This article, “Baptism in the Great Commission,” will be a part of my next book to be published in late summer, A Look at Biblical Baptism.
INTRODUCTION. In the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus gives to His church not only their mission for the entire time between His ascension and His return, but He also gives them the strategy for accomplishing that mission. In my last post on the Great Commission (#504 on March 18, 2022), I looked at the beauty and simplicity of Christ’s commission to His church. Now I will look at the individual pieces of His church growth plan.
MAKE DISCIPLES – THE MISSION OF THE CHURCH
Jesus’ mission for His church is to make disciples. Since that is His command, His church needs to understand what He means by “disciple.”
It is often said that Jesus did not command us to make converts, but to make disciples. The intent behind this statement is to make sure that the goal of our ministry is to produce mature followers of Jesus who are obedient to the teaching of the Bible and who are faithful witnesses to Jesus. That is, the goal is not just to coax people to give a nod to Jesus but is to see people give their entire lives to Jesus and to manifest that by the visible means of worship and witness and obedience. Therefore, this distinction between “convert” and “disciple” is a worthwhile distinction, especially since Christians have been known to count conversions as the number of people who prayed a certain prayer. In this sense, there should be a distinction between “convert” and “disciple.”
In Matthew 28:19, however, a “disciple” is, in simplest terms, a convert. The meaning of “disciple” in the context of “make disciples” means “make people who have confessed Jesus as Lord” (Romans 10:9). Make people who have passed from death to life (John 5:24). Make people who have been born again (John 3:3). Make people who have believed in the Lord Jesus (Acts 16:31). Make people who have been “made alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:5). Make people who have been justified by faith (Romans 5:1). Make people “who were lost and have been found” (Luke 15:24). Make people who have repented and believed in the gospel (Mark 1:15). The point is that the church is to proclaim the gospel to the whole world (Matthew 24:14; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:47) to the end that many will believe (John 20:31). In the context of Matthew 28:19, a “disciple” is simply one who has believed the gospel of the Lord Jesus.
The mission for the church, then, from Jesus’ ascension to the end of the age, is to make disciples. But if the church is to make those who have believed in Jesus, the question becomes, “How are we to go about making these disciples?” In His commission, Jesus gives a three-fold strategy for this.
GO! (GOING TO THE PEOPLE / TO THE LOST)
According to Jesus, the church’s first activity is to go out to “all the nations” (Greek πάντα τὰ ἔθνη) and proclaim to them the gospel. This is the activity of evangelism, of telling unbelievers the good news of salvation so that those who are currently outside of Christ “will call upon the name of the Lord” (Romans 10:13, then 10:14-15) and be saved. Therefore, the church must go and proclaim. The existing disciples are to go anywhere and everywhere proclaiming the gospel to those who are not disciples so that they will make disciples. The goal is that, by going and proclaiming the gospel, some will believe and thus become disciples. The church is to continue going and proclaiming and making disciples until Jesus comes back at the end of the age.
The fruit of going and proclaiming is that some will believe and thus become disciples. According to Jesus’ strategy for accomplishing the Great Commission, what happens then?
BAPTIZING THE DISCIPLES
It is unmistakably clear that, according to Jesus, the next step is to baptize the new disciples. Jesus commands the church to make disciples, then He says, “Baptizing them.” “Them” is the disciples who have just been made. Once it is verified that a person has believed and thus has been made a disciple, according to Jesus, that person is to be baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Why does Jesus’ strategy include baptism here?
First, because baptism serves as the sign that tells the world that this person is now a disciple of Jesus. The one baptized now identifies with Jesus, and they have decisively separated themselves from the world and joined themselves with the disciples of Jesus. Baptism also tells the church that this person is now one of them. Finally, baptism declares to the one baptized that they have forever left the world of the unbaptized. They have “come out of the closet,” so to speak. They have gone public. They have openly confessed Jesus Christ as Lord of their life and have then been plunged beneath the waters of baptism. They have been “buried unto death in Christ, rise again to walk in newness of life.” The old is gone, the new is come (2 Cor. 5:17), and there is no turning back to the old again.
But second, Jesus commands that disciples be baptized at this point in their spiritual journey because baptism is the sign that marks the successful end of evangelism and the beginning of discipleship. The church has been proclaiming the gospel to this person in the hopes of seeing this one come to faith and repentance, and the person’s baptism declares that evangelism has obtained its intended end and the person has come to faith. This person has been sealed with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13; 2 Cor. 1:22) and is, therefore, ready to begin the process of discipleship. Now the disciple becomes part of the church and begins to learn what it means “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called” (Eph. 4:1).
Finally, according to Jesus, what is the next step in His church growth strategy?
TEACHING THE DISCIPLES HOW TO BE DISCIPLES
Jesus declares to His church (Matthew 28:20) that, after the disciple has publicly professed their faith through baptism, there is the responsibility of “teaching them (disciples) to observe (or “obey”) all that I commanded you.” But where and how will this “teaching to observe all” take place? What is the strategy for this?
The strategy for teaching disciples how to obey the Lord Jesus is called the local church. Now, “having been justified by faith” (Romans 5:1), the new disciple is as justified as they ever will be. They have also testified to their justification (salvation, conversion) through the waters of baptism (Romans 6:4), but they are brand new in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). Therefore, as a physical newborn relies on its parents to teach it everything the newborn needs to know to survive, so the spiritual newborn relies upon the church to teach him everything he needs to know to “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4b), to obey the Lord Jesus, and to behave as a witness for Christ. Therefore, the Lord Jesus has given His children the organism of the local church, the ἐκκλησία, where existing disciples teach and encourage newer disciples so that the entire church “causes the growth of the Body for the building up of itself in love” (Eph. 4:16). The local church, then, is the place where disciples of the Lord Jesus mutually encourage one another and teach one another to observe (obey) all that Jesus has commanded us. But the existing disciples of the local church are also those who go anywhere and everywhere proclaiming the gospel to those who are not disciples so that the existing disciples will make new disciples. In this way, the process of church growth perpetuates itself, as Jesus Christ said, “I will build My church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18 ESV).
A CHURCH-GROWTH PLAN WITH BAPTISM IN THE CENTER
What we have seen is that, in the Great Commission, given to His church by the resurrected Jesus Christ, the Lord has given us much more than a command for evangelism. He has given His people a church-growth plan for the entire age, and there is no piece of the Master’s plan that is not vital to the accomplishment of the church’s God-given task. The Great Commission is about making disciples by going out and proclaiming the gospel (evangelism), baptizing those who profess Christ, and then teaching these disciples what it means to live as disciples of Jesus (discipleship).
We have seen that baptizing disciples is commanded by the Lord so that the church and the world can identify those who are disciples of Jesus and so that the church can know whom to teach the doctrines, beliefs, and behaviors of the disciple of Jesus.
SDG rmb 3/21/2022 #506