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 (ESV)
This passage is often referred to as the Great Commission and is commonly cited as the principal mission of the church. Notice what Jesus is saying:
- Make disciples;
- Baptize; and
Jesus did not tell His disciples to make all nations stop smoking, over-eating, committing adultery, or any other numerous sins. Yet the world is replete with local churches doing just that. At some point the church got the great commission wrong.
I think we can agree that Jesus did not want the original 11 disciples to forcibly submerge every person they met in a pool of water. Doing so would probably have been against the law and certainly wouldn’t advance Jesus’s single purpose of restoration. It makes sense that when Jesus told His disciples to baptize people that it was conditional upon the first clause—make disciples.
If only the disciples being made are to be baptized, it serves to reason that they are the ones who ought to be taught. Meaning that when Jesus told His disciples to teach people it was conditional upon the first clause—make disciples. I cannot help but think Jesus was deliberate in the manner in which He communicated His message. If Jesus wanted His followers to make disciples of all nations (and “nations” in the original text doesn’t mean countries as much as ethnic groups) then the remaining two instructions apply to the disciples that are being made. Notice the language Jesus used when He instructed the eleven to make disciples—”baptizing” and “teaching”—present participles. Jesus was not only telling the 11 disciples what He wanted, He was telling them how to do it. Baptizing and teaching are facets of, and describe, the process of making disciples.
Jesus instructed His disciples to make disciples; this is done by baptizing and teaching. He wanted the new disciples to, themselves, make a public declaration of their faith in Christ through baptism. This behaviour can be seen through much of the New Testament, where followers of Christ meet new people and share what Christ did. These new people believed in Jesus, then got baptized:
- Acts 8:38;
- Acts 9:18;
- Acts 10:48;
- Acts 19:5.
What follows is teaching. When Jesus instructed His disciples to teach “all things,” what He meant was all things—everything. We can see this in the Bible because much of the New Testament is letters to various church groups instructing them on lifestyle. While we often think of teaching in lecture form, the original language describes an imparting of information that includes, but is not limited to, classroom-style teaching. The goal is that the one with the knowledge, skills, wisdom, etc. creates a bridge to the one without. They were not just learning from people communicating verbally or in writing, they were learning through every1 facet2 of their3 life4 what it meant to be a follower of Christ.
What does not happen in the New Testament is disciples condemning individual persons who are not followers of Christ for their sins. As I previously mentioned, the dividing line is whether or not a person stood opposed to the movement of God or hindered others from becoming a part of it. The rest are left to make their own choices, for better or worse. This is exemplified in Jesus’s own interaction with those who are not in a relationship with God:
And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
Matthew 19:16-22 (ESV)
Jesus did not condemn the young man, but He did identify the barrier(s) in the man’s life that prevented him from coming into a relationship with God. As disciples of Christ our behaviour must be representative of Jesus, which means our motives and actions ought to be a reflection of His, both individually and as a corporate body (the church).
“Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.
Matthew 7:6 (ESV)
I’ve heard more interpretations of Matthew 7:6 than I can remember; most have been outlandish. In the context that Jesus was speaking to Old Testament Jews, Jesus’s words make a lot of sense: Pigs5 are unclean animals; they and dogs6 are used to (rather harshly) reference those who are not Jews. Jesus is telling His followers to not take what is valuable and give it people who do not recognize its value. (This aligns with what Jesus said moments earlier7 about not judging.) If a follower of Christ tells someone who is not a follower of Christ, “Do not lie.” The disciple has taken something that is valuable and presented it to someone who may not recognize its value. The second person may sharply point out moments in the first person’s life in which they were observed to be not completely truthful, or they may point out some self-interpreted value in lying. The point is the truth is wasted on someone incapable or unwilling to recognize it.
It doesn’t make sense that the church should make all nations first recognize truths when their foundation for morality differs. This doesn’t mean we compromise on sin or life choices that are unhealthy, but we recognize where people are relative to their relationship with God then respond accordingly. Not only is this approach more inviting, it allows disciples, both individually and as a corporate body (the church), to focus on those eager to hear and respond.