The goal of this post is to introduce you to (or refresh you in) God’s sufficient design for discipleship and to encourage further study and application. To reach this goal, we will examine two passages of Scripture that instruct us about the nature, context, and practice of discipleship. *(To encourage further study, there will be other verses of Scripture added in parenthesis at the bottom of this post.)
The first passage we will look at is Matthew 28:18-20. This passage is known as the “Great Commission,” which was the final charge of Jesus to His disciples before He ascended into Heaven. There are four things this passage teaches us about the nature of discipleship:
- Discipleship is a command—V19a tells us that discipleship is not a suggestion but a command straight from the mouth of Jesus. A “disciple” is simply “a follower.” So another way of phrasing this command is to “make followers of Jesus,” and this is to be done in all “nations” (translated “ethnic groups”). This command that was originally given to the 11 Apostles carries the same weight for every believer throughout Christian history (more on this in point 4).
- Discipleship is a guaranteed success—V18 is Jesus’ guarantee of success in fulfilling this command. By saying that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me” before issuing the command, Jesus is declaring that what He desires to accomplish through discipleship will be fulfilled in its entirety. There is nothing that can stop Him. Though it may not go according to our plans, discipleship according to God’s design will not fail in fulfilling His plan. Only Someone with the highest authority can give that kind of guarantee. Praise God that He does!
- Discipleship has instructions—V19b-20 are instructions on how to fulfill the command of discipleship. We are not left in the dark as to how discipleship happens. These verses give us two instructions regarding discipleship: 1) evangelizing the lost to become followers of Jesus (symbolized* by baptism) and 2) continuing to grow the disciples by teaching them Jesus’ commands.
- Discipleship comes with a promise—V21 is Jesus’ promise of His never-ending presence with His disciples as they go and make more disciples. This presence is shown within His gathered people (Matthew 18:20), and in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to comfort and empower His disciples to fulfill this command (John 14, 16). “The end of the age” refers to the end of time when Jesus will return to gather His followers and judge the unbelievers. By using this phrase, Jesus is not only referring this command, guarantee, instruction, and promise to the 11 Apostles only, but also to every disciple that will be made throughout Christian history until the very end (including us today).
The second passage we will look at is Acts 14:21-23. While the Great Commission instructs us on the nature of discipleship, this passage shows us the practice and context of discipleship. There are two stages of practice we can take from Paul’s example in this passage:
- First Stage: Discipleship in the context of the public square—V21 tells us that before Paul and his associates made disciples, they “preached the Gospel (the “good news” of the Person and work of Jesus) in the town” they were in. This is an important lesson of where and how this first stage of discipleship was practiced. As far as where the first stage was practiced, we see that it began “in the town” or as others would call it “the public square.” In other words, discipleship should begin within the context of the environments that Christians dwell in from neighborhoods to workplaces to the cities/states/countries we inhabit. This is an important note because it seems more common for Christians to think that discipleship begins with Church leaders drawing the people of the world to the Church so they can hear the Gospel; rather God has designed it to begin with Church members taking the Gospel to the people of the world. Scripture phrases this taking of the Gospel to the people of the world as “preaching.” It is this “preaching” of the Gospel in the public square that God uses as the how in the first stage of discipleship. This Greek word for “preaching” used in V21 is where we get the word “evangelize” from. This word does not always refer to “preaching a sermon.” It can also be used in a less formal way which which roughly translates as “gossiping” or “talking about” the Gospel of Jesus in everyday conversation**. Though only some are called and gifted to evangelize by preaching sermons, all Christians are called and gifted to begin discipleship by evangelizing the lost using our words*** and actions*** in the public square.
- Second Stage: Discipleship in the context of the local church—V22-23 teaches us what discipleship looks like after conversion. Paul’s example of discipleship does not only involve evangelizing/baptizing the lost, but it also involves “strengthening” and “encouraging” the disciples with the same Word that saved them. When disciples are made by Church members in the public square, the newly converted disciples become new members of the Church where they continue to grow in knowing and obeying Jesus. (The capital “C” refers to universal Church and is expressed in lower-case “c” local churches.) This second stage of discipleship takes place in the context of the local church. It cannot happen anywhere else! In V23, Paul and his associates appointed Elders**** in every local church because God has designed the growing of disciples to take place within the local church. It is through the guidance of qualified leaders where Jesus’ teachings (the second instruction of the Great Commission) are given as the Holy Spirit continues to transform His disciples into the image of Jesus.
For Further Study
* On baptism and salvation: Mark 16:15-16; Acts 2:37-41, Acts 18:8; Romans 6:3-5; 1 Peter 3:18-22
**Compare the different Greek words for “preaching” in Acts 8 V4 (euangelion) and V5 (kerusso)
***On words (Colossians 4:5-6) and actions (Matthew 5:14-16)
****On Elder/Pastor/Overseer used interchangeably: Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Peter 5:1-4