The gospels tell us that Jesus had dedicated followers called disciples. So did John the Baptist and the Pharisees. History also reveals other great teachers who had disciples, and some of their disciples also had disciples. For instance, Socrates had a disciple named Plato who had a disciple named Aristotle who had in his school a student named Alexander (as in Alexander the Great). And there are still people who follow the teachings of Socrates. Such is the wonder of discipleship. When everybody takes what they learn and passes it on, it keeps spreading for centuries.
There are four major characteristics of discipleship, and nearly everything in the four gospels is related to at least one of them.
1) Disciples follow a master teacher.
Numerous stories tell about Jesus—who He was, how He lived and what it was that made (and still makes) people want to be His disciples. (See the entire gospel of John). These stories also reveal the close teacher/disciple relationship they shared together. Christ taught that this is an all-or-nothing kind of relationship. A true disciple is 100-percent committed to following Him (Luke 9:62; 14:25-33).
2) Disciples study the teachings and philosophy of the master teacher.
Jesus instructed His disciples through formal teaching (Matt. 5-7), crafted experiences (Luke 10:1-24) and personal example (Matt. 12:1-14; Luke 4:16; Luke 6:12). He presented them with His teachings and philosophy, which they eagerly studied.
3) Disciples apply what they learn and imitate their teacher.
Jesus repeatedly tells us that it’s not enough to simply know what He taught. We also need to do it (Matt. 7:21-27; Luke 11:28; Luke 8:11-15, 21 and Luke 8:22-25).
4) Disciples extend the influence of their teacher, thus making more disciples.
Jesus’ disciples increasingly functioned as extensions of their Teacher (Luke 10:1-24; Matt. 28:18-20), allowing His philosophy and ideology to influence a much wider segment of the population. They encouraged others to embrace Jesus’ teachings and become His disciples as well.
All four of these characteristics are present in true disciples, and they are all present in the Great Commission. This makes sense, after all, because the Great Commission is all about making disciples.
Before sending out His disciples, Jesus stated who He was, giving a good reason for why people should follow Him (characteristic #1): “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth . . .” Then He stated that, as His disciples, they were to “make disciples of all the nations (characteristic #4), baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you.” Note that observing His teachings blends characteristics #2 and #3. In other words, the disciples were to introduce others to their Master Teacher and what He taught, and then teach them to observe it. But Jesus didn’t stop there. He finished this commission with the statement, “And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” So Jesus went back to characteristic #1 and reaffirmed the ongoing closeness of the teacher/disciple relationship, clear down to the end of time, to our day.
Matthew 28:18-20 is Christ’s discipleship plan for people of all nations to rally behind Him as committed disciples, to embrace His teaching and philosophy, to put it into practice and to share it with others. The reason AFM exists is born right here. It’s the reason why intelligent men and women sign up to leave the comforts of home to bring salvation to people in countries completely foreign to them. And it’s the reason why rich and poor alike set money aside to support them. Jesus told parable after parable teaching us that lost people matter to Him. They are more important to Him than comfort, convenience, wealth, reputation and even life itself. If lost people matter that much to Jesus, they matter to His disciples—to us—as well.
Missionaries often study these four characteristics of discipleship, and well they should, but one small detail is sometimes overlooked. When we see ourselves as Christ’s disciples, we build our lives on His teaching, recognizing that we are to be an extension of His influence within the society around us. We are to live out what He taught and make His teaching visible, being “salt” and “light” and “bearing fruit.”
So here is the big question: How do you make forgiveness visible? Well, you wait till somebody offends you, and then you forgive them. In order to demonstrate how to be kind to your enemies, what’s the first thing you need? Enemies!
Every missionary I know of has written about the joyful blessings of demonstrating God’s love to people. But as I have read Adventist Frontiers magazine over the years, missionaries have also written about being robbed, falsely accused and slandered. People have complained about them to authorities and tried to shut down their schools. Other missionaries have been beaten, publically shamed, or shunned. In the midst of these un-joyful events, missionaries can get confused. Like Job, they sense that they don’t really understand what is going on. As we read their articles, we also wonder what’s going on. If God is really leading that project, then why are they having so much trouble? And if He isn’t leading that project, then should we be investing in it?
As the stories develop and new editions of Adventist Frontiers are published, we can often see how the missionaries made Christ’s teachings visible, modeling His values in the midst of chaos. As a result, abusive attackers give their lives to Christ. Besieged schools gain new respect and influence in the community. Thieves are baptized.
We see Jesus’ hands reaching through a missionary who stoops to serve a man crippled by disease, abandoned by his family and starving. Loving people isn’t always easy. Sometimes it brings you into contact with dirt, bad smells and death. But lost, hurting people matter to Jesus, so they matter to His disciples as well.
As missionaries enter communities torn by broken trust, relational conflict and years of deep-seated bitterness, they need to recognize that their discipleship duties may well include something uncomfortable like making visible how Christ taught us to handle things like broken trust and relational conflict. This is hard, painful work. Pray for them!
We tend to gravitate toward certain types of ministry while avoiding others. For example, when we see that a community needs better nutrition, we are happy to start a farm where we can model and teach modern agricultural practices. But when the problem gnawing at people isn’t hunger but age-old feuds, bitterness and hatred, it’s harder to find enthusiastic volunteers to model what it means to forgive 70 times 7, to turn the other cheek, or to do good to those who hate you. I think we would all prefer to simply cover such topics in a Bible study, but that’s not what incarnational disciple-making looks like.
I have a challenge for you: Go through this magazine and pick out several of the relatively new missionaries. (If you would like to support one financially, why not send in a donation now, before you forget?) Then do some research on the history, culture, religious beliefs and challenges of their people group. Next, ask yourself some questions: What are some of the most pressing cultural challenges in this region? Which of Christ’s teachings will they likely need first? What important aspect of the gospel will they likely have the hardest time understanding? Now ask yourself what it would look like if Christ’s teachings in these areas were made visible. Lastly, begin praying for your missionaries that they will recognize and faithfully pursue the opportunities God gives them to demonstrate these teachings in their community. Your prayers are crucial to their success. Cherish the privilege! Keep following the articles from these missionaries, and watch God move.
Don’t forget that you are also commissioned to be a disciple, and one of the ways you can help reach the nations is by supporting missionaries. As you strive to personally follow Christ’s teachings and share them with others, you will find that God arranges opportunities for you to model Christ’s teaching to people in your own home and community. Keep your eyes open! Don’t let them slip past you!