Making Disciples:

Understanding the Greek Text of Matthew 28:18-20


There have been questions concerning the meaning of Matthew 28:18-20 and its impact upon the qualifications of candidates for baptism. This paper will briefly discuss the critical features of the text in question and draw conclusions in accordance with these facts.

The Text

Let us consider the translation of this passage in the New International Version (NIV) and the New American Standard Version (NASV), along with the Greek text from the International Bible Society (IBS).


[18] Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. [19] Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, [20] and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."


[18] And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. [19] "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, [20] teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age."


[18] kai; proselqw;n oJ jIhsou'" ejlavlhsen aujtoi'" levgwn, jEdovqh moi pa'sa ejxousiva ejn oujranw'/ kai; ejpi; gh'". [19] poreuqevnte" ou\n maqhteuvsate pavnta ta; e[qnh, baptivzonte" aujtou;" eij" to; o[noma tou' patro;" kai; tou' uiJou' kai; tou' aJgivou pneuvmato", [20] didavskonte" aujtou;" threi'n pavnta o{sa ejneteilavmhn uJmi'n: kai; ijdou; ejgw; meq' uJmw'n eijmi pavsa" ta;" hJmevra" e{w" th'" sunteleiva" tou' aijw'no".

Transliterated IBS Text (v. 19a only)

[19] poreuthentes ouv mathēteusate panta ta ethnē, baptizontes autous eis to onoma…


The Translation of the Passage

Observations about this passage and translation of v. 19:

  1. The Greek verb (imperative mode) “mathēteusate” is translated “make disciples” in the English versions.
  2. In English the word "disciple" is a noun only; it has no defined verb meanings (in fact, Greek-English dictionaries define “mathēteuō” as “make a disciple of, teach”). This limitation of the English language is central to the difficulty of understanding this passage correctly, as it forces the translator concerned about proper English to translate a Greek verb into an English verb-noun combination. Yet, it is helpful to translate the Greek “mathēteusate” as a verb in English, “disciple.”
  3. A correct English translation of the text is "make disciples of all nations." "Make disciples" is a verb, "nations" is a noun. There are no "disciples" (noun) in the sentence.
  4. "Baptizing" and "teaching to obey" are participles identified as steps in the "discipling" of the nations. This statement is a summary of Jesus’ ministry to the apostles and is not intended to be a comprehensive statement concerning conversion or discipling. "The force of the command is to make Jesus’ disciples responsible for making disciples of others, a task characterized by baptism and instruction."
  5. Those who are being "baptized" and "taught to obey" are thus "discipled" (verb). "The response of discipleship is baptism and instruction."

Pre-Requisites for Baptism

This passage does not explicitly discuss the pre-requisites for one to be baptized. Baptism and teaching to obey are expressed as the major aspects of the "discipling" of the nations.

A critical question is, "Do you have to be a ‘disciple’ to be baptized?" Before answering such a question, we need to define some terminology and concepts more precisely.

Anyone seeking to be baptized and to be taught to obey all that Jesus has commanded has been "discipled" to seek these things. A person comes to this understanding by being taught (or "discipled") to do so. This is obvious.

On the other hand, the qualifications for (or the expectations of) a disciple are discussed in Luke 14:25-33, John 8:32, John 15:8, and other passages.

Now the question is, can one be "discipled" to desire both baptism and being taught to obey all that Jesus commanded without being a disciple (according to the standards defined above)?

It is obvious that someone can learn about these things (baptism, what Jesus commanded) without a desire or commitment to follow or obey them. But at baptism, the candidate accepts the call of discipleship with the standards and expectations associated with it. This is also obvious, and follows from an investigation of biblical conversion examples in the church age. "The NT can scarcely conceive of a disciple who is not baptized or is not instructed."

Thus, those who desire to be baptized must be made aware of these qualifications and expectations of a disciple of Jesus during the time of "discipling" that precedes baptism. The willingness to live according to these expectations is the cost to be counted prior to the decision to be baptized. Being baptized is the acceptance of the call of discipleship to Jesus and the point at which one is saved.


The intent of this article has been to first correctly understand v. 19, and then to briefly consider its impact upon the entire conversion process.

Because of the limitations of the English language, translations of this passage can lead to misleading meanings. However, for the purposes of understanding this passage, a verb sense to the English "disciple" could be implemented. This would facilitate a more straightforward translation of the passage, "Disciple the nations."

The object of making disciples, baptizing and teaching to obey is "the nations." The individual members of "the nations" are the ones to be made disciples of, baptized and taught to obey everything Jesus commanded.

Concerning the broader questions of conversion and discipleship, the teachings of other biblical passages have been briefly considered and harmonized with the text in question. Examining the entire conversion process is clearly a separate task that should be undertaken as a separate study.


Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, G. & C. Merriam & Company, Springfield, Massachusetts, 1977, p. 325.

Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Translated by William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, 2nd edition revised and augmented by F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker from Walter Bauer’s fifth edition (Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 485.

The "them" (as in "baptizing them" etc.) is the Greek pronoun "autous," which is masculine. Since "ta ethne" (the nations) is neuter, we understand this text to mean that it is not the "nations" per se that are to be baptized, but rather the individuals of the nations are the ones to be baptized.

D.A. Carson "Matthew," The Expositor's Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1984, Volume 8, p. 597.



A good source of discussion on this topic is Born of Water by Rex Geissler, Great Commission Illustrated, Long Beach, California, 1997.


© By John Engler

Highlands Ranch, CO

June 1998