Previous article in this series: June 2013, p. 402.
Before our Lord ascended into heaven, He gave us a mandate. He called us to go forth and make all nations disciples of Christ, teaching them to observe everything that Christ has taught us.
Constantly we are to be doing this. Centrally on Sunday by means of the official proclamation of the gospel, but also throughout the week, we are to be busily engaged in this work that our Lord has given us. Together we are to seek to learn all that Christ has taught us, applying it to our own lives, instructing our children, and bearing witness to others as the Lord opens up the door.
This is our mandate, our commission. Together we are to devote our efforts to glorify God by engaging in this work of great importance.
Yet many today would direct our attention to some other “mandate.” This mandate, they say, is to go out and “subdue the earth.” They then point us to the command given to Adam before the fall:
And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth ().
The church must not forget, they say, that fallen man is still called to subdue the earth. This mandate, then, they often place alongside the mandate to preach the gospel, as though there are two mandates that God is calling us to heed.
But what does it mean to subdue the earth? Many will say that it means to do things such as building better computers, constructing better bridges, and developing better healthcare programs. They often call this work “developing culture,” and the command to subdue the earth is commonly referred to as the “culture mandate.”
The last article considered what culture is. This article will take a look at Scripture’s use of the phrase “subduing the earth.”
Subduing the earth/land
Many err by taking this command to Adam and deciding on their own what it means. To understand this commandment and how it might apply to us today, we must look to Scripture for the interpretation.
The subject of subduing the earth comes up elsewhere in Scripture. Moses spoke of this when addressing the Israelites before they crossed the Jordan. He said that the Israelites were to go forth: “every man armed to battle, before the Lord, and the land shall be subdued before you” (Num. 32:29).
The word translated “land” here is the same one translated “earth” in. In other words, the work spoken of here can be referred to as either “subduing the earth” or “subduing the land.”
So what did Moses mean here by subduing the land?
Moses was talking about Israel’s calling to conquer the Canaanites and take possession of the promised land. When Israel went into the land of Canaan, they were to fight against their spiritual enemies, and set up the true worship of God in the land. When the enemies were defeated, and the tabernacle was set up, then the land would be said to be subdued.
We see this in the following quotation from the book of Joshua: “And the whole congregation of the children of Israel assembled together at Shiloh, and set up the tabernacle of the congregation there. And the land was subdued before them” ().
Israel subdued the land by fighting a spiritual battle of faith. Just as God had promised, they were victorious over these enemies, and set up the true tabernacle of God. This is how Israel, by God’s grace, subdued the land.
Christ: the King who subdues the land
The conquest of Canaan pictures how Christ, typified by Joshua, leads His people in battle, subduing their enemies, and establishing the true worship of God in every nation. Christ, after all, is the one who subdues all things.
Like Joshua, Adam also was a type of Christ. The command in Genesis 1 came to Adam as the head of the human race. Christ, the second and last Adam, is the head of the new human race. To Him comes the calling to subdue the land, and to this calling He has been perfectly obedient.
Christ has defeated all the foes at the cross, and now He is going forth to set up the true worship of God in every nation. This is what Christ is doing now from His throne in heaven. He is performing this work in and through His people, as they heed the great commission He gave to them before He ascended.
Thus there are not two mandates, but one. Just as Israel fought spiritual foes to set up the true worship of God in Canaan, so we are to go forth into all nations, seeking to establish the true worship of God in the different nations of the world.
We are to do this as Christ leads us. Just as Joshua was to look to God to direct him in this warfare, so are we to look to our Lord to show us where to go and how to fight. Submitting to our Lord’s command, we are to go forth and disciple all the nations, teaching all men everywhere to observe everything that Christ Himself has taught us.
This is truly our mandate, the one great commission.