One of the current needs of the church today is to recover the biblical concept of discipleship. Over the past generation the understanding of discipleship as being foundational to the mission and life of the church has been watered down. During the same period of time one can find many resources devoted to the topic. However, instead of being the foundational principle upon which the church should operate, discipleship has been relegated to just one ministry amongst many within the church. During this time, the church has unofficially adopted the strategy of running programs as being the necessary approach to building a healthy church. Hence churches have children’s programs, youth programs, evangelism programs, discipleship programs, and music and worship programs – amongst many others. This partitioning of programs has led people to see discipleship as just another program within the larger church with the effect that people see it as an option or preference. One person joins the choir, another goes to the discipleship class, but both are “active” in ministry. And while that may be so, as a result of partitioning the church into programs, the church is not fulfilling the great commission.
Before Jesus ascended to the Father he made clear the purpose of the church. Every gospel account and the book of Acts communicates some version of the Great Commission. The most explicit enunciation of the Great Commission is found is Matthews’s gospel. Their Jesus said,
“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Amen” (Matthew 28:18-20, NKJV).
From this text it is clear that the Great Commission is not limited to evangelism. And while the church has always understood that the Great Commission is a command to lead people to Christ, it has not always embraced the equally important aspect of this command to lead people to grow in Christ as disciples.
The word disciple literally means “a learner.” That aspect of discipleship is clearly articulated in Matthews’s account. However, when one takes a larger view of scripture it becomes clear that a disciple is a learner who follows his/her teacher. When Jesus first called his disciples, he did not call them to simply be students. He called them to follow him (Matthew 4:19). In addition, this was a call to begin a new way of life where following Jesus took priority over everything else (Luke 5:11). In Matthews’s account of the Great Commission this idea of discipleship is the primary emphasis of the command. While Jesus was clearly commanding the church to do evangelism, this was to be done under the wider scope of making disciples.
This idea is further communicated in the book of Acts chapter eleven. Several years after Christ gave the command to make disciples, the church in Antioch was sending Paul and Silas out as missionaries. During this period Luke records that “The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch” (vs. 26). Of significance is that the term “Christian” was not an identification the church gave itself. The word came from those who were hostile to the church. It was essentially a pejorative name given by the enemies of the church to identify those who were actively (and antagonistically in the minds of non-believers) following Christ. The early disciples were so effective in following Christ by both leading people to Christ, and teaching them to also follow Christ, that the non-believing community took notice. Hence a “Christian” was known as one who followed Christ in such a way that non-believers knew who they were by what they were doing in Jesus’ name. In addition, immediately after Pentecost when Peter preached his first sermon, the church did not simply preach for people to accept that Jesus was the long awaited for Messiah, but after their confession of faith, the apostles began the process of teaching the church to effectively follow Christ (Acts 2:42). Later as the church matured, and even came under intense persecution, these Christians “went everywhere preaching the word” (Acts 8:4). Their training as disciples led them to publically follow Christ as they both proclaimed Jesus as Lord and Savior, and led others to do the same.
The very heart of the Great Commission, then, is to make disciples who, in turn, have made it their purpose to follow Christ by making disciples. If there is one biblically legitimate “program” for the church, then, it is to make disciples who are, themselves, disciple makers. Discipleship was never meant to be found in the backwaters of the church’s calendar. It is the very purpose for which Christ created his church. A church that is not making disciples is not obeying the Great Commission. In addition, based on Acts 11:26, one might argue that a Christian is not one who simply believes that Jesus in the Messiah (after all the demons believe, James 2:19) but one who has made the commitment to be an active follower (disciple) of Jesus (cf. Luke 9:57-62). The main purpose for the church’s existence, then (according to Jesus), is to lead people to effectively follow Christ (cf. Eph 4:11-12).
If making disciples is the essence of the Great Commission, and the very purpose for which Christ created his church, then it is important we understand the specifics of what a disciple looks like. In what follows I want to outline the biblical marks of discipleship.
