When I was in college the King James Bible was pretty much the predominant translation used in most churches. Sometimes I miss the days when nearly everyone was reading from the same translation. We are wealthy in God’s Word today, with many good English translations of the Scriptures available. (There are some stinkers, too.) But in those days, it was the King James Version.
The college I went to emphasized what is called “The Great Commission” given to us by Jesus after His resurrection and before He ascended into Heaven. It appears five times in the New Testament, in Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20 and Acts 1. But the first time the Great Commission appears is in the Gospel of Matthew. In the King James Version it reads like this:
And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. 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.
Verse 19 begins “Go ye therefore and teach all nations…”. And despite the fact that the word “teaching” occurs in verse 20, there are actually two different Greek words translated as “teach” and “teaching”. This is why most modern translations have Matthew 28:19 worded this way:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” (English Standard Version)
The first word translated as “teach” or “make disciples” in Matthew 28:19 is based on the Greek word mathetes, which means “disciple”. In verse 20, the second word, translated as “teaching” (in both the King James and modern translations) is the Greek word didasko, which means simply “teach” or “teaching”. So there really are two different words used in the Greek text. The King James translators often translated different Greek words with the same English word for stylistic reasons (i.e., they thought it sounded better). But this is why most modern translations use the phrase “make disciples” instead of “teach” in Matthew 28:19.
So, did the King James translators obscure the difference in words in Matthew 28:19? Yes, they did. Is the King James Version in error because it translates Matthew 28:19 as “teach all nations” instead of “make disciples of all nations”? No, it is not. Both words really do mean “teach.” The first word is literally “make learners” or “make students”. After all, you really can’t teach unless you have somebody who wants to learn. And the second word means “to instruct by word of mouth.” Again, pretty basic, common-sense stuff: if you want to teach, you have to say things.
We also have to understand that in some sense the phrase “make disciples” in Matthew 28:19 has to be synonymous with the Great Commission as recorded by the other New Testament writers. Mark, recording the preaching of Peter, has Jesus saying,
“Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.”Mark 16:15 ESV
Luke records it this way:
Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.Luke 24:45-48 ESV
The Gospel of John has this:
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”John 20:21 ESV
And Luke records this command of Jesus yet again in the first chapter of Acts:
He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”Acts 1:7-8
Somehow the phrase “make disciples” has to be synonymous with the words “proclaim”, “proclaimed”, “witnesses”, and “sending” (implying “sending with a message”). Either Jesus said the same thing in different ways, or the apostles expressed the same thought in different words. Matthew 28:19 can’t contradict the other passages. They are all different facets of the same jewel.
An awful lot of hay has been made of the differences between “teach” and “make disciples,” and what it means in doing the work of the ministry today. The contention is that unless you are gathering a small group of people around yourself and spending extensive time with them like Jesus did with the Twelve, then you really aren’t doing the work of the ministry. Many are quite insistent about this.
I have spent a lot of time reading the biographies of preachers down through the twenty centuries of church history. It isn’t that you can’t find examples of them meeting with small groups in different contexts. But I can’t remember a single example of any of them advocating the gathering of a group of disciples around themselves. They were, however, all gifted preachers or proclaimers of the Gospel.
I once went to a gathering of pastors in which the topic of discipleship came up. There were two or three younger men there who spoke with great conviction that, unless you were gathering a small group to yourself to teach them on a regular, at least weekly basis, then you had missed what it means to do the work of the ministry. I sat and listened, and when I left, I quite honestly felt as if I had wasted the previous forty years of my life. Because, while I certainly have met with people one-on-one and in small groups of two or three or more from time to time, I haven’t met weekly with a small group of my own “disciples” for the purpose of instructing them. I have met three or four times a week for over forty years with groups ranging from two to two hundred for the specific purpose of instructing them in the Scriptures, proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ, and to unfold from the Bible what it means to live as a Christian. But according to these young men, that wasn’t good enough. I left there really wondering if I had wasted my life.
I emailed a friend of mine, Steve Brown, a Presbyterian pastor who is older than me, and told him what these young preachers had said and how it made me feel. And he responded, “Dave, stop hanging out with young preachers! They haven’t lived long enough or sinned big enough to have an opinion yet! Of course, you haven’t wasted your life!” I knew he really didn’t want me to stop hanging out with young preachers. But I appreciated his words of encouragement.
I was still deeply disturbed by all this, though. Which is why my ears really perked up late one night when I was listening to a sermon by Alistair Begg while driving home. (Yes, I listen to sermons, too, from other people. You have an advantage. If you get bored with my preaching, you can get up and go to the bathroom. But if I get bored with my preaching, I’m stuck. So, I need to keep learning.)
Alistair Begg was talking about a pastor’s conference at which he’d been invited to speak. And he said it left him feeling quite dejected. One session consisted of a panel discussion in which the conference speakers took questions from the audience. And he said the other two participants began to speak very forcefully about the fact that if you weren’t doing ministry in exactly this certain way, then you were doing nothing. Then they looked over to him for his comments, and Alistair Begg said, “Well, then, I guess I’m doing nothing!” Everybody laughed at his response. But he said he left feeling quite discouraged. He went home and went back to the Scriptures to see if these other men really were right after all.
His experience so paralleled my own that I concluded the topic must have been discipleship. So, I wrote Alistair Begg a letter. I told him how much I’d appreciated his ministry over the years, and how much encouragement I had received from him. I told him how I was first introduced to his preaching, how I’d had the opportunity to hear him in person at conferences from time to time, and even shake his hand after a session or two. (I also told him how jealous I was of his Scottish accent. He can read the dictionary out loud, and people will listen!) Then I told him about my experience with the young pastors, how it had made me wonder if I had wasted my ministry, and I asked if that was the topic at the panel discussion he had referred to. Then I sent the letter off and waited. I was very much looking forward to his response, assuming my letter ever got to him.
