…make disciples…


We consider now for the second time the Great Commission, adding comment on the text from v. 19.

Text Comment

v.19

“all nations” Jesus had been sent to the lost sheep of the tribe of Israel and he had instructed his disciples, during the ministry, to limit themselves to work among the Jews (10:5-6). But that restriction is now lifted and the entire world lies before them to be reached. That world-wide mission and a kingdom of God drawn from every tongue, tribe, and nation have, of course, been anticipated many times in the Lord’s teaching before this. Remember he said in Matt. 8:11, responding to the faith of a Roman centurion and the unbelief of the Jews, “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.”

The Trinitarian formula for baptism is exceptionally important as evidence of the nature of early Christian faith. “Name” is singular. There is but one name, not three. But in that single name there are three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For a monotheist Jew to utter these words is as forceful a proclamation of Christ’s equality with the Father and of the Spirit’s as can be imagined. As the great Princeton scholar, Benjamin Warfield put it in his classic work, The Lord of Glory [156]:

“When…our Lord commanded his disciples to baptize those whom they brought to his obedience “into the name of…” he was using language charged to them with high meaning. He could not have been understood otherwise than as substituting for the name of Jehovah this other name ‘of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy [Spirit],’ and this could not possibly have meant to his disciples anything else than that Jehovah was now to be known to them by the new name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy [Spirit].” As another scholar puts it, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the “Christian name” of the one Yahweh. [K. Barth]

But that leaves the burden of the preposition “in.” There are two possibilities. The first is that by saying that his disciples were to baptize in the name of Jesus meant that they were to do this on behalf of, that is, as acting for and representing the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. When the disciples heal the sick “in the name of Jesus,” for example, they are doing this good work on Jesus’ behalf, as his representatives, and in his power. This is the way the Greek speaking church father Eusebius took the phrase. Or it can mean that by this baptism one becomes united with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Paul says that when we were baptized in Christ Jesus we were baptized into his death. The idea is that of identification with Christ or, here, identification with the Triune God. When Paul writes, in 1 Cor. 1:13 “Were you baptized into the name of Paul?” he certainly doesn’t mean that someone baptized the person on Paul’s behalf. He, in fact, baptized the person in question himself. So taking all things into consideration – and this has been a long-standing debate – it seems right to take the phrase to mean that the converts from the Gentile nations are to be brought by baptism into vital union with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is a point of some consequence, as we shall see.

Every week I attempt to bring my Latin students into an appreciation of the romance of grammar. Every week I try to show them how much clarity is achieved by forming one’s sentences according to the grammatical rules that apply. Every week I fail miserably. Grammar is to most students little more than rules designed to test the patience of already over-taxed high school students.

And, as they sometimes point out, one can often violate the rules of grammar and still be perfectly well understood. The double negative is now commonly employed in English without a loss of understanding. Hardly anyone, even the grammatical savant, thinks that the person who sings, “Old Man river, he don’t say nothin…” really means that the river says something. Nowadays almost no one has a conscience about splitting an infinitive (at least since Star Trek taught an entire generation “to boldly go where no man has gone before”), and, still worse, it won’t be too much longer before “me” is regarded as a nominative. No one blanches when we sing “It’s me, It’s me, It’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer,” though it may, one hopes, be yet some time before we all grow accustomed to saying “Me is standing in the need of prayer.”

It is also true that preachers on the radio regularly mistake the burden of Greek grammar and seem, thereby, almost to prove that grammar is a hindrance rather than a help. Indeed, this happens so often that I have often told people that when a radio preacher begins a sentence by saying, “Now the Greek means…” or “Because the Greek reads this way…” whatever he says next is almost always incorrect. There is a superficial understanding of grammar that regularly leads astray.

