That night all the members of the community raised their voices and wept aloud. All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to each other, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.“
–– Numbers 14:1-4
After leaving Egypt there were a few bright spots of faith for Israel but by and large they still longed for the safety, security and limited responsibility of slavery in Egypt. Their bondage in Egypt was unpleasant and they had cried out to God, but when confronted with responsibility to fight and conquer the land God had promised they longed to be back under the foot of an earthly master with less responsibility. Their spiritual bondage led them to desire physical bondage over spiritual freedom and responsibility.
Thus, when they came to the edge of Canaan to conquer and become a free people who would inherit what was promised they drew back in fear and unbelief. They had their reasons, of course, as Numbers 14:1-4 (above) shows, but their reasons were disobedient ones. They were afraid of giants in the land and they flatly refused to believe God when He promised to give them victory if they would trust Him, accept responsibility and fight. In response, Joshua and Caleb preached to the whole assembly:
“The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good. If the Lord is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us. Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will devour them. Their protection is gone, but the Lord is with us. Do not be afraid of them.” (Numbers 14:7-9)
Yet Israel responded in fear and disobedience and was punished with a 40 year sojourn in the wilderness until every male of fighting age who had turned back would die. The intent of the discipline was to teach obedience to the next generation.
Imagine the conversations that took place between parent and child during that 40 years in the wilderness. The older generation had time to reflect on what had happened at the edge of Canaan and to tell the younger generation about their calling and inheritance. And when that younger generation grew up and returned to the edge of Canaan they were faithful. They went in and fought and God gave them victory.
Which leads me to ask, “Does God command the Church in a similar way today?” I think the answer is “Yes”. In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Therefore (on that basis), go and disciple the nations.” In other words, provision has been made for us to do the work successfully. Christ possesses all authority in heaven and on earth and He commands us to disciple the nations in His name.
But what does it mean to disciple the nations? This is arguably not clear if we look at Mt. 28:18-20 in isolation. If we wish, we might adjust the mission to make it smaller or larger based on our interpretation of the passage. Instead, we need other parts of scripture to shed light.
To answer that question, I begin with Hebrews 10:12-13. This passage speaks not to the timing of Christ’s return, but rather to what must be achieved before He can come back. Hebrews 10:12-13 says that when Christ “had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool.”
Jesus is waiting. You don’t hear people talk much about that these days. But the Bible says He is waiting at the Father’s right hand for His enemies to be “made his footstool”? Where did that come from and what does it mean?
It comes from Psalm 110, a psalm about Christ and His Kingship. Let’s look briefly at the context. The speaker is the Psalmist, King David.
1 The Lord says to my lord:
“Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies
a footstool for your feet.”
2 The Lord will extend your mighty scepter from Zion, saying,
“Rule in the midst of your enemies!”
3 Your troops will be willing
on your day of battle.
— Psalm 110:1-3
In the first verse, “The Lord” is God the Father and “my Lord” is Christ the son. We know this based of multiple confirmations in the New Testament. For instance, Hebrews 1:13 quotes Psalm 110:1 as a proof about Christ.
13 To which of the angels did God ever say,
“Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies
a footstool for your feet”?
–– Hebrews 1:13
Likewise in Matthew 22:41-44 Jesus quotes Psalm 110:1 as a passage about the Son of Man. And in 1 Corinthians 15:25-28, the reign of Christ and when it will end is described this way:
25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28 When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.
— 1 Corinthians 15:25-28
As in Psalm 110, here we see the relationship between the Father and the Son. We see that the Father has “put everything under His feet” and we see the Son reigning “until he has put all his enemies under His feet”. In other words, God has given all authority to Christ and a name that is above every name because He was victorious over sin and death (Philippians 2:6-11). By the Father’s decree the Son is definitively and legally King over all. All authority belongs to Christ. But Jesus the Son, who is seated at the right hand of the Father, will reign from there while that victory is progressively made manifest in the earth. Thus, He “waits for His enemies to be made His footstool” as we saw above in Hebrews 10:12-13.
This leads to the logical next question, “Whose job is it to make Jesus’ enemies His footstool?” And the answer is simple. It is the job of His people who He has commissioned to disciple and teach the nations to obey Him. He is the lawful King and the nations are in rebellion against Him. He has defeated sin and death. All authority in heaven and earth are His. And He commands us to go in His name and authority and make His victory manifest in the earth by calling the nations to obedience, by teaching them to obey all that He has commanded (Mt. 28:18-20).
In response to this great calling, we are subject to many of the same temptations as Israel at the edge of Promised Land:
- We are tempted to say it can’t be done.
- We are tempted to fear.
