Ask a hundred church leaders, “What is the essence of Christian Discipleship?” and possibly you will get around 100 different answers! There will be much in common for most of them but ambiguity about the nature of discipleship seems to be the norm. What is the central core of discipleship?
In an average multi-everything International Church (IC), most people will be typical of the pastors they left behind in other places. So, when the preacher in an IC refers to discipleship, most will hear something different to what the preacher thinks is being said. And because proof-texting is easy, to address the matter the preacher may be tempted to quote a few texts to justify the concept of discipleship assumed to be the correct one. Trouble is, congregations seem to know intuitively when they are being fed a selective argument, and so their presumptions about discipleship continue without serious challenge.
Missional perspectives and practice are directly shaped by how we understand discipleship. I suggest that one of the main causes of disengagement by so many from missional engagement is because of how we have given “discipleship” a focus it does not have in the New Testament.
Here are seven different simple summaries for understanding the heart and focus of discipleship. For most however, their understanding is some kind of combination of these.
- Discipleship is about growing a deep relationship with God together with certain assumptions about how intense the emotional experience should be. Pietistic in nature. Often associated with range of dos and don’ts so that God’s blessing can be received.
- Discipleship is very much a matter of submission and obedience to the leader of the church. Common in Confucian and authoritarian cultures. Usually includes high expectations of conformity to the cultural norms of the group.
- Discipleship is a matter of well established routine practices such as quiet-time with prayer and Bible reading, church participation, Bible study group, and telling others about Jesus.
- Discipleship is understood in a quite self-orientated way with emphasis on the faith and practices that bring benefits of health and wealth.
- Discipleship is essentially about dealing with the spirit world which pervades everything. Identifying, resisting, and casting out such spirits is central to discipleship.
- Discipleship at its best is in full-time Christian ministry.
- Discipleship is what the apostles did as disciple is just another word for apostle.
Figuring out what the New Testament means by discipleship is not as straightforward as often assumed. The noun “disciple” is only used in the Gospels and Acts, the verb “to disciple” is used only four times (Matthew and Acts), and the word “discipleship” is not used at all. Typically, the uses of the noun in the Gospels refer to the Apostles though the word is sometimes used of the growing numbers of followers (Luke 6:17, 10:1). In Acts the noun develops into a term for all Christians. There are many ways in which the New Testament describes the practice of faith in Christ and usually, reasonably so, we blend all this material together when we teach and preach about discipleship. But, if we put aside all this other teaching on Christian life and practice, and just confine ourselves to the essential concept and language of discipleship, how exactly should we understand it?
The Basic Concept
A disciple is essentially a student, a learner, but of a particular kind. Perhaps the best word in English is “apprentice” because it describes the means by which the student learns and the kind of learning involved. Disciple “is the usual word for ‘apprentice.’”Discipleship is learning from the master craftsman of a specific discipline; the apprentice/disciple learns the master’s trade. Those who sat at the feet of Rabbinical and philosophical masters were described as disciples (eg. Paul in Acts 22:3, note Mary in Luke 10:39).
This learning was much more than mere technical skill. Typical apprenticeship/discipleship involved living with the master so that the whole DNA of the master’s profession might be learned. This included the culture, values, ethics, nuances, skills, lifestyle, wisdom, and knowledge of the profession. “Everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40).Fundamental to discipleship was spending much time with the master. Disciple “always implies the existence of a personal attachment which shapes the whole life of the one described as disciple, and which in its particularity leaves no doubt as to who is deploying the formative power.”
Note the use of the word “attachment” in this quote. This is a relationship though not of social equals. I hesitate to use the word “relationship” to describe the connection between master and disciple. Relationship is a word with considerable cultural baggage and expectations. Much misunderstanding of discipleship is caused by the use of “relationship”’ to describe its essence.
So, we are not so surprised to read that Jesus called the 12 to be “with Him” (Mark 3:14). They did not drop in occasionally to have discipleship seminars with Jesus, rather they travelled/walked with Him, ate and slept with Him, observed His ministry, listened to His instruction, and were corrected by Him as necessary. They were hourly exposed to the DNA of Jesus’ mission.
The Apostles, in being with Him, were called to follow Him. This is a loaded expression as we shall note below. The key to understanding what it means to follow is to understand what exactly Jesus was doing that they were to follow.
A useful description of discipleship is the comparison offered by Stanley Hauer was between discipleship and apprentice brick-laying.In his description, note how much repetition is one of the requirements for learning the art.
