by C. Peter Wagner
The objective of the Great Commission is thoughtfully analyzed, with narrow and broad definitions. The author holds that disciples in the New Testament sense are simply people won to Christ.
The objective of the Great Commission is thoughtfully analyzed, with narrow and broad definitions. The author holds that disciples in the New Testament sense are simply people won to Christ.
The biblical concept of "disciple" has become a key term in contemporary evangelical missiology. Faced with the fuzzy use of the term in much popular literature and preaching, a closer look at the New Testament meaning of the word, together with its implications for missions, is now overdue.
The concept of "disciple" is particularly relevant to missions, since the final commandment of our Lord to his church, known as the "Great Commission," is precisely to "make disciples." Different aspects of this Great Commission are found in all four gospels and Acts. Whereas a complete exegesis of the relevant passages would be ponderous, some of the major emphases need to be brought out.
The most important clue to the understanding of the Great Commission is the distinction between means and ends. If this is carefully made, the exact implications of Jesus’ commandment become ever so much clearer. Probably the best starting point for this is the Gospel of Matthew, which gives us the most complete set of marching orders for the Christian church: "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 . . ." (Mt. 2:19, 20, RSV).
Of the four action verbs in this text, three are participles or helping verbs in the Greek and only one is an imperative or a direct command.. The participles are: poreuthentes (last translated in English as "going"`, baptizontes ("baptizing"), and didaskontes ("teaching"). The imperative is matheteusate ("making disciples"). This grammatical construction leads us to the reasonable conclusion that the chief objective of the Great Commission is to make disciples; while going, baptizing and teaching are essential means toward the end, but not ends in themselves.
The parallel passages do not repeat matheteusate as the goal of the Great Commission, but they do tell us more about the means. Mark quotes our Lord as speaking these words (which are relevant in spite of the textual problems which the closing verses of Mark present): "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned" (Mk. 16:5, 16, RSV).
The verbs in Mark’s first sentence relate to those who receive the command: go and preach. The verbs of the second sentence, pisteusas ("believe"S and baptistheis ("is baptized"), aorist participles in the Greek, refer to the action of those who respond positively to the preaching of the gospel, or in other words to those who have become disciples. As to those who are commanded, poreuthentes ("going") is the same word Matthew uses, but keruzate ("Preach") is imperative. Thus, Mark underscores the unalterable necessity of preaching the gospel in order to obey the Great Commission. This raises the important question as to whether proclamation is a means or an end. If we compare it to the other imperative in Matthew, matheteusate ("make disciples") the answer becomes clear, since the necessary chronological order is first preaching then, hopefully, making disciples. Proclamation is of necessity preliminary to making disciples, and thus is one other means alongside "going," "baptizing," and "teaching."
The passages in Luke (24:47-48) and Acts (1:8), both written by the same author, add the new element of humeis martures touton ("ye are witnesses of these things"). This dimension of "witness" is another important means toward the end of making disciples. John adds "sending" (20:21). We thus see that means and end are all interrelated in the process of making disciples. Sending, going, preaching and witnessing are all pre-soteric (before salvation) activities; baptizing is con-soteric (along with salvation but not producing salvation in the sacramentalist sense?; and teaching is post-soteric (after salvation). None are ends in themselves, but all relate to the goal of matheteusate.
If a man asks his wife to make a cake, it is essential that she understand precisely what "cake" means before she can even begin to fulfill her husband’s wishes. By the same token, if the followers of Jesus wish to obey his command to "make disciples," they first should be absolutely sure they know what Jesus meant by "disciples."
This sounds perfectly logical, and therefore the fact that this definition has not been clarified enough to produce a consensus among evangelical missionaries today is most curious. Fuzzy, imprecise thinking prevails. I have the impression that a certain circle of preachers, as part of an effort to raise the spiritual quality of their churches, have developed a definition of "disciple" that may be useful, but that at the same time is not biblically accurate. It seems to me that some contemporary definitions of "disciple" err by including too much, while others err by including too little. We will attempt to point out a middle course, which, hopefully, gives us the biblical definition.
Two definitions of "disciple" include more than they should, and therefore are too broad. The first makes reference to the members of the "visible church." This would hold that every person whose name appears on a church roll (at times this might be qualified as an evangelical church) is a disciple. As a matter of fact, an entire denomination has chosen to call itself "The Disciples of Christ," thus projecting the idea that all members of that particular church are ipso facto disciples. In some countries, Christianity is so deeply rooted in the culture that merely being born in that country qualifies one as a disciple.
Such circumstances as these in the German Lutheran Church, for example, challenged Deitrich Bonhoeffer to write his book, The Cost of Discipleship. As Bonhoeffer looked around, he saw churches with long lists of members who in an official sense were "Christians," but who obviously had never become disciples. Bonhoeffer would agree with us that being a member of the visible church is not equivalent to being a disciple. The Apostle John apparently had similar feelings when he carefully qualified the "children of God" as those "who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man . . . " (Jn. 1: 13 ). Perhaps even in the first century some had begun to be imprecise in their definitions.
