This may sound strange to your ears, but contrary to what is sometimes taught or suggested, we have no specific New Testament mandate to teach or disciple nations themselves. I say this, even though The Great Commission in Matt. 28:19-20 may appear to be instructing us to do just that.
The Great Commission commences with, “Go ye therefore, and teach /disciple /make disciples of all nations…” As you can see, I’ve indicated how this command is rendered differently in various English translations. Now, if you simply read this segment in each translation you will notice that they don’t all appear to be necessarily saying the same thing. And, this is where the problem lies. Not that they aren’t saying the same thing, but that through superficial reading the less clear translations have been misunderstood. And, this misunderstanding is what has led to the problem of some wrongly aiming at teaching or discipling nations themselves as opposed to individuals of all nations.
To bring clarity to less clear (although not wrong) and perhaps seemingly ambiguous translations, I wish to show that in the context of carefully reading the whole of the Great Commission that all the translations are saying the same thing. By doing this, I hope to alleviate those caught up in misdirected efforts and ensure that we have a proper understanding what Jesus was wanting us to be busy with.
From the first two translations that read “teach all nations” or “disciple all nations” it can seem that discipling entire nations/tribes is what is commanded. However, when logically considering the whole command, it is clear that what is implied is to “teach /disciple individuals of all nations”. The command continues “…baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…” Clearly one cannot baptize a nation/tribe!
Even if “teaching/discipling whole nations” is somehow implied in the first part of the command, if one considers the complete command, it is only reasonable to conclude that it is by reaching individuals from all nations, rather than influencing whole nations.
Personally, I find the translations that read, “make disciples of all nations” more helpful from the outset. Clearly, whole nations/tribes can’t possibly be made into disciples, but rather people of all nations/tribes. Also, the word “of” here, although only implied in the original Greek, speaks of origin. In other words, “from all nations” or “out of all nations” could be appropriate alternate readings.
I’m certain that the words “all nations” stood out when Jesus spoke the command. They show the extent of the outreach and significantly that it was to go beyond the Jews themselves. This also fits well in the context of the New Testament message as a whole and also how the history of the early church played out. In both of these cases going to “all nations” did not mean discipling whole nations.
Clearly, discipling whole nations isn’t the intention of this scripture (and nor is it even a central New Testament idea). This command, therefore, can’t be used as the source for ideas like “redeeming cultures” and “discipling nations”. At best these ideas have only an indirect correlation here.
While it can be argued that reaching individuals from various nations may have some bearing on influencing their particular nations as a whole, nevertheless, influencing individuals and not nations remains the primary, if not only, intention of this scripture.
It is true that certain individuals like William Carrey who had a remarkable influence on India have in a certain sense discipled India, but that does not make this the meaning of this scripture. Clearly he did not baptize the nation of India nor teach the whole nation to obey all that the Lord commanded.
The correct interpretation is key in protecting this fundamental purpose of the Church from being sidetracked. While “redeeming cultures” and “discipling nations” may have its Biblical place, the intention to be reaching individuals must not be robbed from what is meant here. Misinterpreting this scripture can water down our effort to reach individuals for Christ by unduly heightening our concern for the nations’ political, social, economic and even spiritual well-being.
Although reaching individuals from nations and discipling nations may have some commonality, they are best remembered as separate so that the command to reach individuals isn’t lost in our attempt to affect society. Also, if the Spirit of God has reaching individuals as His primary intention and we teach, strategize and put our energy into changing nations, then we’ve become off centre in our passion and useless to what is more important.
Rather than being a command to influence nations with the principles and truths of God’s kingdom, the logic of the command in Matt. 28:19-20 is to make disciples from every nation. Then, as ambassadors of God’s kingdom, these disciples are able to influence all aspects of society, and God willing, even disciple whole nations.
(Note: a previous page with its comments were copied to create this post instead)
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Jim Wright says:
Good blog! I generally agree with you, so long as we don’t return to a purely individualistic interpretation of the Great Commission and deny it’s social/cultural aspects.
I am content to say that the Great Commission results the transformation of “nations” (“ethne” in the original Greek, which means ethnic tribe or culture). How we do it – by direct discipleship of a culture or through disciplining individuals who then impact their culture – is not spelled out in the Great Commission.
Like you, I lean towards the latter. In fact, if you look at the history of how Christians have bravely stood for Godly principles and transformed whole nations and cultures, I think we see the latter approach making a difference time and again.
From a practical standpoint, I’m not sure how the former is even possible outside of a compulsory framework where the Church institutionally tries to “disciple” and bring “obedience” (two other components of the Great Commission) to the State and other essential social institutions. That would violate the covenantal and thus consensual approach that we see throughout scripture in God’s dealings with humanity.
History shows the folly of the Church trying – as the Church – to disciple nations. It resulted in some of the greatest tyranny and persecution in Western history. For a host of reasons, I don’t want the Church overseeing the State by usurping the separate jurisdiction and role of the State..
Thus, the way I have taught on the Great Commission is that it’s about discipling individuals and teaching them to obey all that Christ commands. Ideally, they are equipped in the church to use their gifts and calling (Eph. 4 – which unfortunately seldom happens) to serve in whatever circumstance and arena God has placed them. As they then become engaged in bringing God’s providence into those areas of life, culture and society, and seek to do the will of the Father (as per the Lord’s prayer) on earth as it is in heaven within their own spheres of influence, God’s Kingdom continues to advance as it permeates into all of creation. (Mark 16:15 and Col 1:15-23)
Everyone believer is placed by God in positions and environments where they are part of the larger society – whether it is being a parent dedicated to raising Godly children within the context of our larger society, or being elected to Congress. Christians are never to be an insular enclave, but we are in the world even though we are not part of the world’s mentality.
As we each extend God’s providence into whatever arena God calls us, we become His salt and light – bringing His flavor, preservation and illumination. If we are faithful ambassadors of His Kingdom, we can’t help but bring transformation into our secular spheres of influence – whether it is in the arts, science, raising Godly children, media, the trades, politics and civil government, or whatever.
If we deny God’s providence over all aspects of society, then we have gutted the first part of the Great Commission – which is Christ’s triumphant declaration that he now has “all authority in heaven and on earth.” (In the Greek, “all” means …. all!)
The attempts by some to limit or deny God’s call on others into various spheres of life (like civil government and cultural engagement) is disturbing. Regardless of how one thinks the Great Commission should work, it seems to me that we must affirm that it’s fulfillment means that nations/cultures – one way or another – are transformed.
There is no room for a theology of disengagement in the Great Commission. In fact, it directly refutes the existentialists among us, who want only “spiritual” engagement and a purely personal, individualistic Jesus who’s providence is limited to them and their insular, introspective churches.
Thanks Jim for enriching this post with your comments. I like your determination to see that Christianity affects all areas of society. God’s kingdom must come on earth as it is in heaven if we are to be relevant as salt and light. While the Great Commission may be focused on reaching individuals from all nations/ethnic tribes; nevertheless, it will undoubtedly influence all of society. And, all the more, if we teach that “Every believer is placed by God in positions and environments where they are part of the larger society… bringing His flavor, preservation and illumination”, as you stated.
[…] Rob Moley, in his blog Restore the Word, wrote yesterday on “The Great Commission: Discipling Individuals or Nations?”. […]