- We are tempted to flee from the conflict.
- We are tempted to question what God meant.
- We are tempted to truncate the mission.
Sometimes, I speak with Christians who say, “How can you believe that the Church will successfully disciple the nations? Look around you at what is happening. How can things possibly get better? Things are getting worse. Surely, that is not what God means in the Great Commission.”
Has the Church shrunk back from the Great Commission in a fashion similar to Israel at the edge of Canaan? Have we lacked faith? I think the answer is yes. We may say that the Church will succeed in the Great Commission, but we have shrunk the mission down to a size that appears more do-able, more in keeping with recent history and the world we live in today. We have done so with many rationalizations such as:
“God doesn’t mean for us to disciple entire nations. The gospel isn’t supposed to change culture and government laws. Instead, God intends for us to win at least some souls from each nation. That’s the only logical way to think about it. After all, the nations are Jesus’ inheritance. That’s between Jesus and the nations. It doesn’t have anything to do with the Church. Surely, He doesn’t mean for the Church to teach the nations in a way that actually impacts entire cultures and government laws and so forth. That’s unrealistic. Look how big the giants are that are running the nations right now. Our victory is more isolated, more private. The world is under the control of the devil. Broader victory can only be achieved by Jesus when He is present “in person”. He is not “present enough” now in the earth through His people. His authority can’t work through us. The full victory of Christ when the nations are taught to obey Him must be in the future, not now.”
Yet what name is above the name His people bear? What power is greater than the power at work in His people? What authority is greater than Christ at work in His Church? Paul said that the power that raised Christ from the dead is at work in us. (Eph. 1:18-20). And Jesus said that the gates of hell won’t prevail against His Church (Matthew 16:18).
Yet many in the Church today choose to look past such promises from Christ. They do so by shrinking the authority of Christ over the nations in history by somehow vesting Christ’s authority in His “bodily presence” (i.e., His second coming) rather than in His presence in His body, the Church. In other words, the authority of Christ which He makes a big deal about at the beginning of the Great Commission cannot actually, fully manifest in His people. Instead many see a big wedge between Christ and His body in terms of power and authority. They say that God does not intend for the fullness of Christ and His authority to dwell in His people in history.
Let me give an example:
“The Lord has established his throne in heaven,
and his kingdom rules over all.”
— Psalm 103:19
“His kingdom rules over all.” This is clearly a statement about governmental authority. Whatever God’s Kingdom is, it rules over all. However, many Christians believe the Kingdom of God is a private affair and that it does not exercise authority over anyone outside the Church.
In this view, the Kingdom and its influence is a party that is walled off from the rest of the world with its culture and politics and ways of handling people. We Christians go out into “the world” and issue invitations to the private affair. If someone accepts and becomes a Christian then they can come inside the walls and join us as we try to obey God within the walls and wait for Jesus to come back.
Some say that we should “try” to influence the world, but if you press them they will say we should do so because God commands us to be salt and light but that our efforts won’t be successful. The giants are big and God doesn’t intend that we should defeat them.
The problem with this view in this simple example is that the Bible teaches that the kingdom of God rules over all as we just saw in Psalm 103:19. If you are “in the kingdom” you bear Christ’s authority over the nations, authority to command and teach obedience to the King. You bear the name that is above every name. You bear the name at which every knee should bow in heaven and earth. The Kingdom of God vs. the kingdom of Satan is a matter of authority and power and Christians bear the authority and power of Christ. The question then for every Christian is, “Is God’s kingdom among us or not?”. If the answer is “yes” then that kingdom in us rules over all.
By the way, can an unbeliever obey God? The answer is absolutely “Yes”. An unbeliever can obey the command to not murder, to not commit adultery, etc. Does God care what unbelievers do? Absolutely. The Old Testament is full of stories of God’s dealing with largely unbelieving nations. The more wicked they were the sooner and greater His judgment.
Likewise, teaching unbelievers to obey God’s law trains them like a parent or schoolmaster. It teaches them right and wrong, shows them their own sin, and keeps them from going further down the path of disobedience. For more about this broader view of the Great Commission, please see “The Great Commission is Broader Than We Think“.
To further support this position, I would point to Psalm 149 where God says that it is the “glory of all His faithful people” to wage war on behalf of the King. They wage war with the praise in their mouths and the double-edged sword in their hands. Their mission is to bind the kings of the earth with the fetters of God’s law which they rage against and want to throw off in Psalm 2:
May the praise of God be in their mouths
and a double-edged sword in their hands,
to inflict vengeance on the nations
and punishment on the peoples,
to bind their kings with fetters,
their nobles with shackles of iron,
to carry out the sentence written against them—
this is the glory of all his faithful people.
