Jesus didn’t ask us to take on the primary role of others’ spiritual development. He is their teacher, we are invited to participate.
Discipled by Jesus
By Robert Gelinas
LOST IN TRANSLATION: DISCIPLESHIP IS A VERB
What did Jesus actually mean when he told us to “go make disciples” (Matt. 28:19)? At first glance, Jesus’ words seem absolutely clear, but sometimes the “obvious” is not so obvious. Sometimes things get lost in translation.
At first glance, it appears that Jesus is telling you and me that we—ourselves—are to “make disciples.” However, two important nuances become evident when we consider these words in the original language.
First, in Greek, “make disciples” is only one word—matheteuo. It literally means “student.” Secondly, this one word is a verb. There are other verbs in the Great Commission—go, baptize and teach—that translate easily into English, but matheteuo is a bit more difficult and this is where we get off track.
After two millennia, we have allowed this verb to morph into an invented noun—discipleship. Discipleship is a word we Christians use all of the time, and it’s not even in the dictionary. It’s a word we’ve coined to describe the things we think Jesus is asking us to do in the Great Commission. If we are going to truly embrace what Jesus was saying, we first need to unlearn what we think he meant regarding this thing we call discipleship.
While it’s extremely important that we teach people the story of the Bible and the essentials of the faith, we need to be careful not to confuse those activities with what Jesus meant when he said “make disciples.” As we’ll see with the rest of the Great Commission, knowing Scripture, giving our money and attending church are vitally important to our Christian walk. But equating these activities with discipleship may actually keep us from Jesus’ original intent. As important as these skills and competencies are, we must ask: “Are they what Jesus was asking us to do when he said ‘make disciples’”?
Let’s back up a little. Matheteuo is the word “student” in verb form. Jesus was literally telling us to “Go into all the world and student the nations.” That sounds a little clunky, so it makes sense why translators have tried to smooth it out by rendering it “make disciples.” However, I believe that we have a better option when it comes to word choice. There is another a word that fits the context perfectly—enroll.
Jesus is saying, “Here’s what I want you to do. Go enroll people in school with me as their rabbi. I will be their teacher.” We make disciples when we make students of Jesus. It’s not about recruiting more people into our programs and classrooms but using all that’s at our disposal to convince people to enroll with Jesus so they can be directly discipled by the master.
The difference is subtle, but extremely significant. Here’s why: Jesus, our rabbi, is alive. He is risen; he has risen indeed! Therefore, he is not asking us to take on the primary role in someone’s spiritual development. No, Jesus has asked us to enroll people in school with him. In the Great Commission, Jesus is essentially employing us as his admissions office. Our primary task is that of preparing people to be taught, led and loved directly by Jesus.
As the church, we are to see ourselves as the ones who recruit and ready people to meet personally with their rabbi. We have dual roles as students of Jesus who also serve as his recruitment team. When we view ourselves this way, it radically alters the role we seek to have in someone’s life. It never crosses the minds of those who work in a college admissions office that they are actually the professor! Church is to be the place and the people that prepare you to be discipled by Jesus himself.
Let’s return to Jesus and Saul in Acts 9. Here we have Jesus initiating the spiritual birth AND discipleship of Saul. On the road to Damascus, Jesus shined his light into Saul’s life, knocked him to his knees, and asked “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul is blinded, and as his world turns dark, he is faced with the reality that everything in his life must change. He begins to fast (Acts 9:1–9).
Concurrently, Jesus appears in a vision to a man by the name of Ananias. He says, essentially, “Ananias, I want to invite you into something very special. I want you to join me in what I’m doing in Saul’s life. Ananias, I need you to be present as Saul moves from darkness to light; it’s a holy and sacred moment. Be present with us.”
For good reason, Ananias is apprehensive. Saul was responsible for the killing of Stephen and is in pursuit of all Christians. Ananias feared prison, bodily harm and even death. “But the Lord said to Ananias, ‘Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name’” (Acts 9:15–16).
Did you catch it? Jesus said, “Go.” This is actually the second of three times that word appears in this brief vision. The first time was in verse 11, when Jesus said, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street,” and then he repeats it again here in verses 15. The last time we heard Jesus say “go” was in the Great Commission. What we have here is a case study demonstrating what Jesus meant when he said “Go . . . make disciples.” Go . . . enroll people.
It’s a bit like a three-legged race. Remember field day back in elementary school? You and your best friend would tie together the ankles and thighs of your inside legs and you were ready to run the race—together. Running a three-legged race isn’t easy, is it? Success depends upon pre-race strategizing, coordination, and communication. The contestants need to agree on which leg they’ll start with and the pace at which they’ll proceed. They might even practice moving in sync with one-another—“inside legs . . . outside legs . . . inside . . . outside”—so that when the race starts, they don’t fall flat on their faces.
The same is true in our partnership with Jesus. If the Great Commission is actually a Great Co-mission, then when Jesus says, “go make disciples,” he is actually saying, “Let US go and make disciples. We’re doing this together. You are not on your own.”
If that’s the case, then just like a three-legged race, the Great Commission requires much communication and coordination with our partner. He’s not handing the baton off; therefore, we must coordinate, practice and communicate so that we can move forward in harmony. When it comes to this co-mission, we need to be in sync with Jesus. Participating in the spiritual growth of people requires clarity in our coordination. What are the things Jesus is asking us to do? What does Jesus want to do himself?
Excerpted from Discipled by Jesus: Your Ongoing Invitation to Follow Christ © 2018 by Robert Gelinas. Used by permission of NavPress. (Rights managed by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.). All rights reserved.