Unreached Peoples

The Unique and Primary Goal of Missions

Article by

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

1. The Question Posed

Is the unique biblical task of the church’s missionary enterprise

  1. to win as many individuals to Christ as possible before he returns, or
  2. to win some individuals (i.e. plant a church) among all the people of the earth before he returns?

In other words, is the unique goal of missions

  1. to focus on the most “fruitful” peoples outside our own culture (and thus win more individuals to Christ), or
  2. to press on to more and more unreached peoples (even if they are less responsive than other more-reached groups)?

Or, to put it yet another way, should a mission agency measure its success in fulfilling the unique missionary task of the church

  1. by the number and quality of churches planted in other culture groups besides its own, or
  2. by the number of different unreached culture groups in which it plants quality churches?

Notice I am NOT asking whether (1) or (2) should be pursued. The question is not whether one is bad and the other good. Both must be pursued by the church.

What I AM asking is whether some group or agency in a church or denomination should define its PRIMARY reason for existence as planting churches in more and more unreached peoples rather than planting more and more churches in any particular people.

Another surprising way to ask the question is to focus on the heart motive of missions. If we say that love for lost sinners should fuel the motor of missions, we must ask “What does love will to accomplish?”

Surely (from an ordinary human perspective) love wills the salvation of the greatest number of individuals. Love does not say that any race is more precious than any other. Therefore, it would seem that the logic of love, by itself, would always throw us into the “field” or “people-group” where the most souls can be saved.

Consider an Illustration:

Suppose there were two luxury liners on the sea, and both began to sink at the same time, with huge numbers of people on board who did not know how to swim. And suppose you were in charge of a team of ten rescuers in two large boats.

You arrive on the scene of the first sinking ship and find yourself surrounded by hundreds of screaming people, some going down before your eyes, some fighting over scraps of debris, others ready to jump into the water from the sinking ship. Several hundred yards farther away the very same thing is happening to the people on the other ship.

Your heart breaks for the dying people. You long to save as many as you can, so you cry out to your two crews to give every ounce of energy to pull as many as possible from the water. Spare no pain! Spare no effort!

There are five rescuers in both boats and they are working with all their might. They are saving many. Then someone cries out from the other ship, “Come help us!" What would love do?

I cannot think of any reason that love would leave its labor and go, if, in fact, it is fully engaged saving people right where it is. Love puts no higher value on distant souls than on nearer souls.

In fact, love might well reason that in the time it would take to row across the several hundred yards, a net loss of total souls saved would result.

It might also reason that the energy of the rescuers would be depleted; which would possibly result in a smaller number of individuals being saved.

Not only that, it may be that from experience you know that the people on that other boat were probably all drunk at this time in the evening and would be less likely to respond to your saving efforts.

So love, by itself, may very well refuse to leave its present rescue operation. It may stay at its present work in order to save as many individuals as possible.

The point of the illustration (as artificial and imperfect as it is, since the manpower of the church is NOT fully engaged!) is simply to suggest that love alone (from our limited human perspective, which usually tends to be quite man-centered), may not conceive the missionary task the way God does.

God may have in mind that the goal of the rescue operation should be a gathering of saved sinners from every people in the world (from both luxury liners), even if some of the successful rescuers must leave a fruitful reached (or semi-reached) people in order to labor in a (possibly less fruitful) unreached people.

The conclusion I have come to through the biblical investigation recorded in this paper is that some agency or group in every church and denomination should see as its unique and primary goal

  • NOT merely to win as many souls or plant as many obedient churches as possible cross-culturally,
  • BUT to win souls and plant obedient churches in as many unreached peoples as possible.

If this is true, the implications for goal-setting and mission strategy are great. Each church and denomination and agency would surely seek to carry its proportionate load of responsibility in reaching specific unreached peoples.

2. Definitions

I will base my definition of a "people" and an "unreached people" on Matthew 24:14 and Paul's missionary strategy defined in Romans 15 (discussed in section 3.5).

In the Olivet discourse Jesus said,

And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations.

I take this to imply that for a people to be reached there must be within it an understandable (cf. Romans 15:21) “testimony” to the truth of Christ. This testimony should be rooted well enough so that it will endure in the absence of the missionaries, since God wills for the testimony to continue wherever it has taken root (i.e., he wills that the church come into being in each people).

