What is the church’s mission? You might expect the answer would be obvious, given that it’s…well, our mission. Not knowing that would be like a starship showing up at Wolf 359 and not knowing what to do there. Except, whereas they could have gotten the hang of it by watching everyone else, in our case the tactical officer is fairly sure the Borg aren’t targeting us; ops is fairly sure the ship on the other side of the cube is; and the ensign at helm is refusing to implement a flanking maneuver because the captain who gave the order is a Vulcan, and I mean really.
Now, it’s true that none of us were at the original mission briefing. But we have a pretty accurate summary of it, recorded by those who were. Indeed, most of us have it committed to memory, because it’s really rather straightforward. Here’s what we’re ordered to do:
Go and make disciples in all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Simple, right? All we have to do is tell people about Jesus, and baptize them if they believe.
Except that isn’t quite what the briefing actually said. The marching orders Jesus gave were slightly more detailed:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you—and behold, I am with you all the days, until the end of the age.Matthew 28:18–20
This commission is obviously for the church at large, given that the original disciples died well before the end of the age—as, no doubt, shall we. So this is not merely a general order; it is a standing order; and not merely a standing order, but the standing order—our Prime Directive. The Great Commission is General Order 1, as issued by the commander-in-chief of the kingdom of God. As such, while it is the task of the church’s various leaders to direct those under them to enact this order, it is also the duty of every one one of us to uphold it, promote it, and work towards its success.
But to do this, we need to understand exactly what it is we’re upholding, promoting, and working towards.
And therein lies a problem, since—as I’ve suggested—most Christians understand our Prime Directive to be purely about converting individuals. (Many Christians even forget the “teaching them to observe” part.)
I believe this is because most Christians, despite, or maybe because of their familiarity with the term “kingdom of God,” think of our religion as one of personal belief in a personal savior.
So here is the point where I explain why I have been laboring this Starfleet metaphor so hard.
The whole thrust of the gospel, the good news, is that the kingdom of God is triumphing over the kingdom of Satan, because God has established a new king, Jesus, who is completely righteous and worthy to rule, and has therefore been given all authority in heaven and on earth. The rulers and authorities, the cosmic powers over this present darkness, the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places, are no longer in command; they are under God’s anointed human king.
This is not exactly hidden in the text of Scripture—it’s right there on the surface for anyone who cares to look: Ephesians 3:10; 6:12; Colossians 2:15; John 12:31; etc etc. Jesus is presently ruling—all authority has been given to him, as he told the disciples in the original mission briefing. He is seated at the right hand of the Majesty on high (1 Peter 3:22; Hebrews 1:3; 12:2; Ephesians 1:20; Daniel 7:13–14).
But what is Jesus doing with this rule? Is he just waiting for individuals to invite him into their hearts? Is he holding his breath for people to accept the wonderful plan he has for their lives? Is he just chilling around up there, hoping for one of his children to finally advise the last unreached people-group about him, so the end can come (Matthew 24:14)? Is he hanging tight until then, waiting for the time when he can establish his kingdom?
He is currently exercising his rule. He is right now establishing his kingdom. He is at this very moment reigning until he has put all his enemies under his feet (1 Corinthians 15:25; Psalm 110:1; Acts 2:34–35).
How Jesus is establishing his kingdom & putting his enemies under his feet
I’m not talking about general providence. The Son of God was doing general providence before the cross, but he wasn’t putting all his enemies under his feet. So if you thought I was talking about providence, I’m not.
I’m talking about the same way any king conquers an opposing kingdom: through battle. It is his assembled people who assault the gates of hell (Matthew 16:17); it is his soldiers who engage in personal combat with the angels who oppose him (Ephesians 6:12–13); it is his army who sets up siege-works to tear down strongholds (2 Corinthians 10:5). He is, after all, not only a man of war himself (Exodus 15:3), but the Lord of hosts (1 Samuel 4:4; Exodus 12:41). Hosts means armies.
He is establishing his kingdom and putting every single one of his enemies under his feet through his church. Through the Prime Directive.
What Jesus is doing right now is creating a new nation out of all the old ones, to carry out his Prime Directive (1 Peter 2:9)—and this happens geometrically until there is nothing left for us to do (Revelation 11:15).
