A paper prepared by Justin Smith as part of his doctoral studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, August 18, 2010.
In the closing section of each of the gospels and the opening of the book of Acts, the biblical writers record Jesus Christ’s final commands to his followers, commonly known today as the Great Commission. In Matthew’s account, Jesus instructs his disciples that “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 the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20, NASB:1995 Update). The command is made up of a single verb with three participles and, despite the number of works written for missions, the verb is not “go.” Rather, the verb is “make disciples,” pointing us back to the idea of discipleship and spiritual formation. But if Christ’s command is to make disciples of no less than all of the nations, one would do well to consider the following questions: What do Christ’s disciples look like? What is it that we are to produce? Fortunately, Christ has given three participles to clear up what His disciples are like: baptizing, teaching, and going.
Baptism: Disciples Identify Themselves with Christ
Part of making disciples includes baptizing new followers in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Baptism involves dipping one in water as a symbol of repentance and the purification which ensues from it (Louw and Nida, 1989). For the Christian, it is an outward symbol of the inward change which has occurred when the sinner turns to Christ for salvation. Paul, when addressing whether a believer should continue to live in sin, argues in Romans 6:3, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?” Indeed, as he details in verses 4-10, we have been buried with Christ, dying to the sin which enslaved us, yet we have also been raised with Christ, allowing us to walk in newness of life where death no longer has mastery over us. Thus, we can now consider ourselves “to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11). Baptism, in effect, identifies us with Christ and reminds us of that union in a public manner. Disciples, therefore, take part in baptism as a way to identify that they are under the authority of the Triune God and have committed to serve Him alone.
Teaching: Disciples Obey Christ’s Commands
A second task to making disciples involved teaching, specifically teaching believers to obey Christ’s commands. In fact, to be a disciple is to be the student of a teacher, the apprentice of a master. Jesus points this out in Matthew 10:24-25a: “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master. It is enough for the disciple that he becomes like his teacher and the slave like his master.” Disciples do not learn for the sake of knowledge, but rather, for the purpose of becoming like Christ. As Paul wrote, the true disciple counts “all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ and be found in Him” (Phil. 3:8-9a).
Indeed, the test of the disciple’s knowledge of Christ is found in his willingness to obey Christ, his master. First John 2:3-6 details this element, claiming that “we know that we have come to know Him [Jesus] if we keep His commandments.” In fact, others will know that a person is a disciple of Christ on the basis of whether he walks in the same manner as Jesus. But the learner of Christ is not alone in this endeavor, as Christ calls him, saying “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:28-29, emphasis added). Further, Jesus promised his disciples that the Holy Spirit, the great Helper, will teach them all things and bring Christ’s words to remembrance (John 14:26).
But what are the commands which the disciple must learn? He must learn what it means to live under the authority of God. Colossians 1:13 informs us that God has rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son; in other words, we have become subjects of a new king, Christ Jesus, and now dwell in a kingdom which is diametrically opposed to that of the world we live in now. Thus, the disciple must learn the ethics of a new kingdom; he must literally rid himself of the thoughts and motives of the former land and learn how to think in the land to come. Hence, as Paul told the Ephesians church, if you have heard Christ and have been taught in Him, then you must lay aside the old self, that former manner of life in which you had lived, and be renewed in your mind, putting on a new self which is in the likeness of God and has been created in righteousness and truth (Eph. 4:21-24). The disciple must be ready for a complete paradigm shift, as he now must become an imitator of God (Eph. 5:1).
It is the reality of this need for a complete shift in lifestyle and thinking which requires the utmost commitment, a trait which must be learned for the disciple to stay true to his new master. Jesus repeatedly reminded his followers of this fact, telling them, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matt. 16:24-25). Further, if anyone loves his father or mother or son or daughter more than he loves Jesus, he is not worthy of Christ (Matt. 10:37). Truly, the disciple must be willing to have nothing and lose everything in order to follow Christ (Matt. 8:19-22).
Thus, the call to follow Christ, to become His disciple, requires one to consider whether he is prepared to pay the price to follow Him. He must consider the costs, just as a builder must check his finances and a king must check the size of his army before they build or battle (Luke 14:28-32). The cost is high: Christ says that “none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions” (Luke 14:33); none who would seek to save his life will keep it. However, though the disciple may be forced to give up everything, he is not in need, for his Father meets his needs. God knows what His disciples need even before they ask Him, so they have no need to worry about their needs, for He will provide for them (Matt. 6:8, 25-33). Further, the Father, because of His great love for us, has raised us with Christ so that in the ages to come, He might show us the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:4-7). The disciple, therefore, must realize the tradeoff is not one sided, but rather, is for the best: give up the muck of the domain of darkness in exchange for the glory of the eternal kingdom to come.