The parameters of a “people” will be determined by the natural capacities to understand this “testimony.” Revelation 5:9—with its hope for all “tribes, tongues, peoples and nations”—suggests that hindrances to grasping the testimony may stem from an array of ethnic, linguistic, cultural and political factors. This makes a precise definition of a “people” virtually impossible.

The difficulty is illustrated by the different estimates that David Barrett, Patrick Johnstone, and Ralph Winter employ.

In the World Christian Encyclopedia (Oxford, 1982) David Barrett refers to 8,990 ethno-linguistic people groups in the world (p. 110). He says, “On our definition, the only people groups who can correctly be called unreached are the 1,000 or so whose populations are each less than 20 percent evangelized" (p. 19). More specifically, he says that there are 636 people groups that "have no numerically significant evangelizing church, and they each live in countries with only a miniscule Christian presence” (p. 19).

In Operation World (William Carey Library, 1986) Patrick Johnstone says,

All distinct ethno-linguistic groups with a sufficient distinctiveness within each nation for which church planting may be necessary [total] 12,017. It is possible that nearly 9.000 of these already have a viable church within the culture, and therefore are at least minimally reached. There remain over 3,000 for which cross-cultural church planting ministries have either been initiated or will need to be, if all races, tribes, peoples and tongues (Revelation 7:9-10) are to be represented before the throne of the Lamb (p.32).

In his article, “Unreached Peoples: The Development of the Concept” (“International Journal of Frontier Missions,” 1/2, 1984, pp. 129-61) Ralph Winter rounds his former guess of 16,750 unreached peoples up to 17,000 to make more clear that it is a guess. “At this hour of history it is too bad no one can do better than guess. That is what MARC does … Everyone is guessing. We are pleading for help” (p. 147).

He explains the discrepancy between his estimate of 24,000 total peoples in the world and Barrett’s estimate of 8,990 with an illustration. Wycliffe Bible Translators, for example, goes into South Sudan and counts how many languages there are into which the Bible must be translated to reach everybody with the written word. They come up with 50. Gospel Recordings also goes into South Sudan and counts the number of languages that will require different oral translations. They come up with 130. The ratio between 50 and 130 is almost identical with the ratio between Barrett's 8,990 and Winter's 24,000.

It seems to me that each mission agency will have to decide what working definition of “people group” and “unreached people” they will use, and then base their strategy on it. That decision is not my goal here.

Mine is more basic: namely, is the whole concept of targeting peoples a biblical one? Is the unique and primary task of the missionary effort of the church aimed at reaching more and more people groups or simply winning more and more individuals?

The answer to this question will have significant bearing on mission strategy, regardless of how the groups are counted.

3. Biblical Exposition

3.1 Matthew 28:18-20

The Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20 is still binding on the church as a whole (and not limited just to the eleven apostles who heard it, v. 16) because the undergirding promise (v. 20) is designed to carry the mission to the close of the age.

“And behold, I am with you always to the close of the age.”

The “you” must include people to the close of the age. Therefore, the command carried by this promise belongs to people until the close of the age. If we claim the promise of Christ's presence now, we must own the duty of his command now.

But in this crucial command, what is meant by matheteusate panta ta ethne – “make disciples of all nations”?

It is a familiar question. Let us begin simply by getting the linguistic data for panta ta ethne on the table for examination. Unless otherwise noted, the statements that follow are based only on the New Testament usage. Every instance of ethnos has been examined.

3.11 The singular use of ethnos

The singular ethnos (“nation”) never refers to an individual. This is a striking fact.

Galatians 2:14 appears to be an exception in the English text, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” But the Greek word here is not ethnos, but the adverb ethnikos, which means to have the life patterns of Gentiles.

Every time the singular ethnos does occur, it refers to a people group or “nation” — often the Jewish nation.