In summary, discipleship is the adoption of a learning culture and learning lifestyle. A learning lifestyle that centres on a specific master so that one’s whole being and practice, mind and heart, might be transformed into the likeness of the master and his craft. “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples” (John 8:31). The central core of discipleship is life-long learning and practice of a craft. But what exactly is this craft exemplified in Jesus?
The Central Reference Point
Matthew 28:18-20 is a standard text for discussion on discipleship. But contrary to popular assumptions, v.18 is the key verse, not vv. 19-20. The central reference point for all consideration of discipleship is Jesus’ extraordinary claim about Himself. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me.” Figuring out everything about discipleship depends on how well this statement is understood.
Not surprisingly, Matthew here is not introducing us to a new theme. Rather this claim is the climax of Matthew’s on-going consideration of the disconnect between heaven and earth. This is perhaps most poignantly expressed is Jesus’ prayer, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6: 10). How might such a prayer be answered, be fulfilled? In Jesus, as He is enthroned as Lord of heaven and earth. In some places this is anticipated and in others it is presented as a reality following Jesus ascension into heaven. Jonathan Pennington explores Matthew’s expectation of how eventually the Kingdom in Heaven might one day be the Kingdom of God in both heaven and on earth. Thus, what is disconnected becomes integrated.
“All authority in heaven and on earth” is a Kingdom of God statement. Jesus is Lord/King of the Kingdom. The multiple Old Testament expectations of this Kingdom includes the transformation of all things into new heaven and new earth (Isaiah 65:17-25, 66:18-23). Jesus rules with an agenda, with governmental policies for all of society, with a vision for the future. And all things are included, not one sphere of life is left out. He will bring justice to the nations and between the nations, he will address everything in each and every nation until each nation has been sanctified and ready to take its place in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:24-26).
In other words, Jesus is the heart and sole of the missio Dei. The mission of God is the mission of Jesus, and the mission of Jesus with all its comprehensiveness, substance and depth, is captured in these few words, “All authority in heaven and on earth is given to Me.”
So, the central truth that is to shape all discipleship is the mission of Jesus which is integral to His position of Lord and Messiah, seated at the right hand of God. Discipleship is learning and practicing this mission.
Jesus’ command is to “disciple all the nations.” This is an intriguing use of the verb. What does it mean to “disciple” a nation? The link between the authority of Jesus and the consequences for the nations alludes to Daniel 7:13-14. Nations are more than just a collection of individuals, and nations as whole societies are often throughout Scripture included in the Kingdom promises of God. The usual translation of “make disciples” undoubtedly expresses an essential part of such discipline. Individual persons matter and the Gospel calling to persons to become disciples is fundamental.
But I think Jesus meant more than just recruiting individuals through the Gospel to become disciples, indispensable as this must be. For three reasons: (1) the expression in Matthew 28:19 is more comprehensive than just individuals from all nations; (2) the pivotal statement of the previous verse claims that Jesus has authority over nations and not just individuals; and (3) there is a substantial theme running through the Biblical narrative in which the nations, as nations, have a real place within the Kingdom purposes of God (cf. Revelation 21:24-26).
Such a big-picture appreciation of the mission Jesus assigned to us, engages us as God’s agents in the full range of transformation of all things that the Kingdom brings. In word and deed, Gospel and action, for individuals and for communities and nations, we are to be the servants of God as He works to complete the Kingdom through His Son.
All discipleship is to be shaped by the position and rule of Jesus over all of heaven and earth. Nothing in all creation is outside of His Kingdom agenda. This vision is amazingly comprehensive, salvation for all in Christ, renewal of earth and societies, justice and peace everywhere, holiness flavouring everything, the nations prepared to enter the New Jerusalem, no longer poverty or oppression or discrimination, full equality for all, all things reconciled to God through the cross and under the unifying rule of the Lord of heaven and earth.
Discipleship is living and serving towards this vision in whatever large or small ways one can.
The Primary Focus
Jesus called disciples to follow Him. When He said this, He was not engaged in a range of leisure activities, watching TV, a worship service, or having a quiet time. Jesus was working in the world on the Kingdom mission assigned to Him by the Father. This involved sacrifice and much clarity as to how the Kingdom of God contrasted with the ways of culture, politics, and everything else. To follow Jesus is to take up this same calling, this same Kingdom mission. Following Jesus is a profoundly missional occupation. Discipleship is learning and implementing the same Kingdom mission by which Jesus served. Jesus unceasingly taught His disciples about this Kingdom and mission.
