Understanding the Great Commission is important in understanding the link to and basis for the book of Acts and so that we may embrace it properly as well for our lives. Postmillennialists (PMs) understand the commission to directly inform their eschatological outlook. PMs insist that the logic of what Jesus presents in Matthew 28:18-20 is something like this:
Premise 1: Jesus has all authority (28:18).
Premise 2: Jesus will be with his people always (28:20b).
Premise 3; Jesus gives his people a commission (28:19-20a).
Conclusion: Therefore, Jesus will see it successfully accomplished.
The claim of the PMs that the correct understanding of the commission supports their eschatology, however, faces four problems. Two of those are in regard to this logical sequence of authority-plus-presence-plus-commission-equals-success.
Problem 1: PMs’ conclusion doesn’t follow the logic
First, it appears that the PM conclusion (i.e., the success of a Christianized world) doesn’t satisfy their logical process. Since God’s kingdom includes not only those who are alive on earth at one time but also those who have ever lived, the definition of success must take into account the entirety of the kingdom, not just the limited subset of those alive in some future period when all (or the vast majority) are Christians. Understanding the commission’s success as complete Christianization seems to be at odds, therefore, with the progressive nature of the PMs’ approach.
The often-used leaven-in-flour analogy from Matthew 13 cannot, I think, be applied to the logical process of the PMs. The leaven in that example infiltrates the entirety of the flour, whereas Christianization does not infiltrate all of the kingdom of God. Again, Christianization infiltrates only all those physically alive together at some future period. The progression of the leaven, therefore, does not have a consistent application regarding Christianization. It is an apples-oranges comparison. The progression of leaven simply is not similar to the progression of Christianity. If we were discussing the knowledge and glory of Christ as king (which I believe was Christ’s point in Matthew 13), we can notice the similarities to the leavening. But in the case of Christianization, the countless millions of all generations up to the end who have rejected Christ argue strongly and effectively against seeing the success of the commission defined as a Christianization of all.
Problem 2: PMs falsely define commission
The second problem I have is with the PM assumption that Christ’s intent in saying “Make disciples of all nations” (or, literally in the Greek, “Disciple all nations”) was to focus on the nations in the sense that the discipling work is explicitly undertaken for nations as a whole. Success, for the PM, then means that nations as a whole must be transformed.
Of course, this has a connection with problem #1 above in that some nations no longer exist. The Huns, for example, were a nation (people group) that formed after Christ gave his commission, but that died out before being Christianized. To argue that the logic of authority + presence + commission must equal the success of Christianization for the nations is shown false by the death of a people group without Christianization.
But besides this problem-#1-related issue, the PMs insist that Christ uses the word nations because he is interested in national transformation. Doug Wilson stated in one of his blogs on this subject that “to say that cultural transformation is not part of [the commission’s charge] is to completely overlook the direct object [nations] of that verb [disciple].” While I agree that cultural transformation is a good thing and directly related to Christ’s Matthew teaching of the kingdom, Wilson argues something more. He is saying that not to interpret national cultural transformation based on the commission is ignoring Christ’s use of the word nations. This statement, however, cannot be supported by the context of Matthew and the greater context of the New Testament. Consistently throughout the NT, the nations (Gentiles) are pitted against Israel in a covenant sense. The old covenant was with a nation—Israel. That covenant was ending and being replaced by the New Covenant of Christ, which is to individuals and not nations. (Libya and Sweden, for example, do not have national covenants with God under the New Covenant.) So Christ’s injunction to disciple the nations was to turn the Jew-centered mindset of his disciples from simply evangelizing Israel to evangelizing the world. This sense actually fits the context and, therefore, shows that the word nations does not necessarily have a focus on cultural or national transformation as Christ is using the word in the commission.
Problem 3: PMs’ hope is not the New Testament hope
In discussing the commission, Ken Gentry, a noted preterist postmillennialist, has said, “What is more, not only does Jesus authoritatively command the apostles to disciple all nations, but he even promises he will be with them (and all his people) ‘always.’ That is, he will be with them through the many days until the end to oversee the successful completing of the task. This is the postmillennial hope” (emphasis added; Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond, edited by Darrell L. Bock, p.48). It appears to me that Gentry’s hope lies in Christ’s presence and therefore help and oversight to realize the overriding concern—the Christianization of the world. I believe this runs contrary to the New Covenant hope expressly taught in the NT to be Christ’s return and our resurrection.
Titus 2:13 tells us that as we live by the grace of God in this present age, we are “waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” Clearly, Paul tells us that our hope is at Christ’s coming, not in the Christianization of the world during this age prior to his coming. Of course, no PM would argue that Christ’s coming is not our blessed hope. No PM would be surprised to see this verse, not realizing before it existed in Scripture. The point of my insistence here is that because of the PM’s understanding of the success of the commission, although acknowledging the Titus 2:13 blessed hope, he/she necessarily places it on the shelf while embracing the hope of the Christianized world as purpose and motivation for kingdom activity. This does not follow the urging of the NT.
