Lesson 1 - The Importance of Discipleship





What is discipleship?  More importantly, what is a disciple?  When we say that we are disciples of Jesus, what exactly do we mean?  The concepts of being a disciple and of discipleship are ideas that have been lost in the modern era of formalized education.  In ancient days, the concept of discipleship was how one became educated.  To receive an education you became a disciple of your teacher, going about life with him and learning from him in the process.  This is how Jesus taught his disciples.  The closest thing we may have to this concept today is that of being an apprentice, but even that model is insufficient as it relates more to vocation or job skills than to life, knowledge, and wisdom.  

Biblically, the idea of discipleship and making disciples should bring to mind one of the last things Jesus said to his disciples before returning back to heaven – the Great Commission.  This beautiful passage on disciple-making is found in Matthew 29:18-20.


18 And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.


19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:


20 Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.


One of the biggest misconceptions about this passage is that it is primarily a command to engage in worldwide missions.  This is partially our own fault because that is the context in which we most often preach this passage.  Certainly the Great Commission does call us to worldwide missions, but the Great Commission is far more than a call to go to the ends of the earth.  The Great Commission about you and I making disciples as we go about our daily lives.  The best way to remember the Great Commission is to remember the One-Three-One rule:  One Command-Three Parts-One Promise.



One Command – Make Disciples


The Great Commission only gives us one command.  When we read the Great Commission passage as it has been translated from the original Greek, we find that there appears to be two commands: Go and Make Disciples.  Unfortunately, this translation does not fully represent the intent of the original command given by Christ.  It is not necessarily a wrong or inaccurate translation, but it can give an incomplete picture of the original intent.

The only real command in the Great Commission is the command to make disciples.   As such, the Great Commission does not actually command us to go.  The translators made a decision to translate “go” as a command because they rightly believed the command was implied.  Indeed, the command to go is implied here because it is stated explicitly in other places. However, in this particular passage, rather than commanding us to go, the Great Commission actually assumes we are already going – not just going to foreign lands, but going about our business every day.  If we were translating the Great Commission more literally, we would actually translate it as “because you have already gone, make disciples…”

If we truly follow the Great Commission, we will be going to the ends of the earth because that is the only way we can “teach all nations.”  In fact, the companion passage to the Great Commission – Acts 1:8 – actually says the disciples would be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth.  The actual command here, however, is to simply make disciples – not converts, but disciples.  In other words, the real mission of the church is to make disciples.

Making disciples, however, is more than just going and more than just leading people to a saving faith in Jesus Christ.  Scripture only speaks of Christians as “converts” on three occasions by Paul in some of his letters.  However, Christians are referred to as disciples many, many times all throughout the gospels and Acts.  Biblically speaking, there is a huge difference between a “convert” and a “disciple”.

To understand the difference, consider a newborn baby child.  Think of making a convert like birthing a baby.  In fact, when Nicodemus came to Jesus at night (John chapter 3), Jesus told him that in order to see the kingdom of heaven he must be “born again” into Christ.  Becoming a Christian means new life much the same way a newborn baby is a new life.

We would never consider going around making babies and just leaving them to fend for themselves.  Our very nature tells us that would be wicked because we know that babies are helpless and cannot care for themselves – they would very quickly die.  The same is essentially true of new converts in Jesus Christ. They must be fed spiritual milk and taught how to grow spiritually and become more like Christ. Until they can care for themselves, we must care for them. This is discipleship and this is what it means to make disciples.  Our mission is not to make babies, but to build families.  In other words, discipleship is a life-long process.


Before we can even consider what it means to be a disciple-maker, we first need to make sure we really understand what it means to be a disciple ourselves. We need to ask a very important question.  What is a disciple?


A Disciple is a Follower


Jesus often described his disciples as sheep and he described himself as the Good Shepherd.  Sheep follow the shepherd.  When Jesus called the twelve apostles, he did not say “be converted” – he said “follow me.”   His disciples then left everything and followed Jesus.   They did not just spend time with him only when it was convenient.  They did not come by once a week to hear him preach.  They became a part of his daily life, living with him, learning from him, and doing ministry with him.

