THE FIFTH COMMISSION
19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
— John 20:19-23, ESV
When Christians are asked to quote “The Great Commission,” our minds typically take us to the close of Matthew’s Gospel: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (ref. Matthew 28:19-20). However, this is actually one of five such commissioning texts found in the first five books of the New Testament, and all of them are great.
The Gospel of Mark ends with a great commission (though admittedly it is part of an ending some scholars find spurious): “And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (ref. Mark 16:15-16).
Luke, who contributed a Gospel and a companion volume, the book of Acts, adds a great commission passage in both of his books: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things” (ref. Luke 24:46-48); and, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (ref. Acts 1:8).
John, who wrote last, gives us the fifth commission, added in typical Johannine fashion, with a fifth dimension, a deeper and broader perspective on the commandment to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with the world. It establishes a solid foundation, then pours in spiritual formation, so that any believer in Christ can share the gospel with family, friends, neighbors, and the people of the world.
The Foundation of Peace
Before your beautiful feet (ref. Isaiah 52:7; Romans 10:15) can take the good news of Jesus to a family member, friend, or neighbor, you must make sure they are planted on a firm foundation. That foundation, in the words of the Apostle Paul, is “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (ref. Romans 5:1). This is a peace only Christians can know, by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, and we enjoy it eternally. But, sometimes earthly pressures or our own mistakes can cause us for forget, fear, or otherwise forego our peace.
The first followers of Jesus lacked the assurance of peace in this moment. The text tells us they suffered from “fear of the Jews,” a quite rational fear of what the perpetrators of the crucifixion of Christ might do to His followers. And, though it is not explicit in the text, I think they were afraid of Jesus, too.
Remember what has transpired before the terror of the crucifixion and the aftershock of the resurrection. Simon Peter had denied the Lord, three times. The other disciples had abandoned the Lord. One disciple, Thomas, was still awol (though he will return in the following paragraph, set on the following Sunday). Only John, our author, had no reason to hang his head in shame when facing Jesus once again.
Jesus tamed their fears and shred their shame with two words (four in the ESV). “Eirene umin,” it is written in Greek. “Shlomo alachu,” Jesus may have spoken in Aramaic, or maybe He used the Hebrew, “Shalom alekum,” which means of course, “peace be with you.” It is the same phrase Joseph used to address his brothers in Genesis 43:23. They had done him wrong. He had risen to the right hands of the greatest worldly power. They were afraid of him, but Joseph loved, forgave, and restored his brothers.
Some Christians fear they cannot be an effective witness for Christ because of some failure or inadequacy on their part. Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” God is your Father and Friend. Jesus is your Savior and Lord. The Holy Spirit, of which Jesus will have more to say in this text, is inside you to empower you. If you have been saved by grace, then grace has pardoned you of all of your sins, so now offer that same grace to others. If you have faith in Christ, it is a gift form God, a gift that keeps on giving when you pass the peace that comes through faith to others.
The Formation of a Spiritual Life
While all Christians enjoy peace with God through faith in Jesus Christ, some Christians are better at passing the peace, at sharing the faith, than others. Wouldn’t you like to be more, rather than less, effective at obeying the great commissions and being used of God to bring others to Christ? The secret John reveals is sometimes called spiritual formation, which is forged with a double edged sword: Christ-likeness and Spirit-fullness.
To become a Christian by grace through faith is to become like Christ, but the latter takes work. This part of the fifth commission, “As the Father has sent Me, so I am sending you,” sets the stage. Both verbs “sent,” which pertains to Christ, and “sending,” which pertains to Christians, speak grammatically of persistent, ongoing activity, not some isolated incident. In other words, effective evangelism begins not with learning a few verses or a slick sales pitch to spring on people, but with carefully examining the holistic life of Christ and following Him fully.
