Jesus and Discipleship: The View from the Great Commission
Roy E. Ciampa, Ph.D.
Professor of New Testament
“Go” Most people have heard, correctly, that the only imperative in the passage is the command to lead the nations to be Christ’s disciples. The participle that comes before the verb is rightly translated “go” (not “going”). It is a participle of attendant circumstance, which means that it is not stressed as much as the imperative but still carries an imperatival force. It is to be understood as action that must be done if the command given in the main verb (“make disciples”) is to be accomplished. We cannot accomplish the task that Jesus has given us if we stay on the mountain, or stay in Jerusalem, or stay wherever we might find ourselves. If everyone in the world is to learn of the one who has authority over them and who has given commandments for them to keep, then the Church must be intentional about bringing that message to all people everywhere.
“Make all the nations/peoples my disciples” This is the clause that has the one imperative in the passage. This is the main point. Going is a necessary precursor to the accomplishing of this task and, as we shall see, baptizing and teaching are specific parts of how this task is to be carried out. What does it mean to make someone a disciple of Christ? Despite some of what has gone on from time to time in the history of the Christian Church, Christ does not condone or warrant the use of physical, political or other kinds of force. This is not a justification for the Crusades or forcible conversions. No one becomes a disciple against his or her own will. Christ calls people to follow him, and only those who freely decide to follow him are his disciples.
To be a disciple is to be one who is committed to learning from, and obeying, the teachings and example of one’s master/teacher. Since Christ was committed to proclaiming the need for repentance and the good news of the Kingdom of God, and sent the 12 and then the 72 out to do the same (Luke 9:1-2; 10:1), his disciples understand that they must be committed to that task as well. Since he was known for ministering to those who were marginalized and rejected by mainstream society, his disciples recognize that they also must be committed to an inclusive approach to ministry. The disciple learns the teachings of the master and passes them on to others.
Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount emphasizes he rejection of all self-serving and self-promoting behavior and the rejection of self-justifying interpretations of Scripture in favor of behavior and interpretations that reflect ruthless honesty about our own moral and spiritual failures (especially our failure to respect our proper obligations to God and others). We are to unequivocally place God’s honor and agenda above our own. For followers of Christ, this also means following Christ by taking up the cross each day. The cross is at the center of the message of each of the four Gospels, and it was at the center of Christ’s teaching and mission. Those who follow Christ may expect to be rejected and persecuted just as he was. To follow Christ is to be prepared to suffer the loss of all things for the sake of gaining Christ and the life that he offers.
“Baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” This clause points to a key initial step in making disciples. Christian baptism is associated with faith in Christ (Acts 8:12-13; 16:15; 18:8;19:4). To be baptized in someone’s name is to “become the possession of and come under the dedicated protection of the one whose name they bear.” The baptism of an individual in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit suggests that this person is being brought into intimate relationship with the Trinity; now belongs to, and stands under the protection of, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; and lives in intimate relationship with them.
Christian discipleship, according to Jesus, is about living out a relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is about living out the relationship established by God’s covenant (the new covenant in Christ’s blood) which introduces the believer into the eschatological salvation brought about by the death and resurrection of Christ. The Father has sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins, and the Holy Spirit applies Christ’s work to our lives and communicates Christ’s presence to us.
“Teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.” This passage is filled with uses of the adjective “all”: “all authority,” “all nations/peoples,” “all have commanded,” “always” (literally, “all the days…”). The relationships between the first three uses of the adjective are particularly important to note. Jesus does not inform his readers that he has been given all authority in heaven and earth just so that they will obey him when he tells them what to do, but so that they will understand why it is that all nations/peoples should obey everything he has commanded.
The key logical relationship is not between “I have all authority” and “You should go and make disciples” but between “I have all authority” and “Everyone everywhere should obey everything I have commanded (so go and work toward that end).” Jesus emphasized his universal authority so that his disciples would understand why he should be universally obeyed. To be a disciple of Christ is to understand who he really is, the Lord of all creation, and to live one’s life out with a passion for other people to come to know him and to recognize his absolute, loving and gracious lordship as well.
The obedience that Jesus describes here is referred toby the Apostle Paul as “the obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5; 6:26). Christian obedience will never be perfect this side of the resurrection, but the life of discipleship is a life marked by both continual learning and continual practice of the teachings of Christ (cf. Matt. 7:21-27).
“I will certainly always be with you, to the very end of the age.” Jesus, “God with us” (cf. Matt.1:23), reminds us that none of what he calls for in discipleship can be accomplished with our own resources. It is only because Christ is with us—because he goes with us into the world—that we can possibly dare to step out to follow the discipleship agenda that he set for us. Christ’s presence and power are the keys to Christian discipleship. We are not disciples of some ancient teacher who has merely left us his teachings. We are disciples of the living Lord who walks with us and who teaches, nurtures, restores and empowers us as we go into the world in his name and his power.
Jesus probably had Daniel 7:13-14 in mind when he gave the Great Commission. There, we are told that the Son of Man was given authority—an everlasting dominion—so that all nations would serve and worship him. Christ is the Son of Man, the Lord of all. He has been given universal authority which ought to be universally recognized and radically respected (cf. Phil. 2:9-11). What would our lives look like if that truth were to truly penetrate to the very core of our being?
Roy E. Ciampa, Ph.D., is Professor of New Testament, Chair of the Division of Biblical Studies, and Director of the Th.M. Program in Biblical Studies. He also served for 12 years as a missionary with Greater Europe Mission in Portugal, teaching at two theological schools. He maintains close ties to Portugal, serving as a translator/reviser of the Portuguese Bible Society’s contemporary translation of the Bible. He received an M.Div. from Denver Seminary and a Ph.D. from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.