How many things can you make? I am fascinated by the ingenuity and creativity of individuals who make things because there is very little that I can make. I can make breakfast, I can make a joyful noise, and I once made a functional, yet aesthetically unappealing dog house. But beyond that, I am not a “maker.” I am not an artist. I am not an inventor. I am not a cook. I am not a carpenter. And the list could keep going. I am a pretty good assembler. If you give me the parts and the instructions I can put something together, but I cannot make it.
Despite my inability to make worldly objects, there is one thing I am expected to make. Amidst the Great Commission, Jesus instructed all of His followers to “make disciples” (Matthew 28:19). Our going and proclaiming is intended to result in the creation of new disciples. That is the ultimate objective. But what is a “disciple”? To answer that question, it might be best to identify what a disciple is not.
First, a disciple is not just a convert.
A convert is one who turns from one way of life to another. Thus, conversion refers to a spiritual change or a transformation, and it occurs when one “put[s] off the old self…[which] is corrupt through deceitful desires” and “put[s] on the new self [which is] created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24). When do we “put off the old self” and “put on the new self”? When we are “baptized into Christ” (Galatians 3:27-28) because “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). This is important to note because after Jesus gave the “make disciples” instruction He indicated that part of that process would entail “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). Thus, conversion through baptism is the first step in becoming a disciple, but a disciple is more than just a convert.
In fact, the Greek language used other words for a convert. When Paul identified Epaenetus as “the first convert to Christ in Asia” (Romans 16:5) and the household of Stephanas as “the first converts in Achaia” (1 Corinthians 16:15), he used the Greek word aparche, which refers to the firstfruits of a harvest (1). In 1 Timothy 3:6 Paul said that an elder “must not be a recent convert,” and he used the Greek word neophutos, which refers to something that is newly planted (2). Meanwhile the Greek word for disciple, which is mathetes, refers to one who is a “learner,” “pupil,” or “apprentice” (3). In other words, becoming a disciple necessitates more than just conversion; it necessitates spiritual maturation. Thus, all disciples are converts, but it is possible that not all converts will become disciples.
Second, a disciple is not just a student.
Learning is an essential part of becoming a disciple. In fact, Jesus indicated that not only would “baptizing them” (i.e. conversion) be a part of the disciple making process, but so would “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19). Thus, maturation through education is part of becoming a disciple. But when we mention education are we just talking about the process of information transfer? Is this just a mental assent to understanding God’s will, or is it more than that?
The Greek language had a different verb for learning than it did for becoming a disciple. The Greek verb that is translated “to learn” is manthano, and the Greek verb that is translated “to become a disciple” is matheteuo. The former refers to the process of increasing one’s knowledge, either by instruction or experience, while the latter refers to “one who follows [another’s] teaching” (3). In other words, a disciple is not just one who knows the teachings of his or her master, but, instead, is one who is transformed by, and, therefore, abides by the teaching of his or her master.
Jonathan Jones II said it well when he addressed the difference between disciples and students while speaking at the Buford Church of Christ on _. He said,
Jesus does not just call His followers to be His students. He’s not just calling us, “Come and learn my teaching. Come and learn the facts of my doctrine so that you’ve got all the right answers in your mind.” He is calling us to fundamentally have our lives transformed and changed in very real world, real life, practical ways so that my language, my behavior, my attitudes, my actions are literally being reshaped and molded after the ways of Jesus…So a student is one who learns information, but a disciple is one who copies the lifestyle of the Master. Much more than just a learner or a student, a disciple is a follower.
So, here is the point. Our responsibility is to proclaim the gospel to individuals with the goal that they will turn their lives over to God by being baptized into a new life and by being educated to the point that they will perpetually imitate and follow the One to whom they turned. Our responsibility is to “make disciples,” and I contend that there is nothing greater that you can make than a disciple of Jesus Christ because “whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death” (James 5:20).
(1) Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich, and Frederick W. Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd ed. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 81.
(2) Ibid., 536.
(3) Ibid., 485.
(4) W.E. Vine, Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1996), 171.