Rethinking Unreached People Groups (Part 2)

In the first post about the ‘people groups’ interpretation of the Great Commission, we said that it depicts the ethnic groups of the world as the target or ‘hoop’ of our missions efforts. To be successful by this plan, we must aim to evangelize some from each and every people group on the planet. In these posts, I am arguing for a more traditional view of the Great Commission, which sees ‘all the nations’ as something like the ‘court’ or arena where all our missions efforts take place.

Here in this second post, I want to shift our attention to the categories of arguments that are marshaled in support of the ‘people groups’ strategy. In this post, we’ll look at the first sort of argument that has convinced many: the argument from exegesis. They believe that this, in fact, is what the text of the Great Commission means. It is what Jesus meant for us to do when he sent us into the world. In short, our question here is: does the phrase panta ta ethnē (‘all the nations’) in Matthew 28:19 mean ‘each and every people group’ or does it group all the nations together all-inclusively?

First, a grammatical note. The word ‘nations’ is what’s called a plural collective noun. Others include ‘families’, ‘teams’, ‘audiences’, and ‘classes’. These words have a bit of functional flexibility. The speaker may be thinking of specific groups as individual units. ‘These teams are playing very well tonight.’ On the other hand, a speaker may use one of these plural collectives to refer to multiple groups as a single unit. ‘The classes are preparing for their exams.’ The same possibility is found in the original language: ‘plural collectives may have all-embracing force, whether in Greek or English.’ (Carson) Grammarians (dream job, anyone?) tell us that context must guide us when deciding which way a particular instance should be taken. And this is precisely our question in Matthew 28:19! When Jesus says ‘all the nations’, is he thinking of a definite number of specific groups as distinct from other groups, like cells in a honeycomb? Or, in his mind, are ‘the nations’ a single mass, without any walls erected between this group and that? This, at any rate, is the question we must answer (see the diagram at the end of the post if these two senses are still unclear).

So how are we to determine which of these senses the Lord meant to communicate? Granted that the biblical authors do not always use terms in precisely the same way, it would seem necessary that Matthew’s usage of the phrase panta ta ethnē is the most relevant data for our purposes. Fortunately, Matthew uses the word ethnē (‘nations’) many times, and the Great Commission is his last usage. So let’s run through some examples.

Matthew 6:32 – The ethnē worry that they will lack their basic needs.
Here, the ethnē is set up over against those who have God as their Father. It is generally agreed that Jesus is referring to unbelieving Gentile individuals as a unit, not as individual nations. In other words, Jesus is most certainly not saying, the Berber people group seeks after its basic necessities. Individuals seek to meet their own needs. So, Jesus is here grouping all people together, telling us how unbelieving individuals from non-Jewish nations behave. So, here, ethnē = the unbelieving world as a whole.

Matthew 10:5 – The disciples are forbidden to preach to the ethnē.
Jesus sends his disciples to preach to ‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ So who are these ethnē that they are not supposed to preach to? Again, we see Jesus referrring to all the non-Jewish world in a collective way. There can be no real question of Jesus thinking here of some definite number of specific ethnic groups, as if he meant, ‘Do not preach to Gauls or Illyrians or Berbers.’ Here again Jesus puts them all into a single lump (without any divisions). Are you a non-Jew? Then you are part of the ethnē, the non-Jewish world as a whole.

Matthew 20:19 – Jesus predicts that he will be killed by the ethnē.
In verse 18, Jesus says that in Jerusalem the Jewish leaders will condemn him to death. Then our verse of interest says that this execution will be carried out by the ethnē. Who does Jesus refer to here? Again, it is quite clear that Jesus does not intend to communicate that he has in mind more than one ethnicity that will take part in his killing! In other words, ethnē again refers simply to the unbelieving Gentile world as a whole.

These three references give us, I think, a good idea of what the word ethnē means in Matthew’s Gospel. Something like, ‘the unbelieving world as a whole.’ Now, the last four occurrences of the word in this book are all found as part of the phrase ‘all the nations’. The last of these is, of course, Matthew 28:19, the Great Commission. So these four references are critical. Let’s look at them in turn.

Matthew 24:9 – Jesus foretells that the disciples will be hated by all the ethnē.
Most commentators agree that it would seem strange for Jesus to exclude the Jewish people from the prophesied hating of the disciples. Thus, Jesus here expands ‘the nations’ to ‘all the nations’ to include the Jewish people. Nolland’s commentary says: ‘Matthew uses ethnē alone when referring to the Gentiles, but when he speaks of “all the ethnē“, he no longer uses ethnē to distinguish Gentiles from Jews but rather refers to the whole of humanity.’ This, then, means that we are not to hear Jesus saying something like, ‘Each and every ethnic group in the world will individually participate in hating the disciples.’ He simply says that humanity as a whole will be hostile toward his followers. Ethnicity no longer has anything to do with it!

Matthew 24:14 – Jesus foretells that the gospel will be preached to all the ethnē.
There have been many among the people groups adherents who have heard in Jesus’ words a prediction that his return will not occur until each and every people group has been evangelized. But it is highly unlikely that the phrase ‘all the nations’ would here take the meaning ‘each and every people group’ if it did not have that meaning just five verses above! There, as we just saw, it is generally agreed that we are not to imagine divisions between this people group and that one. Rather, the ‘whole of humanity’ will be a source of hatred for the disciples. Thus, this verse’s most natural interpretation is that the interadvental period will also be characterized by the advancement of the gospel across cultures. Whereas the disciples had, until now, been limited in their preaching efforts to the Jews, Jesus predicts a time when the gospel will be preached to mankind indiscriminately. So, R.T. France’s commentary: ‘The additional phrase “to all the nations (Gentiles)”… does not demand a literal reading so that, for instance, the British must be included, let alone Americans and Australians!’

