Recently there has been talk about de-emphasizing unreached ethnolinguistic people groups, at least to the point where it no longer holds strategic primacy in missions. The assertion is that in overemphasizing unreached people groups (UPGs), the missions world has veered into dangerous territory, adopting methods more secular than biblical. Others assert that an overemphasis on UPGs takes away from national church ministry, cannibalizing its vital resources.
To that end, here are three reasons to believe the Great Commission still speaks to the unfinished task of reaching UPGs—and why this still matter in missions.
1. Panta ta ethne Still Means ‘People Groups,’ and Many Remain Unreached
Matthew 28:19–20a records the command Jesus gave to his disciples: “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.”
The Greek words panta ta ethne are where the translation of “all nations” comes from. While there is widespread consensus that these “nations” are not what we know today as political nation-states, some suggest they are better understood as non-Jews or Gentile people. In John Piper’s book Let The Nations Be Glad, he lists all the singular and plural uses of ethnos and panta ta ethne in the New Testament. Following this list, he concludes:
The combination of these results suggest that the meaning of panta ta ethne leans heavily in the direction of “all the nations (people groups).” It cannot be said with certainty that this phrase always carries this meaning where it is used, but it’s far more likely that it does in the view of what we have seen so far. This likelihood increases even more when we realize that the phrase panta ta ethne occurs in the Greek Old Testament nearly one hundred times and virtually never carries the meaning “Gentile individuals” but always carries the meaning “all the nations” in the sense of people groups outside of Israel. (166-67)
Identifying such people groups with absolute certainty is by no means easy, but it shouldn’t distract us from the concept of people groups as the clear metric Scripture conveys—which was understood by Jesus’s own disciples and still binds us today (Matt. 28:19–20; Luke 24:45–47; Acts 1:8; Rom. 15:21).
If we accept the primacy of UPGs in the Great Commission, then it would be reasonable if it…