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What the Great Commission Says About Making Disciples

What does the Great Commission teach about making disciples? Let’s examine the text from Matthew 28:19–20:

“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. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

The Greek word translated as “make disciples” in the Great Commission is matheteusate, which is the imperative verb form of manthano. Manthano means “to learn by practice; to acquire a custom or habit.” The Jews in Jesus’ day had a deep appreciation and understanding of matheteusate, because the word had a rich, traditional meaning in their culture. In ancient Judaism, a rabbi developed a mentoring relationship with a young, male apprentice. The apprentice watched and listened to his rabbi closely, until he fully habituated the customs, values, and character traits of his master. The pupil was commonly referred to as a mathetes, or a “disciple.” When the disciple eventually became a master, he repeated the process with another apprentice.

Just as rabbis mentored their pupils to become copies of their masters, we are called to guide others to become disciples of Jesus. This involves much more than merely teaching or imparting information. Discipling consists of intentionally developing relationships with unbelievers and leading them to acquire the customs, habits, and very nature of Jesus, the ultimate master.

In the Great Commission, the Greek word for making disciples (matheteusate) is intentionally distinct from the other words used in the charge. It is an imperative verb, or a command. In other words, Jesus assumes we are going and baptizing others; but he is specifically commanding us to make disciples. This is not to say that going and baptizing are not important acts—because they are—but that the act of making disciples is the central, highlighted action Jesus calls us to perform.

In recent years, the definition of evangelism has been expanded to include the process of conversion, but this was not the original meaning of the word. In the New Testament, evangelism is typically referred to as proclaiming good news (e.g., Gal 1:8; Rom 10:15; Luke 4:18). Incidentally, this word is not present in the Great Commission. Jesus expects us to “go” to others, but calls us to spend the bulk of our time making disciples. We have often unwittingly exercised evangelism and evangelistic techniques to the exclusion of making disciples. The distinction is that evangelism does not require us to have personal relationships with people; while making disciples is built upon a foundation of one-on-one relationships.

The process of making disciples is often mistakenly defined as the task of equipping people who are already believers. Equipping is certainly a critical component of making disciples. After unbelievers have been converted, Jesus instructs us to, “continue teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt 28:20). However, if making disciples is restricted to equipping, the process ignores the transforming and converting elements of Jesus’ call. In other words, how can we lead people to become disciples if they have already made the decision to follow Christ? Jesus did not say, “Wait until people become believers and then make disciples of them.” That would be redundant and unproductive. Part of our role, as followers of Jesus, is to teach others how to mature in their faith and to prepare them for making disciples of unbelievers.

Making disciples, baptizing, and teaching are critical components of the Great Commission. However, the charge should not be interpreted as a list of distinctive commands. Rather, the Great Commission is a call­ing to transform the world through the power and love of Jesus.

Therefore, making disciples can be defined as the process of cultivat­ing relationships with unbelievers, mentoring them into developing an intimate, transformative relationship with Jesus, and teaching them to perpetuate the process with others.


Source: Wigram, The Analytical Greek Lexicon, 257.

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