WHAT DID JESUS MEAN IN MATTHEW 28:19-20 WHEN HE COMMANDED HIS CHURCH TO MAKE DISCIPLES?
Perhaps the most important questions that a church and its leadership can ask are: What does God want us to do? What is our mandate or mission? What are our marching orders? The answer to all three questions isn’t hard to find. More than two thousand years ago, the Savior predetermined the church’s mission-it’s the Great Commission, as found in such texts as Mark 16:15; Luke 24:46-49; John 20:21; and Matthew 28:19-20, where he says, “Make disciples.” This commission raises several important questions, such as what is a disciple and what does it mean to make disciples?
If you asked ten different people in the church (including the pastoral staff) what a disciple is, you might get ten different answers. The same is true at a seminary. If the church is not clear on what Jesus meant, then it will be difficult for it to comply with his expressed will. For the church to understand what the Savior meant in Matthew 28:19-20, we must examine the main verb and its object “make disciples” and then the two participles that follow- “baptizing” and “teaching.” What does all this mean?
First, let’s examine the main verb and its object: “make disciples.” A common view is that a disciple is a committed believer. Thus a disciple is a believer, but a believer isn’t necessarily a disciple. However, that’s not how the New Testament uses this term. I contend that the normative use of the term disciple is of one who is a convert to or a believer in Jesus Christ (though there are some obvious exceptions – Some exceptions are the disciples of Moses [John 9:28], the disciples of the Pharisees [Matt. 22:16; Mark 2:18], the disciples of John [Mark 2:18; John 1:35], and the disciples of Jesus who left him [John 6:60-66]). Thus the Bible teaches that a disciple isn’t necessarily a Christian who has made a deeper commitment to the Savior but simply a Christian. Committed Christians are committed disciples. Uncommitted Christians are uncommitted disciples. This is clearly how Luke uses the term disciple in the book of Acts and his Gospel. It is evident in passages such as the following: Acts 6:1-2, 7; 9:1, 26; 11:26; 14:21-22; 15:10; 18:23; 19:9. For example, Acts 6:7 tells us that God’s Word kept spreading and the number of disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem. Luke isn’t telling us that the number of deeply committed believers was significantly increasing. He’s telling his readers that the church was making numerous converts to the faith. In Acts 9:1 Luke writes that Saul (Paul) was “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.” It’s most doubtful that Saul was threatening only the mature believers. He was persecuting as many believers as he could locate. A great example is Acts 14:21 where Luke says they “won a large number of disciples” in connection with evangelism. Here they preached the gospel and won or made a large number of disciples or converts, not mature or even growing Christians. (Note that the words “won a large number of disciples” is the one Greek word mathateusantes, the same word as in Matthew 28:19!) Disciples, then, were synonymous with believers. Virtually all scholars acknowledge this to be the case in Acts.
So is the command “make disciples” in Matthew 28:19 to be equated with evangelism? Before we can answer this question, we must also examine a second context. The first had to do with the use of the term disciple in the New Testament; the second has to do with the other Great Commission passages: Mark 16:15 and Luke 24:46-49 (with Acts 1:8). In Mark 16:15 Jesus commands the disciples, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.” Here “preach” like “make disciples” is the main verb (an aorist imperative) preceded by another circumstantial participle of attendant circumstance translated “go.” This is clearly a proactive command to do evangelism.
In Luke 24:46-48 we have much the same message with the gospel defined: “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” Jesus presents the gospel message and the necessity that his witnesses preach that gospel to all nations. In these two Great Commission passages, the emphasis is clearly on evangelism and missions.
Finally, John gives us the least information in his statement of the commission. In John 20:21-22 Jesus tells the disciples that he’s sending them and provides them with the Holy Spirit in anticipation of Pentecost.
We must not stop here. There’s a third context. Much of Jesus’s teaching of the Twelve (who are believers, except for Judas) concerns discipleship or the need for the disciple to grow in Christ (Matt. 16:24-26; 20:26-28; Luke 9:23-25). For example, Matthew 16:24 says, “Then Jesus said to his disciples, `If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”‘
So how does this relate to the passages in Acts and the other commission passages in the Gospels? The answer is that the Great Commission has both an evangelism and an edification or spiritual growth component. To make a disciple, first one has to win a person (a nondisciple) to Christ. At that point he or she becomes a disciple. It doesn’t stop there. Now this new disciple needs to grow or mature as a disciple, hence the edification component.