Following are all the singular uses in the New Testament:

  • Matthew 21:43; 24:7 (= Mark 13:8 = Luke 21:10)
  • Luke 7:5; 23:2 (both references to the Jewish nation!!)
  • Acts 2:5 ("Jews from every nation"); 7:7; 8:9; 10:22 ("whole nation of the Jews"), 35; 17:26; 24:2, 10, 17; 26:4; 28:19 (the last five references are to the Jewish nation).
  • John 11:48, 50, 51, 52; 18:35 (All in reference to the Jewish nation! These are the only uses of ethnos in John’s gospel and epistles).
  • Revelation 5:9; 13:7; 14;6
  • 1 Peter 2:9
  • Paul never uses the singular

3.12 The plural use of ethnos

The plural of ethnos does not always refer to nations or “people groups.” It sometimes simply refers to a plurality of non-Jewish people. There are dozens of instances which are ambiguous and could refer either to “people groups” or to a general plurality of non-Jews, so I will only give several instances which unmistakably refer to non-Jews in general and definitely do not refer to “people groups.”

  • Acts 13:48 – When Paul turns to the Gentiles in Antioch after being rejected by the Jews, Luke tells us, “And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the Word of God.” This is a reference not to nations, but to a group of non-Jews at the synagogue who heard Paul.
  • 1 Corinthians 12:2 – “You know that when you were Gentiles, you were led astray to dumb idols …” The “you” refers to the non-Jewish converts at Corinth. It would not make sense to say, “When you were nations …”
  • Ephesians 3:6 – the mystery of Christ is “how the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body…” It would not make sense to say that nations are fellow heirs and members (a definite reference to individuals) of the same body. Paul’s conception is that the body has many individual members who are Gentiles.

These are perhaps sufficient to show that the plural of ethnos does not have to mean nation or “people group.” This fact makes it more difficult to decide with certainty in texts where both meanings (group of individual non-Jews vs. an ethnically distinct “people group”) would make good sense.

Nevertheless, the fact that the singular ethnos never refers to an individual but always refers to a people group should perhaps incline us toward the people group meaning unless the context leads us to think otherwise. This will be all the more true when we put before us the Old Testament context and the impact it had on the writings of John and Paul (discussed below). But first we should examine the New Testament use of the phrase panta ta ethne.

3.13 Panta ta ethne

Our immediate concern is with the meaning of panta ta ethne in Matthew 28:19. Following are all the places where the combination of pas (all) and ethnos (nation/Gentile) occur in the New Testament, either in the singular (“every nation”) or plural (“all nations/Gentiles”).


  • 24:9 – “You will be hated by pantaon ton ethnon for my sake.”
  • 24:14 (cf. Mark 13:10) – “This gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to pasin tois ethnesin; and then the end will come.”
  • 25:32 – “Before him will be gathered panta ta ethne, and He will separate them one from another…”
  • 28:19 – “Make disciples of panta ta ethne.”


  • 11:17 – “My house shall be called a house of prayer for pasin tols ethnesin (cf. Isaiah 56:17)


  • 12:30 – “For panta ta ethne of the world seek these things.”
  • 21:24 – “They will fall by the edge of the sword, and be led captive among ta ethne panta.”
  • 24:47 – "Repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in His name to panta ta ethne, beginning from Jerusalem."


  • 2:5 – “Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from pantos ethnous under Heaven.”
  • 10:35 – “In panti ethnei any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to Him.”
  • 14:16 – “In past generations he allowed panta ta ethne to walk in their own ways.”
  • 15:17 – “…that the rest of men may seek the Lord, and panta ta ethne who are called by my name.”
  • 17:26 – “And he made from one pan ethnos of men to live on all the face of the earth…”


  • 1:5 – “We have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among pasin tois ethnesin.”


  • 3:8 – “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall panta ta ethne be blessed.’” (cf. Genesis 12:3)

2 Timothy

  • 4:17 – “But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength to proclaim the word fully, that panta ta ethne might hear it.”


  • 12:5 – “One who is to rule panta ta ethne with a rod of iron.” (cf. Psalm 2:8)
  • 15:4 - “Panta ta ethne shall come and worship thee…”

Taken by themselves (apart from wider biblical context) some of these could be construed as references to a worldwide multitude of non-Jewish individuals instead of “nations,” but even apart from the wider context, Acts 2:5; 10:35; 17:26; Galatians 3:8 and Revelation 12:5 are, with great probability, references to “nations.” All the others MIGHT be—though Acts 15:17 would be hardest to construe as “nations.” It will be well to suspend judgment until we do the wider contextual study.

