Matthew 28:16–20 has been misunderstood and misinterpreted by many. To better understand what Jesus is saying in this passage, let’s first talk about what he is not commanding us to do.
Almost every sermon I have ever heard preached on the Great Commission treats Christ’s words as a command to share one’s faith or to become a missionary. Yet these interpretations water down Christ’s original purpose for the Great Commission. The command here is not to make converts. I like the way Christopher Adsit put it: “In a spiritual sense, we have a tendency to think that the greatest thing we Christians can do is beget babies. Consequently, what we have here in America today is the largest spiritual nursery in history.”1
Jesus’ command was not solely an injunction to win the lost to a saving faith in him. Likewise the Great Commission does not serve as a directive to be a missionary―though being a missionary can certainly be an application of accomplishing his commission. On the contrary, Jesus commands us to make disciples of all people of the earth. So, what does this command entail?
Let’s come back to Jesus’ original words, in Matthew 28:19–20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Many preachers have taught that Christ commanded every follower to “go!” After all, the command starts with the words “Go therefore.” However, Christ’s actual command becomes clearer when we consider the Greek grammar in the passage. The imperative here is to “make disciples.” Furthermore, the words “go,” “baptizing,” and “teaching” are adverbial participles which modify the command “make disciples.” Thus, the words “go,” “baptize,” and “teach” tell us how we are to follow Christ’s command. In the Greek grammar, the word “go” is an aorist passive participle—which means that the correct translation of the command is “going,” “in your going,” or “having gone,” to “make disciples.” In other words: You’re already going. So as you go, make disciples.
Prior to Christ’s proclamation of the Great Commission, the disciples had just fallen on their faces in worship (Matt. 28:17). Peter didn’t get up from worshiping the resurrected Christ and say, “It’s been good knowing you Jesus. Hey John, want to stop for coffee on the way back to the boat?” Since the natural response of true heartfelt worship is service, telling the disciples to “go” was unnecessary; they had just finished worshiping the resurrected Messiah. Jesus knew they were going to go; all that the disciples needed was direction. Therefore, he gave the command, “In your going, make disciples.” This command of Jesus to make disciples is every bit as important and in every way as serious a command as any of the Ten Commandments. Jesus Christ fully expects you and me―in fact, commands us―to make disciples and to help young disciples grow and mature. Truly, disciple making is Jesus’ top priority.
Discipleship in no way devalues the importance of evangelism. No one can disciple a person for Christ unless he has first been won to Christ. However, many people can be won to Christ without ever being discipled. I am convinced that the church would win far more people to Christ, and create many more leaders, if we were effectively discipling people. True disciples are always active in sharing their faith with nonbelievers. Sadly, Christians across the United States, and worldwide, tend to misapply the Great Commission. We win people to Christ and they “sit, soak, and sour.” I am appalled at the great number of believers who have never grown up. Many supposedly receive Christ as Savior and yet never faithfully attend a Bible-believing church; many do attend church and yet take years before they grow to a moderate level of maturity.
Since most missionaries have come from the United States, this fact may in part explain why the modern church in general has been so ineffective in accomplishing Christ’s command. Indeed, the church as a whole has perpetuated this error in its interpretation of Matthew 28:16–20, which in turn has drastically changed the primary purpose of the modern church and led to deterioration in attendance and spiritual maturity.
The lack of effectiveness in the American church is evident. According to Robert Coleman, the church as a whole in North America is barely keeping pace with the increase in population, whereas in Western Europe there is a steady decline.2 In reference to the church Chuck Colson, president of Prison Fellowship, told a journalist, “If this were a business, you’d be contemplating chapter 11 (bankruptcy).”3 Studies demonstrate that few churches are doing effective discipleship. Christian researcher George Barna, after completing a two-year research project across America, concluded, “Almost every church in our country has some type of discipleship program or set of activities; but stunningly few churches have a church of disciples.”4 Elsewhere he says, “the twenty-first century church has many ‘followers’ of Christ in the sense that I follow the Yankees: We dabble in Christianity. That’s not what Jesus had in mind when He called us to be His disciples. . . . Discipleship is not a program. It is not a ministry. It is a lifelong commitment to a lifestyle.”5
I am convinced that this lack of mature disciples in America stems from our ongoing avoidance of the most effective approach God has given us to change lives―life-on-life discipleship. It is through life-on-life discipleship that the Holy Spirit most effectively enacts biblically driven life change, through the relationship between a hungry young believer and a mature discipler. Our deviation from effective discipleship is our Great Omission of the Great Commission.
1. Adsit, Christopher B., Personal Disciplemaking (Orlando, FL: Campus Crusade
for Christ, 1996), 72.
2. Coleman, Robert E., The Master Plan of Discipleship (Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell, 1998), 99.
3. Quoted by Hendricks, Howard and William, As Iron Sharpens Iron
(Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), 132.
4. Barna, George, Growing True Disciples (Colorado Springs: WaterBrook Press, 2001), 20.
5. Ibid., 19.