First Corinthians 15:42-57 is especially important concerning this point. In the first few verses of this section Paul emphatically contrasts our current age with that to come after Christ’s return and our resurrection. What we have now in this age (all the way up until his coming) is that which is perishable, dishonorable, and weak. After the resurrection, we will have that which is imperishable, glorious, and powerful. Further, in verses 48 and 49, Paul tells us that we will not bear the image of Christ until we are resurrected. And then Paul delivers his knockout blow. In verse 50 he says, “I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” This is of huge significance because the postmillennial understanding of the OT prophecies such as Isaiah 65 is that the fullness of the kingdom of God comes in the golden age of a Christianized world prior to Christ’s return—in other words, Postmillennialists understand the kingdom of God to find its fulfillment in this age described by Paul as perishable, dishonorable, and weak and during which it is impossible for flesh and blood to inherit the kingdom.
The PMs’ definition of success (victory) is the Christianized world of this age. But 1 Corinthians 15 goes on to tell us in verses 54-57 that victory comes only after the “perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality.”
Finally, the passage ends with an important charge: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (15:58). Paul emphasizes here that motivation and purpose derives from the coming of Christ and resurrection described in this passage—not from any presumed conclusion or result prior to resurrection.
Another important passage to consider concerning this point is Romans 8:18-24a. In this passage Paul lets us know that all creation groans (including us—v.23) as we “wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (8:23). Satisfaction for our groaning does not come from a Christianized world. Satisfaction for us and all creation comes only from the resurrection. And so Paul concludes, “For in this hope we were saved” (8:24a).
Problem 3: PMs misunderstand this “body of death”
“Postmillennialism expects the proclaiming of the Spirit-blessed gospel of Jesus Christ to win the vast majority of human beings to salvation in the present age. Increasing gospel success will gradually produce a time in history prior to Christ’s return in which faith, righteousness, peace, and prosperity will prevail in the affairs of people and of nations.” (Gentry, p.13-14)
“This does not mean that there ever will be a time on this earth when every person will be a Christian, or that all sin will be abolished. But it does mean that evil in all its many forms eventually will be reduced to negligible proportions, that Christian principles will be the rule, not the exception, and that Christ will return to a truly Christianized world.” (Loraine Boettner, The Millennium, p.14)
Postmillennialism claims that this age’s development into a Christianized world provides a time of righteousness, peace, and prosperity in a world in which evil is of negligible proportions. I think that the PM misunderstands (or deliberately ignores) the nature of sin. Paul provides an excellent report of his personal battle in Romans 7, especially in verses 14-25. He tells us that his struggle is one of mind against flesh. He knows to do right; he even wants to do right; but he finds that he does the very thing he did not want to do. He describes this struggle as a war, and ends crying out that he is wretched, aching for relief to be delivered from “this body of death.”
Certainly in the imagined Christianized world, murder, rape, prostitution, and drugs would not fill the news reports. But because these headline sins are put away does not mean that sin would be reduced to negligible proportions merely because we are all Christians. Although I certainly wouldn’t accuse someone of this, it seems to border arrogance to proclaim that with Christians all around, I can live without sin. It recalls the Pharisee thanking God he is not like the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14) or Christ’s woe to the Pharisees for thinking they would never be as evil as their forefathers (Matthew 23:29-31). We are evil from within. Our salvation removes the guilt of sin and we stand righteous before God—yet, we are still in the war Paul describes until…the resurrection! It is at the resurrection, not before, that Christ eradicates all sin.
Therefore, our hope (our blessed hope) is Christ’s return in which we realize our eternal relationship with God by a resurrection in which sin is wiped away, not only its guilt but its very existence. Our purpose is to promote kingdom living to and for both ourselves and others. Our outlook, then, must be in optimistic joy for both this age and the age to come, according to our hope and our purpose (not according to expected results on this earth).
In all of this, I am not arguing against the activity of PMs in comprehensive regard of transformation from sin and its effects. Kingdom living has to concern itself with culture–politics, entertainment, aesthetics, etc. But even though my efforts at kingdom living, as an amillennialist, may be indistinguishable from those of a PM, my motivation is the purity of Christ as will be revealed at and by his coming, not because of any presumed global change that must be in place prior to it.
Finally (for our study of Matthew), we notice that the commission Matthew presents once again includes elements drawing our attention to Jesus as Messiah, King, and God. In this commission passage we are told he has all authority (indicative of control); he commands discipling (access to God); and he promises his presence (fulfillment of the relationship purpose for creation and reconciliation). As we have discussed, control, access to God, and fulfillment of God’s purpose show him to be King, Messiah, and God.