The Call to Make Disciples in Matthew 28: 18-20
Excerpt taken from Evangelism or Discipleship: How Can They Effectively Work Together by Bobby Harrington and Bill Hull
In this chapter, we’re asking three critical questions of this seminal passage. We begin with the two verses before it:
“Then the eleven disciples left for Galilee, going to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw Him, they worshiped Him—but some of them doubted!” (Matt. 28: 16-17, NLT).
1. Why did they show up?
The eleven disciples were afraid. They had failed Him. Yet they were His disciples, not anyone else’s. The resurrection had convinced them to stick with Jesus. They knew what was ahead. Jesus had already told them they would be hated and would die like He did. But they would also be raised like Him. So when He appeared to them once more, they worshiped Him. Still, doubt nagged at them. Was this real, were they imagining this, were they being tricked?
If a skeptic paid attention to this one simple fact about the disciples, it would erase any doubt about the reason for the creation of the church and the existence of the New Testament. The idea that these very ordinary men would have invented such a story and arranged for themselves to be killed is ludicrous. Belief and sacrifice didn’t come naturally for these 11 men; they don’t come easily to any of us.
Every Sunday, millions of disciples sit in services praying, thinking, worshiping, and yes, doubting the whole thing. Asking the same questions as the 11 on that mountain. “Is this real, is God really interested, is He really here, and am I willing to go and do what He is telling me?” The good news is that doubt is integral to faith. It reinforces our faith; without strong doubt, faith cannot be strong. Worshiping while doubting is normal—and even essential.
Jesus knew their inner struggle; it was nothing new to Him. He, being fully human, had known many of the same struggles when He faced crucifixion. As leaders, we should expect people in our churches to have doubts about what we are teaching them, especially when it involves changing their schedules, their use of money and their professional and family lives. To rethink how you are going to live and then take risks that threaten any sense of normal security is daunting. Like the 11 disciples, you must have evidence and a source of authority to answer such a call. If your teaching on the implications of Christ’s call to make disciples doesn’t produce some fear, then you’re not teaching what Jesus taught.
2. What is our authority?
Now, let’s look at the first part of this watershed passage: “Jesus came and told His disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28:18, NLT).
The authority is for the specific purpose of making disciples. Have you considered that “all authority in heaven and earth” is focused on one thing? If Jesus’ words are to be believed, all authority God has made is certainly resident in one person and will now be channeled in His effort to rescue the world. This is all the authority needed to make disciples, and making disciples is the one thing Jesus has authorized His people to do. When a disciple wonders how much spiritual authority he has, the answer is “all of it.”
When the religious authorities asked Peter and John this question, Peter answered, “Let me clearly state to all of you and to all the people of Israel that he was healed by the powerful name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, the man you crucified but whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 4:10, NLT).
These unlettered men with calloused hands and uncultured accents were challenging the elite of Israel. They had seen more conversions in a few hours than the entire religious system of Israel had produced in years. They knew where their authority came from and acted on it boldly and courageously. Peter and John’s fear didn’t disappear, but it was overpowered by courage.
Isn’t this the message needed by the vast majority of North American Church members who sit passively in the pews? The one thing the church has been commanded to do and has been given the authority to do is make disciples. And if we do, that same energy will make evangelism necessary. In a very short time, people realized that Peter’s goal was more than to convince people to believe and be baptized. It was to enroll them into a new community of fellow believers where they would live and learn from one another.
3. What is involved in making disciples?
The final verse of this passage helps us understand the “how” of making disciples.
“Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19, NLT).
We can all pretty much agree that a disciple of Jesus is one who trusts and follows Him and obeys all of His teachings. I (Bill) like to describe a disciple as “someone whose intention is to follow Jesus and to learn from Him how to live his life as though Jesus were living it.” A disciple has believed in the fullest sense of the first-century use of belief. The primary property of faith is action. No less of an advocate for the necessity and adequacy of faith for salvation, Martin Luther once said of true biblical faith, “While others are debating whether faith produces works, real faith has already ran out into the streets and is at work.” To believe in Jesus is to follow Him, and that is what makes a disciple. An accurate statement—and it also would mark only the beginning of the journey.
The disciple-making process begins long before actual conversion. Looking at the Gospels and how people came to true faith, we see that conversion is a process as often as it is an event. Think about Peter. We sometimes like to ask, “When was Peter truly converted?” Looking at his life with this question in mind helps us to see the process involved in true conversion. Jesus discipled Peter long before Peter really understood the core elements of the gospel and the cross. Consider these questions:
Was Peter converted when he first started following Jesus in Matt. 4:18? Or was it when he was called to be one of the twelve in Luke 6? What about when he denied that Jesus even needed to die on the cross in Mark 8:32? Was it after Peter fell and then repented in Luke 22:32, or when Jesus breathed on him and said, “receive the Holy Spirit” in John 20:22? Was it on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2? These tricky questions help us to realize what is often involved in the crocked, messy journey of discipleship.
