A narrative-historical hermeneutic has to respect the distinctions and boundaries—even the cracks and disjunctions—that emerge in the telling of the story. If we allow ourselves to read later developments back into earlier passages, we muddy the waters and risk getting the whole story, to whatever degree, wrong. Scripture has to be read forwards, not backwards. So I have argued that the Gentile mission was a revelation of the risen Christ or of the Spirit to the post-Easter church. Prior to his death Jesus nowhere teaches that Gentiles will be included in the new covenant people. The impending intervention of YHWH in the history of his people will make an impact on the nations—indeed, news of this coming intervention will be proclaimed to the nations in the period leading up to the fall of Jerusalem and the temple. This is a familiar Old Testament idea: the Lord bears his holy arm before the eyes of the nations, and the ends of the earth will see God’s salvation of his people (Is. 52:9-10). It does not require some sort of ingathering of Gentiles into the family of Abraham.
Given that, let me try and explain what I think the so-called “great commission” to make disciples of all nations is all about (Matt. 28:19-20). We start with Jesus’ teaching on the Mount of Olives.
During a period of great “tribulation” the disciples will proclaim the gospel of the kingdom “throughout the world as a testimony to all nations” (Matt. 24:9-14). Those who stay faithful to their task through to the end of this period will be saved. The “end” will consist in judgment on Jerusalem and the recognition of Jesus as the Son of Man—that is, as the one who has been given kingdom, the authority to judge and rule (Matt. 24:29-30). This is the message that is taken into the world—not that Jesus has died for people’s sins but that God has made his Son Lord and Christ, judge and ruler of the nations.
After the resurrection Jesus tells his disciples: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18). This is also a reference to Daniel’s vision of one like a son of man, to whom is given “dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Dan. 7:13).1
This is the context and ground for the “great commission”. The apostles’ task was, on the one hand, to proclaim to the nations not only the coming of the kingdom but now, following the resurrection, the kingship of Jesus, until the end of the age, when the substance of the proclamation would be fulfilled; and on the other, to bring about obedience to Jesus in light of that predicted outcome. Craig Evans gets the political dimension right in his commentary on this passage:
Under the authority of its Messiah, Jesus, Israel’s jurisdiction over the nations can now be fulfilled…. All will be brought to an obedience and understanding of the faith of the patriarchs and the prophets…. Israel will conquer the nations, not with the sword… but with the gospel, the good news of the reign of God.2
Similarly, Peter Leithart: after the resurrection Jesus “claimed a dominion that surpassed Cyrus’s…. He was the greater Cyrus, a new Nebuchadnezzar into whose hand all the peoples of the world had been given.”3
The point here is not that Gentiles are included in the covenant people—that is at most a secondary implication, albeit an important one. It is that the future rule of Jesus over the nations is being anticipated not only by Jews but also by the people who will be most affected by such a régime change. The testimony about the coming kingdom and the coming reign of Jesus as Lord and King is not only proclaimed by Jewish apostles, it is concretely and socially embodied in communities that are no longer exclusively Jewish. Gentiles are also to be recruited and trained as messengers and harbingers of God’s new future. Obviously, the fact that the kingdom is coming in a way that will have repercussions for the nations requires “repentance and forgiveness of sins” (cf. Lk. 24:47), but that is a trailing rather than a leading argument.
Baptism “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” is baptism into the unfolding eschatological narrative: the Father who sends, the Son who will be judge and ruler of the nations, and the Spirit who inspires and empowers communities of disciples specifically for this eschatological purpose.
The “end” or the “end of the age”, to reiterate, is not the end-of-the-world. It is the end of the age of second temple Judaism, when Jerusalem and the temple will be destroyed, Jesus will be seen to be the fulfilment of Daniel’s vision of one like a son of man who is given kingdom, and the disciples are delivered from their enemies.
This is exactly how Paul accounts for his own mission in Romans. Because the Christ became a servant to the Jews, the Gentiles will glorify God for his mercy, and Isaiah’s words are thus fulfilled: “The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope” (Rom. 15:12). Then he speaks of what “Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience… so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ” (Rom. 15:18-19). The obedience or “discipleship” of Gentiles specifically anticipates the coming rule of Christ over the nations. Paul has done exactly what Jesus instructed the apostles to do.
So does the “great commission” have any relevance for us now? Perhaps not in its original terms. But the fact remains that we are a people chosen by the living God to bear active, socially-embodied witness to him among the nations, as a new creation in microcosm. The New Testament story about kingdom is behind us, but we live with the consequences. Jesus is judge and Lord of his people, and that must determine how we think and behave. And if the creator God calls people to become part of this project, or if people are attracted to the cause, then it is our responsibility to teach obedience, to disciple them for the task. It’s not quite the mission that the risen Jesus gave his followers in the first century. The historical parameters have changed. But it’s what we have to do.
It’s not an argument for passivism. We can be as “missional” and as activist and as confrontational as we like. But our mission is not to proclaim to the world that God is about to judge his people and install Jesus as Lord over an idolatrous pagan empire. That’s been done already.
- 1Cf. D.A. Hagner, Matthew 14–28 (WBC, 1995), 886: ‘Dan 7:13–14 provides important background material to vv 18–20, referring to one like a Son of Man who receives “dominion and glory and kingship,” an everlasting dominion, “that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him”….’
- 2C.A. Evans, Matthew (NCBC, 2012), 484.
- 3P.J. Leithart, Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective (Cascade Books, 2012), 37.