The growth and spread of Christianity as a world religion can be traced to Jesus’ command as recorded in the New Testament to take the message of the gospel to all the world. Among the other texts that contain this command found in the Gospels (Mark 16:15; Luke 24: 47; John 20:21), Matthew’s account to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19, NKJV), popularly known as the Great Commission, is well known among Christians.
But what does it mean to make someone a disciple of Jesus Christ? Who is a disciple and what is the process for becoming one? Since this New Testament text was written in the context of first-century Jewish culture, there is a need to answer these questions from that background and seek to understand the implications for Christians today who strive to win true disciples for Jesus in contemporary times.
RABBI AND DISCIPLE: THE PROCESS IN THE FIRST CENTURY A.D.
In the Great Commission stated in Matthew 28:19, the word “disciples” (translated from the Greek word mathetes) must be understood as part of the educational system of first-century Judaism. Jewish children, especially males, were taught the Scriptures from childhood by their parents and in the synagogues. After the age of 12 or 13, gifted students enrolled in a more intense study of the Torah (the first 5 books of the Bible) and Jewish oral tradition under the tutelage of a rabbi. The student, usually called a talmid (Hebrew for disciple),1 would attach himself to and travel with the rabbi and learn his interpretations of the Torah until he internalized them. This continued until the student became a full-fledged rabbi or scribe at the age of 30.
Students enrolled in this stage of Jewish education usually had to choose their rabbi. It is said that “students investigated various rabbis and decided to whom they wanted to attach themselves.”2 Whatever rabbi they chose would evaluate the potential disciples with test questions to see if they qualified. If the rabbi believed that the student was good enough, he called the disciple to follow him. After this, the student left his family and village and went wherever his rabbi went until he was figuratively “covered in the dust of his rabbi” and took up his “yoke” (his way of teaching and interpreting the Scriptures).3
Unlike traditional Western education, the learning at this stage of Jewish education did not involve sitting in a classroom and absorbing lectures. The disciple learned by literally following his rabbi in everyday life: traveling with him, living with him, and imitating him. The primary task of the disciple was to become like his rabbi in every way possible.4 This was the process by which disciples were made in first-century Judaism.
MAKING DISCIPLES: FULFILLING THE GREAT COMMISSION IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY A.D.
Time and again, many Adventists have understood the Great Commission to be only about baptizing and making more church members. However, a careful look at the text shows that the main command of the text is grounded in the verbs “go” and “make disciples” (from the Greek matheteuo). The other actions (in participle form) mentioned in this text (baptizing and teaching) are subordinate to these main verbs. This means that the main verbs state “what” should be done and the subordinate participles state “how” it should be done.5 Therefore, the text can be paraphrased as, “Go and make disciples by baptizing them and teaching them.”
From a Christian context, a disciple is not just a church member. Just as in ancient times a disciple was a committed follower of a rabbi, a disciple now is a person who sincerely follows Jesus in every aspect of life—one who, not only believes and has been baptized, but has matured in the Christian faith and actively participates in church ministry and mission, consistently serving others.6 A disciple is a truly committed and active follower of Jesus in worship, fellowship, ministry, and evangelism.7
As Adventist elders and church members strive to fulfill this command in contemporary times, there is a need to learn from the first-century Jewish process of making disciples. Here are three key points for Adventist disciple-making today:
1. Making disciples requires quality time. A rabbi’s task of making Jewish young men his disciples involved quality time as he intensively poured out and reproduced himself in his disciples until they became like him.
