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What Happened to Discipleship in the Epistles?

(Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 16:1-3; 1 Corinthians 11:1; 1 Timothy 2:2)

Introduction

As I began to approach my study of discipleship several weeks ago, I wrote down the questions for which I would like to find the answers on this subject. Let me share some of the most troublesome.

(1) In the matter of discipleship, are we not guilty of constructing a theology and methodology solely on the Gospels, while ignoring the epistles? Is this not what we accuse others of doing with regard to other doctrines?

  • Why do the terms for discipleship occur so frequently in the Gospels and yet virtually disappear in the Epistles?
  • Why is this so in the light of the Great Commission to ‘make disciples of all the nations’?
  • Why are the twelve disciples not called disciples, but apostles in the book of Acts and the epistles? Is there a difference between apostles and disciples?

(2) Have we been correct in using the relationship between Christ and the twelve and between Paul and Timothy as a model for discipleship?

  • Are the twelve to be used as a measure of our spirituality?
  • Were the twelve any more spiritual than any of the other ‘disciples’?

These are questions which have haunted me in the matter of discipleship. It is my conviction that to answer these will contribute significantly to our understanding of the nature and practice of making disciples in the New Testament.

The principle question which we shall seek to answer (and also the title of this message) is, ‘What happened to discipleship in the Epistles?’ To answer this question, we will begin by looking more closely at the Great Commission. Then we will turn our attention to the teaching and practice of the apostle Paul. From this we will draw our conclusions and application.

Discipleship and the Great Commission
(Matthew 28:18-20)

Few commands of our Lord weigh more heavily on our Christian consciences. It is little wonder that we feel compelled to engage in some kind of discipleship program based upon the last words of our Lord to the eleven:

“And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age’” (Matthew 28:18-20).

The current emphasis on discipleship from this passage is a swing of the pendulum in reaction to a poor translation in the King James Version of the Bible. Unfortunately, the translators failed to reflect some grammatical distinctions evident in the original text in their English translation. The first failure was in rendering the participle (‘going’ or ‘as you go’) as an imperative, with the same verbal force as the primary command (make disciples).221 The second error was in not indicating the difference between the term matheteuo (‘make disciples’ rendered in the KJB ‘teach’) and didasko (‘to teach’ correctly rendered ‘teaching’).

The outcome has been unfortunate, for we have placed more emphasis upon going than was grammatically intended. Then, too, we have not given the full force to the command to ‘make disciples.’ Teaching has seemingly come to have a disproportionate emphasis. Current exposition has endeavored to put proper emphasis upon ‘making disciples,’ but in the process has invested more in the term than it originally implied. So we have swung from one extreme to the other. In banking terms, we were originally ignorant of the fact that we had money in the bank, but now we have overdrawn on our account.

What does our Lord mean by this command to ‘make disciples of every nation’? Looking back in the Gospels we are reminded that the term ‘disciples’ was used of those who were the followers of Jesus.222 In the book of Acts, the term seems to be used as a synonym for ‘Christian’ or ‘believer’ (Acts 6:1,2; 9:1,26; 11:26, etc.). From this we should conclude that the command of the risen Lord was to carry out the task of leading men to be His followers, just as men had done during His earthly sojourn.

Why use the term ‘make disciples’ then? Why not simply command that we evangelize the world? The reason is that Christianity is more than a decision to trust in Christ as Savior. It is not enough to invite men to believe in Christ as Savior. In the Gospels, our Lord invited men to follow Him, not just to believe on Him. Christianity is more than a moment-in-time conversion; it is the radical transformation or conversion which leads to a whole new way of life. It implies the forsaking of our former way of life, and our commitment to live as God requires, by His grace. In other words, discipleship is used because it compresses conversion and Christian living, salvation and sanctification, into one term. Conversion to Christ, in the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament, was inconceivable without a commitment to follow Him in life. That is why our Lord persistently challenged would-be followers to count the cost, as well as the rewards.

The main verb, ‘make disciples,’ does not really explain the means of discipleship, but its goal. It is the three participles that help us to grasp what is involved in the making of disciples of all nations. Behind the Great Commission was a radical new concept which our Lord gave to the eleven, who were dyed-in-the-wool Jews.

First of all, making disciples necessitated ‘going.’ This commission nullified the previous instruction of our Lord to go only to the Jews (cf. Matthew 10:5-6). Now they were to proclaim the grace of God in the gospel to all nations. Judaism had previously (and reluctantly) granted Gentiles to come the way of the proselyte. Now Jewish believers were to go to the Gentiles with the good news. Going did not come easily to these racially biased men. The racial separatism which once was thought to be a measure of spirituality was now shown to be a hindrance to it (cf. Ephesians 2:20).

If the first participle, ‘going’ emphasized the need for an invitation to discipleship, the second participle, ‘baptizing,’ draws our attention to the initiation of men into the life of discipleship. “… baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit’ (Matthew 28:19b).

