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Making Disciples: Practical Observations from the Great Commission

One of the first things I noticed about my wife when we started dating was that she loves movies. Action, comedy, fantasy, adventure, you name it. She likes it all – except horror. As such an avid movie lover, she was surprised to discover that I wasn’t that into movies. She was so shocked by my disinterest that she made it her personal ambition to change that, beginning with The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Making Disciples

The series begins when Frodo Baggins, a hobbit living in the Shire, is visited by the wizard Gandolf the Gray. Gandolf has bad news. An evil army is headed to the Shire in search of a powerful ring that his uncle Bilbo found. In order to save the Shire, and the rest of Middle-earth, Gandolf commissions Bilbo and a small band of companions on a journey to Mount Doom in order to destroy the ring for good. No matter what happens, Bilbo, Sam, and the “fellowship” must accomplish this one task.

The Lord of the Rings and the Great Commission

This epic tale of adventure resonates with me because it reminds me of the Great Commission — that historic day when the Lord appears to his disciples in Galilee and commissions them to take the good news to the ends of the earth. Matthew records the moment at the end of his Gospel:

“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, baptizing 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).’”

Here we have the risen Christ delivering his farewell address to his disciples just moments before ascending back to the Father’s side. During this short discourse, Jesus gives his disciples their final assignment: make disciples. (Novel idea, isn’t it?) In the same way that Frodo and his friends were to be preoccupied with the destruction of the ring, God’s people are to be preoccupied with the making of disciples. Above all else, this is what the Church is to devote its time and attention to.

But what exactly is a disciple? And how exactly do you make them?

A Definition

In a general sense, a disciple is simply a student, a learner, or an apprentice; a person who is committed to learning from and becoming like someone they respect and admire. Kobe Bryant was a disciple of Michael Jordan. Bill Gates was a disciple of Warren Buffett. Plato was a disciple of Socrates. The former learned from and emulated the latter in order to become the athlete, billionaire, and philosopher we know them as today.

In a similar way, Christians are disciples of Jesus. We are committed to emulating him in order to become like him. Paul echoes this sentiment in 1 Corinthians 13:1 when he calls the Corinthians to “imitate him as [he] imitates Christ.” Discipleship, then, is the process by which a person devotes himself to and becomes like Christ.

One of the great things about the Great Commission is that it provides a simple, straightforward framework for the discipleship process. Using this framework, we could say that discipleship includes making disciples, marking disciples, and maturing disciples.

Making Disciples

There’s a common misconception that discipleship is something that only happens among believers. But that’s simply not the case. The Great Commission seems to assume, for example, that we must first be converted to Christ (making disciples) before we can truly grow in Christ (teaching them to observe all of Christ’s commands). This means that discipleship is something that happens before, during, and after conversion.

Acts 14:21 confirms this, “When they had preached the gospel to that city and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and Iconium and to Antioch.” Paul and Barnabas show up in Derbe, they preach the gospel, people get converted, and the Scriptures say they “made disciples.” In this sense, making disciples means converting people to faith in Christ (but of course, only God can do the converting).

Think about your own discipleship for a minute. Whether it was family devotions, a small group you belonged to, a series of Sunday services you attended, or an individual you worked with, when you placed your faith in Christ a significant shift took place. You may have learned about him before that in a general sense, but the moment you became a Christian you started learning from him in a specific sense. And that means you became his disciple.

Any serious conversation about discipleship needs to start here because that’s where Jesus commands us to start. And since there are no limits to the ways a person can receive and believe the gospel, there are no limits to the number of ways to convert people to Christ. For that reason, Christians should make every effort to call people to repentance and faith whenever we can however we can. That is what the Bible means when it calls God’s people to “make disciples.”

Marking Disciples

You’d be hard-pressed to find many articles or books that talk about the role of baptism in the discipleship process, but here it is, front and center in the Great Commission. We are to “make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19; emphasis mine).

According to the Scriptures, baptism functions as a sign and seal of the Christian faith. As a sign, baptism points us to a number of greater realities: the Holy Spirit’s work of regeneration (Titus 3:5), entry into God’s people (1 Corinthians 12:3), our union with Christ in his death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-4), and cleansing from the guilt and defilement of sin (Ezekiel 36:25-26; Ephesians 5:25-27). By doing so, baptism commemorates the work God has done in bringing a person to himself and to his people through faith in the work of Christ.

John Calvin stresses the importance of such a memorial in his Institutes of the Christian Religion when he says, “As often as we fall away, we ought to recall the memory of our baptism and fortify our minds with it, that we may always be sure and confident in the forgiveness of sins.”

