“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.”
– Jesus’ parting words in Matthew 28:19-20, commonly called The Great Commission
What? Even the Great Commission has been misused? But our church’s entire outreach ministry is based on this verse! What could possibly have gone wrong this time?
Don’t worry! Once again, the misuse of this verse is minor, and mostly a matter of latching onto a grammar issue in the English language. For all our talk about “literal” or “word-for-word” translations, there is no such thing as completely literal word-for-word translation; languages just don’t work that way. There is always some give-and-take involved in order to make a translation comprehensible to its readers. But as I just said, what grammar information has been lost is only a minor loss that doesn’t distort the meaning unless someone gets carried away.
Misuse #1 – These verses are about evangelism.
The first command here in English is “go,” followed by “make disciples” and “baptizing” and “teaching.” If you interpret it according this alone, you may get the impression that Jesus is sending his disciples out (to become apostles) and evangelize the whole world. But if you look at these verbs in Greek, you’ll find that only one of them is a command, and the other three are participles. In English, a participle is usually a verb that ends in -ing. In other words, the imperative (command) verb is the primary instruction from Jesus, and the other three are supporting verbs that add description and detail to the primary. Is “go” the command? Nope, sorry.
Misuse #2 – These verses are about baptism.
A number of Christians point to these verses as their first line of biblical explanation about Holy Baptism. For sure, baptism is an important element here, and this is where we get the “baptismal formula” – that is, the threefold name of God. But as in the previous paragraph, “baptizing” is not the primary verb.
Correction – These verses are about discipleship!
The primary imperative verb, the command that Jesus uses here, is actually “make disciples. If we could rearrange the phrases to demonstrate this fact, this is one way it might look:
“Therefore, make disciples: going out to all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
So rather than focusing these verses on baptism and making them rules for when/how to baptize people, and rather than focusing these verses on evangelism and missions, we should see the context here as about making disciples. Making disciples involves going to them, baptizing them, and teaching them.
So as I said at the beginning, the misuses resulting from focusing on baptism or evangelism are minor errors. But if we properly want to understand what Jesus said, we should make sure we focus on discipleship as the primary command in this Great Commission.