Discipleship: The What and How

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” -Matthew 28:18-20.

The first thing to notice in this Bible passage is that Jesus claims all-encompassing authority. He is stating that He is Lord and Master over all, that He is God. Then He gives four commands to His disciples. The main verb/command is “making disciples”. This is the principle focus of what Jesus is commanding. The other three commands – go, baptizing, and teaching--are there to help accomplish the making of disciples.

Let’s start with the command “go”, which means to leave where you are. It can mean going very far, or just going along your normal path. Although preaching the Good News isn’t directly commanded here, it is implicit. The disciples had spent the last few years watching Jesus proclaim that He was the Messiah through signs and wonders and by private teachings. What else would Jesus be telling them to go do? How else could they make disciples apart from the gospel?

We see both types of the going we mentioned in the early church. Paul and Barnabas were dedicated and sent to far off Asia Minor, while most of the Antioch church went back home or to work, talking and witnessing to those whom God put in their path. Even though “go” is not the focus of this passage, “going” is necessary for the making of disciples. To paraphrase Craig Blomberg, if we make too much of the discipling and too little of the going then we always preach in the same place. If we make too much of the going and too little of the making of disciples, then we elevate missions and subjugate all other forms of spiritual activity. Either way is unhealthy for the growth of the church.

Next, we consider “baptizing”. To baptize, in the original Greek, can mean everything from dipping to drowning someone.  The general idea here is to submerge, saturate someone. To be baptized into someone’s name means to be identified with that person’s name and for what He stands. Your name in the first century A.D. represented your character, your reputation, the very essence of who you were. So, the picture here is not just the physical act of the baptism, but also the spiritual act of being immersed in the character, the essence of the Triune God.  This is done through teaching the disciple all the commands that Jesus has given. Therefore, a disciple is not just a follower of Jesus, but an avid student of His teachings.

We see a perfect example of this in the way Jesus taught His disciples. They spent years literally following Him around, not just hearing what He said, but also observing how He reacted to everyday things like hunger, happiness, or fatigue as well as hostility, acceptance, humiliation, adoration, rejection, and death. He taught them the hard sayings so that they would have a full understanding of His doctrines (John 6, Matt. 13:10-16). Jesus also taught the disciples in private, away from the distractions of the crowds, for deeper understanding (John 13-17, Matt. 11, Matt. 13:10-16,36-52, Matt. 24-25).  The disciples were totally immersed in His ways. Then He sent them the Holy Spirit to teach them even more! When He told them to go, He sent them fully equipped to carry out the task. They understood who they served, who He was, what He stood for, what He had done for them, and why they were going to proclaim Him. We see this type of training continued in the early church by the apostles Barnabas & Paul. The church was constantly gathering together to share the Word, strengthen one another, and fellowship together. Their free time was spent with the church body (Acts 2:42-47, Acts 4:32-35). Paul usually took some disciples with him for further training and for fellowship (Acts 15:39-40, Rom.16:21-23, 1 Cor. 1:1, 2 Cor. 1:1, etc.).

So, what do we make of this? A disciple is a follower/student of Jesus Christ. A disciple needs a mentor to teach the Word both privately, for deeper teaching and understanding, and publicly to see it in action (James 1:22-24). Discipleship is a life-long process that requires continual and frequent fellowship with the body of Christ.

As a loving parent, you wouldn’t push your 6-year old out into the world and say, “Have a great day fending for yourself! See you next Sunday!”, then shut the door and go about your day. Yet this is what the church in America continually does with new Christians, sending them out into the world ill-equipped to live a Christian life in today’s culture. Jesus set the example by lovingly preparing His disciples to stand firm in their faith. Let us as the body of Christ do the same for those God has entrusted to us.

-Mike Young