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The Great Commission # 3

"Make Disciples"

The Great Commission

by Dennis Pollock

In our Lord’s final charge to His followers, that famous passage which we call The Great Commission, Jesus commands us to go and make disciples of all nations. In this study I would like to focus on the concept of discipleship and observe some of the implications of the command to make disciples.

We don’t use the term disciple much anymore to refer to followers of Jesus. If we are trying to determine someone’s spiritual state, we may ask them if they are a Christian, or if they have received Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, but rarely do we hear anyone ask if someone has become a disciple of Jesus. It might surprise you to know that the term disciple is far more common in the New Testament than the term Christian. The term Christian or Christians is found three times in the New Testament, whereas the term disciple or disciples is found nearly three hundred times. In those early days of the church, disciple was the term of choice to refer to one who followed the Lord Jesus. After Saul’s conversion, for example, we read that he tried to join “the disciples,” but they were afraid and “did not believe that he was a disciple.” When Luke recorded the journeys of Paul, he spoke of them lodging with a certain man named Mnason from Cyprus, who he referred to as “an early disciple.”

So what exactly is a disciple? The term used in the Greek New Testament (Greek being the language in which it was originally written) simply means: “a student, a learner, an adherent.” The Christians were disciples, they were students. But they were not students in the sense that I was a student when I attended Buder Elementary School in St. Ann, Missouri. As a primary school student I had many teachers through the years. But I never became a real follower of any of them. They simply taught me about English, Math, Social Studies, and so forth. I went to school, learned what I had to learn, finished my year, and pretty well forgot about them. But with the students or disciples of Jesus, it is an entirely different story. He is more than our educator; He is our Master, our Lord, and the One to whom we devote our lives, our time, and all that we have and are.

Is it possible to be a Christian and not a disciple of Jesus? Some would suggest that it is possible. They would tell us that anyone who prays and asks Jesus into their hearts instantly becomes a Christian, and then later they may decide to become a real disciple. Or perhaps they may never make that decision. But this is absolute folly. To be a Christian is to become a disciple of Jesus and to become a disciple is to be a Christian. And it is disciples that Jesus is after. He does not say, “Go and make converts of all nations.” Nor does He command us, “Go and get as many people as you can to say the sinners’ prayer.” No, He plainly tells us to go and make disciples, students who will follow Him with a single heart. That process may well start with a sinners’ prayer, but it must always be followed up by daily following Jesus Christ and learning from Him and of Him all the days of our lives.

Prerequisites

Jesus had some pretty heavy things to say about the qualifications for discipleship. He seems determined that we should not get the wrong idea about this call to discipleship, and deceive ourselves, thinking that we are His disciples when we clearly are not. Nowhere is this spoken with more clarity and force than in the fourteenth chapter of Luke where Jesus declares:

  1. “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple.” (Luke 14:26)
  2. “Whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.” (Luke 14:27)
  3. “Whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple.”  (Luke 14:33)


Placing Jesus Christ far above our loved ones, being willing to suffer for Christ’s sake, choosing God’s will over our own, and leaving our earthly passions (and sometimes possessions) behind in our great quest to do Christ’s bidding – all of these things must be weighed and chosen before being admitted into that divine school of learning in which Jesus is both the Teacher and the Subject. And this is not just for “super-disciples” or missionaries or specially called Christians. This is the basic rule for all who hear Jesus’ voice to “Come and follow Me.” Every person who would become a Christian, from the little child to the old man, is equally called to love Christ supremely and place everyone and everything else in a subordinate position to Him.

We see this radical self-abandonment in the calling of those first disciples. When Jesus saw James and John in a fishing boat with their father, mending their nets, He called them. The Bible tells us: “And immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed Him” (Matthew 4:22). When He called Peter and Andrew, also fishermen, we are told, “They immediately left their nets and followed Him” (Mark 1:18). And when Jesus called Matthew the tax collector, also known as Levi, we are told: “He left all, rose up, and followed Him” (Luke 5:28). There seemed to be always a leaving, and a following.

Of course today we may not be required to give up our possessions or leave our families to follow Jesus. Still, in every life of those Christ calls, there will be the need for some measure of leaving. It may involve relationships which are doing us more harm than good, or hobbies that are sapping our time and are entirely unproductive, or business methods which are making us tons of money, but which are unethical and do not reflect the love and righteousness of Christ.

