“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw Him they worshiped Him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age’” (Matthew 28:18-20).
The word disciple comes from the Latin discipulus, for pupil or learner. It corresponds with the Greek mathetes, from manthano – to learn. The corresponding Hebrew term, limmud, is somewhat rare in the OT, but common in the rabbinical writings. That said, the practice of discipleship is to be found throughout the Old Testament. In the Greek world, philosophers were likewise surrounded by their pupils. A disciple is thus in the most fundamental sense the pupil of a teacher. And since pupils often adopted the distinctive teaching of their masters, the word also came to signify adherence to a particular outlook in religion or philosophy.
The believers were first called Christians in Antioch, and were known as the Way in Ephesus. But the term disciple remained the most common term for them throughout the Gospels and the book of Acts. So saying reveals that Jesus both broadened and deepened the meaning of the word. He broadened its meaning by gathering around Himself concentric circles of disciples. The first circle comprised a tiny, intimate inner core. The largest a perimeter embracing thousands and reaching into nations. But all were His disciples. He also deepened its meaning. he extended a call to His disciples to deep personal allegiance and exclusive loyalty. This willingness to put Him above and before all else went well beyond the norm. For many, heeding His call has literally required the abandonment of home and family and business ties, and even meant relinquishing all possessions.
With Jesus creating the initial impetus, the church has discipled people ever since. It has done so within three frameworks.
Firstly, and in the broadest sense, the local church is a discipling environment in and of itself. By definition, the church is a community submitted to God, His Word, and to one another. Vulnerability, malleability and accountability are inherent to the equation. This way of life is described in a rather fascinating way by doctor Luke in the book of Acts. In documenting the exponential increase in the number of believers, he reveals a culture of discipleship by describing it as the word having increased (Acts 4:31, 6:2, 6:7, 8:4, 8:14, 11:1, 12:24, 13:48-49, 19:10, 19:20). This warrants discussion later on.
Secondly, the church embodies choreographed order, exquisitely crafted by the Lord. The same thing is observable within the Trinity. Collaboration between Father, Son and Holy Spirit is carefully appointed. Nothing is at all haphazard. The same carefully appointed order permeates family and state also, when we allow it. This is so because Creator God is the founder of these institutions. What He creates is always consistent with His own nature. So it is that diverse gifts and callings collaborate seamlessly in their respective roles. Embedded within this dynamic flow of authority and responsibility is an element of discipleship. Teaching and training can occur along any appropriate interface. We all play a part, and build one another up in love.
And finally, the church disciples with in relationships especially constituted for this purpose. Jesus and the Twelve are the obvious role model. Barnabas and Paul are also an excellent example, as are Paul and Timothy. It’s this type of arrangement that most likely springs to mind at the mention of discipleship. The Scriptures reinforce the validity of the practise by encouraging imitation. First of Christ, but also imitation of the life of faith of the mature in Christ. Paul champions this thinking when instructing Timothy: “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (II Timothy 2:1–2). Paul was raising a disciplers, who would in turn raise up other disciplers, and so forth. His aim was to establish a self-perpetuating cycle. Discipleship should multiply mature equippers ad infinitum.
Our synopsis is thus far both satisfactory and Biblical, yet incomplete.
The inseparable relationship between authority and discipleship must be underscored. Whenever the Lord delegates responsibility, He also delegates the concomitant authority. Yet, in the final analysis, all authority remains with Jesus. All authority has been given to Him. He was Himself emphatic about this. For that reason discipleship can never be regarded as an exercise in authority. It is, and always will be, a function of servanthood. It undergirds. Church history records authority’s many abuses, and more than a few were in the name of discipleship. That fact alone adorns the subject in red flags.
The essential qualifier is that authority and submission always rests on the foundation of mutual submission. We submit one to another out of reverence for Christ. This is the great equaliser. Detach the flow of authority and submission from this essential foundation, and abuse must ensue. Leadership and governance devolves into a lording over. It is only because husband and wife are mutually submitted to one another out of reverence for Christ that the wife can safely submit to her husband’s headship in the marriage. The same applies, leader to follower to leader, in the context of church and state.
A further essential is emphasis on the “Go” of the Gospel. All discipleship must ultimately be about establishing the nations in Christ, and under His government. Thankfully this cry continues to ring out from pulpits across the globe. All nations need discipleship. And it is the will of God that we disciple them. He has given all of us the job. This “Go” is important for two reasons. Firstly, it ensures that we disciple away from ourselves and towards mission. And secondly, only the multiplication afforded by a “Go” paradigm will get the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
But don’t miss the revelatory gem in the offing. Discipleship must establish the nations in Christ before establishing them under His government. People are to be immersed into Christ before they are taught to obey anything. Read it carefully. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Many sermons could and should be preached at this juncture. Jesus was instilling in His apostolic band a theology that embraced the Trinity. The Eleven to whom the words were spoken were all Israelites. They had always been taught that the Lord their God was One (Deuteronomy 6:4, Mark 12:29, et al). But possibly even more important than that, He was emphasising the fact that all Christianity is identity-driven. Disciples “be” before they “do”. All training must therefore be on the foundation of grace through faith, for all authentic Christian behaviour stems from newness in Christ.