But sometimes grammar tells and opens up the meaning of a statement in a very important way, a way that would not necessarily be visible in translation. And such is the case here. The NIV’s translation is correct enough and actually makes the point, but the English reader is less likely to understand the significance. There is a main verb in the imperative in v. 19: “Make disciples.” The command is the main verb. But then, what follows is grammatically subordinate to that main verb in the imperative. “Baptizing” and “teaching” are participles, not finite verbs, and so they are dependent upon the main verb. What that tells us is that “baptizing” and “teaching” specify what is involved in making disciples. One makes a disciple by baptizing him and by teaching him. And that, my friends, is a hugely significant point. We are not told to do three things: make disciples, baptize and teach, but only one, make disciples, which one thing is accomplished by baptizing and teaching.

We begin by reminding ourselves what a disciple is. In the first century one did not enroll in such and such a school as we do today. One didn’t apply to Harvard or the University of Washington or Covenant College. Rather one enrolled with a particular teacher. Discipleship, in the nature of the case, required and involved a personal commitment to an individual.

It certainly had been in the case of these eleven men. They had become followers of Jesus and their entire lives had been turned upside down by their allegiance to him. They had left their livings, even their loved ones, to travel with him, to sit at his feet and learn from him, and to assist him in his work. They had witnessed his life, his death, and now his resurrection and they were now more personally committed to him, at the foundation of their lives, then even they had been before. And now Jesus is commanding them to make others disciples of Jesus like they were, to see that others committed themselves to Jesus as they had, to bring others to follow Jesus as they were following him, no matter the consequences.

And how was that to be done? In two ways: by baptizing and by teaching. The assumption, of course, a point we will make next Lord’s Day morning, is that they will do this in the power of the Lord himself who will be with them to bless and make effective the work that they do among the nations. But Jesus is explicit in telling them how to make disciples.

  1. The first way to make a disciple is to baptize him into the Triune Name of God.

Now we might be less inclined nowadays to stress the importance of baptism in the making of a disciple. We would be concerned lest a person think that the rite of baptism, the sprinkling of water in the name of the Triune God, actually took away one’s sins or that it was by the rite of baptism that one came to possess the forgiveness of sins and the righteousness of Christ. We are aware of the errors concerning baptism that many so-called Christians have taught and of the subtle tendency of the human heart to trust the outward and neglect the inward. We are too conscious of how many people in the history of the church have supposed themselves right with God only because they had been baptized, people who had been given the sacrament of baptism but who lacked a living faith in Jesus and were never the Lord’s true disciples.

But the fact is, the apostles were told to make disciples by baptizing them and that is what they did. When the great crowd listening to Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost were struck to the heart and cried out “What must we do?” Peter answered, “Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins.” And everywhere they went preaching the good news they baptized those who believed and their households. And they usually baptized them immediately. Paul baptized Lydia and her family the same day she professed her faith in Christ and the jailer and his family the same night he confessed his faith in Jesus.

And what is the significance of all this? Well, perhaps many things, but surely this among them and chief among them. Baptism, as we read here, represents vital personal union with the Triune God. It serves to represent and in a public way to effect a personal union with God. And that is what a disciple is: he is someone, she is someone whose life is entirely, absolutely, profoundly bound up with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Baptism means that the believer in Christ belongs to Christ. It means that he is subject to the heavenly Father. It means that he is dependent for everything truly important upon the Holy Spirit. The purpose of his life, the aim and object of it is now defined by the interests of the Living God. He has become the Triune God’s man; she has become the Triune God’s woman.

That is what baptism meant in early Christianity and that is why Jesus made it the first part of making a disciple. It must be clear to anyone who would be the Lord’s disciple that his life is now defined by and subject to and united with the life of the Triune God. Everyone who is conscious of that fact, believes it to be true and profoundly so, and everyone who then lives in accordance with that truth is a true disciple of Jesus Christ. Anyone who wants to be known as a disciple but does not want the measure of commitment and identification represented in Christian baptism is a hypocrite and is fooling himself. As the Puritan, Thomas Goodwin, wrote: “Conversion [that is, a man’s becoming a true Christian] is the total change of a man’s chief end.” Self has been removed and the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit have been put in its place.

And so it was as the church heeded its Master’s command and began to make disciples of all nations. Individual after individual, family after family, came to be in this way profoundly identified with and committed to the life, the purpose, and the Name of the Triune God. In baptism this identification was sealed in connection with their acceptance of God’s salvation by faith in Christ, the cleansing of their hearts and lives which is so powerfully and beautifully represented in baptism. For baptism means first salvation and then the transformation of one’s life.

