“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.”
It is not open to discussion because God the Father, as promised in Psalm 2, gives the nations of the earth to King Jesus. He has absolute authority to commission the church in her ministry and to command the nations to conformity. We must make disciples because “the authority” commands it.
1.2. The Command to Make Disciples (Matthew 28.19-20a)
“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.”
Greek grammar has participles, just as English does. These participles are used slightly differently than they are in English, so it is impossible to bring the exact Greek nuance into our translations. What is important, however, is this: the sentence in Matthew 28.19-20 has one main verb, an imperative, a command: “make disciples.” The other verbs are participles; they describe “disciple making.” Jesus gives one command: “make disciples”; the process is “as you go,” by “baptizing” and “teaching to observe.”
This section is Scripture is almost universally called, “The Great Commission.” We usually associate it with the outward works of evangelism and missions. This is the passage we often read when sending out foreign missionaries; these words form the charge for many churches short-term mission projects; this text is often the vision statement for the evangelism committee. All of which is good and appropriate. It is also Jesus’ description of the ministry of the local church. Our calling is not simply to send people out who themselves make disciples; the church exists to make disciples.
Charles Dunahoo (Director of Christian Education for the PCA) writes in the magazine of the Committee for Christian Education (aptly entitled, Equip to Disciple): “The church’s assignment is making kingdom disciples, discipling Christians to live Christ-like lives as the salt and light people of God.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 52: “Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.”
Our target must be to produce people who are like Jesus. Of course, that is a lofty goal. So the last part of this commission is critical.
1.3. The Promise of Help in Making Disciples (Matthew 28.20b)
“And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Immediately after these words, Jesus departs and his people are left alone, like orphan children in a cold, cruel world. Yet his people are never to give into despair, for we are never alone—Jesus is always with us. We can hardly conceive a promise more comforting, strengthening, encouraging, cheering, than this: I give you a great job: disciple the nations; and with it a great promise: “Fear not, I am with thee; O be not dismayed, For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid; I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand, Upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.”
It makes you want to jump up and get busy—let us test the promise of God and find him ever faithful!
2. We Must Deal Honestly With the Difficulties of the Command to Make Disciples
2.1. The Problem of the Moving Target
In spite of the fact that Jesus’ command is clear, not everyone agrees. Many churches dizzy the congregation with multiple goals for ministry. One week the main thing is to evangelize—we will do anything to get people in the door. But later it will to have the best music anywhere.
When the quarterback drops back to pass, his receiver does not remain at a fixed place; the target moves. In this way, the work of the church is very different from football. Our situation is more like European football, what we call soccer. The goal never moves; it is always at the end of the field, centered, eight feet high, twenty-four feet wide. Likewise, the goal for church ministry must not vary: make disciples of Jesus. A moving target disobeys Christ and discourages the saints.
2.2. The Problem of an Unmoving Aim
In target-shooting competition, the target stands still and so do you. You aim and fire, then make slight adjustment based on the accuracy of your first shot.
Some churches do the same; they took aim several years ago, found the target, and still aim the same way. But our ministry is not like shooting a bow; it is more like soccer. The target never moves, but we must in order to avoid the opponent and hit the goal. Printing sermon tracts and distributing them on street corners was an awesome way to “aim” during Spurgeon’s day; today there are too many blockers in that path. We must still take the gospel message to the world, but how we do so varies with the times.
2.3. The Problem of Always Aiming
Billy Sunday, who played baseball in the late 1800s and became an evangelist in the early 1900s, once said: “There wouldn’t be so many non-church goers if there were not so many non-going churches.”
Many Christians refuse to fire because they are always aiming. No program seems good enough; there is always something wrong with whatever is proposed. They are paralyzed by the fear of doing it wrong.
I am not suggesting that we quit aiming; I am saying that we will die unless we shoot. Think carefully and biblically—by all means—about how best to create imitators of Christ to the glory of God. But we are unfaithful when we insist on continuous iterations of quality improvement while never getting around to doing the work of the Lord. We tread near the sin of pride when we expect or limit ministry to that which we find perfect. Faithful discipling requires attempts which fail, and mistakes which must be corrected.
Is my plan for mercy ministry perfect? Absolutely not. But it is the only one I have; and it would rather practice what I preach, then change and improve, than wait for a program which will never arrive.
