Jesus’ command for His kingdom representatives: “Go and wherever you go, disciple the cultures.” While there are other words for “people” and “political” that identify people-groups and nations, the term Jesus used was more about the culture that binds people together and identifies them by their customs and manner of living.
I would propose that we look at culture as the behavior of a group of people that share values and beliefs: what is behavior for the individual is culture for a group of individuals, often millions of individuals. This is overly simplistic, I know, but it helps us discuss what Jesus says.
Note that Jesus didn’t say, “Go, disciple individuals within every culture” as the basis for measuring success. While Jesus certainly meant that individuals within cultures would be born into the kingdom and learn how to function as citizens of the kingdom and members of the ecclesia where they live, He didn’t say that. He says, “disciple ethnos.” He addressed the idea that the kingdom should have influence and impact upon the shared beliefs and customs of the nations to which His kingdom representatives would go. Upon arrival, their Message would have a greater influence and impact beyond the transformation of individuals within the nations. In this way, the earliest kingdom representatives would have both revival and riot!
In many ways, the term Jesus used contrasts Jews and non-Jews. It is often used to denote “the nations” in a way that Jews contrasted themselves as God’s kingdom culture with non-Jews who did not have access to the revelation of Law and Prophets. A kind of “Sodom had no Bible” comparison and contrast between God’s people of revelation and those whose cultures were built with superstitions and false gods, errant world views and philosophies, and customs and manners contrary to God’s norms.
The term is also used to contrast between the kingdom people and the world in the New Testament. Once Jesus established the kingdom, the kingdom of God was available to all people, nations, and cultures. He wanted His kingdom representatives to arrive at these new places and peoples with a Message and authority to influence and impact the foundations of their cultures.
The term, ethos, means “habit, custom, law in the sense of behavior or ordinance. It is used as a technical term for the Jewish form of sacrifice and redemptive worship. This term speaks of the habitual behavior. For example, Hebrews 10:26 decries the “ethos” of some who have forsaken assembling together: the very term “ecclesia” assumes that assembling together will occur, but some short-circuited this innate aspect of the ecclesia, and the word is used to note this as a behavior.
The New Testament predominately uses this term to identify the unique culture of Israel and to contrast that unique culture with the rest of the nations and their cultures. So, in this context, Jesus is saying that the culture God established in His chosen people should be exported to every other people group with the goal of establishing His kingdom culture: “teaching them all that I have commanded you.”
The first voice of the New Testament, John the Baptist, came to announce that Someone was coming who would fundamentally alter the way spiritual power and authority affected people and cultures. He laid the foundation of this startling announcement with a message on repentance. Within that message was the assumption that repentance would produce changed behavior: “bring forth the fruits of repentance.”
Repentance, for John, meant changed behavior, and John would baptize in water to prophesy that observable change. John did say that the One who was coming later, the One for whom John was preparing them, would have a more powerful and transformational baptism of Holy Spirit and fire. John then noted that the baptism of Jesus would “completely cleanse with fire until the unwanted chaff or waste would be completely consumed.”
In other words, the work of Christ inside would produce the fruits of lifestyle transformation outside.
Behavior change is a fruit, not a source; but behavior change is essential to conversion. Christ alters the inner nature, motivations, and thinking so fundamentally and thoroughly that behavior change is inescapable and inevitable. Fire burns. Passion purifies. Mind renews. All these are fundamental to the conversion of a man from death to life.
The discipling of a man born anew is all about continuing spiritual experiences that fundamentally alter the inner man and produce observable, measurable changes in that man’s behaviors based upon transformation of his mind, motivations, and spiritual makeup.
So when Jesus uses the words “disciple ethnos,” He is referring to the internal changes of a culture, affecting the thinking and presuppositions and worldview, the motivating values, and the spiritual conditions and atmospheres that influence and control. He is referring to kingdom representatives who have a Message, authority, and power to influence and impact the behaviors of nations.
This is the Great Commission. Rethinking each phrase of that commission in this light will create a contrast in your mind between what Jesus was thinking when He said it and what we make it mean to fit that commission and our measurement of success. The accumulation of believers in spiritual cocoons does not approach the measurement Jesus mentions. A Gospel that does not create revival and riot is a Gospel that lacks the fundamental confrontation of culture that Jesus assumes.
Jesus is asking for the Americanization of the nations as we in this nation arrogantly assumed in the past. He was asking for the cultures of all nations to be transformed from within by His Message, authority, and power with such effectiveness that the thinking, habits, and customs of those nations would be changed.
So, measuring the effectiveness of the modern American church on its own culture, let alone the impact of the American church upon other cultures, we would have to say that the accumulation of believers into larger and more sophisticated spiritual subcultures of religious beliefs and practices has failed miserably to fulfill the mandate of Jesus for His kingdom representatives.
I wonder if we are even attempting to disciple individuals with the same goal as Jesus. I am certain we are not approaching an effective attempt to disciple cultures.