In a farewell speech before His ascension to heaven, Jesus commissioned His disciples, saying to them, “ ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age’ ” (Matt. 28:18–20, ESV). This directive has come to be known as the Great Commission. With the Great Commission, Jesus set the agenda for the church in all eras and contexts. Apart from clearly spelling out His disciples’ responsibility to spread His teachings to all people groups of the world, Jesus also assured His followers that accomplishing this daunting task was possible because of His omnipotence and omnipresence, which He would exercise on their behalf.
Although at the beginning there were intense disagreements over some aspects of the Great Commission (Acts 15:1–29, Gal. 2:11–14), overall, the early church’s understanding of its identity and mission centered on Christ’s command to make disciples of all nations. The fact that each of the four Gospels ends with a version of the Great Commission is a strong witness to its centrality (Matt. 28:18–20, Mark 16:15–20, Luke 24:45–49, John 20:21–23). Since then, the Great Commission has been interpreted and applied differently over the centuries.
Components of Discipleship
A review of discipleship literature reveals three essential dimensions, or processes, of every effective approach to discipleship: rational, relational, and missional dimensions.
The rational (learning) dimension of discipleship is the process by which a believer intentionally learns from Jesus. In its original context, “disciple” (mathetes) referred to someone who apprenticed with a teacher. That person would attach himself to a teacher for the purpose of acquiring both theoretical and practical knowledge. The rational dimension stresses the need for continuing metamorphosis and growth, even for those who have already become disciples. Because “teaching” in Matthew 28:19 is an ongoing process, the rational dimension of discipleship is a lifelong process of learning and growing. However, the goal of this continual learning is not only to impart knowledge but also to instill total commitment to Jesus.
The relational (community) dimension of discipleship develops in the context of a supportive community where accountability can take place. The New Testament portrays a very dynamic communal culture in the early Christian church because of the believers’ understanding of disciple-making as a relational process. Because of its Old Testament roots, the early church continued to emphasize kinship as one of its core values. What was different about this new community was that kinship was not defined in terms of bloodlines and ethnicity but rather in terms of shared faith and fellowship in Christ. The church became an environment of inclusion and acceptance (Gal. 3:28). Membership was open to all on the basis of professing faith in Christ as Savior and the public demonstration, through water baptism, of complete allegiance to Christ (Acts 2:37, 38).
The early Christian church expressed its values of corporate solidarity and kinship through the use of motifs, such as the body of Christ and family of God, to describe the interdependence between its members and to convey the close bond that enabled them to treat one another as family members (Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, Eph. 2:19, Ephesians 4, Gal. 6:10, 1 Tim. 3:15, 1 Pet. 4:17). Such concern fostered the development of a lasting sense of interdependence, corporate solidarity, and accountability among church members. Their interdependence suggested that each member of the body had a unique role to play and yet was dependent upon all other members.
By demonstrating a new way of living, multitudes were attracted to this new community of faith (Acts 2:46, 47). In such a setting, being a disciple was not synonymous with simply accepting abstract propositional truths about Jesus. Being disciples of Christ was about learning from Jesus and modeling in life the knowledge of Him. This brand of discipleship was both what the early believers did on behalf of Christ and how they represented Christ in the world. This communal culture of the New Testament, where believers were integrated members of supportive groups, became a fertile ground for the seed of the gospel to be sown and nurtured.
The missional (sharing of one’s faith) dimension of discipleship is concerned with understanding the call to “make disciples” (mathēteusate), in Matthew 28:19, as essentially a call to engage in mission and duplicate one’s self. This injunction is the primary command of the Great Commission, and it must remain the primary responsibility of the church in every context. Believers of the New Testament linked together the notion of belonging to a community with the responsibility of sharing what that community stood for. Mission, in the context of the Great Commission, is more than a call to share the gospel with those who do not know Christ. Mission is both a call to share one’s faith and to disciple interested recipients for the purpose of freeing them from the grasp of Satan so that they may fully and continually devote themselves to the lordship of Jesus Christ.
Hence, the New Testament uses the word “disciple” to indicate a relationship with, and total commitment to, Christ that comes as a result of learning and internalizing His teaching, being changed by continual growth in the knowledge of Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 3:18), living a life of total submission to His lordship through the power of the Holy Spirit (Phil. 3:8), and helping others begin to experience, trust, and follow Jesus (2 Tim. 2:2). From this perspective, discipleship is not to be understood as a church program because it is not an event in time. Discipleship is rather a lifelong process of growing in Christ that transforms believers’ cognitive, affective, and evaluative perspectives on life.
Some Perspectives on the Current State of Discipleship
There is a consensus among Christian discipleship scholars today that, compared to the New Testament, the current practice of discipleship has, to a great extent, lost its primacy of focus among Christians. The making of disciples has largely been watered down to merely moving converts to Christianity into church membership. Current church growth is perceived as largely numerical and statistical growth without much spiritual depth, unfortunately. In other words, Christians are, generally speaking, much better at converting people than they are at helping converts become disciples of Christ. Sad to say, this phenomenon implies that one can become a Christian without necessarily having to become a disciple of Christ.
Making Disciples: Every Believer’s Responsibility
Jesus’ command to make disciples of all nations was not addressed only to the original 12 disciples. This requirement is a responsibility incumbent upon every Christian. For Peter, that is the reason for which every believer exists: “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9, NKJV). Also, note the following statements from the Spirit of Prophecy:
• “Every true disciple is born into the kingdom of God as a missionary. He who drinks of the living water becomes a fountain of life. The receiver becomes a giver. The grace of Christ in the soul is like a spring in the desert, welling up to refresh all, and making those who are ready to perish eager to drink of the water of life.”—Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 195.
• “God expects personal service from everyone to whom He has entrusted a knowledge of the truth for this time. Not all can go as missionaries to foreign lands, but all can be home missionaries in their families and neighborhoods.”—Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 9, p. 30.
• “Not upon the ordained minister only rests the responsibility of going forth to fulfill this commission. Everyone who has received Christ is called to work for the salvation of his fellow men.”—Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 110.
• “Wherever a church is established, all the members should engage actively in missionary work. They should visit every family in the neighborhood and know their spiritual condition.”—Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 6, p. 296.
Taking an active part in the fulfillment of the Great Commission is an ongoing mandatory requirement of being Christ’s disciples.
By virtue of the gospel commission, all Christians are called, in whatever capacity, to share their faith. Below are three ways believers can live up to Christ’s missionary mandate in every area of life, including work:
All Christians need to make a strong work ethic a part of their Christian witness. Scripture enjoins Christians to maintain a God-honoring character in their professional lives as they put forth their best effort in what they do, as if they were working directly for God (Col. 3:23, 24). When believers view their jobs as part of God’s calling on their lives, they add new meaning to Christian witness. Maintaining integrity, striving for excellence, being trustworthy and reliable, and treating others with respect in the workplace are qualities that can give Christians a platform to share their faith.
Through mission-minded mentors, churches can guide younger members in how to connect their professional dreams deeply with their faith in Christ and His missionary mandate.
With the right approach to discipleship and ongoing support, parents can enhance their children’s missionary potentials. Churches should therefore invest in parents’ discipling of their children, helping them reframe the responsibility of raising their children into a calling to make disciples of them.