The Original Great Commission

We used to call Tuberculosis “consumption.” It is a fairly nasty, wasting disease and can be quite deadly. Consumption seems a fitting synonym for TB as I think about the effects of consumerism today.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the consumerism of today has whittled down our understanding of God's mission. The gospel in a consumer society tends to look like a product sold in the “outlet stores” of our churches. People are customers to whom we pitch an extremely individualized and privately owned vision for the kingdom of God and our part in it.

While there is a profoundly personal aspect to a reconciled relationship with God, the good news about God’s kingdom is far bigger. The original “Great Commission” was for humans to rule as the vice-regents over creation. Human beings, like nothing else in the seen and unseen universe, are fashioned in God’s image. The man and woman inherited God’s ability to reason, to create and to govern.

"Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." Genesis 1:28.

This was the very first directive of humanity. We possess the raw God-material to energize a thriving planet. The original mission was to manage ourselves and our world under God’s authority. We were to do this in intimate fellowship with God and via the divine imprint of our Creator. We would “walk with God in the garden in the cool of the day” and work in partnership with the Godhead as we fill, subdue and have dominion.

The first part of this commission, “fill the earth” uses the Hebrew verb, mala, which has beautifully figurative undercurrents coursing through it. The King James says, “replenish the earth,” and elsewhere in the Old Testament mala is translated fulfill, consecrate or satisfy. There is something more than simply procreation or populating the earth in this command. God has fashioned us in the Divine image to satisfy something in creation. It’s as if there is a desire in the universe which only men and women can fulfill. The human being quenches a cosmic thirst in this marvelous universe like nothing else.

The middle command, “subdue the earth,” seems perplexing. The Hebrew word for subdue here is kabash. We sometimes use English phrase, “put the kibosh on it,” as in to veto or to prevent. Subjugation implies resistance and restraint. “Subdue the earth” is a common Old Testament phrase. The same words for both subdue (kabash), and earth, or land (eres) are used throughout to describe God driving out his enemies and bringing the land under the authority of his people (Numbers 32:20-22, Joshua 18:1, Judges 3:30, 2 Samuel 8:11, I Chronicles 22:18). It is also used at least once to describe what God does to our sin. The prophet Micah says that God will subdue Israel’s iniquities (Micah 7:19).1

Exactly what was God’s intention in commissioning humans to subdue the earth? What was it in pristine creation that needed the kibosh put upon it?  With wisdom beyond my understanding, an intelligent, occupying force had been allowed to co-exist with humanity, a rebel bent on stirring up insurgency and wreaking havoc unless subdued. I believe one "great commission" of humanity is the subjugation of evil. The Apostle John describes one of the chief purposes of Christ in a letter to the churches, “The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.” 1 John 3:8. The late missiologist Ralph Winter asserts that our mission is to join Christ in this work, “If the Son of God appeared to destroy the works of the devil, then what are the Son of God's followers and joint heirs supposed to do to bring honor to His name?”2 Winter proposed that our calling to destroy the works of the devil includes addressing every area creation has run amok, including hatred and its effects, or deadly viruses wiping out populations.

Our mission from the beginning, at least in part, was to subjugate evil in all its forms, whether racism, materialism, poverty, cancer, AIDS, pollution, human trafficking or any way in which power can be used to curse God and confound creation, “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works,” (Ephesians 2:10), works which include the subjugation of evil.

The phrase “have dominion over,” rada, is translated elsewhere “rule over” or “have charge over.” Interestingly, the primitive root here is to tread down or subjugate. A kind of energy is required in exercising dominion.  Most often, this term is used in the sense of governance or supervision, like in I Kings 5:16 where Solomon’s 3,600 foremen had “charge over” the laborers. In another place, masters were warned never to “rule over” their servants with harshness, but rather to fear God (Lev. 25:43). It is also used prophetically of Christ in Psalm 72, where the king’s son was to “have dominion from sea to sea,” (Ps. 72:8).

We are endowed with power to rule with God, capable of satisfying a world that is hungry for our governorship. The restoration of our broken fellowship with God through faith in Christ, and inviting others to be reconciled is an initial step in assuming the larger vision of the gospel of the kingdom. It’s time we took seriously our co-regency with God in our mission to replenish the earth, subdue evil, and exercise benevolent dominion.


1 The NRSV translates kabash “tread under foot” in this passage

2 Winter, Ralph, “The 10 Super Centuries of Mission History,” accessed August 8, 2013 at http://www.thetravelingteam.org/?q=node/88

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