Going: Disciples Work Together to Multiply Disciples
If the disciple of Christ is one who identifies himself under the authority of the Triune God and learns under the yoke of Christ how to walk in the light of God, both actions concerning who the disciple is, then the question becomes: what does the disciple do? Christ’s answer found in the Great Commission is quite simple: he goes and makes disciples. As stated above, the verb of the Great Commission is “make disciples,” but this verb is modified by the participle “go.” Go appears as an attendant circumstantial participle, meaning that it is in some sense coordinate with the finite verb, but semantically dependent on the verb (Wallace, 1996, p. 640). In other words, Christ is not calling his disciples just to go; rather, he is calling them to go and make disciples. In effect, the command is not simply a call for the disciples to move, but instead is a call to be about the work of forming new disciples.
This value was definitely handed down to the members of the apostolic church, as Paul directed his protégé, Timothy, to carry out the work of passing down the message of the gospel. In 2 Timothy 2:1-2, Paul admonishes the depressed, young pastor to be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus and reminds him of his disciple making task. “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses,” Paul elaborates, “entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” While it is true that disciples in general are those who identify with a certain teaching and commit to learning that body of knowledge, Christ’s disciples have the added obligation to transmit that knowledge and commitment to another generation. Notice the path of transmission in this text: God revealed His Word to Paul, who taught it to Timothy and other witnesses, who are then to teach it to others who will be able to eventually teach others. The mission of discipleship includes the necessity to help in the spiritual formation of others.
It is this calling which surfaces a new need for the true follower of Christ: he must be prepared and able to work with others. Relationships built on Christ’s love are essential for the disciples of Jesus, as there is one body and one Spirit to which we have been called (Eph. 4:4-6). Indeed, this is one of the marks Jesus identifies as an indicator of the disciple’s commitment in John 13:34-35: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The disciples’ love for one another is often the hallmark of the church and achieves two ends: it helps the disciples to work together and to restore one another.
The command to make disciples of all the nations is quite overwhelming at first glance, but the true disciple understands that this is a group project: disciples work together to carry out this task. Having established the doctrines of justification and sanctification, Paul turns the Roman church’s attention to application in Romans 12, teaching them not to think too highly of themselves, but to humble themselves, as God has allotted a measure of faith to all of the members of the body. He continues, “For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly” (Rom. 12:4-6a). No disciple, even the most mature, is able to complete the ministry of Christ on his own; he can only carry out the gifts and abilities that Christ has given him. Thus, it is imperative that the disciples work together. Not only does this aid in the completion of the Great Commission call, but it also helps the body to grow to maturity. God has given gifts, according to Ephesians 4:11-16, for the equipping of the saints in order to build up the body of Christ until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God to be a mature man. Therefore, true disciples must work together in order to carry out their callings and grow to maturity in Christ.
Further, the disciples must work together in a restorative ministry. The simple reality is that disciples, though they are fully committed to Christ, are constantly under attack, as Satan accuses the brethren and sin remains a threat on this side of heaven. There will be disciples who will fall and need to be restored. It is this very ministry that disciples, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, must dare to venture into. Galatians 6 instructs the church that if anyone is caught in any trespass, those who are spiritual should restore them in a spirit of gentleness, making sure that they are not being tempted in the process. “Bear one another’s burdens,” verse 2 teaches, “and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.” Disciples must work to help one another as they mature in Christ.
Finally, disciples realize they must go and make disciples now, for Christ’s return is imminent. Jesus, upon teaching his disciples how the end will be, reminds them to “be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming” (Matt. 24:42). Disciples must be about doing the work of Christ, lest He should return and they are found to be unfaithful to their master. Therefore, true disciples of Christ must be about producing disciples, working together to mature in Christ, and being prepared for Christ’s return.
Final Applications to the Church
In summary, a disciple of Jesus Christ is one who identifies himself with Christ, placing himself under the authority of the Triune God; who learns and obeys Christ as a student and committed follower; who commits to work together to go and reproduce, looking forward to the day of Christ’s return for His church. But how does this relate to the local church’s ministry? It is the very essence of its ministry! The church is a body made up of Christ’s disciples; therefore, it is the church’s mission to carry out the tasks of the disciples. The church is to be the place where the disciples can work together and restore one another, where they can learn who Christ is more fully and walk in the light of God. Therefore, the church’s ministry is in fact the ministry of discipleship and the church’s leaders are to be the directors of its spiritual formation.
In conclusion, Christ has called all who would be his disciples to identify themselves with Him, learn His ways and walk in them, and reproduce. He has left His Spirit and His people, the church, to help in this task and guarantees that He will be with His disciples and will one day return for them. Until that time, His disciples should be ever growing in faith and love as they make disciples of others.
Louw, J.P., & Nida, E.A. (Eds.). (1989). Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament based on semantic domains (2nd ed.). New York: United Bible Societies.
Wallace, D.B. (1996). Greek grammar beyond the basics. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
(Justin Smith is a teacher and leader at Wilson Grove Baptist Church, Charlotte, and hopes to complete his studies toward the Ed.D. at Southeastern Seminary in 2013.)