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What is Discipleship?
When we consider the famous last words of Jesus Christ in Matthew 28:18-20 we have to take them seriously. This is the major mandate given to the first church, often called ‘The Great Commission.’ From these verses alone we can conclude that ‘making disciples’ should be the major focus of every Christian, in every church, in every place, and in every age until Jesus returns. The 21st century church needs to recapture and rediscover the meaning of these verses, because in them we find Jesus’ secret of personal maturity, successful church growth and the effective evangelisation of our world.
The two words in Matthew 28 “make disciples” comes from a single Greek word, ‘matheteuo.’ The Greek word for disciple, ‘mathetes’, literally means ‘a learner,’ or we might say ‘apprentice.’ A disciple was not only a pupil but an adherent; hence they are spoken as of ‘imitators’ of their teacher. Christian discipleship includes learning by teaching and imitating. 1 Thessalonians 1:6 tells us the believers ‘became imitators’ of Paul and of the Lord and they ‘welcomed the message’ and ‘became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.’
This practice of being taught and learning from example is found throughout the New Testament.
1 Cor 11:1 Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.
Phil 4:9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me — put it into practice and the God of peace will be with you.
1 Cor 4:17 For this reason I am sending to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.
To coin a word we may call discipling ‘mathetic’ as distinct from ‘didactic’. Teaching is to impart information; it has to do with truth. Discipling is the formation of a disciple’s life by teaching and lifestyle. It means learning by education, observation, explanation and demonstration, instruction and imitation.
So what does ‘make disciples’ mean, in this verse? There are two answers to this question:
Firstly, we must look at the ministry of Jesus.
The disciples who heard Jesus say these words had been with him for over three years. They were disciples of Christ. They knew what discipleship was! To ensure a healthy foundation in the early church Jesus called together a small, ‘transformational discipleship’ group to apply his teachings and lifestyle to men in a way that was not possible when He was teaching the crowds.
He gave them instruction, rebuke, correction, opportunities for practical involvement, example and fellowship. They could ask Him questions about things they did not understand, things they found difficult or things that needed clarifying. He could ask them questions to assess their spiritual state and guide them accordingly. The main difference between His discipling and His public teaching was personalisation. He was able to transform the disciples by the personal application of truth. His example and their mutual relationship with Him was the secret behind the success of this method. They were gradually transformed.
Then, about halfway through their three year discipleship program Jesus began to involve them in ministry activities. Through observation they asked him to help them to pray (Luke 11:1). They served the bread at the feeding of the 5000 and 4000, sharing in His ministry. They had a ringside seat at all his miracles and then were sent out on ministry trips, preaching the kingdom of God, healing the sick and casting out demons, just like he had modelled for them. Each time they reported back to him to debrief, or to ask questions. “Why couldn’t we cast this one out?” “Why do you teach in parables?” “Can you explain this please?”
The disciples imitation of Jesus is seen very clearly in Jesus Mark 5:35ff and Acts 9:36 where, confronted with similar circumstances they follow exactly what they saw him do. A similar example is found in Luke 10:17, when the disciples, who had observed Jesus methods of casting out demons (eg Lk 4:35) and were then taught to include this in their ministries (Mark 6:7, 13) returned to Jesus to report that the process worked for them too!
It took three years for the first disciples to be instructed in the truth and to develop a ministry lifestyle. Four times in the book of Acts the writer refers to the Christian life as ‘The Way’ because that’s what it is - a new way of living, a radical lifestyle! They were so much like Jesus in their words and deeds that the religious leaders ‘saw the courage of Peter and John and realised that they were unschooled, ordinary men. They were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.’ Acts 4:13.
This is discipleship! It is always tempting to say things like “I wish I had been there as one of Jesus disciples and had my life transformed like they did.” The truth is we can. Discipleship is for today.
Secondly, we must consider the ministry of the early church.
What did the disciples do as a response to this command of Jesus? How did they interpret or understand his command? Well, as soon as they were filled with the Holy Spirit they began to preach the gospel and people were converted. Not only were they saved but they were ‘added to the church.’ This is important because making disciples means more than getting people ‘saved.’ Jesus said discipleship included baptism and obedience to all of Christ’s teachings. Of course being saved was important, but it was just the beginning of a new transformed lifestyle!
New converts were baptised, then added to small communities where they could be taught, transformed and trained to serve the Lord themselves. Church buildings were not in existence for 300 years after Christ and, as the church was often persecuted by Jews or Romans, the obvious place to meet was in private homes. For example, Romans 15 reveals a proliferation of churches in the home which were all part of the Church at Rome.
This explains Paul’s statement that he ‘taught (them) publicly and from house to house.’ (Acts 20:20) Public teaching and small groups for application, accountability and relationships was how discipleship occurred. This follows Jesus’ practice of making disciples and should provide a blueprint for our contemporary church!
In conclusion, we could say that the major focus of Christians or the church was to make disciples who could make disciples who could make disciples and affect the world for our Saviour! This was Jesus’ Master Plan and it was a plan that has never been rescinded - and never will be. This was implemented by New Testament Christians using public and private gatherings – just like Jesus! This is what the church is being called to do today!