“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations…” – Matthew 28:19 (ESV)
In 1792, a twenty-nine-year-old British pastor and shoemaker named William Carey shook the evangelical world with the publication of a controversial missionary essay. It ignited a fire for missions that led hundreds to go and herald the gospel to the nations, resulting in what is now remembered as the first Protestant missions era.
In his essay, “An Enquiry,” Carey challenged his contemporaries by arguing that the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18–20, to make disciples of all nations, was intended not only for Jesus’s immediate disciples but for all of God’s people in the present. This meant that God’s people were responsible for going to places without gospel access and that those who didn’t go were responsible for sending them.
This understanding of Matthew 28:18–20 has been largely accepted by evangelicals for hundreds of years since then. In recent decades, however, another subtle, alternative interpretation has emerged.
Some well-intentioned teachers say that William Carey got it wrong—that the Great Commission is not a global mandate but simply a summons to be on mission wherever we are.
Is that true?
Go, or “As you go?”
I remember speaking at a small church in Ohio, after which the young pastor reminded his congregation about the true meaning of the Great Commission. It wasn’t to take the gospel to the ends of the earth, he said, but to make disciples “as they went” about their lives.
His argument was that the word “go” in the original language is more accurately translated “as you go” in English, and so the phrase means something more along the lines of “be a disciple maker as you go about your daily life.”
I’ve heard other well-intentioned teachers, pastors, and even authors go so far as to say William Carey got it wrong—that the Great Commission is not a global mandate but simply a summons to be on mission wherever we are. One author writes:
“…Of course we should be sending out missionaries to the ends of the earth and seeking to reach the whole world for Christ. But is that really what Matthew 28 is calling upon us to do?…the famous verses are worth a closer look…Traditionally (or at least for Carey), this has been read as a missionary mandate, a charter for sending out gospel workers to the world… But the emphasis of the sentence is not on “going.” In fact, the participle is probably better translated “when you go” or “as you go.” The commission is not fundamentally about mission out there somewhere else in another country. It’s a commission that makes disciple making the normal agenda and priority of every church and every Christian disciple.” (The Trellis and the Vine, pp. 11–13)
To be fair, few proponents of this view would say that global mission is not important. Most have simply utilized this increasingly popular interpretation as a prod to move their people to be engaged in God’s mission. Besides, what preacher doesn’t want his people making disciples “as they go?” As an old seminary professor of mine would say, “That’ll preach!”
But can this new interpretation be trusted, or have our English Bible translators erred for centuries by overlooking better alternative renderings like “as you go?” Is the Great Commission mainly about being a disciple maker, or is it about something more?
The Danger of Misinterpretation
It feels funny to have to say it, but the command in Matthew 28:18–20 is actually a call for God’s people to “go” and “make disciples of all nations.” The main verb in the sentence is indeed “make disciples,” but it is not an isolated verb, nor is it intended to be emphasized to the exclusion of the other important details in the command.
Jesus gave his disciples an intentional global charge that required their strategic movement from one location to another to make disciples among all peoples. When we reduce this to an “as you go” lifestyle command, we are promoting less than full obedience to perhaps the most climactic imperative in the Bible—one that for centuries has donned the nickname, “the Great Commission.”
What Does the Text Say?
Jesus said, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:18-19, ESV)
From Genesis to Revelation, God discloses his plan to gather a people from every language, tribe, and tongue. The Great Commission, as Matthew and the other Gospel writers recorded it (Luke 24:46–47; John 20:21; Acts 1:8), reveals how that’s going to happen. When Jesus gave his command in Matthew, he alluded to Daniel 7:14 and was in effect saying, “The Son of Man has received his dominion (as prophesied), and, therefore, it’s time for the ingathering of nations to begin (as prophesied). So go out there and get them!”
In previous articles, I’ve discussed the revelation of God’s plan for the nations in the Old Testament and the New Testament. Now, building upon those articles, let’s narrow the focus and study the grammatical structure of Matthew 28:18-20.
Technical Distinctions Matter
Proponents of the “as you go” interpretation note that the word “going” is a participle (a verb that acts like an adjective) rather than a command. But their rendition stems from an inadequate understanding of Greek grammar.
The word for “go” in Greek is something called a “participle of attendant circumstance,” which means it takes the full force of the imperative (the command) that follows (“make disciples”). One Greek scholar writes, “Recognition of participles of attendant circumstance is important. . . . It would be a mistake to render this [word] ‘as you go.’ . . . The command is to go and make disciples” (p. 127). For further explanation, see Dr. Robert Mounce’s post on this passage.
Additionally, the main verb, “make disciples” (or “disciple-ize”), is actually a single word in the original language and is what grammarians call a transitive verb. This means there is an object in the sentence that is receiving the action of that verb. In this case, the object is “all nations.” In English, it’s easy to separate the verb from its object, because “make disciples” seems complete on its own, much the way “smell the flower” or “teach the boy” are complete thoughts.
But if one were to simply give the commands “smell!” or “teach!” the listener would need more information to obey. Smell what? Teach whom? The verbal phrase in the Great Commission is not merely to “make disciples” in general but to “disciple-ize all nations.” This necessarily means that some Christians must move from their current location to those where there are nations (or peoples) with no gospel access. They must go.
Putting It All Together
It is absolutely true that we should strive with all of our energy to make disciples “as we go.” God’s people are to engage in evangelism and discipleship wherever they are regardless of whether they are missionaries, pastors, engineers, pilots, or janitors. But the Great Commission is so much more than a lifestyle command. It’s a summons to join God on his mission to redeem a people from every single tribe and language and people and nation (Rev 5:9).
John’s vision of the innumerable assembly around the heavenly throne doesn’t merely depict a multiethnic gathering comprised of peoples around whom Christians happen to live. John depicts an omni-ethnic gathering—one from which no people group on the earth is missing (Rev 7:9). And it’s a vision that Jesus demands his church actualize by strategically relocating some from among her ranks to proclaim the gospel.
The implications are clear. Some Christians must send. The others must go.
Robert Wells V is a graduate of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his family reside in Virginia where he serves on a team that trains international church planters. They are currently preparing to a join church-planting team in Central Asia.