Summary: God empowers the command to make disciples of Jesus with his Word and Spirit.
“Aim first, then shoot,” would seem an obvious method for hitting a target. But when you try to teach sports, you find such simple advice must be often repeated. “Keep your eye on the ball.” “Look where you want to hit.” “Watch the football into your hands.” “Look at the person to whom you are throwing.” “Aim first, then shoot”—advice which churches seem often to ignore. We too easily take our eye off the target.
The word, “disciple” is basically a New Testament word, appearing 268 times in the Gospels and Acts. Jewish and Greek writers prior to Jesus used it to mean “one who learned through instruction from another, pupil” (BADG). But Jesus applied the concept in a unique way. Where others expected their followers to grasp their ideas or theology, Jesus’ disciples are those who were like him because they were with him (cf. Acts 4.13).
Dr. George Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament: “Discipleship to Jesus was not like discipleship to a Jewish rabbi. The rabbis bound themselves to the Torah; Jesus bound his disciples to himself. The rabbis offered something outside of themselves; Jesus offered himself alone…. Discipleship to Jesus involved far more than following in his retinue; it meant nothing less than complete personal commitment to him and his message.”
According to Acts 6, the number of “disciples” was multiplying. A dynamic church—one filled with the Holy Spirit and conformed to the Word of God—a dynamic church makes disciples of Jesus. This is the clear testimony of the book of Acts, leading one commentator to call Acts a “manual of discipleship.” This is the target at which the New Testament church aimed. They did so by the direct order of Jesus, which he gave in Matthew 28, to guide the church throughout history. [Read Matthew 28.16-20. Pray.]
Church history is filled with colorful characters. In the early days, a Syrian monk named Simon Stylites lived on top of a fifty foot high pillar for extended periods to avoid all contact with the world. He felt devotion to God could best be attained by dressing in a haircloth shirt, sitting on a pillar, and spending time in prayer.
The story is told that when Anatole of France was a young boy, he was deeply impressed by the account of Saint Simon and desired to imitate him. He could not find a pillar, however, so he placed a chair on the kitchen table in his home. He put on the most uncomfortable shirt he could find and intended to spend the rest of his days in fasting and prayer.
His parents were not pleased by this idea. Missing entirely the sublimity of his intentions, his family made his life so miserable that he quickly gave up. He later wrote: “Then I perceived that it is a very difficult thing to be a saint while living with your own family. I saw why Jerome went into the desert.”
What is required to be a disciple of Jesus? To answer that, let us first make sure we hear Jesus’ demand for discipleship in Matthew 28.
1. We Must Aim for Making Disciples
Jesus gives the reason we must aim for making disciples, the command, and the promise of help.
1.1. The Reason We Must Make Disciples (Matthew 28.18)
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Make no mistake: Jesus has absolute authority to command your life. He holds the keys of death and hell; he is the High Priest who alone forgives sinners and prays at the right hand of God; he is the fountain of living waters, the bread from heaven, the King of Kings and Lord of lords; he is the only savior of mankind. In him all the fullness of deity dwells; he is the way, the door, the shepherd, the rock, the truth. To know him is to have life eternal. Jesus proves, by his death and resurrection, that his is the name above every name—at the name of Jesus, every knee must bow and every tongue confess, that he is Almighty Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
So what he commands we are not at liberty to replace with a different target.
Paul David Tripp (Journal of Biblical Counseling 16:3, Spring 1998, page 3): “When Jesus says, ‘All authority has been given to me, so you go,’ there is no room for debate, compromise, or refusal. In this way, the Great Commission is as much about worship as it is about service, as much about surrender as it is about evangelism and disciple-making. Only worshippers will go, teach, and obey.”
Phillip Ryken and Kent Hughes (Commentary on Exodus) make this comment on the necessity of discipleship: “The practical lesson is that we must take God on his terms, not ours. Discipleship is not open to discussion.”