In other words, as a sign our baptism plays a key role in our discipleship because it assures us of God’s saving grace, which can in turn strengthen our resolve to continue on in our faith when we fail and falter in our efforts to follow Christ.

As a seal, baptism authenticates our discipleship. My wife and I moved into the minivan life stage a few years ago. When we purchased our van, the seller asked us to meet him at the county treasurer’s office so that we could get the bill of sale notarized in order to authenticate the sale. The notary “sealed the deal” guaranteeing the sale and purchase of the vehicle.

In the Western church, we tend to underestimate the role baptism plays in discipleship because we think of baptism as an individual decision, but that concept is foreign to the Scriptures. Converts don’t baptize themselves; the church does. And we are baptized “into the body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:3).  Baptism is deeply communal. So, when the Church baptizes a convert, God’s people notarize, or authenticate, a person’s conversion along with their commitment to grow as a disciple. Doing so creates mutual accountability in the discipleship process.

Discipleship without baptism is a bit like a marriage without a wedding. You can’t have one without the other. Baptism does for discipleship what a wedding does for marriage; it marks the moment in a way that celebrates, confirms, and strengthens a person’s discipleship to Jesus.

So, we must make disciples by converting people to Christ and we must mark disciples by baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit. But the work of discipleship isn’t done until we’ve helped those disciples mature.

 Maturing Disciples

I’ve tried to stress the importance of conversion in the discipleship process because I think that far too many people overlook that important step. But discipleship isn’t just about conversion; it’s also about maturation. That’s why Paul emphasizes the importance of the Christian community working together to make sure that everyone “grows up” in Christ (Ephesians 4:11-14).

Last summer, I sat on my back patio watching my three-year-old daughter dance and sing to herself next to me. After soaking it in for a moment, I looked at her and said, “Baby girl, I want you to stay little forever.”

My daughter smiled back at me and said, “I can’t daddy. I have to grow up. That’s the way it works.” As much as I hated to admit it, she was right. She was in such a fun stage at the time, but as adorable as it is for her to be little, it would be bad news if she stayed little.

That’s because kids are supposed to grow. They start as babies, grow into toddlers, then progress through childhood and adolescence on their way to adulthood. A failure to meet certain developmental milestones – such as crawling, walking, eating solid foods, or talking – is a sign that something could be very wrong.

The same is true for discipleship. As exciting as it is to see people converted to Christ, we must be just as committed to helping people grow in Christ. And that means “teaching them to observe all that [Christ] commanded (Matthew 28:19).”

As with conversion, maturation can take on many forms. It can happen in formal settings like Sunday services, small groups, or Bible studies, and it can also happen in informal settings like the dinner table, basketball practice, or a road trip with friends. Effective discipleship will likely include a good mix of both formal and informal opportunities. The important thing isn’t so much the way we go about discipleship; it’s that whatever form our discipleship takes, we’re deliberately helping people “put on Christ” (Ephesians 4:17-32).

 Go Therefore

One final observation about discipleship from the Great Commission.

We often translate the Lord’s words as “Go therefore.” It could also be translated, “as you go.” The idea here is that discipleship doesn’t have to be something you go out of your way to do. It’s something you can do as you go about your everyday life.

Making disciples doesn’t have to be something we add onto our daily lives as if we have to do life and discipleship. Neither do we have to choose between everyday life or discipleship. Rather, discipleship is something we can do in our daily lives.

Are you a student? Make disciples as you go to class, the gym, or the library.

Are you an athlete? Make disciples as you go to the locker room, practice, or the training room.

Are you a full-time employee? Make disciples as you go to the office, meetings, or that business trip with colleagues.

Are you a full-time parent? Make disciples as you take your kids to school, violin practice, or the store.

If you are walking faithfully with God, as people observe your life and get to know you, they will no doubt discover that you are a disciple of Jesus. When that happens, consider it an opportunity to be and speak the good news. Don’t worry so much about whether or not you’re doing it right. Just do what seems natural depending on the person’s level of receptivity and the prompting of the Holy Spirit.

Conclusion

Discipleship is the process by which a person is converted to Christ, baptized into the Church, and developed in their faith. Every Christian can and should make every effort to lead people to Christ. And every Christian can and should seek to help fellow believers grow in Christlikeness.

Every Christian should likewise surround themselves with godly, mature brothers and sisters who can help them progress in the faith as well. The process will express itself differently for each person and in each context, but biblical discipleship will need to include each of these expressions in some form or another.

You may also like:

  1. The Deficient Great Commission 
  2. Why Nothing Will Stop the Mission of God

About Trevor Nashleanas

Trevor Nashleanas is the Director of Student Ministry at Coram Deo Church in Omaha, NE where he lives with his wife Tierney, and their two children Valor and Sylvie.