The Great Commission is the Cultural Mandate Reinstated in Christ

Cultural historian, Johan Huizinga once uttered, “If we are to preserve culture we must continue to create it.” Building culture is the highest calling for Christians. It is what God originally made mankind to do for his glory. God first established this calling in Genesis 1:28, also known as the Cultural/Dominion Mandate, and after sin entered the world, He has been re-establishing it with new developments throughout redemptive history up to its final form in Matthew 28:18-20—the Great Commission. Tracking the theme of culture and dominion throughout the biblical narrative strongly indicates that the Great Commission is the Cultural Mandate reinstated in Christ. The implication then is that Christians are still tasked with building culture, only now it is to be done in a distinctly Christian way for the sake of Christ’s kingdom. The two passages read as follows:

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “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 heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen 1:28).

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:18-20)

Culture is simply human interaction with God’s physical creation.[1] When God created the earth it was good, but it wasn’t best. To make His creation even more glorious, God made creatures who would reflect His creative nature by cultivating the physical realm. The term “culture” can refer to just about any human activity. It can refer to tilling dirt in preparation for crops; organizing sound waves into musical songs; or cutting stone and trees for infrastructure. It applies to human procreation as well. Families multiply into more families which eventually creates societies. This is what God created mankind to do—to take dominion over the earth for cultivation as image bearers of Himself.

The first humans failed at this task by rebelling against God’s law. Despite their failure, God never rescinded His commission, in fact, He reinstated it with His Old Testament saints. However, like Adam, they would also fail at the task until the last Adam (1 Cor 15:45) would come to succeed on behalf of the human race. As mankind’s redeemer and one who now possesses ultimate dominion in heaven and on earth (Matt 28:18), Jesus reinstates the cultural mandate as the mission of his church, only now the multiplication comes in the form of discipleship and baptism in the name of the Triune God, and subduing comes by teaching the commandments of Christ which manifests as culture. To make things easy, we will merge the two examined shorthand terms together and refer to the view that the Great Commission is the Cultural Mandate reinstated as the “cultural commission” (I’m sure others have used this term before so I’m not claiming to have coined it).

The belief in a Christian cultural commission received push-back in the late 1980s. Writers from the Dispensational camp published three books which highly condemned the idea: Dave Hunt’s Whatever Happened to Heaven? (1988), H. Wayne House and Thomas D. Ice’s Dominion Theology: Blessing or Curse? (1988), and Hal Lindsay’s The Road to Holocaust (1989).[2] In these works the authors portrayed the idea of a Christian cultural commission as deviant theology. They accused anyone who claims that Matt 28:18-20 is a corollary of Gen 1:28 was promoting a far-fetched theory; that the two passages have nothing to do with each other.

Since then, new opponents have emerged with assaults upon a cultural commission. Those from the radical Two Kingdoms movement (distinct from traditional Lutheran Two Kingdoms Theology) have more recently argued that the commission given to Adam is part of what they call the “common kingdom” which is a realm of God’s sovereign rule which does not require any redeeming qualities. David VanDrunen, an advocate of radical Two Kingdoms theology said, “The so-called ‘cultural mandate’ was not a task of infinite duration.” In other words, it does not apply to Christians today. And so he concluded that, “Generally speaking, believers are not to seek an objectively unique Christian way of pursuing cultural activities.”[3]

The reoccurring objection from groups like these is that those who see a particular Christian cultural commission are imposing certain presuppositions onto Genesis 1:28, and insist that the passage teaches nothing more than the fact that God gave Adam authority over the animal kingdom. However, the real problem is that our critics seem to be incapable of seeing the biblical development of the Cultural Mandate that bridges to the Great Commission. Since they don’t track the unfolding of Gen 1:28 throughout the Old Testament, they are blind to its connection to Matt 28.

A good example of where their criticisms are coming from is, imagine if you will, someone who had no understanding of a caterpillar’s stages of life; it might be hard for them to see how a beautiful butterfly in its final stage could ever have come from its humble beginnings. Yet, when we learn of its cocoon the process becomes clear. I believe this is how God unravels the Cultural Mandate. Let’s examine some of the important developments of Gen 1:28 in the redemptive timeline.

