Jesus tells us to teach the nations to obey him, what does that mean?

Here’s how the question was phrased on Sunday

In the Great Commission, Jesus commands the disciples to teach the Nations to obey Jesus’ commands. Are there any examples of what it looks like to do this practically without coming across as self-righteous and judgmental?

I’ve never heard the question phrased this way before, but it really helps me understand a dynamic of modern Christianity that I hadn’t understood before.
This question is based on the passage we call the Great Commission as quoted by Matthew at the end of his book. It says this:

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” — Matthew 28:19-20 NIV

The question understands the “them” in the third phrase to refer to the word “nations” in the first phrase. I’ve never heard anyone make that connection before, but let me explain what the significance of that connection is.

If “them” refers to “nations,” then Jesus is commanding us as his followers to perform baptisms in every nation, and also to work in every nation of the world to get the people of those nations to obey Jesus’ commands. Understanding the command that way, it’s easy to see how modern Christians are behaving in such self-righteous and judgmental ways. Here in America, there is a growing movement known as Christian Nationalism. It’s a movement that has been going on for a long time, but it has been picking up speed more recently. Basically, the movement says this: America was created to be a Christian nation, but our modern world is sliding away from those Christian principles, so Christians need to step up and take back our rightful place as leaders of the nation to re-establish those Christian principles as the law of the land. In simple terms, it says Christians should be in charge.

A softer version of this doesn’t say Christians should be in charge, but it says that Christian morality is universal and should be universally applied. That is, since Jesus teaches against sexual immorality, Christians should speak up against sexual immorality, pointing our fingers at those who are sexually immoral and openly talking about how morally wrong they are. Christians who act like that will obviously be seen as judgmental or even self-righteous by the watching world.

I’ve been personally upset by both the hard and soft versions of this idea, but I have been confused about where the idea came from. However, because of the way this question was phrased, I now see something I never saw before. I now see that some Christians think we are supposed to teach the nations to obey.

That interpretation is wrong, though.

The proper antecedent to the word “them” is not “nations” but “disciples.” Jesus doesn’t say we should teach the nations to obey his command. Jesus said we should make disciples in every nation, and teach those disciples to obey his commands. That is a terribly important distinction. Jesus wasn’t about using coercive methods to get people to fall in line with him or the will of his Father. Jesus was doing something far more subversive but more meaningful. Jesus was a man who gave his life to others and for others. He showed us love we did not deserve, and he totally transformed the lives of a few people around him. Then those few people followed suit and took on the same attitude. They didn’t try to control society. Rather, they did the incredibly subversive thing of living sacrificial lives in the midst of the broken world. They gave their lives to and for others, and as a result, they totally transformed the lives of a few people around them. Then, those few people repeated the process again and again.

The command is to make disciples, and train the disciples to be disciples, and then deploy them to repeat the process.

If we think our job is to teach the nations, we will try to get unbelievers to live by the code of Jesus, and we will fail so often that we will be tempted to resort to normal earthly techniques of power and coercion.

However, if we think our job is to teach disciples to actually be disciples, we will be part of the most subversive and most successful movement in human history. And if the disciples are living like actual disciples, if the disciples are really looking like Jesus, then no one will be able to accuse us of being judgmental because we will reserve all judgment only for the other disciples as we strive to admonish one another. No one will be able to accuse us of being self-righteous because we are focused on personally living in dependence on the righteousness of Christ.

No one accused Jesus of being judgmental or self-righteous.

Disciples are supposed to look like him.

Here’s the bottom line: Disciples encourage other disciples to live like disciples, to move through the world the way Jesus moved through the world, and to invite the people of the world into fellowship with them and their Heavenly Father just as Jesus did.

About the Author

Related Posts