What Is Disciple-Making?

How does a new believer grow? 2 Peter 3:18 tells us we are all to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. A new believer can grow by reading the Bible, listening to preaching and teaching in a local church, and through worshipping. These are all good disciplines of the Christian life, outlined in Scripture and governed by the Holy Spirit. However, does God have other ways for a believer to grow in the Lord Jesus Christ? The answer is found in His Word and in examining the life of Christ.

Learning From the Life of Christ

What can we learn from the life of Jesus Christ and how He helped other people grow in knowing Him more? Fully God and fully man, Jesus was a rabbi, a teacher. He is the explicit image of the glory and the person of His Father in human flesh (Hebrews 1:3, John 1). Jesus desired for people to know His Father through Him and to know the Father intimately. God uniquely designed the pattern of Christ’s life to be an example to us, modeling how we can help others to live like Christ in relationship to learning and knowing the Father.

The parable in Matthew 13:47-52 speaks of treasure. This treasure of new and old is the revelation of God to man in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Someone who becomes a scribe to a disciple is taking the lead. He is to be the head of a household for himself, devouring God’s Word in both Testaments, that he might be equipped to use God’s Word. He is to do as Jesus Christ did: leading others to Christ and training them in the Word of God.

Matthew 28:19-20 indicates how we enter a relationship of learning following our salvation. We are committed to learning these divine and necessary things: fellowship, worship, service, and growing in grace. These virtues, disciplines, and practices are learned for purpose. When we come to know Christ, we learn that His teaching is absolute. Learning from Him is different than learning philosophy from a philosopher in ancient Greek times or in a modern classroom.

Christ and His Word Are Sufficient

We are asked to learn exclusively of Christ, who is God’s absolute and perfect representation of Himself, not expanding on what we learn of Him. We are expected to spend our whole lives pursuing knowledge of His person, character, and lifestyle. There is nothing to be added that has not already been revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ and in His life through the sufficient Scripture we have, His Word.

As His disciples, we learn and follow Him, living our lives to share Him with others who do not know Him.

"Thus, when Jesus tells us to go to all nations, we are to go into all the world with His agenda, not our own. The Great Commission calls us to flood this world with knowledgeable, articulate Christians who worship God and follow Jesus Christ passionately." (R.C. Sproul)

In Matthew 28:19-20, Christ left an example for all His followers. Those who were His witnesses understood what Jesus meant when He said to go and make disciples. They had hundreds of years of a historical, cultural, academic, educational context in which there were similar patterns of learning for generations. However, now they were expected to preach an exclusive message of salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ, training others to follow as well.

Verse 19 says we are to go and make disciples. The mission of the church is to learn and to follow. In Revelation 2, the church of Ephesus was a faithful church, but Jesus said they had lost their love for Him, making disciples. We are all responsible by grace to make disciples.

What Disciple-Making is Not

Disciple-making is not a program, but a lifestyle that each of us owns. It is not merely teaching, nor just reaching. Development must happen too. Discipleship is more than small groups or Bible studies. It is not bound up in a book, a class, or one-to-one relationships. These may all be tools in the process of discipleship, but none of them alone is discipleship.

In Matthew 16:18, Jesus says He will build His church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. Making disciples is the exclusive responsibility of the local church. There are no formulas. Disciple-making is about obedience, not results. The results are God’s.

Discipleship should not be done primarily by someone outside the local church. Since the Great Commission is given to the local church, the development and obedience of that command should be done within the local church. Though we can certainly learn from others outside our local church, the nature of disciple-making is so intimately personal, it requires most of our time being spent in spiritual duplication within our local church body. When each of us owns this responsibility, there is little time left for other learning from sources outside our local church.

What Disciple-Making Is

Disciple-making is a normative, local church, individual responsibility that God the Spirit empowers as Christ builds His church. How exciting and humbling that our God uses worthless pots that contain a hidden treasure in this process (2 Corinthians 4). It is each saint shouldering the responsibility to spiritually reproduce themselves. That is what Jesus is saying, go and make disciples. Even before Jesus came, it was understood that discipleship was the commitment of one life to another life for life.

