Most Christians know the Great Commission quite well, are able to find it in the Bible, and can cite it by heart. They also instinctively love it as the command of the resurrected Lord. Nevertheless, though it is well-known, it is poorly understood. It is loved as a foundational command for Christ’s church, giving her the marching orders of the exalted Christ. But it is seldom recognized as a strong witness to the postmillennial hope which provides an optimistic outlook on history.
In this two-part study, I will provide an exposition of the Great Commission, demonstrating its postmillennial orientation. We can see the glory of the Commission if we note the four appearances of the word “all” in it. In this lesson I will focus on the first two “alls”: Christ’s claim to “all authority” and his charge to disciple “all nations.” Let’s get started.
It is extremely important to remember that the Great Commission is given after the resurrection. The significance of the resurrection is not fully appreciated by modern evangelicals, who are more theologically attuned to singing “There Is None Like the Lowly Jesus,” than “Crown him with Many Crowns.” Their eschatology and over all view of historical progress is more shaped by the Fall of Adam than the Resurrection of Christ.
Prior to the resurrection, a frequent refrain of Christ was: “I can do nothing of Myself” (cf. John 5:19, 30; 8:28; 12:49; 14:10). But now after the resurrection, Christ says: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28:18). “Given” is an aorist passive verb, which speaks of this grant of all authority as occurring at a past point in time. This grant of “all authority in heaven and on earth” is given by God the Father, who according to similar terminology in Matthew 11:25; Acts 17:24; and elsewhere, is called “Lord of heaven and earth.”
This investiture of Christ with universal authority is a frequent theme of Scripture. Acts 2:30-31, the passage which the Lord used to deliver me from dispensationalism, reads: David “being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that of the fruit of his body, according to the flesh, He would raise up the Christ to sit on his throne, he, foreseeing this, spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ…” (Acts 2:30-31). Here that investiture with kingly authority at His resurrection is to the Messianic throne of David. He is seated there in confident expectation of victory, as Peter points out by citing Psalm 110:1 in Acts 2:34: “For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he says himself: The LORD said to my Lord, Sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool. Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:34-36). (Incidentally, Psalm 110:1 is in the New Testament the most frequently cited and alluded to passage from the entire Old Testament.)
Romans 1:4 says: He is “declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4). Again we see that He was invested with authority as the Son of God at the resurrection.
This great theme of “all authority in heaven and on earth” is echoed in Ephesians 1:19-22: “His mighty power [was] worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come. And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church.” follows suit: “Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth.”
What, then, is the nature of this grant of “all authority”? The “all” here is used in the distributive sense. It indicates “all kinds” of authority; authority in every realm. He possesses every kind of authority in heaven (i.e., in the spiritual realm) and on earth (i.e., in the temporal realm). He does not claim authority only over the Church or over individual redeemed men. He claims authority over the family, education, business, politics, law, medicine — all areas of life.
The “all authority in heaven and on earth” reflects God’s authority in Matthew 11:25, as we have mentioned: “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth.” We must ask ourselves: In what areas of life is God’s authority limited? Obviously in no area, for “the earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness, the world and those who dwell therein” (Psa. 24:1). When you call Jesus “Lord,” you are not just speaking of His Lordship over your spiritual life as an individual. You are affirming His lordship in all areas of life, in whatever calling you or anyone else undertakes “on earth.” Truly this is a Great Commission.
As with “all authority,” it is important that we grasp the significance of “all nations.” The word “nations” is the Greek word ethnos. It is based on the Greek word ethos, which indicates habits or customs of people; cultural relations. Thus, ethnos speaks of collected masses of men, considered as bound together by social bonds, forming a culture.
Ethnos here does not signify merely “gentile.” The Jews themselves are called ethnos ten times in the New Testament (e.g., Luke 7:5; John 11:48; Acts 10:22). The term indicates people grouped in terms of their cultural relations, and involves Jews and non-Jews. He speaks of every culture of man, when he speaks of “all nations.” And He speaks of men in terms of their cultural relations.
It is important to recognize that the Lord did not say, “disciple all men” (anthropos), as if His interest was individualistic, concerned with men only as stray individuals. Neither did He , “disciple all kingdoms” (baseleia), as if His interest was purely political. The to disciple “all nations” is directed to the conversion and discipling of the human race, as such, in all of its cultural endeavors. It begins deep within involving the personal, spiritual aspects of life. But it branches out to include the social, legal, academic, economic, and political areas of life, as well.
Thus, we see how the Great Commission is a counterpart to the Cultural Mandate. In the Commission, Christ is implementing a plan to redeem all men and nations. The Commission is not designed so that the Church might “snatch brands from the fire.” It seeks the salvation of man in his every relationship, as massed in cultures. The Great Commission not only has cultural implications, it creates a redeemed culture.
We need to be careful when we say, “Christ is my personal Savior.” Idol worshipers often had a “personal savior” that they could carry around with them wherever they went. Their gods were limited. Certainly Christ is my Savior: He intimately loves me as an individual. But too often Christians tend to imply Christ is sparingly parceled out to individuals in history.
Here, though, we see He has called us to disciple all nations as such. That is His , based on His possession of “all authority.” And He surely expects the discipleship of all nations by His people and the full accomplishment of the task under His providence, as we shall see.
Thus, the Scripture speaks of Christ very often as “the Savior of the world.” When it does so it is not setting forth the doctrine of universalism. There are those who will populate hell forever. Rather such references point to the eventual actual conversion of the world as a system, as a kosmos. The passages that speak thus clearly portray salvation in all of its fullness. These passages do not merely say, “He is the only Savior in the world,” allowing for the vast majority of men to reject Him.
Consider the strong redemptive terminology used in these passages. John 1:29: “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” John 3:17: “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” 1 John 2:2: “He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.” Romans 11:15: “For if their being cast away is the reconciling of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?” 2 Corinthians 5:19: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation.”
Truly Christ expects to see a redeemed world one day! The world will be saved, man’s sins propitiated, and the human race reconciled to God. Certainly He commissions us to promote this very task. We are to disciple “all the nations” so that the world as a kosmos, a system of men and things will become Christian.
It is abundantly clear that He seeks the actual discipling of all nations. They are to be brought under the yoke of the authority of the Triune God: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). The plural “them” in the to baptize, refers back to the plural noun “nations,” which is separated from it by only one word in the Greek. And baptism is only for those under the rule of Christ’s kingdom — believers and their seed.
In the second portion of this study, I will deal with the two remaining “alls” in the Great Commission.