“Make disciples of all the nations.” – Matthew 28:19
The above declaration is the “great” command of the Great Commission. In fact, it is really the only command in Matthew 28:18-20. The words “go,” “teaching,” and “baptizing” simply serve as clarifiers that explain how the command is to be fulfilled. The end goal of missions is not going, teaching, or even baptizing, but making disciples! Therefore, regardless of our zeal or sacrifice, our work on the mission field will prove to be little more than hay, wood, and stubble1 if we are not endeavoring to accomplish the task for which we were sent – the making of disciples.
The Goal of Discipleship
The phrase “make disciples” is translated from the Greek word matheteúo, from the verb mantháno, “to learn.” The noun form, mathetés, which is often translated “disciple,” denotes a learner or pupil. Thus, a disciple is someone who is always learning through instruction and imitation to be like his master. A disciple of Christ is someone who, having entered into a saving relationship with Him through faith, is now actively seeking to become like Him through the study and assimilation of His teaching and the imitation of His person. This definition fits precisely with these words of Christ:
“A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master. It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher, and the slave like his master.” 2
The great goal of the disciple is to be like his master. In most if not all religions and disciplines outside of Christianity, the disciple eventually attains to the same level as his master and may even replace him. However, in the Christian faith, no matter how advanced the disciple may become, he will always remain a disciple. The Christian Master is not merely a man who has walked the path longer than his disciples; He is God Incarnate – the embodiment of all truth, wisdom, and righteousness. He is separate and distinct from His disciples and from creation itself. The difference is not merely quantitative, but qualitative – He is in a category all to His own! It is for this reason that Christian disciples are always referred to as disciples and never masters or teachers. Jesus said:
“But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ.” 3
The missionary would do well to remember this truth. Like sanctification, discipleship is a never-ending process in which we are always learning, always seeking to assimilate more truth, always striving to imitate our Master. Our training is not complete with graduation from Bible college or seminary. It comes to an end only at the coming of our Lord in glory and the transformation of “our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables Him even to subject all things to Himself." 4
The Characteristics of True Discipleship
Christ’s command to “make disciples” means something significantly more than counting raised hands or decision cards at the end of an evangelistic campaign. A disciple of Christ is someone who has been soundly converted through the preaching of the Gospel and brings forth fruit corresponding to repentance and faith.5 He is a person who, having been justified by faith in his Master, continues to be transformed into His likeness.
Throughout the Gospels, various characteristics of true discipleship are given. Although it is beyond the scope of this article to address them all, there are three texts in the Gospel of John in which Christ describes the essential characteristics of a disciple. These three texts act as something of a comprehensive summary of what it means to be and make disciples.
The first characteristic of a true disciple is found in John 8:31-32. The text reads: “So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, ‘If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’” Here we learn that the genuine disciple of Christ continues in subjection to His word or teaching, and consequently, he experiences greater and greater freedom from the bondage of sin. In no way is Jesus teaching sinless perfection in the life of His disciples, but He is telling us that the true disciples will hold to His Word and grow in grace as a result of it.
The second characteristic of a true disciple is found in John 13:35. The text reads: “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” Here we learn that the disciple of Christ will openly identify with other disciples and love them to such as extraordinary degree in practical works of service that even the unbelieving world will attest to their relationship with Christ. This love breaks down every barrier of race, social class, and economic stratum.6
The third characteristic of a true disciple is found in John 15:8. The text reads: “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples.” Here we learn that the disciple of Christ will bring forth fruit or works that prove or demonstrate the validity of his confession. This is one of Christ’s most fundamental teachings on the matter of genuine conversion and discipleship. Consider: “So then, you will know them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.” 7
It is evident from the above texts that there is nothing trite or superficial about true discipleship. As we have already stated, a true disciple is someone who devotes his life to learn from and imitate his master. Yet how is this to be done in the context of the Christian faith? Two millennia have passed since Christ walked upon this earth. How can we be confident that we are truly walking as He walked?8 The answer to this fundamental question is revealed in the Great Commission itself. The disciple learns to follow Christ though the commands that Christ has given.9 In other words, we cannot be Christ’s disciples apart from His teaching and commands that He has preserved for us in the Scriptures. Apart from the full counsel of God recorded in the Bible, mature discipleship is an absolute impossibility; and any “disciple-making” that is not built upon the inerrant Word of God is an absurdity, a contradiction of the worst sort. For the harvest to be healthy, proper seed must be sown abundantly and without mixture of another grain. If this rule is not strictly followed, the result will be a mutated crop, a dangerous blend of all sorts of strands.
For this reason, if the missionary is going to be a disciple maker, he must be a disciple himself. He must be devoted to the teachings of his Master that are found in the Scriptures. He must dedicate his entire life to obeying, teaching, and exemplifying Christ’s commands to others. This is a great truth! Its importance cannot be exaggerated!
The Extent of Discipleship
In the Great Commission, Christ is clear and unapologetic – we are to make disciples of “all nations.” Some scholars have doubted that the phrase “all nations” was included in the original commission. Their argument is that if Christ had been so specific with regard to the universality of the mission, then the disciples would not have been so hesitant to reach out to the Gentiles. However, this interpretation is totally unnecessary. A different, more plausible explanation exists – the disciples’ hesitancy was due to their extreme prejudice. In fact, the prejudice against the Gentiles was so ingrained in the early Jewish church that it was not until the Jerusalem Counsel that the matter was finally settled.10
The command to make disciples is always in jeopardy of being disobeyed. Even today there are forces at work to turn the church’s attention away from its global responsibility. First, there is the problem of “out of sight, out of mind.” A faraway need is quickly forgotten. Second, there is the tendency toward self-centeredness, self-preoccupation, and self-preservation within individuals and congregations alike. Thirdly, there is the powerful cultural sentiment that considers religious proselytizing to be arrogant and intolerant – a near crime against humanity. Finally, there is the small but ever-encroaching heresy of inclusivism – the idea that although Christianity may offer a superior revelation of the truth, other religions contain enough truth to lead their followers to God.
In the face of growing opposition and countless foes, the missionary must be utterly convinced of the absolute truthfulness of one of Jesus’ most radical claims: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.”11 Furthermore, the missionary must believe that it is the will of God for the Gospel to be preached to all creation.12 Finally, the missionary must hold unflinchingly to the truth that this will not happen unless men and women leave all to follow Christ into an unknown land:
“How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent?”13
1 I Corinthians 3:12 2 Matthew 10:24-25 3 Matthew 23:8-10 4 Philippians 3:21 (ESV) 5 Matthew 3:8; Luke 3:8 6 Colossians 3:11 – “A renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.” 7 Matthew 7:20-21 8 I John 2:6 9 Matthew 20:19 – “…teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.” 10 Acts 15:1-35 11 John 14:6 12 Mark 16:15 13 Romans 10:14-15