Making disciples, not just converts
Right before His ascension, Jesus gave a final command to His disciples, as recorded by Matthew, which we know as the Great Commission:
19Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: 20Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen. – Matthew 28:19-20
Mark records the event with these words:
15And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. 16He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. – Mark 16:15
John’s version focuses more on Jesus’ interaction with Peter, who would be instrumental in forming the first-century church, setting the path to lead to where you are right now:
15So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs. 16He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep. 17He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep. – John 21:15-17
Jesus was known as a teacher, a position much more respected in those days than in our time. Nicodemus acknowledged Him as a teacher from God (John 3:2). Later, Paul referred to himself as a teacher of the gentiles (2 Timothy 1:11). Jesus gave the command in Matthew 28 that we must teach all nations – everyone we meet. Interestingly, translations other than the King James Version do not use the phrase “teach all nations” but rather “make disciples of all nations”. Despite the writer being a supporter of the King James Version, I really believe this is one instance where this translation fails to convey the true meaning, to make disciples.
Whichever you use, the focus is very clear: we are called to disciple the nations. Discipleship starts with making converts, but this is where many outreach programmes fall woefully short. Instead of making a convert who then in turn is taught to convert others, many are more interested in the number of converts that they can add to their list of successes. In short, a convert is someone who has heard the gospel and has accepted it. Stopping there though, is not enough. Have we taught the convert how to point others to the way of salvation? Whether we use the King James Version’s “teach all nations” of the other translations’ “make disciples”, what Jesus referred to was not a once-off encounter and then to move on, but rather a long-term involvement in the life of a new believer. I had the honour of spending two years with someone, not just sharing the basics of the gospel, but starting a process of discipleship that would assist him to continue by sharing with others.
There is an aspect of teaching that is very important. I believe that someone who teaches someone something, can only be deemed successful when the second person, the one who has been taught, can teach the same information to a third person. Only once the third person has understood the content, can the first person be deemed to have been successful. If you teach Math, explain something, and then ask one of the students to explain the same to another student so that that one says “Ah! Now I understand.” This is the Aha Erlebnis, an experience where a person gets a sudden insight, solution or answer to a problem that has maybe troubled him for some time. In terms of discipleship, if I make a convert and they in turn lead someone else to salvation, then only can I call my effort a success, based on the third person’s experience.
Let us get back to Jesus’ interaction with Peter. As noted in other lessons, Peter was a bit of a wild and sometimes unstable character. From walking on water to denying the One he walked on the water with, Peter needed to be reassured that he was deemed a worthy disciple and apostle. He needed to have his credibility restored after his public failure before the crucifixion event. Jesus asked him three times if he loved Him, more than the other disciples did. Peter needed three repetitions of the question to realise the importance of the mission he was about to set off on. He was not just going to make converts. He was going to make disciples and feed them. There is clear progression. First, Jesus tells Peter to feed His lambs, and then His sheep. Lambs should not remain lambs; they grow into sheep when they are fed.
Jesus was not done with Peter yet. He reveals to him how he was going to die (John 21:18). Then He simply said: “Follow Me.” This is the core of discipleship. You cannot be a disciple if your entire focus is not on following Jesus and the example He set. If you believe that your salvation is worth the effort and blood it took to get you to this point, then you should also believe that it is worth the effort to continue the process. If you read the rest of the event between Jesus and Peter, you will see that once He said, “Follow Me”, Peter looked around at the others, and specifically John, and for a moment again questioned his own worth. Jesus responds that what John does, is of no importance. He is interested in him, Peter, Jonas.
Is this not often the problem with us as Average Joe believers? We neglect our own worth and expect others to be in the limelight, when Jesus in fact called me – whoever you are – to forget about what others do, but instead follow Him yourself. Do what He tells you, not what others do.
As we are running towards the line, know that the time is running out, fast. In my country, we have an annual road race, the Comrades Marathon, this year in its 95th edition, which took place this past weekend. The race has a cut-off time. Traditionally, a few seconds before the cut-off time, someone takes a pistol, turns his back on those in the last stretch and fires it into the air once the official time to complete the race is over. There are many that would have run almost the entire distance, some 89 km, and yet fail to make it across the line in time, often missing it by a few meters. There are many examples of athletes who have already completed the race, who run back to help those in the last stretch to make it across the line. This is what we know as the spirit of the Comrades. You and I who believe we are going to “make it” have a responsibility towards those who have not yet heard the gospel or have become tired. We cannot do it on our own. Imagine if you make three converts, teach them how to disciple, and let them go out and do the same. This is what the Great Commission is all about and it is the only way we are going to reach others. Start today by being a disciple, not just a convert.