My conclusion, from the use of ethnos in general and the use of its combination with pas in particular, is that the term panta ta ethne BY ITSELF is not proof that nations or people groups are in view in Matthew 28:19, but our conclusion above under 4.12 would incline us to assume the people group meaning unless the context forbade it. It will be better to study the wider context of missionary commands and expectations in the Old Testament and New Testament to determine the role of peoples rather than base our view merely on the linguistic possibilities of panta ta ethne.

We will return to Matthew 28:19 when we have the wider New Testament context in view. We turn now to those texts that more clearly teach or imply that the unique goal of missions is to reach more and more people groups rather than win more and more people from any one people group.

3.2 Revelation

The conception of the missionary task implied in the Book of Revelation is clearly related to people groups.

Revelation 5:9-10

The four living creatures and the twenty-four elders … sang a new song, saying, “Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth.”

Doctrinally, this is a powerful statement of particular redemption and its historic missionary significance–Christ has not ransomed all men; he has ransomed “many” (Mark 10:45) from all peoples. The ransom is not merely potential, it is effectual and certain: the ransomed shall reign!

Missiologically, this is a powerful statement that the task of the church is to gather in the ransomed from all the peoples. All peoples must be reached because missionaries will find ransomed souls in all peoples. The design of the atonement prescribes the design of the mission strategy. And the design of the atonement (Christ’s ransom, Revelation 5:9) is universal in the sense that it extends to all peoples (though not effectually to every individual).

Therefore, the design of the mission strategy must be to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to all the peoples, for “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). The ransomed must be saved. But they will be saved only through the gospel of Jesus Christ. Therefore, missions MUST reach “every tribe and tongue and people and nation.”

Revelation 7:9-10

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Unless you restrict this multitude to the converts of the great tribulation and say that God's missionary purpose then is different than it is now, the implication of God's worldwide purpose is clear: He aims to be worshiped by converts from all the nations, tribes, peoples and tongues.

Revelation 14:6-7

Then I saw another angel flying in midheaven, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and tongue and people; 7 and he said with a loud voice, "Fear God and give him glory, for the hour of his judgment has come; and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the fountains of water."

Again the intention is that the gospel be proclaimed not just to more and more individuals, but to “every nation, tribe, tongue and people.”

Revelation 15:4

Who shall not fear and glorify thy name, O Lord? For thou alone art holy. All nations (panta ta ethne) shall come and worship thee, for thy judgments have been revealed.

In the context of Revelation with its repeated use of ethnos in reference to “nations” (at least 10 times) and not persons, panta ta ethne here in 15:4 no doubt refers to people groups and not to a mass of non-Jewish individuals. Therefore, what John foresees as the goal of redemption is a worshiping multitude of saints from all the peoples of the world.

Revelation 21:3

And I heard a great voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his peoples (laoi), and God himself will be with them.’”

Most contemporary commentators acknowledge that laoi (peoples) and not laos (people) is the original reading. Therefore, John (recording the angelic voice) has changed the Old Testament singular (e.g., Leviticus 26:17 laos) to make very obvious that the final goal of God in redemption is not to obliterate the distinctions of the people but to gather them all into one diverse but unified assembly of “peoples.”

We may conclude from this survey of the Book of Revelation that John’s conception of the unique goal of missions is certainly to reach more and more people groups until there are converts from “every tribe and tongue and people and nation.”

As mentioned earlier (section 2), it is probably impossible to define the precise limits of a “people group.” John’s point seems to be that there are ethnic, political, linguistic and cultural groupings in humanity, none of which should be excluded from hearing a winsome gospel proclamation.

The fact that we cannot be precise about what a “people group” is must not blind us to the fact that John does mean something when he says, “every tribe and tongue and people and nation.” Just because we may quibble over whether leprous Malinke in Guinea are a people group should not blind us to the fact that there are 700,000 Malinke without a church!!

3.3 The Gospel of John

I am assuming that the same John who wrote Revelation (1:1) also wrote the Gospel of John. It will be helpful to view some missionary texts in John’s gospel in this light.

John 11:51-52

Caiaphas, the high priest, seems to admonish the irate Jewish council to get Jesus out of the way because “it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.”