Disciple-making is not going to be accomplished by the flock unless our pastors and teachers are demonstrating it. In 2 Timothy 4, Paul writes to Timothy, the pastor in Ephesus at that time, instructing him to do the work of the evangelist. Unlike the Apostle Paul, Timothy did not have the spiritual gift of evangelism. The work of an evangelist is the doing of Matthew 28:19-20. The pastor-teachers are to be the chief disciple-makers, modeling for the flock publicly what the flock should be modeling among one another personally. This includes having personal redemptive relationships with lost people and relationships with people who come to know Christ and who we can help train in the Word.

If the pastor is not personally the most active in disciple-making, then those who are following him will not be regularly active either. To know what it means for the Holy Spirit to work through us in the building of God’s church, the pastor must know this discipleship truth, own it, and live it in order to obey it.

What Is a Disciple-Maker

The main action verb in Matthew 28:19-20 is "make disciples." When we compare the other two Great Commission accounts, only Matthew uses this imperative, although it is a governing verb among all three accounts. It is necessary we understand the root of this imperative: it means to learn of a person, to learn who this person is and what this person teaches, so the one learning can become a follower of this person, and then go out and influence others in the same way. This word was understood in Greek culture hundreds of years before Jesus came.

To understand a biblical theology of what disciple-making is, it requires examining the entire Bible, starting with the Old Testament. There is a clear distinction between Israel and the Church. The Great Commission was given exclusively to the Church. However, mankind has been learning from each other for thousands of years. There are many Old Testament examples of people who were teaching and those who were learning: Moses’ father-in-law and Moses, Moses and Joshua, Eli and Samuel, to name a few.

In the Old Testament, there is no Septuagint equivalent for the exact word "make disciples" found in Matthew 28:19-20. (The Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament.) There is, however, an equivalent for the root of the imperative "make disciples" found in Jeremiah 12:16 in the word "learn." The Hebrew word here means the learning of the whole person. Translating this Hebrew word into the Greek, it would be a simple form of the word disciple, as in "I learn" or "I follow."

The Old Testament hearer of this prophecy in Matthew 28 would understand what is meant: the giving of the whole person to the whole of the message for the whole of life. A person would give oneself completely - body, mind, soul, and spirit - to the learning process. It is the baptism of the self into learning. God set up learning for man with a leader/apprentice form from the beginning of time. We still do this today throughout the world and in the church (2 Timothy 2:2).

The Hellenic Period

The time historically known as the Hellenic Period, between 500-300 B.C. and before Jesus was born, was the time of the philosophers. These philosophers had followers. This handful of men shaped human history. God uses this common grace pattern and adds a divine, omnipotent, supernatural message to it: with all authority given to Jesus, we are to go and make disciples.

During this time, the Greek mindset of the follower or disciple would have been a learner, learning from a master or teacher. The giving of his whole self would have been offered completely to the philosopher or master he was following. The disciple would be entirely committed to the point of imitation: in speech, pitch, volume, inflection, dress, walk, and even eating habits. These men were devoted. In this Hellenic culture, this became how people learned. It included a fellowship defined by the followers continuing to live what they had been taught and teaching others even after the master philosopher died.

The Period between the Testaments

The Jewish mindset was tremendously influenced by Greek culture and thought. The Jewish written history was called the Talmud. After the tradition of the Greeks with the philosophers and their disciples, the teachers of the Talmud had disciples called the Talmeed. This is the beginning of the rabbi position in Jewish history. The teachers of law and the Talmud became known as rabbis. This was not an original learning pattern of the Jewish culture but was learned from the pagan culture around them. This is the origin of the Jewish schools of thought, such as Hillel and Shammai.

Like the disciples of the philosophers, the Talmeed were described as learners and listeners. They had a single teacher and passed along the teaching of the rabbi. They were imitators. When their rabbi died, those Talmeed continued under the teachings of that rabbi, forming a fellowship. The Jews also added the aspect of service. They were committed for life to the life that was established before them by their rabbi.

Application Points

  • Are you pursuing knowledge of Christ’s character and lifestyle through careful study of God’s Word? God desires for us to know Him intimately, becoming more like His Son in every way.
  • Have you considered your responsibility by grace to make disciples? Are you being discipled and/or discipling another? Are you discipling with mindfulness and intention, or has it become just another thing you do?
  • Are you looking first to our local church body here at Grace for teaching and help before looking to outside sources? If not, how can you help build the resources available to our local church?