Being a follower of Jesus is so much more than just having a surface level belief in Jesus.  We can believe that Jesus existed and not really follow Jesus.  That means we can believe in Jesus and not really be a disciple.  However, Jesus is very clear that it is his disciples who are truly saved.


There is a book by American pastor and author Kyle Idleman called Not a Fan.  It is recommended reading because it speaks of the difference between being a fan of Jesus and a follower of Jesus.  In America, we are fanatical about lots of things.  We are sports fans, music fans, and movie fans.  We watch our sports teams and know everything there is to know about them but we can never be a part of the team because we are only fans.  We listen to our favorite musicians but we can never be a part of their band.  We watch our movies, but it is only fantasy.  Being a fan means desiring to be a part of something, but it is not the same thing as discipleship.  A disciple does more than just watch and desire to be a part.  A disciple gets involved and becomes a part of the team. 

In Matthew 10:38 Jesus said “whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”  Likewise, in Luke 14:33 Jesus said “So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”    This is more than just surface-level involvement in the cause of Christ.  It is more than just knowing about Jesus.  This is someone who is completely committed to the cause and gives his life to it.  It is being on the team.

Many so-called Christians are “Jesus Fans” but they are not true followers of Jesus – they are not really on the team.   They may be interested and even know some things about him, but they have not dedicated themselves completely to the cause of Christ.   They are like some of the people that wanted to follow Jesus in the Bible, but were unwilling to abandon everything to do so.  Luke 9:57-62 tells us of a few of these:


57 And it came to pass, that, as they went in the way, a certain man said unto him, Lord, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest.


58 And Jesus said unto him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.


59 And he said unto another, Follow me. But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father.


60 Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God.


61 And another also said, Lord, I will follow thee; but let me first go bid them farewell, which are at home at my house.


62 And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.


These three different individuals were interested in Jesus, but they were not willing to fully commit themselves to being followers of Jesus.  They were just fans.[1] 


A Disciple is a Student


A disciple is more than just a follower.  A disciple is also a student - one who studies and learns the doctrines and teachings of another person.  As disciples of Christ, we must be students of Christ.  Jesus’ disciples followed him so that Jesus could teach them his ways.  We put our faith in him for our salvation, but we follow him for the same reason at the disciples – to learn from him.  The very act of sanctification is the act of becoming more and more like Christ.  We do this by learning from him.

This is the natural order of how students learned in ancient days.  They didn’t sit in a class and listen to lectures (or read like you are doing now).  They followed the teacher around and learned by watching how he lived and by listening to his words of wisdom.

Jesus was a teacher.  He was called Rabbi, which means teacher.   In Matthew 9:11, the Pharisees spoke to the disciples and asked them “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”  In Matthew 10:24-25, Jesus said “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master.  It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master.”

As Christians, if we are not committing ourselves to learn from Jesus, we are not truly acting as disciples.  No matter how much we think we have matured spiritually, we can never really learn everything there is to learn from Jesus Christ. As Paul says, “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!” (Romans 11:33).  The beauty of Jesus Christ and the mystery of God’s word is that we can study and learn more and more about his greatness every day until the day we die and still not have learned all there is to know of him.  If we ever reach a point where we believe that we no longer need to learn, then we have reached a point where we are no longer growing in Christ.  That place is a terrible and dangerous place.


A Disciple is Obedient


You cannot honestly love Jesus and not follow him.

You cannot truly follow him and not learn from him.

But perhaps more importantly, you cannot learn from him and not obey him.


The whole purpose of being a disciple is to be transformed – to have your life changed for the better.  If you want to be a bricklayer you follow the bricklayer, you learn from the bricklayer how to lay bricks, and then you become a bricklayer yourself.  If you want to be a farmer you follow a farmer, you learn from the farmer how to grow crops, and then you begin farming yourself.  The same is true for being a disciple of Jesus.

A true disciple will not just follow and learn from Jesus without becoming like him.  As already mentioned, this is essentially what it means to be sanctified.  But sanctification comes through real change and real change manifests itself in obedience.  In John 8:31 Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples.”  Likewise, he said in John 15:8, “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.”

As Christians, we know that we are saved by grace, through faith and not of works (Ephesians 2:8).  However, we must understand at the very same time that it is our works – that is, those done in loving obedience to his commands as devoted followers – that truly distinguish us as being true and real disciples of Christ.