Listen to this autobiographical reflection on the transformation of his own life by the 3rd century bishop Cyprian and take note of the natural way in which he speaks of baptism in this regard. Here is a man who speaks as Jesus taught us to speak here in the Great Commission.

“While I languished in darkness and deep night, tossing upon the sea of a troubled world, ignorant of my destination, and far from truth and light, I thought it, according to my habits then, altogether a difficult and hard thing that a man could be born anew, and that, being quickened to new life by the bath of saving water, he might put off the past, and, while preserving the identity of the body, might transform the man in mind and heart. How, said I, is such a change possible? How can one at once divest himself of all that was either innate or acquired and grown upon him? …Whence does he learn frugality, who was accustomed to sumptuous feasts? And how shall he who shone in costly apparel, in gold and purple, come down to common and simple dress? He who has lived in honor and station, cannot bear to be private and obscure…. But when, by the aid of the regenerating water, the stain of my former life was washed away, a serene and pure light poured from above into my purified breast. So soon as I drank the spirit from above and was transformed by a second birth into a new man, then the wavering mind became wonderfully firm; what had been closed opened; the dark became light; strength came for that which had seemed difficult; what I had thought impossible became practicable.” [Cited in Schaff, Church History, ii, 844]

Cyprian came to know himself needing salvation, came to find that salvation in Christ and then came to accept that his must now be a different life – root and branch – a life bound up with God. That is why baptism is the first way in which a disciple is made: to be a disciple one’s life must be self-consciously and entirely bound up with the life of the Triune God. His life, her life must be from, with, to, and for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. That is what it means to be a disciple of Christ in the first place. Everyone of us – no matter his or her spiritual experience; no matter how, when, or under what circumstances we came to be followers of Christ – should know precisely what Cyprian meant and should feel exactly as he did. A new life, a different life is ours and it is a life defined by God’s salvation and by our identification with and belonging to him.

  1. The second way to make a disciple of Christ is to teach him to obey, to obey the whole counsel of God.

A Christian disciple is someone who acts in the knowledge of and in obedience to the truth as it has been revealed in and through the Lord Jesus Christ. Baptism represents the submission of one’s mind and one’s life to the Triune God. But how is that to be done? What does God require of us? How is the Triune God to be served? What is his will? Well, the Lord has not left us to answer those questions for ourselves. He has left us his teaching to direct our steps. And so the disciple-maker teaches the disciple to be. Not this and that. Not some favored set of truths selected from a larger number. No. What Christ has taught and everything that Christ has taught is pure gold and valuable to be known. And everything that Christ has taught, in one way or another, can be obeyed. Doctrines can be obeyed as well as commandments.

It is not just any submission of ourselves that we offer to God. It is not simply an attitude of submission as if we are left free to choose how we will work out our submission to God. No, real disciples do what they are told. They await God’s Word and then they run to obey.

As Augustine put it in his Confessions:

“[Lord,] He is your best servant who looks not so much to hear from you what he wants, as rather to want that which he hears from you.”

There has been in modern Christian evangelism and missions too much evoking of decisions and not nearly enough making of disciples. Making disciples is an altogether tougher assignment. I remember a few years ago rooming at a friend’s home on a trip to Chattanooga with a college classmate who has been for many years a missionary in Africa. We fell to talking about Christianity in Africa and I told him that I had seen on Christian television footage of immense crowds of people attending evangelistic crusades and heard the evangelist speak of converts by the scores of thousands. I asked him, if that were so, why was there not in that and other African lands, more of an impact being made by the church on the society and the culture. My friend replied in just these terms. Decisions are easy to come by in Africa – indeed, it is often the same people in one immense crowd that were in the one before – but making disciples is another matter. Teaching people inclined to believe in Jesus all that he himself taught and teaching them to obey the Lord’s teaching, that is much more difficult. We are well used to that difficulty here in the United States.

