WE’RE SENT TO ALL PEOPLES – a nations focus
Scripture declares that you and I are sent to all peoples. In Matthew 28:18, the second commission of Jesus (often called the GREAT Commission), Jesus says:
“All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth.” He says, “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 everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
The meaning of the phrase “to all nations,” or panta ta ethne in the original language, is debated. Many missiologists, people like me, want to interpret the meaning as ethno-linguistic people groups. Others want to interpret the meaning as ethno-nationalism.
Based on even the most limited reading of the text, Jesus meant– at the very least– the Gentiles. But the disciples living during this moment in redemptive history understood much more than that. Volumes of books have been written on the meaning of the Great Commission, but if John 20:21 points to living sent, we need to explore why so many see the Great Commission as something we can finish by going to every tribe.
Jesus says, “…on this rock I will build my church.” Jesus announces “I will build my church,” and the disciples, in response, went out and planted churches. So why do so many of Jesus’ disciples travel so far? Paul saying, ” …I have strongly desired for many years to come to you whenever I travel to Spain.” Andrew went north into parts of Europe. Bartholomew made it as far as the Caspian Sea (according to legend). Thomas probably made it as far as India. Jesus’ disciples traveled all around the world. Why? When they heard the words of Jesus, what caused them to think of this panta ta ethne that moved them to go so far and preach to so many?
Often Christians trend toward two paths. One path is the path of sent-ness, the missional path. The other path is the path of the nations, the missions path. We need both.
The context and the timing of the Great Commission in God’s redemptive plan and mission explicitly pointed the disciples to something much greater than he had in the past. It was a pivotal moment. Jesus actually reversed the mission in a sense–he changed its direction. In the Old Testament Israel was called to live in such way that the nations would come to Jerusalem. In the New Testament, we find Jesus sending his disciples to the nations for God’s glory. In Revelation 7:9, we see where the movement ends:
“After this I looked, and there was a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were robed in white with palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: Salvation belongs to our God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
This passage of Scripture reminds us that the throne room is surrounded by men and women from every tongue, tribe and nation. Here they are giving praise to the Lamb. I would point out that there appears to be an ethno-linguistic thread through the Scripture. Every tongue, tribe, and nation is a thread woven through Scripture from the beginning all the way to the end.
A God Who Scatters
If we go all the way back to the beginning, we can see this ethno-linguistic thread. It begins in Genesis 11 with God scattering humankind. At the Tower of Babel God is making nations. God has a redemptive plan. Genesis 11:1-9 says:
“At one time the whole earth had the same language and vocabulary. As people migrated from the east, they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let us make oven-fired bricks.” They used brick for stone and asphalt for mortar. And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky. Let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise, we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” Then the Lord came down to look over the city and the tower that the •men were building. The Lord said, “If they have begun to do this as one people all having the same language, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let Us go down there and confuse their language so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So from there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth, and they stopped building the city. Therefore its name is called Babylon, for there the Lord confused the language of the whole earth, and from there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.”
God scatters and makes the nations for a specific purpose. He scatters them, and then he chooses a people for himself.
God scatters to reunite
God sends Israel to bring the scattered nations up to Jerusalem. This idea that mission never existed in the Old Testament is a missiological error. God sent the people of Israel on a mission. We forget the mission of God in the Old Testament, and sometimes we think the only time we see God calling people to be reached for his name is in Matthew 28. The Great Commission is not the first time that God calls his people to go to the nations.
God sends Israel to bring the nations up to Jerusalem. Jerusalem was a city on a hill. Anyone traveling to the capital city would have to walk up to the city, literally. The distinction between the Old and New Testament in regards to the mission of God is the role of God’s agents at different points in redemptive history. All of God’s ambassadors serve the same overall mission (the missio Dei), but not all serve in the same role. Israel’s role, recorded in the Old Testament, was to lead the nations up to Jerusalem to worship the one true God.
When the disciples heard “go to the nations,” they were living in a time when the Old Testament was recent history. The Bible for first-century Christians was Genesis through Malachi. In Psalm 57:9 the Psalmist writes, “I will praise you, Lord, among the peoples. I’ll sing praises to you among the nations.” That was Israel’s role. “For your faithful love is as high as the heavens. Your faithfulness reaches to the clouds. God be exalted above the heavens. Let your glory be over the whole earth.” In Isaiah 2:2, (such a wonderful key passage highlighting the mission of God in the Old Testament) Isaiah prophesies, “And many peoples will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of God of Jacob. He will teach us about his ways so we may walk in his path.’ For instruction will go out of Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” In verse 1 it says, “All the nations will stream up to Jerusalem.”