Adam was supposed to cultivate and expand Eden’s garden throughout the earth as God’s priest-king.

In order to fulfill God’s commission, Adam had to take on the dual function of acting as a priest-king. This is first hinted at when we see that his main responsibilities in the garden are to “cultivate it and to keep it” (Gen 2:15). The Hebrew terms for “cultivate” and “keep” when used together are also translated “serve” and “guard.”[4] For example, these terms are used to describe the primary tasks of the priests who were to “serve” God in the temple and “guard” it so that unclean things may not enter in (Num 3:7-8; 8:25-26; 18:5-6; 1 Chr 23:32; Eze 44:14). Likewise, Adam was supposed to function as a priest to serve and guard God’s garden/temple but failed by sinning and letting in an unclean serpent who defiled it. Adam loses his priestly role and two cherubim take over to “guard” the garden/temple. Their role is later memorialized in the temple when God commands Moses to have two statues of angelic figures forged and stationed on both sides of the ark of the covenant which was located in the Holy of Holies.

Adam also functioned as a priest in that he was supposed to minister to the world with the presence of God. Both Eden and the Old Testament temple were unique places where men experienced God’s presence. The same Hebrew verbal form used for God “walking back and forth” in the garden (Gen 3:8) also describes his presence in the tabernacle (Lev 26:12; Deut 23:14; 2 Sam 7:6-7). God’s presence resided with Adam in the garden, however, neither of them were supposed to stay there. As the first humans would multiply and fill the earth to subdue it, God’s presence would expand along with them. Thus, Adam was a priest for the reason that he was responsible for bringing the world into God’s presence; and king in that his task was to take dominion over the earth and rule over every creature.

Adam’s commission is passed down to Noah and his descendants

The Cultural Mandate is first recapitulated with Noah and his family after the flood, this time God adds a civil penalty for murder: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image. And you, be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it” (Gen 9:6-7). As we see here, the essence of the mandate is reinstated along with a newly revealed directive from God on how to deal with murderous crimes. Establishing civil law is now part of God’s commission to subdue and fill the earth. However, Noah’s descendants fail by refusing to disperse throughout the world (an essential component of the original mandate). Instead, they are more concerned with building a tower to make a name for themselves than they are with adhering to God’s commission to cultivate the earth for His glory.

The Patriarchs 

God then gave the commission of Gen 1:28 to the patriarchs: First to Abraham (Gen 12:2-3; 17:2, 6, 8, 16; 22:18); then to Isaac (26:3-4, 24); then to Jacob (28:3-4, 14; 35:11-12; 48:3, 15-16); then to Israel as a people (Deut 7:13; Gen 47:27; Exod 1:7; Psa 107:38; Isa 51:2). The mandate God passes to the patriarchs is not new but rather renewed. Notice the repetitious language with slightly new development in the case of Abraham:

The original commission (Gen 1:28)The commission re-established (Gen 22:17-18)
God blessed themI will greatly bless you
Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earthAnd greatly multiply your seed
Rule over … all the earthYour seed will possess the gate of their enemies

As we can see, the covenant with Abraham is undeniably the same as the one given to Adam, yet with new development. This time the covenant is in the form of a promise and instead of subduing merely dirt and animals, Abraham’s seed will possess the gates of their enemies. Jesus would later use the same terminology to describe the church’s subjugation of the gates of hell (Matt 16:18).

The Mandate is handed to the people of Israel

Just as Adam was to cultivate and subdue the earth by functioning as a priest-king, God similarly makes the people of Israel a kingdom of priests (Exo 19:6) whose task was to continue the cultural mandate through a theocratic kingdom. The covenant at Sinai marks a reuniting of both cultural and cultic activity. It was there that Moses received the law which was to be the blue-print for social and cultural righteousness. However, Israel fails from the start by making a golden calf to worship, thus breaking the first two commandments. Knowing this act put them in danger of God’s wrath, Moses intercedes by reminding God of the cultural mandate, specifically God’s promise to Abraham that He would multiply His people (Exo 32:13). From then on, multiplication would be a blessing for obedience to the law (Lev 26:9; Deut 6:3; 7:13; 8:1; 13:17; 30:16). Israel did experience some fruitful seasons, but overall their sins would stifle their cultural progress.