Matthew 25:32 – Jesus says that all the ethnē will be gathered for judgment.
Jesus predicts that at his glorious return, all nations will be judged. Now, some have taken this to mean that whole groups will be judged together. Thus, when Jesus says here that he will ‘separate them one from another,’ what he means is one nation will be separated from another. But the majority of interpreters have stuck with the most obvious meaning: one individual will be separated from another. Which means that panta ta ethnē here must refer to a mass of people as individuals, not as ethnicities! So again, the interpretation that makes the best sense of this phrase is the one that sees ‘all nations’ to refer to humanity as a whole, irrespective of ethnicity, including Jews.

Which brings us at last to Matthew 28:19. When Matthew’s uses of ethnē and even the larger phrase panta ta ethnē are so consistent, the idea that he here introduces divisions between the ethnic groups of the world seems highly unlikely. The best way to understand the Commission, then, is to hear Jesus saying, ‘Make disciples of the whole of humanity, irrespective of ethnicity.’ In our disciple-making efforts, we are to make no distinction whatsoever between those of different ethnicities. Till now, the disciples have been restricted to the Jewish nation. Now Jesus throws open the door, kicks down the fences and says, ‘The time I foretold is here; now go and proclaim my message to all of humanity.’

There were some gentle suggestions in response to my last post that this ‘court’ interpretation is some kind of exegetical innovation. The easiest way I know to show the very straightforward and traditional nature of this intepretation is to invite you to go peruse some commentaries. In fact, I would encourage you to try to find the people groups interpretation advocated or defended in any major commentary on Matthew. I have been unable. Frankly, it is the people groups interpretation that is the trendy innovation! The traditional view has simply been that the Commission sends us to all human beings without distinction. As one of those commentators puts it, ‘The aim of Jesus’ disciples, therefore, is to make disciples of all men everywhere, without distinction.’ (Carson)

In closing, this is the reason that I find the people groups interpretation so inappropriate. It is not just, as it is often received, merely a slight clarification, an added shade, to the traditional view. It, in fact, interprets the Commission in a way blatantly contradictory to the traditional sense! Where the traditional interpretation hears Jesus say, ‘Make disciples of all humanity without ethnic distinction,’ the people groups theorist hears, quite literally, ‘Make disciples of all humanity with ethnic distinction’! Their premise is that some individuals, because of their ethnicity, are more important targets for disciple-making! This is not six of one or half dozen of the other. It is six of one or the other six of the same!

In the next post, we’ll discuss the other sort of argument used to defend the people groups view: the argument from strategy. For many, all this biblical ground may be surrendered, but they will still cling to the people groups model, believing it to be the best way to reach all of humanity…


Definite sense:
‘These teams are playing very well tonight.’
[TEAM 1]     [TEAM 2]     [TEAM 3]
= each team, taken individually, is playing well

Indistinct sense:
‘The classes are preparing for their exams.’
[  T H E   C L A S S E S  ]
= many members of various classes are preparing
(note that they are likely not even preparing together, but individually!)

Definite sense:
‘Disciple all the nations.’
[NATION 1]   [NATION 2]   [NATION 3]   [NATION 4]
= each nation must be an individual target for disciple-making

Indistinct sense:
‘Disciple all the nations.’
[   T H E    N A T I O N S   ]
= all the members of the nations are viable targets for disciple-making

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3 Comments on “Rethinking Unreached People Groups (Part 2)”

  1. Debtor Paul January 21, 2014 at 6:13 am #

    Again, thank you for the post. While any really thorough treatment may require interaction with Piper’s extensive argument (I believe his has been the most extensive treatment.), I think it was very good as far as it went. Alas, this is a blog! One can be excused from exhaustive treatments here! Your points are also bolstered by the fact that they fit with Matthew’s intention of moving progressively from Jew-only engagement to everyone engagement–explicitly including Gentiles (non-Jews). It would be difficult or impossible to demonstrate that the question being answered by Matthew was “What do we do with all of these people groups?” But, “What do we do with the Gentiles, as Jewish believers in a real 1st century historical context?” That is much easier to prove. As I have said before, let’s not make Matthew into a social scientist that he wasn’t. He was a Jewish believer writing to Jewish believers about things that concerned Jewish believers–again, in a very real 1st century historical context (which I don’t remember Piper ever dealing with).

    That being said, are peoples important to God? I think so. I think that case could be made, especially in the OT and maybe in Revelation, in which so much is borrowed from OT images. To some degree or another (the degree can be argued), He made the peoples purposefully. I think there is broad biblical and sociological cause to engage an understanding of peoples in our strategizing. I’m sure you will talk about this later. The way in which it has been focused upon, though, often borders on rediculous and even unbiblical.

    I am especially interested to see your next post. I fit roughly–not dogmatically–into the “camp” you described.

  2. Debtor Paul March 26, 2014 at 8:46 pm #

    Waiting for the next post in this series! 🙂


  1. Rethinking Unreached People Groups (Part 3) | The Gospel in China - October 18, 2015

    […] post explained the two alternate interpretations: the traditional and the people groups theory. In the second, we looked at some exegetical considerations: which interpretation does justice to the text? There […]

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