According to Jesus, making disciples was the church’s first task–before baptism and continued instruction. An accurate rendering of his last words before ascending to heaven is “Having gone, (1) make disciples from all people groups, (2) baptize these disciples, and (3) keep on teaching them all things I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). Who qualifies as a disciple in Jesus’ thinking? It is the person who follows him in preference to all else, who lets him take over the driver’s seat of his or her life.
Peter, James, and John were fisherman. One day as they were washing their nets after a futile night of fishing Jesus happened by. After teaching them for awhile he told them to try fishing again. Though reluctant at first, Peter finally said, “At your word I will let down the nets.” The result was such a large catch that their nets were breaking and others had to help them bring it in. When Jesus then said, “‘From henceforth you will be catching people,’ they left all and followed him” (Lk. 5:10-11). They did this because they saw that their future lay in being with Jesus wherever he went.
The “following” so essential for being Jesus’ disciple is motivated by the conviction that fellowship with him is essential for a fulfilled future. So one must keep in step with Jesus and obey his instructions. “If any one serves me, he must follow me, and where I am there shall my servant be also” (John 12:26). Thus to certain people who “believed in him” (though not really, it turns out) Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples” (John 8:31).
Since life ahead with him is so promising that nothing else really matters, being his disciple takes precedence, for example, over concern about one’s place of residence. “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Lk. 9:57-58)–this was Jesus’ warning to a would-be disciple. Following Jesus also has priority over family concerns. To one who said to him, “I will follow you, but let me first say farewell to those at home,” Jesus replied, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk. 9:61-62).
Being Jesus’ disciple also requires banking one’s hope on the course he will map out, rather than on some plan coming from our incomplete wisdom and often fickle inclinations. “If any one would come after me, let him deny himself and let him take up his cross and follow me” (Mk. 8:34). It also involves the conviction that Jesus will always meet one’s need-love so fully that he must take precedence over what a child or spouse or one’s own initiative can provide to sustain contentment in the heart. “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Lk. 14:26).
A fulfilled life is not possible, however, without close, family-like ties and an adequate supply of material things, and these Jesus promises to provide. “There is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive manifold more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life” (Lk. 18:29-30).
How can we follow Jesus today?
The evening before his crucifixion Jesus said to his disciples, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you shall follow afterward” (John 13:36). After his death, resurrection and ascension each disciple would nevertheless be able to follow Jesus because “the Father will give you another Counselor, [the Holy Spirit who now]. . . dwells with you [in Jesus], and will be in you [after Pentecost]” (John 14:17). This will be to your advantage (John 16:7), he said, because through the Holy Spirit “I will come to [each of] you” (John 14:18), even though you will be separated, each to his specific task. Jesus was saying that by living in each of them, henceforth, through the indwelling Holy Spirit he could then accomplish so much more in evangelizing the world.
So Jesus has a distinct plan for each disciple that is suited, through his unmatched wisdom and omniscience, for just the sort of person each of us is and slots each in to God’s loving and overall plan for the world. He is the one who originally gave us our DNA code, and understands our life story far better than we do. He also knows what the future holds for each of us, because in his omnipotence and wisdom he ordained it. Certainly, then, he is eminently qualified to make customized plans for each disciple.
And his love for us means that he has, with great care and diligence, worked out the most fulfilling plan for each of our lives. Nothing indicates the intensity of this love better than his praying in Gethsemane just before he was led off to be crucified for our sins. The horror involved in being punished for the way we have dishonored God was so great that he sweat drops of blood as he prayed. But in spite of the awful agony that awaited him, he went to the cross and died for our sins so that we could be exonerated from all guilt before God.
This fervent love has not cooled in the two millennia since Gethsemane. “He is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8). If anything, his Gethsemane love of yesterday is greater today because it is not distracted from us, as in Gethsemane, by the prospect of soon undergoing the most intense suffering. But that is all behind him today, and his one concern now is to double his own joy by doing us good (Acts 20:35; cf. Jer. 32:41).
His great love, however, will set us on the path of life only if we believe him in the sense of committing our futures exclusively to him. We worship what we hope in, and we inevitably serve what we worship. So if we have banked our hope on Jesus alone, we will be careful to follow him, step by step, as he directs us on the path he has mapped out for each of us.
We always serve what we hope in.
The basic way we follow Jesus is to pause a little on the threshold of each time frame while we confirm what to do by considering what’s best to do next. Without question, of course, we will want to be punctual for all appointments, and diligently carry out fixed responsibilities. In readying ourselves for them we will allow ample time to make the necessary preparations to ensure that the appointment is as beneficial as possible to all concerned.
Confirmation that we are keeping up with Jesus comes from the continued sense of peace and joy provided by the indwelling Holy Spirit (Rom. 15:13). But if we charge ahead without waiting for his guidance, a sense of emptiness and heaviness will soon indicate that we need to get back on track where we can enjoy fellowship with him again. To do this we confess our sin and are forgiven (1 John 1:9). Then we ask Jesus to indicate the best step to take next.
