If you ask someone what the Great Commission is, they’ll likely answer, “Go and make disciples of all the nations…” Except that’s not quite what Matthew 28:19-20 says. The Greek behind this phrase is literally, “disciple all the nations.”
Now this may not seem like a big difference, but it is significant. “Make disciples of all the nations” implies that we are to disciple individuals out of every people group, while “disciple all the nations” implies that we are to disciple the nations themselves. A nation is an “ethne,” or people group – humans with a shared language, culture, ancestry, and history that make them unique.
What does it mean to disciple the nations? How do we accomplish this? I explore these questions in depth in my book Cracking the End Time Code.
The Arc of History
Your view of what it means to disciple the nations will be closely connected to your overall worldview of history. Most Christians have an idea of whether the world is getting worse and worse, or better and better, regardless of whether they have a well thought-out eschatology. Your view of the end times, whether overt or implicit, is going to shape where you think history is going, and the Church’s part in it.
Your viewpoint will lead you to corresponding action as well: if you have an optimistic view of where the world is headed, you are likely to seek ways to influence it, but if you have a pessimistic view, you are likely to avoid it. This creates a cycle where eschatology influences history and history influences eschatology.
Historically, premillennial dispensationalism has been the most popular eschatology among American Christians since the 19th century. The basic idea is that the world is getting worse leading up to the rise of the Antichrist, and that Jesus will rapture His Church before the Great Tribulation. This is the theology that has given rise to such popular books as The Late Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind series.
When you are waiting to be raptured out of a doomed world, there is not much point to investing in the larger culture and building for tomorrow. The main goal in that scenario is to save as many souls as possible. And indeed, that is what we have seen with fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity. For the most part, they have focused on saving individuals while abandoning leadership, the arts and media, and higher education to the world. America is on a path of cultural decay because the only people who believed the Bible after 1900 were people who didn’t believe in discipling cultures, only people.
In the 1940’s, a more optimistic eschatology started to gain prominence with the Latter Rain Revival. Contrary to the gloomy expectations of dispensationalism, the Latter Rain revivalists believed that God would release a “latter rain” in the end times, and that the world would see great power and revival. This led to the rise of dominion theology, which states that Jesus will return when we have extended His reign throughout the whole world. The advance of God’s Kingdom is not just about saving more individuals; it is also about the church bringing the victorious rule of God into every aspect of life. This idea is a form of postmillennialism, the idea being that Jesus will return after – “post” – a glorious millennium of Church reign.
Now, I think that postmillennialism gets some things wrong. The emphasis on God’s rule has sometimes led to a “takeover” mentality, where Christians take over the nations by a political process. This becomes akin to the disciples’ belief that Jesus’ intent was to kick out the Romans and set up an earthly Kingdom. The idea that things will get better and better until Jesus’ return also relegates all the bad stuff, like the prophecy of a final Great Tribulation, to the past.
Postmillennial eschatology does, however, bring several key insights that help us to understand what it means to “disciple the nations.” First, it realizes that the Great Commission is about more than saving individuals; it is also about bringing God’s reign into the world. It emphasizes reforming institutions (especially government, law, and education).
Infiltration and Transformation
I take the viewpoint that the millennium is now, but that the Kingdom is not of this world. Christ is currently reigning in heaven, and we His Body are realizing His reign on earth. While this is technically “amillennial”, in practice, it plays out very similarly to what you might hear from someone like Bill Johnson and Kris Vallotton. The Kingdom of God is like yeast in the leaven; we are to infiltrate the yeast and transform every aspect of society. It’s not about taking over, but rather infiltrating and transforming.
Matthew 28:19-20 is a piece of strategic genius. In saying, “Go and disciple all the nations,” Jesus is saying, “Gain influence over the corporate entity” because that corporate entity – the “nation” – is what disciples everything else. In a tribe, that’s the chief. You gain influence over him, and all of his people will be baptized, regardless of whether they are really “born again,” and that society will begin to implement Christian rather than pagan values. In a modern state, that means things like media, arts, government. These centers of culture actually disciple and train our youth what to think and therefore shape our future, and ultimately lay the foundation for who will or will not be saved.
Discipling nations is not about “takeover” in the long-term sense. It is about advancement. It is about soul winning. If you only win individuals and ignore the culture, you lose, because the culture disciples you and your children. You must disciple the culture itself. A child who was taught the ten commandments in school is not only much more likely to get saved, but they are also less likely to do the kinds of things that push people away from God – such as abuse children.
Culture is also the context in which everything happens. Have you ever wondered why some cultures are more friendly to the gospel, while others seem to be impenetrable? Much of it has to do with generations of cultural baggage. You can even see this in regions within the United States. Charlotte, NC, is easy to reach because it has deep Christian history that makes it fertile ground for the gospel. Boston, on the other hand, is hard ground. It is the home of a wholesale rejection of Christianity, so many people there are closed to even the thought of discussing God. When you have prominent and respected thinkers, leaders, and politicians who are believers, it starts to turn the tide in the opposite direction. The cultural milieu might not get someone saved, directly, but it will make the gospel start to seem less implausible, and more appealing, and in time that may open the door to them becoming a disciple.
If you would like to read more about where history is headed and the implications for our mission, check out my book Cracking the End Time Code.