Where Christ Has Not Been Named

A sermon on Romans 15:9-24 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 9/25/2005

On June 19, 2003, I received the following email:

My husband Jacob and I saw your ad in World magazine and are interested in possibly checking out your church plant. We are just moving from Wisconsin to Charlotte and need to find a God-glorifying church there. God has used John Piper’s writing and speaking to teach us and mature us in Him; your association with Bethlehem Baptist leads us to believe that your theology may be similar to our own. . . .

We are moving to Charlotte . . . so my husband can attend Reformed Theological Seminary in further preparation for overseas missions service. We have just been accepted as missionaries to Wycliffe Bible Translators. . . . God is leading us toward serving his church as Bible translators in one of the unreached, Bible-less peoples of the world (we don’t know which one yet). . . .

[We] need a church that recognizes God’s supremacy among the nations and the certainty that He will bring all those He has elected into the fold. And we need a church where we can declare God’s greatness and serve others for joy and His honor. . . .

Karen and Jacob

Now, two years later, God willing, Karen and Jacob – and Isabelle, born about 7 weeks after that email - are five days from departing for Southeast Asia. It has been our privilege to have them among us these two years, to serve them and be served by them. We have rejoiced with them and wept with them. We have loved them and they have loved us. And now we send them off, not knowing when we will see them again.

Why? Why are we sending this family whom we dearly love to the opposite side off the globe? Why are they going to a place thousands of miles from family and friends, that has none of the comforts of American society, to spend – God knows how long? Years. Perhaps a decade, or longer.

Karen told us the answer in that initial communication: So that a people group unreached with the Gospel can hear the Good News of Jesus Christ.

How do you react when you hear that? Do you think:

Friends: The call to which Jacob and Karen are responding is not a call to them alone. That call is the call of Jesus to His entire church. How are you answering the call?

These are last words that Jesus speaks in the Gospel of Matthew:

Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and disciple all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age." Matthew 28:18-20 (ESV except verse 19, own translation)

This is the final, ringing note in the Gospel according to Matthew. What does Jesus command here? What is this central task of the church – so central that it concludes this Gospel?

Greek grammar makes clear that the central command in these verses is to disciple all nations. Your translation probably renders that phrase, “Make disciples of all nations.” The translation committees tend to choose these words rather than “disciple all nations” for two main reasons:

1)      “Disciple” is rarely used today as a verb outside the evangelical church. Indeed, Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary doesn’t include disciple as a verb, and Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary says “disciple” as a verb is obsolete or archaic. Similarly, spell check in Microsoft Word doesn’t recognize “discipling” or “discipled.”

2)      Those of us who use “disciple” as a verb use it in the context on one-on-one or one-on-few meetings. Even for us, it’s not clear what discipling a nation means.

But there are some problems with the standard translation, “make disciples of all nations.” This phrase makes it sound as if “make” is the verb and “disciples” is the object of the verb, and so the main command is to make disciples. The fact that those disciples are found in many nations appears to be a secondary, less important part of the sentence. A reader could well think that he could fulfill the command by making disciples of his friends and family.

But that is not what the Greek text says. In Greek, the verb is “disciple” and the object of the verb is “all nations.” It is impossible to fulfill this command apart from going, baptizing, and teaching all nations. Thus, you can be an active member of a church, an active witness to your family and friends, and a discipler of many – and still not fulfill this command.

So let’s try to understand just what this command means. What is the missionary task of the church? What must we do to complete it? To what does Jesus call all Christians in these verses?

We’ll examine this through three questions:

There are many texts we could use to answer these questions. Today, we’ll use Romans 15:9-24, and the Old Testament verses cited there.

Who Are the Nations?

Romans 15 provides us with Paul’s understanding of Matthew 28:18-20. He clearly sees himself fulfilling this and similar commands given in Scripture to disciple all nations. This passage is thus particularly helpful in understanding the church’s missionary task.

However, many people don’t see the importance of this text for missions because of another translation issue. The Greek word translated “nations” in Matthew 28:19 is “ethnos,” the word from which we get “ethnic” and “ethnicity.” This word never means “country” or “political entity” as our word “nation” does at times. Instead, it most often means “ethnic group” or “people group.” The most authoritative Greek lexicon gives the primary definition of this word as “a body of persons united by kinship, culture, and common traditions.” So in Revelation 5:9, the 24 elders praise Jesus, saying, “By your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” By putting the word “ethnos”, “nation”, together with the other three words, the author helps us see that “nation” is related to linguistic, tribal, and cultural distinctions.