After about three weeks I was beginning to wonder if I was going to get a response. Then on the afternoon of December 5th, 2019 I had just arrived back at the church when our church secretary said, “There’s a Pastor Begg from Parkside Church in Ohio on the phone wanting to speak with you. Do you want to talk to him?” I nearly swallowed my tongue. I said, “Yes! Yes! Put him through!” There was a long uncomfortable moment when I thought we’d lost his call, and then I heard his familiar voice say, “Hello, David! I got your nice letter. I hate to write letters, so I asked my assistant if he could track down your phone number. I thought we could just have a nice chat for a few minutes.” I was flabbergasted.
I managed to pull myself together enough to ask him again about the panel discussion he’d talked about, and if the topic was “making disciples in small groups”. He confirmed that was indeed the topic. In response to the contention that “preaching alone won’t get it done,” and that if you’re not “making disciples” in small groups then “you’ve missed it”, he was quite blunt. He said, “David, they say things like that because they don’t believe in the power of preaching.” He said that if some people have gifts that bend them toward a ministry like that, then well and good. But he said, “My own gifts do not lie there.” Then he told me that most of the men who had “discipled” him he had never met, but rather he had been benefited by their sermons and books. And he said, “David, the very conversation we’re having now is a testament to the power of preaching to disciple people.” He was right. He had discipled me for years.
I was deeply grateful for his phone call and his encouragement. It was one of the best Christmas gifts I got that year. And it spurred me to review once again what the Bible has to say about discipleship.
The word “discipleship” isn’t even in the Bible. The first mention of the word “disciple” in the New Testament is in Matthew 10:24. The last mention of the word “disciple” is in Acts 21:16. The word “disciple” or “disciples” never appears in any of the Epistles, or in the book of Revelation. This seems especially significant given that it is the Epistles that explain in more detail the things Jesus and the apostles taught. Paul himself had been a disciple of Gamaliel, so he was familiar with the concept. But Paul never used the word “disciple”.
The basic definition of the word “disciple” is “learner” or “pupil”. But in the ancient world, it meant more.
If you were someone’s disciple, the emphasis was on fellowship as much as on formal learning. A disciple lived with his teacher. A disciple served his teacher by doing menial tasks. A disciple received, not just information, but inspiration from his teacher. He learned his teacher’s entire outlook on life. The disciple made his teacher’s instruction and outlook to be his code of conduct, or his rule of life. The disciple treated his teacher as the absolute authority in his life. The disciple was never to consider himself above his teacher. And the disciple was to carry on the work of his teacher after the teacher died.
Greek philosophers had disciples, but eventually they discarded the term because of its association with the working classes and apprentices in the trades. The Pharisees said they were the disciples of Moses (John 9:28). The Pharisees had their own disciples (Mark 2:18). John the Baptist had disciples, too, some of whom became Jesus’ disciples (John 1:35-37).
But most of the time in the New Testament the word “disciple” referred to a literal follower of Jesus, especially to the Twelve that Jesus specifically called to leave their homes and vocations and accompany Him wherever He went.
The word “disciple” was also used in a wider sense to mean simply a believer in Jesus, one who followed Jesus’ teachings (John 8:31; 13:35; 15:8). Not all who believed in Jesus literally followed Him around (John 11:1-5). But sometimes those who were called “disciples” turned away from Him (John 6:66). So “disciple” didn’t mean “an especially dedicated follower of Jesus”, like some higher level of Christianity.
After His resurrection, Jesus told His followers to “go… and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). He didn’t tell us to make disciples of ourselves, but disciples of Him. In the book of Acts, the word “disciple” is synonymous with the word “believer”. In Acts, making disciples was the same as making converts.
Luke records the point at which believers in Jesus began to break with the Greek/Jewish idea of discipleship:
“So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.”Acts 11:25-26
And again, after Acts 21:16, the word “disciple” doesn’t appear in the rest of the New Testament.
In the New Testament, as the first century rolled by, several images seemed to have replaced that of disciples gathered around a rabbi. Believers are described as:
- A family with brothers and sisters (John 1:11-12; Romans 8:14-16; 1 John 2:12-14; 4:16)
- A body with members, and Christ as the Head (Ephesians 1:22-23)
- A temple or building, being built up by God, with believers as living stones (1 Corinthians 3:9-17; 1 Peter 2:4-5)
- And most of all: a called-out assembly (Matthew 16:18; Acts 11:26)
One pastor in Indianapolis was asked, “Do you have any meetings specifically for discipleship?” He said, “Yes, we have three every week, on Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night.” Amen, brother!
We can learn a lot from studying Jesus’ relationship to the Twelve. In a real sense, every Christian must be committed to learning from and living with the Lord Jesus Christ. But the word “disciple”, and the concept of discipleship as seen in Greek and Jewish culture, seems to have been left behind for new terms, new pictures, and a new understanding of what it means to be a believer in Jesus (Ephesians 4:11-16; 1 John 3:1-3).
I have no objection to meeting with people one-on-one, in twos or threes, or in small groups. I have done it myself and am quite willing to do it again when the situation warrants. But I do object to any contention that if you are not doing ministry a certain way, then you are not doing anything. And I strenuously object to any suggestion that “preaching alone” is somehow inadequate.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go listen to a sermon.
Soli Deo Gloria!