Make Disciples, Not Converts

The Great Commission contains the crucial imperative to make disciples of all nations—not just converts, but wholehearted followers.

Artwork from the Torah Club Jesus, My Rabbi study, lesson "The Great Commission". (Image and art © First Fruits of Zion)

Matthew 28:19 records that Yeshua told His disciples to “make disciples of all the nations.” The word “disciple” carries a lot of weight.

The Master did not send His apostles out primarily to make converts. He sought followers, not just believers. The eleven understood what He meant by making disciples because they themselves were professional disciples. Yeshua wanted them to raise up men and women who would internalize, practice, and transmit His teachings.

As the Mishnah demonstrates, discipleship was already a well-established institution within Judaism long before the appearance of Yeshua and His followers:

The men of the Great Assembly said three things: “Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence for the Torah.” (Pirkei Avot)

The rabbis, the sages among the Pharisees, and the teachers of the Torah had disciples. A disciple’s job was to learn everything his master had to teach. They memorized their teacher’s interpretations, explanations, and exegesis of Scripture. They learned his stories, parables, illustrations, and anecdotes. They learned to practice Torah by imitating their teacher and incorporating his manner of observance into their own. A disciple endeavored to become like his or her teacher: “A pupil is not above his teacher; but everyone, after he has been fully trained, will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40).

After the disciple was fully trained, he became the teacher and passed on the teaching to disciples of his own, who, when fully trained, became teachers and raised up disciples of their own. They taught their disciples in the name of their own teacher, and his teacher, and his teacher’s teacher … transmitting a body of oral tradition as vast as the sea. This was the method of higher religious education in the days of Yeshua. (Paul reveals his own training within this system in many ways, but in his command to Timothy, the Hellenistic Jew with a Greek father, he sums up the training method: “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others” [2 Timothy 2:2].)

The eleven knew that they were not to raise disciples for themselves. He had already told them:

Do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, the Messiah. (Matthew 23:8-10)

The eleven welcomed new believers in Yeshua to His school of discipleship. As they recruited new disciples, they fulfilled their calling as fishers of men.

The book of Acts repeatedly refers to the Yeshua-sect as “the disciples.” (E.g., Acts 6:1, 6:7, 9:1, 9:19, 9:26, 11:26, 13:52, 14:20-22, 14:28, 15:10, 19:1, 20:1, 21:4, 21:6, etc.) Although people on the outside spoke of members of the Yeshua-sect as “Nazarenes” and “Christians,” the believers themselves referred to each other simply as disciples.

Both Jews and Gentiles who came to believe in Yeshua became disciples. Like the disciples of the rabbis, the new disciples applied themselves to living out their Master’s instruction, imitating His manner, and memorizing His words.

The Gentile church cannot be faulted for having missed the mark regarding the charge to make disciples. Discipleship was an institution specific to Jewish culture. The church couldn’t make disciples out of people when the Gentile church did not know what the term “disciple” meant in the context of the Judaism practiced by Yeshua and His followers.

Early on in its development, Christian theology became muddled with an anti-Jewish bias that no longer recognized distinctions between Jewish and Gentile obligations to Torah. Worse yet, Christian theology jettisoned both the Torah and Judaism and forged a new religious identity. The Great Omission resulted from Christianity’s separation from Judaism, and it has shaped the character and quality of Christianity on a global scale.

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