But Jesus didn’t say make disciples by persuading folk to make a public statement of commitment to me; he didn’t even say, as he might have said, “Make converts of all nations.” He said “Make disciples,” and a disciple is someone who does his master’s will. He said that a man would be his disciple when he had learned to order his life according to the Lord’s teaching. A woman would be the Lord’s disciple when she had learned to obey what Jesus said and commanded.

To the extent that the gospel has become a power in this world, to the extent that it has brought the light of Christ to shine into the darkness of this world, to the extent that Christ has been revealed in the life of his followers, to that extent it has been real disciples of Jesus who have made it so. It has been those who have reverenced his Word, learned it, studied, embraced it, taken it into their hearts and practiced in their lives who have brought Christ to the world. One must be a disciple to make a disciple, which is why the Great Commission was first published to men who were already the Lord’s disciples, his followers, his willing and obedient servants.

An illustration of this may be found in the following links in a chain of Christian discipleship. Richard Sibbes, the early Anglican Puritan, in the early 17th century wrote a great book entitled The Bruised Reed. It was a book about the grace and mercy of God in Jesus Christ. That book gave, Richard Baxter, as he put it, “a livelier apprehension of the mystery of redemption.” Baxter wrote, in turn, his famous book Call to the Unconverted which was used in the 18th century in the conversion of Philip Doddridge, whose own book The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul brought William Wilberforce to Christ in the 19th century – the man who had so much to do with the end of slavery in the Western world. Wilberforce’s book, A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed ChristiansContrasted with True Christianity opened the heart of Thomas Chalmers to the Gospel, whose conversion began was the opening scene in a great drama of conversion and revival in Scotland in the early years of the 19th century. Each you see was a man who learned the truth that Jesus taught his disciples, the truth that they preserved in the pages of the New Testament; each obeyed that truth. Each sought to make disciples of others and each made disciples like themselves. And through just those five men the gospel was taken not only to many people in their homeland but to many nations of the world.

A man or woman who learns and embraces the truth that Jesus taught and who undertakes to obey his commandments will never live a merely private life; he will never live for himself; she will never live without a view to the salvation of others and of the world.

The simple lesson of Scripture and of history is that he who intends himself to be Christ’s disciple is the one who will make disciples. The man or woman who understands that, in view of Christ’s death and resurrection, life must be lived in complete and unqualified identification with the name and cause of the Triune God – that is the meaning of the baptizing – and must be lived by obedience to God’s revealed will – that is the meaning of the teaching to obey all things – that man, that woman will be a disciple maker because, precisely because it is Christ’s will that he be, Christ’s commandment that she be, and his or her love for Christ and delight in God will be motivation enough to do that work, difficult as it can be.

Everything will be bent to this great cause of making more disciples for Jesus Christ: for that is the true meaning of life and any human being who is not Christ’s disciple is throwing his life, her life away. Here is a picture of the man Christ is after, both as a disciple and as a disciple maker – for if he is the one he will be the other.

Take John Berridge, the Great Awakening English pastor and evangelist. He wrote and had carved his gravestone before he died so that he would still speak after he had left the world. His stone reads:

“Here lie the earthly remains of John Berridge
Late vicar of Everton and an itinerant servant
of Jesus Christ who loved his Master and his work
and after running on his errands many years was called
up to wait on him above. Reader art thou born again
No salvation without a new birth
I was born in sin Feb 1716
Remained ignorant of my fallen state till 1730
Lived proudly on faith and works for salvation till 1754
Admitted to Everton vicarage 1755
Fled to Jesus alone for refuge 1756
Fell asleep in Christ Jan 22nd 1793″

Berridge had worked out the entire epitaph save the date of his death, which was added afterward. How clearly he saw his life as utterly bound up with the life of God! How resolutely he intended his life to be offered in obedience to the Son of God!

The man couldn’t even die without a thought to making more disciples for Jesus Christ. And if we understand who the Triune God is, and who Christ is, and what Christ has done in his death and his resurrection; if we understand baptism and give ourselves to the teaching of the Word of God, we will plead all our lives for a double portion of that man’s spirit.