The second overly-broad definition of "disciple" is found in certain evangelistic circles that have an exaggerated concern for large numbers in statistical reports. In a superficial may, they report the number of disciples made as a result of their efforts in terms of those who raise their hands, who fill out decision cards, who pray with a spiritual counsellor, or even who are baptized. None of these things are bad or unimportant. They all can be important steps toward true discipleship, but they do not themselves make disciples. It is conceivable that a person could take alb these sups without ever becoming a true disciple. They confuse decisions with disciples.
Two definitions of "disciple" have arisen on the other end of the spectrum, possibly as a reaction to the errors of the broad definitions. These turn out to be narrower than the New Testament definition.
The first is to consider "disciples" as equivalent to Jesus’ twelve most intimate followers. The passage found in Matthew 10:1, 2 is typical of some that could be used to back this position: "And he called to him his twelve disciples . . . The names of the twelve apostles are these . . ." This could easily give the idea that "disciple" and "apostle" are synonyms. Such is not true, however, as the parallel passage in Luke clarifies very well: "He called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles" (Lk. 6:13). "Disciples," then, describes the broader company, and "apostles" a smaller group selected from them. They are not synonymous.
The word mathetes ("disciple") is found some 260 times in the New Testament, exclusively in the Gospels and Acts. Only about 25 dynes does it relate to "the twelve disciples." The balance of the texts indicate a much broader circle.
The second overly-narrow definition of "disciple" is the one most frequently found in contemporary evangelical preaching and writing. It claims that a "disciple" is a person who has reached a somewhat advanced form of Christian life and experience. Particularly among the constituents of certain Bible conferences that stress the "victorious life" this definition has been emphasized. According to some, not every Christian is necessarily a disciple. Some preachers challenge evangelical Christians to go on in their Christian lives and become true disciples. They give the impression that true discipleship is something that Christians should strive to attain if they wish to become more sanctified or victorious.
One result of this overly-narrow definition has been the artificial distinction between "evangelism" and "making disciples" that serves only to confuse the issue for those who wish to interpret the Great Commission correctly. A typical exponent of this point of view might say: "Evangelism is simply getting people saved, but this does not fulfill the Great Commission which says, "make disciples," meaning that believers should be brought into the fulness of Christ." This seems to imply that some young, new-born Christians are not yet disciples. The only true disciples are those who have gone on to the "fulness of Christ."
Some other Christian leaders have confused the teacherdisciple relationship of Paul and Timothy, for example, with the more technical use of "disciple" in the New Testament. The ministry that Paul enjoyed as Timothy’s teacher was excellent, and should be a model for others of us. Timothy became a disciple of Paul, who helped him become a better disciple of Christ. But when did Timothy actually become a disciple of Christ? This happened once for all the moment he repented of his sins, trusted Christ as Lord and Savior, and was supernaturally regenerated by the Holy Spirit. That was the moment in which Paul or Barnabas, or whoever it was who fed Timothy to Christ, actually fulfilled the matheteusate of the Greet Commission. The rest of Timothy’s training was not disciplemaking but could be called the "long road of discipleship." The tendency to confuse "making disciples" with "growing an discipleship" is one of the reasons why the Great Commission has often been understood inadequately.
It is helpful to recognize that once disciples are made, they then begin the lifetime road of discipleship. Assisting Christian brethren an their growth in discipleship is a very important ministry an the body of Christ, but it is clearly one step past tie Great Commission. Even the participle "teaching" in the Great Commission itself does nod refer to the details of behavior involved in growth in discipleship as one might think. The think taught is "to observe," not "all things I have commanded you." Fart of becoming a disciple is to be disposed to follow Jesus end obey him, even though you don’t understand all that is implied from the very beginning. The details emerge throughout a lifetime of discipleship, but the obedience is an attitude that must be there from the beginning.
"DISCIPLE" IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
Biblical scholars agree that mathetes ("disciple") does not refer to those who have attained a certain advanced stage of their Christian life, best rather it describes their basic relationship to Christ. Pierson Parker says, " `Disciple’ is tie most frequent and general term for believers in Christ."1 J. D. Douglas says, "The most common use of mathetes was in denoting the adherents of Jesus . . . believers, those who confess Jesus as the Christ."2 Kittel’s Theological Dictionary adds: "The usage is from the very first characterized by the fact that, apart from a few exceptions, mathetes denotes the men who have attached themselves to Jesus as their master."3
Questionable exegesis of one or two New Testament passages has added to the confusion in the definition of "disciple." An example is Luke 14:26, 27, 33 which says: "If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple. . .So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce alb that he has cannot be my disciple."
Basic to the understanding of this passage is the recognition that Jesus was spearing these words to a multitude of people considering the option of becoming his disciples (v. 25). He was not speaking to those who had already committed themselves as his disciple. According to Geldenhuys, Jesus was attempting to "check this lighthearted manner of following Him."4 Alfred Plummer adds that Jesus wanted to be sure that potential disciples "understood that following Him involves a great deal."5 On strength of these stringent requirements that Jesus set forth to the unbelieving multitudes, we should not arrive at the erroneous conclusion that there ire some born-again Christians who are not yet disciples.
