Summary: There are lots of experts on the topic of discipleship, so why is there so much confusion? What does the Bible say about disciples?
What is a disciple of Christ? There are many books on the subject these days, and frankly a lot of technical confusion. That wasn’t the case in the first century. They were very clear about it and had Jesus’ words fresh in their minds. We need not be confused either, and we don’t need books, programs and people’s opinions of what a disciple is.
There is a lot about the qualities and fruit of a disciple throughout the New Testament, but let’s start today by looking at the basics in the greatest authoritative statement ever made from Jesus himself in Matthew 28. It’s the Great Commission and everything else flows from that. What does Jesus say? He said first of all that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Think about that for a minute. Do we believe that, and if so do we live as though it’s true? Think about who’s speaking here. It’s a dead guy, that’s why some in the crowd doubted. They had watched him die and be put in a tomb only a few days earlier, and now here he is talking to them.
So after the resurrected son of God rises from the dead and says all authority has been given to Him, do you think you’d listen to what he has to say next? They’re hanging on every word and here it comes. “Go therefore (because I have all authority) and make disciples of all nations”. So we stop there and say Ok but what does that mean? They probably would have a better understanding than us because they were part of that culture and knew the subtleties of the language and the religious procedures of the time.
But to make it clear Jesus tells us exactly what he means by that. “Baptising them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (that represents the conversion part), teaching them to observe or keep all that I have commanded you (that represents the ongoing sanctification part). And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” So we’re not alone in this.
So if we use that to define what a disciple is, we can conclude that at the bare minimum they are baptized, and committed to doing all that Jesus commanded. If we broaden that we can conclude that they have made Jesus their Lord and Master.
Now that word disciple literally means pupil or learner, and in that context it refers to those who were pupils of the rabbis in Jewish culture. A rabbi’s disciples would go everywhere with the Rabbi, not only learning what the rabbi knew, but also learning to emulate the rabbi.
Notice in Jesus words that he does not say to teach them my commands, but to do what I command. So I could teach you what Jesus commands are, but that’s not what making a disciple is, it is teaching people to do what He commands.
Now one has to wonder why he would put baptizing them before teaching them. I know of several churches that require baptism candidates to go through several classes before they can be baptized. Now I understand that you need to know what you’re doing when you get baptized, but I can get that spending 15 minutes with a person. Nowhere can you find biblical grounds for going through classes before baptism.
Now we might also ask, why doesn’t Jesus say anything about salvation or accepting Jesus into their hearts or anything like that? Could he be saying that the first step in becoming a disciple is to be baptized? Well, if you look at the rest of the New Testament and you look at when people come to believe, what is the first thing they always do? That’s right they’re baptized. As far as we can tell there is no such thing in the New Testament as an unbaptized follower of Jesus. There are those like Simon the magician who are baptized and not true followers of Christ. But there are no followers who are not baptized. So it seems they took the commission of Christ seriously.
Now there’s been an issue in the church about whether baptism is necessary for salvation, and of course there’s the issue of the mode of baptism. Is it sprinkling or pouring or immersion? Should we baptize infants or is it just for people capable of making the commitment to Christ. I’m not going to get into all that but it does seem that the preferred method in the New Testament was to baptize believers by immersion.
The English word baptize comes from the Greek word baptizo which means to immerse. It is related to the word Bapto which means to dip. There’s an interesting example from the 2nd century that’s helpful here, and it’s about making pickles. It says the vegetable should be first dipped (bapto) into boiling water, and then baptized (baptizo) in the vinegar solution.