What is Discipling? (Part 1)4 min read

This article is part three of a three-part series. Read Part 2 – What Do Disciples Do? and Part 3 – How Did Rabbi Jesus Disciple People?.

“Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations …,” (Matthew 28:16-19 NIV).

Lately, my eye has been drawn to those first four words in Matthew 28. “Then the eleven disciples ….” Jesus is giving the Great Commission to only eleven disciples. Eleven. That’s not very many. There are usually more people sitting in the first few pews of our churches on Sunday mornings than are standing before Jesus in this passage! Jesus said, “Go make disciples of all nations,” to eleven disciples.

Wow … it makes a person think.

If our local church was the only church on the face of the earth, and Jesus came to us with this commission, would we have a plan to disciple the world?

It’s a sobering thought. But it is also catalytic. Such a thought causes us to ask and answer some very important questions about what a disciple is, what a disciple does, and how we disciple people.

Somehow Jesus started with eleven disciples and went up to billions. Most of our churches start with hundreds but are stalled. Could it be connected with our understanding or misunderstanding of what discipling is?

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The way Jesus discipled caused expansion. The way we disciple has caused contraction. What’s going on?

11-disciples-went-up-to-billionsgregA couple years ago, I was with a group of young pastors talking about making disciples. They got excited and headed back to their congregations ready to redouble their focus on making disciples. The following evening, one of the pastors had an elders meeting and he began talking in an excited way about making disciples. Finally, one of the elders, in a wonderful display of transparency, raised his hand and said, “Pastor, if we are supposed to make disciples, what is one?”

Good question.

It’s easy to use a word like “disciple” prolifically but not be as clear as we could be on its definition. So let’s gain some clarity.

What is a Disciple?

The place to go to answer this question is the Gospels. When we look at the people around Jesus, we can easily see that not everyone who loved and trusted Jesus was called a disciple of Jesus. Lots of people loved Jesus, were taught by Jesus, and received bread and fish and healing from Jesus. Lots of people received the forgiveness of God from Jesus and had their names written in the book of life.

But only a subset of the crowds who were loved, forgiven, and saved by Jesus were called disciples of Jesus. We can see that plainly in the Gospel accounts. So what distinguished disciples from the rest of the people who loved and trusted Jesus, too? It wasn’t that the disciples were loved more or forgiven more. It wasn’t that they had a superior kind of faith (Jesus said little children did better at faith than his own disciples). This wasn’t about disciples being better than the others. But they were different. How?

In the days of Rabbis and disciples, everybody understood what was happening when someone crossed the line from being an admirer of a Rabbi, or a student of a Rabbi, to being a disciple of a Rabbi. Someone who admires a Rabbi honors the Rabbi. Someone who studies about a Rabbi is a student of the Rabbi. But only someone who wants to become like a Rabbi is a disciple of the Rabbi.

The disciples in the Gospels were people who had come into a specific kind of relationship with the Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth. When Jesus called a person to be a disciple, it was with the words, “Follow me.” By the power of the Holy Spirit, they were to get up and begin to follow the Rabbi around. The purpose of their following was to not only learn the Rabbi’s teaching, but to imitate how the Rabbi lived out his teaching. They were to imitate his lifestyle and put his teaching into practice. The goal for the followers was that they would eventually become like the Rabbi. Jesus clarifies this for us in Luke 6:40 when he says, “A student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher.”

So the beginning of a working definition for “disciple,” which captures what we see in the Gospels, could be, “A disciple follows Jesus.” However, this then leads to another clarifying question: “What does following Jesus look like?” We will explore this in “What is Discipling: Part Two.

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This article is Part 3 of a 3-part series on “What is Discipling.”

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About the Author

Rev. Greg Finke is the founder and executive director of Dwelling 1:14, a non-profit ministry which seeks to help Jesus-followers connect in their neighborhoods, workplaces, and schools for discipling and missional living ( Before founding Dwelling 1:14, Finke served as senior pastor of Messiah, Midland and Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Houston, Texas. He and his wife, Susan, have three daughters and enjoy life as neighborhood missionaries in League City, Texas.

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