At the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus gave his disciples their marching orders: “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.” Every church on the planet ought to have something about making disciples as part of their mission statement. However, what often gets forgotten is the last part of Jesus’ words: “and behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Before we get to work making disciples, we must first remember to remain connected to Jesus as disciples ourselves. The making of disciples flows out of first being disciples.
What Is a Disciple?
The simple definition of a disciple is a “learner” and a “follower.” Our English word “disciple” is related to the word “discipline,” which means something that shapes and forms your life. Jesus clearly taught that to be a disciple of his would mean that he would take the number one place of priority in the lives of his followers: “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).
While the definition of a Christian and a disciple are related, it might surprise you to learn that the bible speaks of people as disciples who weren’t necessarily Christians. In John 6:66, we read that after Jesus had some particularly challenging things to say in his teaching, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.” This means that our definition of disciple should include those who are interested in Jesus but may not yet be converted. A Christian is someone who has repented of their sin, put their faith in Jesus, been “born again” or regenerated, and who fully belongs to Jesus.
What are the Elements of a Disciple’s Life?
While our definition of a disciple needs to include those who are not yet regenerated Christians, that is certainly not the picture of a mature disciple. Discipleship starts with someone learning about Jesus, takes root when they are converted, and continues throughout the remainder of their lives. A disciple is always growing, learning, and maturing in three areas:
Relation to God
A disciple will always be growing in their knowledge of God, both intellectual and experiential. This comes through the practice of spiritual disciples such as bible study, prayer, gathering with other Christians, participation in baptism and the Lord’s Supper, etc.
Relation to other Christians
There are dozens of New Testament passages that tells us how we are to relate to “one another.” This means that a maturing disciple will always be growing in their relationships with other Christians, seeking to be encouraged while they themselves are encouraged in their spiritual growth.
Relation to non-Christians
A disciple will also seek to share the good news of Jesus with those who are not Christians. They will understand that the term “missionary” does not apply just to those who move to foreign nations, but that all of Christ’s followers are to be his “ambassadors” to those who don’t know Jesus.
Abiding Before Doing
Let’s go back to the often forgotten lines from Jesus’ great commission, “I will be with you always.” As Americans, we are often quick to jump into the project at hand. We are a determined and self-made people. However, before we can hope to make disciples, we must first remember that we are called to be disciples. In John 15, Jesus uses the analogy of a vine and branches with his disciples. He tells them that unless we remain deeply connected to him, we won’t be able to accomplish what he asks of us. “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). We want to be about the work of making disciples to be sure! But unless that work flows from a place of deep connection to Jesus, our work will prove to be fruitless in the end. Again, the making flows out of being.