Then John comments on this word from Caiaphas:

He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.

This ties in perfectly with John’s conception of missions in Revelation 5:9 because there it says that Christ ransomed men “from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.” In other words, both texts picture the missionary task as gathering in those who are ransomed by Christ—the “children of God.”

Therefore, “scattered” (dieskorpismena, 11:52) is to be taken in its fullest sense: the “children of God” will be found as widely scattered as there are peoples of the earth. The missionary task is to reach them in every tribe, people and nation.

The same conception would also lie behind the missionary text in John 10:16. Jesus says,

I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice.

The “fold” referred to is Israel. The “other sheep” refer to the “scattered children of God” in John 11:52. These are the ransomed from every tribe…” in Revelation 5:9. Therefore, the “I must bring” (dei me agagein) is a very strong affirmation of the Lord that he will see his missionary purpose completed, namely to gather his “sheep” or “the children of God” or the “ransomed” from all the peoples of the earth.

Thus the Gospel of John lends tremendous force to the missionary purpose implied in Revelation. Jesus has ransomed men from all the peoples. He died to gather these children of God scattered among all the peoples, and therefore, we MUST lead all the wandering sheep into his fold!

What a tremendous assurance and encouragement that the risen Christ will honor and help any missionary agency that joins him in this great purpose of gathering his sheep from all the peoples!

3.4 The Old Testament Hope

John’s expectation was not new. The Old Testament is replete with promises and expectations that God would one day be worshiped by people from all the nations.

Genesis 12:1-3

Now the Lord said to Abraham, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. and I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

This promise for universal blessing to the “families” of the earth is essentially repeated in Genesis 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; and 28:14.

In 12:3 and 28:14 the Hebrew phrase for “all the families” (kol mishpahot) is rendered in the Septuagint by pasai hai phulai The word phule was rendered “tribe” in Revelation 5:9; 7:9 and 14:6, but miahpaha can be, and usually is, smaller than a tribe. For example, when Achan sinned, Israel is examined first by tribe, then by mishpaha (family) then by household (Joshua 7:14).

So the blessing of Abraham is intended by God to reach to fairly small groupings of people. Again, we need not define these groups with precision in order to feel the impact of the promise. Mission agencies cannot be content to just win more people in the reached groups of the earth. The unique task of missions is to press on to the unreached groups.

The other three repetitions of this Abrahamic promise in Genesis use the phrase “all the nations” (kol goiey) which the Septuagint translates with the familiar panta ta ethne, particularly in each case (18:18; 22:18; 26:4).

This suggests strongly that the term panta ta ethne in missionary contexts has the ring of people groups rather than a mass of non-Jewish individuals.

The New Testament explicitly cites this particular Abrahamic promise only twice.

In Acts 3:25 Peter says to the Jewish crowd, “You are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant which God gave to your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your posterity shall all the families of the earth be blessed.’”

The Greek phrase in Acts 3:25 is pasai hai patriai. This is an independent translation of Genesis 12:3. It does not follow the Septuagint (pasai hai phula). But it does confirm that the promise was understood in terms of sub-groupings of society. Patria can be a subgroup of a tribe, or more generally a clan or tribe.

The other New Testament quotation of the Abrahamic promise is in Galatians 3:6-8:

Thus Abraham “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” So you see that it is men of faith who are the sons Abraham. And Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles (ta ethne) by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “in you shall the nations (panta ta ethne) be blessed.”

Interestingly, all the English versions translate the word ethne differently in its two uses in verse 8: in the first case, “Gentiles” and the next, “nations.”

One could try to argue that Paul’s use of the promise to support the justification of the “Gentiles” means he did not see people groups in the Abrahamic promise, but only a mass of non-Jewish individuals, since it is individuals who are justified.

But that is not at all a necessary conclusion. More likely is that Paul recognized the Old Testament meaning of panta ta ethne in Genesis 18:18 (the closest Old Testament parallel) and drew out the inference that individual “Gentiles” are necessarily implied. So the English versions are right to preserve the different meaning in the two uses of ethne in Galatians 3:8.

Paul’s use of the promise alerts us not to get so swept up into people group thinking that we forget the truth that the “blessing of Abraham” is indeed experienced by individuals or not at all.