But this gets us to a rather important point: we are not merely soldiers; we are also representatives of the king. Continuing our Starfleet metaphor, we are not primarily a military organization—we are a diplomatic one. We are, as it were, ambassadors with swords. You cannot fail to notice, when reading our Prime Directive, that it is predicated on Jesus’ authority:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them…teaching them…Matthew 28:18–20
As commentators are quick to note, it is the making disciples which is the main verb here: that is the action Jesus is commanding of us. We do this in three ways: by going, by baptizing, and by teaching. But each of these is predicated on Jesus’ authority: it is because he has been given all authority that we are to go, to baptize, to teach. Each of these is an exercise of authority on behalf of Jesus:
- We go into enemy-occupied territory, commanding that everyone turn from their rebellion and place allegiance in our king (Acts 17:30–31), falling on his mercy (Acts 2:21), because it is his territory and he will one day judge those who live there;
- We baptize those who obey, as a public repudiation of their former loyalties, and as a pledge of allegiance to the rightful king (1 Peter 3:21);
- We teach within the structure of the church, as our elders exercise their authority to speak on behalf of God to instruct, reprove, exhort, and train in righteousness unto the full obedience of faith (Romans 16:26; 2 Timothy 3:16–4:2).
But the striking thing I want to draw your attention to here is who we are supposed to do this with, because I don’t remember ever meeting a Christian who has correctly identified the target of the Prime Directive.
God’s people are commanded to make disciples of all the nations.
Jesus does not say, “Go and make disciples in all the nations.” He doesn’t say to disciple citizens of the nations. His explicit focus is the nations themselves: it is they, as corporate entities comprised of and ruled by believing individuals loyal to Jesus, who are to be made disciples. The nations themselves are to be “trained for the kingdom of heaven”—to borrow the ESV’s rendering from Matthew 13:51 of the same lemma for make disciples. This is the fulfillment of Psalm 2, which speaks of how Yahweh laughs at the nations who rage and plot pointlessly against him, before giving the reason:
7 I will tell the decree;
Yahweh said to me: “You are my son;
today I have begotten you.
8 Ask from me and I will make the nations your heritage, [cf. Psalm 82:8]
and your possession the ends of the earth.
9 You will break them with an iron rod.
Like a potter’s vessel you will shatter them.”
10 So then, O kings, be wise.
Be warned, O rulers of the earth.
11 Serve Yahweh with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.
12 Kiss the Son
lest he be angry and you perish on the way,
for his anger burns quickly.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.Psalm 2:7–12
Paul begins and ends the book of Romans by explicitly describing the gospel in the same way, saying that according to God’s declaration that Jesus is now crowned as the Son-of-God-in-power—and its corollary that all the other sons of God are no longer in power!—it was Paul’s task to bring about “the obedience of faith among all the nations” (Romans 1:4–5; 16:26; cf. Romans 15:18). These are his very first and very last words in Romans, summarizing the entire purpose of the gospel as bringing about this submissive allegiance (cf. 1 Peter 1:2). Paul was aware of the promise in Psalm 86:8–10 that all the nations will come and bow down before the Lord and glorify his name. He was aware that Pentecost was the beginning of the slow reversal of Babel which continues to the present day. This is surely why he went to such trouble to seek an audience with Caesar (Acts 25:11 etc); and why he instructed Timothy to pray specifically for kings and all those in authority (1 Timothy 2:1–4). Since Jesus has deposed the gods of the nations due to their corrupt rule (Psalm 82:6–8), and since all dominion is now placed on him, so all authorities must now reform their rule to act as his proxies, and to represent his reign.
I have previously observed that the telos of the gospel is to fully establish God’s kingdom on earth to the exclusion of all others (cf. Matthew 6:10), imposing divine dominion onto the world through a perfect human ruler—Jesus. Indeed, God’s kingdom ultimately replaces the world, the fallen human dominion, by transforming it (Revelation 11:15)—and this is inherently earth-bound. At the time I didn’t venture a comment on how this looks in action, but I think we have to note that the Prime Directive is at the heart of it:
When we pray, “Your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as in heaven,” we are not asking for God to remember his promise of the eschaton—we are asking him to help us fulfill the Great Commission and establish his kingdom on earth.
To put it simply, whereas Starfleet’s Prime Directive is one of non-interference with developing species, our Prime Directive is precisely the opposite: we do not live in a Utopian world where people naturally become better over time. Therefore, we are tasked specifically with interfering in the natural development of every race, to break down hell’s gates, to plunder it of souls, and to bring them onto the narrow road that ends at the gates of the new Jerusalem (Revelation 21:24–26).