What Do “make disciples” and “disciple-making” Mean? (Part 2)

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Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255–1319): Christ Appears to the Disciples on the Mountain in Galilee

This is Part 2 of a two-part blog post. Part 1 examines the fundamental definition of what it means to “make disciples” from a biblical context. Part 2 examines an interpretive dilemma of “make disciples” due to the grammatical structure of Matthew 28:19-20, as well as provides critical commentary on the popular usage of “disciple-making” and its consequences.

How someone defines “make disciples” has potentially huge implications for how he or she understands and lives out Jesus’ call to discipleship. The church has a responsibility to teach properly the concept of disciple-making so no confusion exists, or worse, so we as a church do not neglect the work of evangelism-conversion inherent in the definition.

I have noticed a trend in the church at large to use the terms “make disciples” or “disciple-making” to refer only to the last part of the great commission: “teaching them to follow all that I commanded you.” On the one hand, I am ecstatic that the church has put a focus on helping Christians grow in their faith. Many books have been written on the subject, parachurch ministries have sprung up focusing on it, church conferences are held on it, seminars, classes, video series, and on and on. We finally get that being a Christian is not just about having beliefs, but about living as actual disciples of Jesus. This is all excellent.

But on the other hand, cementing the terminology of “disciple-making” in the church culture to pretty much mean only how you are trying to help established Christians grow in their faith is concerning. In doing so, we have removed the emphasis and biblical meaning of “disciple-making” from its proper domain—the work of evangelism-conversion—and put it on what we could better term, “raising up disciples,” or “disciple-raising.”

This is not just an issue of semantics. Who cares what you call it, as long as it gets done, right? I would agree to a certain extent. The problem, though, is if you displace the proper and biblical meaning of making disciples from the work of evangelism-conversion, then you also lessen or eliminate completely any conviction or biblical command to commit to the work of evangelism-conversion. You will soon have a generation that thinks “disciple-making” only means how you help established Christians grow in their faith; perhaps worse, that this is the main emphasis of the great commission, thus absolving them from the call to participate in the work of evangelism-conversion.

So, why do some define disciple-making mainly as helping established Christian grow in their faith?

Enter the interpretive dilemma of Matthew 28:19-20.

This interpretative dilemma stems from the participles that follow the verb “make disciples”:

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 follow all that I commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)  (NASB)

Is Jesus here telling his disciples how to make disciples (by baptizing them and by teaching them to follow all that he commanded them), or is he telling them what to do with the disciples once they make them (he wants them to be baptized, and he wants them to be taught to follow all that he commanded)?

The participles used here are baptizing (baptizontes) and teaching (didaskontes). There are a number of different kinds of participles in the Greek language. The participles here are present participles (having an “-ing” ending). They are also characterized as adverbial participles:

“The adverbial participle is grammatically subordinated to its controlling verb (usually the main verb of the clause). Like an ordinary adverb, the participle modifies the verb, answering the question, When? (temporal), How? (means, manner), Why? (purpose, cause), etc.”1

Adverbial participles come in a variety of categories, most of which belong to one of the following eight categories: temporal, manner, means, cause, condition, concession, purpose, or result.2  

Some scholars believe that those in Matthew 28:19-20 are participles of means, while others do not. Contextually, these participles are functioning in a more nuanced way than as strict participles of means. The NET Bible (of which Daniel B. Wallace is the Senior New Testament Editor) includes a textual note concerning these participles:

As for the two participles that follow the main verb (βαπτίζοντες, baptizontes, “baptizing”; and διδάσκοντες, didaskontes, “teaching”)…they are present participles and follow the aorist main verb. However, some interpreters do see them as carrying additional imperative force in context. Others regard them as means, manner, or even result.3

We should be cautious to let what we know of the rules of Greek sentence structure dictate meaning when context and definition indicate that something more nuanced may be going on. The editors of the NET Bible have responsibly indicated caution in interpreting these strictly as participles of means. It is not unanimously agreed upon that “make disciples” should be defined by the participles of baptizing and teaching to obey all Jesus commanded (make disciples by baptizing and by teaching). In Part 1, we saw that more significant indicators of interpretation (context and inherent definition) point away from this. We saw that nowhere in Scripture does the verb matheteuo carry the meaning of any events that might come after it (baptism and teaching to obey all Jesus commanded), nor is it defined or colored by such events.

The interpretation that considers and fits best with the most indicative data of scriptural context and inherent definition is that Jesus is commanding the eleven apostles to go and cause all the nations to become his disciples (win/convert them to discipleship to him); for those who become his disciples, he wants them to be baptized (justification), and he wants them to be taught to obey everything he taught the eleven apostles (sanctification). This interpretation allows the verb mathēteusate (the command to “make disciples”) to retain its inherent definition of “to cause one to be a pupil (make a disciple of).” It also ascribes a nuance of imperative force to baptizontes (“baptizing”) and didaskontes (“teaching”) as further actions Jesus commands them to do to the converts.