–– Psalm 149:6-9
Then I might point to Isaiah 9 which we quote every Christmas which says that a King will be born and that “of the increase of His government and peace there shall be no end, from that time on and forever.” In other words, from the time of the first coming of Christ, His government in the earth will grow and grow. This is the same picture we see repeatedly in Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom. In Matthew 13, he says the Kingdom of God is like yeast. At first a little is added to a huge amount of dough, but gradually, unstoppably it fills the whole of the dough.
I would then mention that the Prophets and the Psalms are absolutely packed with pictures of the steadily growing victory of God’s people in the earth as they are faithful to their calling to disciple the nations. These pictures are promises for God’s people.
If you are not familiar with how the Church is portrayed in the Psalms and the Prophets I encourage you to read “Israel in the New Covenant”. In short, God made the New Covenant with Israel (Jer. 31:31-32). In the New Covenant, Israel continues as a nation (see Jer. 31:35-37 and Romans 11:1-2) but with new qualifications for citizenship — the “faith of Abraham” instead of the outward marks of the Old Covenant (circumcision, sacrifices, etc.). As Gentiles are added in the New Covenant we see a new name used by Jesus, the “ekklesia” or congregation which is translated as “the Church”. But the Church is still the nation of Israel (see Jer. 31:35-37. Ro. 11:1-2, Ro. 2:28-29), it simply has different terms of citizenship. It is Israel in New Covenant — and the Gentiles (non-Jews) who have the faith of Abraham are then grafted into the nation of Israel as citizens of the heavenly kingdom in accordance with citizenship requirements of the New Covenant.
The key point? When you read the Psalms and Prophets and you see references to “Israel” you must use the context and markers in the text to determine whether it is speaking of Israel under the Old Covenant or Israel under the New Covenant. All of those passages about the glorious future of Israel and victory over her enemies? Those are references to Israel under the New Covenant. They are promises for God’s people about His plan in history.
If we don’t understand God’s covenants we will not properly understand the Psalms and Prophets and the mission of God’s people. But if we properly understand God’s covenants, we can no longer rationalize the Great Commission. Instead, we must be faithful to the vision that God lays out in the Old Testament for His chosen people beginning with Abraham and all the way thru the Prophets that Abraham’s descendants will be faithful, that they will defeat their enemies, and that they will teach and bless all nations.
I’ll close with the example of Isaiah 2:2-6. In this passage, we see a time in history in which there are still conflicts among the nations, but the nations are streaming to the mountain of the Lord’s temple to learn God’s ways. We see the “mountain of the Lord’s temple” being established as the highest among the mountains and all the nations streaming to it. We see the law of God going out from Zion to the nations. In short, we see the discipleship of the nations. Let’s look now at Isaiah 2:2-6:
“In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established
as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
and all nations will stream to it.
Many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.“
Remember, there are still disputes among nations in this passage. This is not referring to a sinless future time after final judgement. This is a historical passage when there are still disputes among nations.
This passage refers to Zion and Jerusalem and by implication to Israel. But is the context of this passage Israel under the Old Covenant or Israel under the New Covenant? Is it referring to Jerusalem in literal terms as the capital city of Judah in the Old Covenant? Or is it referring to the “city of God” according to our understanding in the New Covenant. Well, the Old Covenant is terminated and the events in this passage did not occur during the time the Old Covenant. Thus, the passage likely refers to “Israel” at a future time, Israel under the New Covenant.
So, let’s break this passage down under the New Covenant. What is God’s temple in the New Covenant? 1 Cor. 3:17 says, “God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.” So, we can perhaps understand the “temple” in this passage according to the New Covenant understanding that God’s people are the temple.
And what is the meaning of “Zion” and “Jerusalem” in this passage? In Hebrews 12:22-23, where the writer is contrasting the Old and New Covenants he says, “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven.” Thus, both terms refer to God’s people, those who have the faith of Abraham.
So, in Isaiah 2, we see a picture of the nations streaming to the city of God, the people of God, to learn the ways of God. We see God’s law going forth from Zion, the people of God, to all the nations. We see international relations revolutionized by what is occurring. The nations are at peace and no longer studying for war.
This is the rule and reign of the Prince of Peace. This is His enemies being made a footstool for His feet. This is the discipleship of the nations. It will occur as promised in Isaiah 2. This is a promise from God to His people in the New Covenant. Let us not shrink back in fear and unfaithfulness like the generation that was delivered from Egypt did at the edge of Canaan. Instead, let us look to future boldly and filled with faith that what God has promised will come to pass.
Link to: “Israel Under the New Covenant”.