not have promised signs to accompany that missionary calling.  But we do have the promise of the Holy Spirit.  He will certainly go with the work of the Church and work in hearts, so that people believe.  The Holy Spirit will bring life to dead sinners so that the elect of Christ are gathered in.

Loved ones, the apostles received a high calling from our Lord and Saviour.  They were to be his ambassadors and heralds, bringing the good news to sinners.  Still today the church has that calling.  It’s good that we always keep this calling front and center, because it really is at the essence of what the church is all about.  When God called Abraham in Genesis 12, he promised to bless all the peoples of the earth through him and his children.  Here in the church, we are the children of Abraham.  God wants to bless all the peoples of the earth through us and do that for his glory.  The church exists for God above all, but because she exists for God, she also exists for the world.  She exists to be a messenger of the glad tidings of salvation in Christ to those who are lost in darkness.  May we always aim to be a church that is eager to “go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation”!  AMEN.




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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