For many years I was under the false impression that the main thrust of Matthew 28:19-20 was "Go." I saw charts of the commandment to "Go," but Jesus didn't say how we were to "Go," therefore, we could go by whatever means were available to us. Even though I agree with the conclusion, I believe that a disservice has happened in misdirecting our attention in that important direction of Jesus. "Go" is not the main idea but is only a participle, a subordinate to the main thought of the sentence, as the following original translation will show:
"Therefore, after you have gone, disciple all the nations, while you are baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and while you are teaching them to obey everything which I have commanded you . . ."
We notice that the main thrust is not going, baptizing or teaching, but, after having gone, and while baptizing and teaching, Jesus in all of this is saying make sure that you make disciples. Making disciples is the goal that we need to strive for ultimately.
The usual definition of a disciple is that he is a learner. It is usually used in a teacher-pupil relationship with the pupil, obviously, being the disciple, learning from the teacher. Jesus said, "A pupil is not above his teacher..." (Luke 6:40, NASB). The word translated "pupil" is mathetes, the word usually translated "disciple." But for our relationship to Jesus, this understanding of disciple as one who is just a learner is shallow and inadequate. I have been a student for many years. I have learned many things from many teachers, but my relationship to those teachers is different than the one I am to have with Jesus. Therein lies the basic difference between being a disciple and a learner.
We notice in the rest of the verse of Luke 6:40 the true and full meaning of being a disciple of Jesus. "A pupil (disciple) is not above his teacher; but everyone, after he has been fully trained, will be like his teacher."
Our purpose then for being a disciple of Jesus is not just to learn things about Jesus or about the Bible, but our purpose is to use the things that we have learned to become like Christ. Notice other Scriptures that bear this thought:
"For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the imagine of His Son . . ." (Rom. 8:29 NASB); conformed to the likeness of His Son . . ." (NIV).
"But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image . . ." (2 Cor. 3:18).
"My children, with whom I am again in labor until Christ is formed in you" (Gal. 4:19).
When Jesus said in Matthew 28:19-20 to make disciples as a number one priority, what did He mean? When we are baptizing and teaching, make sure that those two avenues are used to make the individual into the likeness of Christ. Baptism and teaching are of no usefulness unless Christ, through those mediums, is being formed in the individual.
When a person is being baptized, he is to understand the very important significance of what he is doing. He is not just "joining a church," etc., but he is spiritually crucifying the old self with Christ to be raised up a new creature (cf. Rom. 6:4-6; Gal. 2:20).
When a person is being taught, he is to understand the significance of the purpose of those things being presented to him. They are to be used to change his being into the likeness of Christ.
How can we teach with discipleship in mind? Put the emphasis not on knowing but on doing. One teacher related to me how that she was teaching her class a Scripture which said ' "Never pay back evil for evil to anyone" and "if your enemy is hungry, feed him" (Rom. 12:17-20). She put the emphasis upon doing, not just learning. The next week the class came together, and she asked them how that passage of Scripture had changed them, if indeed it had. One little girl said that during the week her brother was being mean to her, teasing her, etc. The teacher asked what she had done about it. The girl replied that she had baked him a batch of cookies!
We are not just to know Scripture, but to allow it to change and form our lives. As James says, "But prove yourselves doers of the word and not merely hearers who delude themselves" (James.1:22).
Guardian of Truth XXVIII: 4, p. 112