“What do we know about how the apostles fulfilled the missionary charge of the resurrected Jesus to preach to all nations?” Ensign, Aug. 1975, 22–23
C. Wilfred Griggs, assistant professor of ancient scripture, Brigham Young University We must first note how selective and incomplete the New Testament writings are. The gospels do not, for instance, contain all the teachings and deeds of the Savior (John says, in John 21:25, that there are so many things which Jesus did that the world could not contain a full record of them), and in that sense the gospels are not really biographies of him. The authors simply relate those events and principles that best illustrate or support the testimonies they are presenting.
In the case of the apostolic ministry following Jesus’ ascension, we are greatly indebted to Luke for his record, the Acts of the Apostles. Yet the title is somewhat misleading, for the book of Acts is not a record of all the activities of all the apostles. Acts 1–12 is essentially a report of some of the activities of Peter and John centering around the Jerusalem church, while Acts 13–28 is a general description of Paul’s experiences from the time of his conversion until his two-year imprisonment in Rome. The incompleteness of this record becomes vividly clear to anyone who attempts to place in historical sequence and context Paul’s letters to some of the churches and people of his missionary travels.
Without the assistance of a “book of Acts” for the other apostles, students of the Bible are simply unable to provide a meaningful context in which to place the letters of James, Peter, John, and Jude. We can only guess when they were written and, as in the case of John’s epistles, to whom they were written. There are also epistles mentioned or alluded to in the New Testament of which no trace remains. Note, for example, Paul’s mention of a previous letter to the Corinthians in 1 Cor. 5:9, his reference in Col. 4:16 to a letter written to Laodicea, and his allusion to an earlier letter to the Ephesians in Eph. 3:3. On the basis of these missing letters, who would doubt that there are many other writings and epistles of or about the apostles that simply have not survived to our own time?
There are, in fact, many evidences from archaeological findings, including many purportedly Christian libraries, which testify of a much more widespread Christianity than was previously believed possible in New Testament times. As these evidences become more widely known and critically evaluated, we may better be able to see how the apostles fulfilled their missionary charge.
One should also note that the charge given to the apostles by the Lord was really composed of two parts. In Matt. 28:19 the word translated teach would be more correctly translated make disciples or preach among all nations. This part of the charge has to do with laying a foundation of the first principles and ordinances of the gospel, including faith, repentance, and baptism of water and of the Spirit. The second part of the charge is noted in verse 20 [Matt. 28:20], where the word teaching specifically refers to the further knowledge of the gospel that the apostles imparted to those whom they baptized. The dual nature of this charge is reflected in the missionary program of the restored Church. Missionaries explain the basic principles of the gospel in a few brief discussions, after which an individual is baptized. The new convert is then given a lifelong challenge to grow in knowledge and understanding of the doctrines and principles pertaining to exaltation.