Is the Great Commission Political?

by Tom Terry

Did you know that when Jesus gave the Great Commission to his disciples in Matthew 28 that he was not telling them something completely new? In fact, when Jesus gave the Great Commission he was not only giving the disciples something spiritual, it was something that also had vast political implications. Here’s a little background on the Great Commission and its political implications.

Politics & Religion In The Ancient World

Under Roman occupation, a religious infrastructure that built and contributed to community and economic growth was the norm. Roman rule took advantage of local deities, and established temples of its own. Whole communities thrived on the business generated by pagan ritual and devotion. The Apostle Paul experienced this in Ephesus when the metalworkers and priests of the goddess Artemis wanted Paul killed for fear of what would happen to their industry if his preaching prevailed. Culturally, the Jewish and Gentile Christians who would proclaim the faith to the known world were used to a culture where religion was a vital part of building empires and solidifying a community’s faith through the economic and political benefit that faith offered. Faith, that to a large degree helped build communities, was normal. Ironically, community building is something most of the great faiths of the East did not do. Buddhism, Hinduism, and others focused on either personal denial, or spiritual attainment, but they built no lasting communities within communities, or empires within empires. Nor did they build communities with an economy-generating component, as Judaism and Christianity did. Christianity was designed to transcend a culture, and through that transcendence, transform it. This is why Christianity was able to spread and develop beyond the cultural borders of Israel. Christianity is culturally independent: It can be applied to many cultures without losing it core values. Where its principles cannot be adapted, it will either transform the culture or be rejected. As an example: Can a cannibalistic tribe keep its cannibalism and properly apply biblical principles in that culture? Certainly not! The tribe must either be transformed in its culture, or reject the principles of biblical society.

Most importantly, even though the New Testament did not prescribe “nation-building” in Old Testament fashion, the principles of its relationship-oriented missionary venture are identical, as we will see. Christianity may not have set out with political agendas, or nation-development in mind, but the Great Commission made it inevitable. Let us be clear about this: Nation development was inevitable, it was destined to happen, it could not be avoided. The Great Commission guaranteed it.

By this time, many Christians who believe it is best to avoid all political involvement will be scratching their head. How does the Great Commission guarantee political change? You may be in for a shock. There’s a secret you should know about the Great Commission and its place in the Bible.

When the Great Commission was given, it was not a new idea. 

When Christians think of missions work, they think of Matthew 28:18-20:

“All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.

Matthew 28 is considered the foundational biblical passage that mandates what missionaries do–simply put, to tell others about Jesus. But it is more complex than that. Notice the emphasized words above: authority on earth, discipling, nations, observe. The meaning of authority on earth should be obvious–Jesus is the highest authority. Discipling means to make someone like the object of the one discipled: in this case, Jesus Christ. Whole nations are to be discipled. They are to observe, in other words, hold closely to the teachings of Jesus Christ, who, by the way, is the highest authority on earth. Imagine if someone had read Matthew 28 to the Roman governors or kings. Chaos! Treason! Imagine if the Jewish leaders and their Roman masters had truly understood the meaning of Jesus’ command?

They knew exactly what it meant, and that’s the point. How did they already know? Because they read the Great Commission in their own scrolls, long before Matthew ever put a pen to lamb’s skin.

The Great Commission of Matthew 28 is found at least five times in the Old Testament scrolls. We call them, covenants. These covenants contain identical principles that God uses to govern his relationships with men, families, and nations. The principles within the Great Commission are the same foundational principles of the Adamic, Noahadic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic covenants. These principles flow like a single river, covenant to covenant, until they end up at the mouth of Jesus Christ using them to create a great sea of peoples to call his own. Look at this chart. It is easy to see the common thread of principles that permeate each covenant. The principles are identical; the only major difference of consequence is in their application. 

There is a tendency to regard “fruitful and multiply” as the same thing. This is also true of “subdue” and “rule.” That these concepts are delineated in each covenant, and then repeated separately, infers that they are different. When looking at the spread of each principle over all the covenants, the difference becomes clearer as the application of each principle changes. The progression can be noticed in the Adamic covenant: Be fruitful (grow), and multiply (reproduce) yourself until you fill the earthsubdue the earth as you multiply, resulting in mastery (rule) over it.

