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What is a disciple?
When the resurrected Jesus met with his eleven disciples on a mountain in Galilee, he commanded them to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19). Jesus’ commission to make disciples is clear. But what it really means to make disciples is often unclear.
To make disciples, we must first know what a disciple is.
The eleven followers of Jesus who heard this command to make disciples are referred to as “his eleven disciples.” And they were called disciples before they were called Christians (Acts 11:25).
So, what is a disciple?
In short, a disciple is a learner and a follower of another. Therefore, a disciple of Jesus is a follower of Jesus. When Jesus first called his disciples, he spoke the simple, profound words, “Follow me” (Mk 1:17 2:14). And a disciple of Jesus is not merely believing and following Jesus’ teachings, but also believing and following him as a resurrected and ascended person who lives in them by his Holy Spirit. Therefore, to be a disciple of Jesus is to be in a personal relationship with him–one in which we are always learning.
The Greek word translated Christians (Χριστιανός) in Acts 11:26 means “of Christ” or “belonging to Christ” and conveys the concept of being owned as a slave by a master. So when followers of Jesus were first called Christians it was most likely a derogatory term. But the disciples soon cherished the word and saw it as an honor to be a slave only to Christ.
There is no distinction in Scripture between being a disciple and being a Christian. Being a disciple is being a Christian. And being a Christian is being a disciple. Disciples of Jesus follow and honor him by listening to him, praying to him, trusting him, serving him, obeying him, and most of all cherishing and enjoying him.
How do you make disciples?
On that mountain in Galilee, Jesus commissioned his disciples to make more disciples, not only among their people, the Jews, but also among all other ethnic groups of people on earth, which he referred to as “all nations.”
How are Jesus’ disciples to make disciples of all nations? Did Jesus tell them how they were to make disciples?
It’s helpful to know that this was not the only time the resurrected Jesus appeared to his disciples. Acts 1:3 tells us that Jesus appeared to them during forty days, speaking about the kingdom of God. During this time, Jesus tells them to wait for his promised Holy Spirit to empower them to be his witnesses after his ascension. (Acts 1:4-11) And in his final words in this commission Jesus promises to “be with them” (Matt 28:20).
But in these final words in Matthew 28:16-20, Jesus also gave his disciples very clear instructions regarding how they were to make disciples. In verses 19-20 Jesus uses several action words, “go,” “make disciples,” “baptize,” and “teach.”
But these four words shouldn’t be given the same level of importance because the New Testament Greek reveals that Jesus is only giving us one primary command to “make disciples.” The other three action words, “go”, “baptize”, and “teach”, tell us how to make disciples.
So Jesus answers the question, “How are we to make disciples?” by telling us three ways: by going, baptizing, and teaching.
Going in Evangelism
The first way Jesus teaches we are to make disciples is by going to people who are not yet his disciples to evangelize them.
The concept of going to the nations was radical shift of thinking for most of these Jewish disciples. For generations the Old Testament images were mostly of all the nations coming to God’s temple, and not normally God’s people going to the nations.
In the New Testament, evangelism and discipleship are not two separate kinds of ministry. Instead, evangelism is presented as the first necessary step in making disciples.
Baptizing into the Church
Jesus continues explaining how to make disciples by commanding them to baptize the converts who follow him as a result of those going in evangelism.
He tells them to baptize them “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19b).
The symbolic mark of someone who is a disciple is baptism in the name of the Triune God into the visible body of Christ. Since baptism is an initiatory rite, Jesus’ assumption is that there will be a community of disciples into which the new disciple is being baptized. This is his visible body, the church, he promised he would build (Matt 16:18).
In the New Testament, the goal of evangelism was not a private profession of faith made in seclusion from others. Instead it was a public profession of faith confirmed by the church leaders and made before the church through baptism.
Baptism is the outward symbol of the inner reality of the inclusion of the new disciple into the body of Christ to receive the spiritual nurture and shepherding necessary to be a follower of Jesus.
Teaching Them to Obey
The final way Jesus teaches how to make disciples is to teach those who were converted through going and united with his visible body through baptism.
In Matthew 28:20, Jesus says, “teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.”
It’s important to understand that Jesus is not instructing us just to teach his followers all that he commanded. Instead, he is instructing us to teach them to obey all that he commanded. There is a big difference between teaching Jesus’ commandments and teaching people to obey Jesus’ commandments. The heart of biblical discipleship is not gaining information about Jesus’ commandments but experiencing his transformation by learning how to obey them.
So the focus is not on completing bible studies to gain more knowledge about God. It’s more about knowing and following Christ through learning how to apply his commandments to your real questions and problems.
When Jesus was asked which is the great commandment in the Law, he answered:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets. (Matt 22:37-40)
The heart of biblical discipleship is learning how to obey these commandments to love God and love others deeply and well.
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