John 8 contains a more perplexing passage. Most of our English translations begin v. 31 like this: "Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him . . .", making it seem as if the next clause: "If you continue in my word, you are my disciples" is spoken to Christians who may not yet have become disciples. If this were correct, it would severely damage the definition of "disciple" that is emerging in this article. It does not seem to be the proper exegesis, however.
The New English Bible more accurately translates the passage as follows: "the Jews who had believed him" (not "believed on him"). This contrasts the people in v. 31 with those in the previous verse where it correctly says that "many believed on him." What does this all mean? The word of an authority as needed to clear up the matter. B. F. Westcott deals with this as follows:
They believed Him and did not believe in Him. The addition of the word "Jews" and the change in the construction of the verb distinguish sharply the group (of v. 31) from the general company in v. 30; and the exact form of the original makes the contrast more obvious.6
The context later on confirms that the men to whom Jesus was talking may have been convinced of his Messiahship, but they interpreted his teachings to suit themselves, and twisted them to fit their prejudices. Jesus later says of them, "You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires" (v. 44). They were unbelievers who had to "continue in Jesus’ word if they expected to become disciples. Put simply, they had to be converted in order to become Christians.
In Acts 11:26, we read, ". . . in Antioch the disciples were for the first time called Christians." This is the heart of the matter, and the most forthright definition of disciples. A disciple is a true Christian. A disciple is a person who has been born again by the Holy Spirit. He has "confessed with his mouth the Lord Jesus and believed in his heart that God has raised him from the dead" (Rom. 10:9). He is saved. He is a new creature in Christ Jesus.
A missionary may well ask: "Where then do I find the raw material from which disciples are made? In the world or in the church?" The obvious answer is in the world (providing that by "church" we mean the true fellowship of the saints, not one of those nominal churches filled with unconverted people). In the world you find unregenerated people like the woman at the well, people who have not yet confessed their sins and bowed their knee to the living and true God. Be cautious therefore, of the Christian worker who says, "My ministry is not so much winning people to Christ as it is discipling Christians." The thought behind this is noble, but since this not a biblical use of the word "discipling" the phrase tends to be confusing. Matheteusate is a command to bring unbelievers to a commitment to Christ. Feeding or edifying those who respond, helping them to move forward on the road of growing discipleship, is a different matter. It relates more to the didactic ministry of the church, not the kerygmatic function.
The intention here is not to say that becoming a disciple is a light matter. We are not interested in decisions of professions of faith or noble intentions or baptismal certificates or confirmation ceremonies, good as all these are. We are interested in those who commit themselves to Christ unconditionally, who continue in his word, and who hate their father and mother, who take up their cross, who bear a Christian testimony throughout their lives – who in a word have been born again and by whose fruit they are known. These are true disciples.
John Alexander says, "What God wants is not simply an oral confession: He wants something deeper – a completely transformed life . . . If we are to fulfill the Great Commission, we must present the Gospel to different kinds of people in different kinds of ways, and we must present the Gospel not of easy believism but of life-transforming discipleship that will lead people to love one another."7
It can well be that a disciple may have his ups and downs. He has not yet arrived in heaven and therefore is not perfect. But if he is regenerated in the true theological sense, he is in fact a disciple, whether up or down. He can even fall into serious sin as did Peter, who went to the extreme of denying his Lord publicly. But in spite of this, Peter is called a disciple both before and after his denial. Joseph of Arimathaea apparently had not progressed very much in his Christian life. For some time he was ashamed to let people know that he was one of Jesus’ followers, but the Bible still calls him a "disciple." "Joseph of Arimathaea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews . . ." (Jn. 19:38).
How do you know when a person is a disciple? External signs can be deceiving, for only God knows the heart. However, Jesus says that they will be known by their fruits ( Matt. 7 :20 ). Acts 2: 42 seems to give us a rather dependable test. In all likelihood one is a disciple if he devotes himself "to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." As far as those outside the Body of Christ are concerned, Jesus says, "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (Jn. 13: 35 ).
When men and women, regenerated, committed to Christ, and loving one another in fellowship of the church appear, someone has been fulfilling the Great Commission. Someone has been "making disciples."
1. Pierson Parker, "Disciple," The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, New York, Abingdon, 1962, Vol. I, p. 845.
2. J. D. Douglas, "Disciples," The New Bible Dictionary, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1962, pp. 312-313.
3. Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary o f the New Testament, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1967, Vol. IV, p. 44.
4. Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, London, Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1950, p. 397.
5. Alfred Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to S. Luke, Edinburgh, T & T Clark, 1901, p. 363.
6. B. F. Westcott, The Gospel According to St. John, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1951, p. 133.
7. John F. Alexander, "Evangelism in Breadth and in Depth," pamphlet reprinted from The Other Side, Savannah, Ohio, n.d., n.p.
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