Three Parts of Making Disciples


We are all disciples of Jesus.  At the same time, however, we are all called to be disciple-makers.  Being a disciple requires dedication and discipline and determination.  It takes time.  Being a disciple-maker also requires dedication and discipline and determination.  It, too, requires time.  So how do we go about it?

Fortunately, the Great Commission gives us three ways to go about making disciples – going, baptizing, and teaching.  These three words describe how we are to make disciples.




As previously discussed, the Great Commission is not calling us to go anywhere specific, but rather assumes we are already going.  Certainly, there are (and will be) some of us who are specifically called to go someplace far away from home.  That does not mean that the rest of us are not called to go.  Indeed, we are all called to go because we are all always going – somewhere.

Essentially, the Great Commission is calling us to make disciples everywhere we go – or as we go.  As a disciple maker, every moment of your life should be looked at as an opportunity to make disciples.  It may be an opportunity to share the gospel with someone who is not saved, or it may be an opportunity to teach someone who is already saved.  Both are legitimate “disciple-making” activities.  As you go about your daily walk, you should be open to all such opportunities.

Every moment has the potential to be a teachable moment.  Every moment presents an opportunity to help someone else grow.  Unfortunately, we sometimes miss these opportunities.  We miss them because we are not aware and sometime we miss them simply because we are not spending time (doing life) with those we are trying to disciple.  Pray that God will open your eyes to the many opportunities that exist every day to make disciples.




As a matter of clarification, the Great Commission is not saying that a person must be baptized in order to be saved.  Rather, the Great Commission is calling the newly saved believer to a life of discipleship and it is through baptism that the new believer ultimately identifies himself as a follower of Jesus.  Baptism is a reflection of the decision to be a disciple.  That is why many of us use Baptism as a means of identifying the believer with the church body – or even as a pre-requisite for church memebership.

Jesus was baptized.  Would anyone ever suggest that he needed to be baptized?  Certainly not.  Why then was he baptized?  Jesus was baptized so that he could identify with us in our humanity.  In the same way, we are commanded to be baptized so that we can identify ourselves as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Despite how we might otherwise use baptism, therefore, the believer’s obedient act of baptism is ultimately a commitment to life-long discipleship.  It is important for new believers to take this step as a symbol of their commitment to and identification with Jesus Christ.




How can we expect new Christians to grow unless there is someone there to teach them?  Teaching is a critical part of discipleship.  Making disciples may begin with evangelism, but the lion’s share of the process of discipleship is in teaching new converts how to be a Christian. 

It is unreasonable to think that a person can achieve spiritual maturity simply by attending church services that consist of a bit of singing, a few minutes of homily or sermon, and perhaps The Lord’s Supper or Eucharist.   Someone must teach them as Christ taught his disciples.

This is our responsibility – not just as pastors and evangelists, but as Christians and disciple-makers.  It is a fallacy (an error) to think this is the exclusive job of the pastor.  It is equally a fallacy to think that it can come through events where large numbers of people are present (such as in large church or large group settings).  The type of teaching required for spiritual maturity takes patience, attention, and devotion on a small-scale level.

As a parent, it is our responsibility to raise our children to a point where they can take care of themselves.  We devote ourselves to this task until they reach a point where they can fend for themselves and learn on their own.  Prior to that time, we basically teach them everything.  No reasonable person would ever suggest that parenting is best done in a group home setting.   Children learn by having as much one on one attention as possible.  Even when they go to school, we desire the classes to be as small as possible so that the teacher can devote as much time as possible to each child.  Spiritual growth is no different.  New Christians need as much one on one mentoring and teaching as possible.

The goal of discipling a new Christian is to get her to a point where she can start learning on her own.  Until that time, someone has to teach her and as the Great Commission says, the end result of our teaching is obedience to all that Jesus commanded.  The point of the teaching, therefore, is obedience – to be holy in how we live – modeling our lives after Jesus’ life.



One Promise


We must not overlook the end of the Great Commission, because Jesus left us with a promise found right there in Matthew 28:20 – Behold I am with you always, even to the end of the age.  Sometimes when we speak of or quote the Great Commission we skip over this point, but in fact Jesus actually wanted us to focus on it.

