What does it mean to “disciple the nations”?
I don’t intend to answer that question with any precision in this post; but I do fear that there is an unfortunate ambiguity in many common English translations that allows the phrase to be interpreted as meaning one thing that it almost certainly does not mean. Here are six versions of Christ’s command in Matthew 28:19:
“make disciples of all nations” (ESV)
“make disciples of all nations” (NRSV)
“make disciples of all the nations” (NASB)
“make disciples of all nations” (RSV)
“make disciples of all nations” (NIV)
“make disciples of all the nations” (NKJV)
All of these would indicate that the phrase may (not “must”) mean “make disciples from all the nations,” i.e., “the nations” are the source from which the Apostles are to take some people and make disciples out of them. This would be expressed in Greek with the genitive.
But what Matthew writes is μαθητεύσατε πάντα τὰ ἔθνη. “The nations” are in the accusative: they themselves, and not some group of people from them, are the direct object of the imperative “disciple” or “teach.” Whatever the phrase means, therefore, it is “the nations” themselves, considered as such, that are to be acted upon. This would seem simply to be a grammatical fact. There are indeed passages that speak of “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” But this is not one of them.
What that implies cannot, as I said, be considered here. But before any discussion of that topic can be had, the syntax of the thing must be seen clearly.