he command to “go … and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19)1 is one that most Bible-believing Christians hold dear, whether they personally practice it or not. Unfortunately, it is not always well understood. I suspect most people assume that they understand it as written. But after many years of life in the church and in ministry, I have concluded that while some people do understand what Jesus meant by these words, most do not. Join me as we explore the two phrases “go and make disciples” and “all nations.” Then determine for yourself how accurate your understanding is.
The command to “go and make disciples” has for many decades been understood to be synonymous with “go and make converts.” In other words, go out to evangelize nonbelievers and help them come to faith in Jesus Christ. This is correct as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go far enough. We definitely need to go out with the intention of evangelizing people; we definitely need to share the gospel message and help them come to faith in Christ; we also definitely need to help them affirm that faith by being baptized into the fellowship of the church. All of these things are essential and belong to the first phase of making disciples.
However, there is a second phase: “teaching them to observe [obey] all that I have commanded you” (v. 20). Tragically, this phase has been widely neglected in the church for centuries. Of course, a few have always taken it seriously, and their lives have stood out and brought glory to God, whether they were great leaders or simple uneducated peasants. And a few take it seriously today. But for the most part, it is neglected. “
Wait,” you say, “my church has a four-week new-member class and also classes on the basics of the faith.” That is great news! But does it encompass what Jesus meant by “teach them to observe [obey] all that I have commanded you”? Let’s look at the content Jesus specifies, the way it is to be taught, and the outcome He intends. In terms of content, we are not told to figure this out for ourselves. No, Jesus says to focus on what He commanded His disciples while He was with them. This material is found in the Gospels, especially Matthew, with its five major teaching sections.2 Indeed, Matthew appears to have been designed as a discipleship manual.
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