The Myth of Multiplication, Part 3

In Matthew’s version of the Great Commission, Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19, NIV). For most of my life, I interpreted the phrase “make disciples of all nations” as “create individual disciples within every nation.” With a mindset shaped by modern western individualism, it is natural for me to think of discipleship in terms of individual persons. But a more literal translation of this phrase from the original Greek is “disciple all the nations.” Is it possible that the intended targets of Christian discipleship are not individuals but nations? Does Jesus intend to transform whole communities, people groups, and social networks?

Yes, I believe that this is what Jesus meant. In the Old Testament period, God worked out his special purposes within the nation of Israel. But the change from B.C. to A.D. was accompanied by a huge paradigm shift in the way God would continue his salvation plan. The good news of Jesus was to be proclaimed to the nations and take on a new life within each of those nations. A nation is not a collection of isolated individuals. It is an organism, a living system, with a unique God-given character and identity. When the gospel is implanted into a complex living system, it can be transformed into something new and beautiful without sacrificing its special identity and vitality. Implanting a gospel into a complex living system is tricky business. God knows exactly how to do it, but usually we do not.

Sociologist Rodney Stark, in his fascinating book The Rise of Christianity, describes how the faith of the apostles spread over three centuries to become the dominant religion in the western world. This growth wasn’t sustained by Christians locating single converts and training them to make more converts. Rather, Christianity spread through families and communities in unexpected ways, through strange confluences of social, biological, and political forces that defied all human expectation and planning.

In Chapter 4, Stark describes a horrible epidemic that swept through the Roman Empire in 165 A.D., killing approximately one fourth of the population. Some medical historians believe it was smallpox. The city of Alexandria was especially hard hit and lost up to one third of its population. Another disease, perhaps measles, appeared in 251 A.D. and the effects were just as devastating. Historians of religion tend to overlook these epidemics and fail to understand their impact on the church. But Stark believes that these outbreaks played a decisive role in shifting the balance of religious affiliation toward Christianity. He argues that, compared to followers of pagan religions, Christian communities were much better prepared to cope with these tragedies. Christian beliefs and practices resulted in dramatically higher rates of survival. When the epidemics had run their course, Christians comprised a substantially higher percentage of the population because fewer of them died, and the loving and heroic Christian response attracted new followers in the wake of tragedy.

The plagues of 165 and 251 A.D. infected Christians and non-Christians alike. But these groups had very different understanding of what was happening and responded in very different ways. Greek philosophy had no answers. And pagan religion could offer no explanation except, “The gods are angry.” Attempts to appease the gods through sacrifice were ineffective. Wherever an outbreak occurred, pagan priests (along with the doctors, civil authorities and wealthy people) would abandon the city and flee to the countryside, leaving the rest of the population to suffer and die alone. A letter written Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, from approximately the 260 A.D. describes this behavior (p. 83):

At the first onset of disease, [the heathen] pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease; but do what they might, they found it difficult to escape.

This callous treatment of the sick and dying in the ancient world is confirmed by non-Christian sources. The Greek historian Thucydides, describing a plague that struck Athens in 431 B.C., writes in gory detail (pp. 84-85):

The doctors were quite incapable of treating the disease because of their ignorance of the right methods… Equally useless were prayers made in the temples, consultation of the oracles, and so forth… they died with no one to look after them; indeed, there were many houses in which all the inhabitants perished through lack of any attention… The bodies of the dying were heaped one on top of the other, and half-dead creatures could be seen staggering about in the streets or flocking around the fountains in their desire for water. The temples in which they took up their quarters were full of the dead bodies of people who had died inside them. For the catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen to them next, became indifferent to every rule of religion or of law… No fear of God or law had a restraining influence. As for the gods, it seemed to be the same thing whether one worshipped them or not, when one saw the good and the bad dying indiscriminately.

In contrast, the Christian response to the epidemic was driven by an outlook of confidence and hope. Historian William McNeill, quoted by Stark (pp. 80-81), writes:

Another advantage Christians enjoyed over pagans was that the teaching of their faith made life meaningful even amid sudden and surprising death… Even a shattered remnant of survivors who had somehow made it through war or pestilence or both could find warm, immediate and healing consolation in the vision of a heavenly existence for those missing relatives and friends… Christianity was, therefore, a system of thought and feeling thoroughly adapted to a time of troubles in which hardship, disease and violent death commonly prevailed.

Instead of fleeing from the epidemic, Christians heroically stood their ground and remained in their communities to care for the sick and dying. Bishop Dionysius writes (p. 82):

Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and administering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead… The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.

No one in the ancient world, neither Christian nor pagan, understood how to treat or cure smallpox or measles. But simple nursing of the sick – for example, providing those with food and water who are too weak to feed themselves – can dramatically increase the chance of survival. “Modern medical experts believe that conscientious nursing without any medications could cut the mortality rate by two-thirds or even more” (Stark, p. 89). The differences in survival rates within Christian and non-Christian circles was noticed by ancient people and regarded as miraculous. Apart from any evangelistic effort, the differential rates of mortality during the great epidemics of 165 and 251 A.D. produced a quick and dramatic shift of population toward the Christian faith. And the loving witness and heroic self-sacrifice of Christians in the midst of tragedy improved their reputation in the Roman world, drawing more people to Christ.

The Great Commission given by Jesus in Matthew 28:18-20 is a call to participate in God’s work of transforming the nations through Christian discipleship. Discipleship may include attempts to convert nonbelievers to faith in Christ. But is that the main part of what Jesus is saying? If we try to interpret the Great Commission in the context of Matthew’s gospel, I believe the answer is no. Matthew’s gospel contains five extended sermons by Jesus. One of these, the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7), is focused on discipleship. Reading through the Sermon on the Mount, we find very little about direct evangelism. Jesus does, however, present radically new ways of seeing the world (e.g., as in the Beatitudes) and radically new ways of living and relating to God and to people (e.g., doing good to others without expecting an immediate reward). These teachings equip Christians to deal with the triumphs and tragedies of life in unique ways that set them apart them from their non-Christian neighbors when it really counts. The believers’ Christlike responses to the epidemics of 165 and 251 A.D. were not intended to increase the sizes of their congregations. But their congregations did grow as a result.


  1. Darren Gruett

    Great article, Joe. Indeed, how we live as Christians is a powerful testimony to those who do not believe. Imagine what a difference we could make in the world today if we lived out our faith in the same way.

  2. Thanks, Joe. Rodney Stark’s account of how Christians sacrificed themselves during the 2 plagues without any consideration of their own well-being is surely an indisputable testimony to the nations to the glory of Christ and his eternal kingdom.

    Though unrelated, it reminded me of the movie Quo Vadis where the Christians who were martyred and eaten by lions in the Roman collosseums simply because they refused to denounce Christ. Their glorious testimony was that when their mangled and half eaten bodies were assembled for burial, their faces would be smiling in peace, which horrified the Romans!

    When thinking about Matt 28:19 (make disciples) individualistically, we Christians tend to dichotomize our Christian lives. We regard all activities directly related to “disciple making” (preaching, Bible teaching) as of greater value than all other activities of life, such as our secular professions, loving and spending time with our own families and friends, etc. I think that this unnatural dichotomization makes Christians look weird and sectarian, while Jesus, the ultimate Christan was loved by the worldly and the irreligious (prostitutes), but hated by the moral and the religious (Bible studying Pharisees).

  3. GerardoR

    This would make an excellent movie Joe.