I recently posted the following on social media.

A short dialog followed about when discipleship actually happens in relationship to evangelism. The objection came in the form of this statement, “discipleship is pre-evangelism not post evangelism. Matt28:19 would indicate that. As its a nation not a person”

It seemed to me that the difficulty in the dialog centered on a difference in semantics. Words have meaning. Words have context. It’s important to understand the meanings and the contexts because the meanings of words change over time, which is why context is so important.

Discipleship is something that is near and dear to my heart. Over the past few years I have heard the word thrown around and used in so many different ways that it means almost nothing, or anything, depending on who is using it. This is particularly true when it comes to Matthew 28:19-20 and what is commonly referred to as The Great Commission. Here, for your consideration, is a brief exegesis of this passage.

The Text

Here is Matthew 28:19-20 in the New King James Version.

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Amen.

It is very likely that you have heard this verse used as in the context of world missions, sending, or being sent, to various places on the planet to share Jesus. That is a wonderful and beautiful thing. But that isn’t the point of this verse.

It is very likely that you have heard this verse used as an encouragement to share Jesus with people in your own local context of school, work, neighborhood, etc. Great and wonderful things, but not the point of this verse.

In this verse, Jesus isn’t telling his followers to make converts, to get people to believe in Jesus and go to church. It goes way beyond that. It assumes that some form of evangelism has taken place, some form of the sharing and hearing and reaction to the gospel of Jesus. What Jesus is saying is more along the lines of the following: “As you are going (passive), disciple-make (imperative verb), baptize them, instruct them to keep watch over the things I have charged you with.” Imitation is replication.

In other words,

  • OK, guys, you are my disciples.
  • I have imparted to you my teaching, I have demonstrated my teaching, and I have helped you to do what I have taught.
  • As you go about your life, continuing to do what I have taught and showed, I want you to disciple-make and do the same thing with other people, and not just Jews.
  • I was baptized. You were baptized. You baptize them.
  • Instruct them the way I instructed you. Show them the way I showed you. Help them to do what I have helped you to do.

Jesus is saying, as you have imitated Me, teach others to imitate you. Paul echoes this thought in 1 Corinthians 11:1, “Mimic me as I mimic Christ.” It is about people, down to a person, not just a nation.

What Discipleship Is and Isn’t

I love mochas. It’s kind of a problem. A mocha is essentially espresso shots, milk, and chocolate. Those basic elements, together, are a mocha. If I have chocolate alone, I do not have a mocha. I have an element of a mocha, but I do not have a mocha. What is happening today, as it relates to discipleship, is people are walking around having chocolate together and calling it a mocha.

  • Going to a coffee shop (and having a mocha) and talking about Jesus stuff is not discipleship. It’s an element of discipleship, but it isn’t discipleship.
  • Studying the Bible with someone is not discipleship. It’s an element of discipleship, but it isn’t discipleship.
  • Going to church and being taught and having fellowship isn’t discipleship. It’s an element of discipleship, but it isn’t discipleship.

Discipleship, on the receiving end, is the intentional process of becoming more like Jesus. On the giving end, it is the intentional process of opening up your own life and importing to specific others what you have of Jesus in your own life.

Recalling the objection above, “discipleship is pre-evangelism not post evangelism. Matt28:19 would indicate that.” If this person means that elements of discipleship happen before evangelism, then I suppose I agree. But its an incorrect use of the term. Teaching people about Jesus, even showing them Jesus in your life, isn’t discipleship if the person hasn’t decided to be a disciple of Jesus. I don’t know what the word is for that (I’d call it more of a kind of evangelism), but is isn’t discipleship. Discipleship happens when someone agrees to be a disciple.

The word translated as disciple in the New Testament is the Greek word mathetes (G3101) which means student, or better yet apprentice. The Hebrew equivalent is talmid. A teacher has students/aprentices. A Rabbi has talmidim (plural). These are people who have chosen to learn specifically from someone else. It is at the point when that teacher/apprentice or rabbi/disciple relationship starts, that discipleship actually begins. It was the goal of a rabbi to essentially make copies of himself in his disciples. It was the goal of the disciple to become that copy.

Discipleship, therefore, cannot be pre-evangelism. It, by definition, must be post-evangelism.

This isn’t about putting things into neat little boxes, nor is it about theological tradition. It’s about language.

Attached to this post is a PDF of my teaching notes from an opportunity I had to share on this subject. It goes into a bit more depth of what I’m think in the context of what discipleship is, looks like, and means. I’m not trying to isolate it, I’m trying to clarify it.

Instead of a bibliography I wanted to list some very strong influences as it relates to all of this.

  • Lois Tverberg and her books, “Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus” and “Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus.”
  • Paul Gibbs and his book Haverim, and his LiveWires on Talmidim.
  • Mike Breen and his book “Building A Discipling Culture.”