The Prophets remind Israel of God’s commission

As the nation of Israel sank further into spiritual rebellion, God raises up prophets to remind them of their cultural purpose. The prophets do this by painting us a picture of Adam’s original calling to cultivate and expand the garden throughout the earth with the use of symbols such as: a temple, mountain, kingdom, and throne. Like the garden, all these places are said to be the dwelling place of God (cf., Gen 3:8; Exo 19:11, 18, 20; Eze 43:6-7; Jer 3:17). Just as God’s presence was supposed to expand through Adam’s cultivation, Israel’s cultural activity was supposed to pave the way for God’s dwelling place to encompass Jerusalem first (Isa 4:4-6; 54:2-3, 11-12; Jer 3:16-17; Zech 1:16-2:11), then the land of Israel as a whole (Ezek 37:25-28), finally the entire earth (Dan 2:34-35, 44-45). Israel was supposed to be a light to the nations (Isa 42:6) but was not. They embraced God’s election with arrogance rather than humility, and believed the gentiles would experience God’s presence only through judgment.

Even though Israel refused to be a light to the nations, and instead profaned God’s name among them (Eze 36:21-23), hope was not lost for God’s original cultural design. Ezekiel prophesies about a time when God’s people would multiply again, and that His sanctuary/presence would reside with them forever.

I will make a covenant of peace with them. It shall be an everlasting covenant with them. And I will set them in their land and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in their midst forevermore (Eze 37:26).

How was this to be accomplished?

Christ forever fulfills the cultural mandate

So far in the redemptive narrative we have seen God reiterate the cultural mandate time and time again with His people. The progress report of their attempts at God’s calling can be summed up in one word—failure. Not one person or peoples that God made a covenant with could fulfill the original calling that was given to Adam in the garden. None except Christ Jesus.

Jesus is the priest-king that Adam was supposed to be. It was Adam who was supposed to take dominion as a king but lost it (Gen 1:26, 28); It is Jesus on the other hand to whom belongs all dominion both now and forever (Eph 1:21; 1 Pet 4:11; 5:11; Jude 1:25; Rev 1:6). Adam as priest should have expelled the serpent from the garden but instead let it deceive him; by contrast, Jesus crushed the serpent’s head and cast him out (Gen 3:15; John 12:31-32). Adam brought death in the old creation; Jesus brought life in the new (1 Cor 15:22). Adam was disobedient in the garden of Eden; Jesus was obedient in the garden of Gethsemane (Matt 26:39; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42). Jesus is called the “final Adam” (1 Cor 15:45) for the reason that he will succeed in God’s cultural calling, thus, never again will there be a need for another Adam-like figure.

The cultural mandate reinstated in the New Covenant 

The Final instance in which the cultural mandate is reinstated occurs during the end of the Gospel narratives where Jesus himself commissions his followers to go into all the world to disciple the nations. Echoes of the first commission in Genesis are clearly present. Just as the first cultural commission to Adam was announced in Eden located on a mountain (Eze 28:14,16), Jesus gave his commission to the disciples also on a mountain (Matt 28:16). God blessed Adam to carry out his mission (Gen 1:28); Jesus blessed his disciples to carry out theirs (Luke 24:50). The commission in Eden was to be fruitful and multiply; Jesus commissioned the Apostles to multiply his disciples, and multiply they did (Acts 6:7; 9:31; 12:24). Adam was to subdue the earth; the Apostles were told to teach new believers to observe all he commanded. Obedience to King Jesus in all areas of life is how Christians subdue the earth through him in the New Covenant.

