How should we interpret "ethnos" in Matthew 28:19? Should it be interpreted as "tribes" or as "all the rest of the world" - like saying "Gentiles"? Mark 16:19, for example, says “go into all the world [kosmos], preach to every creature [ktisis]”.

I'm not a trained theologian. Like C. S. Lewis, I am a layman who has found a weak spot in the line where God is calling me. So my comments on the interpretation of this Scripture are from that perspective, and wiser heads than mine know more about the Hebrew and the Greek involved. From my perspective, however, "ethnos" in Matthew 28:19 doesn't have to mean one or the other - it can mean both.

For those of us who've spent a long time thinking of "make disciples of all the nations" equating to "make disciples of each individual nation from a list of nations," this is perhaps a hard interpretation to wrap our brains around.

A useful analogy might be pointing to a table of 20 pies, each sliced into multiple slices, and the command, "Make meals of all the slices." This could mean either:

  • Take a bite out of every slice
  • Eat every slice, entirely (=eat all the pies)
  • Considering the "slices" as "one whole set," eat "of the set," which means you can eat out of any, some, many, most, or all of the slices.

Of the differences between these, great arguments can be made about strategy and defining "finished."

Most of the time, when I hear this conundrum or argument, it's because someone's reacting against a list mentality. We want to define the remaining task, and we do it by making lists. We see the many peoples without workers, and too few workers available. Rather than sending lots of workers to one place so that everyone in one place can hear, we say, "Why should anyone hear the Gospel twice when some have not heard it once?" We take the workers we have and divvy them up as best we can over multiple peoples on the list.

When we get frustrated -- too few workers, too many peoples on the list -- we start getting angry. When someone comes to our agency with a sense of where God is calling them to serve, we may slip into judgement mode. We judge people's perception of their calling and judge the church based on the list. Obviously, we don't have enough workers to reach the peoples on the list. Someone's not obeying. It might be.. YOU! Maybe you think you're called to France, but let me suggest... you're actually ignoring God's calling on your life to Afghanistan and martyrdom! Yes, we know what you really want--a life of ease in Paris...

And then comes the inevitable response: Wait, the Great Commission is to go into all the world to all the nations, and French people are a nation too! I'm out there among the nations just as much as you are!

Let the arguments commence! Bring out the tar! pitchfork! feathers!

We can take both these arguments too far. The list-side can rapidly become an idol to be followed over the leading of the Holy Spirit. But the non-list side can rapidly say "He just meant to get out among the nations, not that every single individual nation needs to be reached."

Two question seem to present themselves:

  • Did Jesus mean reach every single individual nation?
  • How do I know my calling is valid? If I'm called to someone who has heard lots of times, am I as important and valuable and loved as someone who's called to people who haven't heard once?

My answer to the second question is, YES! The real problem isn't that some have heard twice, or three times, or ten times, or a hundred. The real problem is, some haven't heard once. The solution is not taking from those who've heard a hundred times and giving to those who haven't heard once, or telling people their calling is somehow worthless because they are going to a people who've already heard lots and lots of times. Taking someone gifted as a Billy Graham - a home evangelist - and redeploying them somewhere else (e.g. Pakistan) is not necessarily going to solve this. All that means is people back home will hear less (than they might need to), and the person in question may not be a gifted cross-cultural missionary. This is a scarcity model. God has enough supply to meet the need, so we need to mobilize His supply. We need to seek his abundance for the unreached. ("If you know you are called to France, I'll help you find an agency that will get you there. But if you don't know where you're called yet, can I ask you, beg you, plead with you to pray earnestly about whether you might be called to those who have never heard once?")

Likewise, my answer to the first question is: YES! We must never use lists as filters for judging people, but we should use them as a sketch of where we are in the process - of what we have left to do. To me, "...of all the nations..." is both a nod to the many slices of the world, and to the whole - French and Fulani, Germans and Gujarati, Americans and Assamese. By way of analogy: the point isn't to eat a bite out of each slice, but to have the pie! The slices aren't important, the pie is. Whether the pie is cut in quarters, eights, or sixteenths, Jesus wants the whole pie. I don't think Jesus is concerned as much for our lists as for the world described by the lists. God loves the whole world - people, not languages - birds, not flocks - and wants every last sheep to be found.