2.4. The Problem of Reductionism
Jesus commissions us to make disciples; that includes both evangelism and edification, both bringing in and building up, both “baptizing” and “teaching to observe.” We need to ask ourselves where we are weak.
Please do not get discouraged; every Christian and every church tends toward imbalance. The question is not whether we are imbalanced (we are); the question is whether we trust God enough to change.
Francis Schaeffer (at the World Congress on Evangelism in Berlin): “Evangelism that does not lead to purity of life and purity of doctrine is just as faulty and incomplete as an orthodoxy which does not lead to a concern for, and communication with, the lost.”
David E. Lanier (Professor of New Testament Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary): “All of the Gospels stand on the two legs of evangelism and discipleship. To evangelize without discipling is to promote immaturity. To disciple without evangelization is to promote hypocrisy and nominal Christianity.”
These two pictures are from Roy T. Edgemon (Director of Church Training, Southern Baptist Convention) in Review and Expositor, 77:4 (Fall 1980). They are his attempt to show pictorially the result of failing at proper discipleship. [Obviously the pictures do not transfer into SermonCentral.com’s "text only" display. They can be seen in Logos Software’s Journals, purchased from Galaxy Software.)
Here is what I find in church. It is much easier to claim to make disciples than to do the hard work of overcoming these problems by devotion to prayer, diligent study of the Word and the world, and disciplined work of ministry. Many churches have wonderful mission statements. That is good; in fact, I have written a Proposed Mission Statement for the elders’ meeting this week, so we can begin the process of defining our church’s place in the greater work of God’s kingdom. As you might expect, the key thought in the first sentence is “make disciples”:
The Church of the Covenant makes disciples of Jesus
by equipping God’s people
to reach up in worship and devotion, and
to reach out in word and deed,
and by exhorting all people
to be reconciled to God through faith in Jesus Christ.
We need a mission statement. But even more, we need to accept Jesus’ authority, hear Jesus’ command, and trust Jesus’ presence, so that we will be excited about making disciples.
3. We Must Let the Bible Define Discipleship
When I began my study this week, I was nearly overwhelmed with the quantity of materials on discipleship. Of course, that makes since when we realize that everything it means to be a Christian can be contained in that word.
I have a friend in St. Louis who used to say, whenever you did anything that was emblematic of a true disciple, “You smell like Jesus.” That was his way of getting to the heart of the issue: true Christian maturity is marked by this: they are like him because they were with him.
Since we can no longer walk with Jesus, the primary means for being with Jesus is meeting him in the Bible. So how does the Bible define this goal of discipleship?
One way of determining that is by looking up every occurrence of the word, “disciple” and making a list.
1) Matthew 28.20: A Disciple Observes All Jesus Commanded
2) John 15.8: “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” A Disciple Bears Fruit
3) Luke 14.26-27: “If anyone 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.” A Disciple is Controlled by Affection for the Things of God
4) A Disciple Denies Himself.
5) A Disciple Remains in the Word
Another method would be to compare Biblical ideals for those who follow Christ with characteristics of those who only pretend to do so. One author suggests this table.
Consumer (Observer) Server (Disciple)
Thinks: Somebody else Thinks: I can do that
Only recognizes problems Wants to be part of the solution
Sits Runs the race
“Sunday Only” mentality “Daily” walk with the Lord
Only ‘hearing’ the Word Doer of the Word
Whatever our particular method, this much is certain: we must know our goal. We must let the Bible define our target. It cannot be that we bring people in who enjoy traditional worship; we must aim to help people meet Jesus so that the world will be awed when we walk out the door. We must help people smell like Jesus.
It has been said that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow could take a worthless sheet of paper, write a poem on it, and make it worth $6,000—that’s genius.
Nelson Rockefeller could sign his name to a piece of paper and make it worth a million dollars—that’s capital.
Uncle Sam can take paper, draw pictures on it and mke it worth $100.00—that’s money.
A machinist can take a $5.00 bar of stainless steel and make it into a $5000.00 surgical implant—that’s skill.
An artist can take inexpensive canvas, paint a picture on it, and make it worth $1,000—that’s art.
God can take a worthless, sinful life, wash it in the blood of Christ, put His Spirit in it, and make it a blessing to humanity—that’s discipleship.
That is you, beloved of the Lord. For this is your great commission. You think about that. Amen.