The Polarity of Discipleship
For a magnet to function properly, it needs polarity between north and south poles. If one of the poles is removed, a magnet will not function as intended.
The same could be said about discipleship. There are two primary poles driving discipleship: the Great Commandment (loving God and our neighbour) and the Great Commission (going into the world to make disciples). If these fields are maintained in our discipleship, it will be effective and attractive. If not, our discipleship becomes ineffective and possibly repellent.
A working definition of discipleship must constantly hold these two fields in tension for discipleship to be the attractive and transformative force Jesus intended it to be (John 13:34–35, Acts 1:8).
An apprentice carpenter submits themselves to a master carpenter to learn the carpentry craft. A disciple or apprentice of Jesus submits themselves to Jesus the master teacher. This apprenticeship with Jesus is called discipleship. But, unlike a professional apprentice who eventually graduates to journeyman then possibly master craftsman status, an apprentice to Jesus is a lifelong learner in the art of imitation.
What exactly will an apprenticeship to Jesus look like? If we assess our apprenticeship through the verbs and participles of the Great Commandment and Great Commission, the discipleship journey will at minimum include these core values: loving, going, discipling, baptizing, teaching and obeying. These are the key action words of the Great Commandment and the Great Commission.
The conflict we often feel to act out “social justice” or “evangelism” may be reduced when we seek to honour both these commands in our discipleship journey.
Jesus said the greatest commandment is this: “Love the Lord your God with your whole being and love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:36–40). Disciples of Jesus should especially be known for the love we share among ourselves (John 13:34–35).
Disciples cannot for a minute think we can love like Jesus without being apprenticed by Jesus in the way of love. How are we apprenticed in love? Part of this is being intentional about being with Jesus. This aspect of apprenticeship will include silence, solitude and meditation on his life – time spent in his presence. Apprentices of Jesus must receive the love of Jesus before we can give it away.
Receiving God’s love will inspire us to give Jesus’ love away in tangible sacrificial acts of kindness, service and peacemaking. This is the other dimension of apprenticeship in love: sacrificially coming alongside people in our sphere of influence who are poor, in need and discouraged.
The Apostle Paul reiterates this priority of love: followers of Jesus can be the most gifted, intelligent, sacrificial people but if we do not love, we are nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1–8). Therefore, loving our neighbour as Jesus loves is the most identifiable attribute of those who carry out Christ’s Great Commission.
An apprentice of Jesus will be actively looking for opportunities to make disciples. Jesus’ command to “go” has often been described as relocating on mission, but at its most basic, it refers to our daily living.
We are to be about the work of disciple making by asking Jesus how, as his apprentice, we can assist him in his work. While disciples work, play and relax, we are always learning how best to represent Jesus’ values and priorities in all our living. “Go” is a modifier of the command “make disciples.” Functioning as a participle in Greek, it carries the weight of this imperative. This makes sense if we understand the force of the command of Jesus. We simply cannot make disciples if we do not go and find them.
In this sense, each disciple is “going” to those who need Christ. Many of our discipleship initiatives invite people to come to our church events. In light of the Great Commission, this seems backward. Our lives are to be instruments that call others to Jesus in our daily “going.”
This imperative verb “disciple” is the centrepiece of the Great Commission. The grammar and exegetical work suggests that discipling is more than preaching the gospel – it is learning through modelling. Jesus’ desire was for his disciples, through interpersonal relationships, to use everyday experiences to point people to Christ and his Kingdom. Just like Jesus did.
Through our example, we invite others to join us in following Jesus. Every disciple of Jesus is expected to be intentionally helping others discover the truth of Jesus and his message.
In the passage, “disciple” has two modifying participles: baptizing and teaching.
From Matthew’s Gospel, it seems Jesus intended his disciples to do more than simply sprinkle, pour or dunk people in water. Dallas Willard suggests that baptizing in its broader contextual definition will include immersing people in the new life established by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The act of immersing someone in water is but a visual metaphor of the new life a disciple is publicly committing to live. It is a life that is now dead to sin and alive to Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit for the glory of the Father. It will be marked by love, sacrifice and obedience to the values and priorities of God’s Kingdom made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus.
What we are after here is a depth of guiding and relationship required in the ongoing process of discipleship. We can imagine tour guides who are passionate about their country. They enjoy nothing more than immersing people in their culture, history, stories and language. People who are baptized are like travellers with an intent to stay. These residents of a new Kingdom need a lot of support, time and patient tour guides to come alongside them as they learn a new way of living and being.
Teaching in our culture is often seen as an expert standing in front of an audience communicating important ideas and information. Remember, however, that Jesus was speaking to his disciples from within a Jewish culture where teaching was understood in the style of Deuteronomy 6:1–9. Once God had communicated his laws to the nation of Israel, he told them they were to imprint these laws on their hearts, impressing them on their children by talking about them all the time, in all situations, so that these truths are not only intellectually known but practically lived.
This is the same for disciple making. In North America, we tend to internalize and keep our relationship with Jesus a private matter. But as apprentices of Jesus, we must learn to externalize our faith by talking about and enacting Jesus’ work in, around and through us.
Reading the command to obey in Matthew 28:20, we should also remember his comments in John 14:15, 23–24 that those who love him will obey him. One of the most critical issues in our discipleship strategies today is the need to move from information-based discipleship to obedience-based discipleship. The church has too often emphasized discipleship as the accumulation of biblical knowledge, theology, history and spirituality without a real expectation that disciples obey what we are learning. A disciple is not satisfied with simply knowing good information; instead, we live out all that Jesus teaches.
How can we keep motivated in our discipleship journey? If we are to keep moving forward in our apprenticeship with Jesus, we will continuously cultivate a sense of wonder as we marvel in Christ and his gospel. Just as astronomers marvel at their new discoveries about the galaxy and vastness of the universe, disciples are continuously learning about the beauty, power, love and leadership of Jesus.
The apostle Paul summarized it: “all else is rubbish compared to knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8, paraphrase). Discipleship, if defined by the Great Commandment and Great Commission, is a lifelong, loving response to Jesus who teaches his disciples how to become more like him to complete the work he began.
The Great Commandment and the Great Commission need to be kept in tension in our apprenticeship to Jesus if we are to mature and look more and more like him.If apprentices of Jesus maintain the poles of compassion and evangelism, disciples will mature and enjoy much fruit.
[Cam Stuart is lead pastor at Sardis Community Church, Chilliwack, B.C. He is currently completing a DMin focusing on healthy discipleship cultures.