Although the Great Commission is a very familiar passage of Scripture, it is commonly misunderstood. These verses say:
Go ye therefore, and teach (μαθητεύω- make disciples of) all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching (διδάσκω- instructing) them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen. (KJV)
Some Initial Clarification
First of all notice that in the KJV the word ‘teach’ is used twice. We may be tempted to think that the meaning behind each word is identical, but it is not. There are actually two different Greek words used (mathēteuō in verse 19 and didaskō in verse 20). The first means to ‘make disciples of’ and the second means to ‘instruct.’ Failing to understand this difference can lead to a partial misapplication of this verse, as we will see shortly. Most all modern translations clarify this by translating the two Greek words differently.
The Most Common Misuse
Undoubtedly you have heard that these verses are commanding us to “GO” and win other people to Christ. While I would readily agree that this is the duty of every Christian, this is not the primary command of these verses.
The word translated as ‘go’ is a participle, not an imperative. This means that the ‘going’ is assumed. We are not being commanded to “go” to a lost world, it is assumed that we are ‘going’ and that it is natural to ‘go’. It would be better to translate the first part of Matthew 28:19 as “While you are going and wherever you are going…” or as Young’s Literal Translation says, “Having gone.” Once you understand this fact the primary command in this passage becomes crystal clear. The primary command is to make disciples of all nations. Let me offer an outline of sorts that will help visualize what I am talking about.
While you are going…
…Make disciples of or disciple all nations (teach)…
…by baptizing them…
(…in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit…)
…And by teaching (instructing) them…
(…to observe all things that I have commanded you…)
…I will be with you always…
(…even to the end of the age, Amen.)
The command in this verse is to make disciples of all nations. We accomplish that by (1) baptizing them and (2) teaching them. Let me offer an explanation about the instruction to baptize. Baptism is in no way necessary for or a pre-requisite to salvation. However, in Scripture baptism is assumed for the believer. As a result, baptism is many times connected to salvation as a direct and immediate result of that salvation. Baptism was the sign of their conversion. So when this passage instructs us to make disciples by the sign of baptizing them, we can understand that to mean that we are to make disciples of all nations (1) by seeing them converted to Christ and (2) by teaching them.
So how are these verses misused and partially ignored?
These verses are primarily misused by asserting that the command is to “GO”. While we are to “go,” that is not the primary command in these verses. The command is to make disciples.
This passage is partially ignored by churches that fail to make disciples. So many people are so focused on making converts that they fail to move to the next step of discipleship. Why do so many converts fall away from the church? Perhaps it is because we have made converts and not disciples.
Any time we only focus on converting people to Christ and yet fail to teach/disciple them we are not fulfilling the Great Commission. The only way to be obedient to this passage is to disciple all the nations (starting in your own community and at your workplace) by BOTH presenting Christ to the lost and then after they are converted to Christ, discipling them. If either portion is neglected the disciple-making process is brought to an abrupt stop.
We should all strive to completely obey the Great Commission, not just part of it. So, while you are going and wherever you are going (whether on the mission field or in your community) be intentionally involved in the process of making disciples.