Like any good literature, the Bible uses figures of speech. One is “metonymy of container for contents.” In this figure, the word for a container of some kind is written, but what the writer is referring to is what is inside. For example, the Bible might use the word “house” when what it means is “the people who live in the house.” “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved—you and your house.” The building is not being saved; the people who live inside are. “God so loved the world….” Not the globe, but the people who inhabit it. “The whole town gathered at the door.” Not the town with its buildings and streets, but the citizens of that town.
We use metonymy of container for contents all the time: “The White House said today….” No, the White House itself said nothing; the president living there said something.
Jesus commissioned us to “made disciples of all nations.” Do we disciple all nations as nations, or do we seek to win and train the individual citizens who comprise those nations? Are we supposed to tell the Peruvian legislature, for example, what laws to enact? Or are we instead to focus on winning Peruvian people to the Lord?
True, once we are saved God wants us to influence for good the societies in which we live. But that is not the same as discipling them. “Discipling” implies a position of authority we simply do not have. When we disciple individuals, Jesus says to baptize before teaching them. How would we baptize a whole nation? Nowhere in the NT does Paul try to disciple the Roman Empire, or any city within it. We do see him evangelizing Rome’s citizens, including its leaders: “I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am—except for these chains.”
As salt and light, we are to be salty and shiny—keeping our own lives in order—both individually and corporately. We are not called upon to dictate morality to non-Christians. “What have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside.” This is not an excuse for passivism on our part, but rather a reminder to focus on what needs converting first of all—the human heart.
Matthew 28:19–20 contains a metonymy. Let us win to the Lord and disciple individuals from every nation.