Those who believe in ‘baptismal regeneration’ (the doctrine which says that we must be baptized in order to be saved) would be quick to leap on this verse to prove their point. Unfortunately, those of us who reject this erroneous doctrine neglect this verse in order to avoid any semblance of their error.

Baptism in the New Testament is a rite of initiation. It does not save anyone, for it is a work of man. It is not the cause, but the result of salvation. It does not contribute in any way to one’s salvation; it is a public confession of it. Furthermore, this command is not addressed to the would-be convert; it is given to those who already are disciples, and indeed, men who are apostles. It speaks of the responsibility of the church toward new converts. It implies the proclamation of the gospel of salvation through faith in the shed blood of Jesus Christ for sinners. It implies a genuine faith and conversion to Christ. But it also includes a public profession of faith and a public renouncement of the old way of life and an entrance into a new lifestyle. Baptism summarizes all that is involved in the initiation of a person into the Christian faith.

The third participle, ‘teaching,’ capsulizes the continual obligation of the church to instruct the new convert in the way of the Lord. Conversion is the introduction of a person to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Teaching cultivates this relationship by assisting and encouraging the convert to know Him in a deeper and more intimate way. This process of getting to know Him is life-long (cf. Philippians 3:10), and instruction in the Scriptures is an essential element in this process.

‘Making disciples,’ then, does not refer to some formal structured program intended only for the super-spiritual or an elite company of the committed. It is God’s imperative for every Christian. It involves the initiation and the instruction of every believer into an ever deepening relationship with Jesus Christ. It seeks to make every person a follower of Christ.

Whose Responsibility
Is This Commission to “Make Disciples”?

The assumption of contemporary Christianity is that discipleship (making disciples) is the individual responsibility of every Christian. To follow this assumption through to its logical conclusion we must end up by saying that every Christian is to go, to evangelize, and to instruct. To some extent, of course, this is true. But when seen in its full-blown implications, it means that I personally am responsible for the total life and spiritual growth of certain persons. I should be evangelizing and edifying a certain number of individuals if I am really spiritual and if I am really obedient to the Great Commission. It is my contention that what we expect of ourselves, the eleven disciples themselves failed to do. It is now my task to defend this contention.

(1) Please note with me that the eleven did not go. Look at the words of the noted church historian, Luke: “… and on that day (the day of Stephen’s stoning in which Saul played a part) a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria; except the apostles” (Acts 8:1).

Now this is an amazing thing. The very ones who received the command to go forth with the gospel stayed home in Jerusalem. This certainly was not because it was the path of least resistance. They, as leaders in the Christian community, were the most likely targets for treatment similar to that of Stephen. Those who went forth to the Gentiles were not the eleven.

(2) So far as we are told in Scripture, the eleven did not ‘make disciples’ in the same fashion as the Lord worked with them. We know of no examples of the apostles attaching to themselves a select group of followers, to carry on their work. Their work seemed to concentrate on a ministry to the masses, as the account in Acts 6:1-6 implies. The apostles did devote themselves to the proclamation of the gospel (cf. Peter and John, Acts 3-4) and to the ministry of the word (Acts 6:2,4).

(3) Discipleship is the corporate responsibility of the church. The bottom line is simply this: the Great Commission was not given to the eleven as individuals, but to them as the church in embryo. We rightly recognize that the Great Commission was not merely a command to the eleven apostles. It was a mandate to the church, of which they were the foundation (Ephesians 2:20). More than this, it is not a command to every Christian to apply independently so much as it is for the church corporately. Discipleship is the corporate responsibility of the church. Although every Christian should give testimony of his faith, some are given the gift, the special, spirit-given ability, to evangelize (Ephesians 4:11, etc.) to teach (1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11), to help, to lead (1 Corinthians 12:28), and so on.

The church is the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27). What He began to do and to teach, the church is to continue (Acts 1:lff). No Christian individually and independently can fully represent or reflect the person of Christ. Only the church can do this corporately. Each and every Christian is a valuable member of His body, and each has its unique function (1 Corinthians 12:20-30).

Then what should we do as individuals to carry out our part of this Great Commission? At last, we have come to the heart of the matter. It all boils down to a matter of gifts and calling. The eleven ‘disciples’ were gifted and called of God to serve as apostles. It was their task to lay down the terms of salvation. It was their calling to lay down the foundation for the church (Matthew 16:18-20; Ephesians 2:19-22). They had a particular function and role to play in the carrying out of the Great Commission, but it was not their task alone. They did not feel compelled to go, but to stay, for they were not called, as was Paul, to preach to the Gentiles.

If you and I are to be responsible Christians and obedient to the Great Commission, we should look to our individual gifts and calling to determine what part we are to play in its outworking.