Many other Old Testament promises and expectations prepare the way for the conception of missions we saw in John’s writings.

Psalm 67:1-3 is representative of numerous psalms:

May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, that thy way may be known upon earth, thy saving power among all nations (pasin ethnesia). Let the peoples praise thee, O God, let all the peoples (laoi pantes) praise thee!

Other Old Testament texts are picked up in the New Testament. Perhaps it would be most efficient to go to the Apostle Paul and see how he conceived of his missionary task and its relationship to the Old Testament hope of converts being called from all the nations.

3.5 Paul’s Idea of the Missionary Task

Acts 13:45-47

In Acts 13:45-47 Paul justifies leaving the synagogue and turning to “the Gentiles” by referring to Isaiah 49:6,

For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, ‘I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles (ethnon), that you may bring salvation to the uttermost parts of the earth.’

It is difficult to know why the English versions don’t preserve the Old Testament sense of Isaiah 49:6 and translate, “I have set you to be a light for the nations." The Hebrew word in Isaiah 49:6 is goim. Then Paul would be doing just what he seemed to do in Galatians 3:8. He would be drawing a necessary reference about individual “Gentiles” from an Old Testament references to “nations.”

But does Paul conceive of his ministry as one that is aimed at reaching more and more people groups rather than more and more Gentiles? To answer this we turn to Romans 15.

Romans 15

Paul states the twofold purpose for Christ’s coming in verse 8 and 9:

For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles (ta ethne) might glorify God for his mercy.

Then to support this claim of God’s worldwide purpose, Paul gathers four Old Testament quotations about the ethne, all of which in their Old Testament context very probably refer to nations, not just a mass of non-Jewish individuals.

  • Romans 15:9 = Psalm 18:49

Therefore I will praise thee among the ethnesin and sing to thy name.”

  • Romans 15:10 = Deuteronomy 32:43

Rejoice, ethne, with his people (laos).

  • Romans 15:11 = Psalm 117:1

Praise the Lord panta ta ethne, and let all the peoples (pantes hai laoi) praise him.

  • Romans 15:12 = Isaiah 11:10

The root of Jesse shall come, he who rises to rule the ethnon; in him shall ethne hope.

From such texts as these, Paul filled out his conception of the missionary commission that the risen Lord had given him (Acts 9:15; 13:45; 22:15; 25:17). What was that conception?

Romans 15:18-21 gives a startling answer.

For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has wrought through me to win obedience of ethnon, by word or deed, by the power of signs and wonder, by the power of the Holy Spirit, so that from Jerusalem and as far round as Illyricum I have fully preached the gospel of Christ, thus making it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on another man’s foundation, but as it is written, “They shall see who have never been told of him, and they shall understand who have never heard of him.”

Literally Paul says, “From Jerusalem and around to Illyricum I have fulfilled (peplerokenai) the gospel.”

What can that possibly mean?

We know that there were thousands of souls yet to be saved in that region because this is Paul’s and Peter’s assumption when they wrote letters to the churches in those regions.

This is a huge area that stretches from southern Palestine to northern Italy, and Paul says he has fulfilled the gospel in that whole region, even though the work of evangelism is only 25 years old at the most — and some of the churches are much younger than that.

We know that Paul believed much church work was still needed there because he left Timothy in Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3) and Titus in Crete (Titus 1:5) to do the work. Nevertheless, he says he has fulfilled the gospel in the whole region.

In fact, he goes so far as to say in Romans 15:23, “But now, since I no longer have any room for work in these regions ...I hope to see you as I go to Spain.” No more room for work! This is truly astonishing when you think of the shortness of the time since the gospel penetrated Asia and Macedonia and Greece and Illyricum, and how much there really was to be done in these regions.

But Paul is finished and is going to Spain. The gospel is fulfilled!

What does this mean?

I think it means that Paul’s conception of the missionary task is not merely the winning of more and more people to Christ (which he could have done very efficiently in these familiar regions), but the reaching of more and more peoples. There is no indication in Paul’s teaching that he had a wanderlust to preach in new geographic areas, but there is clear indication that he was gripped by the vision of unreached peoples. Romans 15:9-12 shows how his mind was saturated with the Old Testament texts that relate to the nations and the people (see especially verse 11, “all the peoples”).