That was the plan. But the plan was not fully accomplished. The nations were not praising God in Jerusalem with many tongues of the nations. Yet, God was not done–he just turned the mission in a new direction.
God’s sovereign sign and plan
God, through his Holy Spirit, brought all tongues, tribes, and nations to Jerusalem to inaugurate his mission. In Acts 2:1 Luke writes, “The day of Pentecost had arrived”–they were all together in one place–“suddenly a sound like that of a violent rushing wind came from heaven, and it filled the whole house”–where they were staying–“and tongues like flames of fire were divided and appearing to them and rested on each one of them.” The prophecies of old were realized through the power of the Spirit at Pentecost.
Christians interpret Luke’s account of Pentecost differently, particularly as it relates to the gift of tongues. But there are some tongues we all agree on, because at this point in Scripture, speaking in tongues served as an undeniable sign. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in different languages as the Spirit gave each the ability. So, all around, people were hearing in their own language.
Pentecost is not simply an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It is that, and so much more. Pentecost is a sign that re-directs God’s mission.
The mission of God went out from Jerusalem, not through political might or warring nations but through the gospel proclamation of faithful churches as a tool for his subversive kingdom.
God has a sovereign sign, and he also has a sovereign plan. In Acts 2 God gives his people a sign, but he also gives them his plan in Acts 1. In Acts 1:8 Luke writes, “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you. You’ll be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the uttermost parts of the earth.” Jesus re-directs the mission: before, the uttermost parts had to come up to Jerusalem; now Jesus says you’ll go from Jerusalem to Judea, to Samaria, to the uttermost parts.
God will be praised by women and men from every nation. We saw it in Revelation 7. God scattered from the idolatrous situation surrounding the Tower of Babel and made nations. God sends Israel to bring the nations up to Jerusalem. He has a sign and a plan for them when they get there.
So why is the Great Commission great? Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” So at this moment the mission shifts in Jesus’ words from a centripetal mission–up to Jerusalem–to a centrifugal mission–go therefore out from this place. Jesus tells us later you’ll go out from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria to the uttermost parts of the earth. Because of his death and resurrection he moves the mission in a new direction: victory over death, sin, the grave, and hell.
In the summer of 2011 I traveled to Turkey. While there, I was burdened to see a fledgling church with so few workers. It’s a slow work in Turkey, and there are challenges to working in a predominately Muslim context. I couldn’t help but grieve over seeing the church struggle. You and I can’t “not grieve” when we understand the context and the text of the Great Commission.
There are seventy million Turks and just a few thousand believers in Turkey. Yet this is where we find the seven churches in the book of Revelation. This is where the first seven ecumenical councils of the church were held. This place, this formerly thriving center of Christianity now has only a few thousand people who would claim the name of Jesus Christ.
Christians need a heart for the nations because God has a heart for the nations. The Great Commission without a “nations” focus is missing its historic context and the place it holds in the mission of God.
When Jesus said panta ta ethne, he redirected the mission and sent his people to the nations. God wants your church, my church, all of our churches, to go to and dwell in the uttermost parts, as we join the mission. Depending on who counts and how they count, there are over six thousand unreached people groups. Three thousand of those are unengaged, unreached people groups, meaning there is little to no witness present.
Too often, Christians just seem to be interested in other things. I blog at edstetzer.com. If I blog about theological controversy, readers flock to my blog. And if I engage with dissenting comments, readers go crazy. But when I blog about the testimony of Christian missionaries in foreign contexts like Turkey, my readership drops from thousands to dozens. It breaks my heart, because it is a reminder that people love theological controversies, but not the nations.
The nations in your city
Most of us can’t avoid the nations even where we presently live. God is moving people into our cities. Not all who will read this are from the United States, and I get that, but many are. There is more ethnic diversity in the United States than in any country in the world. There are estimated to be five hundred and eighty-four unengaged, unreached people groups in North America right now living in our cities.
God is moving people and groups into our cities, and our neighborhoods. We can reach them without even getting on a plane. We need to send more who will go overseas, but we’ve also got to preach the gospel and make disciples right here. The nations are waiting, sometimes next door.
At some point somebody brought the gospel message to you. Now, we are the uttermost parts of the earth. It doesn’t feel that way, but we are. Some will try to spiritualize Acts 1 and our failure to engage, saying, “Well, you know, this is my Jerusalem. I’m already in the Jerusalem God intended me to reach.” But the truth is you really don’t have a Jerusalem. That’s not issued to you. Jerusalem is a city in Asia. Jerusalem didn’t move to your hometown.
Someone announced the gospel to you so that you might announce the gospel to others. Don’t let your church be a cul-de-sac on the great commission highway.