The Wartburg Project

March 22nd, 2018

41. In Matthew 28:19 why do you translate “gather disciples” instead of “make disciples”?

Why does the EHV translate Matthew 28:19, “gather disciples” instead of “make disciples”?

The first question we have to ask is “what is a disciple?” A random online dictionary defines “disciple” as “a personal follower of Jesus during his life, especially one of the twelve Apostles” or “a follower or student of a teacher, leader, or philosopher.” It seems that the two main synonyms of “disciple” are “follower” and “student,” or in some cases something like “trainee” or “apprentice” or “adherent.” That definition is okay as far as it goes, but it seems that it should go further in distinguishing two main uses of the term “disciple” in the Bible.

In the Gospels the disciples are most often a group of men that Jesus has called in order to prepare them for serving in the ministry of the Word. Jesus called his first disciples from among the disciples of John the Baptist. They were already believers in the promised Messiah, but now they were called to recognize Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ promised by God. They are called to follow him and to learn from him. They were not immediately called to leave their homes and professions behind in order to enter a full-time ministry. After a time Peter and his fishing partners were called to leave their businesses behind (Luke 5:8-11). From now on they will be fishers of men. Now they have a permanent divine call to ministry, and they leave their nets and boats and homes and follow Jesus. Jesus’ disciples were first called, then trained. Later Jesus selects twelve men from among a larger group of disciples to be apostles (Mark 3:14; Luke 6:13; compare Matthew 10:2). Some of the disciples who were not called to be apostles were later sent to serve as members of the Seventy.

When we meet the term “disciple” in the Gospels, we have to determine from the context whether the term refers to the Twelve or to a larger group, which at times may include all believers. Sometimes the text may say something like: “the twelve disciples” or “the eleven disciples” so the choice is clear. In some passages like Luke 14:26-27 and John 8:31, the characteristics of “disciples” refer to traits of all believers. In Acts, the term “disciples” very often serves as a name that can be applied to all believers. “Disciples” means “Christians” (Acts 11:26). The term does not refer to limited class or to higher status. In the epistles, the term “disciples” no longer occurs as a common title for believers, as it does in Acts. It is replaced by terms like “saints” or “brothers.”

One of the places where this question “Who are these disciples?” arises is in Matthew 28:16-17. The eleven disciples are mentioned in verse 16. In verse 17 some of the people who are present, believe; some of them doubt or hesitate. Some commentators believe that only the eleven disciples were present when Jesus spoke the Great Commission. Many commentators connect the giving of the Great Commission with the meeting with 500 disciples[1] mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15:6. In either case it is clear that the commission was given not just to the eleven (soon to be twelve again) apostles, but to the church, and that it extends to the end of time.

The related Greek verb (μαθητεύω / matheeteuo) is most often used intransitively with the meaning “be or become a disciple.” Twice it is used transitively with a direct object (Matthew 28:19 and Acts 14:21). It should be noted that this verb consists only of the root for “disciple,” with no indication of what other verb, if any, should be supplied to fill out the thought. The most literal translation would to be to use “disciple” as a verb, and some have suggested this: Go and disciple all nations.

There were two fairly well-established translations in use when the EHV was being translated:

Both of these are acceptable translations. Both can be understood correctly, but in some situations both have been misunderstood.

The translation “teach” has the disadvantage that it will lead English readers to miss the fact that later in the verse there is another Greek verb (didasko) which can also be translated “teach. It seems useful to use two different English verbs to render these two Greek verbs in order to bring out the distinction in the text. Hence, the value of the translation “make disciples” for the first verb and “teach” for the second. There is nothing inherently wrong with the translation “make disciples,” and it is very widely used, but it has sometimes been misunderstood or misapplied or wrongly criticized. In an article in the Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly David Kuske offered a helpful caution:

The broad expression “make disciples” can easily be misunderstood. Therefore, when we use or explain these words, we always need to make sure that we clearly distinguish our part in carrying out Jesus’ command from God’s part. Only God the Holy Spirit can turn people from unbelief to faith and constantly increase that faith. Only God the Holy Spirit can create a living faith that clings to and willingly does all that Christ commands. But we also have a part in this work because God has chosen to use us as his agents to proclaim the Word through which the Spirit does his work. Therefore, God does speak of human beings having a part in bringing people to faith (for example., Acts 26:17 where Paul is described as opening people’s eyes and turning people from darkness to light, from Satan to God). But whenever we cite such passages we need to speak carefully so that the part we have in this action, what we do, is never confused with the Spirit’s work, with what he does.[2]

The following are some of the passages that speak most boldly in proclaiming the human role in making disciples:

1 Timothy 4:16 “Pay close attention to yourself and to the doctrine. Persevere in them, because by doing this you will save both yourself and those who listen to you.” (EHV)

1 Corinthians 9:22 “To the weak, I became weak so that I might gain the weak. I have become all things to all people so that I may save at least some.” (EHV)

The apostle Paul certainly did not mean to indicate that he or Timothy could take the place of Jesus as Savior or even assist in Jesus’ work of being Savior! Rather, believers may serve in an instrumental or ministerial role by proclaiming the message of salvation which tells people what Jesus has done to save them. Jesus said that he would make his disciples “fishers of men.” How did Jesus seek to “catch” men? “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom” (Mt 4:19, 23). The method that he gave to his disciples was the same. God works faith through his chosen means, the gospel in Word and sacrament (Rom 10:17). The difference is that Jesus is both the provider and messenger of salvation. His disciples are only the messengers who deliver the means through which the Spirit works.

So there is no inherent problem with the term “make disciples,” and the EHV will include it in a footnote in the EHV Study Bible, because the term is so widely used and to indicate that we do not object to this rendering.