When he says in Romans 15:20 that his aim is to preach not where Christ has been named, “in order that I might not build on another’s foundation,” what was really driving him?

One could unkindly assume a kind of ego-drive that likes to be able to take all the credit for a church and not share the credit with anyone. But this is not the Paul we know from Scripture; nor is it what the context suggests.

The next verse (Romans 15:21) shows what drives Paul. It is the Old Testament conception of God’s worldwide purpose that gives Paul his drive as a pioneer missionary. He quotes Isaiah 52:15:

They shall see who have never been told of him, and they shall understand who have never heard of him.

In the Old Testament context the immediately preceding lines are:

So shall he startle many nations (ethne polia); kings shall shut their mouths because of him.

No doubt Paul has reflected on the fact that his commission from the Lord came to him in similar words. He is “to carry [Christ’s] name before the Gentiles (ethnon) and kings (Acts. 9:15).

In other words, Paul is being driven by a personal commission from the Lord which has been richly buttressed and filled with content by his own reflection on the Old Testament purpose of God to bless all the nations of the earth (Galatians 3:8) and to be praised by all the peoples (Romans 15:11), and to send salvation to the ends of the earth (Acts 13:47), and to make Abraham the father of many nations (Romans 4:17), and to be understood in every group where he is not known (Romans 15:21).

So Paul’s conception of his unique missionary task was that he must press on beyond the regions and peoples where Christ is now preached to places like Spain, and to peoples “who have never been told of him.” That is the way he states it in 1 Corinthians 3:10:

According to the commission (literally: “grace”) of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and another man is building upon it.

God’s missionary “grace” for Paul was to be a foundation-layer in more and more places and peoples. This is the meaning of Frontier Missions as I understand it.

Romans 1:5 and 16:26

Against this backdrop, the beginning and ending mission statements in the book of Romans take on a distinct Frontier Missions coloring.

  • Romans 1:5

Through [Christ] we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations (pasin tois ethnesin).

  • Romans 16:26

The mystery...is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all nations (panta ta ethne), according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith.

Paul saw his special missionary “grace and apostleship” as God’s appointed means of fulfilling the “command” that the obedience of faith be pursued among all the nations.

Our question today should be: What persons or agencies in the various churches and denominations should pick up this unique Pauline mission? It is not the only work of the church. Timothy-type missions are important. He was a foreigner working at Ephesus, continuing what Paul began, but Paul had to move on because he was driven by a special commission: “Depart, for I will send you far away to the ethne” (Acts 22:21), and by a grasp of God’s worldwide mission purpose revealed in the Old Testament.

There is no reason to think that God’s purpose has changed today. Who then is to pick up the mantle of the apostle’s unique missionary task of reaching more and more peoples? Should not every denomination and church have some vital and strategizing group that is recruiting, equipping, sending and supporting Pauline-type missionaries to more and more unreached peoples? That is, shouldn’t Frontier Missions be an essential goal of every church group?

3.6 The “Great Commission” in Luke

We ask now whether this conception of Frontier Missions was the intention of Jesus as he gave his apostles their final commission. Paul’s conception of his own missionary task, which he received from the risen Lord, would certainly suggest that this is what the Lord commanded to all the apostles as the unique missionary task of the church.

But there is also evidence of this in the context of Luke’s record of the Lord’s words in Luke 24:45-47:

Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations (panta ta ethne), beginning from Jerusalem.”

The context here is crucial for our purposes. First, Jesus “opens their minds to understand the Scriptures.” Then he says, “Thus it is written,” i.e., in the Old Testament, and then follows (in the original Greek) three coordinate infinitives spelling out what is written in the Old Testament: First, that the Christ should suffer; second, that he should rise on the third day; and third, that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to “all nations.”

So Jesus is saying that his command to take the message of repentance and forgiveness to all nations “is written” in the Old Testament “Scripture.” This is one of the things he opened their mind to understand. But what is the Old Testament conception of the worldwide purpose of God (which we saw above in section 4.4)? It is just what Paul saw that it was – an intention to bless all the families of the earth and win a worshiping people from “all nations.”