So countless disciples, engaged in a great variety of enterprises throughout the world, are following Jesus because he now dwells in and directs each one through the Holy Spirit. And the motivation for wanting to keep up with Jesus comes from comparing the blandness ahead if we follow our own inclinations with the bright prospect of letting the almighty, all wise, and all loving Jesus give customized direction for our future. Apart from God’s grace, however, people remain so blinded by sin and Satan that they fail to see that letting Jesus take control of their lives is an opportunity they simply cannot afford to miss.
The early converts were disciples.
The three thousand converted and baptized at Pentecost and those added daily to the church thereafter (Acts 2:41, 47) were called “disciples” (Acts 6:1). Becoming a disciple who was then qualified for baptism was an individual decision, as Peter’s emphasis on “each of you” (Acts 2:38) makes clear. Though most of the men making this decision had been circumcised as infants in accordance with the sign of the covenant for the dispensation now ended, they had to undergo water baptism — the sign of the covenant for the dispensation now commencing.
The believers at Thessalonica too became “disciples” in the sense set forth in the biblical theology of the four Gospels. Paul declared that at their conversion they “turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God” (1 Thess. 1:9). In this turning (conversion) a bright and happy future opened up before them. For one thing they were now sure of rising from the dead, rejoining their loved ones who had died, and being in happy fellowship with Jesus forever (4:17). Then at the death of loved ones they did not sorrow as did those still worshipping idols, “who have no hope” (4:13).
So in keeping with this hope Paul urged them to “rejoice always and give thanks in all circumstances” (5:16). To complain about disappointments meant denying that Jesus had a loving plan for them (5:18). Paul further admonished them not to be idlers but to develop a work ethic (5:14), because as they waited for and sought Jesus’ love, they would always find something useful and fulfilling to do next. Confident of enjoying such love in the future, it was to their self interest to maintain a sober frame of mind and be alert to their surrounding circumstances (5:6, 8). Consequently they could determine the best thing to do next and not deprive themselves by engaging in some merely good endeavor. And because they could rest assured that God would settle up with all wrong doers at the final judgment (1:10; 5:9) they were free to do good to their enemies (5:15), because being benevolent brings the blessings of peace and lessens the tensions of hostility (5:13).
Another certainty the Thessalonian disciples enjoyed was the assurance of sins forgiven, for Paul asserted that “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us that whether we wake or sleep [die] we might live with him” (5:9-10). Without this assurance derived from Jesus’ finished work on the cross, confidence in Jesus’ love for one’s future would be impossible.
Faith makes sonic booms!
Consequently, in going from the “no hope” of idol worship to the promised blessings derived from serving the living God, the behavior of the Thessalonians changed so radically — night to day (5:5, 8) — that their faith alone “sounded forth in Macedonia and Achaia and everywhere (1:8). Thus as Paul, Silvanus and Timothy traveled elsewhere, people who had no contact with Thessalonica were telling Paul the latest reports of the remarkable behavior there.
How can faith alone cause such a radical effect? If it includes only the assurance of forgiveness made possible by the death of Christ (as in the later Luther), it can easily turn out to be virtually inactive. But a faith furnished both by the assurance of forgiveness and by the bright hope Jesus opens up for the believer (as in the early Luther) — that faith will produce the same sonic booms today as when the Thessalonians became disciples.
So before admitting people to baptism we should be assured that each is a disciple, in the sense that biblical theology teaches. Then after baptism, these disciples must receive continued care and the sort of teaching Jesus indicated in Matt. 28:20. Without making provision for this there is real danger that converts will lapse back into the hopelessness that the adversities of life urge.
This was Paul’s fear after he had left the Thessalonians and gone to Athens, where he received reports of the immense sufferings the new disciples were undergoing. “When I could bear [the reports] no longer, I sent [Timothy back], that I might know your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and that our labor [there] would be in vain” (3:5).
Paul said nothing about baptism in 1 and 2 Thessalonians. According to 1 Cor. 1:13-17 he preferred not to baptize, because he feared that those he baptized would feel superior to those baptized by less prominent church leaders. This reluctance (v. 15) implies that the public, official nature of baptism — vital for marking Christians off from the godless society around them — nevertheless carries with it the danger that baptized people, like the Jews with their circumcision, would think that the rite, by itself, enhances one acceptance with God. On the other hand, a refusal to be baptized is unacceptable, because an unwillingness to stand up and be counted as Jesus’ disciple implies a lack of confidence in what he will do for one’s future.
Therefore it was wrong, I believe, for Luther in the preface of his commentary on Galatians (1535) to say to the law, when it threatened his assurance of acceptance with God, “You [law] shall not touch my conscience. For I am baptized and. . . have been called. . . to the kingdom of Christ. . . where there is only the forgiveness of sins. . .” (LW 26:11). Such assurance is essential, but the way to regain and maintain it in the sort of struggle Luther was talking about is not to ignore the law. Rather it is to resume believing in the forgiveness made possible by Jesus’ death on the cross, and again to set one’s hope for the future exclusively on what the fervency and competence of Gethsemane love will most certainly accomplish for one.
For the most part the church has been careful to do its job of baptizing people who at least assented (often by parental or God-father proxy) to Christian affirmations. But it has failed dismally in understanding that conversion and “being saved” must mean having become a disciple, who then must be strengthened to cope with life by careful instruction and mentoring.