John tells us that Jesus declared, “”Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” (John 20:21, cf. John 17:18). This has the same missional impact: Jesus was sent with a mission and so the followers of Jesus are sent into the world with this same mission. Though briefly stated by John, note the purposes for such sending by Jesus.
Consequently, we read in several places of the disciples being sent by Jesus on mission (Matthew 10:1-42, 28:18-20, Mark 3:13-19, 6:6-13, 16:14-20, Luke 9:1-6, 10:1-20, Acts 1:2-8). Being sent into the world on mission is fundamental to the learning and practice of discipleship. But there is more to it than an annual mission trip! It is a way of life, a lifestyle, a shaping of all day, everyday.
To capture the heart of discipleship, Jesus makes this extraordinary statement, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters–yes, even his own life–he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. … In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:25-33). It is repeated, though with slightly different wording from Gospel to Gospel or from one occasion to another. Three pivotal and overlapping descriptions are given as to this sacrificial core of discipleship.
First, Jesus insists that even one’s most loved family members are to be a distant second to the priority of the complete dedication required to follow Him.
Secondly, Jesus list out three requirements for discipleship. Deny oneself, take up one’s cross, and follow Him. We have already summarized the missional focus in following Jesus. To deny oneself is to put aside whatever it takes, even the things one loves most, to be free to wholeheartedly follow Jesus – in the work of the Kingdom. This is about sacrifice. Taking up the cross is another way of saying what comes next.
Thirdly, Jesus says that the love of life itself, or any of the things that make up our lives, are to be sacrificed so that we are free to follow him. “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it (Luke 9:24).” Mathew puts it as finding life (Matthew 10:39). Perhaps we could articulate it as seeking after life, and the things of life. The point is clear, sacrifice anything and everything that gets in the way of total dedication to following Jesus, even one’s own life. To “take up the cross” was to carry the cross of own’s own execution, as Jesus did. So, to take up the cross is to commit to sacrificing life itself to ensure one is free to follow Jesus, even into “the valley of the shadow of death.”
To summarize, discipleship is to be so closely aligned with and attached to Jesus that three things can happen: learning all that He has taught and practiced, sacrificing whatever it takes for as long as it takes, and following Jesus into Kingdom mission.
Back to Genesis and Forward to New Heaven/Earth.
“Disciple all the nations.” Why? Why is a discipled nation such a good thing? What purpose is there in a whole nation following the Master’s trade of Kingdom work? We could answer this question with reference to all that is needed for the Kingdom to grow before Jesus’ return. However, I want to think more eschatologically and to understand the future we must understand God’s creation purposes. Back to the beginning: Genesis 1:27-30, 2:5, 2:15-20. We know that there have been too many terrible explanations for this responsibility given to humankind. “Dominion” has been explained as some kind of exploitative free-for-all. But the context indicates otherwise. Human responsibility is never presented as if the overall will and purpose of God can be ignored. The God of Genesis 1 and 2 is one who works, shapes and manages to make all things good. His dominion, in effect the job description for human dominion, exhibits much valuing of the whole of creation and considerable appreciation for the way it all fits together in an ordered and integrated manner.
As presented by various writers, the context of the statement about being made in the image of God is one of God at work in His creation to enhance the creation so that all is good. To be God-like is to be someone who works in ordering and cultivating the created order. This certainly requires various qualities as we know from the more standard discussions on the image of God. It certainly requires the capacity to work in partnership with God, to learn from Him and to relate well to Him: and in the cool of the evening to enjoy walking with Him in the garden.
To be human is to be co-workers with God in His creation. To be human is to be co-workers with God in His creation project with all the attributes necessary for such. If, after the fall, we understand that God’s salvation purpose for His people, amongst other things, is to restore them to full humanity then His vision for the future is one of restoring us to be co-workers with Him in His creation work.
Full and complete humanity is to be Christ-like (Ephesians 4:13). And to be Christ-like includes working as the Father works (John 5:17). In understanding this work of Christ, we need to keep in mind the large number of references to this work in John’s Gospel together with the strong creation context for John’s account of Jesus beginning with the Gospel’s Prologue.