Although “people group” is the most common meaning of “ethnos”, the word is used biblically in another sense. In its plural form, it can mean “non-Jewish individuals.” In these cases, it is translated “Gentiles” instead of “nations.” Romans 2:14 is an example:

For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.

Paul here is referring to non-Jewish individuals doing the requirements of the law, not whole tribes or people groups.

So sometimes the plural form of  “ethnos” means “people groups” and other times “non-Jewish individuals.” In other passages, the author seems to intend both meanings: “Gentile individuals from many different nations.”

What about Romans 15? In this chapter, Paul uses the word “ethnos” seven times. Most English translations render all seven occurrences “Gentiles.” I do believe Paul is thinking here of Gentile individuals to some extent, but the Old Testament references cited make clear that his is thinking primarily about nations, people groups. And this makes a difference in our ability to see the missions focus of this text. So let me read Romans 15:8a and 9-12, translating the plural of “ethnos” as “nations”:

For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God's truthfulness, . . . 9 in order that the nations might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, "Therefore I will praise you among the nations, and sing to your name." 10 And again it is said, "Rejoice, O nations, with his people." 11 And again, "Praise the Lord, all you nations, and let all the peoples extol him." 12 And again Isaiah says, "The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the nations; in him will the nations hope." Romans 15:8a, 9-12

Paul is saying: Jesus “became a servant to the circumcised” - that is, he became incarnate as a Jew - to show that God speaks truth, and in order that the nations might glorify God for mercy. Not just Gentile individuals – though that, of course, is implied – but so that God could redeem that multitude from every tribe and tongue and people and nation listed in Revelation 5.

To support this assertion Paul quotes four Old Testament passages: Psalm 18:49, Deuteronomy 32:43, Psalm 117:1, and Isaiah 11:10. If you look at almost any English translation of these verses – English Standard Version, New American Standard, New International Version - every one uses the translation “nations” rather than “Gentiles” in all four verses. So why use “Gentiles” in Romans 15 when Paul quotes these verses?

“Gentile” is most clearly wrong in Romans 15:11, when Paul quotes Psalm 117:1. This verse is Hebrew poetry; the first and second half of the verse are parallel. “Praise the Lord” is parallel to “extol him,” and “all you nations” is parallel to “all the peoples.” To put “Gentiles” in parallel with “peoples” makes no sense.

So I strongly believe the best translation of “ethnos” in Romans 15 in all seven cases is “nations.” John Piper comes to the same conclusion. 

With that understanding of the word “ethnos”, think now about what this passage says. Why did Christ become incarnate? Christ became incarnate so that all the nations would glorify God for His mercy. As Piper says in Let the Nations Be Glad, we“aim to bring the nations into the white-hot enjoyment of God’s glory. The goal of missions is the gladness of the peoples in the greatness of God.” By enjoying God, by delighting in Him, they glorify Him - and thus fulfill the purpose of the incarnation.

Thus, bringing the Gospel to all the nations is not a secondary, optional, lower-order task for the church. It is the primary mission of the church! It is a primary reason for the incarnation! God’s plan from the beginning was to bless all the nations through the seed of Abraham, to bring all tribes to Himself, to forge one people for Himself out of all nations.

When is a Nation Discipled?

So, in Matthew 28:19, “disciple all nations,” means “disciple all people groups,” “all cultures,” “those from every language,” “all ethnic groups.” And this has been a central task of God from the beginning.

But when is a nation, a people group, discipled? Does Matthew 28:19 mean we should go to one people group and evangelize it: plant churches, teach, enable believers to grow in faith – and when 100% of people in that group become believers, then go to the next group?

Not at all. If that were the case, Christianity never would have spread past the Jews.

But what does the command mean? When is a nation discipled? When is the task fulfilled?

Romans 15 is especially helpful here, for it tells us how the greatest missionary of all time understood the missionary task:

From Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ. Romans 15:19b

We could translate that last phrase, “have fulfilled the preaching of the Good News.” From Jerusalem around to present-day Albania, Paul says he’s finished the task! Indeed, in verse 23 he says, “I no longer have any room for work in these regions.” Why not? What had Paul accomplished? Were all the people in these regions believers? Far from it. Paul’s letters indicate that there were false teachers in the church, and opposition from those outside. The Christians in this area were only a tiny minority of the overall population. Paul had not even visited most towns in the region.