Verse 28 begins with the word “Behold” – which means look or pay attention.  In other words, Jesus did not want us to gloss over this promise, but rather to give it special attention so that we would not forget.  He will be with us throughout this process and will not leave us.

Making disciples can be difficult.  It is hard enough to tell people about Jesus, although some might consider it easy.  However, no matter how you look at it, it is hard to involve your life with their life so that you can teach them to be a disciple.  It is comforting, therefore, to know that Jesus says we will be with us throughout the whole process.



Circles of Discipleship


When it comes to making disciples, the question comes to mind not only as to how we go about doing it, but also with whom should we start.  The Great Commission of course tells us to make disciples of all peoples (nations), but do we start at the ends of the earth?  Do we immediately go out and start making new converts all over the world and then hope that we can properly disciple and teach them the ways of Christ?  Certainly we are commanded to be a witness of the hope we have in Christ, which will always result in new converts.  However, unless we are prepared to disciple those new converts, then we are not really fulfilling the Great Commission.

The mistake many people make, therefore, when it comes to making disciples is that they focus too much on evangelism – the lost world – and ignore the all-important part of actually turning new converts into disciples.  That is an outside-in mentality – starting with the world on the outside and hoping to bring them into the realm of discipleship.  This is backwards thinking.

Making disciples should be inside out and not outside in.  Making disciples should start with one’s own self and build out towards the world.  In other words, if you are not a disciple you cannot make disciples.  More importantly, if you do not put in place an infrastructure of discipleship in your homes and churches, you cannot make disciples.


Imagine if you can a series of concentric circles as shown in the figure here.   In the diagram, you are at the center of series of circles.  The world (that is, the unsaved who need to be converted) is on the outer circle.  There are several circles of discipleship between you and the world.  By no means does that say that making converts is least important.  Rather, it says that there are several layers of discipleship that must also be in place at the same time in order to ensure that new converts can be properly disciple.   They are not more important than making new converts, but they are every bit as important as making new converts.


Circle 1 – One’s Self


The innermost circle of discipleship is one’s own self.  You cannot make disciples if you are not yourself a committed disciple.  Being a disciple means a life-long commitment to learning.  Before we can take responsibility for teaching others, we must take responsibility for our own continuous learning.  So how do we go about ensuring that we are being properly discipled ourselves?

First of all, make an effort to engage a personal discipleship mentor.  Very few of us are at a place in life where we are so spiritually mature that we do not need a spiritual mentor.  Whether you are a layperson, a deacon, a pastor, or a bishop, there is always someone we can turn to help us with our own spiritual growth.  Find someone that you can engage with on a regular basis that you know will help you grow spiritually.

Second, participate in regular discipleship opportunities.  Discipleship does not happen unless we actively seek for it to happen. Take whatever opportunities you can to engage in discipleship activities.  If your spiritual mentor is willing to meet with you on a regular basis for one on one discipleship, that is best.  If not – find opportunities wherever they may exist.  Even leading others in discipleship (that is, being a discipleship mentor for others) can present opportunities for your own personal spiritual growth.

Most importantly, commit yourselves to the spiritual disciplines. If you have no other avenue of personal discipleship, the spiritual disciplines will ensure that you are growing spiritually.  They are your tools for personal discipleship.  Commit yourself to a plan involving them – especially prayer and biblical intake. The next lesson will cover Spiritual Disciplines in more depth.


Circle 2 – Family Members


The next ring on the circle of discipleship is your family.  When Jesus taught his disciples, he did so by spending time with them.   Much of your time is spent with your family members, so they should be your primary disciples.  Use that time wisely, including being a spiritual leader and making disciples of your family members.

As a pastor, it is presumed that you have already taken responsibility for the discipleship of your family – In fact, it is part of the qualifications of a pastor.  1 Timothy 3:4-5 says a pastor must be “one who ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all dignity. (For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?)”  The implication here is more than just keeping control over your family, but indicates the responsibility of a spiritual leader for the family.