These observations impose significant caveats on our earlier observations. The machinery of discipleship is one thing; life and effectiveness in the process another. In practise, the leader of a congregation might well be the leader of the leadership team, a husband and father, and the convener of several discipleship forums. In an authoritarian culture, this would make him a very powerful individual indeed. He could exercise enormous control through simple approval or disapproval. Unless of course he is first submitted. To his fellow leaders, to his wife, to the congregation, and even to his kids as age-appropriate. And unless he is discipling away from himself, relinquishing power and authority wherever possible.
As the Gospel first spread, doctor Luke documented it as the word increasing. This was more than a mere turn of phrase. It points to an important component of discipleship’s gambit of essentials. Discipleship requires curriculum. Any training exercise requires suitable training material. So, the word increased. Good. But what word was it?
We know that the Luke could not possibly have been referring to the written Word as we know it today. The New Testament had not yet been written. It could also not possibly have referred to the words of Moses. The Old Covenant had been set aside, replaced by a new and better covenant, founded on new and better promises.
Jesus’ words shed light – “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”. And while He taught many things, do the scholastic legwork and you’ll discover that He only issued two commands: Believe, and love. Love as you have been loved, that is. Which takes us right back to the Gospel!
Paul’s curriculum statement echoes the words of Jesus. “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men”. Paul’s discipleship curriculum was what he taught wherever he went. His “whole counsel of God” in Ephesus was his “knowing nothing amongst you except Christ Jesus and Him crucified” in Corinth, was his “word of Christ” through which faith comes about which he wrote to the church in Rome.
The word in question is the Gospel, of course. It is the power of God for salvation for all who believe. Discipleship is nothing other than the application of the perfect, finished work of Christ, and this to every area of life. A narrow curriculum, but one which impacts on everything else. It does so without condemnation. There is no guilt and manipulation; no stick and carrot. It leaves responsibility with the individual in unmitigated ways. But it offers love, acceptance, and the gift of righteousness in equally unmitigated ways.
A rather useful bottom line is simply this: When discipleship is undertaken off an unsuitable foundation, it centres around accountability. Behaviour is policed, and the exercise devolves into people pleasing. But when discipleship is appropriately embarked on, in the Gospel, everything revolves around encouragement. The perfect work of Jesus is what is kept central. This allows limitless opportunity for failure, and equally limitless opportunity for restoration. Love abounds and life flows. Even discipleship, in the final analysis, is all about Jesus.
Disciples of whom?
One final matter, and an important one at that. Christians are disciples, but disciples of whom?
In the broadest sense, all believers are disciples of Jesus. The Scriptures are unequivocal on this matter. Peter tells us that He left us an example to follow. John insists that, “Whoever says he abides in Him ought to walk in the same way in which He walked” (I John 2:6). Differentiating, as some do, between believers (the saved) and disciples (the obedient saved), is judgmentalism. It introduces unhelpful class distinctions in the church. Far better to insist that every believer is in fact a disciple. That makes obedience the natural and anticipated outflow of faith.
Yet caution is necessary. Implying that discipleship is the conforming of believers to Christ is problematic. We carry such varied paradigms on the matter. White people tend to have a white Jesus, and black people a black Jesus. Reducing the Christian life to imitating “our” Jesus is thus folly. The outcome must be a form of legalism of our own crafting.
The Bible also encourages us to imitate the way of life of those beyond us in maturity in the Lord. We gladly do so. We learn from them, imitating their faith and faithfulness. But without becoming imitations of them. One of religion’s more abhorrent characteristics is that those trapped by it reproduce themselves. This is certainly not the discipler’s brief. Every believer is already a clone of Jesus. Born again of the Spirit, every believer has a new nature which is His identical twin. Discipleship should never work towards conformity. It works towards nurturing the new life already granted, in fullness and freedom.
Fortunately Jesus made matters plain, and emphatically so. Believers are His disciples in the broad sense, but followers of the Holy Spirit in the specifics. He is the Helper within, our teacher and guide. He is the One who will never leave us. He will lead us into all truth, making the things of Jesus and the Father known to us. It is He we are following, moment by moment, day by day. He is our teacher. As Jesus said to His own on the night of His betrayal, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth, for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak, and He will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for He will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that He will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:12–15).
Which is why Paul could state so unequivocally, “all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Romans 8:14).
It is true that disciples are made, not born. But they are made by the One of whom they are born. Discipleship is by grace, through faith, and always, always, in the power of the Spirit.