Before we look towards the future for restored humanity, we need to remind ourselves of the recurring promises of God’s purposes for the nations throughout the narrative from Genesis to Revelation. God works through Israel to ultimately extend His blessing to all nations. The richness of the Kingdom is for all the earth, for all the nations of the earth, and for all who are in Christ.
Revelation declares that the nations will enter the New Jerusalem bringing with them all their glory (Revelation 21:24-26). Isaiah 60 fleshes out what this means. What is the glory of a nation? Isaiah 60 indicates it is all the wealth of possessions, culture and achievements of the nation. To enter the New Jerusalem everything good of a nation’s glory must first be sanctified before being presented to God for His glory. The glory of God is revealed in the glory of the transformed nation entering the New Jerusalem. The created order in each nation reconciled and restored to its rightful place in the presence of God.
So why disciple a whole nation? So that the nation can fulfill all that it is meant to be in the new heaven/earth. To disciple a nation is to work towards this future: to equip a nation to function and work as a Kingdom society within the new heaven/earth. Furthermore, a discipled nation will be one of true humanity for all. That is, a nation of persons who individually and collectively are engaged in work, in productive activity, in partnership with God in His creation vision. While the new heaven/earth will be this creation transformed, the functioning of humankind as co-workers with God in His creation work continues as an essential and vital part of our future. New creation, like the created order of Genesis, will not be fixed and static but rich with potential for further creativity in addition to the everyday functioning of human society in fellowship with our God.
Discipleship is the process by which God prepares us individually and nationally to be restored fully to our proper place as co-workers with God in the life, functioning and advancement of the new heaven/earth.
In our ICs, we long for mission to shape our churches and drive us forward. So, IC leaders need to preach routinely towards discipleship that mission might be the DNA of the church and its people: discipleship as Jesus taught rather than discipleship that conforms to culture or tradition. The potential for ICs to have serious Kingdom impact in the cities in which they operate is huge! But it will first require true discipleship to be the norm in our preaching and thereby in our churches.
Discipleship is demanding in every way. Some say it is not for everyone and so distinctions are made between believers in Christ and disciples. But if all in Christ are called to be disciples of Christ, how can we bring everyone in the body of Christ into this journey?? The young and the old, rich and poor, talented or not, the weak and wounded as well as the strong and healthy, educated and illiterate, the extroverts and the introverts, the fearful and the confident, the immature and the mature, the wise and the not so wise. We need to enable everyone to see that for each one no matter their personality, how frail and limited, no matter how flawed, there is something-for-everyone in the mission of discipleship. Neighbours, gardeners, teachers, tradespeople, artists, business and project managers, cooks, pastors, factory workers, friends, lovers of music, social workers, health professionals, cleaners, labourers, writers, students, technicians and mechanics, inventors, environmentalists, and so on: in word and deed, all have a part to play in Jesus’ Kingdom mission. How do we preach in ICs so that not one person fails to see how discipleship has real missional significance for them?
There is a danger that we describe discipleship as a bridge too far, as so demanding and so complicated that people avoid it out of a sense of failure before they have even started. I often hear preaching like this, sadly. By the end of the sermon with all its many things I am supposed to do, I just feel weary, like I have failed before I have even started. Remember Jesus warning of burdens that are too hard to bear (Luke 11:46, Matthew 23:1-4) and His promise that His yoke is easy and His burden is light (Matthew 11:29-30.
Not only do we preach to a vast range of people, we also preach towards mission in a huge variety of contexts: poor and wealthy, urban and rural, culturally uniform or diverse, political freedom and totalitarian control, healthy national church or hardly any national church at all. Every context demands wisdom, sensitivity and creativity if mission is to be effective and appropriate, rather than jarring and offensive. How do we preach in ICs so that the church and its people learn the arts of discerning culture and context so that mission fits well?
There is a great variety of language and expression used throughout the Scriptures to inform us on how to live as the followers of Christ. We have looked at just one of them. As we preach towards mission, we have the responsibility to help people see how it all fits together as an integrated life, and sacrifice, in discipleship.
Finally, put this all together and what then might it mean to “make disciples”? Essentially, it is to recruit and train up workers for the Kingdom. Through the Gospel, call people to discipleship by grace through faith, and to train them to walk in the footsteps of Jesus in the missio Dei.As disciples live and breathe the mission of Jesus, the hope and life of Jesus will be evident in our actions, our love, our engagement, our words. Disciples make a difference by living as He lived. He lived so that others would see God and His kingdom. One way to describe the Gospel is to express it as a call to join the Kingdom movement and vision. This is a call to the future with hope-shaped discipleship. Join the movement and follow Jesus in faith, and rich salvation through the cross flows freely.
