How Did Jesus ‘Make Disciples’?
First, they worshiped him.
Before Jesus gave them any tasks to be done, any commission to fulfill, any directions as to how they might, in some sense, carry on his work once he was gone, first they went to their knees before him. Matthew reports that
the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him . . . . (Matthew 28:16–17)
Before they might imitate aspects of his human life, and echo his teachings in their own words and obedience, they bowed before Jesus — not only as man but God himself.
What’s more, before Jesus uttered the lone imperative of his Great Commission to his men, for his church, he declared his unique authority: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). The church has one Groom, one Chief Shepherd, one Lord, one risen Son seated at the right hand of the Father, supplying the Spirit. And more than that, when the disciples did receive their charge, it would be strikingly focused on “the Son” — baptizing in his name, with the Father and Spirit, and teaching all nations to observe all that Jesus commanded.
Yet, the other foot would land. Not only would utterly inimitable aspects of the God-man’s life have their clear markings here, at his giving of the Commission, but his disciples would have a call to answer, a part to play, genuine obedience to render. There was actual imitation of their master to own and realize, however qualified it might be.
At the heart of this final, culminating report at the end of Matthew’s Gospel stands a particular directive — work to be done, an imperative to heed, a mission to embrace, and yes, a pronounced dimension of Christ’s life to imitate: make disciples.
He Made Them Fishers
How would this charge — one that encompasses all the other commands of Christ’s teaching — have landed on his own men in that moment, and in the days and years that followed as they reflected on it? After all, this was the particular band who knew him best. These were his disciples. What might his disciples hear when he told his disciples to make disciples?
For Peter and Andrew, James and John, Jesus had first framed his call to disciple them in terms of their native profession. “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). Having been trained, their whole lives long, to use boats and nets to draw food from the sea, what would have been plain to them then, and all the more plain after three years with Jesus, was that you don’t make fishermen, or disciples, overnight or in an instant.
Making good fishermen is a long, involved process, as they knew all too well. It requires teaching and training over time. Not only hearing, and internalizing, clear words of instruction and direction but also watching a master fisherman at work — and catching the unspoken rhythms and patterns of his craft. Such apprenticing requires, according to pastor Tom Nelson, “the kind of knowing that is difficult to capture in propositional terms or categories, but that emerges in the context of a close relationship and in the imitation of another” (The Flourishing Pastor, 94). Nelson cites philosopher Michael Polanyi (1891–1976) who calls it “tacit knowledge”:
By watching the master and emulating his efforts in the presence of his example, the apprentice unconsciously picks up the rules of the art, including those which are not explicitly known to the master himself. (Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, 53)
Such disciple-making, as seen in the life of Christ, involves more than formal, verbal instruction. Disciples not only hear their master talk about his craft, but they watch him at work, and then receive ongoing instruction as he, in turn, watches their early efforts and speaks into their emerging abilities.
Now You Make Fishers
How, then, did this spiritual fisher-making unfold during Jesus’s ministry? In Matthew’s Gospel in particular, from Jesus’s summons in chapter 4, to his commission in chapter 28, it is remarkable to observe his recurring attention to and prioritizing and investment in his disciples.
Again and again, from one chapter to the next, and often one account to the next, Jesus navigates public and private dimensions of life, showing rhythms of welcoming “the crowds” (in public) and then giving undivided attention to “his disciples” (in private). He is willing to receive and bless the masses as they come seeking, yet he himself seeks out his disciples, to invest in the few. (Observe it for yourself by skimming through the Gospel of Matthew and watching for the words crowd and disciples in the first and last lines of various sections.)
“Christ himself showed his disciples the Christian life, inside and out, in public teaching and private prayer.”
Jesus, the Master, had called them to follow him, and for more than three years, in setting after setting, in private homes and in the midst of great crowds, walking long journeys between towns and enjoying unhurried meals — one conversation at a time, one day at a time — Jesus had discipled them. Christ himself showed them the Christian life, inside and out, in public teaching and private prayer. Now they too were to make disciples.
In particular, he says, “Disciple all nations” — which must have landed on them with at least a double force.
‘Disciple’ as a Verb
First is the relational context we’ve been observing.
Christians today often talk about “discipleship,” and so it might be helpful to clarify what sort of action and process Jesus’s disciples would have heard when their discipler said to “make disciples.” Disciple-making, in this context, is the process in which a stable, mature believer invests himself, for a particular period of time, in one or a few younger believers, in order to help their growth in the faith — including helping them also to invest in others who will invest in others. (Paul gives such directions to his disciple, in 2 Timothy 2:2, for raising up leaders in the Ephesian church.)
“Disciple-making is both engineered and organic, involving both truth-speaking and life-sharing.”
Such disciple-making requires both structure (particular lessons and topics to work through) as well as margin that allows the discipler to speak into unplanned teachable moments as they arise. Such a process is both engineered and organic, involving both truth-speaking and life-sharing. Quantity time is the soil in which quality time grows.
Formal and Informal
The vast majority of Jesus’s time with his men wasn’t formal. Mark 3:14 says, “He appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him . . .” Before he sent them out to preach, they first needed to be with their Master, to hear his instruction, watch his life, and absorb his ways — not with a clock ticking in the background but with the space and time and overlap of everyday life that encourages the kind of effect that Jesus had on his men.
It is nothing short of amazing what three years with Jesus did for this ragtag band of young Galileans. All of them were outsiders to the religious establishment of the time; none of them were rabbi-trained like Paul. And yet, after Christ’s ascension and the pouring out of his Spirit, the religious authorities could see with their own eyes the profound imprints of Christ on his men:
Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. (Acts 4:13)
Jesus did not despise the crowds. He received them. He taught them. He healed them. But he didn’t pursue them. His days revolved around his disciples. And when it came time to turn to them, and give them his Commission, he didn’t say, “Draw crowds.” He said, “Disciple the nations.”
‘All Nations’ as the Goal
Second is the outward push of all nations.
In his commentary on the Commission, D.A. Carson notes that while “the main imperatival force” and “the main emphasis” is on the verb “make disciples,” we should not downplay or overlook the effect of the participle going (“go and make disciples”). Lingering indefinitely in Jerusalem, or in Galilee, will not fulfill the mission. There is an irreducible “centrifugal force,” we might say, not only in the participle but also in the object of the verb “all nations.”
Jesus commissions both depth and distance. Yes, his disciples seek to “make converts” — nothing less will do. They must be evangelists. But Jesus calls for more. At the heart of his charge is the depth of making disciples. And the inevitable effect, and impulse, is outward, expansive, evangelistic, even global. The Commission directs Christ’s people to both “go deep” and “go out” — locally and to other cities and peoples.
All He Commanded
Now, as we go — across the street, down the hall, to the church building or a coffee shop, into a new relationship or another appointment, or to the other side of town, or to a new state, or across an ocean, or to a new culture or language — we make disciples, offering our words and time and attention for months, even years, and putting forward our own lives as examples.
We exercise patience, speak with grace, answer simple questions with humility, and as disciples of Jesus ourselves, we point our “disciples” not finally to us, but to him. And when our focus is making disciples, rather than the modern fascination with drawing crowds, we find that life and ministry take a whole new tenor, perhaps even that of Christ himself.
And as we seek to live and minister more like him, we own afresh that Jesus is indeed unique. All authority is his. The commission is his. The church is his. The promise of divine presence is his. We worship him, and disciple others to do the same.