Therefore, we have strong evidence that the panta ta ethne in Luke 24:47 was conceived by Jesus not merely in terms of a mass of non-Jewish individuals, but as an array of world peoples who must hear that message of repentance.

Luke’s other account of Jesus’ commission in Acts 1:8 points in the same direction. Jesus says to his apostles just before his ascension:

But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.

This commission suggests that getting to all the unreached areas (if not people groups) is the goal of missions, not just winning as many people as you can in any given place. Not only that, the phrase “end of the earth” is often in the Old Testament parallel with all the peoples of the earth.

For example, Psalm 22:27:

All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.

(See also Psalm 2:8; 67:5-7; 98:2-3; Isaiah 52:10; Jeremiah 16:19; and Zechariah 9:10.)

3.7 Jesus’ View of the Temple in Mark

When Jesus cleanses the temple in Mark 11, he quotes Isaiah 56:7:

Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’ (pasin toia ethnesin).

The reason this is important for us is twofold: In the first place, it shows Jesus reaching back to the Old Testament, just like e does in Luke 24:45-47, to refer to the worldwide purposes of God. In the second place, he quotes Isaiah 56:7, which in the Hebrew explicitly says, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples (kol ha’amim).

The point of Isaiah is not that every individual non-Jew will have a right to dwell in the presence of God, but that there will be converts from “all peoples” who will enter the temple to worship.

That Jesus was familiar with this Old Testament hope, and even based his worldwide expectations on reference to it in the Old Testament (Mark 11:17; Luke 24:45-47), suggests that we should interpret his “Great Commission” along this line – the very same line with the conception of the missionary task that we have found in John and Revelation and Paul.

In all likelihood, he did not send his apostles out with the general mission merely to win as many individuals as they could, but to reach all the peoples of the world and thus gather the “sons of God,” which are scattered (John 11:52), and call all the “ransomed from every tongue and tribe and people and nations” (Revelation 5:9), until “all the peoples praise him” (Romans 15:11).

Thus when Jesus says in Mark 13:10 that “the gospel must first be preached to all nations (panta ta ethne),” there is no good reason for construing this to mean anything other than that the gospel must reach all the peoples of the world before the end comes.

3.8 The “Great Commission” in Matthew

We come back now to our original effort to understand panta ta ethne in Matthew 28:19 (Go and disciple all the nations”).

It may be helpful to look at the other text in Matthew first. The parallel to Mark 13:18 is Matthew 24:14:

And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world (hole te oikoimene), as a testimony to all nations (pasin tois ethnesin); and then the end will come.

The least we can say here with regard to Frontier Missions is that this saying contains an inescapable push to the frontiers of the unreached. “Throughout the whole world” puts constant pressure on the church to ask if there are any places where there is no clear “testimony” to the truth of Christ.

So even if “all the nations” meant all non-Jewish individuals, there would have to be some group in the church willing to take the responsibility to press ever further outward beyond fields to those places and peoples where there is no “testimony.”

But my own conviction is that in view of the conception of missions in John and revelation and the Old Testament and Paul and Mark and Luke, it is very likely that in Matthew 24:14 and 28:19 panta ta ethne refers to the great hope that all the peoples of the world will be discipled.

4. Conclusion

The implication of this sketch of the biblical picture of the missionary task seems to be that there should be in every church and denomination a group of people (a missions agency or board) who see their unique and primary task

  1. NOT to win as many individuals to Christ as possible before the end comes,
  2. BUT to win some individuals (i.e., plant a church) among all the peoples of the earth before the end comes;
  1. NOT to focus merely on the most “fruitful” peoples outside our own culture (and thus win more individuals to Christ),
  2. BUT to press on to more and more unreached people (even if they are less responsive than other more-reached groups).

In other words, the biblical measuring rod for the success of a mission agency is whether it is fulfilling the unique missionary task of the church

  1. NOT primarily by the number and quality of churches planted in other people groups besides its own,
  2. BUT primarily by the number of different unreached people groups in which it plants quality churches.

If this is so, then should not every church and denomination and mission agency seek to discover the number of unreached peoples, compare this number to the size of its constituency, and then at least carry its proportionate load of responsibility in reaching specific unreached peoples?