Too often we think of “discipleship” as a short class that introduces us to the teachings of our local church or some abstraction of basic Christianity that is somehow separate from our day-to-day lives. Similarly, we most often think of “the disciples” as the group of eleven, twelve, or seventy close followers of Jesus as described in the Gospels. Unfortunately, in doing so, we are missing a key concept that carries for each of us, as believers, two on-going roles in the Kingdom of God: student and teacher.
Our Common Mission: The Great Commission
To get started, let’s take a look at the central theme of what we know as the Great Commission in Matthew 28:16-19:
But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee… and Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying,…“Go and make disciples of all the nations…”
The first thing we must establish is that the word “disciple” refers to all of the followers of Jesus, not just a select few. In the passage above, the Lord tells us to “make disciples of all the nations.” A review of the book of Acts quickly makes it clear that the Biblical use of the term is synonymous with those who follow the Way of Christ (see John 14:6; Acts 9:2; 18:25; 19:9) and those who are referred to as Christians (see Acts 11:26). All believers are disciples!
A closer look at Acts 9 reveals our pattern. The chapter opens with Saul being converted directly by the Lord Jesus Christ on the Damascus Road. Then the Lord speaks to Ananias, a disciple, giving him instructions on how to commission Saul (vv10-16). Once he completes this work, we find Saul with the other disciples in Damascus (v19), immediately proclaiming Jesus (v20) such that he had already made disciples who were called upon to rescue him as he faced persecution (vv23-25). Over the course of just a few days, Paul went from convert to disciple to himself the teacher of disciples. It is clear that our core mission as disciples is to go and make disciples!
So What, Exactly, Is A Disciple?
The root word underlying the noun we see translated as “disciple” and the verb rendered “make disciples” or “teaching them” means a learner, a student or a pupil. Matthew 28:20 says “teaching them to observe all that I (Jesus) commanded you.” He was telling them…and us…to make disciples of others by teaching them how to be followers of His Way, that is, how to be Christians.
There is more implied than a simple student-teacher relationship. A student presumably seeks to learn. We find students listening to lectures, perhaps taking notes, doing coursework, and taking examinations. But we do not necessarily require the student to put what is learned into practice. Further, there is the thought that the student will “graduate” from the course of study making further instruction unnecessary.
Throughout the Gospels, the original disciples referred to Jesus as “Teacher” and “Master” in a way that far surpasses what we currently view the role of teacher. He was their Master and a mentor to them. They were more than students, they were His apprentices and protégés. He modeled behavior for them, and He expected them to model that same behavior to others.
As for how long this will take, Paul describes the five-fold ministry in Ephesians 4:11-13 as being provided for the equipping of the saints (disciples, all believers) until we all attain “the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” Clearly, this is a life-long journey.
And so we find that a disciple is a believer who is always learning, who is always growing and most importantly is always seeking to put what is learned into action. Putting what is learned into action is the characteristic that distinguishes disciples from pupils and students. It is an active and on-going learning process…we are new creations in Christ Jesus (see 2 Cor. 5:17) and discipleship is our new way of life!
Next time I’ll share an experience that started out as an evangelistic outreach and transformed into a wonderful example of discipleship.
Until then, God bless you all.