I am confused about the role of preaching and evangelism. I am curious to know whether passages such as Matthew 28:18-20 and Mark 16:15-16 apply to all Christians (past, present, and future) or if they only applied to the apostles and early Christians? I ask this because in the context of both passages Jesus spoke the commandment to preach only to the 11 apostles, and I'm confused as to how this commandment among others that Jesus spoke specifically to certain people, apply to us.
On a related note, how does Mark 16:17-20 about the signs that accompanied the preaching applies to us as well? I've heard that miraculous gifts have ceased, but how do we make sense of the context of Mark 16:15-20 and apply to us today since those signs are not around anymore? Would this mean that passages on belief and baptism do not apply today since they don't involve signs?
"And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." Amen." (Matthew 28:18-20).
You are correct that the immediate context is to the apostles, but notice what they are commanded to do:
- Make disciples of all nations by baptizing them.
- Teach these new disciples to observe all the things commanded of the apostles.
It is the third command that answers your question. Yes, it was to the apostles that Jesus first gave these commands, but one of the commands was to pass it on. That is what Paul told Timothy: "And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (II Timothy 2:2). That is how Christianity is spread, from one Christian to another. The world thinks it is a foolish and inefficient way, but God knows what He is doing. "For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe" (I Corinthians 1:21).
As an example, Jesus told his apostles shortly before his death, "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:34-35). This command was given directly to the apostles, but even here there is a hint that it has a broader application because he said that by love everyone will know they are his disciples. "Disciple" isn't necessarily limited to the apostles. And later we see that this conclusion is correct because John, one of the apostles present, told us, "For this is the message that you heard from the beginning, that we should love one another" (I John 3:11). John said that the command given by Jesus to apostles includes those who are reading his letter.
Jesus' command in Matthew 28:18-20 also tells us that it wasn't limited to just the apostles because Jesus promised, "lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." The duration of this command was not limited to the lifespan of the apostles but covers you and me as well.
The parallel account in Mark 16:15-16 contains the same commands, though expressed slightly different. "And He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature" (Mark 16:15). The commands that Jesus gave the apostles to go into all the world and to preach the gospel to everyone is passed on to us as indicated in Matthew 28:20 and supported by Paul's statement, "How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: 'How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, Who bring glad tidings of good things!' But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, 'Lord, who has believed our report?' So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. But I say, have they not heard? Yes indeed: 'Their sound has gone out to all the earth, And their words to the ends of the world'" (Romans 10:14-18). This was not a command limited to only the apostles.
Mark 16:16 tells us the effect of that teaching, that it would not be equally successful. "He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned." Again, Paul made the same point in Romans 10 and earlier in Romans 6.
Mark 16:17-18 is different. This is not a command, this is something promised. "And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover." This promise was not limited to just the apostles, it was promised to those who believed. I can't command you to drink poison and live. I can't command you to speak in other languages. But Jesus could promise these gifts to his believers.
But read it carefully and notice that the promise doesn't indicate how long it would last. People have this tendency to make assumptions when no information is given -- usually in support of their existing beliefs. Yet Paul does tell us clearly that the miraculous signs were not permanent. "Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things" (I Corinthians 13:8-10). Paul tells us the miracles were temporary measures put in place until maturity was reached until "the perfect" had come. "The perfect" refers to a thing and since James calls God's word, "the perfect law of liberty" (James 1:21), we understand that Paul is stating that the miracles were in place until God's word could be completely delivered.
Nor does Jesus' promise indicate how the gifts were going to be given. It isn't until we read in Acts, "And when Simon saw that through the laying on of the apostles' hands the Holy Spirit was given" (Acts 8:18), do we realize that the giving of the gift wasn't universal. Only the apostles had been given the right to pass the gift on. As we search the New Testament, we find no example of others imparting the gifts of the Spirit beyond God directly and the apostles. Since the apostles are no longer with us, the means of receiving the miraculous gifts are also no longer with us.