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).