The Grandness of the Great Commission

Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D.

Pastor of All Saints Presbyterian Church, Lancaster, PA

            Before our Lord ascended to reign at the right hand of the Father, where He reigns NOW, He commanded the discipling of the nations. He predicted the advance of His good news “in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). He said to His disciples, “Go ye therefore, and teach [disciple, or make disciples of] all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matt. 28:19, KJV).

            Some view this text to mean that our Lord commands the mere discipling of “individuals from all nations, not the national entities.” One could see how such a view of this primal command could have significant ramifications for one’s view of the relationship of Christ and the nations. In fact, it might not be an overstatement to say that this text should be one of the central reasons for Christians’ involvement in national reform according to biblical teaching. In our endeavors to bring the Lordship of Christ to bear over our nation, we are obeying a lucid and pre-eminent command of the Word of God. However, if the text means that we have satisfied our Lord’s Commission when we merely make a few converts from each nation (or ethnic group), then one could easily dismiss the larger national implications from the Commission. One the other hand, if the text calls for the discipling of nations, qua nations. Then neglecting the corporate dimension flatly disobeys to kingly imperative of King of the kings of the earth (Rev. 1:6).

            The grammar of this command and its extensive biblical antecedents should be considered carefully. The direct command from the Greek text (mathãteusate panta ta ethnã baptizontes autous) may simply be translated, Disciple all the nations [and] baptize them (nations). The pronoun “them” (autous), grammatically refers to “nations” (ethnã), not “disciples,” since “make disciples” (from mathãteuõ) is a verb. It has been misunderstood to mean “make disciples and baptize them (disciples).” Or as if the Greek had the text, ek panton ton ethnon — disciple “out of the nations.” But the command is much grander in scope, as we shall see in the biblical-theological development.

            Why did Jesus command baptism in the first place? Are there any hints in the Old Testament that the Messiah would baptize? When one studies carefully the Old Testament predictions of the Messiah, we see that the Word includes allusions to a cleansing rite administered to a corporate entity, nations. “He will sprinkle many nations” (Isa. 52:15). Ezekiel 36:24ff, records a new covenant promise to the nation Israel says, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean . . . I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh . . . you will be My people, and I will be your God.” In these foretastes of Messiah Jesus, it is “nations” or “peoples” that are cleansed. Predictably, then, if we read from the left to the right, the Commission to baptize is to baptize the corporate “nations.”

            The Great Commission, in biblio-theological development, is the predictable Messianic restatement of multitudes of Old Testament commissions and promises and prayers for all the nations to be made disciple-nations

·                     And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed (Gen. 12:3).

·                     Your descendants shall also be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread out to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and in you and in your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed (Gen. 28:14).

·                        That all the ends of the earth may fear Him (Psa. 67:7);

·                        All nations serve him (Psa. 72:11);

·                        All nations whom Thou hast made shall come and worship before Thee, O Lord; and they shall glorify Thy name (Psa. 86:9);

·                        Praise the LORD, all nations; Laud Him, all peoples! (Psa. 117:1);

·                        Kings of the earth and all peoples; Princes and all judges of the earth. . .Let them praise the name of the LORD (Psa. 148:11-13).

·                        All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations will worship before Thee (Psa. 22:7).

·                        Then hear Thou from heaven, from Thy dwelling place, and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to Thee, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know Thy name, and fear Thee, as do Thy people Israel, and that they may know that this house which I have built is called by Thy name (2Ch. 6:33).

·                        And to Him was given dominion, glory and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and men of every language might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which will not pass away; and His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed (Dan. 7:14).

These and about 100 other passages declare that all nations (and not merely some individuals from them) are to be disciple-worshipers! The Commission on earth and Song of Heaven are the same, [and they sang] “Great and marvelous are Thy works, O Lord God, the Almighty; Righteous and true are Thy ways, Thou King of the nations. Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify Thy name? For Thou alone art holy; for all the nations will come and worship before Thee, for Thy righteous acts have been revealed” (Rev 15:3-4).

            The Commission to disciple and baptize nations, in the Biblical thematic development stands upon the very early division of the nations. In Biblical usage, the term “nations” is equal to “all the families of the earth” (Gen. 12:3, 28:14, Acts 3:25; cf. Psa. 22:14). Moreover, in a Biblical survey of the term “nations,” the terms “family” and “house” or “household” are explicitly and organically connected. For example, in the book that defines the beginning of family and nation, Genesis, “nations” is equal to “families.” “From these the coastlands of the nations were separated into their lands, every one according to his language, according to their families, into their nations” (10:5). In Genesis 10:32, the terms “families” or “households” are semantically identical to nations: “These are the families of the sons of Noah, according to their genealogies, by their nations; and out of these the nations were separated on the earth after the flood.” These family-nations were further divided at Babel when separate languages came into existence.

            So, from the flood to Babel the division of nations unraveled. But from Pentecost forward, the Kingdom advances with the power to undo the confusion of the nations by the Spirit’s power through the one-Word, gospel. Removing the corporate and national implications of the Great Commission reduces this grand command to something more like a defeated plea. One only need to survey Western civilization to see substantial advancement, though the tide seems to be receding at present. Still there have been, even in our day, the significant transformation of nations by the gospel. May the Lord be pleased to send His waves of reformation to our country.