Little Greek Gems: The Great Commission: Soul Winning or Disciple Making?

How many times have you heard a missions conference speaker exhort everyone to fulfill the Great Commission by going overseas?  I’ve heard that numerous times because I grew up in a Christian tradition that put a heavy emphasis on evangelism and “soul winning.”  In fact, it was touted that the Summum bonum of one’s Christian vocation was to become a missionary.

I always felt a little guilty after such conferences because of the implication that those who go were nobler than those who stay.  Since I wasn’t called to the mission field, it created some angst that I was going to be a second-class citizen in the Kingdom.

But when I took Greek in college, I was quite relieved to find out that I could still fulfill the Great Commission anywhere God placed me.  In fact, what I learned was nothing short of a Copernican revolution in what the Great Commission is and who could fulfill it.  On the first day of my college Greek class, the professor put on the chalkboard a little linguistic nugget to illustrate why knowing the original languages is important.  This has stuck with me ever since, and has shaped how I do both evangelism and discipleship.

It’s important to note here the dilemma every seminarian-turned-pastor has to negotiate: talking about the importance of reading the Bible in the original languages while not undermining people’s confidence in our many good translations.

On the one hand, it stands to reason that reading the Bible in the original languages reflects the high scholarly standards that trace back to our Reformation heritage, so seminaries are right to require students to master Greek.

But on the other hand, those lacking the aptitude or the time to learn Greek need not fret; God has gifted his church with skilled translators and reliable translations that yield genuine access to God’s revelation, and in our vernacular language no less; this too is a tradition inherited from our Reformation forefathers.

If I may venture a helpful (if imperfect) analogy: reading the New Testament in Greek is like a person watching TV in 4K Ultra High Definition with stereo surround-sound while another watches on a black-and-white set with a single speaker.  Both TV viewers see, hear, and understand the same program, but the enhanced equipment affords subtleties and nuances not available in the other format.  So a reader of a reliable English translation will certainly get what God has revealed, but reading the New Testament in Greek will yield little gems.

We find one such nugget in the Great Commission:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20, NASB)

When explaining this text, many modern preachers and missionaries have keyed in on the English verb, “Go”, which clearly looks like a command.  But is “going” the essence of the Great Commission?

The Greek text helps us to get precisely at the point: while the English translations are rendered correctly, Greek shows there is only one main verb, which is in the imperative voice (we’d say a “command”).  So the actual commission is “make disciples.”

Greek also shows that the sole main verb is accompanied by three other action words (technically they’re participles).  These action words help to further define and explain the circumstances and means which accompany the action of the main verb.  So what Greek teaches us is that the central action which fulfills the Great Commission is to “make disciples.” But we also understand that this action is to happen while we are “going” and is to be accomplished by means of “baptizing” and “teaching.”

For practical purposes, it is important to note that making disciples is a critically different task than merely winning souls.  And this is not an unimportant distinction, because the history of the church shows us that when the Great Commission is defined primarily as “going,” the tendency is to make converts rather than disciples who resemble Jesus.  Misunderstanding the true nature of the Great Commission has led to numerous problems: “Easy Believism;” the misconception that one can be a Christian apart from being a disciple; people who profess Christ but have neither root nor fruit; and weak, worldly churches. So the Greek text clarifies for us that Jesus commissioned his disciples not to merely get people saved, but to labor to make them just like himself.

“We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom,

so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ.”

Colossians 1:2

James Rich is the Assistant Pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Harleysville, PA, and holds a Ph.D. in Church History from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He taught high school history and Bible and has served as an adjunct faculty member at the college and seminary level.

James Rich