Our topic for this week is “Discipling the Nations” and the most obvious place to start is with the Great Commission which is found at the end of Matthew’s gospel. “Go make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19) is perhaps its most well known phrase. The Greek word for “nations” here is “ethne” where we get our English word “ethnic” from. Thus the Great Commission goes far beyond the 200 plus nations that are in the world today and encompasses the many thousands of ethnic groups which are currently inhabiting and moving all over the globe.
The leading missiologist of the twentieth century hailed from South Africa and his name was David Bosch. In his seminal book, Transforming Mission, he insightfully states that the Great Commission was an “index” to the book of Matthew. Just like an index outlines the key terms at the end of a book, the Great Commission is formulated at the end of the gospel to encapsulate the major themes Matthew has woven together.
The theological and sociological significant term “nations” is addressed very early in Matthew’s radical geneology. People today are interested in their genealogies and there are several web sites which supposedly can trace your family tree with a bare amount of information. I have never been tempted to look too deeply into my own family’s past because I know that the odds are that there will be just as many zeroes as there are heroes.
However, in the days of the Bible, genealogies were very important. They determined property rights, whether you would be a priest from the tribe of Levi or a king from the tribe of Judah. Genealogies also helped people to trace their lineage back to Abraham which made you a Jew and that was all that really mattered if you were from the chosen race.
Now Matthew is writing to Jews and of course there had always been questions regarding the right of Jesus to be the Messiah. There were questions about just where did He come from and who was part of His family tree. To the mind of a Jew it would be very important that the Savior of the world have only the best of people, the “blue bloods,” the “who’s who” of righteous royalty hanging from the branches of His family tree.
Well sure enough, Matthew begins his gospel by stating that Jesus was, “the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). There you go. Jesus is the son of David and that gives Him the right to be the King and He is also a son of Abraham, a true Jew, a Son of the Promise.
Now Matthew could have left well enough alone. He could have delved right into the exciting birth story of Jesus the shepherds, the angels and the wise men. Instead, he now goes on for fifteen verses and lists almost every Tom, Dick and Mary that was part of Jesus’ genealogy. Anyone who has started out reading the New Testament and seen all those “begats” immediately becomes a speed reader and jumps over this section which lists many obscure names and people one right after another.
However, as most treasures in the Bible, you have to dig a little deeper to find the gold mine of God’s love. For upon more careful reading one discovers that Matthew’s genealogy was extremely radical and must have caused quite a stir in his day. For the first gospel lists four Gentile women, three of whom you should never mention in good company.
There is Tamar, who committed incest with her father-in-law Judah and had twins. Rahab was a prostitute from Jericho and Ruth was a widow from Moab (a people of incestuous origin). Last but not least is the “wife of Uriah the Hittite” who became David’s wife after the king devised to have him killed in battle.
Now just why oh why does Matthew include these immoral Gentile women in his genealogy, along with liars (Abraham); cheaters (Jacob); murderers (David) and the wicked king Manasseh? The answer to the query can be found in Matthew 1:21, when the angel says to Joseph, “You shall call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins (emphasis mine).”
And just who are “His people?” Are they only the Jewish people, the good people, the people who believe in Him? According to the context of Matthew 1, “His people” are all the people mentioned in the genealogy! People who have sex with their father-in-laws are “His people.” Prostitutes and murderers are “His people.” The good, the bad and the ugly are “His people.”
The glory of the gospel, the glory of discipleship is that through the Almighty and wonderful love and power of God, Jesus came to save “His people” from their sins! When we join the family of Jesus, we are not only saved but transformed by His grace. The immoral become pure, the liars become truthful, the cheaters become honest and the persecutor Paul proclaims this gospel to the nations.
I am so glad that Jesus did not have a perfect background with perfect people. If He did there would certainly be absolutely no hope for you and me. Jesus Christ came to save His people from their sins. . . . from the guttermost to the uttermost. These people are from every tribe, kindred tongue and people on earth. May we all not only remember where we came from but the glorious redemption that is ours through faith in our Elder Brother. And having tasted His saving power, He sends us to make disciples of all the sinners in all the nations.
So far we have looked at how the gospel of Matthew from beginning to end attempts to compassionately encompasses all the different peoples and ethnicities on the planet. After all, the sunshine falls on both the evil and the good, the Jew and the Gentile and the slave and the free. Now I would like to discuss some of the challenges that still face the church as it goes forth to disciple the nations. Perhaps there is no better place to illustrate the great challenges facing discipling the nations than to look at some current urban ethnic issues.
Let me begin with the city of Bangkok, Thailand as a case in point. The SDA church has been in Thailand for over 100 years and has a few thousand converts from that devout Buddhist country. During the last several years, thousands of young people from the Philippines have immigrated there to be English language teachers. Some of these are well trained Seventh-day Adventist young people and they have literally flooded the small churches in Bangkok.
While this has provided a short-term boost to the struggling congregations, it has also shifted the church’s constitution and identity from Thai to Filipino. In some respects, those churches which have received a large influx of foreign members have lost their capacity to witness to the local context because the language and culture of the churches have gone through dramatic changes.
This case study could be repeated in many places today and it shows that the challenges created by the confusion of language and the creation of different cultures at the Tower of Babel is still alive and well today. In fact from my experience and study as a missiologist I would say that the understanding and overcoming of ethnic and cultural differences is the number one challenge facing the church today (cf the current women’s ordination debate included).
This should come as no surprise as the first issue that challenged the New Testament church was the ministration to the Hebrew and Greek widows in Acts 6. The Church is challenged today, as it was back then, to fairly and wisely distribute the loaves and the fishes to the many hungry people from the many hungry groups that surround us. Facing these challenges, Jesus has promised in the Great Commission that all authority is given to Him and with that power He has promised to be with us always, as we go and make disciples of all nations.
Some points of discussion connected with Discipling the Nations and urban ministry:
1) Given the fact that immigrant peoples are much easier to win then those already settled in the city, how can the church balance winning the new people (who tend to be poor but spiritually hungry) without losing its witness to the majority (who tend to be more well off and less spiritually needy).
2) Do you think the various ethnic groups in the city should have their own churches or integrate into the existing churches?
3) Have you ever personally had an experience with more than one ethnic or cultural group meeting on the same church property? What opportunities and blessings resulted from such a relationship and did the experiment end in a positive or negative way?
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5849