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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Commission Ambition: Teach All Nations

Matthew 28:18-20 presents us with the "Great Commission," wherein Jesus declares the universal authority He has been granted in His newly exalted incarnate state. As the victorious Messiah in His post-Calvary resurrection life, soon to ascend to the right hand of power in heaven, He declares that He has been given "all authority in heaven and earth" and on that basis He commands His disciples to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Triune God, and teaching them to observe all of His commandments. Finally, at the end of the gospel account, Jesus promises His personal presence with His people until the end of the age.

Many things have been written about this passage, and appropriately so, because of its clarity about the New Covenant Church's agenda--its central mission in the world until the return of Christ.

Among insights that have been offered by various Christian thinkers and writers, it has been pointed out in various ways:

1) Jesus mentioning His new exalted Messianic authority at the beginning, and presence with His people at the end of the passage, ground His Great Commission commandments and empower His disciples to go about obeying and fulfilling them

2) There is a textually-based and otherwise obvious necessity for the Church to go to all the nations to which we must in order to fulfill the Great Commission

3) "Nations" should not be understood so much as "political states" but as various "cultural/linguistic people groups"

4) "Great Commission"-based missions should involve more than mere evangelization, and should involve discipleship. We seek to be used of God to create mature, committed disciples of Christ, not mere converts.

5) Baptism is in the "name" (singular) of the "Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" (persons of the Trinity), showing the Triune nature of the God of Jesus Christ and of His Church.

6) Baptism is an integral part of Christian discipleship, and while salvation in Christ is not so inseparably annexed to the physical rite with water that no one can ever be saved apart from it, baptism is in no sense "optional" for Christian believers. The New Testament writers thought in terms of the unity of the various aspects of the experience and expression of Christian conversion (regeneration, conviction of sin, repentance, faith, baptism, initial confession of sin, confession of Christ as Lord, justification, definitive sanctification, etc.), and while they teach that faith is the sole instrument through which justifying divine grace comes, the fact remains that they really have no covenantal category for "unbaptized Christians."

7) The teaching commanded in the Great Commission is not limited to teaching new disciples what Jesus' commandments are, nor is it even limited to teaching them how to obey them, but even extends as far as the radically Spirit-dependent task of actually teaching them to observe (obey) the commandments. We must become instruments in the hands of the Redeemer which He uses to actually bring about heart change in the power of the Spirit by the Word and all the other gospel-centered, New Covenant means of grace.

I would be surprised if I found out that what I want to add here has never been said before by others of similar persuasion, but as even an apostle once apparently thought, repetition of some things is no trouble for the writer, and is safe for the reader.

I believe at least three factors have contributed to an under-interpretation of the scope of the Great Commission, or at least to a lack of expectation in the scope of its fulfillment in world history.

First, the biblical theme of the "remnant" has been misapplied by many theologians and preachers who proclaim that there will only ever be a small number of people who are saved by Christ from most "nations" of people. This is a misapplication because the Bible nowhere, as far as I know, speaks of a mere "remnant" of the nations coming to know the Lord during the New Covenant era. It's not impossible for a concept to be present while the usual word denoting the concept is absent; still, I find it to be a salient point that, at least in the NASB translation, the only two references to a "remnant" in the New Testament have to do with unbelieving ethnic Israel. In the KJV translation of the New Testament, there are several other occurrences of the English word "remnant," but none of them are references to a small number of saved people from among nations which remain largely pagan.

There are passages which speak of God's electing particularity in redemption and its application, like Romans 8-9, Ephesians 1, etc., and passages like Revelation 5:9 which speaks of how Christ purchased with His blood men from (out of) every tribe, tongue, people, and nation (ek pasēs phulēs kai glōssēs kai laou kai ethnous). These verses, however, do not even address the issue of proportion. They do not tell us whether a majority or a minority of people within a given "nation" will be saved--whether we speak of "panhistorical" proportion or limit our discussion to the expected proportion for the latter times of the New Covenant administration.

Some people may also point to Jesus' statement in Matthew 7:13-14 about the narrow and wide gates. Many people enter through the wide gate which leads to destruction, according to Jesus, and few find their way through the narrow gate unto life. However, it is arguably best to read this as having application to Jesus' immediate historical context of apostate national Israel.

More should be said about these passages, and perhaps many others could be discussed, but we should also look briefly at one piece of the positive case for the New Testament expectation of a great multitude of redeemed (over against a mere remnant from the nations of the earth). The book of Revelation itself, in chapters 7 and 19 use just these words of the redeemed saints in heaven, according to John's vision. In fact, 7:9 mentions the fact that the "great multitude" of people from all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues is a multitude which no one could count!

