Properly conceived as grounded in God's own kingship, the Great Commission begins before humanity's fall away from communion with God. On the sixth day, man was commissioned by God to fill and subdue the earth, and to rule over the creatures (Gen. 1:27). Accordingly, one might justly define the Great Commission as "ruling and subduing" the earth and its creatures—an understanding we will need to unpack.
To be sure, the phrase "ruling and subduing" has deeply negative connotations in our modern world, filled as it is with memories of horrific tyranny and the abuse of power. Nevertheless, we should note that this commission was given before the descent into sin and misery, precisely within the context of man in union with God—that is, given to man as bearer of the image of God (v. 26), created both to fellowship with God and to mediate the blessed reign of God over all the earth.
The theology here is twofold. First, Adam is to gather up all creation into the seventh-day praise and adoration of God—that is what it means to "rule and subdue." He is charged to set apart ("sanctify") creation increasingly until the whole earth is holy, filled with the abiding glory of God.
Second, there is no blessing to be enjoyed, be it ever so marginal, that does not derive from the reign of God—that is the joy of what it means to "be subdued," especially so after the expulsion from life with God. For this reason, we gladly teach our children that Christ executes the office of a king "in subduing us to himself" (WSC Q&A 26).
The Great Commission bestowed upon Adam entailed that his kingship would be in the service of his priestly office, namely, that he would "rule and subdue" for the sake of gathering all creation to the Creator's footstool in worship. The Sabbath consummation was the heart and goal of the sixth day's commission.
Once we understand the Great Commission as a function of kingship, we are in a better place to assess this agenda throughout the rest of the Old Testament. God's reign is universal, and from the beginning, His plan of salvation aimed at all the families of the earth, never overlooking the fact that He "shall inherit all the nations" (Ps. 82:8).
Here, the role of Genesis 1–11 as a prologue to Israel's narrative cannot be overemphasized, for Israel's own identity and sacred calling springs from this universal context and is ever determined by it. After the nations are scattered into exile from the tower of Babel, God calls Abram in Genesis 12, promising that through him "all the families of the earth will be blessed" (v. 3). This promise is later reiterated to Abraham: "In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice" (Gen. 22:18; see 18:18). It is then vouchsafed to Isaac (26:4), and then onward to Jacob as the father of the twelve tribes of Israel (28:14).
Coupled with this promise is the undercurrent of kingship. Abram had been promised that "kings will come from you" (17:6), and a genealogy is followed that will blossom forth into the line of David. Eventually, through Israel, a king would arise to gather the nations back into the presence of God.
Israel, moreover, was brought into covenant fellowship with God at Sinai in order to live as a priestly kingdom and holy nation (Ex. 19:6)—that is, to be a light unto the Gentiles. The parallel defining attributes priestly and holy must be understood in the sense of being set apart unto the Lord God for the sake of the nations; Israel was to be a mediator between God and the nations. This sacred calling had much more to do with being subdued than with subduing other peoples. Israel needed to be consecrated and sanctified—transformed into the servant of God for the sake of the world—to glorify God before the nations. Psalm 67, one of many psalms calling the Gentiles to praise God, declares plainly that Israel had received mercy and even the priestly blessing so that God's way would be known on earth, and so that His salvation would encompass the nations.
Through Israel's early period, however, "there was no king in Israel," which meant "everyone did what was right in his own eyes" (Judg. 21:25). In other words, without one to incarnate God's reign, Israel would persistently fall away into apostasy. Israel needed to be subdued before it could be a light unto the Gentiles.
Upon the installation of David as king of Israel, the Great Commission became a divine charge to a human king once more. Psalm 2, likely used during Israel's coronation ceremony, is instructive on this point. In the midst of the raging nations, the Lord declares, "As for me, I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill" (v. 6). The king then professes the divine decree: "The LORD said to me, 'You are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession' " (vv. 7–8). The phrase my son draws us once again to Adam and to another facet of the theology of the Great Commission.
In a unique sense, Adam may be called the "first-born" son of God (begotten and made). Luke's genealogy of the Messiah, for example, brings us back to Seth as "the son of Adam" then on to Adam as "the son of God" (Luke 3:38; see Gen. 5:1–3). As God's "first-born," then, Adam's inheritance was as wide as his commission: the whole earth—for "the cattle on a thousand hills" and "the world and its fullness" are his (Ps. 50:10, 12). Adam possessed, in other words, the inherent right to rule and subdue all the earth on his Father's behalf and for the sake of his Father's glory.
As redemptive history progresses, Israel then becomes, as it were, God's second "firstborn" son. To be noted here, the Lord was quite particular as to the words Moses was to speak at his opening confrontation with Pharaoh: "Thus says the LORD: 'Israel is my son, my firstborn. So I say to you, let my son go that he may worship me. But if you refuse to let him go, indeed I will kill your son, your firstborn' " (Ex. 4:22–23; see Hos. 11:1). The final sign from God, celebrated annually at Passover, would drive that original revelation deep into the heart of Pharaoh.
Returning now to Psalm 2, David, as head of Israel and by divine promise (2 Sam. 7:14), could be considered God's son in a special sense, as he had evidently received the mantle of Adam as a function of his office. By his anointing, David inherited Adam's role as "son of God" and king of the earth. "I will make him my firstborn," God says, "the highest of the kings of the earth" (Ps. 89:26–27).
It is important to understand that only as the anointed king did David receive the promise to rule and subdue the nations. David's commission was to spread the will and reign of God over the earth—his "enemies" were not merely political or personal, but the enemies of God, kings who had set themselves against the Lord and His anointed. In reality, however, the goal of subduing Israel would prove quite enough. Worse still, it was Israel's kings themselves who led God's sheep astray into perverse rebellion and heinous idolatry. The exile was inevitable.
Yet, remarkably, within the context of Israel's apostasy, God promised to raise up a Davidic Servant who would not only lead the tribes of Jacob through a new exodus but who would also be given "as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth" (Isa. 49:6). This same Servant, we go on to read, would suffer God's judgment in bearing the sins of many, that as an exalted priest he might "sprinkle many nations" (Isa. 52:13–53:12; see 1 Peter 1:1–2). Having atoned for the sins of his people, this coming Messiah—the last Adam, the seed of Abraham, the true Israel, the greater David, the Suffering Servant, the Son of God—would ascend on high to reign from the heavenly Mount Zion, from the right hand of God the Father.
Matthew 28, then, is but the embrace of the inheritance promised in Psalm 2. Yet this kingship is in the service of a priestly office, to usher us into God's presence through the veil of torn flesh and shed blood. Through His outpoured Spirit, Jesus reigns to subdue and summon all creation to the adoration of His Father (1 Cor. 15:24–28), subduing us day by day ever more deeply that we might learn how to "glorify God and enjoy Him forever."