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.