This interpretation eliminates the need to fit into the definition of “make disciples” the extra meanings that interpreting them as strict participles of means would necessitate: the action of baptizing and the perpetual action of teaching to obey all Jesus commanded, which may never be totally completed in the life of a believer. It also eliminates the contradiction that no one can be said to have become a disciple until they have been taught to obey everything Jesus commanded the eleven apostles, which may be never—if you make a disciple by teaching him to obey everything Jesus commanded the apostles, then when can anyone actually ever be said to have become a disciple?

Further, this interpretation fits with the first century cultural data concerning what rabbis were doing in making disciples and raising up disciples. A first century rabbi differentiated between calling/allowing disciples to follow him versus raising up those disciples whom he called. Concerning calling/allowing disciples to follow him:

In the culture of Jesus’ day, a young man who had been an outstanding Beth Midrash student and had the desire to be a talmid would ask to follow a rabbi and study with him. The rabbi would get to know the potential talmid, test him, and evaluate him based on his knowledge, commitment, character, and other desirable qualities. Then the rabbi would accept or reject him as his talmid.4

Jesus is different in that he did not call disciples to follow him based on their intellectual abilities. However, he did test them on their commitment and character, among other things, in his call to discipleship, and he did not accept everyone (Luke 9:57-62; 14:25-27).

Concerning raising up disciples:

A rabbi’s greatest goal was to raise up disciples who would carry on his teaching…. The mission of a rabbi was to become a living example of what it means to apply God’s Word to one’s life. A disciple apprenticed himself to a rabbi because the rabbi had saturated his life with Scripture and had become a true follower of God. The disciple sought to study the text, not only of Scripture but of the rabbi’s life, for it was there that he would learn how to live out the Torah.5

Jesus had a specific methodology of calling people to become his disciples (making disciples). He had a separate methodology for raising up his disciples. What is happening in the Great Commission is Jesus is handing off the responsibility to the apostles of making disciples and raising up disciples. The raising up of disciples is found in the command of “teaching them to follow all that I commanded you.”

Why is it important how we define and refer to terms such as “make disciples” and “disciple-making”?

A recent and well-needed trend concerning discipleship in the church has grown over the last couple of decades. The church is focusing efforts on how to help people live as disciples of Jesus rather than just affirming traditional beliefs. However, a significant discipleship deficiency remains as the understanding and methodology of “disciple-making” has focused mainly on convincing Christians who are already supposed to be disciples to actually live as disciples. Symptoms of few conversions, stagnant or dying churches, partially devoted Christians, and little or no personal evangelism or understanding of how to pass the faith to another, among others, too often characterize the church.

How we understand the great commission greatly dictates our methodologies for fulfilling what Jesus commanded us to do. The concept of “disciple-making” has been largely defined and applied to what happens after conversion. This has happened because the concept of “make disciples” has been defined by the participles “baptizing” and “teaching” as strict participles of means. But as we have seen, the concept of “make disciples” or “cause one to be a pupil” refers directly and solely to the process of evangelism-conversion.

The danger of defining “make disciples” by its participles is that the emphasis of what Jesus commanded in the Great Commission falls on what you do with those you have converted. With so many variant teachings on baptism across the church at large, the term “disciple-making” is almost solely used in relation to “teaching” Christians to obey everything Jesus commanded. This usage is confusing, as it is not how scripture uses the term. “Disciple-making” biblically refers to the work of evangelism-conversion. Perhaps more appropriate terminology to use to refer to “teaching them to obey everything I commanded you” is what was the vernacular of Jesus’ day: Raise up disciples (or, disciple-raising).  

When we displace the emphasis of disciple-making onto Jesus’ post-conversion command of “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you,” we ignore or lose the focus and work of evangelism-conversion that is the foundation of all post-conversion efforts. The main issue here is one of foundations. When we attempt to build on a foundation that is weak in conversion principles (i.e., what we are actually converting the lost to), we are in fact trying to convince or make someone have a discipleship relationship with Jesus that they may not know they have signed up for. This is the heart of the discipleship deficiency.

We should applaud the efforts of the church at large to fulfill Jesus’ command of “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” However, we should properly focus the terminology of “make disciples” and “disciple-making” on the efforts of evangelism-conversion. When we lay the proper discipleship foundation in conversion for a new convert, he can then stand on that sure foundation as he afterwards follows Jesus and learns to obey everything he commanded.   

So, what is a “disciple-maker”? A disciple-maker is someone who works at convincing people who are not disciples of Jesus to become disciples of Jesus. Evangelism is inherent in the definition. A disciple-maker converts people into following Jesus as his disciple. And then, what is “disciple-making”? Disciple-making is the work and action of convincing people to become disciples of Jesus. A disciple-maker goes about disciple-making by trying to convert people who are not disciples of Jesus into becoming disciples of Jesus. And then, what is “disciple raising”? Disciple-raising is what Christians do in teaching new converts how to obey everything Jesus commanded. Disciple-making and disciple-raising—both are at the heart of the great commission. Let us not lose the emphasis on and commitment to Jesus’ call to convert, justify, and sanctify all the nations.  

1 Daniel B. Wallace, The Basics of New Testament Syntax: An Intermediate Greek Grammar (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 272.
2 ibid.
3 https://netbible.org/bible/Matthew+28, Note 27
4 Ray Vander Laan, In the Dust of the Rabbi: Becoming a Disciple (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 45.
5 Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg, Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 33.

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