So how can Paul say he’s finished?

Because the missionary task is not to convert everyone, not even to speak to everyone. The missionary task instead is to plant multiplying churches among people groups, in major cities in a region. These churches are then responsible for continuing the spread of the Gospel.

Verses 20 and 21 clarify this:

I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else's foundation, 21 but as it is written, "Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand." Romans 15:20-21

Paul sees himself as fulfilling the Old Testament passage he quotes, Isaiah 52:15.  In that passage, the pronoun “he” refers to Jesus. Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is the important “Suffering Servant Song,” a clear prophesy of Jesus as Messiah that includes well-known verses such as Isaiah 53:5:

He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.

Turn to this passage. How does Isaiah 52:15 begin? “So shall he sprinkle many nations . . .”. Thus, in the part Paul quotes, “those who have never been told of him” refer not primarily to individuals, but to nations, nations who have never heard of Jesus.

Do you understand? Paul sees the missionary task of the church as fulfilling Isaiah 52:15. The missionary task is enabling nations who have never been told to see Jesus! Enabling those who have never heard of Him to understand! The missionary task of the church thus is spreading the Gospel to every nation – so that a church might arise in that nation and spread that Gospel among individuals within it. Thus, reaching unreached people groups is a central task of the church.

Do note: this is not the only task of the church, nor is it the only important task. After all, Paul sends Timothy and Titus to existing churches in Ephesus and Crete; he himself interacts with these believers through letters and visits, and he plans to pass through Rome. He collects an offering to take to the poor believers in Judea.

But the fulfillment of Matthew 28:19, Isaiah 52:15, and other verses requires a focus on church planting among those peoples who have never heard. We as a church most focus our efforts and resources on this task to fulfill the missionary mandate.

What About You?

So Paul, understanding the missionary task, had to move on to new fields, to unreached groups. He could not continue to minister in Philippi and Ephesus and Thessalonica and Antioch. He needed to press forward to reach the unreached.

What about us today? Is the missionary task fulfilled?

Unlike in Paul’s day, today there is a Christian witness within most every country. But as we have seen, the task is not only to reach every country, but to reach every people group within countries. Indeed, there are large populations of unreached peoples in predominantly Moslem, Hindu, and Buddhist people groups. Researchers estimate that about 1.6 billion people – one-fourth of the world population – have no access to the Gospel in their culture or language. No Bible. No believers within the ethnic group, or such a small handful of believers that they need significant help to spread the Gospel among their people.

Yet despite this huge need, according to Ralph Winter and Bruce Koch, “most foreign missionaries work within peoples which are predominantly Christian.” They estimate that fewer than three percent of foreign missionaries work with unreached peoples groups.

Jerry Rankin, president of the International Mission Board, recently visited the IMB strategy coordinator for people groups in a Central Asian country. They rejoiced together that over 60 people groups had been reached with the Gospel in last 15 years since this region opened up. But more than 300 people groups in that country remain unreached. So this strategy coordinator lamented about “having to decide in our strategic planning, with such limited resources and personnel, which people groups will be deprived of the gospel yet another year.”

Jacob and Karen are going. What about you? What are you doing to fulfill the missionary task of the church?

So should we close down Desiring God Community Church and say that anyone who is really a Christian should join Jacob and Karen, going overseas next Friday to an unreached group?

I’m not suggesting that. But I am suggesting that every Christian should be actively involved in the task of spreading the Gospel to unreached peoples. That is the only way to be obedient to Matthew 28:19 and many other verses.

Think of it this way. A few of you were alive during World War II. A very few of you remember that war, and the atmosphere in the US at that time. From my reading and from talking with my parents and others, I understand that during those years, civilization seemed to hang in the balance.  Hitler’s regime was so horrible that allowing it to maintain dominance of mainland Europe, to conquer Britain, to control North Africa, was unthinkable. Our entire country focused on that one objective: Win this war. Many other important tasks had to be done, but this defeating Hitler was the most important. So every individual had to ask: What can I do to aid this war effort? The majority of able-bodied men aged 18 to 45 served in the armed forces, many on the frontlines. Some women served in the armed forcers, and many more worked in factories, or supported the war effort in other ways.

Imagine, then, that you are 30 years old in 1942. You are one of the few individuals in the world who understands nuclear physics. Like all able-bodied men, you have the opportunity to serve your country in the frontline army. But because of your specialized training, you also have the opportunity to work on the Manhattan project, trying to produce a nuclear weapon before Germany does so. Which should you choose?

