The newly touted idea that “ekklesia” (the Greek word translated “church” in the New Testament) and the Great Commission are at odds is itself odd.
Jesus told His disciples:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:18-20 ESV)
The Great Commission applies, according to Jesus’ own words, through the “end of the age”. Any theology or view of “ekklesia” which ignores or somehow discounts that reality – out of reaction to real wrongs like man-centered discipleship or overwhelming external agendas that suck the life out of a church – is fundamentally flawed.
The fact remains that Jesus told us to go into ALL the world to make disciples of ALL “ethne” – which is the Greek word sometimes translated “nations”.
There were no nations, however, in the first century (at least as we understand them today as discrete and unitary geopolitical states with fixed borders). Rather, “ethne” would have been understood – and more accurately should be translated – as “cultures” and cultural groups.
Translating “ethne” as “nation” is unfortunate, because there are cultures and cultural groups within nations. The Great Commission is focused more on going to those cultures than on artificial geopolitical boundaries.
In the Great Commission, Jesus further tells us to make disciples of all cultures and cultural groups by teaching them to observe all things that Christ has commanded (now that He has been given “all authority in heaven and on earth“). He also tells us to bring whole cultures into identity (the meaning of the Greek word translated “baptizing”) with the Father, and with the Son, and with the Holy Spirit.
This is a key point.
The common meaning in the first century of the Greek word “baptizing” is to cause one thing to become wholly identified with something else – like making a piece of cloth take on the identity of the color purple when immersed in purple dye.
Bringing cultures and cultural groups into identity with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is how the Great Commission would have been understood when the Gospel of Matthew was first written. The Greek word translated “baptizing” was not primarily a “religious” word in the first century, and I think it is a mistake to impose back on Jesus’ admonition our after-the-fact understanding of that word as meaning water baptism. After all, how do you water baptize a culture?
Expand Our Understanding
Thus, the Great Commission is not simply evangelism, although it includes that component.
Nor is it making disciples of Jesus simply among individuals, although it includes that component.
Neither is it limited to ekklesia, although it again includes that component.
Rather, the Great Commission is fulfilled when we do all those things (and more), so that our faith – fully expressed in all spheres of life – transforms whole cultures. And this happens as the culture itself comes into identity with our triune God and observes all that Christ commanded.
We don’t fulfill the Great Commission by coercion or imposing Christ’s commands on anyone. Rather, we simply do what Christ calls each of us to do, according to our own unique gifts and the grace He’s given us in whatever arena He’s placed us. We trust that He will draw all men to Himself as we lift Him up. (See John 12:32)
I have learned – and history shows – that as I’m faithful to do my part as God calls me, He is sovereign in fitting the pieces together for the blessing of whole cultures.
Fulfilling the Lord’s Prayer
In a powerful way, the Great Commission is one of the ways we participate in fulfilling the Lord’s Prayer. In it, Jesus asked of the Father that “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
The Kingdom of God – which is the will of the Father expressed where ever and whenever Jesus places us or sends us – is not limited to ekklesia. It applies to all the earth, because (according to the Great Commission) the Father gave Jesus all (not some, but all) authority – both in heaven and on earth.
Is there any aspect of God’s creation, or any aspect of our lives, our communities, our institutions, our nations, our culture or even history itself, as to which Jesus has surrendered jurisdiction?
I think not!
Thus, the Kingdom of God – as an expression of Christ’s sovereign Lordship by those who are sent to do the will of the Father – encompasses all spheres of human endeavor and applies to all aspects of a culture.
Healthy ekklesia – i.e., “church” – is a central component of His Kingdom, and without ekklesia, the Kingdom of God and the Great Commission are meaningless.
But the Kingdom of God – as expressed through the Great Commission and the Lord’s Prayer – does not stop with, nor is it limited to, ekklesia …
… because the Father’s will and Christ’s authority are not limited to the Church.
Excellent observations. In a recent personal study of the word ekklesia, I discovered that its roots in classical Greece carried some connotations that made it different from the more common word for an assembly, sunagoge. The ekklesia of ancient Greek city states was the assembly of citizens, summoned together to conduct the business of the city. The early church appears to have appropriated the word to describe themselves as the citizens of the kingdom of God, summoned by the Holy Spirit to conduct the business of the Kingdom, which included all the things you mentioned above. If the Great Commission was not directly a part of the business of the kingdom of God, then at the very least, the assembly was supposed to equip people to perform the Great Commission when they left the meeting.
Don, I agree with you totally on the common meaning of the word “ekklesia” as used when the New Testament was written. Many of those who are modern day proponents of “ekklesia” all to often water down its original meaning.
It’s interesting to me that the Making of Disciples or Evangelism as commonly understood is considered an imposition. Like you have said, “We don’t fulfill the Great Commission by coercion or imposing Christ’s commands on anyone.” Yet, I can’t help but think that calling others to repent, is an imposition.
Your post give further credence to the concept that the Making of Disciples and the command to do so transcends the culture of the 11 who originally heard it and the epoch of the early church.
Thanks, Miguel. In fact, your blog from yesterday prompted me to post this. You raised some good questions in that blog. I highly recommend that others subscribe, as I do, to your devotionals at http://www.pathwaysinternational.org/author/miguel/.
Good post Jim. I think the main problem with those that say the Great Commission is only for apostles is that the same people say disciple making is done by the whole church. Total oxymoron.
It is true that Jesus gave Matthew 28:18-20 in the presence of his disciples, but if churches make disciples, and the Great Commission is making disciples, than the Great Commission is not just for apostles. Some go, some send, some pray.
Missions unfortunately has often been reduced to American tourism. When people unskilled in cross-cultural communication get involved, they often do not know when they are doing untold damage or are simply being patronized. So while terrible things continue to be done in the name of the Great Commission, the answer is not to reduce cross cultural disciple making to just apostles. Lone-ranger missions will continue to do damage regardless of whether we call those doing it apostles or not.
All Christians wanting to do cross cultural work would greatly benefit from reading Anthropological Insights for Missionaries by Paul Hiebert, or Ministering Cross Culturally by Sherwood Ligenfelter.
Great comments, Steve. Totally agree. Been there, seen that. It is so liberating to leave that system behind and be able to operate as we actually see in the New Testament. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t stop and think how privileged I am to live in this day and age, and to be a participant in the amazing things that God is doing as we leave the dead weight of human traditions behind. Last week, as I was driving home from spending an afternoon with one of the indigineous churches we’ve planted in the local jail, I had to pull over because I started weeping due to the overwhelming gratitude I felt at being allowed to be part of God’s work. Cross cultural work can take us to another country, or to the subcultures of our own county. Either way, we see the Kingdom of God advance as His Church is established.
Thanks Jim, love the sentiments. Some of the stuff out there is just plain weird. I’ll listen to their arguments too, but gee sometimes we need help misunderstanding stuff, right? ha ha. Blessings.
Thank you, all contributors, I have found these insights most helpful 🙂
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Very good post for Christians to understand the scope of Jesus’ authority here on earth! Nonetheless you can definitely baptize (i.e. bring into identity AND weave into one thread single lives with the life of Jesus in (water/spirit) baptism) whole “ethnes”, or at least those of the people who will accept the message. At least this seams to be the understanding of those who were first commissioned to GO (Acts 2,36ff). And although the “ekklesia” is not a school of evangelism, it teaches a lifestyle that a Christian is a part of Jesus in this world, bringing God’s love and the living water to the lost through action and the word of salvation.
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