One of the most quoted verses in the Bible is Matthew 28:19-20. Jesus is about to ascend into heaven. But, before doing so, He leaves His disciples with a final command. He says this: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you, and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
These words have inspired many through the centuries. Most often these words are used to speak to the church’s call to take the gospel into all the world. Indeed they do challenge us to do so. However, there is a more central theme here in these two important verses than even the missionary call.
First, the imperative (the command) is not to go, but to make disciples. It leaves us with the picture of simply making disciples wherever we go. As we are going, we are to make disciples. So, the focus is less on the going here, and more on the process of making disciples.
Second, the word “disciple” in Greek is the word “mathetes”. “Mathetes” in its purest form is a word that means “learner”. The command to be a disciple, and to make a disciple, is, at its core, a command to be and make learners.
Third, these disciples/learners are to be baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Many today have a fairly unbalanced view of baptism in evangelicalism today. We are right to understand baptism as an outward symbol of an inward transformation. But, an often neglected significance of baptism today (partly because of the lack of interest in church membership by many anyways) is its role in the identification of the believer with the body of Christ. Baptism marks our entrance into the community. This should make sense as it relates to being a learner. Learning is impossible to do by ourselves. So once we have committed to becoming disciples/learners, we are brought into the community, because we really can’t learn in isolation. The reference to the three members of the Trinity reminds us that our community is grounded on the reality of the triune God. This distinguishes our community from all others and preserves the truth of who God is and what he is accomplishing.
Fourth, disciples are to be taught. How can one learn if they do not have teachers? The obvious answer is they can’t. Clearly this is a reference here to other people who will be a part of instructing other believers. This does not negate the ability to learn via things such as books. These are in actuality, teachers as well. However, it is their writing, rather than their speaking that teaches. Nevertheless, it is probably safe to assert the role of other people in one’s instruction here. This may mean less to many today than it has to generations in the past. Post-modernity and doctrines of relativity have left many with the idea that we make our own truth, hence we have no need for knowledge from others. This is unfortunate, and rejects reality. If we are to be disciples/learners as Jesus has commanded, we must teach and be taught. We simply can’t learn without it.
Fifth, we are commanded to teach/be taught to obey everything that Jesus has commanded of us. We see that our learning is not just for the sake of knowledge apart from a life lived in consistency with it. This knowledge should lead to obedience, which strikes at the heart of how we live. We learn to obey. In addition, we learn to obey everything. This gives us plenty to work on! We must learn to obey, but it is a full and complete obedience. Obedience to some is insufficient. Obedience to everything is what is called for. And finally, this complete obedience is what is commanded by Jesus Himself. These are not just suggestions or wishes. They are commands.
In short, we are commanded to make learners (the imperative). Three participial phrases then lay out for us how we are to do this: by going, by baptizing, and by teaching. But, the central thought remains the call to be/make disciples/learners.
This seems so simple (not necessarily easy, simple and easy are not synonymous). And yet, it begs the question, are we learning? Learning to obey? Learning to obey everything? Are we accomplishing the same in others? Let us be mindful of what Jesus truly commands.
Note: This strikes a damaging blow to much of the experiential spirituality that so many today are looking for. Those who simply attend churches or meetings that provoke intense emotions within one, but leave one unchanged in the way they live on a daily basis are a far cry from what is being commanded here.