Category Archives: discipleship

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canavalia and mucuna

As a missionary and agriculture development worker in rural Tanzania, I have countless opportunities to teach both Bible and agriculture.  Everyone wants the knowledge I (am perceived to?) possess,* and I am regularly invited to teach new groups of people.  But my time is limited and finite.**  Perhaps the least mentioned task of cross-cultural workers is one of the most important skills for them to develop in order to be effective in their work.

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commission and discipleship

Only when we realize mission can not be accomplished by our own authority should we turn our minds towards it.  Evangelism is Jesus’ responsibility.  And our participation in his mission is only possible because of our participation in him.  Jesus does, however, by his authority commission us.

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  — Matthew 28:19-20a

Perhaps it would be useful if we listed a few things to which Jesus does not call us in this passage.  We are NOT commissioned to:

  • convince people to believe a particular list of doctrines.
  • get people into a church building on Sunday morning (or any other day and time).
  • plant churches.

We ARE commissioned to make disciples.  I’m not suggesting planting churches is wrong.  Or that inviting a friend to worship with you on Sunday is a mistake.  I’m only listing a few (a very few) of those things which have seemed to take precedence over disciple-making these days.  Even my own mission team here in Tanzania is often referred to as a “church-planting team.”  I much prefer the term “disciple-making,” because our focus isn’t on churches but on disciples.

So what’s a disciple?

Jesus, in this passage,* defines a disciple as a baptized person who is learning to obey all of his commands.

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John King, one of my mentors in Christ, wrote a 3-post series for me on discipleship.  You can find his thoughts here:
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You know Jesus never once used the word Christian?  Actually, a pretty good (I think excellent) argument can be made that the word Christian, all three times it is used in the Bible (yes, a whopping three), is meant as a derogatory term for followers of Jesus — and was not how they referred to themselves.  The term believers is used more often (I read 14 times), but never by Jesus.

Jesus only refers to his followers as disciples, students, or learners — all of those being translations of the same word (mathetes).**  I wonder if there’s not something to that?  Christianity has in many ways become about merely believing in Jesus, adhering to particular doctrines, and/or church attendance.  Perhaps we’d be better off simply thinking of ourselves as students at the feet of Jesus?

Jesus’ description of a disciple is both straightforward and clear, but we must not confuse simple definitions with simple tasks.  Jesus’ words absolutely necessitate obedience to his teachings — something many of our definitions of Christian don’t necessarily involve.  I’m afraid we’ve so wanted to distance ourselves from works-based religion that we’ve muddled (if not ignored) the very words of Jesus.

Are we worried we don’t possess within ourselves the ability to be obedient to Jesus’ teachings?  If so, I happily concede this point.  This I see as one more reason it’s so very important we read The Great Commission within its context.  Remember that Jesus couches our assignment (and his description of a disciple) in these words:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”

and

“Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” 

Obedience to Jesus is assumed in the life of a disciple.  But so is the presence and authority of Christ.  Just as participation in mission is made possible only through participation in Christ, so is obedience to his words.


This post is the third in a series on The Great Commission.  Other posts can be found here:

* And I do try these days, as much as is possible, to let each passage interpret itself.
** With the exception of referring to the 12 as apostles.

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Filed under discipleship, evangelism, mission, musings on the Word, obedience

making disciples

This is the last post in John King’s series on discipleship.  Make sure you check out his own blog.

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Only Matthew contains the command to “make disciples of all nations.” If we are to accomplish this directive, we will need to learn what it entails from Matthew. (I am not implying that the same concept is not contained in the other Gospels or Paul’s writing, but that our first place for grasping what is meant by the phrase is to explore where it is used.)

How does Jesus make disciples in Matthew? He calls groups and individuals to follow him. He involves them in his three-fold ministry. He disciples them to the point of making the good confession. Jesus creates a setting where they discover his true identity. While the people believe he is John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or another of the prophets who has re-appeared, Peter knows better. Simon “Rocky” Johnson has grasped the heavenly revelation of Jesus’ identity! He declares that Jesus is the long-promised Messiah, he is the “Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).

But this recognition of Jesus’ identity and participation in his ministry of preaching and healing is not enough. At this exact moment Matthew tells us Jesus makes a second major transition:

“From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (Matthew 16:21). Peter pulls him aside and rebukes Jesus.

Did you get that? Immediately after confessing Jesus, Peter rejects what he says must happen.

I believe that disciples are people who know Jesus’ identity—they get the divine revelation. But we have always struggled with the implications of his mission. Many of us plunge into aspects of his ministry (preaching, teaching and healing). But will we take up our cross and follow him to death? In the first Gospel you are not ready to teach until you get his mission. You will not “teach them to obey everything” Jesus has commanded until you accept the implications of his death.

I am not talking about being able to give a description of “substitutionary atonement.” Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” (Matthew 16:24-26). Being a disciple entails self-denial. Here is our great challenge.

All the way to Jerusalem the original disciples are going to bicker and quarrel over who is the greatest. It seriously looks like they are all going to fail their final exam. In actuality, they do. Peter denies he knows Jesus. They all scatter. We know what Judas does.

But Jesus’ resurrection is God’s answer to our failures. Matthew tells of only two of his post-resurrection appearances (Matthew 28). He sends the women from the tomb to remind his “brothers” to go to Galilee “to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go” (Matthew 28:16). By obeying Jesus they reveal they are finally ready to be sent out as teachers. But note with me once again, their teaching is narrowly defined—“teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

I believe we damage ourselves with a Harmony of the Gospels approach, because we miss the unique depths of each of the Gospels. I am convinced Matthew’s five great teaching sections grapple with core issues of discipleship:

  • chapters 5-7 the teaching on the mount in Galilee
  • chapter 10 the sending of the twelve
  • chapter 13 the parables on the Kingdom
  • chapter 18 the teaching on greatness in the Kingdom
  • chapters 24-25 the teaching on the mount of Olives.

Each section ends with the same phrase: “And when Jesus finished these sayings…” (Matthew 7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1). These large blocks of material should be prominent in our discovery studies on the nature of discipleship. But we also must give careful attention to how Jesus made disciples—his actions—as well as what he taught. Making disciples calls us to follow Jesus!

 

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