- As noted above, a disciple is, first and foremost, a follower of Jesus. Some might argue that believing in Jesus should be the first mark of a disciple. And while it stands to reason that belief in Jesus is of paramount importance (cf. John 3:16), it can be argued that belief in Jesus does not always lead to true salvation, let alone rise to the level of making one a disciple. Consider Matthew 7:21-23 where “believers” in Jesus are condemned (also note James 2:19 where demons are said to be believers!). When Jesus called his first disciples the call was unequivocally to “follow” Jesus. While it can be argued that they had a nascent belief that Jesus was the Messiah, it is clear that their belief in Jesus was incomplete. It took several years of following Christ before they had a true appreciation for, and what we might call a developed belief system concerning, the person and work of Jesus as the Messiah.
- A disciple is one who learns to follow Christ. The very definition of the word means to be a learner. However, the biblical context reveals that this learning is similar to what we today call On the Job Training. Learning happens in the context of following. And while Jesus taught the multitudes, for those who were following, he also demonstrated what he taught. Their learning was experiential. The disciples were effectively apprentices under Jesus. A cursory reading of Luke chapters nine and ten reveal that Jesus told the disciples what he wanted them to learn; he then demonstrated to the disciples what that looked like; finally he sent them off to do what he already showed them. What is a disciple to learn? This is not an exhaustive list, but it’s a good start:
- They are to learn what the Master is doing, then do those things (John 14:12)
- They are to learn the teachings (doctrines) of scripture (Acts 2:42; Heb 5:12-13)
- They are to learn obedience to the Word (Luke 6:46, 1 Peter 2:1-3)
- They are to learn the will of God (Rom 12:1-2)
- They are to learn to live a life pleasing to God (Col 1:9-11)
- They are to learn to live holy lives (1 Peter 1:16)
- They are to learn to live a life of repentance and self-denial (Luke 9:23)
- They are to learn to share their faith (Matt 28:18-20, Acts 1:8, John 20:21; Luke 24:47; Mark 16:15)
- They are to learn to use their spiritual gifts (Romans 12:3-8; Cor 12:4-27)
- They are to learn submission to the leadership of Christ (John 14:23, Psalm 2)
- They are to learn to worship (John 4:22-24)
- They are to learn to pray (Matt 6:9-13)
- They are to learn to love God (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)
- They are to learn to love others, even their enemies (Matt 5:43-47; Rom 13:8-10)
- They are to learn to give and be generous (Luke 6:36; 1 Cor 16:2; Phil 4:10, 15)
- A disciple is one who employs what he learns as a new way of life (Mark 4:24-25; Luke 6:46-49). This means he takes what he learns and puts it to use. He lives the truth (James 1:22-25; 2:14-17). In Matthew’s version of the Great Commission Jesus made this clear when he said we are to “Observe” all things he has “commanded” us. The Greek word we translate observe is tereo, and it means we are to pay careful attention to Jesus’ commands. We are to guard against not doing those things. We must make it our priority to obey, follow, and do those things he has instructed.
While the above list is not exhaustive, it reveals the true function of a disciple. I think a good working definition of a disciple can be stated as: A disciple is one who actively and obediently follows Christ into a new way of life in the context of the church for the purpose of making Christ known amongst the nations. It’s the last part of this definition we often lose sight of. Christ created the church to be a witness to his life, death, and resurrection so sinners can know the gospel and be saved. The church does not exist for the pleasure of its members, but for the glory of its King (Rev 19:16). Further, as someone once said, “The church is the only institution created for the benefit of its non-members.” Indeed, Christ did not come to “be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). And he said, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21).
The program of the church is defined by the command to make disciples. This should and must be the church’s first priority. While there are many good things the church can do as disciples, it is a certainty that if the church is not making disciples it cannot do the one thing, indeed the very thing, it was created to do.