Disciple making is labor-intensive, involving teaching and investing one’s life in others.8 “Disciples cannot be mass-produced. We cannot drop people into a program and see disciples emerge at the end of the production line. It takes time to make disciples.”9
Because discipling is a process that takes time, disciplemakers (or disciplers) need to be patient and supportive of potential disciples as they make progress in their journey toward Christian maturity. Christian believers should avoid trying to rush people into baptism and other church programs in the disciple-making process. It must be understood that making disciples is not just about baptizing people but about guiding them (before and after baptism) in ongoing spiritual growth until they become mature followers of Jesus and, in turn, lead others to Jesus.10
2. Making disciples requires a community. A rabbi always had a group of disciples, and this group formed a community that became the basis of learning together. Within the group, there were discussions and interactions about the Hebrew Scriptures, how previous rabbis had interpreted them, and how they applied to life.11 In this context of community, there was transparent sharing and accountability as they lived daily with the rabbi. Jesus did the same with His disciples, enjoying community with them and others (Luke 8:1; John 3:22). This community was part of the process of making disciples.
Disciple-making communities need activities that help grow and train Christian believers together in the faith (Bible study and prayer) and engage them in outreach and service opportunities. These community activities of sharing within and without the faith settings provide practical, hands-on life experiences that are vital to becoming mature disciples of Jesus.
3. Disciple-making requires authentic disciples of Jesus. In Mark 3:14, the first reason why Jesus chose disciples is “to be with Him.” This implies that disciples are those who spend time with Jesus first before they seek to make disciples for Him. Those who make disciples for Jesus must themselves be disciples of Jesus. While everyone is a disciple of something or someone, disciple-makers seeking to fulfill Matthew 28:19 must personally follow Jesus first.12
The Great Commission in Matthew 28:19—“go and make disciples”—continues to motivate Adventist mission the world over. From the context of first-century Judaism, making disciples required quality time with and total commitment to a rabbi who reproduced and invested himself in them. Contemporary Adventist followers of Jesus need to understand how disciples are made and focus on genuinely and continually fulfilling this great command: to produce truly mature disciples of Jesus who will change the world for Him.
1 Spangler and Tverberg, Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 54; B. D. Chilton, “Rabbinic Traditions and Writings,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Joel Green, Scot McKnight, I. Howard Marshall, eds. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 654.
2 David A. Toth, “In His Disciple-Making Ministry, How Did Jesus Christ Determine What to Say and/or Do?” a dissertation submitted to the faculty of George Fox Evangelical Seminary in candidacy for the degree of Doctor of Ministry. George Fox University, Portland, Oregon. March 2015, 23, 24. Retrieved from http:// digitalcommons. georgefox.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1104&context=dmin.
3 “How to Disciple: How to be Jesus’ Disciple: A Vision for Discipleship.” FOCUSequip, 2. Retrieved from http://www.focusequip.org/ assets/pdf/how-to-discipleship-vision-preview.pdf.
4 Spangler and Tverberg, 51.
5 James H. Park, “Making Missionary Disciples in Matthew,” Asia-Africa Journal of Mission and Ministry, vol. 1 (2009): 53, 56, 57; Kim Papaioannou, “Proclamation and Discipleship: Two Sides to Evangelistic Outreach (Matt 24:14 and Matt 28:19, 20),” Asia-Africa Journal of Mission and Ministry, vol. 11 (2015): 189, 191; James Cress, You Can Keep Them If You Care: Helping New Members Stay On Board (Silver Spring, MD: Ministerial Association of General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2000), 13.
6 Papaioannou, 189.
7 Papaioannou, 189; Cress, 13, 17.
8 Papaioannou, 191; Michael Dornbrack, “The Discipleship Challenge,” from Ministry, May 2016, 8.
9 Leroy Eims, The Lost Art of Disciple-Making (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1978), 45, quoted in Greg Ogden, Transforming Discipleship: Making Disciples A Few at a Time (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 67.
10 Dornbrack, 8.
11 Doug Greenwold, “Disciples and Rabbis: Missing Perspective,” 26, 27. Retrieved from http://preservingbibletimes.org/wp-content/ uploads/2014/03/DisciplesIII_2.pdf.
12 Spangler and Tverberg, “We are also called to be in daily, living relationship with Rabbi Jesus, becoming His talmidim [disciples] and then sharing our lives with others so that they too, can become His disciples,” 205.
Ikechukwu Oluikpe, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the School of Religion and Theology at the Northern Caribbean University in Mandeville, Jamaica.