We see the same process with Thomas, and James and John. Coming to a belief in Christ can take time. Eventually when the moment comes, we experience a realization, a definitive insight or a prayer that brings together the pieces.
Disciple making begins before we’re converted to Christ, when in a special way we are already under God’s care. Discussions with Christians, the acts of kindness toward us, our observations and even our conflicts play a role in choosing to follow Jesus. Prior to our initial decision to follow Christ (what many call conversion), all of the meaningful contact with those seeking God is part of the disciple-making process.
At the dawn of the Christian era, water baptism was the official beginning for those who wanted to declare their faith. The baptismal formula “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” has largely remained the practice of the church. In the majority of cultures outside of the Western Hemisphere, baptism still marks a clear difference in how others see you, especially in countries dominated by other religions.
My (Bobby) friend, Joe Shulam, is a classic example. As a young Israeli, Joe was warned by his Jewish parents that if he decided to follow Jesus as the Messiah, they would cut him off. Joe wrestled with the decision for some time and then made his decision. As soon as his parents heard of his baptism, they cut him off. He was forced to enter into adulthood and live for many years estranged from his parents (years later, they too decided to follow Jesus as their Messiah). For Joe, like so many, baptism was the dividing line between his old life and the new.
In the United States, believer baptisms are done in churches, swimming pools and the ocean. Most of these ceremonies are relationally benign, rarely raising an eyebrow. And they are cultural artifacts. People in general, and this would be true of most church members, do not expect getting wet to make much of a difference in one’s life.
Matthew 28 asks us to think in terms of what we’re being baptized into. It seems important to say that that baptism places us into a community that finds its genesis in the Triune God: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are given a unity with others in Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-13). It is a community based on truth, trust and grace that aspires to practice in community what their God does. This “belonging” is one of the most inviting parts of what it means to be a follower of Christ, because you join Christ and His community. The human division of the Christ community is flawed, sometimes outright ugly and embarrassing, but its potential for good is better than any other experience on earth. When someone is baptized, it is with the hope that she can live this reality and have a blessed life in Christ because she is in community.
The process we call “making disciples” includes evangelism and is done by disciples to make other disciples. That process includes just about everything we do in relation to people around us. Some elements of the process are planned; some we learn from our training. But as a whole, most are unplanned and are manifested in our character. Disciple making includes what we are like when we react to the unplanned big curriculum of life as it comes at us day and night without warning.
All the Nations
Here comes the part of making disciples that requires grit and patience. The disciple making Jesus calls us to should lead us to reproduce. The goal is not just neighbors, friends and work associates. Most of the people we are to reach, we will never meet. Jesus said that when the gospel was preached to all the nations, then the end would come. We feel obligated to say that the original word for “nations” is where we derive the English word “ethnic.” Jesus is referring to all people groups rather than nations, which of course have changed boundaries, leaders, governments and names in the last two millennia.
The U.S. church has done a good job of foreign missions. Much of the medical and educational infrastructure of the most needy people on earth depends greatly on the efforts and goodwill of the American church. The missional efforts of Americans continue to grow, and some of the funding is now coming from other sources than the church. It’s encouraging to see the major philanthropic efforts from wealth created in the free enterprise system. While many of these efforts are not in the name of Christ, they certainly represent the Spirit of Christ and His care for others. God is using them to answer the prayers of so many, “Give us this day our daily bread.” This is the positive residual of the church in post-Christian America.
The argument against the church is that it has done a good job, but not the one Jesus commanded. By neglecting its core mission of making disciples of its members, the church has only tapped a small part of its potential resources. Instead of an all-hands-on-deck effort to reach the world, the church has labored with a small, stripped-down crew. Given the low percentage of involvement, we commend the church for its impact. But to think of what has been accomplished as a “success” would be like describing standing in ankle- deep water as a flood of God’s blessing.
Why then has the level of involvement been so meager in light of the overall potential?
What Are We Missing?
“Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you” (Matt. 28:20, NLT).
The process of what we call discipleship is to be modeled after Jesus’ example with His own disciples. While this would seem obvious, unfortunately the contemporary church has greatly neglected it. Jesus entered into relationship with His men and trained them on the job. Over the course of His ministry on earth, the disciples observed Him and questioned Him; He shocked them, scandalized them, scared them, explained His teaching to them, and then asked them to try it out for themselves. They were connected to Him through His belief in them, the authority of His call, the power of His life and His clear focus on His mission to seek and save (Luke 19:10).