What did the Father send the Son to do? Jesus was first a faithful son, a dutiful brother, a faithful friend. He gave Himself persistently to prayer, to a special relationship with God’s word, to regular public worship. He approached everybody with love, spoke with honesty and integrity, helped people in practical ways, and never failed to offer a simple invitation, “Follow Me.” Jesus had no sales pitch, no cookie-cutter methods, but simply lived His life as God incarnate, offered His life as a ransom for many, took it up again, then told His followers “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”
To fulfill the great commission we must dedicate ourselves to the Christ-like life. We must keep the spiritual disciples of prayer, Scripture, and public worship. We should be loving and kind to all, beginning with those in our household of faith, then reaching out to others who have no faith, or evidence thereof. We must be simple but persistent in inviting people to our homes, to our home church, to experience the word of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ, to consider the God-man who came to earth, gave His life, took it up again, and bids all to follow Him.
Christ-likeness will catch people for Christ, beginning in your own household, spreading out to your circle of friends, and impact people all over the world. But you must also have something else, Spirit-fullness. In giving this commission to His disciples, Jesus peculiarly “breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” The grammar is once again instructive, speaking of a past action with ongoing and permanent consequences.
God chooses Christians, Christ redeems Christians, but it is the Holy Spirit who calls, convicts, regenerates, and empowers a Christian. The Holy Spirit is God’s gift of Himself, living inside of you. As a Christian, however, your renewed free will (free to willingly obey God) fights with your persistent depravity (selfishness and sin). You make choices constantly, to flow with the Spirit of God in you or gratify your flesh with sinful desires, to do what God spiritually commands you to do or to do what you selfishly want to do. This is what separates good Christians, those full of the Holy Spirit, from those who are full of something else.
The Focus on the Simple Gospel Message
The gospel is not simple, by any means, it is supernatural, sensational, spiritual. But the gospel message is a simple, short story. It is not your story, it is Jesus’ story. Jesus lived, Jesus died, Jesus rose again, Jesus lives forever, along with those who repent and believe in Him.
In commissioning the first disciples, Jesus “showed them His hands and His side.” It proved who He is, the one who died on the cross and rose again on the third day. It reminded them of His mission, to be the lamb of God, to offer Himself as a sacrifice for sinners, to pay the price to save God’s people. It demonstrated the simple gospel message.
“Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.” “Glad” is a tame translation in the ESV. “Rejoiced exceedingly” is the more often used English equivalent. Peace flooded their souls. Fear flew out the window. Because of the gospel, and their faith in it, they were ready for anything.
Anything became their everything. They gathered for simple, Christ-centered worship on the Lord’s Day, then they went out and witnessed for the Lord every day. They did not need big screens, smoke machines, multi-media, and hip music to win people to worship Jesus. The did not offer elaborate programs or seminars to teach people to witness. They lived, and preached, that Jesus lived, died, rose again, and lives forever, along with those who follow Him. And, others began to follow.
The Final Outcome
People must be told that only through the message of the fledgling Christian church, only through the gospel of Jesus Christ, can you find forgiveness of sins, peace with God, and purpose in life. Therefore, this fifth commission should be our purpose in life.
People will not find forgiveness of sin if they do not know what sin is. This is the job of the church, and every Christian member, to take a stand on sin as anything and everything that is contrary to the will and word of Almighty God. The Bible is God’s word and the church is the protector, purveyor, and proclaimer of God’s word and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Both emphasize the reality of sins and offer forgiveness of sins.
Peace with God is God’s to give, and He gives it through His gospel and His gospel church. Accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, baptism and participation in a local church, and engaging in a life of Christ-likeness and Spirit-fullness, this is the pathway of peace.
People need forgiveness, peace with God, and purpose in life. There is no greater purpose than the one revealed in this fifth commission, but we Christians must embrace it so that others around us will come to Christ. Preaching the gospel is not just for preachers. It is for every child of God. Besides, people listen to ordinary Christians a lot faster than they do ordained preachers. So hear and heed the word of God in the fifth commission. Stand on your foundation. Walk with God. Invite others to follow the crucified and resurrected Christ, all the way to Heaven.