The Biblical Reason Discipleship Must Be Our Top Priority
“And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20
For too many years, the church in North America has incorrectly prioritized evangelism based on these verses. In some ways this makes sense. After all, evangelism is important, right? Evangelism is an easy, emotional rallying cry. It is listed first among the four verbs in the English translations of these verses. It also gets most of us off the hook when the Great Commission occurs primarily in other nations. Unfortunately, none of these reasons justify placing evangelism as the top priority for the Church.
The question is Where did Jesus place His emphasis in these verses? Most of the time our English Bible translations do an adequate job of rendering the original Greek in a way that we can all have confidence that the English reader can accurately understand and apply what they read in the Bible. In this particular instance, however, our English translations do not adequately communicate Jesus’ emphasis.
In the English versions of verses 19 and 20, there are four verbs:
The problem with reading this passage in English is that all these words are treated as verbs when, in fact, only one of these words is a verb in the original Greek. Based on the teaching I received in my young adult life, if I had just read what I wrote for the first time (as may be the case for many reading this blog), I would have assumed that the one verb among these four words is ‘go.’ That is, unfortunately, not the case.
So, there is only one verb. What parts of speech are the other three words? I’m glad you asked. They are participles. In English, participles typically end in ‘-ing.’ English participles are verbs that function as adjectives. In Greek, participles also have characteristics of verbs and adjectives. In this passage, the word go, is better translated “going.” Baptizing and teaching accurately reflect the correct part of speech.
So, what difference does it make? Another excellent question! In Greek when there is a verb surrounded by participles, the main verb is supported by the participles. Said differently, the participles are subordinate to the main verb. The emphasis, priority, and the action imperative, is with the main verb. In this case, it is an imperative verb—a verb of command. Jesus’ command, emphasis, and priority is making disciples. The participles-going, teaching, and baptizing-describe the process of making disciples. Think of the participles as the strategies, or means, for accomplishing the action imperative of the main verb. We are commanded to make disciples. How? By going, teaching, and baptizing.
The Practical Reason Discipleship Must Be Our Top Priority
When we prioritize evangelism over disciple-making, we tend to neglect disciple-making. What ends up happening is that we make converts—people who believe in Jesus—who have not been guided and mentored (discipled) in the process of becoming like Jesus. We unwittingly create believers who do not understand that justification is the beginning of the process of salvation, not the end. What we are left with is a church full of immature Christians who do not reflect the character of Christ and who are incapable of being the Church, the body of Christ.
Failure to make disciples is the main reason why so many churches are closing and so many more are struggling. We are not discipling people in a way that leads to genuine life-change and a life-long commitment to pursuing Christ, being transformed by His grace, and joining Him in His ministry of reconciliation in the world.
God’s doesn’t just desire conversion. God desires the complete transformation of the disciple’s life. For example:
Ephesians 4:15, Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,
1 Peter 2:2-3, Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.
2 Peter 3:17-18, You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, be on your guard so that you are not carried away by the error of unprincipled men and fall from your own steadfastness, but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.
As these verses indicate, becoming like Jesus is the goal of the life of a disciple of Jesus. Assisting others in reaching the goal of Christlikeness, discipleship, is the primary mission of the Church. Failure to assist new disciples in reaching this goal is the leading cause of unhealthy churches and church closures.
I am not saying that sharing the gospel and bringing people to faith in Christ is not important. Evangelism is the first step in fulfilling the Great Commission. In the Great Commission, Jesus assumes that we will go to all nations. But evangelism is not the Great Commission. Making disciples is the Great Commission. The long-term commitment and interpersonal hardship of discipleship is our highest calling. Evangelism is the very first step in the disciple-making process. If we do not share the gospel of Christ, we will not be able to make disciples of Christ. We will not be able to fulfil the Great Commission.
The Church’s mission is discipleship; the Church’s strategies are evangelism, teaching, and baptism. When we confuse the former with the latter, we confuse the mission with strategy.
Boring, M. E. (2015). The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (Vol. 7, pp. 375-377). Abington Press: Nashville, Tennessee.
France, R. T. (2007). The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Matthew, pp. 1114-1118. Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing Co.: Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Hagner, D. (1995). Word Biblical Commentary: Matthew 14-28 (Vol. 33b, pp. 886-888). Word Books: Dallas, Texas.
Hahn, R. L. (2007). Wesleyan Bible Commentary Series: Matthew (pp. 345-347). Wesleyan Publishing House: Indianapolis Indiana.
Wilkins, M. J. (2004). The NIV Life Application Commentary: Matthew (pp. 951-959, 963-964, 970-972). Zondervan: Grand Rapids, Michigan.
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