Because He knew them well, He was able to teach them deeply. That familiarity is easy to miss in the scriptures, but in the first few days Jesus spent with Peter, Nathanial, John, Andrew and Philip, He revealed He knew their hearts and motivations. He even gave them nicknames (John 1:35-51). Jesus gave His disciples what so many ministry leaders today are not willing to give—significant chunks of time. Some theologians estimate that He spent 90 percent of His time with the 12 men. A very private life in a way, but how He discipled had a very public impact. Many effective leaders spend large amounts of time alone or with a few others. Remember Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane; He mentioned His followers more than 40 times. He knew he was entrusting the mission to them. In that prayer, He asked His father to take care of them (John 17:1-26). Because He considered them the key to His mission to redeem and restore the world, He made His most important time investment in His disciples.
We’re not throwing a blanket over all ministry leaders and saying they don’t invest in others. But we will say that the leaders who do are in the minority and that most of the time their intentions are scattered. Jesus told us what the curriculum would be—not just any curriculum, not just any fashionable trend, but something simple, yet difficult. In fact, He said it would be so difficult that many would choose not to follow it. At its core, His curriculum would require every leader to do what He did: to lead, to be an example, to risk failure and to go against the grain of easy, fast success. It would be to “teach them to obey.” It would be personal, relational, slow, discouraging, ordinary and unnoticed by many. This is particularly true in our time. When you drop off the grid to engage in this kind of work, you don’t exist in the public eye.
We have much teaching about what is right and wrong. You’ll find no shortage of teaching on moral behavior, and on doing important work around the world. In fact, you can find an avalanche of books, videos, conferences and social media pundits that remind us of what we should and should not do. But precious few committed pastors and leaders are teaching us how to become what is needed to carry out the Great Commission. The great omission in the Great Commission is the absence of accountability. The words of Dallas Willard come to mind:
“Ministers pay far too much attention to people who do not come to services. Those people should generally be given exactly that disregard by the pastor that they give to Christ. The Christian leader has something much more important to do than pursue the godless. The leader’s task is to equip saints until they are like Christ, and history and the God of history waits for him to do this job.
If someone is anxious about the mission to seek and save those in need of Christ, the most important decision to navigate that anxiety comes from the pastor. What are his plans for the people of his congregation? That decision will determine what he does with his gifts, his time and his heart. The first accountability lies with the minister, pastor or leader. In Matt. 28:19-20, Jesus says that if you want Him to bless your effort—and stay with you to the end of it—then your effort must center on teaching people to obey everything He commanded.
In the church, we often talk about accountability more than we practice it because accountability and the commitment it requires can be unpleasant. In our (Bill and Bobby) most candid moments, we admit that the most important relationships in our lives have included some quarreling. No good relationship is conflict-free. This is true in our prayers, and in our discussions with spouses and close associates. Without some degree of frustration and disagreement, we can’t truly know and care about another person. We know that getting close to someone requires the risk of getting hurt and disappointed. Quite naturally, for those seeking to live trouble-free lives, accountability becomes something to be avoided.
When we work accountability into our lives, we begin to cultivate order and effectiveness. That is, until someone breaks rank or doesn’t show up or threatens group morale. Accountability is very comforting to a leader until someone who has agreed to it decides they don’t want to do whatever they have agreed to do. The simple truth is that if someone isn’t following through on a commitment, he is either unwilling or unable. If he is unwilling, it is a spiritual issue; if unable, often it is a time management issue. Both can be painful and messy. That’s why many leaders choose to insulate themselves from the process.
But when it comes to making disciples, to seeking and saving those who need God, accountability is the necessary missing piece. It must be done. And God has promised to stick with us until the job is done.
“And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20, NLT).
The promise is for those who are committed to this process. You can’t count on this promise if you’re wandering and meandering through life. In the next chapter, we’ll look at Paul’s understanding of how the church is called to practice Jesus’ commission to discipleship and evangelism.
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To me Matthew 28.18-20 is the key verse that brings everything in the Scriptures together. But it is not completely understood. People take different bits of it and make it their own. For example, there are those who focus on the unreached peoples, another will talk about making disciples. Yet, the most important aspect of these verses is ‘to teach them (the disciples) to obey’ Jesus’ teaching. Jesus’ teaching is not just about Character and Salvation, it is also about worshipping God, speaking up about social and moral issues, all as part of a true community of believers seeking to transform ourselves, others and His creation (and not just the Earth, but all created things). As a Church we are all called to make disciples – we are not meant to stand still in our walk with Jesus, but to allow the Holy Spirit to work through us to bring glory to the Father.