Jesus’ reinstatement of the cultural mandate would be different from the rest for the reason that God’s presence would remain with his people. Jesus’ solidifies his commission by assuring his disciples that he would be with them always, to the end of the age (Matt 28:20). This was the sanctuary that would remain with God’s people forever (Eze 37:26). Jesus himself is the temple (John 2:19-22) and because his presence is now with us and in us (Gal 2:20), we are also God’s temple (Eph 2:19-22; 1 Cor 3:16; 2 Cor 6:16; Rev 21:3). Where ever we go and whatever we touch/cultivate, the world is experiencing the presence of God through his people. The fact that Christ and his church are God’s temple should be a constant reminder of our cultural mission just as the Old Testament temple and its garden decor was to Israel.

Application

God’s mission for His church is much more grandiose than what mainstream Christianity in recent years has lead us to believe. It is to take dominion of this world and build Christian culture for the glory of Christ through the power of salvation. Too often do churches whittle away our mission and narrow it down to attending Sunday services, occasional Bible studies, and when the opportunity arises, share the gospel. These are all good and necessary things, but if this is our ultimate aim, we won’t even get the arrow on the target in relation to what God expects of us.

Recognizing the larger goal of our Christian cultural commission should be a great encouragement that whatever situation God has sovereignly placed you in is opportunity for you to serve and contribute to His kingdom. Desiring to be in pastoral ministry is an honorable calling (1 Tim 3:1), but it does not encompass all aspects of Christian dominion. Pastoral roles are much like military cooks, they’re job is to feed those who are fighting on the front lines of battle. The spiritual war we fight also needs those who are in direct contact with the world in order to counter wicked cultures with the kingdom of God. No occupation or vocation is insignificant or unnecessary for our cultural commission. Pursuits such as: parenthood, business, entrepreneurship, art and entertainment, civil government, science, agriculture, education, and medicine etc. are all elements that make up culture and should be pursued with Christ’s cultural commission at the forefront of our intellects and passions.

What about Cultural Christianity?

There exists a noble concern among Christians today who are afraid that building Christian culture would turn into what is commonly known as “Cultural Christianity” — culture that superficially identifies as “Christian” but does not truly adhere to the faith. There are at least two reasons why this concern does not warrant a retreat in building Christian culture:

(1) Jesus never told us to make superficial “Christians,” but rather true disciples who attain saving faith. Cultural Christianity merely treats the symptoms of societal decay, whereby true Christian culture building, by means of the gospel, confronts the source of the issue which is the spiritual deadness of the heart and seeks to manifest new life in Christ as a cultural act. True Christian culture can only start with repentant hearts, which is why our prayer ought to echo that prayer of old from the ancient Jewish text: “O Lord above us, grant to your servant that we may pray before you, and give us a seed for our heart and cultivation of our understanding so that fruit may be produced…” (2 Esdras 8:6).

(2) The misfortunes of Cultural Christianity does not mean christian culture itself is a bad thing. On the contrary, christian culture is an effective testimony to the world of God’s righteousness. In fact, this was the case for the nations who would marvel at Israel’s Godly culture (Deut 4:5-8).

Closing 

To those who say we can’t read the Cultural Mandate into the Great Commission, we simply say, “yes we can.” The two passages are, in essence, the same. This becomes clear when the Bible is read as it’s meant to be read—as one long narrative telling us the overarching theme of how God brings reconciliation to a fallen world through Christ. It is the story of how Jesus redeems what was lost in Adam, and restores us to our original calling in Genesis.

References:

[1] Sandlin, Andrew P. “The Cultural Mandate, Not the Benedict Option.” Christian Culture, April 16, 2017. https://docsandlin.com/2017/03/30/the-cultural-mandate-not-the-benedict-option/.

[2] Kurian, George Thomas, Mark A. Lamport, and Martin E. Marty. Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.

[3] VanDrunen, David. Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: a Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2010.

[4] Beale, G. K. The Temple and the Church’s Mission: a Biblical Theology of the Temple. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004.

Published by Ben Moore

Hi, I'm Ben Moore, a Christian worldview writer. This site is committed to seeing Christ's kingdom permeate throughout all of life, including the social institutions that God has designed; family, church, and civil government. While Christian churches have been focused on applying the Bible to the heart of the individual, its application to society is often neglected, lost, or even rejected. The content of this site predominately speaks into these issues and wants to discover how God's word applies beyond the life of the individual Christian and to the public square.

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