Essence of Discipleship

In those first days when Jesus walked the earth and called men to follow Him, discipleship literally meant leaving family and friends behind, and traveling around the nation of Israel with Jesus. In the gospel of Mark we have the clearest description of the essence of discipleship:

Then He appointed twelve, that they might be with Him and that He might send them out to preach, and to have power to heal sicknesses and to cast out demons. (Mark 3:14, 15)

Jesus and the DisciplesThe Scriptures here give us what was in the mind of Jesus as He called men to follow Him. First they were to spend time with Him. The school of Jesus was not a brick and mortar school, with desks and chairs, and textbooks and multiple choice tests and report cards. This was the ancient master/apprentice mode of education. The disciples’ first duty was simple, and yet demanding. They must be with Jesus. They could not learn what they needed to learn at home or by hearing some second hand report of the ministry of Jesus. They must be by His side constantly, hearing His teachings, observing His miracles, discovering what pleased Him and what upset Him, and watching Him act and react in all sorts of situations.

They must carefully witness His debates with the Pharisees, and note His intense rebukes of religious hypocrisy. They must be transformed by the dynamic faith He demonstrated when threatened by storms on the Sea of Galilee or charged by a crazed, naked man who called himself Legion. They must see the tenderness in His eyes over the sicknesses of the afflicted and the desperation of the poor. In short, they must keenly take in that which made Jesus, Jesus until His ways, attitudes, sayings, and faith became “bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh.” They had not chosen themselves. They had been chosen by Jesus to “be with Him,” an exclusive privilege extended to these mostly simple fishermen which kings, priests, and generals over the world’s greatest armies would never have.

Sent Out

But being at the side of the Son of God, as great as that was, was not enough. In addition to being with Him, Mark tells us that Jesus chose them that He might send them out to preach and heal the sick and deliver the demon-possessed. These students must have their own time of “student-teaching,” their own experiences of preaching, healing, and delivering. As wonderful and as secure as it was to always have Jesus right beside you to answer your questions, calm your storms, and multiply your loaves and fishes, the day came when Jesus essentially said to His students, “Now it’s your turn.” Students are never trained merely for the sake of learning. They are trained and taught so that they might become skilled at their particular vocation, and eventually go out and do what they were trained to do, and train others to do the same thing. Raising up generation after generation of professional students who never actually do anything, and have zero impact upon the world, has never been the intention of Jesus.

Today we are not allowed the privilege of spending time with Jesus at a physical level. We cannot travel with Him across the land of Israel as those early disciples could. But we can spend time with Him in His word. And it is His word, the word of God, the Bible which He uses to reveal Himself to us today. In fact Jesus makes His word the demarcation line between true and false discipleship, declaring, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed” (John 8:31). This statement implies that there are some who profess to be Jesus’ disciples, but are in fact not His disciples. But those who abide in His word, who spend quality time with the Savior through reading the Scriptures, and studying under gifted, anointed teachers, these are His disciples indeed.

And just as those early disciples were eventually sent out to preach, heal, and minister to the people of Israel, we too will be sent out to minister to our generation. Christ’s gifts are manifold and unique with each of us. Some will preach, some will write, others will sing, others will teach children, others will lead home fellowship meetings, serve in foreign countries, demonstrate Christ’s compassion to the homeless, serve as administrators in local churches, or do various acts of love and service as the great Head of the church leads, directs, and empowers them.

Shifting Emphasis

We will never cease to be students. Discipleship has no graduation date, but the day will come when we will shift from a learning only mode to a learning and doing, and perhaps eventually move toward a place where our doing takes precedence over our learning. In such a case Jesus will use the word stored up within us in our early years to propel us into a ministry where our times of service may exceed our time in His presence. But no matter how huge the opportunities for ministry, how great the pressing need of humanity all around us, how much in demand our gifts and calling are, we cannot allow need and demand to override our own need for time with the Savior. We must follow our Master, who although huge masses constantly clamored for His attention, always found time to slip away and spend time with His Father.

This is the discipleship Jesus calls us to emphasize as we go to all the nations, or throughout our neighborhood, or talk with our young children about what it means to be a Christian. We can never be satisfied to get someone to pray a short prayer, or show a flash of emotion, or sign a church membership card. We are called to make disciples. We must declare what discipleship involves, and what qualifies and what disqualifies one from being a disciple. The goal is simple: to be like Jesus, starting with receiving Jesus Christ by faith, and then following Him through life, abiding in His word, turning away from distractions and encumbrances, and making Him the supreme love of our lives. “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is perfectly trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40).

We must make every effort to see that the babes in Christ get connected with local churches and established in relationships with mature disciples. And as they grow, develop, and begin to function in their gifts and callings, they can help the next generation of new disciples to do the same. This is the way of the kingdom. It is the Master’s plan, and it is His command.

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