But terms which in themselves are proper can be misunderstood when they have been misunderstood or misused by other people. So sometimes translators may choose to avoid such a term to try to anticipate and prevent predictable but erroneous misunderstanding or criticism.

In the sixteenth century, as far as we know, Luther never found it necessary to wrestle with the choice between “teach” and “make disciples” in Matthew 28:19 when he was translating the New Testament. He had no reason to depart from the time-honored rendering of the Latin Vulgate, which translates μαθητεύσατε πάντα τὰ ἔθνη as docete omnes gentes, “teach all nations.”[3] But as the Anabaptist movement arose, some of the Anabaptists interpreted the traditional rendering of Matthew 28:19, “teach…baptizing…teaching,” as a chronological series and exploited it as an argument against infant baptism. Jesus, they said, commanded that teaching should precede baptism, and that cannot happen in the case of infants. In response, some exegetes of the Greek text argued that a more precise rendering of μαθητεύσατε was “make disciples of” all nations, and that the rest of the sentence showed how it takes place: by baptizing, etc. According to that exegesis, infants are not excluded from baptism. We do not know who was the first scholar to use that argument against the Anabaptists, but it quickly caught on among Lutherans, beginning already in the sixteenth century. We find it in the writings of Aegidius Hunnius, Johann Gerhard, and Johann Andreas Quenstedt. Erasmus Schmidt continued to defend the traditional rendering of μαθητεύσατε as “teach.” He acknowledged that the verb literally means “make disciples,” but he said disciples are made chiefly through teaching, and for that reason he still likes the translation “teach.” In a similar way, Georg Stoeckhardt in the 19th century does not hesitate to use Luther’s translation of Matthew 28:19 (lehret, “teach”), but he adds that “make disciples” is more precise.[4] Interestingly enough, though these scholars saw the weakness in Luther’s translation, they apparently did not change Luther’s Bible.

Is it possible in light of all this to come up with a tweak of “make disciples” that might avoid some misunderstanding?[5]

After study and discussion, the EHV came up with “gather disciples.” This tweak seemed to have two advantages. It might alleviate some of the unnecessary baggage that has become attached to the term “make disciples” for some people. (Though we do not doubt that some people will find fault with “gathering disciples,” for example asserting that “making disciples” requires a deeper relationship than merely “gathering” them.) That brings us to the second advantage of the term “gather disciples.” The term “make disciples” is understood in two main senses: the evangelism sense of bringing people into the church or the nurturing sense of leading them deeper into the Word. Which is it in the first verb of Matthew 28:19? The context of the Great Commission, which speaks of going into the all the world suggests that the gathering of the Christian church is in the foreground here. The ongoing nurturing of disciples is more prominent in the second verb of the series, “teaching them to obey everything.” The translation “gather disciples” seems to more clearly indicate the evangelism thrust of the first verb and thereby to help remove one ambiguity from the translation.

One of the comments we have received about the translation “gather disciples” is that it is an innovation. At first we thought that might be true, but whenever translators think they have discovered something new, their hopes are quickly dashed and they again realize the truth of the statement, “There is nothing new under the sun.” While following up on the question, we found that we were not the first to tweak the term “make disciples.”[6] One translation that preceded us in the concept but not in the exact wording of tweaking the term “make disciples” was the NIV.

Consider Acts 14:21

Since the EHV does not use the NIV as a resource for our work, we were not aware of the NIV’s tweak of “make disciples” until we stumbled upon it, after the fact. Each translation reached the idea of tweaking “make disciples” independently and each made their own tweak. We have no objection to their tweak “win disciples,” but we like our idea of “gathering disciples” a little better in the context.

Christians can “make disciples” or “win disciples” or “gather disciples” without a significant difference of meaning as long as they understand that this cannot mean that we are the ones who really convert people or create faith, because only God can do that through the means of grace. And if we use the translation “teach” in English, it does not mean that babies should not be baptized. And if we use “gather disciples,” it cannot mean that people become disciples on their own. Only God can create faith, and he has chosen to do this work through his means of grace which are delivered by his messengers (Romans 10:17).

The most important part of the testing process for EHV is not the testing in the ivory tower of academia but in the worship life and daily use of the church. Every new expression in a translation requires some explanation and some getting used to. After a few years of congregational use, we will know if readers find the tweak useful. We will then revisit this and other issues, giving the congregations an opportunity to have their voice heard in potential revisions.


[1] The Greek text here uses the word “brothers,” a word which in this context may include men and women.

[2] Kuske, “Exegetical Brief: The meaning of μαθητεύσατε in Matthew 28:19,” Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly (Vol. 94, no. 2, Spring 1997, p 115-121). (Also available from the WLS online essay file.)

[3] It would be interesting to check through the multi-volume collection of minutes of Luther’s translation revision committee to see if this verse was ever discussed. Present editions of the Lutherbibel still use “teach.”

[4] This paragraph is a summary of research from a WELS Committee study: “Matthew 28:19 and the Mission of the WELS,” (§. 50-51). That study provides references to the original sources. For more of their discussion read also §.43-49 of that study.

[5] We are thinking of the many controversies around the terms “make disciples,” “discipling,” etc. It does not seem necessary or edifying to catalog them here. Readers can easily gain access to them by searching terms like “discipling controversy” etc. You will quickly find more than you want to know, even a link to “discipling a dog.” I think it’s a typo for “disciplining a dog.”

[6] An additional search will show that the term “gathering disciples” is not at all uncommon in Christian writing.

[7] Other translations of course continue to use the terms “make disciples” and “teach” also in this verse.