The Gospel reading appointed for this Sunday appears every three years and every three years I feel compelled to address the instruction Jesus is reported to have given his disciples saying,

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19)

The part of this verse that needs careful attention is:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.

The Greek for this first clause in Matthew 28:19 is

poreuthentes oun matheteusate panta ta ethne.

Translated literally this means

going, then, disciple (matheteusate) all the nations.

It is curious that the verb “make” has become so entrenched in the English translations of v.19 – “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations“. No one has the power, or should ever want, to “make” another person become a disciple of Jesus, much less become a Christian. The word “make” does not appear in the Greek, nor is it even implied. The Greek word is matheteusate from the root matheteuo which means “to disciple.”

The International Standard Version has the best English translation when it represents Jesus saying,

Therefore, as you go, disciple (matheteusate) people in all nations.

Jesus is saying here that, as his disciples “go” about their lives, they are to “disciple (matheteusate) people in all nations”.

The radical part of this instruction is the “in all nations” part. God’s Word is not restricted. Jesus’ followers are to move beyond their comfortable safe world and when they travel into unfamiliar territory they are to live in a “discipling” relationship with the people they encounter. Jesus has breaks down all barriers. He eliminates all separation based on ethnicity, creed, or socio-economic standing.

Following his resurrection, Jesus’ disciples were ready to receive the universal vision Jesus embodied. So he warned them that they would be going to people they had never imagined encountering. And, wherever they would go they were to “disciple (matheteusate)” the people they met.

So, what does it mean to “disciple (matheteusate) people”?

The popular assumption has been that Christians are to go out into the world and find people who are not followers of Jesus and “make” them become followers of Jesus. Matthew 28:19 is called “the Great Commission,” which is viewed as a directive to convert others to Christ. The word “matheteusate” does not support this understanding.

The verb mathetuo appears only four times in the New Testament. The most helpful use of the word for understanding Matthew 28:19 is Matthew 13:52 where it is translated as “trained”. Jesus says,

Therefore every scribe who has been trained (matheteuo) for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.

There is no implication here of making someone become something they are not. Matheteuo here does not describe a process of “conversion”. Jesus uses the word to describe a process whereby a “scribe” is “trained” (matheteuo) to live in tune with the values and ways of “the kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus implies that these values are inherent in the student who is being trained to bring “out of his treasure what is new and what is old”.

So, in Matthew 28:19 Jesus appears to be saying that, wherever followers of Jesus go, they should live lives that are so in tune with the kingdom that the people they encounter will discover within themselves those same kingdom values that motivate the disciples.

As a sign of their desire to align themselves with those who seek to live in tune with their true inner nature, those who have been touched by what they have seen in the the followers of Jesus will signify their willingness to surrender fully to the reality of Christ’s kingdom by being baptized.

The important thing for the followers of Jesus is not what we do to others, or even primarily what we say. The important thing is that we live in tune with the kingdom values of God that are universally available to “all nations” because these Jesus-values represent our true nature.

It may be tempting to tell people about Jesus and try to make them change. But it will bear more lasting fruit if people see in us the qualities of love, gentleness, kindness, openness, compassion, peacefulness, and beauty. As they see these qualities in our lives, they will be empowered to identify them in their own lives and find the call to live in tune with Jesus. To live in tune with Jesus is to live in alignment with the love, peace, and compassion that are our true nature.