Christ promised in his prayer to the Father in John 17 that he would give his disciples—and, by extension, the church they would establish—a mission; he prayed, “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (Jn 17:18). After his resurrection, he said something similar to his disciples in John 21:21: “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you. Sending implies authority. The Father sent the Son into the world, and so Jesus’s mission was to obey what his Father had commanded him to do. In John 4:34, Jesus said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.” In John 5:30 he said, “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.” In John 6:38 he said, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.” Jesus was on earth to do what the Father commanded him. And remember, in some way that I don’t pretend to understand, Jesus did not want to go to the cross; he asked the Father to take that cup away from him. But at the end of the day he said, “Not my will, but yours be done.”
And in a parallel way, Jesus sent his disciples, and sending implies authority. The fact that he sent them means they must obey what he commands them to do.
This is why Jesus begins his final address to his disciples in Matthew 28:18 this way:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
He is about to give them their commission, and he does so on the basis of his authority over them. This authority is rooted in his divinity to be sure, but it is actually even more than that. Remember what Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection accomplished: Jesus the Son of Man, the Second Adam, succeeded in being the perfect king/priest where Adam had failed. This earned him the right to rule, not just the right to rule as God over his universal kingdom—the Son of God always had that right; Jesus’s obedience to his Father earned him the right to rule as the Son of Man over the redemptive kingdom. The term in Matthew 28:18 translated “authority” means “the right to rule.” Because Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross, . . . God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:8–11).
This is what David prophesied in Psalm 110 when he said, “The Lord says to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” Right after Matthew 28:20, Jesus ascended into heaven, where he is now seated at the right hand of the Father, having earned the right to rule over all. That right to rule over all things will not be fully realized until after all things are put in subjection under his feet. Hebrews 2:8–9 states,
At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. 9 But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
But the fact that Christ has earned the right to rule through his death and resurrection means that he does have special authority particularly over citizens of the redemptive kingdom. Christ rules the church. Ephesians 2:20 says that Christ is the church’s cornerstone. Christ sent his disciples with a commission because he has authority over his redeemed people, the church.
It is important to recognize at this point that Jesus’s authority as the Redeemer King over his church is different than his authority as Sovereign King over all things. The triune God has always and will always have authority as Sovereign over all things. Jesus Christ’s unique rule as Redeemer King is at present only true for people he has redeemed. But that is a critical point to remember: we who are redeemed—Christ’s church—must obey what he has commanded us to do as his church. To do less than what he has commanded, or to do more than what he has commanded, is a failure to submit to his redemptive authority over us.
So as Christ’s church, how do we know what he wants us to do? Well, this is why we must notice to whom Jesus is giving this commission—he is commissioning his eleven disciples (and later the twelfth—Paul), giving them derivative authority over the church. Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of the church, Paul says in Ephesians 2, but the apostles and prophets are the foundation (v. 20). The apostles to which Paul refers are these eleven plus Paul, who were called by Christ himself, taught by Christ himself, personally witnessed Christ risen from the dead, were given direct revelation from God, and were affirmed by God through signs and wonders. These twelve, a few of which penned the New Testament epistles, were the foundation of the church; in other words, Christ rules his church through his apostles. To obey the apostles is to obey Christ, and to ignore them is to ignore their Master.
The apostles have authority over the church, not because they were particularly special or wise, but rather because Christ spoke through them. Christ had promised them that he would bring his words to their remembrance (Jn 14:26) through the Spirit’s ministry, who would guide them into truth (Jn 16:13). Paul said in Galatians 1:11, “For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel”—it is Christ’s gospel. In 1 Corinthians 11, when giving the church instructions about how to observe the Lord’s Supper, Paul says, “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you.”
New Testament Authority
Those apostles received teaching from Jesus Christ himself, and then they wrote down their authoritative teaching “as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:21), which became the New Testament Scriptures that Paul would describe as literally “breathed out by God” (2 Tim 3:16). This is why Paul could say in 1 Thessalonians 2:13 that what he wrote to the churches is the Word of God. In 1 Corinthians 14:37–38, Paul states, “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.” Since the apostles are representatives of Jesus Christ himself, their inspired writings carry his authority.
This is one reason, by the way, I do not care for Bible editions that put Jesus’s words in red letters, as if Jesus’s words are more special or carry more authoritative weight then the black words. No, all the words of Scripture are breathed out by God, and the words written by prophets and apostles carry just as much weight as those spoken by Jesus because actually, all the words of Scripture are God’s words.
So why is this important when thinking about our responsibilities as Christ’s church? When Jesus says, “All authority has been given to me,” that authority is exercised through his apostles, and specifically through what they wrote in the pages of the New Testament. Furthermore, since Jesus affirmed his authority as the basis for the commission he was about to give his apostles as the foundation of the church, what those apostles wrote is the only authoritative instruction concerning how the gathered church is supposed to operate. As part of Christ’s redemptive kingdom, gathered churches must do what Christ commands us to do, and we must not add anything to what Christ commanded us to do.
God has revealed himself generally to all people through what he has made: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps 19:1). This is God’s natural revelation given to all people:
For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (Rom 1:20)
This general revelation of God is the basis for all aspects of God’s common kingdom. But when it comes to God’s redemptive kingdom—when it comes to a saving knowledge of Christ and how we should operate when we gather together as Christ’s church, God’s general revelation is insufficient. Rather, it is God’s special revelation—his inspired Word—that governs what we do specifically as the redeemed people of God.
And even more specifically, though it is true that the Old Testament is absolutely inspired, authoritative, and profitable for us, the New Testament, especially the epistles, are the specific apostolic instruction that Christ has given to us as the most focused authority for what we do as churches. This is the nature of God’s progressive revelation. Hebrews 1:1–2 succinctly summarize this important doctrine:
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.
All Scripture is inspired, authoritative, profitable, and sufficient, but not all in the same way. For example, are the Mosaic dietary restrictions profitable? Sure, but not in the same way as Paul’s discussion of dietary restrictions in Colossians 2. This is because God’s working out of his sovereign plan to establish his kingdom on earth is progressive, and thus the revelation he gave us in each successive administration of his plan is also progressive.
The supreme authority for what the New Testament church is and how we are supposed to conduct ourselves in this stage in the outworking of God’s plan must come from the New Testament, particularly the epistles. Edward Hiscox says it this way:
The New Testament is the constitution of Christianity, the charter of the Christian Church, the only authoritative code of ecclesiastical law, and the warrant and justification of all Christian institutions.1Edward T. Hiscox, The New Directory for Baptist Churches (Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 1894), 11.
Furthermore, we must also remember that not all of the commands given even in the New Testament are for gathered churches; some commands are given to churches “when you come together,” and other commands are given to individuals, such as “husbands, love your wives.” And so it is very important that we carefully consider the central mission that Christ has given through his apostles for gathered New Testament churches.
|Edward T. Hiscox, The New Directory for Baptist Churches (Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 1894), 11.