In the last century, programs and activities have multiplied in church life in America to the point where churches can choose from hundreds of parachurch ministries, curriculums, outreach programs, and discipleship ministries. As in much of American life, we find ourselves often paralyzed by choice. In this series, we are seeking to peel back our experience of church life and ask “What does the Bible say is essential for the life of the church. In this regard, Jesus’ words in Matthew 28:18-20 are arguably some of the most important words of the bible. If what Jesus outlines here isn’t the highest priority of the church, it can be argued that they are at least essential to the work of the church.
Before diving into how we go about Jesus’ program in the great commission, we would be wise to stop and examine what Jesus means when He commands us to ‘make disciples.’ For some, discipleship is the next step after evangelism. In this paradigm, discipleship is what we do for new believers. After coming forward to receive Christ, discipleship is the 6 week, 12 week, or 2 year process/class for learning the skills that you need to live as a Christian for the rest of your life. For others, discipleship is what happens in an intense and committed group of people who gather regularly for bible study and fellowship and to challenge one another to apply the gospel more deeply in their lives. Similar to this, is the accountability partner or group where a small group gathers together regularly to ask a series of probing questions and confess sin to one another. In still another paradigm, discipleship is seen as a relationship between a mature believer and a new believer, where the mature believer imparts his or her knowledge and wisdom to the new believer.
None of these activities are wrong, and all of them can be a part of disciple making. But when Jesus commanded us to make disciples of all nations, was this what he meant? In order to answer that question, we must ask what it means to be a disciple. Perhaps when we think of a disciple, we think of Jesus’ 12 closest followers who were invited into His inner circle, or we think of a mentor/mentee relationship, or maybe we think of someone who is actively living out their Christian faith through serving others.
In the New Testament, the root of the word we translate as ‘disciple’ is essentially the idea of learning. To be a disciple of Jesus then is to be a learner from Jesus. In our modern world of formalized and professional education, we could misunderstand even this. In Jesus’ day, there weren’t universities and academies in the way you and I think of them. Rather, a person learned what they learned in the context of a relationship with another person. Farmers, blacksmiths, tanners, and cobblers learned their trades not in a school but by living and working alongside someone who already knew the trade (usually their parent or guardian).
In Jesus’ 1st century Jewish world, rabbis chose disciples not so much to learn from them in a classroom, although formal teaching was certainly involved, but more than that by sharing their life together. Thus, the disciple would learn how to give by watching his rabbi give, how to pray by praying with his rabbi. He’d learn the Bible by reading it with his rabbi daily in worship and in prayer. Thus, to be a disciple of Jesus means to be involved in a lifestyle of learning how to live life from Jesus; and to make disciples means to be involved in a lifestyle of helping others to learn how to live life from Jesus.
So when we talk about inviting Christ into our brokenness to invite the broken to Christ, we are not talking about something that happens once or occasionally in times of deep distress, but we are talking about something that happens every day in every part of our lives. We aren’t just talking about something that happens at the beginning of our Christian lives until we are mature and established. We are talking about what happens from the time we come into a relationship with Jesus until we see Him face to face in the Kingdom of Heaven. We are not just talking about a few select number of relationships. Rather, we are talking about how we are called to influence every one of our relationships, trusting that God in His sovereignty has placed us in them for “good works He has prepared in advance for us to walk in.”
Furthermore, to be a disciple does not distinguish between a person becoming a Christian when they receive Christ, but becoming a disciple when they begin to take it seriously, or take the disciple class, or engage in care of the poor, or go off into the mission field. Rather, to be a Christian is to be involved in a lifelong process of learning how to live life from Jesus. To be a Christian is to be a disciple of Jesus.
But the great commission doesn’t just tell us to be disciples; it tells us to make disciples. Like being a disciple, making disciples isn’t an addendum added onto our lives. It isn’t something a select few are called to, nor is it some extra activity that God places on our shoulders. Rather, making disciples is what we are called to do in every place, relationship, community, and activity that we engage in. Moreover, we are called to this business not just individually but together as a body, each of us using our particular makeup and gifting in community both to build up one another as believers and to help those in our community who haven’t come to faith in Christ yet to have opportunities to do so.