Under Adam and Noah, the principles built a world population and the beginnings of a religious idea–man can relate to God. Under Abraham they built a family into a clan, and then clans into a nation founded on a tenet of faith–a special relationship with God. Under Moses the principles expanded that tenet and birthed a theocratic commonwealth–a nation with a special relationship to God. Under David the principles solidified the identity and destiny of the nation, while looking ahead to greater rule–a particular man (Jesus Christ) with a special relationship with God.

All the covenants look forward to expansion beyond the current state of the relationship. All the covenants are redemptive in some fashion; and can be construed, even in a minor way, as having political ramifications: “Fill the earth, subdue it…rule over” (Adamic–Genesis l:28); “Your seed shall possess the gates of their enemies” (Abrahamic–Genesis 22:17); “Kingdom of priests and holy nation” (Mosaic–Exodus 19:6); “Establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (Davidic–II Samuel 7:13). Only the covenant under Christ goes further, “All authority has been given to me in Heaven and on Earth” (Matthew 28:18).

The Old Testament covenants also looked forward to an individual who would fulfill the terms of each covenant–especially that of redemption: Adam’s “seed of the woman,” (Genesis 3:15), Noah’s implied promise of redemption (Genesis 9:9-17), Abraham’s heir who would bless all nations (Genesis 12:1-3), Moses’ coming prophet to write the law on our hearts (Deuteronomy 19:15-18), David’s descendant who would establish a permanent kingdom rooted in God’s house (II Samuel 7:1-17).

The Great Commission demonstrated in these covenants expanded a single family into a world-influencing ideology, and modeled a system of morality and a basis for civil law that was to be emulated in multiple nations around the world for thousands of years. It established the kingdom that would be the primary propagator of its principles, and culminated in a single man–the very object of the Great Commission itself–who fulfilled the terms of all the covenants. By framing the covenant principles in the Great Commission, Jesus validated their previous application for nation building, ensuring their continuance.

The Effects of the Great Commission

Throughout history, Christians have shaped philosophy, science, education, global discovery, and humanitarian causes. Christians have reordered the world of human rights, redefined basic human freedoms, and yes, forever changed the nature of political expression and rule.

No other faith can accomplish what Christianity has done. The foundational principles necessary don’t exist in Atheism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and not even Islam–the most notorious perversion of biblical concepts and personalities in history. Mohammed’s attempt to imitate the growth of Christianity, made possible by the Great Commission, pales compared to the genuine article. Throughout its history Islam has primarily grown through birthrates, political expansion, and coercion. Given enough time within an environment of true freedom, the political philosophy of Islam is doomed to self-destruct and go the way of all ideologies that are rooted in the suppression of man’s natural desire to be free.

In an interview I conducted with Matthew Staver, President of Liberty Counsel in 2003, he noted:

“Missionary work is political. Expressing the gospel, that for freedom Christ has set us free, has political implications. While most missionaries might not think sharing the gospel is political, it is expressly political. When you share that Christ forgives our sins, grants us eternal life and creates a new creation, that radical concept overflows to every aspect of our personal and social lives. The gospel is inherently political…Most Christians have no clue about how to view the world from a Biblical worldview. Thus, many are swayed by cultural trends, and have in fact become conformed to the world instead of reforming the world.”(1)

Imagine if God had not commanded Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Minor Prophets to speak out about the political injustices committed by Israel and its neighbors. A large portion of Psalms laments political oppression and legal injustices, with the Psalmists seeking God for a permanent solution or temporary refuge from evil. If God had not moved these prophets to speak and write, more than half the Old Testament would not exist, and we would lack a full picture of God’s concern about this issue. Even so, there is a tendency among some to so divorce religion and politics—or, specifically, Christianity and politics—that many of these issues are lost on the mission field. This is regrettable, because political oppression can lead to marvelous opportunities to serve people and nations, and reveal God’s view on these issues under the light of the Gospel.

Modern politics is separated from the missionary movement; and this is wise. As a person with a missionary’s perspective I would not want today’s politics tied to the Gospel other than to discuss corruption that requires repentance. I do not want to associate political conservatism or liberalism with the Gospel of Jesus. The Great Commission has political implications, but it is not a party or political movement. How many people have turned away from the Gospel because of political offenses by Christians? However, I do want the Great Commission to impact the world of politics, to change hearts and minds and have those changes work themselves out in people’s political expressions. Politics needs Christianity and the Bible. Because without it, it is a godless pursuit.

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