Did Jesus really say to “make disciples”?

The last few verses of Matthew 28 have become known as the Great Commission, “Go and make disciples of all nations!” While I understand what I am about to state will be considered sacrilege by some, perhaps many, yet I feel compelled to ask the question, “Can anyone ‘make’ a disciple?”

My perusal of that passage causes me to conclude that not only can we not make disciples, but more importantly, Jesus never charged His disciples to do so! Consider the usual rendering of this passage…

“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 all that I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”—Matthew 20:19-20 (Berean Study Bible)

Now consider the literal rendering of verse 19 is…

“Having gone therefore disciple all the nations baptizing them in the of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…”(Interlinear Bible)

Obviously, the word “make” is not present in the latter. Further, “having gone” is curious phraseology. Who is the subject of this action? I am in no way a Greek scholar, but I can read. In English, “having” is a word describing possession, “gone” is the past tense of go. The phrase presents in the past tense. Either the translation is difficult such that “having gone” describes the actions of those Jesus was addressing after they had gone or it describes an action that has already taken place, which would refer to something accomplished by Jesus. Namely, that Jesus “having gone” before them, having led the way, having defeated evil and now having “all authority in heaven and on earth”(verse 18), they could now go and successfully “disciple all the nations”.

Either way, He did not say “make disciples”, rather “disciple”. You may be thinking that is a classic case of a difference without a distinction. I submit, it is not. In the phrase “make disciples” the word disciple is a noun. It describes a person with certain characteristics. In the literal rendering the Greek word in verse 19 for “disciple” is a verb, meaning to instruct, teach, impart. I submit that whereas one can teach, instruct, even impart, one cannot “make” a disciple. The hearer must choose to obey and thus become a disciple. Jesus does not overwhelm an individual’s free will when it comes to the issue of believing and receiving. He is, as a friend of mine used to say, “pro-choice”. That is to say, we always have a choice. Jesus presented the kingdom of God, each and everyone of us who has heard must choose what to do with that presentation. The Lord has so limited Himself so as to preserve love, which must always be a product of choice. Discipleship is no different. Again, I can teach, impart, model, even mentor, but I cannot “make” anyone anything. Consider, can I “make” someone a Christian? No. I can testify of Jesus. I can evangelize. I can witness. But, I cannot “make” someone believe. If I cannot “make” a Christian, how can I be expected to “make” a disciple?

Further, the balance of that first sentence sheds light on what Jesus meant when he charged His followers to “disciple all the nations”… “baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.” So there it is. Baptize them and teach them to obey all that Jesus taught them. One can baptize and one can teach, but no one can make someone else obey. Is one who has been baptized and has been taught all that Jesus commanded, but who fails to obey a disciple?

Why all the fuss over being charged to “make disciples”? Because in my experience, discipleship programs are rife with the danger of cultivating a religious spirit and can even create an environment wherein spiritual abuse may follow. It is almost a truism that once a normal, natural relationship is “converted” to a formal discipler/disciple relationship the elements of expectation, agenda and compulsion enter in under the guise of “accountability”. I have been on both sides of the equation. Too many times I have observed a normal relationship being converted into a formal relationship, such as teacher/pupil or master/student or discipler/disciple, only to lead to an artificial layering of “spirituality” that can be almost cult-like. In short, this artificial relationship can easily become marked by a works orientation that results in a performance driven engagement which is not healthy for either party. The apostle Paul specifically pointed out that there should be no allegiance to a particular leader. No one should describe themselves in the mode of “I am a disciple of Paul or Apollos or Cephas”, for we only have allegiance to Jesus. (1 Corinthians 3:22)

Consider, arguably the most natural “discipleship” relationship exists between parent and child. But, I would never label the relationship and say to my child, “You are my disciple.” How weird would that be? But, I did my best to disciple them, that is to teach, instruct, model, impart, etc. in hopes that they would obey Jesus. Hopefully, I have provided my children with a healthy example, but I don’t want them to follow me, I want them to follow Jesus. One of the great promises that I hold on to is found in Isaiah 54:13, “All your children will be taught of the LORD; and the well-being(the shalom) of your children will be great.” I claim that promise because I recognize that there is a great distinction between the results of being taught of me as over against taught of the Lord. Does Jesus want us to teach others to follow us or to follow Him?

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the literal and accurate charge, or commission, is to baptize, teach, instruct, impart. Period. That I can do. I actually long for such opportunities, but the results are not up to me. I can only present what God has given me, the hearer must decide what to do with the information. I am free from any sense of ownership, no matter the character of the fruit. I am not in charge of, or responsible for, the soil of the hearer’s heart. I am simply a conduit. I believe Jesus was here charging the eleven to be a conduit of everything they had heard and seen and experienced with Jesus. Give it away to all who will hear. We are expected to obey the charge, we are not responsible for the results.

There is another form of the Great Commission found in Acts 1:6-8…

“So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” (NASB)

These then are the last words of Jesus to His followers, consequently they should be given some weight. Is there a charge? Before you respond in the affirmative consider His words carefully. Jesus did not say go and witness to the whole world. Rather, He said, “you shall be My witnesses”, but only after “you will receive power”. This is more promise than dictate. The component of power is missing in the Matthew 28 passage. Here that power is promised as a prerequisite to being a witness. Why would they need power? They heard, they saw, why couldn’t they just tell others what they personally heard and saw? We can speculate, but the point is Jesus said they would need and would receive supernatural power from on high via the Holy Spirit in order to “be” His witnesses. There was nothing for them to do, but wait. Once the Holy Spirit came upon them it was more a matter of who they were, as opposed to what they did. And it was all conditioned upon them receiving some form of supernatural empowerment. Paul described it beautifully… “I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith would not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power… .” (I Corinthians 2:3-5)

In conclusion, it seems to me that it is grossly unfair to charge someone with a responsibility for which they have no power within themselves to accomplish. Simply stated, we cannot make anybody anything, much less a disciple of Jesus. Jesus would never hang such an impossible burden upon His people. He said His yoke is easy and His burden is light. If we choose to continue to charge ourselves and others pursuant to what I would consider to be a poor translation of the last verses in the Gospel of Matthew, we fall dangerously close to the practice of religion. Religion always involves a sense of compulsion. Where the element of compulsion enters performance, works, expectations, agendas are sure to follow which in turn give rise either to pride, if we perceive ourselves as successful, or discouragement, if we perceive ourselves as less than successful. As been said many times, the devil pushes, Jesus pulls.

I believe, as has been stated by many before me, that we are about to witness a great harvest. I believe we are seeing the birth of another Great Awakening. We must not spoil the harvest by placing old yokes, based upon incorrect translations and traditions, on those coming into the kingdom. Baptize, teach, instruct, impart… yes. Attempt to “make disciples”… no. “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galations 5:1) “And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. Instead, new wine is poured into new wineskins.” (Mark 2:22) Old, tired religious models will not suffice for the era for which we are about to enter. I pray that the Holy Spirit will once again fall upon Jesus’ followers such that we will become Holy Spirit empowered witnesses to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the only hope for a dying world. Amen.

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