Lots of people talk about "baptizing disciples." And yet aren't disciples already Christians? How can this be?
This is a very common question. Let me share some relevant thoughts.
As you are aware, the Bible teaches that disciple is another word for Christian (Acts 11:26). So would Jesus really be saying we are to baptize disciples -- those who are already in a right relationship with God? Of course not, since baptism is the point at which his relationship with God is made complete. The ambiguity arises because, like many words, the word disciple has different nuances:
* It is a common term for a Christian, appearing some 30 times in the book of Acts. (Interestingly, this term does not appear in any of the letters of Revelation.) Denominational Christianity has substituted the world's term, Christian, for the biblical term, disciple. But the two-tier model of discipleship is not the plan Jesus set up!
* On the other hand, in ancient times (and modern), many men had disciples. In this case the word disciple is a rather general term. (John 4:1 probably illustrates this sense of the word.)
* Among modern day disciples, it also often describes the attitude of one eager to follow Jesus. This attitude is part of biblical repentance.
So we have to understand in which sense the word is being used: disciple as one already saved, disciple as a follower (of whoever), or disciple as one aspiring to total commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord. This is not to encourage semantic haggling, but the fact remains that words are often used in different senses.
However we prefer to use the word, the text Matthew 28:19 teaches that we are to baptize the nations. It is at the point of conversion (not before) that they become true disciples of Jesus Christ.
Go Make Disciples
After his death and resurrection, Jesus gave the charge, the "Great Commission," to the eleven faithful apostles. Let's take a look at this passage and see what we can conclude.
18Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age" (Matthew 28:18-20).
1. God wants the world evangelized. It is his will that everyone on the planet has a chance to meet a messenger who will share the good news. The commission triggers a chain reaction, as disciples replicate themselves in obedience to the command. This action process is the church. A true church, it could be argued, consists of disciples making disciples making disciples!
2. Yet make disciples translates only one word in Greek. An alternative and equally correct rendering would be "disciple the nations." While disciple is common as a noun, it is quite rare as a verb, and so most translators opt to translate it by the two-word construction "make disciples".
3. Baptism is set in context of discipleship. No one who is unready to give his or her life to the Lord in discipleship is a true candidate for baptism.
4. The them (verse 19) refers, in context, to the nations, and not to disciples. We are to call the nations to discipleship and baptism. This is not to say one does not need to be ready to become a disciple before baptism. But in Matthew 28 we are called to disciple (teach), baptize, and further instruct the nations (or Gentiles).
5. Obedience (verse 20) must be taught. It isn't natural! Our job as disciples is therefore not only to evangelize the world, but also to keep the teaching process going in our churches.
6. As we obey the commission, Jesus gives his word that he will be with us always. Let's give ourselves heart and soul to the Great Commission, urgently carrying out the request of Jesus Christ!
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