It is here that I find one of my haunting questions answered. Were the twelve (or the eleven if you would) disciples really more spiritual than the rest? I think not. There were no women among the eleven, and yet who were those last at His grave and first at the empty tomb? Why did Mary seem to sense our Lord’s imminent death, when the twelve were aloof to it (John 12:1-7)?

You see, we have made the eleven our pattern for discipleship. If we were really spiritual, we suppose, we, too, would leave our secular jobs and spend all our time preaching the gospel. We think that these ‘apostles’ were more spiritual because they didn’t have to live in the working world any more. When a young man becomes converted and shows real spiritual zeal and a hunger for the Word, we ask him if he has thought of going to seminary and going into ‘full-time’ service. Were the other disciples less spiritual for not following the lifestyle and ministries of the eleven? Are you less spiritual today because you have to work at a secular job? I find it very instructive to learn that those who constituted the first evangelistic thrust of the church were not full-time, ordained, theologically trained (formally), missionaries. (If you are reluctant to take my word for it, read Acts 8:1ff.)

To be spiritual, to be obedient to the Great Commission, is not necessarily to quit your job, leave your loved ones, and become a full-time foreign missionary. Even the eleven do not meet this requirement fully. To carry out your part in the Great Commission is to employ your spiritual gift and follow your calling in conjunction with the other members of the body of Christ, His church.

But What of Paul and Timothy?
(Acts 16:1-3; 2 Timothy 2:2; 1 Corinthians 11:1)

I suspect that what I have said sounds too ‘unspiritual,’ too unconventional to accept without considerable thought. And if what I have suggested does no more than stimulate your thinking and Bible study, I have accomplished my task.

No conclusions on the matter of discipleship will hold water which do not take into account the relationship of Paul and Timothy. Over and over I have heard, ‘I want to be discipled like Paul discipled Timothy.’

What then, was the relationship between Paul and Timothy, if not one of discipleship? Let me begin by mentioning the only New Testament passage I am aware of which uses the term disciple with respect to Paul and other men:

“And when many days had elapsed, the Jews plotted together to do away with him, but their plot became known to Saul, And they were also watching the gates day and night so that they might put him to death; but his disciples took him by night, and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket” (Acts 9:23-25).

I would draw your attention to the expression ‘his disciples.’ Does this not prove that Paul had disciples, just as our Lord did? Not really. First of all, you should recognize that the King James Version, reflecting a different Greek textual family,223 renders this, “Then the disciples took him by night …” (Acts 9:25a, KJV).

Regardless of how one handles the textual matter, and granting the possibility that the reading ‘his disciples’ is correct, it makes little difference. The context of this verse is the first days after Paul’s conversion. It would be a number of years until Paul would be in a position to have ‘disciples’ like Timothy, even if he did have them. The only disciples which Paul could have had would have been his disciples as an unbelieving Rabbi. Those would have been men faithful to Paul, who traveled with him on the road to Damascus (cf. Acts 9:7-8).

Now to Paul and Timothy, some fifteen years or so after his conversion. We read in Acts of Paul’s first recorded contact with Timothy:

“And he came also to Derbe and to Lystra. And behold, a certain disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek, and he was well spoken of by the brethren who were in Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted this man to go with him; and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those parts, for they all knew that his father was a Greek” (Acts 16:1-3).

Paul had disagreed with Barnabas so strongly over taking Mark on a second missionary journey that the two had separated (Acts 15:36-41). Paul took Silas and began traveling through Syria and Cilicia. When they (at least Paul, Silas, and shortly, Luke—note ‘we’ in verses 11ff.) arrived in Lystra a young convert named Timothy was highly recommended to him by those who knew him well (Acts 16:2). Paul invited him to join the group. Nothing here implies a relationship patterned precisely after that of Christ and His disciples. Timothy was invited to become a member of the team because he was proven faithful, not primarily to be taken along to be made useful.

Then what of Paul’s instruction to Timothy some time later? “And the things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, these entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2).

Here, again, we have come to the central issue. That Paul is not speaking of discipleship is obvious. Our Lord spoke universally of discipleship—that is, it was for men of every nation (Matthew 28:19), and not just for those who are spiritual, but every Christian. But Paul spoke in a restricted sense. Paul limits his command to Timothy to the matter of a particular gift and calling.

Timothy is to see to it that his ministry is multiplied in other men, whose faithfulness and gift have been evidenced (‘faithful men, teach’). That Timothy should have a more intimate relationship with a selective group of men I do not challenge. But the goal of this relationship is not discipleship but ministry. The issue is not spirituality, but sphere of service. It does not define godliness, but gift. Those who use this passage for discipleship programs, I believe, have missed the point.