Be a mentor to your spouse and children.  Create an environment where it is natural for your family to seek out your council. Your family ought to feel comfortable enough to be able to come to you about any spiritual situation. Engage them regularly in spiritual conversations.  Whenever appropriate, turn the conversation in your home to spiritual matters.  If possible, have a regular time set aside where you and your family discuss spiritual things. Make discipleship opportunities out of everyday situations.  Nothing teaches better than everyday circumstances.  If we open our eyes, we can see situations every day that create opportunities to teach spiritual principles.  Pray that God will reveal these to you daily.


Circle 3 – Church Members


The first two rings on the circle of discipleship are essentially inward focused.  The next ring on the circle of discipleship begins to turn the focus outward, but is still about building a foundation and infrastructure of discipleship in the church.  This ring in the circle is that of your church members.

The reason this ring is here is because there are so many existing church members who still need to be discipled.  It is a sad truth that many people have been church members for years but have never progressed beyond spiritual infancy.  If you are a pastor of a church, you already know this to be true.  Many members in your church have not been properly discipled.  This is not a new problem – it exists in almost every church.  The writer of the Hebrews said this in Hebrews 5:12-14:


12 For at the time when ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God, and have become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat.

13 For every one that useth milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe.

14 But strong meat belongeth to those who are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.


Perhaps this is because you – as the pastor - have not promoted discipleship and established programs that promote discipleship.  You can change that today.  You can begin by creating a culture of discipleship and ensuring your existing church members are properly discipled.

How do you build that culture?  Begin first by the example of your own life, but then by encouraging discipleship in others as a lifestyle.  Strongly encourage church members to engage in discipleship every day. Just as you are exercising the spiritual disciplines yourself, promote the exercise of the spiritual disciplines among your church members.  Create opportunities for discipleship.  Whatever you can do as a pastor to create opportunities for discipleship will be beneficial – it may be a class, a bible study, or a special guest speaker.  The best way to promote discipleship, however, is for you to personally engage individuals in one-on-one discipleship. Pick out several key people in your church that you can personally disciple. Teach them to be disciples, but also teach them to be disciple makers.  This will be discussed more fully in lesson 4 of this course.


Circle 4 - New Converts


Once you have built a culture of discipleship and have some infrastructures in place to disciple individuals, you can turn your focus to the discipleship of new believers.  All believers need ongoing discipleship, but new converts have special discipleship needs. There are key doctrines that a new convert simply must learn as early as possible in their spiritual journey (these will be discussed in more detail in lesson 5).  Therefore, make extra efforts disciple new converts. 

Consider the parable of the sower in Matthew 13. In that parable, Jesus spoke of four types of soil on which the seed had been sown.  The seed sown on the path represented the word that had been snatched away before it can take root so that the hearer never believes.  The seed sown on the rocky ground represented the word that had taken hold in the form of apparent belief, but then times of difficulty or persecution caused the person to fall away.  The seed sown on thorny grown represented the word that had likewise taken hold in the form of apparent belief, but then the cares of the world choked out any fruit in the person’s life.  Only the seed sown on good ground produced fruit.  Think of discipleship as ensuring that the seed of God’s Word is falling on good ground.  When a person professes to believe in Jesus, we cannot immediately know whether that profession is real.  Only time will tell if the seed had truly taken root on good ground.  Discipleship improves the odds that the new believer’s faith will remain steadfast.

One way you can do this is by personally engaging the new believer in personal discipleship.  If that is not possible, consider creating a new believer class.  Teach them what they need to know to stay strong. 


Circle 5 – The World


The last, but certainly not the least, among the rings on the circle of discipleship is the world. The world is not saved, so we cannot disciple them the same way we can disciple new converts or church members.  Instead, we must share the gospel with them so that they can become believers.

Only God can take those who are not disciples and turn them into disciples. However, our responsibility in that process is to be a witness to them of the truth of the gospel. Acts 1:8 says “But ye shall receive power after the Holy Ghost is come upon you; and ye shall be witnesses unto Me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.”  But in being that witness, we take on a great responsibility – to make disciples of every nation.  The circles of discipleship give us the tools we need to fulfill that Great Commission.



[1] For another good resource on what it really means to follow Jesus, it is recommended that you read a book by American pastor and author David Platt called Follow Me.