Matthew 28:18 – 20 has been a strong driving force for missions and evangelism for centuries. During the vast majority of that time, the King James version has been at the forefront of that mandate. But how closely does this translation reflect the underlying original Greek language?
Let’s review the King James quote:
“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you, and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.”
The phrase, “Go ye” has been heralded as a command by Jesus to His disciples to go to all the nations. However, the Greek word, πορευϑεντες is a participle, not a command. It can be translated as “Going / As you go / In your going” and means, “Wherever you go – Wherever you are led to go, etc.”
Unfortunately, translating this participle as a command has divided the church into two groups: Those who GO, and those who support those who GO. Moreover, those who go are few and are often elevated to a position of being “called” while those who only support those who go, often see themselves as not being called – a sad commentary since every Christian is called to disciple “wherever they go.” As such, the Body of Christ has lost the vast majority of called-ones mandated by Christ to disciple wherever they are.
This also relegates them to giving money and material to others in the mission field, insulating them from the personal relationships (local victories and needs) experienced by their missionaries and defining their role largely in a material sense.
The phrase, “and teach” dramatically diminishes the meaning of the Greek word μαϑητευσατε which means “disciple.” Moreover, this is the command in this sentence, not “go ye.” To put it in King James English, it could have been translated, “disciple ye.”
There is a huge difference between “teach” and “disciple.” Teaching might be called schooling or what you learn in a structured / classroom environment where an instructor typically instructs a class of students. At various times, the students are often tested to make sure they have learned the contents of the teaching.
As a result, “teach all nations” has led to the founding of Bible schools, seminaries, colleges and universities all over the world with the conviction that “teaching” was the objective. Jesus modeled what it was like to live in the Kingdom of God. One of my Hebrew professors in seminary shared with me the difference between the mindset of a Greek and a Hebrew. He said a Greek will ask you what you believe while a Hebrew will follow you around for a week to see how your life expresses your beliefs.
In a teaching environment, a person can instruct the students on their intellectual beliefs even if their lives do not reflect those convictions. However, in a discipling environment, the students are drawn to the manifest difference in the conduct of their mentor’s relationship with others. They see that their mentor’s life actually expresses what he/she believes and they want to follow their mentor’s example because they also want to live that way. Teaching passes on a head knowledge of the subject while discipleship passes on a way of life and in the case of Christian discipleship, it models the importance of a personal relationship with the mentor and with Jesus Christ.
There is another hidden issue with “teaching.” It assumes that since the Biblical instructions are “foolishness to unbelievers,” those being taught in all the nations should already be Christians. Therefore, a strong emphasis must be placed on evangelism prior to teaching. Unfortunately, since teaching is emphasized as the path for understanding how to live a Christian life, it can foster an intellectual association with the church rather than a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Evangelism is important. But being born again is only the entry into the Kingdom of God. If we rely solely on teaching to reveal how to live in the Kingdom, we often deny our converts a person / mentor they can emulate and limit them to learning about life in the Kingdom. Discipleship enables both a born-again and a mentoring experience.
One final note: From a teaching standpoint, the New Testament has often been held to be more important than the Old Testament since the latter can be portrayed as a shadow or foretaste of the light of the Gospel. But as Paul and Jesus point out, the Hebrew scriptures and the covenant relationships they convey are essential to understanding the full depth of the Gospel.
Let’s move on to the word “nations.” The Greek word is εϑνη which should more accurately be translated as “Gentile nations.” Jesus knew the Gospel would quickly spread throughout the inhabited world. These precious people He had died for would begin their spiritual journey as pagans with little if any understanding of the scriptures and the covenant relationship the Hebrew God had with His people – the λαος.
Since there is no adjective clarifying who the nations are, Christians have also been sending missionaries to Jews and now to Israel attempting to convert them to Christianity instead of calling them to accept Jesus as their Messiah.
Let’s continue to discover the breadth of discipleship Jesus commanded for us: “baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:”
The church has largely reduced this segment to a ritualistic pronouncement made over a person at the time of their baptism which completely sidesteps the original intent.
There is one small word in this clause that seems innocuous enough. But it can help us understand what Jesus meant: “in” could more accurately be translated as “into” since its underlying word is εις not εν. As such, the translation could better read, “baptizing them into the name . . .” To better understand this subtle distinction, consider the rest of this clause: “into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:”
Name means character and could be translated as “into the character of the Father, . . .” Baptize literally means to immerse. So, Jesus is saying: “immerse Gentile converts into the character of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost?”
John the Baptist told his hearers, “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me . . . he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire.” This baptism is much more than being given the ability to speak in tongues or to prophesy. John is saying that Jesus had the authority to immerse believers into the character of the Holy Ghost giving them an ever increasing, intimate knowledge of His Person.
Gentile converts would have very little experiential knowledge of the Father. So, Jesus commanded His Jewish disciples to disciple their Gentile converts, immersing them into the character of the Father – to model their own experiential relationship with the Father through Jesus Christ.
Finally, Jesus modeled His role in the salvation history as Jesus/Joshua the Messiah. In order to immerse converts into the character of the Son, we need to focus on Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.
Let’s continue: “Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” This is the second time the word “teaching” is used in the King James version. But in fact, it is only the first time in the original – and instead of becoming part of the teaching curriculum, it is meant to be the content to be modeled in the mentor’s life so that converts will see how to actually OBSERVE all things, not just intellectually learn all things.
“and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.” The actual Greek text is ”… εως της συντελειας του αιωνος — … until the completion of the age.
“…the end of the world” implies the end of the known creation heralded by Revelation, chapter 20:1. However, until the completion of the age points to a potentially different time. Jesus is focusing on Gentile nations. In Luke 21:24 Jesus said Jerusalem would be trodden down by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles is fulfilled. Therefore, the translation “end of the world” is more of an interpretation than a translation.
So, let’s revisit the great commission that more closely reflects the original Greek language:
“Wherever you go (among the Gentiles), disciple the Gentile nations, immersing them into the character of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them through your discipleship to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you all the days until the completion of the age.”