“Baptizing and Teaching”
Having studied the main verb and its object, “make disciples,” we need to examine the two participles in Matthew 28:20- “baptizing” and “teaching.” The interpretation of these will address whether “make disciples” involves both evangelism and edification. While there are two feasible interpretive options, the better one is that they are circumstantial (adverbial) participles of means (The second option is to treat them as circumstantial [adverbial] participles of attendant circumstance. If this is correct, then the participles baptizing and teaching express an idea not subordinate to as above but coordinate to or on a par with the main verb [make disciples]. You would translate the main verb and the participles as a series of coordinate verbs, the mood of which is dictated by the main verb that in this case is imperative [aorist imperative]. The verse would read: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” A former Dallas Seminary Greek professor, Philip Williams, takes this view in “Grammar Notes on the Noun and the Verb and Certain Other Items” [unpublished class notes, which were used by Dr. Buist Fanning in his course Advanced Greek Grammar, 1977], 53-54. The conclusion here is that the passage addresses a series of separate, coordinate chronological acts or steps. The first is to go, which implies proactivity. The second is to make disciples. The third is to baptize those disciples, and the fourth is to teach them. However, I believe that Dan Wallace makes the better argument for these being circumstantial participles of means. While I don’t believe that baptizontes and didaskontes are circumstantial participles of attendant circumstance, I do believe that the first participle in verse 19 [poreuthentes] is. It draws its mood from or is coordinate to the main verb [mathateusate], which is imperative. Jesus is commanding them to make disciples and to be proactive about it).
The NIV has taken this interpretation: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Dan Wallace, a Greek scholar and professor of New Testament at Dallas Seminary, writes: “Finally, the other two participles (haptizontes, didaskontes) should not be taken as attendant circumstance. First, they do not fit the normal pattern for
attendant circumstance participles (they are present tense and follow the main verb). And second, they obviously make good sense as participles of means; i.e., the means by which the disciples were to make disciples was to baptize and then to teach” (Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996, 645). If this is the case, then the two participles provide us with the means or the how for growing the new disciples. The way the church makes disciples is by baptizing and teaching its people.
But what is the significance of baptism in the life of a new disciple (believer)? Baptism is mentioned eleven times in Acts (Acts 2:38; 8:12, 16, 36, 38; 9:18; 10:48; 16:15, 33; 19:5; 22:16). In every passage except one (19:5) it’s used in close association with evangelism and immediately follows someone’s conversion to Christ. Baptism was the public means or activity that identified the new disciple with Jesus (See Wilkins, Following the Master, 189). Baptism was serious business, as it could mean rejection by one’s parents and family, even resulting in the loss of one’s life. As we have seen, it both implies or is closely associated with evangelism and was a public confession that one had become a disciple of Jesus. Thus Matthew includes evangelism in the context of disciple making.
And finally, what is the significance of teaching? Luke also addresses teaching in Acts (Acts 2:42; 5:25, 28; 15:35; 18:11; 28:31). Michael Wilkins summarizes this best when he says that “`teaching’ introduces the activities by which the new disciple grows in discipleship” (Ibid., 189-90).The object of our teaching is obedience to Jesus’s teaching. The emphasis on teaching isn’t simply for the sake of knowledge. Effective teaching results in a transformed life or a maturing disciple/believer.
The conclusion from the evidence above is that the two participles are best treated and translated as circumstantial participles of means. The term make disciples (mathateusante) is a clear reference to both evangelism (baptizing) and maturation (teaching). (Note again the use of mathateusantes in Acts 14:21 in the context of evangelism.) Mark and Luke emphasize the evangelism aspect of the Great Commission (and John the sending out of the disciples). Matthew emphasizes both evangelism and the need to grow disciples in their newfound faith, as he adds the need not only to baptize but to teach these new believers as well to other passages in the New Testament, the latter would lead the new converts to spiritual maturity (1 Cor. 3:1-4; Heb. 5:11-6:3). Therefore, the goal is for them to become mature disciples in time. This would result from a combination of being taught and obeying Jesus’s commandments.
Jesus was clear about his intentions for his church. It wasn’t just to teach or preach the Word, as important as those activities are. Nor was it evangelism alone, although the latter is emphasized as much as teaching. He expects his entire church (not simply a few passionate disciple makers) to move people from prebirth (unbelief) to the new birth (belief) and then to maturity. In fact, this is so important that we can measure a church’s spiritual health and its ultimate success by its obedience to the Great Commission. It is fair to ask of every church’s ministry how many people have become disciples (believers) and how many of these disciples are growing toward maturity. In short, it’s imperative that every church make and mature disciples at home and abroad!
Note: I highly recommend Dr. Michael J. Wilkins’s Following the Master: A Biblical Theology of Discipleship (Zondervan, 1992). Wilkins is professor of New Testament language and literature and dean of the faculty at the Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. (Pictured on below)
About the Author: Aubrey Malphurs (Ph.D., Dallas Theological Seminary) is professor of pastoral ministries at Dallas Theological Seminary and president of The Malphurs Group. He engages in church consulting and training and is the author of numerous books, including Developing a Vision of Ministry in the Twenty-first Century.
The Article above was adapted from Appendix B: “Make Disciples” by Aubrey Malphurs. Strategic Disciple Making: A Practical Tool for Successful Ministry. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008 (pp. 159-160). Kindle Edition.