Recently I was asked to respond to a quote: “The making of disciples is not an end in itself. The end result is evangelism, and disciples are the means.” Jim Downing – Agree or Disagree? Why? I replied, “I would disagree, because I believe discipleship is a lifelong process of transformation into the image of Jesus while evangelism deals with the beginning of that process.”
At that point I was directed to the interview from which this quote was taken. You can find it at:
Reading the whole article certainly puts Jim Downing’s words in their original setting and that gives me greater understanding of how he uses these terms. There is much that Jim says with which I wholeheartedly agree.
But just as I originally responded to his words without their context, I fear we all do the same with Scriptures from time to time. For example, I do not believe Mathew 28:16-20 and Acts 1:8 are synonymous (an issue that was raised by another respondent). These two passages are spoken at different times, in different places, commanding different responsibilities. Combine this with the fact that one is the close of a gospel and the other is the opening of the sequel to another gospel, and we ought to intuitively realize they are probably accomplishing different things in those contextualized presentations of the story of Jesus. (Before we juxtapose or combine two texts from different authors we must be sure we understand each in its original context.)
My studied conviction is that the Great Commission is the crowning completion of Jesus’ disciple-making paradigm—in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus models a three-fold ministry of preaching, teaching and healing in the first gospel (Matthew 4:17-23). As he calls the twelve he uses the three strategies to which Jim Downing refers. Jesus teaches (even with thousands overhearing in chs. 5-7), coaches (ch. 10) and mentors them in groups of three or less. But Matthew never speaks of these hand-picked, sent-out representatives being sent out to “teach” until the Great Commission is given. They imitate Jesus by proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and by healing the sick, but in the first gospel they never teach until their final sending, and even then it is qualified as “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). Only Matthew records Jesus’ difficult saying about not being called “Rabbi” or “Teacher” (Matthew 23:5-11). Jesus alone is the teacher in the first gospel. He radically contrasts the many teachers of first century Judaism (cf., Matthew 7:28-29, “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.”). The Great Commission launches the reproductive process of making disciples by baptizing them and teaching them to obey all of Jesus’ commands. This is how the first gospel insures that Jesus is kept front and center.
By contrast, it is my studied conviction that Acts 1:8 is particularized—exclusively addressed to the apostles and compelling them to remain in Jerusalem as witnesses (at risk of martyrdom) because they are to insure that the gospel flows to Gentiles unfettered by Jewish culture. I agree with Steven Hawthorne when he writes, “God drew the apostles together in body, heart and mind for one of the most important moments of history—the Jerusalem council recorded in Acts 15.” Unlike some who believe the apostles were disobedient by remaining in Jerusalem, I am convinced they were stubbornly obedient. Jerusalem was not their home—Galilee was and that is where Jesus speaks the Great Commission. Remaining in Jerusalem places them at grave risk as is evidenced by what happened to James, John’s brother. But Jesus’ special directives to them required they stay in Jerusalem as his witnesses (Acts 1:8). The Greek word “martus” was a primitive word from which we get our word “martyr”; a witness. Witnesses establish the value of following Christ. Their persuasive power is not only because their words match their life—their words and their life match those of Christ Himself. It is as if Christ Himself stands to testify before the world.
Paul’s life was brought under this same directive when Jesus sends Ananias: “But the Lord said to Ananias, ‘Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.’” (Acts 9:15-16). “A man named Ananias came to see me. He was a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living there. He stood beside me and said, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight!’ And at that very moment I was able to see him. “Then he said: ‘The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. You will be his witness to all people of what you have seen and heard.’” (Acts 22:12-15).
Let me summarize what all of this means to me. 1) Each of the four gospels is a contextualized proclamation of the life, ministry and teaching of Jesus. Each presents those portions that will especially resonate with and transform the believers who are being called out of four different worldviews. We will be better served to grapple with, understand and then appropriate those diverse presentations than to conflate them into just one chronological gospel—like we Westerners are inclined to do. 2) In our calling to develop the mind of Christ, we will learn to make disciples by watching, imitating and obeying Jesus. 3) From time to time he will call representatives to step forward as witnesses who will withstand attempts to shackle the gospel with cultural baggage that would slow or cripple its spread. 4) Teaching obedience to Jesus is at the heart of disciple making—here I am heavily influenced by Matthew’s proclamation. 5) Care to use some of these terms with a more nuanced meaning will give us greater clarity, but only to the extent we can agree on such meanings.
In the context of the original interview with Jim Downing, I want to conclude by noting a further point from his context. While the interview opens with a question about the Great Commission, Jim begins with a reference to Matthew 24:14. Do not overlook this because it sets the perspective for everything that follows. If you are familiar with the Perspectives on the World Christian Movement materials you know that this earlier text is a lens for interpreting the Great Commission. Everything Jim says in this interview is colored by what he believes about this verse.
Personally,I am still wrestling with the Perspectives understanding of Matthew 24:14. It has grown on me over the last five years, but I am not totally settled, yet. We all have texts that shape how we interpret other blocks of Scripture. Recognizing this is very important for us to grow in our ability to hear God’s Word afresh in our lives.