The New Covenant is all about renewal, the greater outpouring of the Spirit, the salvation of all the nations, and the beginning of the New Creation. Not all of Old Covenant Israel was true Israel (Romans 9:6), and there was a mere remnant of faithful covenant believers all the way until the First Advent of the Messiah. With the ratification of the New Covenant on the basis of Christ's work, however, and with the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost in connection with Christ's new resurrection-ascension life, the main plan of God in the world is to expand His kingdom by adding more and more and more people to His Church from all the nations, until entire nations are coming to Mount Zion to seek instruction from the Lord:

"Many nations will come and say,
'Come and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD
And to the house of the God of Jacob,
That He may teach us about His ways
And that we may walk in His paths.'
For from Zion will go forth the law,
Even the word of the LORD from Jerusalem." (Micah 4:2)

"Now it will come about that
In the last days
The mountain of the house of the LORD
Will be established as the chief of the mountains,
And will be raised above the hills;
And all the nations will stream to it.
And many peoples will come and say,
'Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
To the house of the God of Jacob;
That He may teach us concerning His ways
And that we may walk in His paths.'
For the law will go forth from Zion
And the word of the LORD from Jerusalem." (Isaiah 2:2-3)

Yes, there is still a mere remnant of unbelieving ethnic Israel today, but even that will change one day, and will result in life from the dead and the salvation of the world at large (Romans 11), when "all Israel" is saved.

The second contributing factor, which is not disconnected from the above common misunderstandings of Scripture, has to do with popular modern translations of the Great Commission. The KJV and Young's Literal translation give a better translation of Matthew 28:19a than the NASB, ESV, NIV, or even the NKJV. The reason I say this is because the popular modern translations (which I mostly use) utilize the unnecessarily ambiguous prepositional phrase "of all [the] nations." The phrase is ambiguous because it could be interpreted (and I'm afraid often is interpreted) to mean merely "make disciples from every nation."

The simple fact is that the Greek confirms the stronger interpretation of the phrase. "Make disciples of all [the] nations" (mathēteusate panta ta ethnē) has direct object nouns in the accusative case and should be understood to mean what the KJV and Young's Literal translation actually say, either: simply "teach all nations" (KJV) or "disciple all the nations" (Young's).

Jesus Christ explicitly commands His Church, on the basis of His heaven-and-earth Messianic authority, and with the promise of His powerful abiding presence with His people, to turn all "nations" (ethnē) into baptized, obedient disciples.

The final factor which I will not say much about is the prevalence of futuristic eschatology (often couched in a dispensational overall hermeneutic) with regard to the Great Tribulation of Matthew 24 and of Revelation (whether it's futurism mixed with some kind of historicism or idealism in interpreting New Testament prophecy). If people didn't reject orthodox (partial) preterism out of hand as often as they do when they come to the Olivet Discourse and other related passages (or if more people were exposed to the view in the first place), they would be more inclined to agree with the optimistic view I believe the Bible presents concerning the fate of the nations before Christ's Second Advent.

And it is my firm conviction that Jesus Christ reigns from heaven today as the conquering Messianic King, as Great David's Greater Son, and that He will not settle for a remnant from each nation. As Psalm 2:8 says, God has promised His Son the Messiah (and His Bride the Church by extension) that upon His request, God would grant the nations (in toto!) to Him as His inheritance. He will reign at God's right hand until He has put all His enemies under His feet, and then the end will come (1st Corinthians 15:24-25).

If we understand the Great Commission in this way--and I see no biblical reason not to, and many biblical reasons to be inclined to--then two implications immediately follow. One is that no view which fails to expect the conversion to Christ of every people group at large before His Second Advent can say that the Great Commission will be truly "fulfilled." The adherent of another view cannot redefine the Great Commission, but must necessarily say that despite Christ's Messianic authority given in His resurrection and ascension, and despite His powerful presence with His people through the New-Covenant-faith-and-obedience-effecting Spirit, the Great Commission will be a failure. I don't see this even hinted at in Scripture. The second implication is that the Church should be bold, prayerful, and greatly expectant in its missionary efforts. It should not settle for mere "corners" of influence among every people group, but it should long for and press on toward overwhelming gospel influence everywhere. God will bless the Church's efforts made in confident faith in His saving power as she boldly proclaims Christ and humbly imitates His self-sacrificial service in love for neighbor far and near.

By God's appointed means (spiritual arms alone), He will continue to apply Christ's defeat of Satan, sin, and death and pour out grace on the nations more and more through the Church's instrumental efforts, until the glorious vision of Isaiah 65's pre-consummate "new creation" comes about--until all things (not every single individual, but nonetheless whole nations) are indeed reconciled to Himself (2nd Corinthians 5).

Like our personal salvation, the world's salvation is fully accomplished in principle, has begun definitively, is progressing, and will be complete at the Day of Christ. We do not have to wait until the Last Day to begin to experience Isaiah 2 on this earth:

"He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore." (Isaiah 2:4)

Let there be reformation and revival in the Western Church, so we can join together with brothers and sisters across the world once again who are prospering spiritually more than us in many ways, to press on and lay hold of our worldwide inheritance (Romans 4:13), laying down our lives for the kingdom!

"O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the Lord." (Isaiah 2:5)

"Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, 'The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.'" (Revelation 11:15)

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