If Germany develops the first nuclear weapon, the results will be horrendous. Germany will win the war. So you choose not to go to the frontline – but you nevertheless choose a task based on how best to help the war effort.

You face a similar question: “How can I best be used to fulfill the mandate to disciple all nations?”

I ask myself this question regularly: Should I continue to minister in the US? Is serving as pastor of Desiring God Church the most strategic way to use my gifts in the cause of Christ? I assure you: if the answer to that question was no, if I thought I could advance the missionary task more effectively by doing something different, I would do it. Quickly.

Just so with you. Ask yourself this question. Are you right now using your time, energy, and money in the most effective way for bringing the Gospel to unreached peoples?

Note what I am not saying. I am not being subjective. I am not suggesting you ask yourself, “Do I feel like I am called to go serve an unreached people?” My friend, you don’t have that option. The Bible makes the answer about your calling clear: You are called to this task. The question is: What is your specific role in fulfilling the missionary task of the church?

So don’t make your response dependent on your feelings or intuition. The question is: Given who God is, given His revelation in Scripture, given the task God mandates, given who you are: What should you do?

In World War II there were many vital tasks. Just so today. But with fewer than three percent of foreign missionaries working with unreached people groups, we know there has been a huge misallocation of resources. Now, some of those missionaries working with reached people groups are serving right where they should. There are strategic ways to work with such groups. But we know many are not. Why? Why did they go to a less strategic place?

Mainly because the remaining unreached peoples are not groups that anyone encounters on vacation. They are not groups that many people encounter when traveling on business. Thus, they are hidden to us. Unless we make a special effort to learn about them, we will not even know that they exist. No one’s going to wake up one day and say, “Oh, I feel called to the Western Baluch!” This people group lives in a remote area of western Pakistan. Their homeland is mountainous, and is mostly closed to outsiders. They are not friendly to outsiders, and are particularly suspicious of Americans. Their language is difficult. No church is going to send a team of fifteen teenagers to the Western Baluch who then get stirred up and want to go back. Yet there are more than a million Western Baluch. And we do not know of a single believer among them. More than 2000 years after the cross, these people are still walking completely in darkness.

That’s what unreached groups are like today. They live in hard, dangerous places. Reaching them will require lots of discomfort. Lots of sacrifice. In many cases, reaching them will require martyrdom.

The only way these people will ever be reached is for churches to hold up the banner of God’s missionary mandate. We must preach the whole counsel of God. We must get people to see the task, to see the greatness of our God, to see (as Karen stated in her first email) “God’s supremacy among the nations and the certainty that He will bring all those He has elected into the fold.” We must challenge people to be willing to surrender all worldly claims and to serve God for the joy of all peoples.

So that’s what we are doing this morning. Shortly we will celebrate the Lord’s Supper together. In this ordinance, we celebrate God’s sending His Son to reach the unreached peoples. Two thousand years ago, your people group was unreached with the Gospel. Today – because of missionaries who spoke the Word cross-culturally, your people group is reached. What about the others? How are you working to that end?

We as a church are committed to ensuring that the majority of our international mission resources go to reaching the unreached. But what about your life? What is your role?

Jesus is to be glorified among the nations. You have a task to fulfill. Are you willing? Whatever the sacrifice might be – are you willing?

This is the task of the church. What should you do? How is your life to be used by God to reach the unreached peoples of the world? For it must be used that way!

“Go therefore and disciple all the nations!”

This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 9/25/05. John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad! The Supremacy of God in Missions, Second Edition, Revised and Expanded (Baker, 1993, 2003) was particularly helpful. Chapter 5, “The Supremacy of God Among ‘All the Nations,’” p. 155-200, is an extended investigation of the nature of the missionary task. The quote from this book is on page 17. Piper’s support for the contention that “ethnos” in Romans 15 should be translated “nations” is on page 178. The figure of 1.6 billion unreached people is from Jerry Rankin, To the Ends of the Earth: Churches Fulfilling the Great Commission (International Mission Board, 2005), p. 19, while the quote from the IMB strategy coordinator is found on page 49. The Ralph Winter and Bruce Koch quote is from “Finishing the Task: The Unreached Peoples Challenge,” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader, Third Edition, Ralph Winter and Steven Hawthorne, eds. (William Carey Library, 1999), p. 519. To explore these topics further, take the Perspectives course: www.perspectives.org.

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