International churches are a Godsend for the best of preaching towards mission. And the best of preaching comes from true discipleship just as much as mission. Want to be a disciple who preaches well? Sit at the feet of Jesus.
 One interesting exception to the noun referring to the Apostles, is when John tells us that many disciples turned back from following Jesus (John 6:60-66). Often it is unclear whether the word refers to the 12, the 12 and the others who travelled with Jesus, or the large numbers who are sometimes referred to as disciples.
 The integration of discipleship with the various other New Testament instructions on Christian faith and practice, the Christian life, is not addressed here. Readers must do this work for themselves!
 Kittel, G., Bromiley, G. W., & Friedrich, G. (Eds.). (1964–). Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 4, p. 416). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
 Given how much Jesus practiced love, this learning of the DNA of the master is well captured in Jesus’ words, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). Note John 14:23 in which Jesus intertwines love for Jesus and the implementation of His teaching.
 Kittel, G., Bromiley, G. W., & Friedrich, G. (Eds.). (1964–). Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 4, p. 441). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Matthew 4:18-22, 9:9, Mark 1:16-20, 2:14, Luke 5:1-11, 5:27-28, John 1:43, John 21:19-22.
 Hauerwas, Stanley, 2005. After Christendom?: How the Church is to Behave if Freedom, Justice and a Christian Nation are Bad Ideas, Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. Chapter 4.
 Sometimes as if this is all that is said about discipleship. It is a summary statement, and the whole of Matthew’s Gospel feeds into what Jesus means here.
In anticipation: Daniel 7:13-14, Matthew 26:64, 28:18, Mark 14:62, Luke 9:31, 51, 24:51, John 1:18, 3:13, 6:62, 7:33, 8:14, 21, 13:1, 3, 33, 36, 14:2-5, 28, 16:5, 7, 10, 17, 28, 17:11, 13, 20:17. In actuality: Mark 16:19, Acts 1:8-11, 22, 2:33-35, 3:21, 5:31, 7:56, Romans 8:34, 10:6, Ephesians 1:19-23, 4:8-10, Philippians 1:23, 2:9-11, 3:10-14, Colossians 3:1-4, 1 Timothy 3:16, Hebrews 1:3, 4:14, 6:19-20, 7:26, 8:4, 9:11, 24, 1 Peter 3:21-22, Revelation 4-5, 12:5.
Pennington, Jonathan T, 2007: Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of Matthew, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
 The verb is rarely used. In the New Testament, it is found in Matthew 13:52, 27:57, 28:19, Acts 14:21. To disciple another is to train and teach, to equip, to facilitate learning, with a view to the disciple following in the footsteps of the master’s craft/work.
 Unfortunately, too often the teachings of Jesus are given a devotional emphasis and flavouring contrary to the Kingdom and missional emphasis that flows through the Gospels.
 Note that Jesus calls the 12 “apostles” (Luke 6:12-16). That is, sent ones/persons, or persons with a mission.
Matthew 10:37-39, 16:24-25, Mark 8:34-35, Luke 9:23-26, John 12:25-26, cf. Matthew 19:16-30, Mark 10:17-31, 32-45.
 Life here includes all the passions in life that we devote our energies to, not just material possessions but also feel-good experiences, families, health, careers. All have a place but not if disruptive of these core requirements of discipleship.
 Sadly, taking up the cross is trivialized when with regard to minor difficulties, we say to one another something like, “We all have our cross to bear.”
 See in particular:
Middleton, J Richard, 2005: The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1, Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.
Cosden, Darrell, 2004: A Theology of Work: Work and the New Creation, Eugene, OR: Wipf& Stock.
 The created order includes physical/material, social and cultural, and spiritual realms.
 This is certainly not like any of those bad examples of corrupt theocracies that we see in human history.
 The wonder of the created order, to be repeated in new creation, is that (1) it is not place of merely being passive while God does everything, and (2) it is a place of immense potential for development, for creativity, for exploration, for learning, for enhancement, and for growth.
 I am reminded of EF Schumacher’s classic book, Small is Beautiful. One of the ways we discourage Christians from engaging is by always talking of mission as something big and complicated. And fast moving! Remember, the Kingdom begins very small and grows gradually. I think this is true for each manifestation of the Kingdom as well as for the Kingdom as a whole.