We are not saying that one-to-one ministry is prohibited. We are saying that we must be selective concerning those in whom we invest significant portions of our life. We are saying that working intimately with men who have developing gifts similar to our own is biblical. But we are not saying that this is discipleship. We are not saying that anyone who was spiritual would have been clamoring to attach himself (or herself) to Paul, or Timothy, or any other Christian leader. Discipleship is a life-long process, beginning at the point of salvation, and participated in by a variety of individuals within the church, each in his or her unique way.

There is still one last gasp of contemporary thinking on discipleship. It is: But what of Paul’s frequent command to follow his example. Colin Brown, under the title of ‘discipleship,’ includes Bauder’s article on the Greek term, mimeomai, to imitate.224

While we are to unreservedly and wholeheartedly devote ourselves to the imitation of Christ, such is not the case with any one individual. We are not to imitate Paul alone, nor are just a select few to do so. We are to imitate others who manifest Christian virtues (cf. Philippians 3:17; 1 Thessalonians 1:7; 2 Thessalonians 3:9). Elders are to lead, not by force, but by example (1 Peter 5:3).

To speak directly to those passages where Paul instructs Christians to follow his example or imitate him, he never commands unrestricted imitation. It is always imitation in a restricted sphere, in a particular aspect of Paul’s life and ministry. It is not a blanket command to duplicate Paul in our own lives.225

Some discipleship efforts appear to me to be an attempt at spiritual cloning. Young men desire to duplicate the lives of those whom they respect and revere. We should always seek to imitate the godly qualities of those whose lives reflect our Lord. But invariably what happens is that we also tend to imitate the personality and their particular ministry. Here is where we get ourselves into great difficulties. This kind of discipleship is not biblical.

Conclusions

What does all of this boil down to? We can summarize this matter by listing several observations and conclusions:

(1) Discipleship is not for the elite in Christianity, but for all Christians.

(2) Salvation is the first step, commencing a life of discipleship. Salvation should not be seen apart from discipleship.

(3) Some have neglected discipleship in evangelism, tending toward an easy believism. They seem to be inviting men and women to have a kind of spiritual ‘affair’ with our Lord. They do not stress that the relationship is one of eternal commitment and far-reaching consequences. Others have over-stressed or over-programmed it, failing to realize that it is ultimately the work of God and a life-long process.

(4) We have erroneously applied our Lord’s relationship with the twelve and Paul’s relationship with Timothy to discipleship. We have confused discipleship with apostleship. We have overlooked the matter of gift and calling. We have confused spirituality with certain kinds of service.

(5) We have made the matter of discipleship primarily an individual enterprise rather than a collective command to the corporate church.

(6) We have placed the emphasis upon finding a person to be our leader and guide, rather than developing a dependence on Christ Himself.

Applications

The applications of the principles of discipleship are far too numerous to list. Essentially, we must restructure our thinking in terms of discipleship. We should challenge every formula, every practice, every program, no matter how spiritual or biblical it appears on the surface, to see if it can be substantiated by a careful handling of the Scriptures.

May God give us the desire to continue along the path of discipleship. May God deliver us from devotion to anything above the Savior, and from dependence on anyone save Him alone. May God use us, our gifts and calling, to encourage others on the same path.


221 It must be pointed out that ‘make disciples’ is an active imperative verb, while ‘go’ (literally going, as you go, in going), ‘baptizing,’ and ‘teaching’ are all participles. Participles can have imperatival force (cf. J. H. Moulton, Grammer of New Testament Greek, Vol. I, Prolegomena, pp.180-183; or Dana and Mantey, A Manual Grammer of Greek New Testament, p. 229) but only relatively infrequently. Following the grammatical inferences from this text, we would conclude that the primary command is to ‘make disciples.’ This command is implemented by ‘going,’ ‘baptizing’, and ‘teaching.’ ‘Making disciples,’ then, is the goal; ‘going,’ ‘baptizing,’ and ‘teaching’ are the means of attaining the goal.

222 Some of these, as previously explained, followed in unbelief, cf. John 6:60ff. Others were true believers, John 8:30,31. Some were in the inner circles of the seventy, the twelve, or the three (Matthew 10:1; 17:1,6).

223 The difference in the Greek text involves the order of words, but fundamentally the difference is that of one Greek letter. It is the difference between the word autou (his = his disciples) and auton (him = the disciples took him). If we follow the Greek text underlying the NASV, we must supply the pronoun ‘him,’ which would be wanting. Though this is possible, the text underlying the KJV is, in my mind, the more defendable.

224 Colin Brown, ed., The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975), I, pp. 490-492.

225 “In the NT mimeomai is found only 4 times (2 Thess. 3:7,9; Hebrews 13:7; 3 Jn. 11); mimetes six times (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; Eph. 5:1; 1 Thess. 1:6; 2:14; Hebrews 6:12); and symminetes only once in Phil. 3:17. All are used with an ethical-imperative aim and are linked with a specific kind of conduct.” Ibid. p. 491.

Related Topics: Discipleship